Posts Tagged ‘Atlantic Records’

Sleeve Notes: Quiet Fire

15 September 2010

Two things interest me about this album cover: the first, obviously, is that afro. In terms of big hairstyles, Roberta Flack was no Oscar Gamble, but that’s a very impressive head of hair nonetheless. The artwork for this 1971 album was designed with an LP cover in mind, and its typography beautifully mimics the shape of the record that sits inside. It was created by Atlantic house designer Ira Friedlander, who also put together artwork for J. Geils Band, Blue Magic, and others during the 1970s. Flack’s hair stylist, however, remains unfortunately anonymous.

The second thing I like about this cover is less noticeable but almost as interesting – that little price tag in the upper right hand corner. It claims that this record was stocked in August of an unknown year, at a record shop called Morninglory Music (it sold for $1.49). It took about 30 seconds of internet research to figure out that this store was a long time fixture in Isla Vista, CA, not far from the University of California Santa Barbara. Opened by one Stan Bernstein in 1969, the shop was around until August of 2008, when – like too many other cool independent record stores – it shut down for good. “I tried to make the place presentable… not like some of these really funky little stores. It was clean like a corporate store, but stocked like an indie,” Bernstein told the Santa Barbara Independent at the time of the store’s closing. I never had a chance to visit Morninglory Music, but I’m honored to have a piece of their stock in my collection…

Masterpiece: The Best Of Ray Charles – The Atlantic Years

20 August 2010

[Today: Genius at work…]

Ray Charles Robinson was born into the blues. At age five he watched his younger brother drown in a wash tub, and then, in a cruel twist of fate, started to lose his eyesight just a few months later. By the time he was seven, he was completely blind. At 15 he was orphaned by the death of his young mother, Retha. Fortunately she had taught him to fend for himself, and so shortly after her death he left school to venture out in the world and make a living behind the piano. Charles had been tutored on the instrument by Mr. Wiley Pitman in his hometown of Greenville, FL, and by Mrs. Opal Lawrence at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine.

During his formative years, Charles learned to play a wide range of music, including classical, gospel, country and jazz. He spent several years kicking around the nightclub circuit, earning as little as $2 a night, before signing up with Swing Time Records in 1949. At this point he still hadn’t developed an individual style, but he showed enough promise that Ahmet Ertegun signed him up for Ertegun’s fledgling label, Atlantic Records. Between 1952 and 1959 (when he left Atlantic for a lucrative deal with RCA), Charles fused the blues, jazz and gospel into what would become known as soul music, and became a mainstay near the top of the charts (14 of the 20 tracks on this compilation were Top 10 R&B hits).

But Charles’ combination of gospel music and secular (some would say lewd) lyrics didn’t go over without controversy. As he remembered to author Robert Palmer, “There was a crossover between gospel music and the rhythm patterns of the blues, which I think came down through the years from slavery times, you know, because this was a way of communicating. But when I started doing things that would be based on an old gospel tune, I got criticism from the churches, and from musicians too. They thought it was sacrilegious or something, and what was I doing, I must be crazy.”

In December of 1954, he entered the studio of radio station WGST in Atlanta, and changed the face of modern music with his recording of the song ‘I Got A Woman’. With one foot in the church and the other in the gutter, this song represented the birth of a legend and the foundation of soul music. But it was the 1959 recording of ‘What’d I Say’ – a song that he improvised on the bandstand in Pittsburgh one night – that etched Charles’ name in the public consciousness. The song went #1 on the R&B charts and #6 on the pop charts, and made him a hot enough commodity that his days at Atlantic were numbered.

Asked by Life magazine in 1966 to define soul music, Charles replied, “What is soul? It’s like electricity – we don’t really know what it is, but it’s a force that can light a room.” If that’s the case, then The Best Of Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years provides enough sparks to light an entire city….

Listen: What’d I Say (Part 1)

Listen: I’ve Got A Woman

Listen: Hallelujah, I Love Her So

Listen: (Night Time Is) The Right Time

Buried Treasure: The Mona Lisa’s Sister

22 April 2010

[Today: The forgotten contender…]

In its August 27th, 1987 issue, Rolling Stone magazine counted down the 100 best albums of the previous 20 years. In a musical upset for the ages, Graham Parker had not one, but two albums on that list – #45 (Squeezing Out Sparks) and #54 (Howlin’ Wind) – both ranked ahead of usual suspects such as Electric Ladyland, Ramones, Rust Never Sleeps and Led Zeppelin II. That showing speaks volumes about the kind of musical contender Parker was once considered. His early albums channeled the fury of punk rock through a folk sensibility, and were as literate and biting as the best early Bob Dylan albums.

But he made some bad career decisions (firing his excellent backing band The Rumour and making an intentionally lousy album to get sacked by his first label, to name a couple), switched record labels the way Larry King switches wives (Mercury to RCA to Elektra to Atlantic back to RCA and so on…), and generally sabotaged any chance he had of reaching the kind of audience his music deserved. Tellingly, when Rolling Stone issued another Top 100 list a decade later, none of his albums were on it. Quite the snub for an aritst who was once considered a cinch to have a career on par with Elvis Costello.

