Posts Tagged ‘Big Mama Thornton’

A Baker’s Dozen From 1966, Vol. 2

June 11, 2011

Originally posted January 30, 2008

Every once in a while, it seems, we go through a spasm of interest in UFOs in this country, and maybe throughout the world. I have a suspicion that with the wide reach of the Internet, those with an intense interest in UFOs gather together electronically – as do other groups of people with intense special interests – and so perhaps the general public no longer is as aware of those cyclical spasms of interest and/or activity. I know I don’t see or hear much about UFOs and their supposed occupants in the mainstream media but the few times I’ve dug into websites about the phenomenon, there are plenty of things reported as having happened, some of them quite recent.

I do think it’s cyclical, though. And I recall a local outburst of activity and/or interest in UFOs during the mid-Sixties. About sixty miles west of here is a little town called Long Prairie, a city of about 3,000 people. In 1965, something happened near there that made local radio news, and it might have been reported in the St. Cloud Daily Times although I don’t remember reading about it.

Here’s a summary from one of those UFO websites:

“From several ufological sources, more or less fragmentary, the case of Long Prairie, Minnesota, USA, on October 23, 1965, reportedly occurred as follow.

“The witness was James ‘Jerry’ F. Townsend, a 19 years old devout Christian and debutant radio host on KEYL of Long Prairie, and he was apparently a resident of that town.

“In that evening of October 23, 1965, he was driving in his model 1956 car, on Minnesota State Highway 27, from Little Falls to Long Prairie. He was 4 miles East of Long Prairie, going West, in the hilly landscape and had just looked at his watch and noted it was approximately 07:15 p.m.

“At that moment he arrived in a curve in the road, he said, when he saw an upright rocket-like object, silver colored, metallic looking, about 30 or 40 feet high and about 10 feet in diameter, blocking on the road, resting on the tips of three legs or fins.

“At that moment, his car engine stalled, the lights and radio went out, and he slammed on the brakes and the car skidded to a stop at only 20 feet in front of the object.

“His first thought was then to knock the object over with the car so he could have some evidence, but the engine was stalled. He tried to make it start again, but the choke did not respond. So he got out of the car with the idea of trying to push the object over by hand.

“He walked just past the level of the hood of the car, but did not go further, stopped short, fascinated by a quite stunning sight: he saw three small ‘creatures’ emerge from behind the object and line up at the front.

“Those creatures were in the shape of beer cans. They measured 6 inches tall, were of dark or brownish color, and were ‘walking’ awkardly on two ‘legs’ or ‘fins’. Whenever they stopped, a third ‘leg’ came down from their back and provided stability. They looked like tin cans on tripods. They also had three arms, ‘matchstick like’.

“Townsend saw no eyes, but he stood there staring at them and was convinced that they were watching him too. He did not [want] to approach more, and gave up the idea of rocking the ship down as something quite risky. There was no sound, just dead silence, and it seemed like ages to him, although he later evaluated the duration as some 3 minutes.

“Eventually, the little creature [sic] went up into the bright, ‘colorless’ light glowing out of the bottom of the ‘rocket’, and possibly up into the craft. A few seconds later, there was a loud hum, and the craft took off, reached a height he cautiously estimated as 400 meters up, where the light on the bottom went out, while his car radio, headlights and engine started without him touching the starter.

“He checked the ground where the craft had been, found no trace, and, his hearts [sic] pounding and his legs ‘like rubber’, he drove fast to the Todd County Sherif’s [sic] office, where he reported the events.

“Townsend said the Sheriff checked the site and found no trace. However, some sort of trace was reported, maybe found at a later check in daylight. From ufology sources, it appeared that Sheriff Bain and police officer Lavern Lubitz found three parallel strips of an oil-like substance, about four inches apart and a yard long, on the surface of the road. Sheriff Bain told reporters later: ‘I don’t know what they were, but I’ve looked at a lot of roads and never saw anything like them before.’

“Ufologist Coral Lorenzen heard by phone that Townsend had a good reputation, was not a drinker, and that he had been visibly frightened when he reported his experience. Reportedly, teachers and friends of Townsend were interrogated, and said he has a reputation for honesty.”

