Posts Tagged ‘King Curtis’

‘Gonna Tell Aunt Mary . . .’

May 18, 2022

Originally posted September 1, 2009

The things you can learn rummaging around online!

Remember all the stories about a baseball player promising to hit a home run for a sick kid in the hospital and then actually going out and doing so? (The ballplayer in the story is frequently Babe Ruth, and there is some evidence that things happened that way at least once, which only proves that where Babe Ruth is concerned, fact and fable intersect.) As I dug around at Wikipedia this morning, I found a similar story of rock ’n’ roll lore:

In the mid-1950s, it seems, there was a young woman in or near New Orleans named Enotris Johnson. Her Aunt Mary was ill, and in hopes of gaining the money for her aunt’s treatment, Enotris began to write a rock ’n’ roll song for a popular performer to record. Actually, she only wrote a couple of lines, but somehow, she got in touch with Honey Chile, a popular disk jockey.

Honey Chile took the few lines that Enotris had written and got in touch with a fellow named Bumps Blackwell, who was an A&R man for Specialty Records. Blackwell took the few lines to the performer, who was – Wikipedia says – reluctant to use them. Still, one of the lines resonated with the artist, and he and Blackwell added to Enotris Johnson’s lines and crafted a song out of it. Recorded at a tempo so fast that the artist might have been singing in some language other than English, the song was released as a single. It went as high as No. 6 on the fragmented pop charts of the time and spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the R&B chart.

Those three lines Enotris wrote?

Saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally
They saw Aunt Mary comin’
So they ducked back in the alley.

The artist, of course, was Little Richard and the song was “Long Tall Sally,” maybe the most famous song recorded by the flamboyant singer born as Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia. (I’d guess that “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” would be in the running for that “most famous” title.)

As to the truth of the tale I found at Wikipedia, some of the details of the story – minus Aunt Mary – also appear in The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh’s 1989 tome about the 1,001 best singles. In addition, the song’s writing credits have seemingly always included an E. Johnson. On the other hand, “Long Tall Sally” wasn’t a one-shot for Enotris Johnson. She received at least two other writing credits on Little Richard songs: She’s also listed as a co-writer on “Miss Ann” and “Jenny Jenny.” (There may have been more credits for Enotris Johnson on songs that weren’t hits; those are the credits I noticed this morning on the CD The Georgia Peach.)

I did find some more information at Who’s Dated Who, a celebrity website. On an otherwise blank page for Enotris Johnson, a reader named Betty posted this note in May:

What happen to Enotris Johnson, the song writer that almost became a star? She loved the music industry very much and still does. She says that Little Richard was her brother back then. She married a preacher back in September 10, 1956; that ended all of her musical dreams because he was a man of God and he could not have his wife singing the blues. You can only think of what was expected of a housewife back in the 1950’s. Enotris now lives in Bogalusa, Louisiana. She is now 72 years old. She has one daughter, Wilma Dunn, [who] resides in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband. Enotris is a warm loving mother and friend and still supports her husband. Every once in a while you can hear her wailing on that piano and singing in the middle of the night. You would just love to sit around her and hear her tell all the stories from back in the day when all of the old singers were at their humble beginnings. Enotris Johnson has lived a full and happy life with her husband and being the idea preacher’s wife. [Edited slightly.]

The information would mean that Enotris Johnson would have been about nineteen years old when “Long Tall Sally” was recorded. And it still doesn’t address the truth about the ill Aunt Mary, but – like so many other rock ’n’ roll stories and fables (see Mr. Jimmy and the Rolling Stones, for example) – it really doesn’t matter. As I’ve said before, legend drives out fact.

And Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” remains one of the most vital songs in rock ’n roll history, and it must be one of the most covered, as well. Among those who covered it when Little Richard’s version was getting airplay were Pat Boone and Elvis Presley. I shared Boone’s limp version here about a year ago, and – oddly enough – I don’t have a copy of Presley’s.

A quick look at All-Music Guide results in a list of more than eight hundred CDs that contain a version of “Long Tall Sally.” The Little Richard, Pat Boone and Elvis Presley versions account for many of those, of course, but some of the other names that show up are Atlanta Rhythm Section, Cactus, Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys, the Chambers Brothers, Eddie Cochrane, Joey Dee & the Starliters, Wanda Jackson, the Isley Brothers, the Kinks, Sleepy LaBeef, Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul McCartney, Molly Hatchet, Don Nix, Carl Perkins, Johnny Rivers, the Rivingtons, Marty Robbins, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, Sha Na Na, the Tornadoes, the Trashmen, Walter Trout, Gene Vincent and Roger Whittaker. (That last one baffles me a little.)

[Note from 2022: The website Second Hand Songs lists a total of 161 separate covers of “Long Tall Sally,” including versions in Danish, Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Spanish and Swedish. Note added May 18, 2022.]

