Saturday, 3 February 2018

Dusty In Memphis

Dusty Springfield was a British singer who became popular in her home country around the same time as the Beatles started their trajectory towards becoming the greatest band in the history of popular music. While the Beatles are still well known and revered, the name Dusty Springfield does not trigger the same recognition. But she was one of the great pop music singers of her era, and has been responsible for at least one of its best records. She was blessed with a beautiful voice, and although she sang in a somewhat understated manner, she was able to convey a tremendous amount of emotional content into the songs she performed. 
She enjoyed great success in her home country in the early and mid 1960’s, as well as some significant sales in the United States. By 1968 her career had started to wane however. She decided to enter into a contract with the R&B giant Atlantic Records, and come to America to record her next album, in hopes of reclaiming her popularity. It was an inspired choice, as the powers that be at Atlantic held her in high regard and were determined to pull out all the stops when it came to making a record with her. Jerry Wexler, at that time a partner in Atlantic and their top producer, would co-produce the album with Atlantic’s top recording engineer, Tom Dowd. Jerry also had Arif Mardin write the arrangements for the record. All that was left was to pick the recording studio. Jerry originally wanted to use the Muscle Shoals studio, but it was unavailable, so they went with American Sound Studio, in Memphis, Tennessee. Atlantic was familiar with the studio, and held it and its owner in high regard. Other classic sides had been cut there, so Jerry knew that for the kind of record Dusty wanted to make, Memphis was the place to go. From the beginning, this was going to be an album with plenty of soul, and a real R&B feel. In hindsight, the studio musicians (house players at American Sound) were the perfect fit for the project. The music grooved, but the players were polished enough to ensure that they could provide whatever level of musicianship the songs needed. 
While Jerry was the ideal producer and project manager, that didn't mean that he and Dusty always agreed on how to conduct the sessions. Prior to the project, he had spent a considerable amount of time reviewing songs he felt would be suitable for her. She turned down the majority of them. Although Dusty was in Memphis for the project, she declined to put any vocal tracks down at the time. Despite Jerry’s desire to record her in Memphis, Dusty said she was too intimidated by the musicians, and the other artists that had recorded there, and felt insecure about her singing. Whether or not that’s true, she recorded the vocals for the album in New York. So although the majority of the songs were recorded in Memphis, her vocals weren’t. While overdubbing the vocals in New York, she and Jerry also clashed on how she would sing her vocal tracks. Although Jerry wanted them recorded a certain way, Dusty insisted in doing it her way. To his credit, Jerry has since said she was right, and she completed her vocal parts with “perfect intonation, every note correct, gorgeous tone production and her own trademark individual phrasing”. 
Dusty said that her favourite singer was Aretha Franklin, and I am sure that played a part in decision to come to America, and to try her hand at recording an album of the type of music that Aretha was having so much success with. Atlantic was also Aretha’s label, and they had certainly made her a superstar, which again must have been something Dusty considered. Although the album is considered today a “blue eyed soul” classic, and Dusty’s finest moment, it was not a big seller at the time. The one song that was a hit as a single, and the one that most people have heard, was “Son Of A Preacher Man”. The song has all the ingredients to be considered as a classic in the R&B genre. The tongue-in-cheek lyrics, a slinky (though funky) groove, tasty horn section and of course, the Sweet Inspirations providing backing vocals. 
As indicated earlier, the album did not sell particularly well, and was a disappointment commercially. Ironically, it has subsequently achieved legendary status and is considered a landmark recording. It has been through several re-issues on compact disc. The original Atlantic release was catalogue number SD 8214. Since the album only sold around 100,000 copies originally, and has since with the passage of time been declared a masterpiece, finding a copy (that hasn’t been played to death or just abused) can be difficult and costly. It is readily available in other formats though, and is well worth having. Dusty In Memphis is an example of an artist in her prime, with the perfect cast of supporting musicians, classic song material and excellent production. 

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Last Train To Clarksville

The Monkees; Revisited 

Fifty years after their television debut, what are we to make of The Monkees? At one time, the very mention of their name was sufficient to bring howls of derision upon the poor soul unfortunate enough to speak it. After all, when the credibility of any self respecting rock and roll musician could be only be substantiated by their commitment to their art form and their rejection of the “establishment”, how could four young men in a television comedy program about a fictional band hope to be taken seriously? Yet the facts belie much of the histrionics that were in common usage about the group, and its members. For a group that was supposedly nothing more than a cynical and commercial ploy dreamed up by middle aged cigar-chomping Hollywood types, The Monkees sold an astonishing 75 million records worldwide, and in their heyday in the mid 1960’s, had three number one hits according to Billboard’s record sales charts (“Last Train To Clarksville”, “Daydream Believer” and “I’m A Believer”). They released seven albums and went on three tours (including shows overseas) between 1966 and 1969, and even had Frank Zappa appear on their show.  So were their sins that irredeemable, or were they simply sacrificed on the alter of rock music’s pretence to authenticity? 

