Posts Tagged ‘Spencer Wiggins’

Recalling The Year Of No Crayons

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 30, 2008

I saw the first back-to-school ads in the paper the other week, and we got the first ad supplements in the mail this week. As with every other annual event that carries commercial weight, the back-to-school season begins earlier every year.

Never having had kids, I’ve never had to deal with back-to-school from the parents’ side of the aisle, but I recall coming home from the first day of school from, oh, third grade onward and being quizzed on what it was I would need to survive the scholastic rigors of the school year ahead.

And as soon as dinner was over, my folks, my sister and I would get in the car, head across the river to downtown and walk along with what seemed like hundreds of students and parents to Dan Marsh Drug. We’d find notebooks and pens and pencils, struggling through crowds to get them. Mom and Dad would look over our choices and check them against the lists we’d made that day in school.

(As I understand it, schools these days mail lists of required supplies to students’ homes during the summer. I imagine that makes the first day of school a day with one less chore to accomplish, if teachers no longer have to spend time listing required supplies. And it most likely lessens the madness in the stores: If parents and students have some weeks before the start of school to acquire supplies, then there’s no need for the first-night-of-school mania that I saw many autumns at the drug store. But it also takes away from the student the responsibility of listening during that first day of school to make certain that the list he or she brings home contains everything he or she will need during the year.)

One of the highlights of school shopping during elementary years was the selection of the new box of crayons for the new school year. Most years, my folks were firm that twenty-four crayons provided my sister and me with enough colors to accomplish any art project that might be required. During my later years of elementary school, I looked longingly at the larger sets of crayons. Never mind that I was an indifferent artist, one whose life as well as his art was defined by coloring outside the lines. The thought of all those new colors fascinated me.

My birthday falls in early September, and as I entered sixth grade in 1964, one of my gifts was a canister with forty-eight crayons. I remember the gold crayon and the silver one. There was periwinkle and brick and slate, spring green, sienna and burnt umber. I enjoyed the names for the colors almost as much as the crayons themselves. (That holds true today; I find the art/science of naming paints and fabrics fascinating, an interest that was augmented in 1964, when Dad bought a new car. I remember being captivated by the fact that a car somehow became more desirable when one said that its color wasn’t light brown but was in fact chantilly beige.)

A year later, I entered seventh grade, a move that brought lots of changes. I’d ride a bus to school for the first time, I’d move from classroom to classroom during the day, keeping my things in a locker, and I’d have to shower after phy. ed. And I was no longer required to bring a box of crayons to school. Whatever supplies I needed for projects in art class would be provided, and crayons would not be among them.

As points of passage go, it’s a small one, I guess. It’s nothing as important as a first kiss or a first driver’s license or a first beer. But I noticed it, and although I probably didn’t say anything to anyone, it felt to me like one tiny step on the pathway from kid to adult.

And here’s a random set of songs from the year I didn’t need crayons. Some of them I most likely heard; most I probably didn’t.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1965, Vol. 2
“Just Like Tom Thumbs’ Blues” by Gordon Lightfoot, United Artists single 929

“I’ll Be True To You” by Spencer Wiggins, Goldwax single 118

“Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan from Bringing It All Back Home

“Wernher von Braun” by Tom Lehrer from That Was The Year That Was

“Now The Sun Has Gone” by the Beatmen, Pye single 7N15792 (UK)

“007” by David Lloyd & His Orchestra from Sounds For A Secret Agent

“Tired of Waiting For You” by the Kinks, Reprise single 0347

“You’re Going To Lose That Girl” by the Beatles from Help!

“Wang Dang Doodle” by Koko Taylor, Checker single 1135

“Don’t Ask Me” by the Staccatos from Come Back Silly Girl

“Lara’s Theme” by Maurice Jarre from the soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago

“Respect” by Otis Redding, Volt single 128

“It Was A Very Good Year” by Frank Sinatra, Reprise single 0429

A few notes:

Gordon Lightfoot’s take on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” has to be one of the first cover versions of Bob Dylan’s surreal tale of Juarez, Housing Project Hill, Sweet Melinda and all the rest. The arrangement is interesting, and Lightfoot does a pretty good job with it.

Spencer Wiggins’ name and work has popped up here before. A good singer who hailed from Memphis (and went to high school with, among others, Booker T. Jones and William Bell), Wiggins recorded for many years, most often for Goldwax, but never really made a dent in the public awareness. His work for Goldwax was collected and released in 2006 by Britain’s Kent label.