I have, strangely, only three covers of “Long Tall Sally” (on mp3 at any rate; vinyl may be another story): The Pat Boone I mentioned earlier and versions by the Beatles and by King Curtis.

The Beatles’ version was issued in 1964; in Britain, it was one of four songs on an EP (“I Call Your Name,” “Slow Down” and “Matchbox” were the others), and here in the U.S., the song was included on the imaginatively titled The Beatles’ Second Album. (It later showed up on several vinyl and CD anthologies, including Past Masters, Vol. 1.)

King Curtis’ version was recorded in New York City on October 28, 1965, and was evidently released as the flip side of “The Boss” [Atlantic 9469] and was included on a 1986 R&B saxophone anthology, Atlantic Honkers. (The sketchy notes on Atlantic Honkers indicate that “Long Tall Sally” was the title track of a King Curtis album, presumably on the Atco label, but I can’t find any other mention of such an album. Anyone out there know anything?)

“Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard, Specialty 572 [1956]

“Long Tall Sally” by the Beatles from The Beatles’ Second Album [1964]

“Long Tall Sally” by King Curtis, evidently Atlantic 9469 B-Side [1965]


June 12, 2020

As I made my way through two new Long John Baldry CDs in the past few weeks, I noticed a couple of tracks I really liked: “Midnight in New Orleans” on It Still Ain’t Easy and “Midnight in Berlin” on Right To Sing The Blues.

And I got to thinking about the word “midnight” and its presence in song titles. So I asked the RealPlayer to search for the word among its 80,000-plus tracks. It came back with 515 results, some of which find the word included in group names – like Hank Ballard & The Midnighters – and some of which find the word included in album titles – like Midnight Radio by Big Head Todd & The Monsters. After winnowing out those and others like them, we end up with about 200 tracks with “midnight” in their titles.

We’re going to hit four of them randomly today.

Our first stop brings us a familiar tune performed by a familiar name: “In The Midnight Hour” by King Curtis. It’s a track from Plays The Great Memphis Hits, released in 1967. The album went to No. 185 on the Billboard 200, and one track – “You Don’t Miss Your Water” – bubbled under the magazine’s Hot 100 at No. 105. King Curtis has shown up enough times in this space that not a lot need to be said except to adapt the title of a 1992 anthology of Curtis Ousley’s work and say, “Blow, man, blow!”

From the midnight hour, we move to the “Midnight Shift” as described by Buddy Holly. The tune warns the listener what to look for in an unfaithful girl (or perhaps a working girl – it’s not entirely clear):

If Annie puts her hair up on her head
Paints them lips up bright, bright red
Wears that dress that fits real tight
Starts staying out ’til the middle of the night
Says that a friend gave her a lift
Well, Annie’s been working on a midnight shift

The track, recorded in 1956, showed up as an album track on the 1958 release That’ll Be The Day. It’s one of my favorite Holly tracks, likely because it’s a little cynical, a counterpoint to a lot of his other work.

And from one giant of the early days of rock ’n’ roll, we move to another, falling onto a track by the recently departed Little Richard. His take on “Midnight Special” (written by another musical giant, Lead Belly) was included on King Of Rock & Roll, a 1971 album on the Reprise label. No singles from the album made the charts (a couple from his 1970 release, The Rill Thing, had tickled the middle and lower portions of the Hot 100), but the album went to No. 193 on the Billboard 200. As to the track itself, Little Richard takes his time getting going, but about a minute in, the train takes off.

We close today’s brief expedition with a track from Bobby Womack: “I’m A Midnight Mover” from his 1968 album Fly Me To The Moon. As always when Womack’s work shows up here, I feel as if I don’t know enough about the man’s work to comment much except to say that his stuff grabs hold of me nearly every time it pops up. “I’m A Midnight Mover” was released as a single by Atlantic but did not chart. The album went to No. 174 in Billboard.

Saturday Single No. 574

January 20, 2018

Another question popped up on Facebook this week: My college friend Laura – with whom I’m in contact nearly every day but haven’t seen in the flesh for more than forty years (ain’t modern life marvelous?) – asked folks about their favorite toys as kids.

Not a lot of stuff came to mind from my younger years – I had a fair number of toys but no real favorites, I guess – but when I thought about my tween and teen years, I had a quick response. So I wrote briefly about my tabletop hockey game and posted a picture I found online of metal players from Toronto and Montreal. And I started thinking about my other diversions from those years.

And it didn’t take long before I thought about the dart board. I was maybe ten when I got it for Christmas. This was before the rec room went into half of the basement, so Dad found an empty spot on the basement wall with about ten feet of open space in front of it. On the wall, he installed a large piece of plywood with a hook in the middle from which to hang the actual dartboard.

And I was off and darting.