That’s a longer quote than I had planned to use, but I find the report fascinating (although I have no idea what a “debutant radio host” is). Maybe I’m fascinated because I remember the ruckus the account created back in 1965. I don’t know how adults reacted to it, but opinion was mixed among the kids. Many of my contemporaries said flat out – without knowing much more than bare bones – that the fellow had to have been drunk and seeing things. Me? I wondered. Even at the age of twelve, I knew that there were lots of things we did not know. Aliens from another planet, another dimension? Maybe.

It was about that time – maybe a year later, but in autumn – that St. Cloud residents for a few nights in a row called the local police and reported odd lights in the sky, moving in clusters but in no specific pattern. This one did make the local paper. And a few days later, a local teen explained.

He’d taken drinking straws, he said, and constructed a framework – a rough wheel with spokes – the same diameter as a dry cleaner’s plastic bag. He’d put the framework into the opening of the bag and secured it, then secured candles onto the straws that served as spokes. He’d light the candles and hold the bag up so it would not burn, and eventually, the hot air from the candles would lift the bag off the ground and send it on its way through the evening sky.

How cool was that! For the next two weeks or so, St. Cloud was home to many odd wandering lights every night as multitudes of kids went out and bought plastic straws and candles and cadged dry cleaner’s bags somewhere. Eventually, the fascination faded as the weather got cooler, and any wandering lights in the St. Cloud sky came from something other than juveniles and their evening science projects.

Not all that long after those events, most likely in the spring of 1968 (it could have been the previous autumn, but the trees were green and I seem to recall that they were budding), I got a ride to school from my mom one morning. As she turned off of what was then Tenth Street South (now University Drive) to head to South Junior High School, I saw something through the windshield as it passed over us and continued to go south, the direction we were heading. I saw it for maybe five seconds, and all I can say is I don’t know what it was. It was silver, and it had the classic saucer shape with a dome on it. In those brief seconds, it flashed toward the school and over it, low enough that the school building blocked it from my sight in, as I said, maybe five seconds.

Troubled, I got out of the car and headed into the school. One of my friends, Jerry, was at his locker, two down from mine. I opened my locker and put my books inside, then turned to Jerry. “Have you ever seen a UFO?” I asked him.

He turned to me, and the look on his face echoed how I felt. “Yeah,” he said. “About five minutes ago. It was over the Dairy Queen, heading this direction.”

There was never anything in the paper about it, and I still wonder what it was that Jerry and I saw.

And this all came to mind this morning when the first song of today’s Baker’s Dozen popped up.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1966
“Mr. Spaceman” by the Byrds, Columbia single 43766

“You Ain’t Tuff” by the Uniques, Paula single 2315

“Strange Young Girls” by the Mamas & the Papas from The Mamas & the Papas

“Shake Your Hips” by Slim Harpo, Excello single 2278

“Big Mama’s Bumble Bee Blues” by Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band, unreleased until 1986

“Run For Cover” by the Dells, Cadet single 5551

“Love Attack” by James Carr, Goldwax single 309

“One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)” by Bob Dylan from Blonde On Blonde

“Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys, Capitol single 5676

“.44 Blues” by the Rising Sons, unreleased until 1992

“Strangers In The Night” by Frank Sinatra, Reprise single 0470

“Along Comes Mary” by the Association, Valiant single 741

“Solitary Man” by Neil Diamond, Bang single 519

A few notes:

The Uniques were fronted by country star-to-be Joe Stampley, and, according to All-Music Guide, recorded some nice blue-eyed soul and Southern pop-rock, which makes “You Ain’t Tuff” – a garage-rocker – an anomaly in the group’s catalog. I found “You Ain’t Tuff” on one of the Nuggets compilations, where it fits quite nicely.

“Strange Young Girls” has intrigued me since I first heard it long ago. Among other things, it provides clear evidence that John Phillips and producer Lou Adler weren’t in the habit of working hard on the singles and giving less attention to the album tracks. It’s a beautiful yet haunting meditation on, as AMG says, “Sunset Strip street life, teenyboppers, and LSD.”

When you listen to “Shake Your Hips” – or any Slim Harpo record, for that matter – you hear one of the many influences that wound up making the Rolling Stones who they are. In this case, it’s more direct, as the Stones would up covering “Shake Your Hips” on 1972’s Exile on Main Street.