With the benefit of hindsight, much of the ridicule they were subjected to seems overblown, if not hypocritical. The primary criticism was that they didn’t play their own instruments on their records. With the passage of time, we now know that very few artists from that time period actually played on their own recordings. “The Wrecking Crew”, a 2008 documentary film about a group of  session musicians in Los Angeles, showed that in fact the majority of “top forty” recordings that were being made during the 1960’s were cut by a select group of pros (mostly older jazz musicians) as opposed to the young men and women who were pictured on the record’s sleeves. While this was not exactly a closely guarded secret, it was not something that either the actual band members or the session musicians themselves were anxious to discuss publicly. The studio players on the sessions were not overly enamoured of the music (if the truth were to be told), and were in it for the money (which was good, and much better than they were going to make playing jazz). It was their expertise in the recording studio that made it cost effective to have them record the songs, instead of the actual band members (although this would soon begin to change). 

It is sometimes overlooked in evaluating The Monkees, that from the beginning, it was a television show first and foremost (and the four young men chosen to be the fictitious band’s members were there as actors). Perhaps more credit is due to Don Kirshner, the man behind much of the band’s musical success. The two television producers behind the show wanted someone with music business credentials to look after the songs (and the musicians to perform them) for the show, and settled on Don Kirshner. Don was responsible for bringing the songwriters in for the early songs that solidified the band’s success. Perhaps if the band had only been a hit on television, and the songs themselves that The Monkees sang on had not been the hits they were, the desire from the four young men to have more control over the musical aspects of the band might not have been so important to them. But that wasn’t the case. The first song released under the band’s name was the single “Last Train To Clarksville”, which came out prior to the debut of the television show, and was a huge hit. As well. with the success The Monkees were having in selling records and as a television series, the people behind the band decided they should tour. Under these circumstances, it is easy to see why the band’s members would want to be more involved. Specifically, Mike Nesmith, a guitarist who had successfully auditioned for one of the four roles on the show, wanted The Monkees to start to act like a “real band”, and write and perform their own songs. This lead to break with Don Kirshner, who flew from New York to Los Angeles to meet with the band members and clear the air. The meeting did not go well, notwithstanding that the band members were given royalty cheques for over a million dollars. It soon became clear that with respect to the future of The Monkees, it was going to be Don’s ways or the highway, so it was the highway (for Don that is). 
One aspect of the band’s success that is often (I would say deliberately) overlooked by its critics is that they always sang on their own records, a pretty important facet of any pop recording. While there was nothing about the singing that was especially noteworthy, it fit the songs perfectly, and who can argue with records that were hits? In hindsight, it is understandable to see why the band members would see their contributions as the crucial factor in the band’s success, and why they probably felt that they would just as successful if they wrote their own songs and played on them during the recording sessions. Like many young people, (especially with the hubris that comes with being a musical group that has sold millions of records), they thought they knew better and once they were in charge, they could do a better job. Of course, that would not be the case. Although they would continue to perform and record, the television would be cancelled after the conclusion of its second season in 1968, which was the beginning of the end. The next two years saw an original member leave, declining popularity of the remaining three members, and eventual dissolution of the group. 

  So in the context of the music business during the late 1960’s it is hard not to conclude that The Monkees were more sinned against than they were guilty of sinning themselves. In the current musical environment of 2017, where pop stars and their image are micromanaged, and their musical output completely contrived, the fact that a group was artificially created for a television series and didn’t write their own songs, or perform on their own recordings would seem absolutely par for the course. That the group would then become extremely popular with everyone involved making a boatload of dough would be seen as a great success with accolades all around for those involved.  In my humble opinion, it is high time that The Monkees were cut some slack, and the hypocrites need to look in the mirror before pronouncing judgement.    

