Author Archives

Tom Maxwell
I communicate. Then with music, now with words. I like how the two inform each other.

Shelved: Sonny Rollins Live at Carnegie Hall

Bob Parent / Hulton Archives / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | February 2019 | 16 minutes (3,055 words)

 

Sonny Rollins was busy in 1957. The tenor saxophonist was present for about sixteen recording sessions, some private, most released, with his own bands as well as with groups led by Miles Davis, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Dorham. His landmark A Night At The Village Vanguard, a live recording of two sets, one in the afternoon and one in the evening performed on November 3rd at New York’s legendary jazz club, became a standard by which other improvisers are judged. In addition, Rollins debuted at Carnegie Hall and headlined the first Monterey Jazz Festival the following year.

“When I look back, people say, ‘Oh, you did a lot of records in 1957…’ Well, I mean, I had to be told about it,” Rollins recently told an interviewer. “So, I guess it was more or less of a norm, you know.”

Read more…

Remembering James Ingram

Rob Loud/Getty Images

Famed R&B singer and songwriter James Ingram has died. He was 66. Ingram scored eight Top 40 hits, won two Grammys, and was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Original Song. He also collaborated with a host of musical legends, including singers Linda Ronstadt, Patti Austin, Michael McDonald, and Donna Summer.

Great artists always make it look easy, but Ingram’s career—like his singing—seemed effortless. Growing up in Ohio during the early 1960s, he learned piano by watching his brother Henry play. “When he’d get up from the piano,” Ingram told the Chicago Tribune, “[I’d] sit down and start banging. And when I got older, I started banging better and better.” As a teenager, he joined the choir of his father’s church “to keep my mother from pinching me when I was talking,” but never sang solo.

Wen Ingram moved to Los Angeles with his band Revelation Funk in the 1970s, he stayed there after his bandmates moved back home. Soon he was playing session piano and singing background vocals for Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. He also wrote and recorded demos for $50 a song in a studio on Sunset Boulevard. One of those tunes, “Just Once,” caught the ear of famed producer Quincy Jones.

“I hung up on Quincy,” Ingram remembered of their first phone call. “I was never no singer. I never shopped a deal, none of that. My wife said, ‘James, that was Quincy.’ He called back, and we started talking.” Jones put Ingram’s “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways” on his 1980 album The Dude. For the latter, Ingram won the Grammy for Best New Artist.

Even at this early stage of his career, Ingram’s voice was fully formed. He sang with a quiet authority and communicated powerful emotions with restraint. His falsetto was clean and slightly feral. Although clearly from the church, Ingram was primed for crossover fame, at a time when black artists were being marketed to a white audience. He was smooth but always soulful.

Jones was producing a new Michael Jackson album and asked Ingram to contribute a song. “P.Y.T.” hit the mark and appeared on 1982’s monster-selling Thriller. Ingram attended the recording session.

“Michael was dancing while he was singing,” Ingram recalled. “I’m not talking about just moving a little bit, he came out and he was sweating.” Jackson asked Ingram if he was singing it right. “Man, you’re killing it,” Ingram replied. To date, Thriller has sold an estimated 66 million copies. “It’s almost like I got the chance to go to Oz and Quincy was the Wizard of Oz and Michael Jackson was who he was dealing with in his world,” Ingram said of the experience.

Jones mourned Ingram’s death, saying, “There are no words to convey how much my heart aches with the news of the passing of my baby brother James Ingram. With that soulful, whisky-sounding voice, James Ingram was simply magical.”

Beginning in the ’80s, Ingram embarked on a series of successful collaborations. “Baby, Come to Me,” his 1982 duet with singer Patti Austin, reached No. 1. He teamed up with the Doobie Brothers’ blue-eyed frontman Michael McDonald for 1983s “Yah Mo B There”—Ingram’s keening falsetto in that song’s opening bars is absolutely haunting. He collaborated with Linda Ronstadt on the hit “Somewhere Out There” (another Grammy winner), and paired beautifully with jazz singer Anita Baker on “When You Love Someone.” He even sang with Dolly Parton, because he could. And it worked.