I mentioned the Bob Dylan recording, “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later),” in my comments some time back on songs with indelible introductions. More than thirty years after first hearing the song – I came to it late, in 1973 – I still get a little bit of that charge every time I hear it start. The credits at AMG for the album, Blonde on Blonde, list several more people than do the minimal liner notes on the CD I have. Based on the AMG list of keyboard players, I’d guess that the organist is The Band’s Garth Hudson. The piano? I’d guess Richard Manuel, also from The Band, but that’s iffier. Neither one is mentioned in the sketchy notes that accompany the CD, and based on those notes, I’d say it’s Al Kooper on organ and Pig Robbins on piano. Does anyone know for sure?

I guess “Good Vibrations” is an accurate representation of the Beach Boys circa 1966. It’s a nice piece of studio craft, but for some reason, I’ve never liked it very much. I would much rather have seen “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” pop up as the Beach Boys’ entry on this list.

The Rising Sons was an example of a great group in the wrong place at the wrong time. Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, the group had a single released – it went nowhere – before breaking up in 1966. But the group did manage to record more than an album’s worth of material, twenty-two tracks that were finally released in 1992. It’s fun stuff and great music.

Graffiti supposedly seen in the London Underground:

“To do is to be” – Descartes

“To be is to do” – Voltaire

“Do be do be do” – Frank Sinatra

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Havens & Clapton On The Reading Table

June 6, 2011

Originally posted January 22, 2008

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with two autobiographies: Richie Havens’ They Can’t Hide Us Anymore (1999, written with Steve Dawidowitz) and Eric Clapton’s Clapton: The Autobiography (2007). One is pretty good and one is fascinating.

Of the two, I’ve been working on the Havens book a little longer, and it seems to be taking me a little more effort to get into it. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because I’m not as familiar with the outlines of Havens’ story as I am with Clapton’s. Or maybe it’s because Havens seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on the years in the early 1960s when he was scuffling around New York City’s Greenwich Village. At times, I find that fascinating and find the book hard to put down; other times, the tales seem to drag on, and I find it hard to turn the page. It could be that the book is too much a listing of people met and events lived through and not enough an assessment of how those things affected the person in the middle. I don’t get a sense of how Richie Havens felt about the things he recalls.

That’s not the case with the Clapton: I find the pages flipping by at an amazing rate, and the overwhelming sense I get is one of melancholy. Clapton, looking back at his life, is brutally honest, and he’s careful to take responsibility for the turnings in his life, many of which were accompanied by vast quantities of drugs and alcohol. Writing from the hard-won perspective of recovery, the famed guitarist is nothing so much as saddened by the way he treated the people around him, the way he approached his music and the way he lived his life for so many years.

I’ve read about half the book so far, and one of the passages I find most affecting was when he recalled the circumstances of his participation in the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh, organized by his good friend, George Harrison. Clapton – deeply addicted to heroin at the time – agreed to come to New York to practice and play as long as a consistent supply of the drug could be secured for him.

When he arrived in New York, the drugs were waiting for him in his room. “I tried some, but nothing happened,” he writes. “It turned out that what they had scored for me was street-cut, with a very low amount of actual heroin in it and cut with something nasty, like strychnine, so that it was about a tenth as strong as what I was used to.”

The result was Clapton’s going through withdrawal and missing the rehearsals for the epic concert. Some medication at the last moment, Clapton says, allowed him to feel well enough to make the sound check. “[A]lthough I have a vague memory of this and then of playing the show, the truth is I wasn’t really there, and I feel ashamed. No matter how I’ve tried to rationalize it to myself over the years, I let a lot of people down that night, most of all myself. I’ve seen the concert only once on film, but if I ever want a reminder of what I might be missing from the ‘good old days,’ this would be the film to watch.”

There is, reading the Clapton memoir, the sense of a train wreck waiting to happen, most likely because so much of his story is so well known: The virtuosity, the addictions, the romances, the tragedies. But it’s well written, and there’s a very distinct voice telling the story. One of the things that amuses me is Clapton’s occasional use of British slang without any attempt to explain it. Maybe such explanations aren’t needed; maybe there’s no mystery in those usages that catch my eye. But I chuckle when I see them, as when Clapton wrote without explanation about the workman whose culinary preference was “bangers and mash” (that’s sausages and mashed potatoes to we non-Brits).

