Posts Tagged ‘Marvin Gaye’

The Complete Motown Singles, 1959-1972
Various artists
2005-2013

In 2005, Universal (which owns Motown) began re-releasing every Motown single ever made. Volume 1 covered 1959-1961. The end of the series, volumes 12A and B, covered 1972. These 14 years set loose a tidal wave of 2,000 songs. When I heard about this, I was STOKED.

Sadly, most of the songs I swam through in this series are not good. For every famous track by Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes, and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles there’s a Who’s Who of the ignored and the unknown. There are also plenty of lackluster tracks by Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, etc. Some of those songs didn’t deserve obscurity (Barrett Strong’s “Money”), but most are right at home in that unlit cul de sac.

The first couple of volumes of this series are interesting in that they show how Motown founder Berry Gordy was willing to try anything to produce a hit song. (Even surf.) AllMusic.com opines that hearing the classics alongside the not-so-classics helps us to hear the former in their original context and appreciate them anew.

But the boys (it’s mostly boys) writing for AllMusic.com are nerds who are still living in their parents’ basement. They have nothing better to do than listen to 2,000 songs, most of which had the staying power of a Republican governor running for president, and argue over bass lines, back-up singers, and catalog numbers.

What I discovered with these comps, each of which has about 150 songs, is that I only have so much time left on this planet. I tried listening with deep attention, but it would take me months to digest 150 songs, and anyway I have to go to work in the morning. I started clicking Skip after 30 seconds or a minute of something that struck me as uninspired or derivative so I could wade ashore at last with a good song. And you know what? I appreciate the classics just fine!

I don’t want to skip 15 forgotten tracks to get to “Indiana Wants Me,” then do it all over again for “Ball of Confusion” and “War” (which I did with the 1970 edition). Sure, “Indiana Wants Me” is above average, but in this crowd it’s a towering inferno!

Today’s lesson: Producing a hit record is harder than Chinese algebra.

Any one of these volumes is worth a chunk of your time. They’re like your own personal radio station. Except if you owned this station, you’d yell at the program manager, “You’re fired!” Sad.

Random Pick of the Day, barely
Various artists, Blue Note Salutes Motown (1998)
Twelve Motown classics redone by a major-league lineup of jazz musicians. The results are mostly quiet…too quiet. The voltage meter jumps modestly with guitarist Earl Klugh’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” However, the female chorus tells us three times that they heard it “on” the grapevine. If you can’t get something as simple as a preposition right, I suggest you go back to your seat and study. Another guitarist, Charlie Hunter, tries to get his arms around “You Keep Me Hanging On.” He manages to let all the anxiety out of the song, plus he gets upstaged by the vibes player.

There are two tracks I can recommend, both originally from Marvin Gaye. The first is organist John Patton’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” (which is so good that Blue Note should salute John Patton). The second is “What’s Going On,” which belongs to the sax player, Adam Kolkers.

Two tracks aren’t much out of 12, but these two are good enough that I’m keeping the disc.

(Shot of redemption: This isn’t Motown, but Charlie Hunter triumphs with his cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” on his 1995 album, Bing Bing Bing!)

 

There were three men in the beginning of the 1970s who had the firepower to compete with Marvin Gaye: Al Green, Donny Hathaway, and Bill Withers. (At the end of the decade there was also Teddy Pendergrass, but I’m still trying to finish the beginning of the decade.)

These gentlemen were at their peak in the years 1970 through ’73, when I was in high school. (Pendergrass was at his peak when I was in disco.) Despite a few not-too-positive comments (what is this blog without not-too-positive comments), it was a pleasure to spend an entire day with them so I could write this post.

Al Green
My problem with Al Green is that his music follows an arc from make-out songs to soft rock to Jesus. But Green had a run of excellent discs in the early ’70s starting with Al Green Gets Next to You (1971). The big hit was “Tired of Being Alone.” The big flaw was “Light My Fire.” Sadly, there is nothing flammable about Green’s version.

Let’s Stay Together (1972) features the deservedly-popular title track, of course, but also a stunning reclamation project: Green’s cover of The Bee-Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” Making something this artful out of something that awful must’ve been like making drinking water out of the Dead Sea.

I’m Still in Love with You (1972) includes my favorite, “Love and Happiness,” where Green lets the first 34 seconds go by before he even thinks about singing. There’s also a terrific version of “Oh Pretty Woman.” The soft rock seeps in with Call Me (1973), but Call Me also has “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” so I still rate it as a Buy.

Donny Hathaway
The late Mr. Hathaway had a voice from a galaxy far, far away. His duets with Roberta Flack were popular (Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, 1972). But I never liked his material; I thought his voice was better suited for Broadway or even opera.

I was sleepwalking through his debut, Everything Is Everything (1970), which is pleasant, when “The Ghetto” came on. That was like stepping on the third rail. This is a true lost classic of the ’70s, a song the teenaged me only heard on the underground radio stations in Boston. I’d completely forgotten it. What a gift to have it returned.

However, I suspect I like “The Ghetto” because there’s not much singing on this track.

Bill Withers
Here’s the formula for making unfair judgments about Bill Withers’ albums:

1. The album covers all feature photos of Withers.
2. As his clothes improve, his music does not.

My favorite Withers record is his first, Just As I Am (1971). What an easy-going man…an easy-going man who can get to the core of an incident or an entire life in two minutes. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which I know you love as much as I do, lasts two minutes. His tribute to his grandmother, “Grandma’s Hands,” is two minutes.

