Song of the Week – I’ve Got Ramblin’ On My Mind, Otis Spann

Today’s SotW was penned by Michael Paquette.  Michael has been a friend since my post-grad years in Boston, many years ago.  A long-time blues aficionado, today he gives us a history lesson about the great Otis Spann.

Traditional Chicago blues and Mississippi Delta Blues are a major part of the fabric of American music.  This music is the main influence for much of American jazz and early rock and roll as well as a huge influence on the first wave of British musicians including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon, and some early Beatles’ works as well.  The artist featured in this post was a major contributor to both blues styles in his short lifetime. 

Otis Spann was born in Belzoni (some sources say Jackson), Mississippi in 1924 (some sources say 1930).  He began playing the piano at a very early age.  His mother played the guitar and his father was a pianist but Otis got his inspiration from local piano players Coot Davis and Friday Ford.  When he was eight years old he won a piano contest at the Alamo Theatre in Jackson and began playing with local groups in Jackson.

After his mother died in 1947 he moved to Chicago and worked as a plasterer during the day while performing at the Tic Toc Lounge at night.  He was mentored by Big Maceo and after Maceo suffered a heart attack he assisted him at the piano, playing the left-handed parts.  

Otis served a brief stint in the Army and then joined Muddy Waters in his seminal band which would become the group that brought traditional Chicago blues to mainstream America.  With guitar player Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter, it was, without exaggeration, the best band that Muddy ever had and probably the greatest assemblage of blues musicians in one band to the present day.  Otis would go on to play alongside numerous other artists including Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Walter Horton, Johnny Martin, Jr. Wells, and Johnny Shines.  In the 1960s Otis began making records under his own name.  His warm and hoarse voice blends beautifully with his melancholic style, learned from Big Maceo.  The song I have chosen is from his first solo release in 1960.  Teaming with Robert Lockwood, Jr. this song is a fine example of the wonderful and sultry duets they performed together.

Robert Lockwood, Jr. was strongly influenced by his stepfather Robert Johnson who is often considered the Father of the Blues and a huge influence on Eric Clapton.  Lockwood was born in Arkansas in 1915 and played alongside B. B. King and Sonny Boy Williamson among others and then joined Otis as a staff musician for Chess Records.  This team of artists blended beautifully together and they display a melding of Delta and Chicago blues that is unmatched.

Otis Spann was an artist who was described as a somewhat weary and sad-eyed man who was only happy when he was drinking or playing the piano.  Yet he was a friendly man and well-liked by his fellow musicians.  His drinking got the best of him and he died in 1970 of liver failure.  He left behind a legacy of blues piano that is part of the lexicon of a black music tradition that today is nearly extinct from the contemporary music scene.  But these recordings remain an influence on such artists as Kingfish Ingram, Derek Trucks, Gary Clark, Jr., Jonny Lang, and Samantha Fish among others.

As Muddy Waters said of Otis Spann:

“He knew my music better than any man alive.  There is no one left like him who played real, solid bottom blues like he did.  We’d better raise another before it’s too late.”

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – The Ghetto, Donny Hathaway

The Donny Hathaway story is one of the most tragic in 20th-century popular music.

Hathaway was a musical prodigy.  He attended Howard University where he met some of the people he would later work with in the music industry, including drummer Ric Powell and the talented Leroy Hutson.  Hutson co-wrote one of Hathaway’s most political, and well-known songs – “The Ghetto.”

In February 2019, Emily Lordi wrote in The New Yorker:

At the start of the 1969 hit “The Ghetto,” the legendary soul singer Donny Hathaway plays a deep bass line on electric piano and swoops up to his falsetto, as if to outline a shape that the song will fill with guitar, bass, congas, soul claps, and fragments of speech. (“Leave her alone, man,” someone says. Someone else says, “Pass the joint.”) Gradually, the song, in defiance of the two-dimensional image of the depraved “inner city” that was pushed by sociologists in the wake of the urban riots of the sixties, paints a portrait of the ghetto as a site of complex pleasures, untold stories, and unwritten rules.

This song doesn’t depend on lyrics – it mostly relies on the title being changed over and over — but it has an irresistible groove.  It has been covered and sampled a jillion times.

Some view the highlight of his career as the duets he recorded with Roberta Flack, who also attended Howard.  Together they scored a #5 hit with “Where Is the Love.”

Hathaway’s creative gifts and success were unable to help him overcome his mental illness.  He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a condition that impaired his musical career and personal relationships.

On January 13, 1979, Hathaway was found below the 15th-floor window of his room in New York City’s Essex Hotel, the victim of an apparent suicide.  He was only 33.