It was fun just throwing the darts, for a while. I learned how to keep score, finding out that the scoring in an actual match starts with 300 points (if I recall things correctly) and counts down from there. But I wanted to have some kind of competition that I could keep track of myself. So I took the four sets of three darts each that came with the board and made them into imaginary teams, kind of a National Dart League.

I thought about cities where I would base each team, and then I pondered nicknames. (I’d learned recently that Rob, across the street, was doing the same thing, creating imaginary teams for imaginary Dart2leagues – in his case, for a baseball game he had.) The orange darts became the Seattle Ravens. The green ones were the Trenton Cougars. The yellow darts were based in Portland, Oregon, and at first were the Yellow Jackets and later, one supposes under new imaginary ownership, the Lumberjacks (often shortened, as I did my sotto voce play-by-play, to ’Jacks). The blue darts were peripatetic, beginning as the Akron Hubs (a city/name combination I borrowed from Rob). Then I wanted something from my own imagination, and they moved to Texas and became the Austin Bullets, though I was not entirely satisfied with that. Finally, I decided to bring them home to Minnesota, though not in the Twin Cities. I parked them in Duluth, and in a nod to the history of French exploration and fur-trading in Lake Superior and the rest of the Northland, I named them the Voyageurs.

I don’t remember how I structured the matches or the schedule. But I spent many happy hours pairing the four teams against each other and keeping tracks of scores and matches won and lost. A few years later, when Dad built the rec room in the basement, the space configuration was changed, and the plywood sheet had to be moved. I wasn’t playing much by that time, anyway, and that Christmas, my Royal Canadian hockey game became my favorite winter pastime.

As you can see from the picture above, I still have the darts. They’ve traveled with me over the years in a greeting card box, and for the last nine years have been on a shelf in the room that serves as the EITW studios. I’ve been pondering what to do with them. I doubt that Goodwill or other places that seek donations would want them; they could easily be dangerous. And I see no point in packing them away in a box, as I’ll never use them again. But when I think about discarding them, it feels as if I’m about to throw away part of my childhood.

I’ll have to think about it.

So musically, where does that leave us? Well, I thought about offering something from the long-gone Dart label, the one-time home of Lightnin’ Hopkins, but then I thought about the word “games.” It shows up in a lot of record titles, of course, and I’ve decided to go with the Joe South tune “Games People Play,” as offered by King Curtis (with guitar work by Duane Allman). It’s from Curtis’ 1969 album Instant Groove, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

‘Way, Way Down Inside . . .’

June 23, 2016

I slept in today, a rare thing. But when the alarm went off at 6:54, I wasn’t feeling well, and four hours later, not much has improved. Sluggish mind in a sluggish body isn’t exactly the ideal the ancient Greeks had in mind. But we get what we get.

I’ve been following the ongoing plagiarism case against Led Zeppelin for allegedly nicking a piece of Spirit’s song “Taurus” for the famous riff in “Stairway To Heaven,” and I saw a piece on the Rolling Stone website that in its introduction pretty much summed up my thinking about the case brought by the estate of Randy California. Gavin Edwards writes:

Reasonable people can disagree on whether (and how heavily) Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” filches from Spirit’s “Taurus” – that’s why there’s a court case in progress. But the reason many people aren’t extending Led Zeppelin the benefit of the doubt on “Stairway” is because they have an extensive history of swiping songs from other people and giving credit only under duress.

And Edwards’ piece goes on to explore – with videos illustrating each example – ten cases of appropriation.

(Another cataloging of Zep’s indiscretions – with nifty illustrations – is found at the great blog Willard’s Wormholes. Look for “Zeppelin Took My Blues Away” in the blog archives.)

So I was thinking about Led Zeppelin, and I got to thinking about “Whole Lotta Love,” which had its genesis in Muddy Water’s “You Need Love.” And I got to pondering covers of “Whole Lotta Love” (and the Led Zeppelin single remains part of the remembered soundtrack of my junior year of high school, which makes it matter).

I have a few covers of the tune, and there are more out there, according to Second Hand Songs. But if my search function worked correctly this morning, I’ve never posted any of those covers here. That oversight ends now, and sometime soon – tomorrow? Tuesday? I will not promise a specific date, only an intention – we’ll dig into more covers of an appropriated tune.

Our starting point is one of the better versions we’ll find of “Whole Lotta Love,” a 1970 track from King Curtis & The Kingpins.

‘It’s Never Seen The Sun . . .’

January 23, 2013

Two-and-a-half years ago, as I offered six of the records in my Ultimate Jukebox, I wrote:

“Looking for a version of ‘Spanish Harlem’ to celebrate, I imagine that lots of folks would choose Aretha Franklin’s imaginative 1971 cover, which went to No. 2. But there’s something I prefer about Ben E. King’s original, which went to No. 10 in early 1961. Maybe it’s the tropical lilt brought out by the marimba during the introduction and throughout the record, maybe it’s the baion bass provided by producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (Leiber co-wrote the song with Phil Spector), maybe it’s King’s hushed, almost serene vocal, or maybe it’s the saxophone solo. Maybe it’s all of those or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it makes Spanish Harlem into a place I wish I’d seen through the eyes of all of those involved.”