Give him another 30 seconds and you get his hair-raising cover of “Let It Be.” And when he decides to stretch out a bit and use three or even four minutes, he gives us “Harlem,” a rocker, and “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” a fresh look at an old subject.

Withers closes Just As I Am with “Better Off Dead,” a song about an alcoholic. Devastation.

His second album, Still Bill (1972), features “Lean on Me” and “Use Me,” but also “Another Day to Run” and the funky and adult “Lonely Town, Lonely Street,” “Take It All In and Check It All Out,” and “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?”

Withers’ third effort, Live At Carnegie Hall, marks the end of the great Withers records. (Yes, I know that he still has “Lovely Day” coming up in a few years, but he cancels that out with the sticky-sweet “Just the Two of Us.”) Live At Carnegie Hall opens with eight minutes of “Use Me” and includes a “Grandma’s Hands” that’ll grab ya by the throat.

Bill Withers is sad. Al Green understands sad but isn’t. Donny Hathaway was seamless.

Random Pick of the Day
Lou Rawls, Live! (1966)
Lou Rawls sang like another Nat King Cole but with human flaws. Rawls is best known for “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” a planetary phenomenon in 1976.

To my ears, all of Rawls’ interesting recordings are from the 1960s. This disqualifies him from any further discussion in my survey of black music of the ’70s, but I couldn’t let this album go unheralded. It was a very different, at times ferocious man who recorded these songs: “Tobacco Road,” “Stormy Monday,” and “I Got It Bad (and that Ain’t Good).” Even old-timers such as “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “The Girl From Ipanema” sound new here.

As much as I like Al Green and Bill Withers and sort of like Donny Hathaway, I find the women of the ’70s to be much more diverse and interesting than the men. Next up in the black music of the ’70s series: Stand by for…Diva Week!

 

I regret that I mostly missed Marvin Gaye while Marvin Gaye was happening. When I was a teenager I was into What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, but being a teenager, much of the meaning of these songs flew right past me. I was probably distracted by Deep Purple.

Mainstream radio of that era didn’t help. Mainstream radio of our era still doesn’t help. In the Oldies format, Gaye’s presence is limited to a few songs from those two albums from 1971 and ’73. Nothing else exists. Thanks to the Internet, I constantly find songs and even entire bands that I missed when I was growing up or even from 10 years ago. OK, 10 years ago I was still growing up.

Enough editorializing. If I had to carve a Mt. Rushmore of black music of the ’70s, the first two figures I’d choose would be Gaye and Stevie Wonder. (The other two might be Diana Ross and George Clinton.) Today, rather than try to sum up Gaye’s career in a blog post (that would be like trying to dust Mt. Rushmore over the weekend), I’m going to give you my 1970s buyer’s guide.

What’s Going On (1971)
How likely was it that Marvin Gaye would record What’s Going On after spending the ’60s crooning like a sexier Nat King Cole? About as likely as Nat King Cole waking up one day and recording Highway 61 Revisited.

Gaye spent the last three years of the ’60s wondering what he should do with his life and his art. His favorite duet partner had died (more on that in a moment), his brother had returned from Vietnam haunted by his experiences, and of course there was the continuing everyday uproar of protests, riots, assassinations, and instances of police brutality – pretty much everything we have today. Gaye became so tired of singing and writing the same old stuff that he even considered playing football as a new career.

Instead, Gaye recorded a song, “What’s Going On.” Motown was sure it would flop. “What’s Going On” broke out of the soul charts and hit #2 on the main Billboard chart. “What’s Going On” consistently ranks fourth on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Here’s the top five from the 2011 Rolling Stone list:

1 Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”
2 The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
3 John Lennon, “Imagine”
4 Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”
5 Arthea Franklin, “Respect”

Gaye used “What’s Going On” as a lever to pry complete creative control out of Motown. Then he went into the studio and in 10 days recorded this album. He had to fight the label to get them to release it. He had to fight them to keep the ? out of the title. But the result was a milestone of 20th-century popular music (Rolling Stone ranks it sixth on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums) and the first Motown album that wasn’t made up of a couple of hits and a stack of unrelated filler.

The Rolling Stone top six, as of 2012:

1 The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
2 The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
3 The Beatles, Revolver
4 Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
5 The Beatles, Rubber Soul
6 Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On

What astonishes me about this disc is that there are only three songs of the nine that reward repeated plays: the title, “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” The other six are too earnest, or too religious, or too earnest and religious, or too experimental – jazz meets folk meets Sunday-morning hyms.

These six songs follow the general theme of social commentary. They’re played and sung with enormous feeling and talent. But as you might expect from something recorded this quickly, they’re all over the map. A couple of tracks seem like Gaye making notes to himself.

And yet that doesn’t matter because the holy trio is so so SO good. I have never grown tired of a single note in the three of them. (Though I will say that Motown did a fantastic job in condensing them for radio play; the 45 versions are better. Motown really was Hitsville USA.) “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” is one of the most mesmerizing songs I know; it rises around you like a tide on a planet with a bigger moon.

If I had to choose the best pop album of the ’70s, my top two candidates would be this one and Born to Run.

Trouble Man (1972)

Diana & Marvin (1973)
I’m not into duets, possibly because Hall & Oates poisoned that well when I was young. Or maybe it was Donny & Marie. Diana Ross is the best singer Marvin Gaye was ever paired with, and they sing like they’re running the tollbooth outside of heaven, but most of this stuff sounds like soft rock. The best-known track is the first, “You Are Everything.” The closest to that ’60s soul sound are “Just Say, Just Say” and “Stop, Look, Listen (to Your Heart).” “My Mistake Was to Love You” is a dead ringer for “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”!

