Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made" Book Review

In my online book searches, I found a 1999 release that concisely ranks (someone’s opinion of) "the greatest singles of all time." From what I scanned, I personally wouldn’t consider this an end-all, be-all list, nor would I say that the songs are in any definitive order. But we are reminded that the author, as if due some degree of veneration, was Creem co-founder and Rolling Stone magazine associate/contributing editor Dave Marsh. Deemed a “veteran Rock critic,” he was paid to sit back and dispense his opinion about music. Aren’t critics mostly negative... hence the word “critic?” Hmmm… I’d much rather just enjoy the music – which is what it was meant for.

The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (Author: Dave Marsh – 1999)

The book summary describes it as a “polemic” guide. In my lifetime of writing, I can’t recall having ever bumped into the term “polemic.” I wasn't sure if that meant that I needed to put on gloves or make sure my shots were up-to-date before reading it. But, a quick search tells me it pertains to “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another.” OK; I’ll accept that. The book is an interesting read (not to be confused with the term “good”) in most cases, barring some key facts that Ol’ Dave botched (or, perhaps he even vitiated). For a “veteran Rock critic” with ties to Creem and Rolling Stone, you’d think he’d have boundless facts at his disposal – and a stable of editors double-checking them.

For instance, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” was recorded at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios at 603 East Avalon Avenue on January 24, 1967 (with overdubs in New York) – and NOT at Stax as our pal Dave states on page 336. Perhaps he’s never heard about the infamous post-session debacle with Ted White at the hotel later that evening. But what truly matters is what was accomplished at the session – which included Chips Moman, Dan Penn (co-writers of the aforementioned song), Tommy Cogbill, Gene Chrisman, Spooner Oldham and other Muscle Shoals regulars (and some not-so-regulars).

Seems everyone on the planet – except for Dave – has read the many different variations of what actually happened that night at the Downtowner Motor Inn in Florence, which was truly an unfortunate event. But what really matters is the great music that came from that magical session with the “young queen,” as she was described. It is electrifying to read what the players have shared about their angle on the amazing vibe in the studio that day (and how they were in awe of Aretha) – as well as their utter confusion when they returned the following day to find that the session was cancelled. Dan, Chips, Spooner, Tommy and Aretha were still at the studios working on “Do Right Woman” when the fracas went down, one account states.

The other song from Aretha’s all too brief visit to Muscle Shoals was "I Never Loved a Man" – Franklin's first million-seller, which hit #1 on the R&B charts (on Aretha’s 25th birthday on March 25) and #9 on the Pop charts. It’s funny to hear Dan Penn talk about writing the bridge for the hit’s soulful flip side, “Do Right Woman,” in the closet with Jerry Wexler and Aretha sticking their heads in to contribute lines.

I just have to add this observation… At about the 2:02 mark on “Never Loved a Man,” there is a nasty, funky little guitar that comes in and weaves its way through the remainder of the song. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve rewound the song to that point just to hear it. Hmmm… Who IS that guitar player? Could it be the guitarist Wexler described as the best, most underappreciated guitarist in the South?

The book summary states:

“In The Heart of Rock & Soul, veteran Rock critic Dave Marsh offers a polemical guide to the 1,001 greatest rock and soul singles ever made, encompassing Rock, Metal, R&B, Disco, Folk, Funk, Punk, Reggae, Rap, Soul, Country and any other music that has made a difference over the past 50 years. The illuminating essays – complete with music history, social commentary, and personal evaluations – double as a mini-history of popular music. Here you will find singles by artists as wide-ranging as Aretha Franklin, George Jones, Roy Orbison, the Sex Pistols, Madonna, Run DMC, and Van Halen. Featuring a new preface that covers the hits – and misses – of the '90s, The Heart of Rock & Soul remains as provocative, passionate, and timeless as the music it praises.”

Below are a few synopses culled from Dave’s book about songs that bear the Chips Moman and/or the American Studios team’s touch. Not only did the author get some pretty rudimentary facts garbled, but also perhaps in sensing a need to live up to his title as “critic,” he’s just unnecessarily scathing on some accounts.

Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street) – Clarence Carter – Page 44
Written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn
However, the four-minute spoken intro added to the five-minute song was by Clarence Carter himself (during which he reminds those of us who’ve never sat down to think about it that hosses and cows and mosquitoes like to make love too… And it don’t make no dif’rence where they at when they get ready!). This pontification and philosophizing about making love was definitely a Carter trademark – and so much a part of why we love him.