Reading Clapton this morning got me to wondering about what cover versions of songs he might have released. There is, of course, the entire catalog of traditional blues written by others long gone, especially Robert Johnson. That’s not quite what I have in mind for cover versions, though, so I dug a little deeper into Clapton’s catalog. And in 1989, he released one of the niftier – and shorter – performances of his career on Journeyman, a brief exploration of the song “Hound Dog.” Clapton’s performance of the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller composition owes very little to Elvis Presley and at least a little bit (in terms of pace, not intensity) to Big Mama Thornton, whose recording (Peacock 1612) held the top spot on the Billboard R&B chart for seven weeks in 1953.

As I don’t think I’ve ever shared Big Mama’s version, here it is along with Clapton’s cover.

Big Mama Thornton – “Hound Dog” [1953]

Eric Clapton – “Hound Dog” [1989]

A Baker’s Dozen from 1966

April 22, 2011

Originally posted June 6, 2007

As 1966 rolled around, I was in the second half of seventh grade. I’d become adept at working the combination on my hallway locker, I hated P.E. and loved band, and I enjoyed social studies with Mr. Sales. We talked a lot about current events in social studies, and even then, I was a news junkie, looking through the newspapers – the Minneapolis Star and the St. Cloud Daily Times – almost as soon as they were delivered every afternoon. I also saw some news on television, and although I didn’t grasp the meaning of all of that I saw, I understood enough to begin to ask questions. I was, at the age of twelve, a reporter in training.

In mid-February, the Twin Cities Top 40 radio stations began playing a song that made news itself: “Ballad of the Green Berets,” a tribute to the men in his unit, written and recorded by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler. The song moved up the charts and was No. 1 for five weeks in March and April. For a brief time, to a public increasingly wary of bad war news coming from a small country in Southeast Asia, the Green Berets were heroes. Exactly what they did and whom they were fighting when they dropped into the jungle, we didn’t know. But we were glad they were doing it. After all, the government said that the Green Berets – and the rest of our boys who were in Vietnam – were fighting the Communists there so we wouldn’t have to fight them here.

Robin Moore, a writer with connections, trained with the Green Berets and wrote a laudatory book about them that hit the best-seller lists. He also turned out to have helped – to what degree, who knows? – Barry Sadler with the lyrics to his No. 1 song. (Out in Hollywood, John Wayne got hold of the rights to the book and – with his son producing – made the film The Green Berets, which came out in 1968 and had little resemblance to the book beyond the title and a fawning admiration for the soldiers of the special forces.)

It was likely in the spring of 1966 that my social studies class broke up into groups to do reports on issues in current events. Topics included civil rights, Indonesia, the USSR and more, including, of course, Vietnam. When Mr. Sales told us to find a group we were interested in, I gravitated to the cluster of desks labeled “Vietnam.” I wasn’t all that interested in the topic, but a girl whose name began with K had headed for those desks, too, and she was the current object of my unrequited affection.

Mr. Sales had said we should start by asking questions that needed to be answered about our topics. K had her notebook ready. “Any questions?” she asked, looking around the group. No one said anything for a moment.

I said, “How about, ‘Why did we send our military to Vietnam in the first place?’”

She looked at me and nodded, and wrote the question down in her notebook, neither of us realizing that answering that question accurately and completely would likely be enough to earn a doctoral degree someday. A couple other members of the group offered questions, and K wrote them down. Mr. Sales stopped by to see how we were doing, and K showed him the list of questions.

“Who asked that first one?” Four fingers pointed at me. He nodded and chewed his cheek and then told me, “The folks over in Poverty could use some help. You’ve got five people here and there are only three there. Why don’t you go and give them a hand?”

I grabbed my books and, with a last quick look at K (who either didn’t notice or chose not to), went to the other cluster of desks with Mr. Sales. He told them I was there to make the groups more equal, and I pulled a desk up and sat down. I don’t recall who had the notebook in which they would write their questions, but the page was blank. So were the looks on their faces as they turned to me.

“Well,” I said, “do we know what ‘poverty’ really means?” They all shook their heads from side to side. “Okay,” I said. “First question: What is poverty?” The recorder wrote the question down, and someone else asked the next question, which I think was “Where do poor people live?” We had no clue that the answer was “All around us.” And the discussion went on for a few more moments, and then Mr. Sales came along to see how we were doing.

