Thursday, 29 March 2012

So; what were white people listening to before Rock and Roll anyway?

And in case you were wondering what white people listened to in the pre-Rock and Roll post WW2 era of the late forties and early fifties...well if you were cool and lived in a big city then you listened to jazz. Especially the Cool Jazz of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. If you were a bit older and weren't worried about drugs then there were a few BeBop fans, if you were even older then there was still some swing hanging around. If you were young and political you listened to Folk like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Weavers and the Kingston Trio. If you were young but not political there were the collegiate type vocal quartets like the Four Freshmen, Four Lads, Four Preps, Crewcuts and The Lettermen. Whose names all imply their College Frat roots. And if you were working class and living in the south or west you listened to Honkytonk Country, Western Swing, Bluegrass or White Gospel.

( Note; very few white people, no matter how cool, listened to the blues or black gospel in the 1940's and 50's other than a few young musicians and critics)

Speaking of bluegrass; Earl Scruggs, one of the classic bluegrass pickers just died at 86.

Bluegrass great Earl Scruggs, who played banjo with the classic Bill Monroe and his Blue Sky Boys band from 1945 till 1948 when after a tiff with the notoriously hard assed Monroe he left with fiddle player Lester Flatt to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. Monroe never forgave them. Flatt and Scruggs would become his only real rivals for classic bluegrass and even today Scruggs pioneering three fingered style is still considered the only legit way to play for bluegrass pickers. The Foggy Mountain Boys would breakup in 1969 with most of the band staying with Flatt and and Scruggs would go on to a long respected solo career. In the film "Oh Brother where are thou" the band formed by Clooney and co. is called The Soggy Bottom Boys by way of tribute. Flatt died in 1979.

Earl Scruggs & Lester Flatt Breakdown;

Foggy Mountain Boys ~ "Foggy Mountain Breakdown";

Also dying recently is Everett Lily, one of the Lily Brothers & Don Stover, an important Bluegrass band of the late fifties.

Short Doc about the Lily Brothers & Don Stover;

Another bluegrass picker; Doug Dillard, played with The Dillards and later with Gene Clark and The Byrds;

The Dillards on the Andy Griffith show;

Or if you were Celtic there was The Dubliners, one of the classic Irish folk groups from 1962 on, along with the even older Chieftains. Which is not technically pre Rock and Roll. However for most people on Ireland, Newfoundland, Cape Breton Isle of Man or the Scottish Highlands it might as well have been. The old ways still held firm there for a while yet. Founding member "Banjo Barney" McKenna, who sang and played banjo and mandolin, and who had previously been in the Chieftains, died this week at age 72.

The Dubliners ~ "Whiskey in the jar";

OK that's all well and good but what if you weren't cool enough to be listening to jazz, political enough to be listening to folk or white trash enough to be listening to country or white gospel? Well then the pickings get pretty slim indeed. There is always classical music of course, if you were an educated snob. Then there is the world of whiter-than-white post war pop best exemplified by these three who also just died;

Russell Arms ~ Early 1950's pre-R&R pop singer, appeared as a regular on the TV show "Your Hit Parade" which featured weekly covers of top 40 hits. Once R&R hit this sort of approach became impossible and "Your Hit Parade" was edged out by shows with actual R&R singers hosted by Alan Feed, Dewey Phillps and Dick Clark ~ 92

Russell Arms covers "Moments to remember" in 1955 (originally done by Toronto vocal group The Four Lads);

Russell Arms and Gisele MacKenzie ~ "Man and woman";

Russell Arms ~ "Papa loves mambo" originally by Perry Como;

Nick Noble (real name Nick Valkan); one of the pre-rock white pop singers who would be put out of work when rock hit. Noble actually manged to have a few more hits though as an easy listening and even country singer ~ 85

Dorthy McQuire ~ Singer with 1940's & 50's Pop Vocal group The McQuire Sisters ~ 84

Nick Nobel ~ "Moonlight swim";

Marion Marlowe ~ Pop singer who scored some hits in the early fifties and was a regular on the Arthur Godfrey Show. After she was dropped by her record label she was fired by Godfrey in 1955, later moving to Broadway ~ 83

Marion Marlowe "Lover";

Not everything that happened in the 1950's was cool you know.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

On Joan Baez and Phill Ochs

This past month the PBS series "American Masters" featured specials on folk singers Joan Baez and Phil Ochs (they also had ones on Cab Calloway, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, but that's another subject). While watching them I was reminded of something.