If you enjoy duets, I suggest you fall back to 1967 and Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s United, which features two Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson classics, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love.”

Let’s Get It On (1973)
What’s Going On was political. Let’s Get It On is personal. This album is all about seduction. Like What’s Going On, it has three immortal songs: the title, “Please Don’t Stay (Once You Go Away),” and “You Sure Love to Ball.” It also has a throwback to the 1960s: “Come Get to This.” I wish I could come get to a decade like this!

In 1973 this was Marvin Gaye’s world and we just lived in it.

Marvin Gaye Live (1974)
Live At the London Palladium is better so move right along, please.

I Want You (1976)
If Let’s Get It On is about seduction, I Want You is about already being seduced. Oooh la la! You want to start smooching as soon as the needle hits the vinyl, the laser hits the disc, the download arrives on your device, or [insert any mechanical or electrical process designed for the transmission and/or reproduction of audio performances not yet invented].

Allmusic.com calls I Want You a “smooth, intricately produced make-out platter.” Allmusic and I don’t always get along, but this is one description I can get behind.

The highlights are “I Want You,” “After the Dance,” and, of course, “Feel All My Love Inside.” The penis (practical applications thereof) is an immortal topic in popular music, at least for men. But I want you to listen to “Feel All My Love Inside”:

Keep right on kissing me
When I’m kissing you
I know you know
What this is leading to
You know real soon, baby
I’ll be stroking you in and out
Up and down, all around
I love to hear you make those sounds

Then try AC/DC’s “Let Me Put My Love Into You”:

Don’t you struggle
Don’t you fight
Don’t you worry
’Cause it’s your turn tonight

Then I want you to tell me who was the adult male and who were the 5’2” idiots in lederhosen. (There are three clues in that sentence.)

You can tell where Gaye’s marriage was going because the inspiration for this album was his girlfriend, not his wife.

Live At the London Palladium (1977)
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a performer having so much fun on a live album, or a performer who was so appreciative of his audience. Before bringing on guest singer Florence Lyles for some duets, Gaye speaks about the singers he’d worked with, Diana Ross and his partners from the ’60s: Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell. Terrell was his favorite and he toured extensively with her until one night in 1967 when she collapsed onstage. It was the first strike by the brain tumor that killed her in 1970 when she was 24.

On this live recording the audience applauds all of these names, but they must’ve jumped to their feet when they heard Tammi Terrell. Gaye was obviously moved by the crowd’s reaction.

Live At the London Palladium includes a bonus track from the studio, “Got to Give It Up,” which is almost 12 minutes long and is its own party.

Here, My Dear (1978)
By this time, Marvin and Anna Gordy Gaye had divorced. One of the terms of the divorce was that Anna was to receive a substantial portion of the advance from Marvin’s next record, plus a cut of the royalties.

I think most men in this position would’ve thrown something together just to get out and get away. Spend a few days recording covers. Throw in songs you wrote years ago that never really gelled. Maybe write something bitter and vengeful.

Gaye wasn’t planning to put much effort into this project, but then he found a voice he hadn’t known he had, and he began to speak and sing about his marriage and how it fell apart. The result, Here, My Dear, stands almost by itself in the world of pop music. There are plenty of pop songs about breaking up. How many albums are devoted to broken-up marriages?

(The only other specimen I can think of is Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights from 1982, and that comparison doesn’t entirely work because the Thompsons wrote all the songs while their marriage was still good.)

Gaye doesn’t spare himself on Here, My Dear, through I wonder if he understood all the havoc he’d caused. Yet I don’t believe many musicians have it in them to write something like “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You?” Gaye’s bitterness surfaces in “Anger” and “Is That Enough?”, and yet “Anna’s Song” shows that he still loves his now former wife.

The album closes with his meditation on his love for the woman who became his next wife. Along the way he finds time to slip into his party groove on “Time to Get It Together” and “Funky Space Reincarnation.” That last one is a 500-word journey into free association and the Kingdom of Prince.

Shoot Out the Lights is a harrowing listen. Here, My Dear is a beautiful listen. But in 1978, nobody wanted an album about divorce. I know I wouldn’t have bought it. Here, My Dear has since been rehabilitated, and in 2012 it appeared at 462 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums. (No, I’m not listing the top 461.) I love it. Divorce never sounded this good.

It seems fitting that Gaye’s next hit (and, sadly, his last) was “Sexual Healing” in 1982.

That’s my look at Marvin Gaye in the ’70s. His life began and ended in violence (all of it inflicted by his father). He was a complicated man, unlike Shaft but a lot like the rest of us men. Rest in peace. Eternal thanks.

 

VIDA is a literary organization that every year counts how many men and how many women are published or reviewed in the big magazines and tries to point out how unfair it is that the editors of these zines, who are mostly men, publish mostly men, even though this nation as I understand it is about evenly divided between men and women and that probably goes for writers, too.

When VIDA started this count in 2010, men were running amok. For example, in 2010 The New York Review of Books reviewed 306 books by guys but only 59 by gals. This discovery turned out to be a big bucket of embarrassment for a fortress of liberalism. The editors of NYRB rumbled into action, and four years later the magazine reviewed 354 books by men and 164 by women. Calm down, ladies! Gender equality takes time, especially when men are in charge of the equalizing.