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Ian and Sylvia - Northern Journey

Ian and Sylvia were a couple from Canada who were part of the folk music boom that occurred in the early 1960’s. Ian Tyson was originally from British Columbia and Sylvia Fricker was originally from Chatham, Ontario. They met in Toronto through a mutual friend, and started a professional musical relationship there. Although there was a folk music scene in Canada, the real action was in New York City. Ian and Sylvia felt that had gone as far as they could in their native land, so in early 1962 they headed to New York to see if they could take the next step to a career in the music business. 
It is difficult today to appreciate the influence and popularity that folk music had as the decade of the 1950’s ended, and the early 1960’s began. There seems to be a general belief the popular music of that era was rock and roll, and that it all started with Elvis, until the Beatles took over. In fact, folk music actually eclipsed what Elvis  and his early rock and roll contemporaries had been doing. Folk music was the music of choice of the most of the young  adult population, particularly those in college. By the time Ian and Sylvia headed to New York, folk music groups such as the Kingston Trio were selling millions of records. In contrast to rock and roll, folk music was thought of as “serious” music, wherein the lyrics dealt with contemporary social issues. In our current age of cynicism, it seems quaint that sincere young people strumming guitars and singing about progressive issues would be taken seriously, but in fact that musical genre was considered vital and important.  
As is often said, “timing is everything”, and Ian and Sylvia were well positioned to take advantage of the current popularity of the type of music they were performing. They appeared in New York City at a time when it was the centre of the folk music world. They were a striking couple, both visually and musically. Like any successful singing duo, the voices complimented each other, and made an immediate impact on the listener. They also arrived ready to play, having honed their skills in Toronto, and possessing a unique and powerful sound. They also had the great fortune of being selected as clients of Albert Grossman, a real up and comer in the management of artists. He understood the business, and would ensure they could concentrate on their art, while he looked after the commercial end of things.
After becoming clients of Mr. Grossman, the next step was for the duo to sign with a record label. Albert Grossman already had a good relationship with Warner Brothers records after bringing them the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary (whom he also represented). Peter, Paul and Mary had enjoyed commercial success right away, so Albert Grossman’s stock was high. However, Ian and Sylvia had other ideas. They preferred to go with a smaller independent record label that specialized in folk music, and already had a certain cachet, and so they signed with Vanguard Records. This decision would be a mixed blessing for Ian and Sylvia. Being a smaller label that specialized in their type of music, there was no doubt that the label would be able to focus more of its attention on them. On the other hand though, Vanguard would never be able to compete with a major label in the amount of support (in the terms of marketing and promotion) that it could provide Ian and Sylvia. One advantage that Vanguard did have however was their approach to recording their artists. Rather than use a commercial recording studio, Vanguard would look for a location that had great natural acoustic properties. The recording equipment would then be brought to that location. The advantage to this approach was that there was an emphasis on capturing the artist’s unique and personal sound, as opposed to creating a sound in the studio, and fitting the artist into it. While this approach eschewed the technical practices of overdubbing and editing that were to become so prominent (and standard procedure) in the making of a record, it captured the spontaneity and organic aspects that are part and parcel of musicians performing a piece of music together. In his excellent biography of Ian and Sylvia, John Einarson quotes Sylvia Tyson as she recalls recording the first Ian and Sylvia album live “off the floor”, with a single microphone hanging from the ceiling. 
In early March of 1964, Ian and Sylvia returned to New York to record what is generally considered their best Vanguard album. “Northern Journey” was recorded in New York’s Manhattan Towers Ballroom. The songs on the album showcase the amazing empathy that Ian and Sylvia had when they sang together. The harmonies are subtle yet beautiful, shifting throughout the songs as they sing them. The album would also feature two of their most well-known and loved songs, Sylvia’s “You Were On My Mind”, and Ian’s “Some Day Soon”. The instrumentation on Northern Journey was typical of what you would expect from a folk music record of that time; guitar, auto-harp, mandolin and string bass along with Ian and Sylvia’s vocals. The album is a potpourri of folk styled music, with country and bluegrass influences alongside old English ballads. The musicianship is first-rate, with the recording process beautifully capturing the depth and nuances of their incredible vocal talents. The instrumental sidemen acquit themselves admirably, with some fine guitar playing from John Herald. In keeping with the practice of the day, the album was released in both mono and stereo versions (the mono version is Vanguard VRS-9154 and the stereo version VSD-79154). 
With the release of Northern Journey in September of 1964, it would seem that the future was bright for Ian and Sylvia. However, a musical change was in the air. 1964 was the year the Beatles arrived in America, and changed popular music forever. While the change didn't occur overnight, serious and sincere young adults strumming acoustic guitars gradually became passé, and rock and roll returned with a vengeance. Ian and Sylvia would continue to make great music, and would evolve their styles to accommodate the shift in public tastes. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Northern Journey would be a very successful record for Ian and Sylvia and is a testament to the vital and beautiful music being made before everything started to change. For more on this talented couple, I would highly recommend John Einarson’s excellent book about them.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Little Feat - Waiting For Columbus