Soul Deep – Box Tops – Page 236
Produced by Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill; written by Wayne Carson Thompson; horn arrangements by Glenn Spreen and Mike Leech
I thoroughly disagree with Dave’s observations about Alex Chilton. Here, he seems to come off as the self-appointed 'Lord of Rock Critics' with his seething, salty negativity. And contrary to what the author says, I’d bet the producers would give much more credit to the young singer and the musicians who made this song.

Dark End of the Street – James Carr – Page 268
Written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn

Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley – Page 280
Produced by Chips Moman; written by Mark James

Do Right Woman, Do Right Man – Aretha Franklin – Page 336
Written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman

The book essentially gives no credit to the session musicians. But then, isn’t that pretty much par for the course? I like what Garth Brooks said at the inaugural Musicians Hall of Fame induction: "There's very few records an artist makes, but there are a hell of a lot of records MUSICIANS make."

It’s past time for us to broaden our focus when it comes to music – and to properly recognize the talented folks who write the lyrics, do the arrangements and play the instruments. In this American Idol/assembly line/pre-fab garbage age we’re in, people amazingly forget that THESE UNSUNG HEROES ARE THE FOLKS WHO MAKE THE MUSIC!

Bobby Womack among 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees

Congratulations to Bobby Womack for his upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

Womack was “one of the guys” at American Studios, working on many sessions (the Box Tops, Joe Tex, et al) as a guitarist. First of all, it was our very own Chips Moman who brought Womack to Memphis (and Muscle Shoals) – and who produced Bobby's first sides in 1967 for Minit. He recorded a string of albums and hit singles at American, including 1968's gritty "What Is This" (his first chart hit), "It's Gonna Rain" and "More Than I Can Stand." One of the last albums to be recorded at American was 1972’s Understanding. Then in 1986, Chips met back up with Bobby in Memphis to produce his album Womagic, which received excellent reviews.

From his bio at:

Bobby Womack
(Robert Dwayne Womack)
Induction Category: Performer
Vocals, Guitar
Born March 4, 1944

Bobby Womack is a stalwart Soul and Gospel figurehead whose resume includes significant contributions across the decades as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. The son of a steelworker, he was born in Cleveland where he and his siblings formed a gospel group at a young age. While touring with the Soul Stirrers, the Womack Brothers met that group’s lead singer, Sam Cooke. After Cooke’s move from gospel to soul, he contacted the Womacks and asked them to move to California. Bobby Womack was only 16 years old at the time, and he dropped out of school. Under Cooke’s tutelage, they crossed the bridge from sacred to secular music, recording for his SAR label as the Valentinos.

As the Valentinos, the Womack brothers cut two R&B classics: “Looking for a Love” (later covered by the J. Geils Band) and “It’s All Over Now” (a song that became the Rolling Stones’ first U.S. hit).
Womack also played guitar in Cooke’s band. In the wake of Cooke’s deaths, the Valentinos broke up, and Womack turned to songwriting, guitar playing and a solo career. He has written songs recorded by Wilson Pickett (“I’m a Midnight Mover”), George Benson (“Breezin’”), Janis Joplin (“Trust Me”) and many others. Pickett alone recorded 17 of Womack’s compositions. A solid instrumentalist, Womack also played guitar on sessions for Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Joe Tex, King Curtis, Dusty Springfield and other Atlantic Records artists during a period in Memphis. He recorded an album with jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo, too.

As a solo artist, Womack scored a few minor hits (“Fly Me to the Moon,” “How I Miss You Baby”) at the tail end of the Sixties. However, he made his greatest mark in the Seventies and Eighties, racking up 33 charting singles, including the Top 10 R&B hits “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” “Check It Out” and “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” His first gold single was “Harry Hippie,” a meditation on wasted lifestyles written specifically about his brother and more generally about the counterculture. Womack topped the R&B chart in 1974 with his contemporary remake of “Lookin’ for a Love” and reached Number Two in 1973 with his interpretation of the blues standard “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” A duet with Patti Labelle, “Love Has Finally Come at Last,” reached Number Three in 1984. He performed a duet with Mick Jagger on “Going Back to Memphis,” from the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work album.