He looked at our list of questions and asked, “Who asked that first question?” Three fingers pointed at me again. Mr. Sales nodded and then said to me, “Why don’t you just wander from group to group and look at their lists of questions and see if you can think of any for them?”

Oh, my god, I thought. Why don’t you just make me wear a shirt that says “Dork” on it?

But I spent the rest of the hour wandering from group to group, looking at questions and maybe even offering a question or two myself. The result of my being made a roving whatever resulted in my being a group of one, assigned the task of enlightening my classmates about Indonesia.

I frittered my time away, and on the day of my presentation, I taped an annotated map of Indonesia to the blackboard and dove in. What looked like hesitation due to stage fright was really me giving myself moments to scan the information in the little boxes on the map before relaying that information to my audience. I got a B on the presentation.

Even after the years for dating came along, I never did have a date with K. But we were friendly. In high school, she was a cheerleader and I was a manager, and, in the dark and quiet of school buses coming back from athletic events late at night, we did have some intense discussions about issues all of us were facing. I remember them vividly; I hope she does, too.

And here’s a Baker’s Dozen from 1966, the year Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler topped the charts for five weeks:

“Bleak City Woman” by Donovan from Mellow Yellow

“Great Airplane Strike” by Paul Revere & The Raiders from sessions for The Spirit of ‘67

“Journey To Time” by Kenny & The Kasuals, Mark Ltd. single 1006

“I Saw Her Again” by the Mamas & the Papas, Dunhill single 4031

“Muddy Water” by Johnny Rivers, Imperial single 66175

“So Long Babe” by Nancy Sinatra from Boots

“Got To Get You Into My Life” by the Beatles from Revolver

“If Your Monkey Can’t Get It” by David Blue from David Blue

“Tomorrow Is A Long Time” by Elvis Presley from the Spinout soundtrack

“Georgy Girl” by the Seekers, Capitol single 5756

“Looking the World Over” by Big Mama Thornton from Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band

“Double Crossing Time” by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers from Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton

“Don’t Bring Me Down” by the Animals, MGM single 13514

Some notes on a few of the songs:

I found Kenny & the Kasuals’ recording on Nuggets, Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, Volume 2, one of the great box sets from Rhino of mid-1960s recordings. The record didn’t make the charts, so Kenny & the Kasuals aren’t even one-hit wonders, but music like theirs was busting out of garages and basements all over the country.

“I Saw Her Again” is one my favorite songs by the Mamas & the Papas, who delivered a string of strong, melodic singles in 1966 and 1967 – and a series of albums that had better non-single material than most albums did at the time. When the song comes out of the instrumental bridge at about the 2:43 mark, Denny Dohety delivers one of the classic moments in pop history with his “I saw her,” an instant before the other vocalists come in. It sounds perfectly arranged, but from what I’ve read, Doherty miscounted and came in too early. The rest of the group liked the way it sounded and kept it in. (Also, listen for the drum rolls far under the rest of the sound; it sure sounds like Hal Blaine to me!)

The cut by David Blue came from his self-titled debut, issued by Elektra in August, less than a month after Bob Dylan had his famous motorcycle accident that left his career – and life, for all anyone not connected with Dylan knew – in doubt. Blue was a friend of Dylan’s and their music sounds similar, notes All-Music Guide. AMG also notes that by the time Blue’s debut came out, he was already behind the tight curve of pop history, as the Beatles’ Revolver had upped the ante.

The Nancy Sinatra cut is pretty lame, a Lee Hazlewood-penned artifact recorded with crack musicians for the album that supported her No. 1 single, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” Not quite as lame, but still gimpy, was Elvis’ take on the Dylan song, “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” which the King recorded for one of his mediocre movies. Elvis was still two years away from returning to musical relevance with his return to Memphis in 1968.

Big Mama Thornton was an elemental force of nature, bold, brash, supremely confident and extraordinarily talented. The first to record “Hound Dog,” in 1953, she faded from general view for most of that decade and came back to some extent with Ball ’n’ Chain in 1968, after Janis Joplin recorded and popularized the title cut. The recording here, with the Muddy Waters Blues Band, was recorded in 1966 but not released until 2004, twenty years after Thornton’s death.