Ingram also struck gold in popular film soundtracks from the ’80s, contributing songs to An American Tail, The Color Purple, and City Slickers, among others. His contributions to Beethoven’s 2nd and Junior each earned Academy Award nominations.

The production values of these tracks is dated, to be sure; there’s a kind of easy listening blandness to the thin-sounding drums and brittle keyboards that hasn’t aged particularly well. However, the melodies that Ingram wrote, and the emotional directness with which he sang them, still sound as fresh and intimate.

Ingram scored his own No. 1 with “I Don’t Have the Heart” in 1990, the end of more than a decade of extraordinary achievement. His recorded output slowed considerably after that, culminating in 2008s gospel album Stand (In the Light).

Ingram’s crossover ability, though, brought its own kind of limitations. “It’s frustrating at times when I release a record and they tell me it’s not black enough for some radio stations,” he said in 1982. “It’s like telling the black audience they’re not important, like I’m not interested in them.”

Tellingly, musician Questlove remembered Ingram for his blackness, crediting his career with setting the stage for Dr. Dre’s rap album The Chronic. “It’s a GIFT,” Questlove wrote, “to navigate a thin line of EXPLICIT blackness..and still occupy a space that the Pendergrass and Marvin Junior’s of the world never got to enjoy…as we dwell further into auto tune abyss his brand…of sho nuffness will be missed DESPERATELY.”

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel

Shelved: Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine

Paul R. Giunta / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | January 2019 | 17 minutes (3,315 words)

 

The remarkable thing about Fiona Apple’s album Extraordinary Machine is that it’s actually two albums. Each has its own fans and critics; each was reviewed in the mainstream press; each is available to the casual listener.

Upon closer inspection, the story of Extraordinary Machine becomes a room made of mirrors: The album was shelved, perhaps by Apple’s label, or, according to her own admission, by Apple herself. That version of the album, produced by longtime collaborator Jon Brion, was leaked to the internet. It’s called the “Jon Brion version,” but in actuality is a pastiche of original sessions and new material. The official release was mixed without the presence of either of its two producers. The first version was shelved in part because Apple didn’t feel the songs were fully her own, and partly because her label didn’t believe it had commercial potential; the released version proved them right, at least by yielding no hit singles.

Read more…

A History of American Protest Music: Come By Here

AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Jay Janner

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | January 2019 | 9 minutes (1,738 words)

 

Sometime between mid April and early May 1926, Robert Winslow Gordon, the first head of the Archive of American Folk Song in Washington, D.C., recorded a man singing on a wax cylinder. That man, known only as H. Wylie, was from the Georgia Sea Islands and sang in a Gullah accent. The song he sang, “Come By Here,” is an invocation. “Somebody need you, Lord, come by here,” he sings in an insistent lilt. The lyric is a repetitive incantation.

Gordon recorded three other wax cylinder versions of the same song in Georgia between 1926 and 1928, ones with the refrain “come by here” or “come by yuh,” indicating the Gullah dialect. Accordingly, he cross-referenced the recordings in his organization’s archive card catalog. Of those, one cylinder broke and another was lost. In addition, the archive was in possession of a written manuscript containing a version of the song from Alliance, North Carolina, called “Oh Lord, Won’t You Come By Here,” collected in 1926 and sent to the archive the following year. The repetitive lyrical structure is the same as in the Georgia recordings. “Somebody’s sick, Lord, come by here,” it read. “Somebody’s dying, Lord, come by here.”

Read more…

Remembering Singer Nancy Wilson

Nancy Wilson autographing fans' photographs at Los Angeles High School,1967. AP Photo

Listening to Nancy Wilson’s “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” over a half century after she recorded it is like taking a master class in voice control and phrasing. She incorporates Eartha Kitt’s tart enunciation and Dinah Washington’s melodic upticks in the verse. By the 22-second mark Wilson is stretching out the word “you” into its own little story of restrained passion in a way few singers can. This is Ella Fitzgerald-level breath control. When Wilson effortlessly leaps up the arpeggiated steps of “and you don’t know you don’t know you don’t know…how glad I am” in her first chorus, it’s a marvel of clarity and precision.

