Posts Tagged ‘Jimmy Witherspoon’

Still Catching Up On The ’90s

August 19, 2011

Originally posted October 8, 2008

I got to the CD party way, way late.

As the 1990s dawned, folks all around me were buying CDs of new music as well as replacing their long-suffering LPs (and then selling those LPs at places like Cheapo’s in south Minneapolis). Meanwhile, like a man watching a lake dry up, fearing the drought to come, I was watching the amount of new music available to me diminish seemingly day by day.

I’d seen the first signs of drought when I lived in Minot, North Dakota. Several stores that sold new records when I moved to town in the late summer of 1987 sold only CDs and cassettes by mid-1989, when I loaded another truck and moved back to Minnesota. Other music stores I’d frequented had far less vinyl for sale when I left town than they’d had two years earlier, all except the pawnshop, where the amount of vinyl increased greatly (though I spent little time there, for some reason).

By the time I lived in the Twin Cities, beginning in the autumn of 1991, new vinyl was rare. There might have been more, but I can recall right now only five newly released albums I found on vinyl during the 1990s: Bruce Springsteen’s Lucky Town, Human Touch and The Ghost of Tom Joad; the box set of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings; and Counting Crows’ Recovering the Satellites. Not being in a position to buy a CD player, I turned to cassettes to keep up on new music.

Radio helped, too. Not Top 40; I’d lost interest in hits sometime during the 1980s, but I listened frequently to Cities 97, a station that I think has a deeper playlist than most available in the Twin Cities. There, I heard some familiar stuff and a lot of new stuff by artists I was interested in learning about. Through radio and cassettes, I kept up with my old favorites and some new friends from the 1980s – Indigo Girls, Suzanne Vega and a few others – and got pointed toward some new performers: Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Waterboys, October Project and the BoDeans come easily to mind.

But cassettes are awkward things, a declaration that will be news to nobody. It’s difficult to cue up a specific song or to skip one. So I didn’t invest in tapes the way I had already invested in vinyl. The result was that I learned a little less about new music during the 1990s than I had in previous decades. Since I got my first CD player in 1998 and then ventured on-line in early 2000, I’ve learned a fair amount about the decade that I spent mostly in Minneapolis. A little more than ten percent of the mp3s in my collection come from the 1990s, so here’s what the decade sounds like when I do a random program:

A Baker’s Dozen from the 1990s

“Sweet Spot” by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris from Western Wall: Tucson Sessions, 1999

“Children in Bloom” by Counting Crows from Recovering the Satellites, 1996

“Ghost of Johnny Ray” by Boo Hewerdine from Ignorance, 1992

“Thunder” by Jimmy Witherspoon from Back To The Streets: The Music of Don Covay, 1993

“Shake That Thang” by Long John Baldry from It Still Ain’t Easy, 1991

“Bordertown” by the Walkabouts from Setting The Woods On Fire, 1994

“Blue Yodel No. 9” by Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and John Kahn from Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, 1997

“Do You Like The Way” by Santana featuring Lauryn Hill and Cee-Lo from Supernatural, 1999

“Need A Little Help” by Billy Ray Cyrus from Trail of Tears, 1996

“Follow” by Paula Russell from West of Here, 1999

“Skies the Limit” by Fleetwood Mac from Behind the Mask, 1990

“Ghel Moma” by the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir from Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, Vol. 4, 1998

“Lives In The Balance” by Richie Havens from Cuts to the Chase, 1994

A few notes:

The Linda Ronstadt-Emmylou Harris collaboration, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, is a gem. The two had worked together before, of course, most notably during the Trio sessions with Dolly Parton that produced two albums. The result of this collaboration is the sound of two voices and two souls performing in harmony.