Well, all that still holds true, but after King’s version popped up on the mp3 player in the kitchen the other day, I thought about cover versions as I rinsed the silverware. It might be that Franklin provided the definitive cover of the Leiber/Spector tune. But what else was out there?

The index at BMI lists twenty-seven covers of the tune, and Second Hand Songs lists thirty-six, with a lot of (expected) overlap between the lists. Combined, the two lists hold some interesting names. Among those listed whose performances I either didn’t look for or listen to entirely in the past week or so are Jay & The Americans, Chet Atkins, Manuel and His Music of the Mountains, Cliff Richard, Tom Jones, Freddie Scott, Arthur Alexander, Frankie Valli, Bowling For Soup, Vicki Carr, Ray Anthony, Kenny Rankin, Janet Seidel, Keld Heick and Tony Mottola.

The BMI list doesn’t show recording or release dates, but at Second Hand Songs, the earliest listed cover is a 1961 effort by Britain’s John Barry, whose version – included on his Stringbeat album – falls into what I would call easy listening territory. Other easy listening versions came over the years from Percy Faith, Andre Kostelanetz, the previously mentioned Manuel and His Music of the Mountains and guitarist Bert Weedon, whose 1971 take on the tune pleased me more than the others in that genre.

The most recent version of the tune listed at SHS was the 2010 cover by Latin vocalist Jon Secada, which I have not heard in full although what I did hear sounded promising. I had hopes for 1960s versions by Santo & Johnny and by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana brass, but both of those were draggy and limp.

So what did I like? Unsurprisingly, I like the version King Curtis released on his 1966 album, That Lovin’ Feeling. (The video misdates the track and shows the cover of the 1969 album Instant Groove.) I like the cover I featured the other day by The Mamas & The Papas. One version that did surprise me pleasantly came from Laura Nyro, who recorded the song with Labelle for her 1971 album, Gonna Take A Miracle. I’ve always admired the late Nyro’s songwriting, but I’ve found her own recordings to sometimes be shrill. This one wasn’t. And as I poked around YouTube this morning, I found a sweet live version of the tune from an October 19, 1974, performance at Union College in Schenectady, New York; according to the YouTube poster, it’s one of only three times that Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band have performed “Spanish Harlem.” (The audio is a bit muffled, but it’s still a treat, I think.)

I keep coming back, though, to Aretha’s version. It was released as a single in 1971 (with its first LP release on Aretha’s Greatest Hits) and was No.1 for three weeks on the R&B chart and No. 2 for two weeks on the pop chart. The video below attempts to identify the players on that session, but in the Franklin listing in Top Pop Singles, Joel Whitburn notes that Dr. John plays keyboards on the single, and the good doctor is not shown in the video. I’ll go with Whitburn and assume that Dr. John was there. In any case, it’s not the keyboard work that grabs me. And it’s not Aretha’s assured vocal that moves me most. So what does? It’s the drum work, which – if one can trust the video – came from the sticks of Bernard Purdie.

Chart Digging: What’s At No. 106?

October 6, 2011

In the midst of busyness, nothing has been planned for this space. So it’s time for Games With Numbers again. It’s October 6 – a date that all J.R.R. Tolkien obsessives will recognize as the day that Frodo was attacked under Weathertop, as I noted in a post three years ago – so I thought I would convert that to one number – No. 106 – and see what records were in that position in the Bubbling Under portion of the Billboard Hot 100 on October 6 through the years.

As we all know, just as odd, wonderful and rare creatures inhabit the deepest portions of the oceans, so do similar records sometimes swim in the Bubbling Under portions of the charts. It may be difficult to find some of the records so listed. Or we may find familiar tunes. Let’s dive and find out. I think we’ll hang around in the 1960s for this one.

Jimmy Jones was an Alabama-born R&B singer, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, who had two songs get close to the top of the chart in 1960: “Handy Man,” which went to No. 2, and “Good Timin’,” which went to No. 3. (The records reached No. 3 and No. 8, respectively, on the R&B chart.) But that was about the extent of Jones’ success. Four other singles listed by Whitburn either stalled in the lower levels of the Hot 100 or Bubbled Under. One of those was a rock ’n’ roll version of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm.” Another was the single that was sitting at No. 106 – its peak – during the first week of October 1960: “Itchin’” would be gone from the chart the next week, and after “I Told You So” went to No. 85 in early 1961, so would Jimmy Jones.