Nancy Wilson died on December 13, after an extended illness. She was 81.

Released in the summer of 1964, “How Glad I Am” broke the Top 20 and earned her a Grammy. Wilson, then five years into her recording career, already considered herself a pop artist. “People labelled me as jazz,” she said at the time. “I don’t like that designation. I want to be able to reach everybody, not just the jazz crowd.”

Although never quite able to dodge the label of jazz thrush, Wilson considered herself “a song stylist,” as she told The Washington Post. “That’s my essence,” she explained, “to weave words, to be dramatic.” Regardless, Time magazine once called her Ella Fitzgerald’s heir apparent. “At her opening at Los Angeles’ Coconut Grove last week,” they wrote in 1964, “the crowd of 1,000 voted her everything but the deed and title to the place.”

When she was 15, Wilson had her own television show called Skyline Melodies in Columbus, Ohio, singing pop tunes by request. She later played night clubs in the Bronx and Chicago, but it was venues like the Coconut Grove that encouraged Wilson to up her game. “Now I have to really entertain,” she told Music Business in 1964. “You can’t just get up there and be soulful in clubs like these. They expect a show and you’ve got to give them one. But this is something new and fresh and exciting for me. Even if I’m tired it doesn’t get me bugged.”

It’s a perfectly American thing to delineate forms of musical expression, assigning them to differing demographics for both performer and audience. The word ‘blues’ was tacked onto the end of many of what were called “race record” titles in the 1920s to serve more as a racial signifier than song description. Jazz, initially a product of black subculture, became the pop music of the 1930s and ’40s once accepted into the white American mainstream. Rock ‘n’ roll helped transform American teenagers into a lucrative consumer group in the 1950s, just as it signified that whites had started making and consuming black music.

These race and genre-based boundaries eventually dissolved. Producer Norman Granz asked jazz icons Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to record an album of mostly white show tunes in 1956, to astounding success. Black entertainers like Nat Cole and Johnny Mathis soon gained access to mainstream stardom without the old restrictive labels.

Wilson came to prominence at a time when jazz, blues, and pop had become intertwined in the public consciousness, allowing her to move farther down the path blazed by her hero Jimmy Scott. Thus she was able to make jazz records with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, slow burners like “Our Day Will Come,” and standards. “The Very Thought of You” was recorded by Billie Holiday years before, but Wilson’s early ’60s reading is more intimate and engaged. She stands perfectly poised between the earlier era of vocalists like Lena Horne and Anita Baker, and those — like Natalie Cole and Nnenna Freelon — whom she would inspire.

“In the ‘great tradition’ of blues, torch and jazz singers that began with Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson leans toward the left wing, where pop meets jazz, a translator of popular standards into the jazz idiom,” Time wrote. “Her repertory is a treatise on variety and taste, spun by a voice of agile grace and knowing jazz inflection and phrasing.”

By the mid 1960s, Wilson was behind only the Beatles as Capitol Records’ best-selling artist, outselling Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys. Her short-lived NBC program The Nancy Wilson Show earned an Emmy.

Wilson scored another hit in the late ’60s with “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” then embarked on a second career of ubiquitous television guest appearances. She again expanded her audience in the late ’70s with funky tracks like “Sunshine.”

By the end of the 1990s Wilson had issued more than ’60 albums and gathered up awards from the NEA, Urban League, Playboy, and the NAACP. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was recognized for her work in the Civil Rights Movement by the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.

Successful before she was famous, and beloved until her death, Wilson stands almost alone in career consistency. Now we’re left with what Time called her “treatise on variety and taste.” The best tribute we can pay is some close listening.

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel

Shelved: The Lady of Rage’s Eargasm

Earl Gibson III / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | December 2018 | 11 minutes (2,118 words)

 

Robin Allen started writing rap lyrics in the 6th grade. By her senior year, she needed an MC name. When a classmate jokingly referred to her as the Lady of Rage, she thought the moniker good enough to tag on the wall of the high school bathroom.