In addition to his success as a singles artist, Womack recorded a series of albums whose thematic depth moved soul music forward much like the work of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. These include The Poet, The Poet II, Communication, Understanding and Someday We’ll All Be Free. In 1994, after an extended absence from the music scene, Womack returned to form with Resurrection, which appeared on the Slide label, launched by Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. (Womack had previously produced and played on Wood’s second solo album, 1975’s Look Now.) Later in the decade, he kept a promise he made to his late father by cutting a gospel album, Back to My Roots.

Womack is a music business survivor, elder statesman and champion of old-school Soul. “The whole thing is to make music feel real,” he told Craig Warner in a 1998 Goldmine profile. “You’ve got two or three minutes to connect, and it’s important that you have a story, a good hook line. It’s always gonna go back to that.”

Congratulations to this American Studios brother-in-arms for this honor!

Here is a look at Bobby Womack's discography:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Memphis Boy Bobby Wood To Publish Memoir

Memphis Boy keyboard player Bobby Wood has shared the news that he is working on his memoir. A firm date has not been set as of yet for its publishing, but it is expected sometime later this year as the finishing touches are presently being worked out. A background article on Bobby Wood can be found here: "From Elvis to Garth"

Among key facts not mentioned in the article on the Elvis fan website: Bobby’s work with Elvis Presley is featured on other albums – namely, January 1972’s Elvis Now (which actually featured songs from some three years earlier), as well as albums from his Stax Studios sessions in Memphis, including October 1973’s Raised On Rock (recorded July 1973) and March 1974’s Good Times (recorded December 1973).

Also, Elvis told Bobby many times that he was his favorite piano player, and he even asked him on several occasions to join him on tour. Bobby felt conflicted because of his admiration for Elvis, but he had a busy studio schedule that he felt he needed to concentrate on.

While he recalls his work with Elvis with great fondness, he is also very proud to have played on the career bests of some other notables. He worked on Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind” (written by Wayne Carson and American/Press Music Co. staff writers Johnny Christopher and Mark James), which was honored with Grammys for 1982’s Song of the Year and Best Country Song (and Nelson also won for Best Male Country Vocal Performance).

He played on a song that, although George Jones was initially reluctant to record, has been named the greatest Country Music song of all time – “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Released in 1980, it was Jones' first #1 in six years and a true career triumph for "The Possum." (I have a humorous recollection of visiting The Buccaneer Lounge in Memphis in Autumn 2007 when a garage/punk band suddenly launched into the song. A rowdy audience member yelled "Shut that &^%$ up!" – only to be run out of the place by the eclectic group of Chuck Taylor-wearing devoted music purists... and among them, my daughter and me. There is nowhere else on earth like Memphis!) Bobby also worked on some of Merle Haggard’s greatest hits, including the album Pancho and Lefty and many others.

The list of albums and songs that bear Bobby Wood’s credits is just immense:

We'll be waiting for that book from Bobby – which will be highlighted with touching tributes from many of the artists and luminaries with whom he has worked... and in the meantime, we'll be hoping that he can talk the other guys into following suit in penning their memoirs as well.

Dan Penn and Bobby Emmons at Upcoming Eighth Annual Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans - April 2009

Dan Penn and Bobby Emmons (and an unflattering post-surgery shot of me
between them) at Ft. Payne, Alabama's Boom Days Festival in Sept. 2008

New Orleans' Eighth Annual Ponderosa Stomp, celebrating the unsung heroes of American Music, boasts among its many featured performers in this year’s vast and varied lineup Memphis Boy keyboardist Bobby Emmons and American Studios songwriter/producer and R&B master Dan Penn. This year’s Stomp is set for April 28-29.

Bobby Emmons backed Elvis 40 years ago during his 1969 American Studios sessions, but his musical contributions go so much deeper as not only a member of the legendary Memphis Boys, but also as a successful songwriter. The Corinth, Mississippi native is a Hammond organ virtuoso and his unforgettable work on “Kentucky Rain” evokes for the listener a certain chill of striding in the cold rain right alongside Elvis. In addition to playing on some 122 hits generated under American Studios' roof from 1967 to 1971, he was also a member of the Bill Black Combo.

Emmons continued to excel in Nashville beginning in the early 1970s as a session player and lyricist, working with a parade of Country Music royalty. Among his many songwriting triumphs are "Help Me Make It To My Rockin' Chair" by B.J. Thomas, "Luckenbach, Texas" and "Wurlitzer Prize" by Waylon Jennings – both songs co-written with American Studios producer Lincoln “Chips” Moman, "Love Me Like You Used To" by Tanya Tucker, "So Much Like My Dad" by George Strait and a host of others. In the late 1990’s, he co-wrote Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana’s “Goin’ Back to Memphis” with fellow Bill Black Combo member and Memphis Boy guitarist Reggie Young.