There’s an interesting bit of information on the Top Pop Singles entry on the Wanderers, an early 1960s R&B group. The Wanderers had two singles released on the Cub label in 1961, with “For Your Love” reaching No. 93 and “I’ll Never Smile Again” bubbling under at No. 107. In 1962, “There Is No Greater Love” was released on Cub and failed to reach even the lowest portion of the charts, but then, for some reason, the same track was released on MGM and it pushed a little further in the chart than had the two previous singles. A ballad with an odd introduction and an interesting arrangement, “There Is No Greater Love” was at No. 106 this week in 1962; it peaked at No. 88 and was the last chart appearance by the Wanderers.

It’s always fun to find a nifty track I’ve never heard before, and that was the case with the record that was at No. 106 during the first week of October 1964. Earlier in the year, Roger Miller had a No. 6 pop hit with “Dang Me,” a record that spent six weeks atop the country chart. In September of that year came an answer record, “Dern Ya” by Ruby Wright, who happened to be the daughter of country performers Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright. “Dern Ya” peaked at No. 103.*

The name of P.F. Sloan pops up often enough in tales and discographies from the 1960s that I should know a lot more about the man than I do. I’ve mentioned him four times over the more than four years I’ve been writing this blog: three times in connection with the Grass Roots, which he and Steve Barri created, and once as the writer of Barry McGuire’s 1965 hit, “Eve of Destruction.” Along with everything else, Sloan did have two mid-1960s singles that touched the charts. “The Sins Of A Family” was the first, a preachy attempt at raising social consciousness that was sitting at No. 106 in the Billboard chart for the week of October 9, 1965; the record would peak at No. 87. Sloan’s other chart appearance came in 1966, when “From A Distance” bubbled under for one week at No. 109.

Up to this point, our explorations of records at No. 106 have found performers without a great deal of chart success. That changes when we move ahead to 1966: Sitting at No. 106 during the week of October 6 that year was a funky instrumental called “My Sweet Potato” by Booker T & the MG’s. After the No. 3 success of “Green Onions” in 1962 (No. 1 on the R&B chart), the group – essentially the house band from Stax Records – released a series of singles that didn’t come close to reaching the same heights. “My Sweet Potato” was no different, as it peaked at No. 85 (No. 18 on the R&B chart). Eventually, between 1967 and 1969, the group got five more singles into the Top 40, two of them – “Hang ’Em High” and “Time Is Tight” – into the Top Ten. The final total for Booker T & the MG’s? Eighteen singles on the pop chart and twelves in the R&B Top 40.

I do love me some saxophone, so I was very pleased to see the title that was listed at No. 106 during the first week of October in 1968: “Harper Valley PTA” by King Curtis and the Kingpins. I’ve written about Curtis Ousley a few times and mentioned him many times here, so I don’t need to say much more except that, just as it’s fun to discover new-to-me records by new-to-me performers, it’s more fun to discover a new-to-me King Curtis track. “Harper Valley PTA” didn’t do very well in the charts, going to No. 93, but it’s a great slice of soul for a Thursday morning.

*Soon after I posted this, I learned at Any Major Dude With Half A Heart that Wright crossed over on September 27 at the age of ninety-seven. He and Wells were married October 30, 1937, and spent nearly seventy-four years together.

King Curtis Finds His Instant Groove

June 22, 2011

Originally posted April 16, 2008

I recall Rick and I passing some idle time one afternoon or evening in early 1972, pondering music, as we were wont to do. Our topic that day was trying to guess who would be the next entrants into Playboy magazine’s music hall of fame.

When I’d turned eighteen the fall before, my parents had reluctantly agreed that I was old enough to purchase and read the magazine. A family friend about that time had offered to loan me his collection of the magazines, which dated back to the mid-1960s. Being eighteen, I found diversion in every edition of the magazine (it’s useful to keep in mind that those diversions were much more sedate than many things one can encounter on the ’Net these days by simple accident), but I soon learned that two of the magazine’s monthly editions were especially intriguing: August for its pro football preview, an intelligent and comprehensive piece generally written by Anson Mount; and February, for its extensive look at pop, rock and jazz. Among the highlights of the February edition was the revelation of the new entrants into the magazine’s music hall of fame.

Just as I had recently discovered that the articles in Playboy served a purpose beyond filling the space between pictures, so had the editors of the magazine recently discovered that rock music was worthy of their attentions. When one looked at the list of those inducted into the magazine’s music hall of fame, one found the early members to be folks like Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. It was about 1969 or 1970 when the focus shifted, and those being honored were rock icons, with the first rock members of the hall being – if my memory serves me – Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

(Two asides here: First, I have been unable so far to find online a list of the members of the magazine’s hall of fame. I imagine I could find one if I subscribed to the magazine’s website, but I’ll save my shekels. Second, I believe my memory of Dylan, McCartney and Lennon as the first rock honorees is correct. If so, the magazine did a dis-service to those giants who ushered rock through the Fifties: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, maybe Jerry Lee Lewis and a few others.)