A singular rapper in her own right, Rage would go on to become known as a collaborator, appearing on Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s extraordinarily successful debut albums. Her 1994 hit single “Afro Puffs” perhaps illustrates her artistic potential as much as what she was eventually able to achieve: Rage’s first solo album, Eargasm, was shelved and never completed. Named by Dre, who would have also co-written and produced it, the album would have been made at the height of the rapper’s powers and released during Death Row Records’ incredible winning streak. That Eargasm never came to fruition kept Rage’s career dependent on men — in the form of collaborators and label bosses — rather than resolutely her own.

Read more…

Remembering Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks

Pete Shelley performing at the Marvin Festival, Mexico City, 2018. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Buzzcocks lead singer Pete Shelley has died of a heart attack. He was 63.

To my ears, Buzzcocks were always a pop band with punk sensibilities, rather than the other way around. The craftsmanship behind songs like “Why Can’t I Touch It” or “What Do I Get” demonstrate an ambition beyond provocation. Pete Shelley was Ray Davies’ legitimate heir: smart, sincere, and acerbic with an unerring ear for musical hooks. The early Buzzcocks albums Another Music In A Different Kitchen, Love Bites, and A Different Kind Of Tension are each their own kind of greatest hits compilation.

Still, Buzzcocks had an impeccable punk pedigree. Peter McNeish, as he was originally known, organized the June 1976 Sex Pistols gig in his hometown in Manchester. That appearance, though sparsely attended (“I think there were about 42, 43 people there,” Shelley remembered), was the catalyst for almost the entire post-punk Manchester scene, as some of the attendees went on to found Joy Division, The Fall, the Smiths, and Factory Records. The next time the Pistols came through town, McNeish’s new band opened. His stage name was now Pete Shelley, which his parents would have called him had he been born a girl.

The first Buzzcocks EP, Spiral Scratch, was released in January 1977 on their own independent label, New Hormones. “We made quite a bit of money from Spiral Scratch,” Shelley said. “It ended up selling about 16,000 copies and we were able to buy some new equipment.”

Once Shelley took over as principal songwriter and vocalist later that year, the band released a series of extraordinary singles, characterized by breakneck tempos, breathless canny lyrics about unrequited love, and ingenious chord changes pumped out by buzzsaw guitars. There’s not a rock star guitar solo in sight. Shelley sings with a petulant Manchester yelp. He turned this material out with seeming effortlessness.

It’s an impressive collection, from the delirium of “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” to the confessional testimony of “I Believe,” to the ceaselessly catchy “You Say You Don’t Love Meall created by a man who was 26 when his band broke up in 1981.

Shelley did not come out as bisexual until years later, although anyone listening to his romantic complaints and genderless lyrics would have already understood. “Ever Fallen In Love With Someone (You Shouldn’t’ve),” the band’s masterpiece, was inspired by a line from Guys and Dolls. “You spurn my natural emotions,” Shelley sings. “You make me feel like dirt and I’m hurt.”

And if I start a commotion

I run the risk of losing you and that’s worse

Ever fallen in love with someone

You shouldn’t have fallen in love with?

“I wrote it about Francis, who was the social sec at Warrington Tech,” Shelley remembered. “I was going through self-discovery, shall we say, a fertile ground for writing songs. In the initial courtship he was resistant to my charms.”

Punk decluttered popular music, and Shelley, already a fan of pared down acts like the Velvet Underground and Can, was prepared to fill the void. “There are plenty of musicians that I enjoy watching that are entertainers,” he told The Guardian in 2006. “But I wouldn’t want to be that, because the thing with an entertainer is that there is always that dishonesty, which is what punk tried to get rid of.”

“It was like, you’re not pretending to be something you are not,” he continued. “You are just what you are.”

He applied this approach to his lyrics as well, always smart but never contrived. “See, with me, I’m never really happy unless everything sounds like it’s conversational,” Shelley told The Quietus a few years ago. “That’s why I find it hard to write lyrics, to simplify it to the point where it sounds like there’s no writing there. So a lot of time and effort goes into me rejecting things.”

Shelley went solo after the Buzzcocks broke up. An early single, “Homosapienbanned by the BBC because of its “explicit reference to gay sexwas actually written in 1974, before Buzzcocks formed. But the influence of Shelley’s former band was still rippling out through mainstream culture.

