Posts Tagged ‘That’s the Way of the World’

When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s (it took me awhile to grow up), I knew which music belonged to me and which music belonged to Old People.

My music was from The Beatles and everyone who followed in their wake. It was loud, it crackled with life, it was about life. Or it was about the life I wanted for my life. It shook me.

Old People’s music didn’t lay a finger on me. It drifted across the fields like a zephyr, and the flowers nodded demurely as it caressed them. Look what I’m writing here. The next thing to appear in this scenario is either Mother Nature or Snuggles the Fabric Softener Bear.

Old People’s music carried various labels, all of which form a tangle in my head because I’ve never learned anything about them: show tunes, Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building Pop, Easy Listening, Lawrence Welk. Today this is all subsumed under the heading American Songbook. I can only listen to this stuff when it’s been reinterpreted by someone from my side of the aisle, an artist who’s willing to travel over the hills and far away from the original: Janis Joplin and “Summertime,” John Coltrane and “My Favorite Things.”

So this is why I’ve never paid attention to Dionne Warwick, even though she’s recorded more than 40 albums since 1963, which casts a shadow on The Rolling Stones’ catalog, which is already overstuffed. To me, Warwick was from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David universe, which was my seal of disapproval. The songs they wrote for her (“Walk on By,” “Message to Michael,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”) and even her beautiful voice did not hold my attention. Back then I was probably too busy with Herman’s Hermits or Grand Funk Railroad.

Some years back I reached a level of maturity (it took me awhile to reach maturity) and I was able to sit still long enough to actually hear the American Songbook. I may not like what I hear, but I’ve learned to listen for the good in something instead of instinctively making my Mr. Yuck face.

Listening or trying to listen to the black music of the ’70s has been an illuminating project. At times I felt as if I were drowning. But most of the time I discovered new music I liked and rediscovered songs that are now favorites. In Dionne Warwick’s case, I’m glad I chose the ’70s because this was when Bacharach and David split up and Warwick had to find new writers. She never really adapted to disco or any other new style – she mostly skated above it all, like that zephyr from the third paragraph – but on Just Being Myself (1973) she showed that she could play that greasy kid stuff if she wanted to.

This is not the album I expected from the woman who sang the theme to the super soap opera Valley of the Dolls. Several tracks surprised me. “I Think You Need Love” is one of the lost classics of the decade. It’s almost the holy gospel! “You’re Gonna Need Me” is not only good, it could’ve been a blaxploitation theme song if only they’d assigned the lyrics to an idiot.

Warwick followed up with Then Came You (1975). This one was built around her hit of the same name from the previous year. She was backed by The Spinners on “Then Came You” and together they produced a gem of ’70s soul. My interest in Warwick stops here, but given that I expected to find nothing, I feel rich.

Roberta Flack
Flack’s debut, First Take, appeared in 1969, but thanks to Clint Eastwood I can include it in the 1970s. First Take gave us her bluesy version of the jazz classic “Compared to What” and the song she’s famous for, “The First Time Ever I Saw His Face.” Flack has a voice of uncharted power – uncharted because most of it is hidden below the surface, like an ice berg. I want to buy her a cup of coffee with three shots of espresso.

“The First Time Ever I Saw His Face” languished on this disc until Eastwood paid $2,000 to include it on the soundtrack of Play Misty for Me in 1971. With the exposure of a popular film around it, “The First Time” enjoyed a second time and became a hit everywhere civilization reigned (and in Indiana and Arkansas). Flack won a Grammy for “First Time” in 1972. Even I like it. But her next album, Quiet Fire, was all quiet and not fiery, and this was where I left her.

Roberta Flack’s middle name is Cleopatra. Of course I didn’t get a cool middle name like that. Good thing I don’t whine about it anymore. I’m mature now. 