Back To The Streets: The Music of Don Covay is one of the multitude of tribute anthologies that began to pop up in the 1990s. Covay’s catalog of soul and R&B songs is immense and truly great, though I believe he’d be immortal if “Chain of Fools” had been the only thing he ever wrote. And the CD is a delight, featuring some intriguing choices for the vocals, such as Todd Rundgren, Gary U.S. Bonds, Bobby Womack, Iggy Pop and others. Witherspoon’s fine performance on “Thunder” was likely one of his last recordings. The Covay tribute was released in 1993 and Witherspoon crossed over in 1997 at the age of 77.

I don’t know much about the Walkabouts. I came across “Bordertown” on another blog – I forget which one – and liked it a lot. Having it pop up at random today is a nice stroke of luck, as I’m going to add Setting the Woods on Fire to my short list of CDs to find soon. All-Music Guide says the album is a “sweeping, stately record” that “owes a great deal to the Stones’ Exile on Main Street.” Sounds like a good deal to me.

Mention Billy Ray Cyrus and most folks flash back to 1992 and “Achy Breaky Heart,’ which dominated the country charts and made it to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. I looked for his Trail of Tears album simply because it includes a cover of J.J. Cale’s “Crazy Mama,” which turned out to be a pretty good version. Trail of Tears turned out to be a pretty good and surprisingly rootsy country album, which surprised me.

“Skies the Limits” (which makes no sense as a title to me) is the opening track from the album Fleetwood Mac recorded after replacing Lindsey Buckingham with Billy Burnette and Rick Vito. Behind the Mask is a pretty uninspired effort with a couple of good tracks on it. Unhappily, neither “Save Me” nor “Freedom” popped up.

Jackson Browne’s 1986 song “Lives in the Balance” was still relevant in 1994 when Richie Havens made it his own on Cuts to the Chase, and it’s still relevant today.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1964

May 10, 2011

Originally posted September 12, 2007

As 1964 dawned, we were in a new world, one that we weren’t sure we liked very much. It had been just more than a month since President Kennedy was killed, and we were still getting used to seeing the somewhat stern visage of Lyndon Johnson, the new president, in places like the post office and other federal buildings. There had been a month of mourning for John Kennedy, a period that ended just before Christmas. I recall a sense of sadness, of course, but along with that, I recall among the grownups in my life what seemed to be a wariness, an uneasiness at what might come next, considering that something so unthinkable had already happened.

So 1964 felt like an alien land. In my fifth-grade classroom, we had the morning Minneapolis Tribune delivered, and I – already being a news junkie – tried to get into the classroom early enough each day to take a look at it. (At home, we subscribed to the Minneapolis Star, the evening paper from the same company that, sadly, was merged into the morning paper about twenty-five years ago.) One morning, the front page of the Trib showed a picture of a dignified woman, and the headline told me that she – Senator Margaret Chase Smith from Maine – had announced her intention of running for president. When the other kids came into the room, the headline caused such a commotion that the front page of the newspaper was ripped into several pieces. Unhappy with us, Mr. Lydeen stood by his desk at the back of the room and held the pieces of the paper up, then dropped the entire newspaper into the wastebasket. If it happened again, he said, the room would quit getting the paper.

Other things in the news in 1964 included the New York World’s Fair, which took place at a location with the giggle-inducing name of Flushing Meadows. (My pals and I were ten, okay?) Among the exhibits I recall wanting to see were the audioanimatronic dinosaurs – created by the Disney organization – in, I think, the Ford display, and the Pietà, the Michelangelo sculpture carefully shipped across the Atlantic from Vatican City for its own pavilion at the fair. (I finally saw the dinosaurs – or their electronic descendants – during a 1980s trip to Disneyland and was not impressed; on the other hand, when I saw the Pietà in its home in St. Peter’s Basilica, I was overwhelmed.)

The over-riding sense of the New York World’s Fair from a distance, as I recall, was the shining tomorrow that it promised to all the world, a promise that has not been well kept. We do have technological marvels aplenty in our portion of the world. But the future we have found is one that glitters far less than the one we were told would arrive. Forget about flying cars and elevated monorail service and automated kitchens. There are still too many people in the world – the United Nations says the total is more than a billion, according to Wikipedia – who lack safe drinking water.