“Luckenbach, Texas” became the signature song of Jennings’ career and a monster hit with six weeks at #1 on the Country charts – and garnering a Grammy nom for 1977’s Country Song of the Year. In all, Emmons’ work to date has received two nominations for Song of the Year, earned him three Grammy noms, six Citations of Achievement and three Millionaire Awards from Broadcast Music Inc. for radio airplay, and Nashville Songwriters Association honored him for his "creative genius in words and music."

He is slated to perform at this year’s Stomp with fellow American Studios veteran and songwriter/producer Dan Penn. Vernon, Alabama native Penn is nationally renowned as an R&B songwriter whose tunes have been recorded by Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, James Carr, Solomon Burke, the Box Tops and hundreds of others. More information about Dan and his albums "Junkyard Junky" and “Blue Nite Lounge” are below.

Several other artists with Memphis connections and a slate of architects of early Rock & Roll and Rockabilly are scheduled on three stages for two big nights in late April.

Also concurrent with the festival is the Second Annual Ponderosa Stomp Music Conference, featuring intimate conversations with musicians, historians and music business giants who will discuss secrets from behind the scenes of Rockabilly, Rock & Roll and R&B history. Among the list of panelists is Dan Penn, who is a master storyteller with a wealth of information to delight music lovers. The event will be April 27–29 at Louisiana State Museum at the Cabildo in New Orleans.

For a complete list of performers and conference speakers at the 2009 Ponderosa Stomp, visit the following website:

What: Eighth Annual Ponderosa Stomp & Music Conference 2009

When: April 27-29 (conference); April 28 & 29, 2009 (festival)
Where: House of Blues and the Parish, New Orleans, Louisiana (conference held at Louisiana State Museum at the Cabildo)

Related Links:

Spooner Oldham among 2009 class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees

Congratulations to American Studios/Press Music Co. alum Spooner Oldham for his upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

From his bio at:

Spooner Oldham

Keyboards, Vocals
Born: June 14, 1943

Dewey Lyndon “Spooner” Oldham is a linchpin of the Southern Soul Music sound. The Alabama-born (Center Star in Lauderdale County) musician was part of the crew that made records at FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in the northwest corner of the state. Oldham played keyboards on such seminal soul songs as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” and Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” He was a co-founder of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, which also included guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins. When Oldham moved to Memphis, he brought in his own replacement, keyboardist Barry Beckett.

In Memphis, Oldham struck up a songwriting partnership with singer/guitarist Dan Penn at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studios. Oldham has written a brace of Soul classics with Penn, including James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet,” James Carr’s “The Dark End of the Street,” the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” and Janis Joplin’s “A Woman Left Lonely.” Since 1967, the duo estimate that they’ve written between 400 and 500 songs.

A subsequent move to Los Angeles found Oldham recording with a variety of artists across the stylistic spectrum, including Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Gene Clark, Ry Cooder, the Flying Burrito Brothers and many others. He played on Bob Dylan’s Saved album and added his churchy, soulful keyboards to Dylan’s Saved and Shot of Love tours. He has also recorded with Neil Young in a relationship that dates back more than a quarter century. He backed up Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on the 2006 tour at which the foursome performed Young’s Freedom of Speech album in its entirety.

In 1994,
Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn came together as a duo for some live shows, following the release of Penn’s solo album, Do Right Man. They have occasionally toured as a duo since then, performing highlights from their vast catalog of Southern Soul classics. More recently, Oldham has recorded or toured with such contemporary artists as the Drive-By Truckers, Frank Black, Bushwalla and Cat Power.

Center Star, Alabama is beaming with pride... as is the rest of the state! Spooner will join other folks with Memphis ties (the late Bill Black and D.J. Fontana) as well as Muscle Shoals and Memphis/American Studios connections (Bobby Womack) in the class of 2009 inductees. Memphis has plenty of reason to be proud as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Memphis Melody

On September 20, 2008, I had the pleasure of hearing former American Studios/Press Music Co. staff writer Dan Penn and Memphis Boy keyboardist Bobby Emmons perform at Fort Payne, Alabama’s Boom Days First Federal Songwriters’ Showcase. The show had the feel and tone of a roomful of old friends listening to a couple of old friends playing their favorite songs… An intimate setting and a night I’ll never forget.