Anyway, on that quiet evening or afternoon, as some kind of music played from a stereo, Rick turned to me and asked me, “Who do you think will go into the Playboy hall of fame?’

I thought for a moment and remembered headlines from the summer before, news accounts of a murder on the streets of New York. “Maybe King Curtis,” I said, thinking that he was famous enough, he was good enough and he died tragically. Even at eighteen, I knew that a tragic death (and an early one: Curtis Ousley was only thirty-seven) enhanced a person’s image, whether that image was good or ill.

Rick nodded. “That’d be okay,” he said, and the conversation wandered to other topics.

As it turned out, the editors of Playboy ignored King Curtis in 1972. I’d wager – based on my memory of the distinctively sculptured clay busts used to illustrate the piece about the honorees – that the recently deceased Jim Morrison was inducted. My memory tells me as well that in 1971, two of the three honorees had been Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, both of whom died in 1970. So the death card worked for those three but not for King Curtis.

I have no idea if the magazine ever honored King Curtis, but it should have. Curtis probably had as much to do with the sound of early rock and roll as any of those early pioneers I mentioned above. In the Fifties, saxophone was one of the key instruments in rock and roll – the guitar was prominent but not yet primary, sharing shelf space with sax and piano – and when you talk about Fifties rock and roll saxophone, you’re talking a lot of the time about King Curtis. In The Heart of Rock and Soul, writer Dave Marsh notes, “Though his own heart may well have belonged to jazz, Curtis played his lungs and heart out on records by everybody from the Coasters to Aretha Franklin. From the first New York Coasters session in about 1956 until his murder in a 1971 street fight, King Curtis backed just about every significant horn session in New York.”

Add to that his significant career as a lead performer, and King Curtis quite likely sits on top, or at least very near the top, of the list of rock/R&B/soul saxophonists.

Another way of assessing Curtis’ value is to look at the oft-maligned Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. (I do my share of maligning; I mean, the Dave Clark Five?) Sometimes the Hall of Fame gets it right: When the Hall created the new category of sidemen in 2000, the first five inducted were drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, bassist James Jamerson, guitarist Scotty Moore and King Curtis. That’s a stellar first five, and if I had to rank them, I’d put Curtis second on the list behind Hal Blaine.

When I brought up his name in that conversation in 1972, I was only aware intellectually of Curtis’ musical talents. It was a little more than a year later that I began to truly appreciate him. As I’ve mentioned before, during my time in Denmark, one of the tapes that played constantly in the hostel’s lounge was the first Duane Allman anthology, which included King Curtis’ version of Joe South’s “Games People Play,” taken from Curtis’ 1969 album, Instant Groove.

In the next few years, I heard more King Curtis but never looked for the album, though I would likely have bought it had I come across it through serendipity. In the late 1980s and early 1990s when I became a collector, I began to look for specific albums, and King Curtis’ Instant Groove was one of them. As I dug through crates at record stores and record fairs, I kept my eyes open, but it never showed up. I found other Curtis albums, but not that one.

It’s never been released on CD, as far as I can tell. It’s not even listed in Curtis’ discography at All-Music Guide. (There is an album listed with that title, but it’s dated 1958 and has an entirely different track list. I suspect an error.) And beyond some occasional cyber-digging in the years since I came online, I’ve never looked very hard for the album. But for some reason, while I was looking last month for the Patti Dahlstrom albums and the Blue Rose album, I thought of Instant Groove. And now it’s in my stacks.

As I expected, it’s a very good album. There are no overall credits, just a note that says that Duane Allman provides guitar solos on four tracks: “Hey Jude,” “Foot Pattin’,” “Games People Play” and “The Weight.” The notes on the Duane Allman anthologies list the Muscle Shoals rhythm section as playing on the latter two tracks. Beyond that, it’s guesswork. Chips Moman, who generally worked in Memphis, is credited with production on six of the record’s twelve tracks. Others listed as producers were Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd of Atlantic, Curtis himself, and Curtis with Mardin on two tracks and with Jerry Greenberg on one track.

Highlights? “The Weight” always falls into that category for me, and the version here is pretty good. I also like Curtis’ take on “Hey Joe” and the sweet versions of “Wichita Lineman” and the rather obscure song, “La Jeanne.” There are a few too many strings on “Hey Jude” for my taste, and two tracks – Sly Stewart’s “Sing A Simple Song” and “Hold Me Tight” from the pen of Johnny Nash – don’t work quite as well as the rest of the record.

There are a few clicks and a few whispers of noise; the most notable whispers come at the start of “The Weight,” which leads off the second side of the record. I don’t think they’re bad enough to interfere. If they are, one can always substitute from the first Duane Allman anthology, which is easy to find.

Instant Groove
Hey Joe
Foot Pattin’
Wichita Lineman
Games People Play
Sing A Simple Song
The Weight
La Jeanne
Little Green Apples
Hold Me Tight
Hey Jude

King Curtis – Instant Groove [1969]

‘Goin’ Where The Weather Suits My Clothes . . .’

