The Power Of The Flea

Originally posted October 19, 2007

I wrote briefly a while ago about the pile of books waiting on my table to be read. Well, there’s been progress: the books are no longer piled on my table. They’re now all on a shelf on the new bookcases we put together last weekend.

Now I can see the other stuff that’s piled on the table next to the computer: records to rip, magazines to recycle, photodiscs to edit and save, and a whole raft of CD’s to catalog and date. But this is progress – not that long ago, I couldn’t see the photodiscs.

The number of books waiting to be read, however, never seems to diminish. That’s fine with me; along with music, reading is one of the major joys of my life, and – just as with music – my tastes are wide-ranging. (As I write that, I nod to myself that the same is quite evidently true of Casey, the proprietor of the blog titled The College Crowd Digs Me. Readers should stop by.) And the anticipation of reading a good book can be almost as pleasurable as the reading itself.

One of the better ones I’ve read in the past few months had the odd title Justinian’s Flea. It’s the first book written by William Rosen, who was a senior executive at two major publishers for more than twenty-five years, and it’s a great read, for those who love history. The flea of the title is the insect that sparked one of the great epidemics of bubonic and pneumonic plague in the ancient world in about the year 540 of the Common Era (previously tagged A.D.). The epidemic came out of Alexandria in Egypt, crossed the Mediterranean to Constantinople – where Emperor Justinian reigned – and then swept across southern Europe. (Constantinople is now Istanbul, Turkey, and at the time was the capital of the Roman Empire.)

Rosen’s thesis, and it makes sense, is that the disruption caused by the various waves of the epidemic – which devastated the areas that are now Turkey, Greece and Italy along with the modern Middle East and Mediterranean Africa – moved the focus of the ancient world from the eastern Mediterranean west to the areas that became Italy, France and Germany. The various waves of the plague lasted more than a hundred years and were remarkably widespread; reports of the time show outbreaks in Britain in the years 664 and 684. The waves of epidemics devastated the empire; Rosen notes that in the first two years of the epidemics, four million of the twenty-six million subjects of the Roman Empire perished, about sixteen percent. Within just more than forty years, the population of the empire was down to seventeen million. (If a plague were to strike the United States and its three hundred million citizens with the same ferocity and results, forty-eight million people would die in the first two years, with another fifty-seven million perishing in the next forty or so years.)

It’s a fascinating book: Rosen examines in fine detail how Justinian rose to become emperor, how the empire itself was shrinking, having lost Gaul (modern-day France) and Britannia in recent times, how the plague bacterium found (and still finds today) its hosts and how the fleas that host the plague then infect the rats that carry the plague wherever they go, which is almost always where humans go. And he tracks the results of the epidemics of plague, putting forth the theory – a theory supported by the historical record and the inferences that can be made from those records – that modern Europe’s long-ago beginnings sprouted from the devastation of the Roman Empire by the plague.

Today’s music
I do have music to share today, and it has nothing to do with the plague or the Roman Empire or infected rats or the rise of medieval society. I doubt that I can find a smooth transition from those topics to the music, so I won’t even try.

I pulled out today one of the records that’s been sitting in my pile of things to rip to mp3s almost from the time I got my turntable last Christmas. In the early days of the blog, I shared New Routes, the 1969 album the British pop singer Lulu recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with the help of the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section. When I pulled New Routes out of the stacks, I also grabbed Melody Fair, another album Lulu recorded in the U.S., in 1970 at the Atlantic South-Criteria Studios in Miami. The tag from the used record store on Melody Fair said it was only in fair shape, so I’ve been reluctant to put it on the turntable and see what happened.

But I did so this morning, and I’m fairly pleased. There are a few more clicks and pops than I like, but they’re not so frequent as to make the record unlistenable. And it turns out to be a pretty good album.

Lulu had some help with it, of course. The Dixie Flyers – Jim Dickinson on piano and guitar, Charlie Freeman on guitar, Mike Utley on organ, Tommy McClure on bass and Sammy Creason on drums – provide the bulk of the backing. The full complement of the Memphis Horns came to Miami: Andrew Love and Ed Logan on tenor sax, Floyd Newman on baritone sax, Wayne Jackson on trumpet and Jack Dale on trombone.

Background vocals came from the Sweet Inspirations as well as from Eddie Brigati (of the Rascals), David Brigati, Carol Kirkpatrick and Chuck Kirkpatrick.

And the whole thing was produced by Atlantic stalwarts Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin.

So what did all that come up to?

As I said, it’s a pretty good record, and there are times when it kicks into a nice southern groove, sometimes syrupy slow, sometimes more up-tempo and sometimes with a sweet gospel feel. The best of those are: “Move To My Rhythm,” “To The Other Woman,” “Sweet Memories,” “Saved” and a quirky cover of the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine.”

One that comes close is “I Don’t Care Anymore,” a disquieting tale of a southern country girl’s descent into prostitution (a pretty tough topic for 1970, as I think about it). The central problem with that track – and it’s a problem that arises in bits and pieces through the album – is that Lulu’s voice doesn’t have the grit to quite pull it off. Doris Duke’s version, on her I’m A Loser, also from 1970, works much better, and I can imagine Dusty Springfield also getting to the heart of the song in a way Lulu could not. (As I did some digging, I learned that the song was written by R&B legend Jerry [Swamp Dog] Williams along with Gary Bonds and Maurice Gimbel. I wonder if Gary Bonds is the same as Gary U.S. Bonds of “Quarter to Three” fame?)

The rest of the tracks – with one exception – are good pop efforts that don’t seem to owe a lot to the pedigrees of the backing musicians or to the locale in which they were recorded. The one track that doesn’t work – to my ears – is “Vine Street,” a more-than-quirky Randy Newman tune.

Overall, Melody Fair is a pretty good album, and – as I noted above – the sound is pretty good, if not perfect.

Tracks:
Good Day Sunshine
After The Feeling Is Gone
I Don’t Care Anymore
(Don’t Go) Please Stay
Melody Fair
Take Good Care Of Yourself
Vine Street
Move To My Rhythm
To The Other Woman
Hum A Song (From Your Heart)
Sweet Memories
Saved

Lulu – Melody Fair [1970]

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One Response to “The Power Of The Flea”

  1. Otis, Neil & Gypsy « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] Melody Fair by Lulu [1970] Original post here. […]

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