But he left us with a legacy of beautiful music to remember him by.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Harvest Time, Pharoah Sanders

Pharoah Sanders was one of the greatest tenor sax players of the 20th Century.  After years of collaborating with John Coltrane at the vanguard of the “free jazz” movement, he transitioned into “spiritual jazz”.  Wikipedia describes spiritual jazz as “not follow(ing) a strictly defined musical style but generally features elements of free jazz, avant-garde jazz and modal jazz with influences from Asian and African music.”

Sanders’ 1977 album Pharoah was an underappreciated example of spiritual jazz.  After many years of recording on the respected Impulse! label, Sanders released Pharoah on the independent India Navigation.  It sank into obscurity and was out of print until finally reissued by Luaka Bop in 2021. 

“Harvest Time” took up the whole first side of the original vinyl album.

In a review of the album in MOJO, John Mulvey described “Harvest Time” eloquently:

… a two-chord vamp.  There’s a restrained guitar groove from Tisziji Munoz, weaving in and out of Steve Neil’s equally understated bass line.  Organ comes from Clifton “Jiggs” Chase, who’d go on to produce and co-write Grandmaster Flash’s The Message.  Harmonium shade is provided by Sanders’ then-wife, Bedria, apparently encountering the instrument for the first time.  No drums.  And Sanders himself, conjuring phrases out of his tenor as subtle as breaths, privileging his most sensuous playing rather than his fearsome capacity for skronk.

Sit back and let this meditative music wash over you as you sip your morning coffee.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Eve Was Black, Allison Russell

Today marks the 16th anniversary for the Song of the Week (SotW).  It all started back in the first week of February 2018.  I sent out a couple of MP3s attached to an email without any write up.  One of those songs was the Beatles’ “All My Loving” from the Ed Sullivan Show, which aired 60 years ago yesterday!  Truly a performance that changed the world – and that’s not hyperbole.  Thanks for supporting my posts for all these years.

February is Black History Month.  I enjoy paying tribute to the occasion by featuring artists that speak to the African American experience.  Today let’s shine a spotlight on Allison Russell, a contemporary, Grammy nominated artist.  Russell is a Canadian born resident of Nashville who was nominated for best Americana album last year for Outside Child.

Last September she released her second solo album, The Returner, which might be even better than Outside Child.  The provocative “Eve Was Black” is one of the highlights of the disc.

Eve was Black, haven’t you heard?
The Mother of All was Dark and Good
Eve was Black, didn’t you know?
Is that why you hate my Black Skin so?
Is that why you hate my Black Skin so?

This is boundary pushing Americana!  Russell is a woman that wants to speak her mind, and I like it.

Before focusing on her solo career, Russell was in the band Po’ Girl with Trish Klein (The Be Good Tanyas).  She moved on from there to join her husband JT Nero in Birds of Chicago.  (They have a child together, though Russell identifies as queer.  It’s complicated.)  Later she joined forces with Rhiannon Giddens, and others, in the group Our Native Daughters.

But now her focus is clearly on her doing her own thing, and I’m glad it is.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Just In Time, Rickie Lee Jones

This week I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Rickie Lee Jones from the second row of an intimate venue, the Guild Theater in Menlo Park, CA.  Jones, who will be 70 years old later this year, was in fine voice.  I swear, she sounded just like she did on her Grammy nominated debut album that was released 45 years ago this month!  Her voice was strong, and she could still hit the high notes with ease.

In 2023, she released a new studio album, her 15th, titled Pieces of Treasure.  It is a collection of jazzy standards from the Great American Songbook, sung by Jones with verve and panache.  The disc has received accolades, earning the #46 spot on MOJO’s list of the 75 best albums of 2023, and another Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.  Tomorrow night we will learn if she wins.

Today’s SotW is that album’s lead single, “Just in Time.”

“Just In Time” was written by Jules Styne (music) with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and first released in 1956.  It has been recorded by every famous vocal artist from Frank Sinatra to Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Barbra Streisand, and Nina Simone.

Jones’ version opens with vibraphone, played by Mike Mainieri.  Mainieri may be best known to SotW readers for his work with Dire Straits and Carly Simon.  But he has been a fixture on the jazz scene too, often collaborating with artists such as Buddy Rich, Bob James, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, and David Sanborn, among others.

Jones wraps her voice around this tender love song.