I was never a particular fan of their purist brand of folk; too pristine and stately for my liking, and not a lot of fun, I prefer my folk either rough and rootsy or the elaborate garage-folk rock of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. However one has to have nothing but admiration for their true commitment to the ideals of the original folk movement, often at great personal cost and risk.


Both of them, especially Baez, not only supported the great battles for civil rights and peace with the usual public relations but also by putting themselves on the line literally. In the early sixties when concerts in the deep south were segregated as a matter of law, she insisted on contracts that specified integrated audiences, or risk cancelling the whole tour. When black students attempting to integrate schools in the south were threatened by stone throwing mobs, Baez came down to personally escort them to school. The sullen mobs backed off. A committed Quaker pacifist, she insisted on repeatedly advising draftees on how to resist the draft. Which got her arrested repeatedly. Every time she got out she went right back to the draft offices and resumed counselling draft resisters. As did her husband who got a longer stretch. She went to Vietnam while Hanoi was under constant bombardment by US B52's. She went to Cambodian refugee camps under the reach of shell fire. She went to Chile to stand with the Mothers of The Disappeared. She went to Sarajevo while it was under bombardment, going to a market that was a known target of Serbian shells, and sang "Amazing Grace".


All the while Baez never once lost her temper or raised her voice. She remained the very embodiment of her friend Martin Luther King's ideals. And she never seemed to be in it for the publicity. In fact by her political activities, her insistence on placing activism ahead of touring and her refusal to compromise her musical style she gave up the kind of mainstream success she would surely have had. It's hard to remember now that she actually started her career off by getting on the cover of Time Magazine and her firsts two albums were million sellers. She was a very big star, and an earthy/angelic sex symbol to boot. Most artists would sell their very souls for that kind of attention, she put it to work for public justice while keeping her artistic vision intact. I still have little interest in most of her music, aside from her Nashville album with the classic version of "The night they drove Old Dixie down", but it's hard to see how anyone could have have set higher standards for any "political" artist.


Phil Ochs did not have the strength or discipline of Baez. Probably bipolar and a hard drinker as well, Ochs flirted with stardom and the attention it promised. But he always came back to the ideals of the original sixties folks scene. He worked himself to exhaustion for all the right causes and ruined his health. He organized rallies, events and demos but didn't hog all the glory. He passed up plenty of chances to promote his career to promote peace. He lost good friends in the Chile coup. By the time the Vietnam war ended and Watergate brought down Nixon Ochs was a broken-down wreck, sick, tired, depressed, often drunk and confused and overweight from overeating and meds that did not seem to work. He killed himself in 1976. The musical output of Ochs was more varied than Baez but he was no less insistent on following his muse wherever it led. "I ain't marching", When I'm gone", "Another age" and "James Dean of Indiana" are his best songs. Today Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen sing both his praises and his songs.


There have been no shortage of singers, actors and writers who will attach themselves to causes. Some, if not most, are no doubt sincere. Some are opportunists and poseurs. Some are both. Even the sincere one have a pretty easy time of it these days. In fact I would say the same about plenty of full time "activist" types. It is easy to get cynical. Sometimes it is good to remember the real thing. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Harry McClintock were it. So were Joan Baez and Phil Ochs.



