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Nat ‘King’ Cole Tag

Soul Serenade - Jackie RossWhen the Beatles arrived in America in 1964 many dreams of stardom were crushed. The ensuing flood tide known as the British Invasion swept away many artists who had been enjoying success in the ’50s and early ’60s. There were exceptions however, and among those exceptions were the artists who recorded for Motown Records. Motown continued to turn out hit after hit, as if oblivious to the charms of the invaders from across the sea.

One of those Motown artists was a great singer by the name of Mary Wells. She was more than just another Motown artist. In many ways she defined the sound of Motown in the early ’60s, scoring with her trio of 1962 hits “The One Who Really Loves You,” “Two Lovers,” and “You Beat Me to the Punch,” followed by her biggest hit, “My Guy,” in 1964. The Smokey Robinson-written song was a #1 hit on the Pop and R&B charts.

Soul Serenade - Billy PaulIt’s time to head down the Turnpike to Philadelphia again. These trips to the City of Brotherly Love are pretty much my favorite part of writing this column. As I’ve said many times, here and elsewhere, it was the kids of Philadelphia, with their profound love of soul music, that had an everlasting effect on a kid growing up an hour away in Atlantic City. It’s a debt I can never repay, for a gift I will never forget.

You know the names. They echo down the halls of the virtual museum of American soul music, in the wing that they call Philly Soul. Gamble & Huff, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, the Stylistics, Barbara Mason, the Intruders, Teddy Pendergrass, the Delfonics, MFSB, Patti LaBelle, Blue Magic, Hall & Oates, the Soul Survivors. And they’re not all Philadelphians either. Out-of-towners like Jerry Butler, the O’Jays, and the Spinners found their greatest success when they recorded in Philadelphia.

Soul Serenade - Brook BentonI don’t know if it has been the same where you live, but here in the northeast, and in New England in particular, we are having a most unusual autumn. We have enjoyed temperatures in the 50s and 60s for weeks on end. There has been a noticeable lack of frigid temperatures, ice, snow, and the other factors that often define the season here. Yesterday I took a ride down to a nearby beach. Surfers, paddle boarders, and kayakers were all enjoying the water, and guys in shorts were tossing around a football on the beach.

I have to admit that it’s been enjoyable. The older I get, the less I like the cold and snow. The thing is, it’s not normal. Or is this the new normal? Climate change is no longer a theory, or a prediction, it’s a reality. Maybe it’s the cause of this unseasonable weather. I don’t want to spoil the party, but maybe this temperate weather is not a good thing. Then again, we could get buried in snow in January, and this will all be forgotten.

So what’s the fixation on weather this week? Well, we’re going to talk about rain. We haven’t had much here recently, but the rain I’m talking about fell in Georgia on one particular night, many years ago. Tony Joe White chronicled it in a song, and Brook Benton brought that song to the world a few years later.

Soul Serenade - Billy Preston
I have a Billy Preston story. It seems like a distant dream sometimes, but it really happened. Really.

Billy was born in Houston, but moved to L.A. as a young child. By the age of ten he was an accomplished organist, backing gospel legends like Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, and Andrae Crouch. A year later he was performing “Blueberry Hill” on Nat King Cole’s TV show, and a year after that he appeared with Cole in the movie St. Louis Blues, the story of W.C. Handy.

And so this is Christmas. I hope that this season of light has been good to you and those you love. Soon we’ll be marking the end of a year that could only be described as troubling. In addition to the nation’s problems, and the world’s, we’ve lost too many great people this year. The world of music in particular suddenly finds itself without many people whose like we will never see again.

We lost Charles Brown nearly 16 years ago now, but he left behind a stunning musical legacy. He didn’t start out to be a musician though. In fact he graduated from college with a degree in chemistry and became a high school chemistry teacher in his home state of Texas. After that he worked at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas, and as an apprentice shipyard electrician in Richmond, California. Brown finally settled in Los Angeles in 1943.

Welcome to 1963, loyal readers! This year we see some subtle but important changes in the American pop music landscape. While love and romance continued to be dominant themes, more socially conscious fare started to appear on the charts. On the flip side, the Beach Boys — with their joyful celebrations of girls, cars, and surfing — were just getting warmed up for their assault on the charts.

Elsewhere in America, 1963 was a year of incredible highs (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August) and devastating lows (President Kennedy’s assassination in November). On the pop culture front, the first James Bond feature film (Dr. No) debuted, James Brown’s legendary Live at the Apollo album was released, and Patsy Cline died at age 30 when her plane crashed near Camden, Tennessee.

Trini Lopez, "If I Had a Hammer"#1: Trini Lopez, “If I Had a Hammer” – #3 U.S., #4 U.K.

Jack Feerick – My son is singing this in his third-grade chorus, and I recently rounded up a bunch of versions for him—but I’d never heard Trini’s version before now. It’s just become my favorite.

“Hammer” is a profound song, self-consciously so, and its imagery is mythic. And most performers, from Peter, Paul and Mary to (God help us) Leonard Nimoy, treat it earnestly, even reverently. Lopez, though, turns it into a party song, a hand-clapping singalong. And he’s right to do so, for a couple of reasons. He’s capturing the moment when social justice is morphing from a movement into a counterculture—a cohesive social cohort with its own shared values, its own cultural signifiers, its own music. Lopez’s “Hammer” is not a cry for action or a wake-up call aimed at the square world; it’s a celebration of belonging, shared by those within the scene.