“Wernher von Braun” is one of the tracks from That Was The Year That Was, a live comedy album by Tom Lehrer, who was one of the most on-target satirists of the mid-1960s. Von Braun – whom I met once after he gave a talk at St. Cloud State – was one of the German scientists who designed the first workable rockets during World War II, rockets that were used late in the war to attack London. After the war, von Braun was brought to the U.S. and was one of the chief scientists in the Apollo program that put men on the moon. Lehrer’s song is witty, his audience liked it in 1965, and he makes a point worth pondering: Von Braun’s conduct was open to criticism; his work for Nazi Germany resulted in death and damage in England, and there’s clear evidence that much of that work in Germany was accomplished with the use of slave labor.

This version of “007” from the James Bond films comes from an album mentioned here some time ago. David Lloyd jumped on the Bondwagon in 1965 by recording not only the themes to the three James Bond films already released but by also recording themes for the books not yet turned into films. The record was one of four Bond-related albums I collected in 1964 and 1965, and it may be my favorite of them all.

I’m not sure what a “Wang Dang Doodle” is, but you ought to give Koko Taylor’s song a listen. Taylor takes her listeners through a cityscape peopled by characters that sound as if they came from Bob Dylan’s notebook as interpreted by Howlin’ Wolf. The song actually came from the pen of Willie Dixon, bass player on many Checker and Chess releases and one of the most important writers in blues history.

Otis Redding wrote “Respect” and had a minor hit with the record (No. 35 in late 1965), but of course, the song was pretty much taken away from him by Aretha Franklin and her titanic version two years later. But it’s always good to go back and take a listen to the original, of course.

There are plenty of sad songs out there, always have been and always will be. But few of them are as melancholy as Frank Sinatra’s “It Was A Very Good Year,” which was written by Ervin Drake. Even though the narrator claims that all is well, the fact is: All the wine is gone. And Sinatra nails the song. To me, it’s one of the best performances of his long career.

A Baker’s Dozen Of Power

June 28, 2011

Originally posted May 19, 2008

I don’t play a lot of games on the computer. The Texas Gal and I – when she was still in Texas – used to go into the Yahoo! or Microsoft game sites and play spades and cribbage. We haven’t done that for a while, probably because the computers on which we would play are in adjacent rooms.

She plays more games than I do – I often hear beeps, whistles, gongs and other sounds coming from her precincts while I’m downloading something or wandering blogs or trying to learn the label and catalog number of an obscure 1969 single. I do have a few games. I played Sim City a lot soon after I got my first computer, and right now, I’ve got Sim City 4. I enjoy it, but I don’t play it as much as I used to.

I have a similar game called Pharaoh, about building a civilization in ancient Egypt. I’ve played it a couple of times, but I can never seem to get my little village’s residents to do anything but wander around in the mud of the Nile Delta. It makes some sense, I guess. For every imperial city, for every Memphis of the pharaohs, there had to be hundreds of little villages where the biggest event of the week was catching enough fish for lunch. I’ve about given up on my villagers, which – if they had any awareness at all – would likely be a relief for them.

My new game – the result of spending a couple of hours Saturday morning wandering through a few garage sales – is Civilization: Call to Power. According to the book that came with the disc, I’m supposed to be able to build an empire and thrive in competition with other empires, through war or trade or a combination of those two and other things I have not yet read about.

It looked interesting, so I grabbed the game for a very low price. I’ve heard of the series before, of course; my friend Rob had played other games in the Civilization series and says it’s possible to get very involved in them for hours at a time. Well, we’ll see. I loaded the game and opened the tutorial, which is set in the Italian peninsula. I got Rome built and then Pompeii, but I couldn’t seem to get much done after that, except send soldiers tramping over the same bits of land. As far as I could see, no one caught any fish. But I’ll keep trying. And as the game’s subtitle is Call to Power, I thought we’d see what we find in an appropriate Baker’s Dozen.

A Baker’s Dozen of Power
“Blues Power” by Koko Taylor from Blues Power, 1999

“Power of Love” by Bobby Whitlock & CoCo Carmel from Lovers, 2007

“Power of Two” by the Indigo Girls from Swamp Ophelia, 1994

“The Power of a Woman” by Spencer Wiggins, Goldwax single 330, 1967

“Power Of My Love” by Elvis Presley from From Elvis in Memphis, 1969

“Power in Music” by Maria Muldaur from Meet Me At Midnite, 1994

“Power to the People” by John Lennon, Apple single 1830, 1971

“Love Power” by Dusty Springfield from Dusty . . . Definitely, 1968

“High Powered Love” by Emmylou Harris from Cowgirl’s Prayer, 1993

“Zero Willpower” by Dan Penn from Do Right Man, 1994

“(For God’s Sake) Give More Power To The People” by the Chi-Lites, Brunswick single 55450, 1971