Tuesday, 13 March 2012

RIPs to Micheal Davis of the MC5 and some other classic rockers

Michael Davis ~ Bassist for the classic late 1960's proto-punk band The MC, later joined with Ex Stooge Ron Asheton in The New Order (not the other one). There is literally not a punk, garage or grunge band alive or dead that has not been influenced by the MC5. Nuff said ~ 68



Levon Helm; Drummer with The Band and The Hawks from the 1950's on. Starting off as a backing band for Ronnie Hawkins on Roulette Records before Hawkins moved to Toronto. Helm later moved to Canada as well and rejoined Hawkins new all-Canadian group renamed The Band as they went on to play with Bob Dylan on his classic folk-rock records, still later the Band would go on to a solo career in the late 1960's and 70's with several classic albums. After the Band broke up Helm would continue with a solo career as well as acting, including a role as the father in "Coal Miner's Daughter". He had been battling cancer for years and died at age 72.


Buggs Henderson, guitarist with the Nuggets era Texas garage band Mouse and Traps, best know for their blatant Dylan rip off "A public execution" as well as the excellent "Maid of Sugar Maid of spice" died of cancer last week at 68. He stared out with an R&B group called the Sensors and in later years recorded as a solo blues guy.


Freddie Milano ~ Singer with Dion and The Belmonts, one of the greatest white Doo Wop groups with hits lke "Runaround Sue", "Lovers who wander", "A teenager in love" ~ 72



Donald Duck Dunn; Bassist with Booker T & The MG's, the classic house band for virtually all the classic Soul and R&B hits put out by Stax Records in the 1960's. Hits by the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, as well as several instrumental hits by the MG's themselves. Later worked with Wilson Pickett, Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Neil Young, Joe Walsh and Jerry Lee Lewis. Still later he played on Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks "Stop dragging my heart around". Appeared in the "Blues Brothers" movie as himself backing up the Brothers as well as Cab Calloway.

Booker T & The MG's ~ "Green Onions";

Herb Reed ~ Singer with 1950's Doo Wop group The Platters ~ 83

The Platters ~ "The Great Pretender" & "Only You";

Lloyd Brevett ~ Jamaican double bassist (The Skatalites) ~ 80

Chris Ethridge ~ Bassist with Gram Parson's International Submarine Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Also played with The Byrds and Emmylou Harris ~

The Flying Burrito Brothers ~ "Older Guys";

Robin Gibb ~ Singer with the Bee Gees, best remembered for their disco hits but originally known for a series of lush 1960's pop hits such as "To love somebody", "I started a joke" ~ 62 The Bee Gees ~ "I started a joke";

Vince Lovegrove ~ Co-lead singer (with Bon Scott) in 1960's Australian group The Valentines. The group broke up after a drugs bust and Lovegrove went on to be a producer and manager while Scott would later join AC/DC ~ 65


Richie Teeter ~ Drummer with late 1970's New York punk band The Dictators, later with 1980's hair band shockers Twisted Sister ~ 61



Ronnie Montrose with 1970's hard rock band Montrose along with singer Sammy Hagar before Sammy went solo became a total twat. Ronnie later went solo ~ 66


Mike Hossack, one of many drummers of the 1970's stadium rockers Doobie Brothers most of whom were not brothers and none of whom were named "Doobie" ~ 65


Thursday, 1 March 2012

Davy Jones and the Monkees

Exhibit a) The Monkees ~ "Porpoise song";

For years the Monkees were known and despised as the first manufactured band. The Pre Fab Four. By the time Davy Jones died this week many were willing to acknowledge that they had many classic songs. Although there are still misconceptions bout them, I heard one newscaster compare them to Milli Vinnili.

Exhibit b) The Monkees ~ "She hangs out";

This is unfair, The Monkees actually sang all their songs and Vinilli did not. It is also not exactly true that they were non-musicians who could not really play and did not write any songs. In fact they all had musical experience. Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork were fixtures on the L.A. folk scene, albeit unsigned. In fact Nesmith was an accomplished songwriter and Tork a talented musician who could play any number of stringed or keyed instrument well. He was actually a close friend of the then also unsigned Stephen Stills who also auditioned for the Monkees and if neither hadn't gotten the gig it's likely the Tork would have ended up in the The Buffalo Springfield with Stills. Dolenz was also part of the folk scene as part of a singing duo with his sister, previously he had actually played drums in a garage band. Davy Jones had no rock experience and played no instrument but he had played Broadway as part of the stage show of the play "Oliver" and had recorded a couple of pop singles which had made the lower reaches of the charts, he even had his own fan club.