To my mind, the litmus test of a band’s musical ability is their live performance. The truly great groups have a synergy that is formed when the collective efforts of the musicians coalesce to create the special sound that gives the group its identity, and brings to fruition the musical vision of the members, (or, in some cases, their leader’s vision). If we are to apply this principle as a guideline to the many hundreds of live recordings that have been released over the years, it would be my respectful submission that “Waiting For Columbus” by Little Feat should be considered summa cum laude in that respect. 
Little Feat was a wonderful American band from the Los Angeles area who, in their first incarnation, lasted about ten years (1969 - 1979). Their classic lineup was a sextet; original members Lowell George (guitar, lead vocals), Bill Payne (keyboards, vocals) and Richie Hayward (drums) and newer members Paul Barrere (guitar, vocals), Kenny Gradney (bass) and Sam Clayton (perscussion). The double live recording “Waiting For Columbus” was the band’s seventh release, their last complete recording as a band, and ironically, their best selling album (although “Down On The Farm”, the album released after “Waiting For Columbus”, was technically the last Little Feat recording, Lowell George left and the group formally disbanded partially through the recording process. Tragically, two weeks later, Lowell George was dead). 
According to Little Feat’s website, the title for their live recording, was taken from the name of the painting that graced the album’s cover. Neon Park, the artist who had created it, had decided to call the work he created  “Waiting For Columbus”. Apparently his reasoning for doing so was that Christopher Columbus had discovered the tomato when he discovered the Americas, and the “hot tomato” in the hammock was waiting, (like an aspiring Hollywood starlet) to be “discovered”.    
Little Feat had struggled mightily for some years to become more than a critics’ favourite or cult status group. They had commenced a slow but steady upwards trajectory after the release of “Dixie Chicken” (their third album), and had earned an enviable reputation as a solid live act. However, in a situation all too familiar to the music business, tensions were building. The leader Lowell George had a vision of the group’s musical styling, which was based on a strong mixture of Southern R&B, but with more than just standard blues changes. The songs had a gritty, funky feel, but with well thought out melodies and harmonic structures. They also had great hooks and changes, coupled with a killer grooves. The lyrics in the songs that Lowell George wrote featured his sardonic wit, and quite often dealt in a humorous fashion with the ups and downs of the male/female relationship. Lowell George had served an apprenticeship in Frank Zappa’s “Mother of Invention” prior to launching his own career, which may account for this offbeat sense of humour. The band also had two other very good song writers in the band, (Bill Payne and Paul Barrere), and unfortunately, Little Feat was not going to be able to accommodate them all. According to an interview with Lowell George shortly before his death, he felt Bill Payne was becoming too enamoured of the jazz-rock fusion of the day, and was writing in that genre, which was not at all Lowell’s cup of tea. To be fair, some of the tension over song-writing also had to do with Lowell George having gradually becoming more distant from the group, and the other members needing to come up with material for their records. In hindsight, it may have been that Little Feat had run is course, and that they needed a break. But when Lowell George came up with the idea of recording a live record, everyone in the band agreed it was great idea, and they all pitched in to make it happen. 
By this time, Little Feat had many years of great material to work with, so there was no shortage of songs to choose from. The decision to record was made prior to the performances, so the band picked two different venues; the Rainbow Theatre in London England, and the Lisner Auditorium in Washington D.C. Seven nights in total were recored during August of 1977, and in anticipation of the project, a decision was made to add the horn section from Tower of Power. In hindsight, this turned out to be a stroke of genius. Recording engineer Warren Dewey was hired for the project, and has since said that being such a great band, Little Feat were easy to record. In the production stage, (post recording), there were some sonic imperfections that were cleaned up and overdubbed, but according to Warren Dewey, the band, and in particular Lowell George, resisted any efforts to polish up the product. Other than really obvious flaws, they stuck to what was done.
I should mention at this point that “Waiting For Columbus” has gone through some variations over the years. Originally, it was released as a double vinyl album. That meant that there were a number of songs that were good enough to be included, but due to the limitations of available space, were left off the record. When Warner Brothers began to transfer Little Feat’s catalogue to compact disc, a decision was made to reissue “Waiting For Columbus” on a single disc, which meant that some songs from the original release had to be excluded. However, the good folks at Rhino released a deluxe edition double compact disc version of “Waiting For Columbus” in 2002. This version contains all of the material from the original twin album version, as well as  previously unreleased outtakes, and outtakes that had been previously issued on another Little Feat compilation. 
“Waiting For Columbus” has been recognized as one of the great live albums of all time, making several “best of” lists (including a very good and recommended review in (  As I previously indicated, there are several versions available, but in this writer’s humble opinion, the Rhino reissue is the ne plus ultra version. While all of the songs are great, two of the tracks that I’m particularly fond of are “Mercenary Territory” on disc one, and “Cold, Cold, Cold” on disc two. “Mercenary Territory” features tremendous ensemble playing, and a sax solo from Lenny Pickett that goes into full face-melt mode. On “Cold, Cold, Cold” we get to hear just how funky this band could play, and just what a great vocalist Lowell George was. Interestingly, the band reformed in 1987, and continues to perform to this day.
It is always presumptuous to declare any recording of music a “desert island” disc, but this one I would certainly take with me if I had a finite list. If you haven’t heard “Waiting For Columbus”, please do yourself a favour and have a listen.  