If a VIDA-like organization had been around in 1971 to tally the genders in the blaxploitation game, they would’ve surrendered in the first year. These films are trapped in a tar pit of testosterone. I could imagine Ike and Tina Turner being hired to compose a blaxploitation score, but not Tina by herself, and certainly not Aretha, Diana, or even Chaka.

No more warnings. What follows is my attempt to drive through the safety cones, tire spikes, and sand traps of blaxploitation music. Professional driver, closed course.

Here we go!

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Melvin Van Peebles (music performed by Earth, Wind & Fire)
Melvin Van Peebles was the writer, producer, and director of this film, which has the most titanic name of any movie ever made. The main theme in this story of an innocent man on the run from the law is that a woman will help you escape the police if a) you possess a jumbotron reproductive organ, and b) you agree to deploy it under her direction. Just an FYI.

Mr. Van Peebles and his son, Mario, also acted in the film (Mario wielded the jumbotron). The senior Van Peebles couldn’t read or write music but still composed the score. He then hired a hungry new band called Earth, Wind & Fire to record it.

Result: Time for the next record!

Shaft (1971)
Isaac Hayes (music performed by The Bar-Kays)
Surprise! There’s almost nothing to listen to on this double LP outside of the monumental theme song. It’s made up almost entirely of the instrumentals backing the action. You can only listen so many times to the music that plays when Shaft is in a cab or just walking around and not being a sex machine.

The main exception to this formula is The Bar-Kays’ 20-minute jam, “Do Your Thing,” which sounds like them doing their thing. The same thing. For 20 minutes. If only you could edit this down to about six minutes – it might be hot. (The Bar-Kays had a series of R&B hits in the ’80s, but that’s off-limits for now.)

I once owned this LP, but I sold it after I picked up the 45 of “Theme from Shaft.” The album version of “Shaft” is longer but not better.

Super Fly (1972)
Curtis Mayfield
Super Fly – the music, not the movie – is one of the few thoroughbreds in this field of pretenders, nags, and wannabes. This is not just Curtis Mayfield’s best, this is an album for somebody’s Hall of Fame. Mayfield writes compassionately about the lives of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind underclass. He’s especially good with the false road to salvation offered by “another junkie plan/pushing dope for The Man.” That road works just fine in this stupid movie but Mayfield won’t let anyone get away with that shit in his music.

There’s “Super Fly,” of course, and “Pusherman,” which is “Super Fly” at a different tempo and with different words, and the dealer’s inevitable end in “Freddie’s Dead”:

We’re all built up with progress
But sometimes I must confess
We can deal with rockets and dreams
But reality, what does it mean
Ain’t nothing said
’Cause Freddie’s dead

And these great songs are just the three that got the radio play! There’s plenty of funk to go around. “No Thing on Me (Cocaine Song)” is a skyrocket of joy, and not because the singer is suctioning up lines of white powder – it’s an anti-drug song.

If the blaxploitation genre did nothing more than give African-American actors and directors a chance to work and Curtis Mayfield a chance to compose this music, it would all have been worthwhile. 

Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972)
Donny Hathaway and Quincy Jones
Come Back, Charleston Blue is the sequel to Cotton Comes to Harlem. It’s a crime drama set in contemporary Harlem, but the unstirring soundtrack often sounds like the Jazz Age. “Little Ghetto Boy” is the one deserving cut. A reissue of this disc includes a live version of the song, which tops the film version and gives me an idea of how good Donny Hathaway must’ve been in concert.

Trouble Man (1972)
Marvin Gaye
Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve always wanted a nickname. In 1972, I boldly suggested to my teammates that they call me “Trouble Man.” For my audacity they beat me senseless. I’m referring, of course, to my chess-team teammates.

In the 1970s, Marvin Gaye could do anything, so why not write a jazz score for a suckfest movie about a black private dick? This one is a sex machine to only one (1) chick.

The Trouble Man soundtrack is atmospheric and way above average for this genre. “ ‘T’ Plays It Cool,” “ ‘T’ Stands for Trouble,” and the main theme are fine, but the title song, “Trouble Man,” is excellent, a slower, gauzier groove than Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” In places it could even slide into Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic,” which came along two years later.

The cliches can beat you a lot of ways in “Trouble Man” (“There’s only three things that I know/taxes, death, and trouble”), but the Trouble Man’s retelling of his life, punctuated by the refrain “I come up hard,” is haunting. Trouble Man, the movie, from what I’ve read of it, should haunt everyone who made it.

Gaye must’ve loved “Trouble Man” because he performed it often in concert. The version on Live At the London Palladium (1977) runs 6 and a half minutes and practically growls. There’s a real slugfest in the horn section. It would be no trouble at all to dance to it.

Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973)
Black Caesar (1973)
James Brown
Only the hardest-working man in showbiz could compose and perform two soundtracks in the same year. However, he recycled his old songs from the ’60s to do it. Not exactly a rip-off but I wouldn’t hail Caesar, either.

Coffy (1973)
Roy Ayers
Coffy is the inspirational story of an ER nurse played by Pam Grier who uses her super-sexy body and substandard acting skills to lure despicable men to her home where she slips into something more comfortable and kills them. This is totally the best plot idea since Oedipus tried online dating.

The music was assigned to vibraphone master Roy Ayers, who at that time was busy combining jazz with funk. Later in the decade he added disco to his résumé. The unexpected results are worth looking at in more detail than these soundtracks normally deserve.

If you loved pounding on your xylophone when you were little, you’re gonna dig the theme, “Coffy Is the Color,” as Mr. Ayers sprints flat-out across his instrument. The first third of the record is a more-than-adequate run of funk until we run head-first into “Coffy Sauna,” a boring bit of lounge that was probably the background for a love scene set by a pool or maybe a long tracking shot in which Ms. Grier floats around in her underwear like an ethereal weirdo.