Just in time
You found me just in time
Before you came
My time was running low

I was lost
The losing dice were tossed
My bridges all were crossed
Nowhere to go

Now you’re here
And now I know just where I’m going
No more doubts or fears
I found my way
‘Cause love came just in time
You found me just in time
Then you changed my lonely life that lovely day

Now you’re here
And now I know just where I’m going
No more doubts or fears
I found my way
‘Cause love came just in time

You found me just in time
Then you changed my lonely life that lovely day
You changed my lonely life that lonely day

If you haven’t read her 2021 memoir, Last Chance Texaco, you should.  It was named Book of the Year by MOJO and Pitchfork, NPR, and other media outlets.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – You’re Pretty Good Looking(For a Girl), White Stripes

In the year 2000, the White Stripes released their sophomore album, De Stijl.  The album title is a reference to the Dutch abstract art movement.  It espoused reducing elements of art to the essentials of form and color, and was an early influence on the White Stripes aesthetic of using only red, white, and black for their stage and graphics image.

The lead track on the home recorded album was “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl).”

This is 109 seconds of what Jack White has called bubblegum pop.  At the time it was considered a departure from his slide blues comfort zone.  Some fans saw it as progress, others as a decline.  I like it.

I scratched my head for a long time trying to understand the “for a girl” part.  I finally landed on the theory that he’s trying to convey that girls (women) have a high societal standard of beauty to live up to.  Saying “for a girl” is actually a compliment.

He clearly likes her.  Later in the song he says:

Lots of people in this world
But I want to be your boy
To me that thought is sounding so absurd
And I don’t want to be your toy

He awkwardly wants to be in a relationship but also wants to be taken seriously.

“You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)” was used in the movie Hot Chick, released in 2002, starring Rob Schneider.  That means it beat out “We’re Going to Be Friends” — used for the opening credits of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) – as the first White Stripes song used in a film.

I was lucky enough to see the White Stripes live at the 2005 San Diego Street Scene.  They were outstanding and I still hold them up as one of my favorite new millennial bands.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Friend of a Friend, The Smile

The Smile is a band consisting of Radiohead members Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, bass, keys, songwriting) and Jonny Greenwood (guitar, bass, keys, songwriting), and Tom Skinner (drums, percussion, keys, songwriting), the drummer from the jazz group the Sons of Kemet.

The group formed in 2020 – another COVID-19 lockdown project – and has released one album (A Light for Attracting Attention), a couple of live EPs, and a few singles from their second album, Wall of Eyes, scheduled for release on January 26th.

One of those singles is “Friend of a Friend” which hit the “airwaves” on January 9th.

From our window balconies we take a tumble as our
Friends step out to talk and wave and catch a piece of sun

“Friend of a Friend” was inspired when Yorke saw videos of Italians singing to one another and/or playing music from their roofs and balconies during the COVID-19 quarantine.

The music on “Friend of a Friend” has a sound that will be more familiar to Radiohead fans than most of The Smile’s other recordings; especially the crescendos during the “From our window…” sections.  They remind me of the grand buildup of the “24 bar middle section” on the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”  Both used classical musicians – “Friend of a Friend” employing the London Symphony Orchestra.  Both also used the Abbey Road studios.

I like this song so much that I cannot wait to hear the whole album!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Marie Marie, The Blasters

The Blasters are a rockabilly band formed in Southern California in 1979.  They were piloted by the Alvin brothers, Phil (guitar and vocals) and Dave (guitars), along with bassist  John Bazz and Bill Bateman on drums.

I first became aware of this group with their self-titled 1981 album.  It kicks off with today’s SotW – “Marie Marie.”

The opening guitar strum intro kills!  And the track takes off from there with high energy.

In a 2014 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Dave Alvin discussed the origins of the song:

“It was one of the earliest songs that I wrote. I don’t think it was the first, but it was the third or fourth. And, yeah, I was laying in my bed, kind of excited about suddenly being in a band and being a guitar player. And so, I have these songs rolling around in my head and the sort of melody and everything kind of came to me. And I thought, well, this would be a great Cajun Balfa Brothers kind of song, and then if you put it to a Chuck Berry beat, this might be pretty cool. But I couldn’t think of any lyrics. And we had a rehearsal the next evening. And so, all that day I was walking around humming this melody. And I was like, what’s it about, what’s it’s about, you know, ’cause I had no idea how to write songs at that point. I still don’t. But I really didn’t have any idea then and I just – whatever I was doing that day, you know, I just – living inside my brain. And then – and the reality was about 30 minutes before we left to go to rehearsal, I sat down at our kitchen table, and I just wrote the lyrics – just came to me. I was kind of – I remember being a little kid and we were driving down this road up near the Puente Hills. And there was an old Victorian farmhouse and there was a girl sitting on the porch with a guitar. And for whatever reason, that image stuck with me and so I just wrote that.”

The British musician Shakin’ Stevens released his own version of the song in 1980 that reached #19 in the UK charts.  But I still prefer The Blasters’ original.

The Blasters are still around and performing, but without Dave Alvin.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Mr. Blue, Clear Light

Happy New Year, readers!