After being moved to tears, “whoo”-ing, cheering – essentially making a fool of myself throughout the whole show, I had the honor of meeting these gentlemen after the set. As a 37-year-old who started out 17 years ago as a DJ spinning their songs on vinyl (a job I couldn’t believe someone would actually pay me money to do), these guys are iconic legends to me. Just getting to shake their hands – as I stammered and trembled – and pose for a picture was overwhelming.

As a fellow Alabamian, Dan Penn is one of the many musicians who hail from my home state who make me so very proud. A native of Vernon (in Lamar County – where I also have scads of family), Dan cut his teeth on the R&B he heard on his little green radio, listening to Nashville’s WLAC late at night when he was supposed to be in bed. He was still in high school when he wrote “Is a Bluebird Blue,” recorded in 1960 (# 35, b/w “She's Mine”) by Friar’s Point, Mississippi-born Harold Lloyd Jenkins (née Conway Twitty).

Energized by the triumph of that hit, Penn trekked northward on Highway 17 to Florence to form “Dan Penn and the Pallbearers,” a band that traveled to gigs throughout the Southeast in a hearse. I can just imagine that sight! But the guys did know how to market themselves, no? Among their ranks emerged the first FAME Studios rhythm section, playing on historic Arthur Alexander records such as "You Better Move On" and "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues.” Penn’s FAME duties would include songwriting, engineering and cutting an occasional side of his own.

Over the years, many kindred spirits weaned on that same R&B gold beaming through crackling transistor radios joined forces in Florence and then Muscle Shoals, once heralded as “the hit recording capital of the world.” Though some 150 miles apart, Muscle Shoals and Memphis were sister cities joined at the soul musically – and it was a natural move for the songwriters and musicians to commute between the two in practicing their craft. Penn met up with fellow Alabamian Dewey Lyndon “Spooner” Oldham, with whom he quickly formed a bond that stands to this day. This dynamic Bama duo estimates they’ve written between 400 and 500 songs since 1967! In the late 1960’s, they found themselves as staff writers at American Studios as part of Press Music Co. Hundreds of artists have recorded their gems, much to our enjoyment.

After the show last September, I picked up Dan’s albums, Junkyard Junky and Blue Nite Lounge. It’s difficult to pick a favorite among all these great, soul-stirring songs (that I’ve listened to over and over). They are all sincere, soulful, melodic and just outstanding. But I just have to mention the haunting "Holding On To God," which has an interesting story of being recorded in a 173-year-old church with a 140-year-old pipe organ – and ends with the comforting sound of a rainstorm. Now, how did he know I love listening to rain on a tin roof? Any soul reared in the country has a special affinity for that sound... All that great music, plus the ambient sounds of a spring shower that made me feel like I was there on that fishing trip with them. It took me back to my youth.

Also, for pretty obvious reasons, “Down Around Birmingham” was one I wanted to hear – and its snappy tune and bright lyrics had me up dancing. That was quite a feat considering I was still recovering from surgery. Only Dan Penn could get me on my feet ("see you later, gator.. down around Birmingham!") Then with the reverent reminiscences of “A Memphis Melody,” I found myself wiping away tears. Dan takes us on a musical tour of the town that all these guys still carry with them in their hearts. Mine too. I could envision those streets in my mind's eye. When he sang the line, “Hello, Mr. Chips… Where you been? Ain’t it great to be American?” – well, that was it. It sets the tears flowing like a faucet everytime I hear it. Hey Dan… you left the water running! I wonder what Mr. Chips thinks of that song – and if he knows how much he's truly appreciated?

Dan has a great website – and his albums can be found here:

There is so much more to say about the work of Dan Penn... the unassuming, Liberty overall-clad Southern R&B master, but I’ll share these links that capture some of his contributions rather nicely. This NPR interview is excellent… and we need more pieces such as this to remind everyone just what greats these guys are. They all deserve so much credit!

This is a great Rolling Stone article (although Vernon isn’t in south Alabama; it’s in northwest Alabama):

I’ll have more on Dan and Bobby at this year’s Eighth Annual Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans… The Big Easy is in for a real treat with these two.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Article on 40th Anniversary of Elvis at American

Great article by journalist Pam Decker celebrating the 40th anniversary of Elvis's 1969 American recordings...