I was all ready to write about how I love B.B. King’s simple, relaxed, direct guitar style, and then I listened again to “Everyday I Have the Blues,” and I had to scrap that plan. His trademark clear tone is on display here, but this performance isn’t exactly un-flashy. It’s full of flash, and it’s fantastic.
Live at the Regal has been lauded as King’s masterwork in the 48 years since its release, and rightly so: this thing is awesome. Recorded in 1964 at the Regal Theater in Chicago, the album captures King in his prime. The man, with a horn section behind him, plays song after song without taking a moment to catch his breath. In its two-and-a-half minutes, “Everyday I Have the Blues” features those horns, King’s pleading and soulful voice, and That Guitar, accomplishing what would take some bands five or six minutes to accomplish: determination and anguish, energy and despair. “Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care,” sings King, but he sure sounds okay with it. I have a feeling he’ll be fine.
B.B. King’s guitar tone is probably my favorite of all the blues players. In the same way that the great Muddy Waters sounds like he’s playing from his gut, King sounds like he’s playing from his throat: there’s a voice-like quality to Lucille, and maybe that’s one reason we know her by first name. She always sounds like a person, singing away while the song chugs along behind her. She’s the star here, and B.B. King knows it.
I love Christmas music, but I make myself wait until the day after Thanksgiving until diving in, lest the songs become as stale as fruitcake. This year, with Thanksgiving coming so late in the month, the Christmas music period will last only three weeks and a bit, which means I have to cram a lot of it into a short period. Get ready!
Like many, I consider A Charlie Brown Christmas and its soundtrack album to be essential parts of the season. Considering the TV special is only 25 minutes long, it’s pretty amazing how influential it’s become. The same goes for the soundtrack album, which consists of songs that capture both the joy and melancholy of the Christmas season. That combination is what I love most about the record, and about Christmas.
Vince Guaraldi was hired for A Charlie Brown Christmas after producer Lee Mendelson heard Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio while riding in a taxi going over the Golden Gate Bridge. In an interview later, Mendelson said, “I think the Guaraldi music was crucial to its success. Because that was the first time a cartoon had used jazz, had used adult music. That raised it to a certain level.”
And what is that “certain level”? At the risk of sounding too lofty, I think that level may be humanity. There’s an honesty at work in this music, an acceptance that life is full of happy and sad moments, sometimes simultaneously. I think that’s why the record—and “Christmastime Is Here” in particular—is so great, and why so many people have embraced it. A Charlie Brown Christmas is not only a welcome antidote to the myriad saccharine Christmas shows on television every year, but there’s just nothing like it. It dares to assume that not all of us can handle a joy-only view of the holidays. It’s the occasional loneliness that makes togetherness so special.
I know this is something I shouldn’t admit, but much of Motown leaves me cold. I respect and admire it, and I understand why it’s considered great, but a lot of it doesn’t do much for me. (Much of this may be because of Baby Boomer overload; from Murphy Brown to The Big Chill, those goddamn boomers couldn’t shut their yaps about Motown.)
There are some major exceptions to this opinion, one of which is the great Smokey Robinson. “The Tracks of My Tears” is one of my favorite songs, and I’ve been delaying this post because I can’t think of a way to describe the reasons. I do know that I love Marv Tarplin’s simple guitar intro, a beautifully subtle phrase that effortlessly introduces us to the smooth, smooth, smooth song that is “The Tracks of My Tears.” The song isn’t exactly easygoing—this is a sad love ballad, after all—but it sure goes down easy, helped along by Smokey’s falsetto and the Miracles’ effortless vocals.
I’d like to know how this song was written, because there are so many sections—including the wonderful break that concludes with the synocpated line, “My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you”—that seem to come out of nowhere. It’s a gorgeous piece of music, one that almost makes me believe that Baby Boomers know what they’re talking about. Almost.
When I started playing saxophone in fifth grade, my Aunt Anne made a mixtape of songs with saxophone. I don’t remember much about what was on it, other than the original “How Sweet It Is” by Marvin Gaye—none of that James Taylor shit!—and “Shotgun” by Junior Walker and the All-Stars. (It turns out that “How Sweet It Is” doesn’t have any sax solos, so I guess I’m mistaken about that one. But still: None of that James Taylor shit.)