And if its easygoing charm is at odds with the urgency of Pete Seeger’s original vision, that too is appropriate. The task of creating a finer world is not necessarily grim—it can be joyous. In fact, if it’s going to succeed, I think maybe it needs to be.

Jon Cummings – I like this track just fine, and I like what Jack says it,  though I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of early-’60s folkies and movement types didn’t see it that way. Did the people who chastised Dylan for going electric appreciate Lopez turning the Weavers’ iconic “If I Had a Hammer” into “La Bamba”? (Speaking of which, the same live album that features this track also features Lopez’s “Latinized” takes on “This Land Is Your Land,” “What’d I Say,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and “Unchain My Heart,” as well as “La Bamba” itself.) Of course, Lopez’s most memorable hit was “Lemon Tree” — which always reminds me of George Costanza’s “safe word” when he’s trying to switch the tape in a woman’s answering machine on a classic Seinfeld episode.

Dw. Dunphy – I recently rewatched Martin Scorsese’s doc No Direction Home – Bob Dylan, and was once again amazed by the earnestness and naivete of the folk culture. I suppose you had to be to survive those turbulent times. If they were as cynical then as we (I) are (am) now (now), nothing would have ever happened. Even so, the overall belief that their songs were changing the world and were a force for good, well, I still don’t buy into it. The music made for a great soundtrack, but the movements could have survived without them.

And it is through the tri-focaled lenses of cynicism that I have to view this version of “If I Had a Hammer.” It certainly does groove and as a piece of music, I think it is more enjoyable than some of the stridently political versions I’ve heard in my lifetime. Yet I also believe the proliferation of the track among artists had less to do with spreading a message than it did with latching onto the spirit of the times and hoping for a hit. For some it meant the message, for others it was a way to a hit.

I personally love Lopez’s live take on this because there’s something bizarrely endearing to him singing “Eef I Yad a Yammer.”

Chris Holmes – I never even knew what the hell this song was about, so learning that it’s so tied up with the Progressive and Civil Rights movements comes as a shock to me. In Trini’s hands this just sounds like a fun little ditty, with no greater meaning. But to me this song will always be Leonard Nimoy’s.

Tony Redman – At first I thought this uptempo version of the song seemed inappropriate somehow. But as I thought about it, I realized maybe that’s what the song needed. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about justice, freedom, and the love between my brothers and my sisters, is there?

David Lifton – See, I went the opposite way. I guess this makes sense in that it combines the two sounds big on college campuses at the time – folk music and frat party rock – but I’m not getting the sense of righteousness that I get from Peter, Paul & Mary’s version. Maybe it’s the heavy drums and Lopez cutting off the final syllable of every line. I guess that makes him the anti-Kevin Cronin.

Well, hello there loyal Soundtrack Saturday readers! I hope you’ve been doing well these past few weeks. I wish I could say I have been, but that wouldn’t be the truth — I’m housebound and recovering from knee surgery and 100% tired of my own company. But, you don’t want to hear about such things. You’re here to read about a movie soundtrack.

Last year, I decided to write about holidaythemed films during the month of December and you all seemed to really enjoy that. So, I figured I’d do that again this year. However, the two films I’ve chosen to write about (I skipped the first Saturday of December because, well, I was on pain killers and I wouldn’t have written anything that made sense) aren’t necessarily what you might think of as traditional holiday films. But I consider them to be holiday films and that’s really all that matters.

Directed by the late Ted Demme , who is also responsible for one of my favorite films of all time, Beautiful Girls (1996), The Ref (1994) stars comedian Denis Leary — best known at the time for the cynical, cigarrette-smoking persona he’d cultivated in MTV spots that were also directed by Demme — as cat burglar Gus, who is out to score one last major haul before retiring. The only trouble? He picked a house with a burglar alarm that could’ve been designed by the Goonies. Gus doesn’t succeed in robbing the house and is forced to go on the run on Christmas Eve.

When he takes Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd Chasseur (Kevin Spacey) hostage and forces them to take him to their home so he can hide out and figure out a plan of escape, he has no idea what he’s gotten himself into  and soon realizes that getting caught by the police might’ve been the better option.

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When someone lives to be 94 years old, especially someone who lived as full a life as Les Paul did, you usually don’t look up in the sky and ask God why he had to be taken. The thing is though, until very recently, Les was holding down a regular gig, delighting audiences at Iridium in New York City every Monday night. He continued to be a working musician almost until his dying day.

Of course Les Paul is known not just as a great guitar player, but as an innovator who made a lot of the music that we love possible. Among his many achievements, he is best known for developing the solid body electric guitar, in the form of the Gibson guitar that bears his name, and for creating multi-track recording. As if that wasn’t enough, after creating the electric guitar “that made the sound of rock and roll possible,” he developed sounds for it such as tape delay, and phasing.

Les Paul was born in Waukesha, WI in 1915. By the age of 13, he was playing semi-professionally as a country music guitar player. Over the years, he worked as a musician in radio, and backed singers like Nat ‘King’ Cole, Bing Crosby, and the Andrews Sisters. He first built “the Log,” one of the first solid body electric guitar, in 1939. In 1951 he signed a contract with Gibson Guitars allowing them to use his name on a guitar they had built according to his specifications. This, of course, was the famous Les Paul “Goldtop.”