But against all odds, Parker released the best album of his career in 1988, the year after the original RS list. The Mona Lisa’s Sister should have put him right back on the fast track – this is an excellent batch of songs that are slightly softer around the edges than his earlier, angrier work. He brought back some of the key pieces of The Rumour, including guitarist Brinsley Schwarz, who co-produced this with him. It’s impossible to pinpoint why some albums fail and others succeed, but Parker put his best foot forward here to no avail. Songs like the ‘Get Started, Start A Fire’ and ‘Under The Mask Of Happiness’ were probably too intellectual for the mass market, but they still burn brightly and intensely. Rolling Stone even agrees – when it released its list of the 100 best albums of the 80s, The Mona Lisa’s Sister checked in at #97…

Listen: Get Started, Start A Fire

Listen: Under The Mask Of Happiness

Listen: I Don’t Know

Sleeve Notes: Enjoy Jimi Hendrix

22 March 2010

Rubber Dubber was the working handle of a Los Angeles-area bootlegger who operated for a few years in the early 70’s. Most of Rubber Dubber’s early releases were double-LP recordings from the L.A. Forum that were packaged in a plain white sleeve with the words “Yours truly, Rubber Dubber” stamped on the front. Eventually, Dubber started including more elaborate artwork on his releases, including this clever cover for Jimi Hendrix’ April 25th, 1970 appearance at The Forum. According to Clinton Heylin’s indispensable book Bootleg: The Secret History Of The Other Recording Industry, Dubber used a high tech recording system to capture the shows he bootlegged – instead of lugging a tape deck into the venue, Dubber used microphones with FM transmitters that beamed the music to a truck sitting in the parking lot. Heylin also claims that Dubber’s releases were so polished that Atlantic Records considered approaching him to release one of his boots of a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young show. With its eye-catching cover art, Enjoy Jimi Hendrix now fetches upwards of $175 on the open market. You can download the complete album here, but I’m holding out for the original LP.

James Luther Dickinson (1941-2009)

19 August 2009

James Luther Dickinson | Dixie Fried

James Luther Dickinson died on Saturday of complications related to triple bypass heart surgery. Far from a household name, Dickinson’s influence on popular music stands in inverse proportion to his meager Q rating. On his own and as a member of Atlantic Records’ studio band, The Dixie Flyers, he played on important sessions for legends such as Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Aretha Franklin. Dickinson also made his mark as a producer, helming albums for underground heroes like Big Star, The Replacements and Mudhoney. The consummate team player, he’s best remembered for helping other people sound great on record.

But Dickinson was also a talented musician in his own right, and two of his solo albums, 1972’s Dixie Fried (pictured above) and 2002’s Free Beer Tomorrow, stand among the great lost albums in the history of rock. Dickinson played in the Sun Records house band of the mid-60’s, and Dixie Fried is the kind of album that label might have fostered had it prospered into the rock era. It features a wide swath of Southern-fried sounds, from an unhinged reading of the Sun classic ‘Wine’ (“…drink the wine, spo-dee-o-dee…”) to the gospel-tinged ‘Strength Of Love’ to the definitive version of Bob Dylan’s war protest song ‘John Brown’. But the album’s high point is ‘O How She Dances’ – sung from the perspective of a carnival barker selling his wares (“O how she shimmies, just like jelly in a bowl!”), this off-kilter, tom-tom jamboree is a creepy, infectious, hilarious piece of southern gothic storytelling.

Dickinson’s finest musical storytelling, however, is the grand epic ‘Ballad Of Billy & Oscar’ from Free Beer Tomorrow. This 10-minute juggernaut imagines a meeting (“in a whorehouse for specialized tastes”) between Oscar Wilde and Billy The Kid, two men who spent their days on the wrong side of the law, for very different reasons. As Dickinson sings, “They could both tree a town, take the money and run/One wagging a pistol, and the other his tongue.” The song was penned by critic Dave Hickey, but Dickinson brings the story to life with his gruff growl and tinkling piano. Explaining his interpretation of the song, Dickinson told Pop Culture Press “I don’t know, it’s just about heroes. And heroes are not all Spider-Man. Billy and Oscar are both heroic.” James Luther Dickinson went fairly unsung during his lifetime, but he too is a hero worth celebrating.

Listen: O How She Dances

Listen: Ballad Of Billy And Oscar

Listen: Wine

Masterpiece: Lady Soul

12 June 2009

[Today: Aretha Franklin assumes the crown…]

Aretha Franklin | Lady Soul

After seven undistinguished albums for Columbia/CBS, Aretha Franklin signed with Atlantic Records in 1967. The title of her 1962 album The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin summed up the unfulfilled promise of her Columbia years – that label simply didn’t understand her strengths, and consequently had no idea which direction to take her in. But Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler had a clear vision of how he wanted to showcase Franklin’s talents. According to Wexler, “Columbia [was] cutting her somewhere between Nancy Wilson and Judy Garland; that’s no disrespect, I love those records. But it’s not the kind of records that would sell for her.”

To create records that would sell, Wexler teamed her with the famous Muscle Shoals studio band, and the result was 1967’s classic I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, an organic, soulful record that’s rooted in gospel but uniquely Aretha. The same year saw her follow up with the not-quite-accurately titled Aretha Arrives, a passable album that won’t give anyone goosebumps, and had some wondering if she was a flash in the pan. But with her third Atlantic album, 1968’s Lady Soul, she once and forever established her claim to the title ‘Queen Of Soul’.

Album opener ‘Chain Of Fools’ is a big, funky stomper that hasn’t diminished in horsepower over the decades. Aretha’s stuttered “Chain-chain-chain…” is a bravura vocal performance – big, tough and powerful. The album’s other pillar is the hit ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, but Lady Soul is filled with powerhouse moments, including covers of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’, Ray Charles’ ‘Come Back Baby’ and James Brown’s ‘Money Won’t Change You’. Aretha would never again hit the heights of this album and I Never Loved A Man…, but they still provide all the evidence required to defend her status as the greatest female soul singer to ever step to a microphone.

Listen: Chain Of Fools