“Full-Lock Power Slide” by Boz Scaggs from My Time, 1972

“The Power Lines” by Nanci Griffith from Late Night Grande Hotel, 1991

A few notes:

The Koko Taylor track come from an Eric Clapton tribute, covers of his songs performed by blues artists. First released on the House of Blues label in 1999, the album has been re-titled several times. The most recent title seems to be Songs of Eric Clapton: All Bluesed Up! Taylor is one of two women on the album, and her version of “Blues Power” is reasonably good. The other woman is Ann Peebles, whose performance of “Tears in Heaven” is a revelation. Of the other tracks, maybe the most interesting, mostly on historical terms, is by Honeyboy Edwards, who gets from help from harp master James Cotton as he runs through the song that Clapton borrowed from his old friend Robert Johnson: “Crossroads.”

Even after almost twenty years of listening to their melodies, their lyrics, their vocals and their instrumentals, I’m blown away by the Indigo Girls almost every time I hear them. There are a few albums that sounded like missteps to me, but Swamp Ophelia isn’t one of them.

As All-Music Guide notes, “Spencer Wiggins had the poor fortune of being a great soul singer in a place where and at a time when there were more than enough of those to go around — namely Memphis . . . during the mid-’60s when Stax Records was the biggest name in town, Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records was on the rise, and Atlantic had practically made the town its second home.” But Wiggins’ work – mostly for Goldwax – was good listening, even if he didn’t have the pop chart success that many of his contemporaries did. I found “The Power of a Woman” on The Goldwax Years, a collection of twenty-two of Wiggins’ best performances that Kent released a couple of years ago.

Maria Muldaur’s been around for a long time, but I think her work has been widely ignored for a long time, too, especially by those who think that “Midnight at the Oasis” – her 1974 hit – defines her music. As catchy as the single was – and I liked it plenty – Muldaur’s music almost always had more to do with roots and Americana than pop, from her work with then-husband Geoff in the mid-Sixties through her albums of the mid-Seventies (including Maria Muldaur, the source of “Oasis,” which was an anomaly on the album just as it is in her career) and on into some great albums in the Nineties and this decade. Meet Me At Midnite is an excursion into the music of Memphis, and well worth a listen. (I’ll be writing more about Muldaur in the next couple weeks, I think.)

The name of Dan Penn might be the least well-known of the performers on this list, but since the mid-Sixties, Penn has been one of the great songwriters in American music. First in Memphis and later in Muscle Shoals, Penn – along with his writing partners, Spooner Oldham and Chips Moman – spent the 1960s and 1970s crafting songs that any fan of soul and R&B recognizes in an instant: “Do Right Woman,” “Dark End of the Street,” “A Woman Left Lonely,” “I’m Your Puppet” and many more. Do Right Man is Penn’s stab at recording his own versions of ten of those songs; with help from friends at Muscle Shoals and from Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns, he does a pretty good job.

The Chi-Lites are remembered mostly as a sweet-sounding vocal group from Chicago whose love songs did pretty well going head-to-head with the similar sounds coming out of Philadelphia at the time. It might be somewhat surprising, then, to realize that “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power To The People,” with its eerie opening synthesizer and its sociological rhetoric, was the group’s first Top 40 hit, going to No. 26 in the spring of 1971. Five months later, “Have You Seen Her” went to No. 3, and the Chi-Lites became a soft soul group. Too bad.

A Baker’s Dozen From 1967

April 20, 2011

Originally posted May 11, 2007

Every once in a while, some of the music bloggers whose work I read – and I read far more than the few that are linked here – talk about the influences on their music listening. And among the chief influences for many of us, it seems, are older siblings. They brought records home and played them, and we younger sibs heard the music on a regular basis. We may not have always liked it, but eventually, that music – and I’ve read this on many a blog – becomes part of the soundtrack of the younger sib’s life and is cherished as such.

The Texas Gal says she can easily trace some of her preferences to her older sisters, who are ten and five years older than she. And I can trace some of mine to my sister, who is three years older than I. It wasn’t that she bought a lot of music. I don’t think listening to records was ever as large a part of my sister’s life as it became in mine. I do recall her on occasion in the early to mid-1960s spending a relative pittance for a grab bag of ten or so 45s; you usually got one or two hits and lot of misses in those bags.

(All the 45s in the house of our youth eventually came to me, and I think those grab bags were the sources of my copies of Lesley Gore’s  “It’s My Party,” Chubby Checker’s “Limbo Rock” and a few other well-known songs. On the other hand, one of those grab bags also provided “You’d Better Keep Runnin’” by Frank Gari. Who? Exactly.)