Friday, 13 October 2017

Mason Proffit - “Wanted”

“Hear The Voice of Change”

Mason Proffit was the name of a group from the Chicago area. Formed in 1969, the band released their first album, titled “Wanted”, in early 1970 on a small independent record label called “Happy Tiger”, based in Century City (Los Angeles), California. The album is a classic example of the late 1960’s music scene in America, featuring a style of music that would soon be known as “country rock”. While the songs on the album themselves are not necessarily groundbreaking; (after all artists such as Bob Dylan and bands such as the Byrds ,with Gram Parsons, had already incorporated aspects of traditional American music into their repertoire), they were a brilliant combination of social commentary and great musicianship, in addition to being very listenable. 
The band was a quintet, based around the two Talbot brothers, Terry (vocals, lead guitar, percussion), and John Michael (guitar, pedal steel, banjo, vocals). The brothers were terrifically talented, and in addition to the great lead vocals, guitar and banjo playing we hear on “Wanted”, we are also treated to their gorgeous vocal harmonies. The rest of the band was made up of Tim Ayres (bass), Rick Durant (keyboards) and Art Nash (drums). I contacted the younger of the two brothers,  John Michael, and asked him some questions about the band and the record. He advised me Mason Proffit grew out a regional local band called “The Sounds Unlimited”. His brother Terry was also in the band, and they were popular in Indianapolis, and in the area in adjacent surrounding states. As John Michael explained to me, “We tried to land a record deal with our old friend, Bill Traut, in Chicago, and auditioned for him at “The Cellar” in Arlington, Illinois. He liked the band, but suggested that, due to our past experience in folk/bluegrass/and country music that we jump on board the newly emerging country rock scene.” (In passing, I should mention that Bill Traut was a legendary musician, record producer, manager and talent scout, well known in the Chicago area. He and Terry Talbot also produced “Wanted”).  John Michael also told me how he became the band’s pedal steel player. “My brother, Terry, and I flipped a coin for who would learn how to play pedal steel guitar, and I lost the toss! So, I picked up the pedal steel guitar, and added my banjo, guitar, and dobro to the mix. I was a fairly accomplished banjo and guitar player. But the pedal was new to me. The dobro came naturally to me, and folks thought that I was pretty good. Terry was the principal songwriter, and I helped out with musical additions that fit it into to the country rock sound.”  John Michael said that the band recorded a “demo”, and Dunwich Productions (a company started by Bill Traut and two record producers) shopped it around. 
I asked John Michael about the socially conscious nature of many of the songs on “Wanted”. A number of topics such as Native American rights, racial inequality, the Vietnam War and the Generation Gap were covered. He said that “It was simply the consciousness of our times. I don’t think we were particularly unique in having those concerns. What made us unique was bridging social commentary (from the folk days) with the country rock idiom.”  
I would highly recommend this record to anyone who likes great songs that are well performed, with excellent musicianship and high production values (in other words, good music). The lyrics are profound and timeless, and stand in stark contrast to the banality of so much of today’s modern popular music. As previously mentioned, the style (if it has to be defined), would best be thought of as “country rock”, or in today’s musical vernacular, “roots”. While other groups may have gone out to greater success performing this style, Mason Proffit should be considered sui generis.  
Mason Proffit’s “Wanted” was not a big seller, but the band was very popular and well known as a great live act. While relatively rare, vinyl copies of “Wanted” can be located. The compact disc edition was released on Wounded Bird Records (catalogue number WOU 1009) in 2006. It might be a little more difficult to locate though. Fortunately, “Wanted” and the groups’ second release “Moving Towards Happiness” are available on iTunes, under  the title “Come and Gone”. (Before their demise, the group was signed to Warners Brothers, who re-released their first two albums as a “two-fer” called “Come and Gone”).
Mason Proffit went to release several more records before the band called it quits in 1973. They are all well worth listening to. The Talbot brothers have continued to make music the focus of their lives, and over the years have been very active in contemporary Christian music, where their talents have been very well received and recognized.

