‘It’s Gonna Grab A Hold On You . . .’

Originally posted July 15, 2008

The television commercial is, I think, for one of the national clothiers. Amid scenes of California – bridges, highways and streets, restaurants and golf courses – are pretty people wearing sharp new clothes. And in the background, a drumbeat ushers in a chorus of insistent strings for a few bars; the strings drop out and leave drumbeats and handclaps.

And then a distinctive voice half-sings, half-chants:

“Like a sound you hear
“That lingers in your ear
“But you can’t forget
“From sundown to sunset
“It’s all in the air
“You hear it everywhere
“No matter what you do
“It’s gonna grab a hold on you
“California soul, California soul.”

The first time I saw the commercial, I was likely doing something else, but the pulsing strings drew my attention. I was pretty sure I recognized the voice, but I absolutely recognized the song: “California Soul,” written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and first recorded on the 5th Dimension’s 1968 album Stoned Soul Picnic. (As a single, it reached No. 25 in early 1969.)

As to the singer of the version used in the commercial, I dug a little and verified my hunch: It was Marlena Shaw, who’s often described as a jazz vocalist but who is really one of those musicians who can find herself at home in a wide variety of styles and idioms. Her version of “California Soul” – found on the 1969 album, Spice of Life – could easily be called pop soul rather than jazz. Whatever you want to call it, Shaw’s version adds an insistence, an urgency that one didn’t get from the 5th Dimension’s take on the song. And that urgency helps the song add one little bit more to what I see as one of the defining bits of folklore in the American saga.

That piece of lore – one could call it a myth – is that California is our promised land, and it’s a bit of lore that’s existed since long before we were founded as a nation amid revolution. California calls wanderers, from the conquistadors and missionaries coming north from Mexico long ago through the forty-niners of the California Gold Rush and the Okies of the Great Depression up to the millions who went west to find their fortunes during the last half of the 20th century.

In my youth, California was a magic place, a land of gold and dreams. Two of my dad’s sisters landed there, and I envied my four cousins who grew up there (as did, I think, many of my other cousins who grew up here in Minnesota). What a dream, to live so near to so many great things to do, to see, to immerse one’s self into, to live inside: California was glamour and movies, television and Disneyland, sunshine and surf, and – later in the Sixties – freedom and rock music and hippie chicks.

California these days is less an El Dorado calling folks across the continent than it is another place where challenges abound, from frozen traffic and drought to annual fires, with the threat of the nearly inevitable massive earthquake sprinkled on top. There are, I am certain, many good things about the Golden State yet today, but its complications and hazards – as viewed here from the Midwest – seem to outweigh the benefits of living there. I’d like to visit; I spent a week in Southern California more than twenty years ago and saw pretty much everything I think I need to. But I do have friends I’d like to see, and I’d love to see a good chunk of the northern part of the state. I may yet get to do that, but the state doesn’t have the mythic attraction it once did, and I’m guessing that’s true in general, not just for me.

That current view of California is what makes the 2005 cover of “California Soul” by Riot Act interesting. Liberally sampling Shaw’s 1969 vocal, Riot Act puts together a compelling piece of music, released as Nebula 070. Irony? Or just a good beat? I dunno. But I’ve noticed that between the clothing commercial and Riot Act’s work, more attention is being paid to Shaw’s work. And that’s okay.

There are, of course, other covers of “California Soul.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, covers came from Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, Edwin Starr, the Undisputed Truth, Jonah Jones, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Brenda & the Tabulations. Others who have covered the song over the years include the Dakah Hip Hop Orchestra, Wilson DasNeves, the Messengers and Gerald Wilson.

But I’m not sure anyone gets to the heart of the song as well as Shaw does in her terse reading. And though I generally don’t post anything released after 1999, Riot Act’s cover is too interesting to pass by.

Marlena Shaw – “California Soul” [1969]

Riot Act – “California Soul” [2005]

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