The interesting part – not many of these soundtracks have interesting parts – arrives in the middle.

You’d expect a song with a title as sophisticated as “Brawling Broads” to be the heart of this movie. But it can’t be, because this song is so poppy and friendly. It swings. In fact, it’s Steely Dan. Yes, on two separate blaxploitation soundtracks I have heard Steely Dan. I am hallucinating Walter Becker and Donald Fagen! Either those guys loved this music or I need to be detoxified.

“Shining Symbol” begins as a boring ballad that explains the significance of our heroine. (Ignore all of the singing and speaking on this disc.) Once the singing stops, the song opens the throttle and we get a funky stretch that again stars Ayers’ vibes.

“Exotic Dance” is not exotic. This instrumental is the most mature statement on the album. It sets a sophisticated mood. It’s filled with the sense of loss that comes with being human. What is it doing in a movie about a vigilante in a halter top and various other costumes that don’t block drafts?

The score ends poorly, especially with “Making Love,” which made me feel as if I were trying to climb out of an aquarium. I also think they unloaded a harpsichord somewhere in there. But Ayers, given what he had to work with, dug in and created a score that flies like an eagle and drops like a rock. Like Super Fly, I don’t think it resembles its own film. How did he get away with that? More power to Roy Ayers.

The Mack (1973)
Willie Hutch
Willie Hutch, a multi-talented Motown artist who wrote “I’ll Be There” for The Jackson 5, turns to scoring movies and does fairly well with this one. The dramatic “Theme of the Mack” runs on too long, but the extended blues jam “Mac Man (Got to Get Over)” works just fine and is definitely worth a listen.

“I Choose You” is a sincere declaration of love from a man who wants to marry his woman. This is so far beyond blaxploitation territory, especially in yet another movie about pimps, that The Mack should be applauded just for that.

Cleopatra Jones (1973)
J.J. Johnson
Tamara Dobson is a government agent with a license to kill. Shelley Winters is a drug-dealin’ criminal warlord with a devastating right cross. This is no more ridiculous than any movie with your recommended adult dose of Iron Man.

J.J. Johnson, a pioneering jazz trombonist, composed the score. Except for the theme song, I haven’t heard it. I’d rather learn more about the guy who sang the theme, Joe Simon, who worked at the lonely intersection of soul and country. I would’ve guessed that that intersection, if it existed, was somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

Simon is a Chubby Checker kind of belter, and he lifts the Cleopatra Jones theme well above its natural level. In the ’70s, Simon had hits with the plaintive “Drowning in the Sea of Love” and the chumsy “Get Down, Get Down (Get on the Floor).” I’m betting that either one is better than the entire score to Cleopatra Jones.

Truck Turner (1974)
Isaac Hayes
Isaac Hayes throws a punch, shoots a gun. Lt. Uhura runs a brothel. Any questions?

Leave it to Isaac Hayes to write the music and play the role. I can’t comment on his acting, but I assume that he convincingly beats up every bad mother- (Shut your mouth!) in sight. The music trends toward jazz; it’s background music when you don’t want to be disturbed by anything in the background.

These tracks remind me of Tom Scott & The L.A. Express’ music for Starsky & Hutch (Hayes does it better) and made me realize how the cop shows of the ’70s – and any TV show or movie of that time that wanted to prove it was hip – were influenced by the blaxploitation breakthrough. (Or the blaxploitation breakdown, depending on your perspective.)

Willie Dynamite (1974)
J.J. Johnson
We’re saved – more pimps! Martha Reeves of Martha & The Vandellas sings the theme song, in which we learn that Mr. D has “seven women in the palm of his hand/got a woman for every man.” Sorry, that is an insufficient number of women for Shaft or Mac “Truck” Turner.

Forget everything Ms. Reeves sings on this disc. Forget most of the disc, which sounds like recycled cop show. But if you like funky bongos, try “Willie Chase” and “Willie Escapes.” The soundtrack to Willie Dynamite was obviously constructed by somebody who knew what he was doing, but that doesn’t mean I want to know what he was doing.

Roscoe Orman, our man Willie, has spent the past 40 years playing Gordon the schoolteacher on Sesame Street.

Foxy Brown (1974)
Willie Hutch
Pam Grier again, still sexy, still vengeful (“Please don’t make Foxy mad/Or you’ll find out that the lady is Superbad”). Willie Hutch again, serving up a funky homage to the music of Shaft, though he sings closer to Ike Turner than to Isaac Hayes. “Give Me Some of That Good Old Love” sounds like Rufus without Chaka Khan. The lyrics are painful.

This disc is considered a classic of the genre. That claim is probably based on tracks 6-8: “Out There,” “Foxy Lady,” and “You Sure Know How to Love Your Man.” “Out There” is almost atmospheric enough to fit on the Trouble Man soundtrack. “Foxy Lady” reminds me of “Nutbush City Limits” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” “You Sure Know How to Love Your Man” has some real emotion to it. I could imagine it performed by Howlin’ Wolf.

Of the other tracks, “Have You Ever Asked Yourself Why” is a sweetheart that’s well within Fleetwood Mac’s range. The closing song, “Whatever You Do (Do It Good),” reminds me of “Can’t Turn It Loose” or something I heard on Soul Train. In fact I probably did hear it on Soul Train. Overall, a solid effort from Mr. Hutch, which is more than I can say of everyone else connected with Foxy Brown.