Friday, 15 September 2017

American Woman

The Guess Who’s Finest Hour

1969 was a very good year for the Canadian band “The Guess Who”, and the culmination of much hard work and dedication. By 1967 the group had established their classic lineup of Burton Cummings (lead vocals, keyboards), Randy Bachman (guitar, background vocals), Jim Kale (bass, background vocals) and Garry Peterson (drums, background vocals). This quartet had the experience, musical chops and chemistry necessary to establish them not only as Canada’s premier rock and roll band, but as a rock and roll band that could favourably compete with any of the top English or American acts of the day. The compositions that the talented song-writing team of Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings were creating were perfect vehicles for the band's musical talents and Burton Cummings’ tremendous vocal abilities.  
In March 1969, the band released “These Eyes” as a single in the U.S., subsequent to its Canadian debut. It was a major hit, and the band’s first million seller. As a result of the song’s success, the band re-entered the recording studio in the spring of 1969 and recorded their next big hit, “Laughing”, which was released in July. Burton Cummings has said that an A&R (Artist & Repertoire) executive from their record label RCA told him that if the band could come up with another hit like “These Eyes”, they would have it made. “Laughing” was that hit. It also achieved the status of a double sided hit, when disk jockeys began flipping it over and playing the B side, “Undun”. In addition to the singles, the Guess Who also released the albums “Wheatfield Soul” and “Canned Wheat” in March and September of 1969 respectively.   
However, these successes would just be the launching ramp to what was to be arguably the band’s finest hour. The story of how the song “American Woman” came about is now fairly well known. The band was playing a gig  in Ontario and Randy Bachman had broken a string. The other members took an impromptu break while he put on a new string and tuned up. While tuning, he began fooling around with a riff, and after he began playing it, he noticed the crowd suddenly paying attention. Realizing he was on to something, he called on the rest of the band to the stage to join him. The other musicians jumped in on the groove, with Burton providing an improvised vocal line consisting of “American woman, stay away from me”. In a moment of pure serendipity, a song which would forever define the Guess Who was born.
The band entered RCA’s Mid-American Recording Centre in Chicago, Illinois in mid August of 1969 to start recording their sixth album and the third one for RCA. Although the album was to be called “American Woman”, and would contain a single version of the title track, the first track to be released from these sessions was an updated recording of “No Time”, which in its original form had appeared on their previous album “Canned Wheat”. The band was unhappy with the first version, as it been recorded in an old RCA studio (that the band had been contractually obligated to use) that was not suitable acoustically for modern recording. The band thought the song had the potential to be another hit for them though, so they recorded it again, in a slightly different version. They were right, as it turned out to be their third million selling single, eventually reaching number 1 in Canada and number 5 in the U.S. “No Time” was released in November of 1969 in Canada, and in December of 1969 in the U.S.  
In March of 1970, the Guess Who released the album “American Woman”. The album contained 9 tracks, including an instrumental written by Randy Bachman. However, it was the release of the single version of the album’s title track that turned out to be the highest charting song the band would ever record, and the first American number one record for a Canadian rock and roll band. The Guess Who had been going for a grittier sound in their recordings. While they were justifiably proud of their earlier successes, they knew they had the ability to write and record songs that were closer to the way the band sounded live. Burton Cummings unquestionably had one the great voices in modern popular music, capable of bringing a searing intensity and deep sincerity to the lyrical content of the songs he and Randy Bachman were writing. In American Woman, the band had written a song which would be the perfect platform to showcase the harder, more driving sound they were aiming for, including Randy Bachman’s guitar sound, and Burton Cummings’ vocal chops. 
The album version of the song begins with a solo acoustic guitar, played with  a laid-back, bluesy roots type of feel, along with a vocal by Burton Cummings. This introduction acts as a segue into the actual song (the single version eschews the acoustic intro). The “American Woman” opening guitar riff, the one Randy Bachman composed that evening in the curling rink while tuning his guitar,  has become a classic of the rock music genre; instantly identifiable.  The rhythm has a funky feel, with a syncopated groove that makes the listener want to move (and in combination with the tempo, made the song a dance floor classic). In addition to the great groove the song has, there were in my opinion two other important musical ingredients that really stood out on this record and made it a hit; Randy Bachman’s guitar sound and Burton Cummings’ impassioned vocal. The guitar sound came from Randy Bachman’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul, played through a unique electronic device built for him called a “Herzog”. This was a tube pre-amplifier designed by a friend of the band named Garnet Gillies, an electronics repair person and musician. Much like Toronto’s Pete Traynor, Garnet Gillies would go on to start his own company and eventually build a line of uniquely Canadian musical instrument amplifiers under the “Garnet” name. The Herzog was designed to provide a deep, warm sustain to the lead guitar lines Randy played. It can be heard to great effect on the guitar solos played throughout the song. 
 Burton Cummings delivers his vocals with passion and depth, singing with a slightly harder edge than in previous recordings. The song's lyrical content and the conviction with which Burton Cummings sang them gave the song a level of authenticity not normally associated with popular music. The lyrics themselves are an allegory about the turbulent period in history that the Guess Who had found themselves. As proud Canadians plying their trade in America, they were witness to the political unrest and challenges that were day to day occurrences in that country, specifically as a result of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. To the band’s credit, they put their feelings into words and produced a hit single that combined great music and profound social commentary on a crucial topic. 
The single version of “American Woman” would go to number 1 on the Billboard charts on May 9, 1970, making it the most popular record in America at that particular time in history, based on radio play and record sales. It was a tremendous achievement. 
The Guess Who continues to perform, although the current version of the band has very little to do with the quartet that recorded “American Woman”. Both Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman would leave the group to further their careers on their own terms. The music that the band produced during its heyday has stood the test of time however, and all of the contributors should feel justifiably proud. “American Woman” is certainly proof of that.  