I had never heard “Shotgun” before, and I loved it. Despite its energy and brisk tempo, It just seemed so heavy—not thematically, but in weight. That thundering bass, the organ whose blasts rival any horn section: it’s just about perfect. I can’t stand behind its subject matter, but what are you gonna do. (Speaking of which, old people who think violence and violent imagery in music started with hip-hop? Maybe listen to songs like this. From 1965. And suck it.) (Man, I am feisty today!)
Just as I never noticed that Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” has non-rhyming lyrics, I never realized that “Shotgun” is only one chord: an A-flat seventh, played masterfully on guitar by Willie Woods and Eddie Willis. The fact that the song is never boring despite this lack of progression is credit to Walker and his band, as well as “Shotgun” producer and Motown maestro Berry Gordy.
I wish I could remember what other saxophone songs were on that tape. But it led me to “Shotgun,” and maybe that’s all I need.
Donovan is often described as a hippie, lightweight Dylan, a kind of Dylan Lite. And there’s no denying the resemblance.
But who wasn’t trying to sound like Dylan in the sixties? And unlike many of the imitators, Donovan actually had songwriting and musical chops to back up his imitation. Take “Catch the Wind,” a pretty little song that sounds like a Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan castoff but is sweeter than anything Dylan has ever done. At its worst, this sweetness made Donovan sound like a sprite or naive schoolboy, but on songs like this, it was utterly charming.
The melody of “Catch the Wind” sounds ageless, and Donovan uses this characteristic to play to the lyrics’ age-old theme of unrequited (or is it just impossible?) love. His vocal performance teeters on the edge of tweeness, but that catch in his voice when he says “would be the sweetest thing” is, against all odds, perfect.
I also love all the outdoor imagery in this song, as if Donovan is placing his tiny self among the elements to emphasize his insignificance. It’s Donovan versus the natural forces of affection, and he doesn’t stand a chance. But you root for him anyway.
This is another song that you kind of forget about until it comes on the radio again. Well, I do, anyway. But it’s goddamn great.
I didn’t realize until today that “I Fought the Law” was written by Sonny Curtis, who joined the Crickets after Buddy Holly’s death. The Crickets recorded their own version, which I like quite a bit, but there’s just something about the Bobby Fuller Four rendition. America apparently agreed, because between the Crickets and Bobby Fuller Four versions of the song, two other bands tried their hand. Bobby Fuller’s band was the first to make it a hit.
First of all, that’s crazy. This song is just a perfect song, no matter who’s doing it, and I’m stunned that the Crickets couldn’t get any traction with it (especially since it sounds exactly like a Buddy Holly song). It’s so punchy, so concise, so fun, despite its subject matter. And those drums banging out the triplets when Fuller sings “six gun?” Genius.
Man, this one is sad. The thing that gets to me most is that phrase in the intro and between verses, with the tympani and strings. It’s beautiful, but there’s one note throwing a slight wrench in the works, making it sound slightly “bluesy” in a way that’s absolutely heartbreaking. Then there’s the chorus, which contradicts Alfred Lord Tennyson’s statement that “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.” Actually, say the Ronettes, ’tis better to have stayed indoors.
The Ronettes, as practitioners of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, usually had more bells and baritone sax to their songs. To my ears, those are absent (though maybe there are some bells in there; that mono wall can be hard to pick apart). They’re more famous for songs like the incredible “Be My Baby”, more rock than what Spector supposedly called “little symphonies for the kids”, and it’s that grandness that makes this song work so well. I like to think of teenagers in 1965 sitting in their bedrooms, setting this one on the turntable or hearing it on the radio, thinking about their high school romances, thinking, “Yes, exactly!” (Alas, this definitely never happened: Though recorded in 1965, the song wasn’t released until 1974.)
Everything feels massively important in teenage years, and, purposely or not, I think this song nails that feeling exactly. Beth Orton covered this song in 1996, and it sounds just as dramatic in the hands of a person in her late 20s. I’d imagine it would sound the same sung by a person in their 70s; love is love, loss is loss. It’s amazing how that works.