Last but not least:

Together Brothers (1974)
Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra
I have fond memories of this album. In the summer of 1974, I worked in a record warehouse, and one record I never had to hump around on a hand truck was Together Brothers. That record did not sell. There were stacks of these LPs in a corner on my first day and there were stacks of them in a corner on my last. (Fleetwood Mac’s Mystery to Me was another favorite, for the same reason.)

The Together Brothers score is a peppy group of songs from a gentleman I associate with a glittery romance rather than a gritty ghetto. The songs are heartfelt. Most are disco-y. “Honey, Please Can’t You See” sounds like the disco hits in White’s future, particularly “You’re My First, My Last, My Everything.”

This isn’t a good record, but it’s better than it has any right to be.

Next time: More black music of the 1970s…but in a lot fewer words. There was an avalanche of blaxploitation soundtracks beyond what I’ve tackled here but someone else will have to listen to them!

 

In 2014 I heroically listened to every album Prince ever made. Well, I heroically came close. I listened to the first 14. I will eventually listen to the remaining 987. This was an exciting, enlightening quest for which I received 100% zero thanks. I didn’t get a link from Wikipedia. I didn’t get a lousy T-shirt from Prince. And, as always, WordPress refused to give me any money.

I remain undeterred. Why? Because it says BLOGGER on my uniform! So today I jump on my new project, the project I should’ve jumped on before I jumped on Prince: the black music of the 1970s. But first: The Rules!

Rule 1: Provincialism is good. I’m disqualifying 98% of planet Earth. Once you dive into my unscientific survey you’ll discover that almost all of these performers are from the USA. That’s because I’m from the USA. USA! USA!

Rule 2: One-hit wonders are blunders. The 1970s were a magnet for the truly awful (that was somehow spectacularly popular). For every passable tune such as Jean Knight and “Mr. Big Stuff” you get a dumpster full of this:

Billy Paul, “Me and Mrs. Jones”
Peaches & Herb, “Reunited”
Labelle, “Lady Marmalade”*
Anita Ward, “Ring My Bell”
A Taste of Honey, “Boogie Oogie Oogie”**
Hues Corporation, “Rock the Boat”
Carl Douglas, “Kung Fu Fighting”***

* This is the “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, c’est soir” song.
** I hate to put them on this list, because they were an early girl-power band with two female guitarists. Also, they looked most excellent in backless swimsuits. But their song sucks.
*** According to legend, “Kung Fu Fighting” was recorded in 10 minutes. Of course it was.

Rule 3: I make the tough calls! Reggae was obviously a vital part of the ’70s – it was a huge influence on British punk – but I don’t care for reggae so you won’t find it here. I like the blues but there’s no blues on my list because after half an hour it’s not the blues, it’s whining. There’s no rap because, while I like some rap, I don’t understand it.

Even within the genres I like – rock, psychedelia, disco, soul, R&B – I’ll have to leave out some fun people to make sure I can get through this project before 2250 A.D. Here are two:

  • Eddie Kendricks, who sang lead on The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and had a solo hit with “Keep on Truckin’.”
  • Johnny “Guitar” Watson, who played blues, jazz, and funk but is probably best remembered for that sentimental lament, “A Real Mother for Ya.”

Rule 4: I’m sure to forget somebody. I only remembered The Spinners about 5 minutes ago.

This list I’m about to unleash is not exhaustive, though it’s exhausting me. I might not make it past 1974. But here goes.

The ’70s begin!

On the starting line we have:

  • Marvin Gaye and worthy but lesser satellites: Al Green, Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Diana Ross, but not The Supremes
  • Quincy Jones
  • Ray Charles
  • James Brown
  • George Clinton
  • Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and Barry White
  • The Jackson 5, The Isley Brothers, and other notable families
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Sly & The Family Stone
  • Ike & Tina Turner
  • Gladys Knight & The Pips
  • Earth, Wind & Fire and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
  • Rufus (featuring Chaka Khan)
  • The Four Tops
  • The Spinners
  • The Temptations

Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were at their height in the ’70s, and their height is somewhere north of the Matterhorn. I could write about them and never get to anyone else.

Diana Ross released 17 albums in the ’70s. (First on this list is James Brown’s brain-busting 28.) She played Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. She recorded duets with Marvin Gaye. Like a true diva, Diana Ross can’t be ignored. But I can ignore her former co-workers. This was not their decade.

I am mostly going to ignore Quincy Jones. Sure, Jones can compose, arrange, produce, conduct, and play. He brought out the best in the senior-citizen Frank Sinatra and the young-adult Michael Jackson. “Killer Joe” is one of my favorite jazz standards. But almost everything I like about him comes before 1970 or after 1979. I’m only going to mention Jones once, for an album I’m not recommending, and I hope the Lords of Kobol will forgive me.

Did Ray Charles do more in the ’70s than make those dopey commercials for Scotch Brand recording tape? Run-DMSteve investigates!

Everyone on this list owes something to James Brown. Everyone who isn’t on this list owes something to James Brown, even if they were born in a galaxy far, far away. Soul Brother #1 began the decade with the 11-minute “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” a song that added substantially to my knowledge of how to deal with women (building on what I’d learned from Capt. Kirk and a stolen copy of South Pacific).

Brown ran out of fissionable uranium by mid-decade. His disco resurgence in 1979 doesn’t count.