The Fine Young Cannibals’ 1988 cover of “Ever Fallen In Love” reached the top-10  in the UK, which “financed our comeback,” according to Shelley. The band’s reunion lasted almost 30 years. In the meantime, college radio, indie rock, and Nirvana all advanced and receded. Buzzcocks music informed them all.

Punk fizzled, like any musical trend. Its most durable aspects of emotionally direct, vulnerable, aggressive, and unornamented communication have remained. Buzzcocks embodied this approach. Long live Pete Shelley.

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Matt Giles

Shelved: Jimmy Scott’s Falling In Love Is Wonderful

Frans Schellekens/Redferns /Getty

By 1962, Ray Charles had fully crossed over. It started with his 1959 Top 10 hit “What’d I Say,” continued with the Grammy-winning “Georgia On My Mind” and “Hit the Road, Jack,” and culminated in two smash country music albums, yielding the number one single “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Proficient at bebop, fluent in country, and having practically invented soul, it seemed there was no style of popular music Ray Charles couldn’t master. Beyond his prodigious songwriting and piano playing abilities, Charles was most famously a vocal interpreter. With his newfound wealth, he founded Tangerine Records in 1962. The first thing he did was produce and release a record by one of his favorite singers, Jimmy Scott.

Jimmy Scott had been recording since the late 1940s and made several notable if unprofitable albums with Savoy Records in the 1950s. His work was almost universally loved by the most influential vocalists of the era, a group that included Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown, and Billie Holiday. Ray Charles implicitly understood the singer’s potential and believed he had the key to Scott’s elusive success.

Read more…

Shelved: The Sound of Big Star’s Self-Destruction

Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2018 | 16 minutes (3,146 words)

 

In 1948, Columbia Records introduced the first commercial long-playing record, which revolved at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute and could hold more than 20 minutes of music per side. The older technology, 78-rpm records, couldn’t hold more than three and a half minutes per side. It was now possible to make a self-contained album.

Prior to that, the term “album” was used to describe a printed collection of short classical music pieces, such as Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Later, 78 records would be bound in volumes called albums, which would allow the limited medium to communicate longer orchestral works. By the same token, the books that contained family photos also became known as albums.

With the new technology, it wasn’t long before albums were used to communicate a collection of songs united by a common theme. Frank Sinatra is widely credited with releasing the first concept album, 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours. All of the songs were arranged by Nelson Riddle and were united in their themes of love, loss, and romantic dissolution.

Read more…

Shelved: Bill Evans’ Loose Blues

Bill Evans. David Redfern / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (2,248 words)

 

“Loose Bloose” has a beguiling head riff. Such motifs are played at the beginning, or “head,” of a jazz or rock song. They’re typically repetitive and simple enough for musicians to remember — an arrangement kept in one’s head, not written down. Pianist Bill Evans changed that. The head riff on “Loose Bloose” is too complex to not have been notated. Played in unison and in octave harmonies on piano and tenor saxophone, it is somehow both intimate and imperious. It moves with the strange grace of a mantis. It is a part of Evans’s legacy that is without either parent or descendant.

That is partly because “Loose Bloose,” and the album with which it nearly shares a name, was shelved. Thought lost, Loose Blues remained in vaults for 20 years. It was created during a time of grief and addiction, formed from necessity and ambition, and frustrated by financial limitations. It was conceived by a man in the middle of an intensely creative period, only to be released after his death; recorded by a group of ad hoc players not fully prepared for its compositional intricacies; and produced by a man who didn’t fully believe in the project.

Recorded in two days in August 1962, Loose Blues was the product of extraordinary recording activity for a normally reticent artist, one who took almost two years to record a second solo album. “The burst really began,” remembered producer Orrin Keepnews, “when Evans surprised me by announcing that he was ready to record with his new trio; eventually it meant that he was in three different studios on a total of eight separate occasions between April and August 1962, creating four and a half albums’ worth of solo, trio, and quintet selections.”

“I don’t know how impressive that sounds to anyone else;” Keepnews wrote in the Loose Blues liner notes, “to me, who was on hand for all of it, it is still overwhelming.”

Read more…