I’m starting 2024 with a psychedelic classic from an obscure late ‘sixties group called Clear Light.  The track is a “far out” cover of a song penned by folkie Tom Paxton, called “Mr. Blue” (1967).

I have to admit that 6 and 1/2 minutes of a song that mixes spoken word segments with fuzzed out psychedelia can be a bit much for some (most?) people, but I dig it for the period piece that it is.  At about 5:30, the band goes into a frenetic wig out that sounds much like their Elektra labelmates, The Doors.

Keyboardist Ralph Schuckett has told the story of playing a morning gig in the chapel of a prep school in Massachusetts in August 1967.  In his account, the “fresh faced, squeaky clean ‘old family’ teenage boys” at the school had no idea what to make of the stoned hippie musicians in Clear Light.  His story continues:

“At the cacophonous end of ‘Mr Blue,’ Dallas and Michael knocked over their drums, Bob was Townshending all over the place, hitting the gleaming wood railings and pews. Cliff banged his mic on the floor and things. There’s not much you can do to a Hammond organ without the proper tools, which I didn’t have, but I was sort of shaking it back and forth and running my hands up and down till they literally bled all over the keys. When the carnage sort of petered out, the band was in the car and on the highway in seconds.”

The band was also a little ahead of the curve with the idea to use two drummers – one of them being Dallas Taylor who would go on to greater fame as the drummer on CSN&Y’s classic Déjà Vu album.  This is a lineup the Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers would adopt some time later.

In order to keep their branding message focused, Clear Light was named after a potent formula of LSD. 

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Trouble Man, Marvin Gaye & Trouble Child, Joni Mitchell

Today’s post is the next installment in my newest concept – the Contrast Series.  Today I’ll cover Mavin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” and “Trouble Child” by Joni Mitchell.

Aside from the obvious fact that both songs have the word “trouble” in their titles, you might be surprised to find out they are connected far more intimately.

Marvin Gaye’s song was the title track for the soundtrack album to the Blaxploitation film directed by Ivan Dixon that was released in 1972.  Dixon was best known for his acting roles in a couple of Twilight Zone episodes and as “Kinch” Kinchloe in the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes on CBS running 1965-1971.

“Trouble Man” describes the sticky situations the film’s lead, Mister T, encounters.

I come up hard baby, but now I’m cool
I didn’t make it sugar, playin’ by the rules
I come up hard baby, but now I’m fine
I’m checkin’ trouble sugar, movin’ down the line
I come up hard baby, but that’s okay
‘Cause Trouble Man, don’t get in my way
I come up hard baby, I’ve been for real, baby
Gonna keep movin’, gonna go to town
I come up hard, I come up gettin’ down
There’s only three things that’s for sure
Taxes, death and trouble, oh
This I know, baby, this I know, sugar
Girl, ain’t gon’ let it sweat me, babe

That part about “taxes, death and trouble” might relate more to Gaye’s personal life.

Joni Mitchell was fond of this song.  By 1998, she had added it to the set list for some of her concert performances.  She once explained “In the process of learning [the song] for performance, I discovered how truly original and eccentric the form of it is.”

In the early 2000s, Starbucks released a series of exclusive CD albums called Artist’s Choice.  For each, a famous musician was asked to curate an album’s worth of their favorite songs.  The Joni Mitchell version that came out in 2005, had 18 selections, the 15th being “Trouble Man.”  In the CD’s liner notes, Mitchell explained why she chose each of the songs on the disc.  For “Trouble Man, she said “I had this song on an album and I kept the needle on this track—playing it over and over.  It was so influential to my music and my singing. It excites me from the downbeat—the way the drums roll in – the suspense – the approaching storm of it.”

Mitchell’s 1974 classic, Court and Spark, included a song called “Trouble Child.” 

There is speculation that Gaye’s “Trouble Man” influenced this song.  While the lyrical theme isn’t the identical, there are similarities.  Gaye’s subject is in trouble with the law and gangsters.  Mitchell’s subject’s trouble is with inner conflicts and self-doubt.

Up in a sterilized room
Where they let you be lazy
Knowing your attitude’s all wrong
And you got to change
And that’s not easy
Dragon shining with all values known
Dazzling you, keeping you from your own
Where is the lion in you to defy him
When you’re this weak
And this spacey

So what are you going to do about it
You can’t live life and you can’t leave it
Advice and religion, you can’t take it
You can’t seem to believe it
The peacock is afraid to parade
You’re under the thumb of the maid
You really can’t give love in this condition
Still you know how you need it

Lyrics aside, the jazzy sophistication of the music is undeniably similar to the direction Gaye pursued.

These are both songs that are under the radar but deserve closer listening.

Enjoy… until next week.