George Clinton’s bands were Funkadelic and Parliament. After reacquainting myself with the few songs I knew and listening to the many I didn’t, I see him now as the secret weapon of the ’70s. Clinton has suffered the most from the way white radio playlists, particularly the Oldies and Classic Rock formats, exclude black artists.

We’ll get to Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Barry White, and Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and Quincy Jones again when we dive into the deep end of the Shaft/Super Fly machismo pool.

The Jackson 5 were the best family act of any color of any era. Their only contenders are Don and Phil Everly, and I think that’s a very close race. (The Isley Brothers are right behind them. Two more challengers popped up in the ’70s: The Pointer Sisters and The Staple Singers.) The J5 were superior to Sister Sledge, The Osmonds, The Carpenters, The Cowsills, The Partridge Family (OK, that’s cheating), the von Trapps, and everyone who has ever appeared on Lawrence Welk.

Jimi Hendrix existed in the ’70s for about nine months. His early death is the second-greatest tragedy in the history of pop music. (Mozart’s early death is first.)

With Aretha Franklin, it’s always 1967, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You is on the turntable, and you’re about to drop the needle on the first track, “Respect.” I can’t imagine the pressure this woman faced at the age of 25 with “Respect” heading her résumé. Bruce Springsteen faced the same pressure when he was 25 and had just recorded “Born to Run.”

Sylvester Stewart, aka Sly Stone, is mostly known for the music he gave us in the ’60s. By the time he got to the ’70s, his revolutionary zeal had congealed. Sadly, so had his optimism. Sly & The Family Stone’s last great album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971), is as confused, cynical, and hard to listen to as The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (1972). The main difference between the two is that Stone was apathetic. The Stones were sleazy.

Sly Stone fun fact: You could transfer “Just Like a Baby” from There’s a Riot Goin’ On to Exile on Main Street and nobody would know the difference.

Most of Ike and Tina Turner’s music evaporates while you listen to it. For every “Proud Mary” or “River Deep – Mountain High” they have 20 songs that are guaranteed not to stick to your ribs. But we needed The Ike & Tina Turner Revue because they created the image of Tina Turner as a force majeure. Ms. Turner gave us one good record on her own (Private Dancer), but that’s off in the ’80s.

Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded the first version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a hymn that could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. In the ’70s they recorded “Midnight Train to Georgia.” I still want to kick them.

Earth, Wind & Fire were just getting started and didn’t know what they wanted to be when they grew up. Same with Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.

Rufus was funky for sure, but they’re not as good as their contemporaries War. But they’re important for giving Chaka Khan a launching pad. Khan has a voice like Tina Turner’s, with less power but more finesse at close range.

The Four Tops’ many classics are all from the ’60s. In the ’70s they recorded two albums with The Supremes (minus Diana Ross), The Magnificent Seven and The Return of the Magnificent Seven. Not enough of a draw to make me listen. Sorry kids, but as I’ve stated many times in this blog I am paid to be unfair. All right, I’m not paid, but I’m still unfair.

The Spinners have left little behind them besides the image of five guys in yummy-colored pantsuits. But they had a run of hits in the early ’70s, starting with “It’s a Shame,” which I always thought was Al Green until I finally looked it up. Duh. However, I don’t care for the rest of their easy-listening catalog, and they gave us the gift of “The Rubberband Man,” which is clearly related to the crud back in Rule 2, so though they meant well they disappear as soon as this sentence hits the period.

The Temptations recorded “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” in 1972. This was another show-stopper written by Norman Whitfield. The Temptations could’ve stopped right there. But they didn’t, and neither will I. I’ll be back next time with: Blaxploitation!

 

We have a new entry in the Stupid Band Name Sweepstakes: Alvvays. This Canadian group pronounces it “Always.” Why won’t they pronounce the vees? If they did, they’d sound like my maternal grandmother, Bella, who grew up in Austria, was a refugee in Italy after World War I, and arrived in New York City as a teenager. Bella lived to be 93, or possibly 94 – her older sister, Paulie, claimed that Bella was a year older, which made my grandma furious! She won that argument only when Paulie passed away.

Bella never lost her sense of fun. She engaged in titanic poker battles with her pals, Charlotte, Sylvia, and Bubbles, usually at a nickel per hand. We grandchildren raked in the winnings. One of her biggest scores came when Charlotte and Sylvia each had two pairs but Bella was holding “tree kveens.”

My first encounter with music criticism, and my lifelong disdain for the music of the masses, came courtesy of Bella. She was baby-sitting me on a Sunday night when we had a battle over Lawrence Welk (“Velk”) vs. Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Guess which side I was on. Disney had probably lined up another exciting adventure of Spin and Marty whereas Mr. Welk had certainly fired up his champagne bubble machine. Bella won – I was only 6 – and even in my bedroom with the door closed I was tortured by Lawrence Welk and his parade of antiseptically scrubbed young people singing “My Old Kentucky Home” and other hits of the 1840s.

Bella is gone but this blog rocks on – now rocking our fifth year! Thanks for reading along and not sending me to my room.

My most popular post
I wrote this one in 2012 and it’s still drawing visitors. I don’t even have that job anymore!

Bands
Chicago (Sins of the ’70s Week)

Deep Purple (Sins of the ’70s Week)

Fleetwood Mac (Sins of the ’70s Week)

Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green edition (Sins of the ’70s Week)

Grand Funk Railroad (Sins of the ’70s Week)

Jefferson Starship

Rare Earth

Sir Mix-a-Lot

The Supremes

The Prince Project
The Prince Project begins

First Prince album

The Prince Project falls and it can’t get up

Songs
“Tomorrow Never Knows”

Vacations
Spring break

Summer time, and the livin’ is easy

The great outdoors

Misc.
At home with Mom and Dad

Football, God help us

Gardening from A to Z

Halloween

I vanquish technology yet again

It’s the end of 2014!