Let’s finish Diva Week:

Chaka Khan
The R&B groups War and Rufus went through opposite evolutions. The unknown War was adopted by Eric Burdon after he heard them in some dinky club. Having Burdon singing with them was like finally finding their jet packs (“Spill the Wine”). When Burdon left, War’s career flew even higher (“The World Is a Ghetto,” “Gypsy Man,” “Low Rider”).

Rufus was not making much progress until they hired Chaka Khan to sing with them. She became so popular that they released an album in 1975 called Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. Khan came and went for several years after that, and Rufus sputtered to a stop. But together they made “You Got the Love” and “Tell Me Something Good,” from Rags to Rufus, and “Once You Get Started,” from Rufus & Chaka Khan (both from 1974).

Chaka Khan has a voice like Tina Turner’s, with less power but maybe more finesse at close range. She has some similarities to Aretha Franklin, too, especially if you subtract Jesus. She is sexier than both, not as sexy as Donna Summer, but earthier. Summer always sounds like she’s having sex at Star Fleet Academy, if anybody in Star Fleet ever had sex.

For Khan’s first album, Chaka (1978), her label brought in Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who wrote “I’m Every Woman.” Unfortunately, that was the only song Ashford and Simpson wrote for that album, and the quality in general falls off sharply from this first superlative track. Fortunately, Khan found a way to stay relevant and score hits right through the ’80s.

Tina Turner
I have to tread carefully here, because Tina Turner is a protected national resource. But I have to say it: There’s nothing Tina recorded in the 1970s after leaving Ike that’s good enough to devote your time to, and that includes her Acid Queen song in that awful Tommy movie. Fear not: In the ’80s she’ll dance onstage with Mick Jagger, brawl in the desert with Mad Max, and give us Private Dancer (1984). That’s plenty of fun for one decade.

So let’s end this survey of Tina Turner that’s as micro as her skirt and mention one of Ike and Tina’s last albums, Workin’ Together (1971). This is the one with “Proud Mary,” “Funkier Than a Mosquita’s Tweeta” (gets an A+ rating just for the title), and “Game of Love,” a blues song that anticipates Robert Cray’s themes but also gives us a glimpse into the Turners’ home life:

Just like you can cheat on me
I can cheat on you
There’s no rules in this game of love
It can be played by two

Joan Armatrading
I’m unprepared to discuss this very deserving woman, who may have been the black Joni Mitchell.

Why I am unprepared to discuss Joan Armatrading
Tomorrow is the beginning of the three-day Memorial Day weekend. This is my favorite holiday.

(For my non-USA readers, if I have any left: Memorial Day began as our way of remembering the dead from our Civil War. It’s original name was Decoration Day. In addition to attending parades, picnics, and Blue Angel flyovers, we also use this somber time to buy mattresses and consumer electronics at discounted prices.)

Wilfred Sheed wrote that baseball is the sport that has a whole summer up its sleeve. Memorial Day is my favorite holiday because it has a whole summer up its sleeve. The season is about to step on-stage. I can’t wait. I like this holiday almost as much as my birthday – and I like my birthday – because on Memorial Day I still have my birthday to look forward to, but my birthday is not so far away that it’s unrealistic to think of and in fact I can start pestering people about it.

For months I work like the 20-mule team that pulled Borax to stand ready on Memorial Day, getting those pesky projects out from under (like house and marriage maintenance) so I can get to the fun stuff for the summer. I don’t actually mean everything in that last sentence, in case you’re paying attention.

This summer I intend to make some serious progress on my novel, because frankly it’s about fucking time I seriously progressed and finished it already. Once again I’m freezing this blog in a block of carbonite, but I’ll be back in September after the three-day Labor Day weekend when I can no longer wear white and drink gin and the world will clamor for more of my musical insults and poorly informed insights. Everyone have a good summer.

Your album for Saturday, 23 May 2015, is Earth, Wind & Fire’s That’s the Way of the World from 1975. The interior art includes a photo of eight men with no shirts on, which may be a record for records.

This is my 199th post. Thank you for being there.