A favorite trope among the British Invasion bands of the ’60s was the notion that they took the R&B, country and early rock music that America had exported during the ’50s, put it all in a blender, and served it right back to us. And the boomers loved them for it. Nobody ever really held it against the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton that they were making vast fortunes on the backs of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters – certainly not in the way that critics have castigated numerous acts of the last four decades for deriving their sounds too obviously from the icons of rock’s golden era.
Those boomers sure are a possessive bunch, aren’t they? And they had a field day in 1989-90, what with (among others) Lenny Kravitz’s first album, Jellyfish’s debut Bellybutton, the Posies’ Dear 23, World Party’s Goodbye Jumbo … and the biggest commercial hit of this retro cavalcade, the Black Crowes’ Shake Your Money Maker. Whether the rock-crit establishment treated those albums kindly or not, a common theme coursed through their responses: Haven’t we heard this somewhere before?
And the critics, for the most part, were not particularly kind to the Black Crowes in 1990. Reviews of Shake Your Money Maker rarely got past the first independent clause, much less the first sentence, without including the word “Stones” or “Faces” or “Humble Pie” or “Allman Brothers” – and that’s when the reviews featured words at all. Robert Christgau, in the Village Voice, dismissed the album with one of his little round bomb doohickeys. You know, like this:
Really, Bob? The bomb? Twenty years later, one imagines brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, along with the rest of the Crowes, cheerfully using the spark of that fuse to light their bongs. And one imagines that Christgau — despite the accumulation of aural sludge from the 50 years he spent blocking the advancement of two generations of music critics — can still call to mind, clear as a bell, the heavy guitar riff from “Twice as Hard,” the boogie piano of “Jealous Again,” and Chris’ elegiac emoting on “She Talks to Angels.”
The Atlanta-based Robinson boys launched their first band, Mr. Crowes Garden, in 1984, and finally signed with Rick Rubin’s Def American label in 1989. They had been “discovered” (based on a listen to their demo) by George Drakoulias, a college buddy of Rubin’s at NYU who had been brought on as an A&R honcho when Rubin broke with Russell Simmons and Def Jam Records to form Def American. Drakoulias produced Shake Your Money Maker himself, and had the good sense not to push the Crowes in either of two obvious potential directions – toward the pile-driving snarl of Guns N’ Roses, whose sound had dominated AOR radio over the previous year, or toward the alternative-ization of Southern rock represented by R.E.M., whose last two albums had catapulted them into the mainstream.
Instead, Drakoulias and the Robinsons charted a middle course – one that kept the band grounded in its (yes, they were rather obvious) influences while refreshing the entire genre of R&B-based white-boy boogie for a new generation. (Would someone care to chart the etymology of the word “blooze” for us, please?) Perhaps their smartest move was the enlistment of Chuck Leavell to play keyboards. Leavell, a Muscle Shoals studio legend and compatriot of both the Allmans and the Stones, certainly cranked up the album’s retro quotient, but his distinctive piano fills and organ parts differentiated Shake Your Money Maker from everything else on (contemporary) radio at the turn of the ’90s.
The album was supremely radio-ready, and seemed engineered to go down in history. Think of its brilliant sequencing – opening with the most intensely guitar-driven (and perhaps most contemporary) of its five singles, “Twice as Hard,” then venturing back into the early-’70s groove of “Jealous Again” and “Could I’ve Been So Blind” (sandwiched around the Southern-tinged balladry of “Sister Luck”). Leavell’s organ elevates the bluesy “Seeing Things” into Stax/Volt territory – and then the Crowes bring it all home with their sizzling (and soon omnipresent) cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” which would provide the band with its breakthrough to MTV and pop radio. Jeff Cease, who ceased to be part of the band after SYMM, provided that song’s blistering guitar solos, as well as most of the album’s memorable axe work.
It’s rare for the first half-dozen songs of a debut album to offer such a definitive statement of a band’s purpose. Had the Crowes never recorded another note of music – and let’s face it, for many of the 3 million who purchased Shake Your Money Maker, that hypothetical may as well be fact – the band’s personality would have been etched in stone. Yet those six tracks didn’t even include the song that may be the Crowes’ best remembered, and is almost certainly the one that gets the most airplay to this day: the Robinsons’ ode to a downward-spiraling heroin addict, “She Talks to Angels.” Set against the drama of a spare, acoustic-guitar-driven background that eventually explodes into a blues-rock wail, Chris Robinson’s anguished vocal and bleak lyric (a lost child seems to have sparked the protagonist’s downfall) brought a welcome gravitas to the album – and to pop and rock radio in general during the spring of 1991.
Side Two (on the cassette) of Shake Your Money Maker showcased the band’s Southern-rock side to great effect on tracks like “Thick N’ Thin” (which featured the album’s most sustained guitar assault) and “Stare It Cold.” Leavell’s enormous contribution continued with some great boogie-woogie piano on “Thick N’ Thin” and a Hammond organ part that makes “Struttin’ Blues” worth multiple listens.
Building slowly from obscurity to ubiquity – it didn’t reach its album chart peak, at Number 4, for over a year — Shake Your Money Maker launched the Black Crowes into the Album Rock pantheon, and the Robinson brothers toward notoriety as the most tempestuous pair of rock brethren this side of the Gallaghers. (The Crowes and Oasis even toured together in 2001.) The band couldn’t sustain its debut album’s commercial success – though the follow-up, the wonderfully titled The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, debuted at Number One and featured four tracks that topped the Mainstream Rock chart. As it turned out, none of those achievements were all they were cracked up to be; the album sold only half the number of copies that SYMM had, and by 1992 AOR radio was a relatively desolate place, having lost listeners in droves to the grunge-driven Modern Rock format. Lead single “Remedy” stalled short of the Top 40 on pop radio, and a weak performance by its follow-up “Thorn in My Pride” was the band’s last gasp on the Hot 100. (At least Christgau gave an actual grade to TSH&MC – a B-.)
Sales of the next album, Amorica (1994), were tainted by controversy over its cover photo of a bikini bottom exposing pubic hair – a hullabaloo that far outpaced any attention the album’s music received. Since then the Crowes have released five more studio albums of consistently good-to-high quality, to consistently diminishing commercial returns. They disbanded for much of the early Aughts before reuniting in 2005, and these days Chris Robinson is more noteworthy for his marijuana advocacy and (former) marriage to Kate Hudson than for any of the band’s music of the past 15 years. But no one forgets Shake Your Money Maker, and all these years later, music fans remember that album not as some pale imitation of earlier rock glories, but as the greatest achievement of a band that – ironically, considering SYMM’s slow build – is widely perceived to have peaked too soon.