Letter-writing

LinkedIn

Pencils

The reign of Cleo, Part I

The reign of Cleo, Part II

Time travel

Random Pick of the Day
Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (1971)
It begins with “What’s Going On” and ends with “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” two of the greatest songs of the 1970s. Excuse me, two of the greatest songs.

Random Pan of the Day
Dire Straits, On Every Street (1991)
“Calling Elvis” awakens old glories. Alas, the rest of the album sends them back to bed.

 

’70s Week at Run-DMSteve concludes with some of my favorite songs of the decade. I’m not saying these are the best songs of the decade, and they’re not all of my favorites. I just stopped at 25. To keep things manageable, I limited myself to one song per artist (except in one instance), but to make them less manageable, I included some runners-up.

A few words about women, of whom my list has only one, Joan Armatrading, recording on her own. (I do have Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of The B-52s and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads.)

There were plenty of remarkable women in rock in the ’70s. Minnie Ripperton could reach all of the known octaves and a few that she must’ve invented. But I can’t digest her music. Ditto Cher, Blondie, The Runaways, and Susie Quatro. I’ll see you in hell before I listen to Heart. If I added another 25 songs, I’d include Patti Smith (“So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star”), Donna Summer (“I Feel Love”), Joni Mitchell (tough one, but probably “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”), and The Slits (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”). How I wish The Slits could’ve opened for Hole. I’ll try to field a more balanced squad during ’80s Week.

My heartfelt thanks to Brother Bob Lingard, who started me on this week’s theme when he kindly loaned me a CD with hundreds of songs from the ’70s and ’80s. Though listening to this collection often seemed like an endurance test, especially when I collided with Christopher Cross –

“I’m on the runnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn/no time to sleep”

– Phil Collins, and the REO Styxjourneywagon dud machine, I learned a lot. I’d forgotten how much I like Roxy Music and Squeeze, how overrated REM is and how undeservedly obscure Steve Winwood is. Party on, Brother Bob!

Here’s the list:

Aerosmith, “Sweet Emotion”
It pains me to type “Aerosmith,” but at least they’re not Foghat.

Joan Armatrading, “Love and Affection”
This is the female “Bolero”!

The B-52s, “Rock Lobster”
How amazing that “Rock Lobster,” the greatest song ever recorded by anyone in any language on any planet, was produced in the same decade that gave us “Kung Fu Fighting” and “You’re Having My Baby.”

David Bowie, “Moonage Daydream”
My favorite Bowie album is Station to Station, but this is my favorite song.

The Clash, “Complete Control”
Runner-up: “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”

Elvis Costello, “You Belong to Me”
Could easily have gone with “Mystery Dance,” “Watching the Detectives,” or “This Year’s Model.”

The Dickies, “Nights in White Satin”
One of the best covers in the history of covers. You get every note of the original but all of them played five times as fast. The single was released in 1979 on white vinyl.

Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On” and “What’s Going On
If this had been ’60s Week, I would’ve picked “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Al Green, “Love and Happiness”
I can listen to this over and over. In fact, I have.

The Guess Who, “No Time”
What this song means is anybody’s guess. The live version, recorded in Seattle on the same stage where Special D and I saw The Roches and Guys and Dolls, rocks harder.

George Harrison, “Isn’t It a Pity”
Harrison’s talent seems so very different from Lennon’s and McCartney’s. George’s work floats on a slow-moving undercurrent of grief.

Isaac Hayes, “Theme From Shaft”
Shaft. Any questions?

Michael Jackson, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”
The video of Jackson dancing to this song was the first thing I ever saw played back on a VCR.

K.C. & The Sunshine Band, “Get Down Tonight”
By your command!

Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”
I’ve tried for years to dismiss Led Zeppelin as AC/DC with a library card, but songs like this rebuke me.

Paul McCartney, “Maybe I’m Amazed”
The best thing Sir Paul did on his own, and good enough to compare to his work with John.

Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”
Thelma Houston’s version is more disco. I had to flip a coin to pick one.

Pink Floyd, “Fearless”
Dark Side of the Moon is my favorite Pink Floyd, but this is my favorite song. Always brings tears to my eyes.

Lou Reed, “Walk on the Wild Side”
To save space, the term “Lou Reed” includes the term “The Velvet Underground.”

The Rolling Stones, “Wild Horses”
If I hadn’t limited myself to one song apiece, The Stones would’ve dominated this list. For ’60s Week I would’ve picked “Street Fighting Man.”

Tom Rush, “Urge for Going”
Joni Mitchell wrote this one. Tom Rush is not in her league, except here. Not what you’d call a bouncy number.

Bruce Springsteen, “Backstreets”
One of the few times Bruce surpassed “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”

Steely Dan, “Bodhisattva”
Steely Dan is not the most annoying band of the decade, though they’re right behind Chicago, Fleetwood Mac, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Bee-Gees in that department. “Bodhisattva,” however, is too ridiculous to resist. Plus it packs more swing than anything else in the Steely Dan catalog.

Talking Heads, “Heaven”
As I wrote here, I never appreciated this song until I heard them perform it during the Stop Making Sense concert tour.

Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”
Almost every one of his songs bursts with joy. Runner-up: “As.”

Your suggestions, comments, and suggestive comments are welcome. Thanks as always for reading. See you for ’80s Week!