It was in 1964 when President Johnson started what he called the War on Poverty, and it was that summer when three civil rights workers – Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman – were killed in Mississippi while doing field work for the Congress of Racial Equality. The first major protests against the Vietnam War took place in New York and San Francisco in May. I remember being baffled by all of it, not realizing that the world was beginning to baffle the grownups around me as well.

And then there was the music, which was going through changes of its own. As readers likely know, the Beatles came to the U.S. for the first time in February of that year, sparking what has come to be called the British Invasion. In April, the Beatles held the top five spots on Billboard’s Top 40 chart, a feat never seen before or since. (The songs were, in order, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Please Please Me.”) And by the end of the year, British acts dominated American pop charts.

There was still some fine music being recorded and performed here, of course, but it became increasingly difficult for it to dent the charts. For many blues and R&B performers, that increasing difficulty was simply a continuation of a trend that had started in the 1950s (although the success of acts on Motown and Stax and related labels was growing). So 1964 was a year of transition in the music world as well as in the world in general.

Here, then, is a Baker’s Dozen from that year:

“Smokestack Lightning” by Manfred Mann from The Manfred Mann Album

“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” by Jimmy Witherspoon from Blue Spoon

“Spanish Harlem Incident” by Bob Dylan from Another Side of Bob Dylan

“When You Walk In The Room” by the Searchers, Kapp single 618

“Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” by the Yardbirds, Columbia single DB 7391 (UK)

“I Live the Life I Love” by John Hammond from Big City Blues

“(The Best Part Of) Breakin’ Up” by the Ronettes, Philles single 120

“Sweet Home Chicago” by David “Honeyboy” Edwards, unreleased session

“Hold Me Tight” by the Treasures, Shirley single 500

“Slow Down” by the Beatles, Capitol single 5255

“The Girls On The Beach” by the Beach Boys from All Summer Long

“Airmobile” by Tim Hardin from Columbia sessions, unreleased.

“Maybelline” by Johnny Rivers, Imperial single 66056

A few notes on some of the songs:

“Smokestack Lightning,” from the same album that included the marvelous “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” is not as nifty as one would like. Manfred Mann’s band was capable of doing some fine blues work, and did so elsewhere on the album. But “Smokestack Lightning” is too obviously based on Howlin’ Wolf’s extraordinary performance from 1956.

The album Another Side of Bob Dylan found Dylan in transition, shifting in his subject matter from public to personal concerns but still presenting the material as folk songs. The songs on the record – “Spanish Harlem Incident” in particular – would not sound out of place had they been recorded as rock songs and placed with the material Dylan would release in the next year on Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited.

The Honeyboy Edwards session was produced, I believe, by Pete Welding and leased to Sun Records, which chose not to release it. Edwards’ performance of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” is solid but not particularly revelatory. It becomes more interesting when one realizes that Edwards, born in 1915 and still alive today, is likely the only surviving person who performed with Johnson and also likely the only living person who was present that night at the Three Forks Store when Johnson was poisoned.

The Treasures were two Phil Spector associates, Vinnie Poncina and Peter Andreoli. After visiting England in 1963 and sharing a plane with the Beatles in February 1964 – according to All-Music Guide – Spector decided to cover one of the Fab Four’s songs. He chose “Hold Me Tight,” and came up with this wonderful mixture of British pop, doo-wop and the Wall of Sound.

The other Phil Spector production here, the Ronettes’ “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up,” was the third Ronettes single to hit the Top 40, reaching No. 39 in May, just three months after the Beatles and the other Brits began to make chart life difficult for American pop artists. The Ronettes would have two more records on the charts in 1964 – reaching No. 34 with “Do I Love You?” and No. 23 with “Walking In The Rain” – but nothing in the Top 40 after that.