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Blue Shadows

"On The Floor Of Heaven"

“On The Floor Of Heaven” was the debut album from the band “The Blue Shadows”, a quartet that hailed from Vancouver, Canada. All of the tracks were recorded in Vancouver during March of 1993, except for two that were recorded earlier in July of 1992. The future for the group seemed promising; they had support from their label Bumstead Records and a distribution deal with Sony/Columbia, one of the biggest players in the game. Upon its release, On The Floor Of Heaven received great reviews and was certified gold in Canada for sales in excess of 50,000 copies. The band was also nominated for a Juno in the category of “Best Country Group or Duo” in 1994. The band toured to much critical acclaim, and in 1995 recorded their follow-up disc, “Lucky To Me”, again to great reviews. However, shortly after the release of their second album, they broke up. That has not been the end of the group though. There continues to be great interest in their music, and their debut release is still very highly regarded and much sought after. 
While the music was uniformly excellent, the personal dynamics within the band were challenging for some of the members. The Blue Shadows had a fascinating pedigree. The founding member of The Blue Shadows was Bill Cowsill, a member of the 1960’s band, the “Cowsills.” A staple of top 40 radio in the late 1960’s, the Cowsills was a family band, comprised of brothers Bill, Bob, Barry, John, Paul, sister Susan and their mother Barbara, with the children’s father as the group’s manager. Bill was the eldest of the brothers, played guitar and was the lead singer. In 1967 the group signed with MGM, and released their first album, which included the hit single “The Rain, The Park & Other Things”. The single went to number 2 on the Billboard charts and became a certified gold record, selling over a million copies. The band continued to have success, with two more million selling singles; “Indian Lake” in 1968 and the title song from the hit musical “Hair” in 1969. The friendly, family persona exemplified by the group however masked a fractious relationship between Bill and his father, who ran things in a very strict manner. Bill was fired from the band in 1969 after a serious physical altercation with his father at a Las Vegas hotel. 
After leaving the Cowsills, Bill continued to work in the music industry, and was involved in a number of projects. In 1971 he released a solo album “Nervous Breakthrough” that failed to chart. He eventually decided to pull up stakes and in the mid 1970’s relocated to Western Canada. Bill continued his music career, mainly based in Calgary, Alberta. In the early 1990’s, he found himself in Vancouver, British Columbia performing with stand up bass player Elmer Spanier. It was at this time that the genesis of what would become The Blue Shadows began to take shape. 
At the time, Bill was being managed by a gentleman named Larry Wanagas of Bumstead Productions. An old friend of Larry’s, singer, guitarist and song-writer Jeffrey Hatcher arrived in Vancouver. Larry knew that Bill was looking to add another guitarist, and thought that he and Jeffrey might hit it off. It was an inspired choice. Whether it was deserved or not, Bill had developed a reputation as a somewhat irascible character, and allegedly Jeffrey had some initial trepidation about performing with Bill. However, the two musicians seemed to really connect musically and after a few gigs the decision was made that they would continue to work together. Drummer J.B. Johnson was added to the group, making it a quartet. Jeffrey’s partner came up with the band’s name, and they were off and running. Within a few months, the band was ready to enter a recording studio and lay down some tracks. 
The album the group recorded contained twelve songs. There were no covers on the record. Seven of the songs were co-written by Bill and Jeffrey, and the rest were either written by Jeffrey or by Bill in conjunction with another songwriter. The style of music performed by The Blue Shadows undoubtedly had a strong country influence, but other musical genres can also be heard. What is without dispute however is the excellence of the songs, and the excellence of the group's performance. While every song is good, there a couple that are classics that still sound amazing almost 25 years after they were originally laid down. As indicated earlier, there continues to be a significant amount of interest in the group and its first album. The band has maintained a strong following (specifically