Exhibit c) The Monkees ~ "Look out; Here comes tomorrow";

It is true that they contributed little creatively to the first two albums (besides the vocals) other than a couple of Nesmith songs and little rhythm guitar by Tork or Nesmith. However by the third album ("Headquarters") they had taken over their music careers and insisted on choosing and playing their own materiel. They also toured live in concert. If after the third album they chose to make use of the excellent songwriters and top flight session players that their budget could allow for, well who can blame them?

Exhibit d) The Monkees ~ "No time";

It's worth pointing out that in the early rock and roll era many artists relied on songwriters, session players and producers for much if not all of their materiel; including the likes of Elvis, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Billie Holliday and any number of Motown acts. And I've never heard anyone say; "Big deal, they didn't actually write those songs you know".

Exhibit e) The Monkees ~ "What am I doing hanging round?";

A sampling of the songwriters and session guys they used would include;

Session players;
Glen Cambell, Neil Young, Clarence White, Buddy Miles, Jack Nitzsche, Charlie McCoy, Danny Kortchmar, Doug Dillard, Shorty Rogers, James Burton, Plas Johnson, Al Casey, Jimmy Bryant, Stephen Stills, Hall Blaine, Larry Knetchell, Dewy Martin, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Keith Allison. Lowell George

Gerry Goffin & Carol King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, Boyce & Hart, Lieber & Stoller, Neil Diamond, Jeff Barry, Neil Sedaka, Harry Nilson, Andy Kim, Paul Williams, John Stewart, David Gates, Micheal Murphy, Chip Douglass & Bill Martin and Roger Atkins "who also wrote "It's my life for The Animals"

Personally I wouldn't have turned them down either. It is still a fact that some of their best songs were in fact written by the band itself (usually by Nesmith) and some were also produced by them. It's a;so a fact that Mickey had one of the great voices of his era, a string distinct tenor, while Davy had a less unique but still distinct voice.

Exhibit f) The Monkees ~ "Mary Mary";

In an attempt to take further control and shed their pop image it was actually their own idea to make use of the brand new technology of the Moog Synth for a couple of songs, and make the ultra psych classic "Head" which was a pretty gutsy move. Naturally their careers never recovered. Now it's a classic of 1960's weirdness.

Exhibit g) The Monkees ~ "Last train to Clarksville";

Yes I used to watch their TV show after school when I was a kid and loved them, but I honestly think there is more than pure retro nostalgia going on here. A great song well sung and played is still a great song, and any band that can claim even one classic song is worth knowing. And the Monkees had more than their share. That's more than can really be said for prefab rivals like The Partridge Family, Sean Cassidy, Bobby Sherman or even the beloved Josie & The Pussycats.

If you don't believe me you can ask some of of the bands who covered them, including;

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band ~ "Mary Mary"
The Hollies ~ "I'll be true to you"
The Palace Guard ~ "Saturday's child"
The Coasters ~ "DW Washburn"
The Sex Pistols ~ "Stepping stone"
Minor Threat ~ "Stepping stone"
The Cardboard Brains ~ "Stepping stone"
Quarantine ~ "Stepping stone"
The Grapes of Wrath ~ "Porpoise song"
The Church ~ "Porpoise song"
The Forgotten Rebels ~ "Look out here comes tomorrow"
Les Maccabees ~ "I'm a believer"
The Bicycles ~ "Cuddly Toy"

Note; I know that Paul Revere & The Raiders also did "Stepping Stone" but they actually recorded it a few months before the Monkees, although the Monkees' version would be the bigger hit. And the Raiders didn't write it either.

I wonder why there are seven Canadian bands there? Maybe the show played longer here in reruns.

Exhibit h) The Monkees ~ "Star collector";