December 16, 2010

Having listened to – and shared here – King Curtis’ version of “Them Changes” during Tuesday morning’s musings on impermanence, I went on to have a King Curtis mini-festival here in the Echoes In The Wind studios that afternoon. As I worked on mp3 tags, sorted slides from my college days, did some reading and caught up with at least one old friend at Facebook, Curtis Ousley’s saxophone kept me company.

And midway through the afternoon, a semi-familiar introductory riff caught my attention. “That sounds like . . .” I had time to think before Curtis launched into the familiar melody of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the song that was used as a theme for the 1969 movie Midnight Cowboy. I left what I was reading and began to dig into the song.

It wasn’t hard labor, the digging. As I recalled, the song was originally written and recorded by the reclusive Fred Neil during the sessions for his second, self-titled, album, which came out in 1967. Wikipedia says the song “was composed towards the end of the session, after Neil had become anxious to wrap the album so he could return to his home in Miami, Florida. Manager Herb Cohen promised that if Neil wrote and recorded a final track, he could go. ‘Everybody’s Talkin’,’ recorded in one take, was the result.”

A year later, Harry Nilsson recorded the song for his Aerial Ballet album. Soon after that, according to Wikipedia, Derek Taylor (perhaps best known for his role as press officer for the Beatles) recommended Nilsson for soundtrack work on John Schlesinger’s film, Midnight Cowboy. Nilsson, says Wikipedia, offered his own tune, “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City,” but Schlesinger preferred Nilsson’s cover of Neil’s tune. A couple of shorter versions of the tune show up in the film’s soundtrack, nestled among work by John Barry and recordings by the Groop, Leslie Miller, Gary Sherman and Elephant’s Memory (the latter far better known for its work backing John Lennon on his 1972 album, Some Time In New York City).

And with the release of the film, Nilsson had a hit. I think the version of “Everybody’s Talkin’” that hit the Top 40 in September 1969 and went to No. 6 was the track from Aerial Ballet. Or maybe I should rephrase that and say that the version of “Everybody’s Talkin’” that has been played on radio for most of the last forty years is the Aerial Ballet version. It’s possible, I suppose, that the version from the film – which sounds different to me and is shorter – was released as the single and that oldies radio later pulled a switch. I don’t think that’s the case, though. I think Nilsson’s first recording of the tune was what hit the airwaves:

Since then, the song has become a perennial, one of those tunes that gets covered over and over. Early on, royalties from the song were plentiful enough to allow Neil to retire from songwriting and performing and live quietly in the Florida Keys. (I recall reading somewhere – perhaps one of the Rolling Stone record guides – that Neil was involved in researching dolphin behavior and preservation, an interesting tidbit considering he wrote the lovely song “The Dolphins.”) Neil died in 2001.

Cover versions of “Everybody’s Talkin’” abound. The list at All-Music Guide of CDs that contain versions of the song runs more than six hundred entries long. Some of the performers listed are Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Diamond, Ruth Brown, Johnny Mathis, the Four Tops, Willie Nelson, Ray Conniff, Bill Withers, Vikki Carr, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Claudine Longet, Vera Lynn and the Kingston Trio, among many, many more.

Perhaps the strangest cover of the song came out on one of the strangest albums of 1970, which is saying a lot. Ted Templeman, an original member of Harpers Bizarre and later one of the best-known producers in rock and pop, recorded an album, says Wikipedia, that “is now considered a cult classic. Using doubletracking, he appeared as ‘The Templeton Twins’ backed by ‘Teddy Turner & his Bunsen Burners,’ recording contemporary hits of the time such as ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Light My Fire’ in a pseudo-1920s style.”

Among those tunes was “Everybody’s Talkin’,” and here is that version:

And having gone through that (infectious) silliness, we should probably end this exercise where we began it, with King Curtis and the title tune from his 1971 album.

Watching Change Through My Window

December 14, 2010

Since long before we moved here – for about forty years, I’d guess – the St. Cloud American Legion club has stood across the street from our house, its orange-red siding either glowing in the sun or providing a ruddy contrast to the greys and whites of rain and snow.

As I look out my study window this morning, it appears the building will be gone by this evening, maybe even sooner. A backhoe showed up on the parking lot Friday, before the blizzard came through, and yesterday, with the snow cleared, the preliminary work began. This morning, the backhoe – mindful to me of some prehistoric creature in the way it moves – is chewing at the empty shell of the Legion post, shaking huge sheets of metal in its jaws, then tossing those sheets aside and returning to the hulk of the building for another bite.

The building’s been empty for a while, maybe two years, ever since the local American Legion post decided that it could no longer afford to operate the club the building housed. Opened, I think, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the post’s club was once the hub of social activity for veterans of the two World Wars and the Korean War. It was, it seemed from the outside, a good place for veterans of those long-gone wars and their friends to have a few beers, remember good (and not so good) times and grouse about the way the world had changed.