on-line), with On The Floor Of Heaven having a revered status with fans, and with no shortage of superlatives to describe the music. I don’t intend to repeat what is already out there in my review of the recording. Most of the reviews focus on trying to find comparisons between well known iconic artists and The Blue Shadows in an attempt to define the music the band created. While it is axiomatic that the music The Blue Shadows recorded for On The Floor Of Heaven has precedents, and that the influences of other artists can be recognized, it does a disservice to the group and to the songwriters Bill and Jeffrey to try and define them by who they might sound like. Their music stands on its own, and should be thought of in those terms. Twenty some odd years before the release of On The Floor Of Heaven, another musical innovator named Gram Parsons was creating a form of popular music he referred to as “Cosmic American Music”. If you have to affix a tag on what The Blue Shadows did, that probably works as well as anything (or call it “Cosmic Canadian Music” if you want to be nationalistic).   
    The music on the recording has a beautiful open feel to it. The instrumentation is sparse and nobody overplays. Where it benefits the song, the band introduces some fiddle or some pedal steel, but these extra instruments are used sparingly to add colour and don’t overwhelm the listener. The over-production and cliche “rock music” techniques predominant in the “New Country” musical genre of the early 1990’s are thankfully no where to be found in On The Floor Of Heaven. What the listener gets to hear are excellent harmony vocals, crisp guitar (with some nice 12 string thrown in here and there) and a solid understated rhythm section. The music has a timeless feel, and could have come from any of the five decades between 1960 and 2010. 
As I stated earlier, I don’t think there’s a duff track on the album. If I had to pick one that exemplifies what a treasure this recording is, I’d go with the title track, “On The Floor Of Heaven”. The song is a ballad, and opens with electric and acoustic guitar, followed by Bill and Jeffrey singing the opening lines of the first verse together. The rhythm section subsequently joins in, along with some tasteful peddle steel. The arrangement is superb. We get to listen to the beautiful blend Bill and Jeffrey had with their vocals throughout the song, singing in unison and harmonizing. In addition to the great verse/chorus progression, the song features a gorgeous bridge leading to the last verse and the band taking the song out with three part harmony.  
As I alluded to earlier, while there weren’t any issues with the music, the internal dynamics in the band were a different story. Bill was quite bit older, and more world-weary than the other members. He was wrestling with some demons, and his lifestyle was not one that the other members agreed with. As with many other similar situations in the musical universe, the band broke up after everybody simply had enough. 
On The Floor Of Heaven was only released on compact disk. The cover featured a stylized picture of the centre of a vinyl record with the group’s name and the album’s title featured. A simple graphic design, but very effective, subliminally suggesting the timeless quality of the music the recording contained. It was catalogue number CK 80181. In 2010 Bumstead Records released a deluxe 2 disc remastered reissue of the original recording, plus some bonus tracks and out-takes (catalogue number BSP0931D), in response to the continued demand for the music.
Bill Cowsill succumbed to a variety of illnesses in 2006 in Calgary. After leaving The Blue Shadows, he was able to overcome his addictions through a program of rehabilitation. He always thought very highly of the group and his contributions to it, and felt that the band and its recordings were some of the best work he had ever accomplished in a very lengthy and noteworthy career. Jeffrey Hatcher largely moved on from the music business, although according to sources on-line, he is still occasionally performing. (I tried reaching out to him while preparing this article, but did not receive a reply). I can only repeat what many others have already said, this music deserves to be heard and enjoyed. If you aren’t familiar with the group, do yourself a favour and listen. While the original 1993 recording has been out of print for quite a number of years, you might be able to locate the deluxe reissue. Failing that, the deluxe reissue is available on iTunes (although you will have to go to the American store if you are in Canada).