It was my sister’s albums, however, that became part of my soundtrack. Again, she didn’t have a lot of them, but I heard those she did have as she played them and then when I played them during my senior year of high school and my first year of college. That next summer, she got married and took her records away with her. I’ve found most of them over the years since, on vinyl mostly, and now a few on CD: Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, Judy Collins’ Wildflowers, Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat, a unique record titled Traditional Jewish Memories and more. The one record I’ve missed from her collection and have not been able to find is John Denver’s Whose Garden Was This, but only this week, an on-line friend provided me with the album in mp3 format, so I at least have the music.*

But the two records of my sister’s that I likely played most often were two by Glenn Yarbrough, given to her by a boyfriend. They were The Lonely Things, which is a collection of Rod McKuen songs, and For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her, a 1967 album on which Yarbrough covers current folk and folk-rock tunes. I have a CD of the latter album, and I love it still. But it does remind me of the first time that I recall my life colliding with adult realities.

My sister spent a portion of the summer of 1968 studying in France. About midway through her absence, that boyfriend stopped by and took me out for a Coke. As we sat, he told me that when my sister came home, he would not be in town. He and a buddy had joined the Army, and he asked me to inform my sister of that when she came home from France. I was not quite fifteen, and here was this young man – whom I liked very much – entrusting me with such an important task, such an unhappy message. I don’t recall when I told my sister, or how I told her, but I imagine I did it quite artlessly.

(Within a year, the boyfriend came home from Vietnam badly wounded, and his role as my sister’s boyfriend ended sometime after that. His buddy died in Vietnam, one of fourteen men from St. Cloud to die there. Sometime in this past year, I saw in our local paper that the former boyfriend had passed away. I called my sister and told her; she was glad I did.)

Anyway, today’s Baker’s Dozen is from 1967, and it starts with “Crucifixion,” the closer to one of those Glen Yarbrough records, a song that always makes me think of a message delivered in 1968.

“Crucifixion” by Glenn Yarbrough from For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her

“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” by Cannonball Adderly, Capitol single 5798

“Shake ’Em On Down” by Mississippi Fred McDowell from Mama Says I’m Crazy

“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” by the Buckinghams, Columbia single 44182

“People Are Strange” by the Doors from Strange Days

“To Sir With Love” by Lulu, Epic single 10187

“Red Balloon” by Tim Hardin from Tim Hardin 2

“Smokestack Lightning” by John Hammond from I Can Tell

“Rollin’ & Tumblin’” by Canned Heat from Canned Heat

“Sit Down I Think I Love You” by Buffalo Springfield from Buffalo Springfield

“Lonely Man” by Spencer Wiggins, Goldwax single 330

“This Wheel’s On Fire” by Bob Dylan & The Band from The Basement Tapes

“Statesboro Blues” by the Youngbloods from The Youngbloods

A few notes on some of the songs:

“Crucifixion” was written by Phil Ochs, one of the leading talents of the protest-song era in the early 1960s. Supposedly a parable of assassination, it’s a frightening tale that asks, of course: Do we ever really learn anything? I fear I know what the answer is. Ochs’ version, on his Pleasures of the Harbor album, is good, but probably because of familiarity, I prefer Yarbrough’s take.

It struck me as funny that both hit versions of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” popped up on the RealPlayer. At least it shows that it truly is a random selection.

Mississippi Fred McDowell – who actually was from Tennessee, and who knows how that happened? – was one of the rarities of the blues boom of the early 1960s: a performer of traditional music who had not been recorded during the 1920s and 1930s. His stuff was new and vibrant when he was discovered working on his farm in the 1960s. He was also a rarity in that he at times played electric guitar, a fact that severely displeased some blues purists.

John Hammond is actually John Hammond, Jr., the son of the legendary talent scout and executive for Columbia Records. Hammond’s album I Can Tell was recorded at Muscle Shoals with the backing of the famed sessions musicians there. Also lending a hand on the record – though not necessarily on “Smokestack Lightning” – were Duane Allman and Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson of The Band.

Spencer Wiggins was a Memphis native who recorded a series of powerful deep soul singles during the 1960s but never got the hit – and the attention – he deserved. Much of his work is available on CD and is well worth seeking out.

As always, bit rates will vary. Enjoy!

*I was in error here. There was a fairly good copy of Whose Garden Was This sitting in the stacks as I wrote, but I either didn’t check the stacks or it was misfiled. In any event, it was nice to get the digital files without having to go through the minor drudgery of ripping the album myself. [Note added April 20, 2011.]