I was never in the Legion Post building very often. I have vague memories of a 1970s wedding reception there, although I can’t come close to telling you whose wedding it was. And my dad – even though he was a member of the American Legion – was for some reason more inclined to tip a beer or have a sandwich at the nearby East Side post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars than at the Legion.

Years ago, in Monticello, everyone was welcome at the Legion Club, whether you were a member or not. I spent several pleasant evenings there during my years in Monti. But that might just be the way things are in small towns; Monticello had about three thousand folks in those years, while St. Cloud is somewhere north of sixty thousand right now. And here in St. Cloud, it’s my sense that non-members didn’t show up at the Legion unless they were with a member. Whether that was by rule or convention, I’m not sure. Nor am I sure if the same rule or convention applies to the two VFW posts in town, although they seem to be thriving.

But whether enforced or implicit, it always seemed to me that nonmembers didn’t make their ways on their own to the red-sided club just off Lincoln Avenue. And the Legion’s loyal membership got older and older: Veterans of the Vietnam Era, many of whom – from what I’ve heard – were accepted less than graciously into membership by the veterans of earlier wars, are themselves in their fifties and sixties now. And it seems likely that even if all currently eligible veterans joined the post and were active, there would be far fewer members than there were in the 1960s and 1970s, when the veterans of the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam were numerous. So with the customer base dwindling, costs rising and revenue falling, the Legion post made the decision a couple of years ago to close the club (although the post itself remains in existence).

I have no idea what will happen to the site. On another portion of what was the American Legion’s property, there has already been constructed a multi-unit home for chronic alcoholics. I imagine there are plans already for what will soon be a vacant space where the club building once stood.

I’m not sad as I watch the building come down, but I am somehow uneasy. Part of that, I’m sure, is that whatever comes next will be right across the street from our home. Part of that unease, too, probably stems from an almost inevitable reaction to change. But I tell myself that anything – including a city – that does not change is already dead. On that score, St. Cloud – especially the East Side, where the Legion Club is just one of several notable buildings to fall recently to a backhoe and someone’s plans – is still vital. And that’s good.

That still does not alter the fact that for the thousands of folks who over the years found the Legion Club a refuge on a Friday or Saturday evening, there will be an empty spot where that refuge once stood. And that just underlines the fact that as good and necessary as change can sometimes be, change can also be hard.

And here’s an appropriate tune for the day, “Them Changes” by King Curtis, live at the Fillmore West in 1971.

Saturday Single No. 173

February 13, 2010

It’s already early afternoon, giving me a far later start than usual on a Saturday post. But I’ve been out of touch. My computer picked up a nasty piece of malware late Thursday afternoon. When it happened, I checked with Dale the computer guy, and he gave me a few suggestions that he said might solve the problem although he wasn’t optimistic.

He was right not to be. After messing around with the machine most of Thursday evening, I gave up, and the next morning, I took it to Dale over on Wilson Avenue. I got it back this afternoon. The malware is gone, and a few other minor problems have been resolved. There are a few nagging things, though, for which he couldn’t find an easy fix. That means that the time will come when I have to get a new computer. It makes sense: This one is about five years old, which means it’s as outdated as a 1971 Plymouth Duster. (I drove a Duster for a few months in 1978. It was the worst car I’ve ever had.)

When the time comes for that new computer, I’ll have to decide between a desktop and a laptop. And I’m not sure what I’ll decide, although I am aware that fewer and fewer desktops are available; the future evidently belongs to the laptop. (Or maybe to the iPad and things like it.) The Texas Gal has a laptop and loves it.

I have a few practical concerns about the laptops. For one, I dislike – greatly – the flat keyboard. (I’ve been told there are laptops with graduated keyboards, so we’ll see.) I also dislike moving the cursor around with my finger, but I know one can always add a mouse if one wants. But beyond those practical concerns, I have – for reasons I cannot fathom – a visceral antipathy toward laptops. It’s odd and, for now, inexplicable, but it’s very real and very strong: I do not like them.

Why? As I said, it’s inexplicable at the moment. I’ve tried to figure out why that feeling lies there inside me like a hard lump, but the reason escapes me. Maybe by the time I get a new computer, I’ll feel differently, or at least know why I feel the way I do. Maybe if I use a laptop for a while, that feeling will fade.

But for now, it’s there. I suppose it could be simple dislike of change. I doubt it, as I’ve generally been pretty interested in technological advances over the years. But if that should be the case, here’s a good tune with a suitable title, and it’s today’s Saturday Single:

“Them Changes” by King Curtis at the Fillmore West, San Francisco, March 5, 1971

(Alternate version from the 2006 CD King Curtis Live at Fillmore West.)

– whiteray