This is a pic of the wondrous Carla Thomas performing at the legendary Wattstax concert in 1972. While every day is a good day to celebrate her endless fabulosity, today I have a more specific reason to talk her up as she is a key player within one of my weirdest musical obsessions: covers of ’70s soft rock songs done by soul artists in the actual ’70s. I know. You’re like wtf, that is really, really specific and nerdy. But it is a more vast, beautiful and magnificently weird world than you can imagine…and I really want you to hear what I’m talking about.
I wrote a piece here at PuR a while back but have blown it up to epic proportions over at Cover Me. There you will find a demented and infatuated essay titled “My Cover Story: Soul In The Middle Of The Road” where I break down some of the absolute finest and craziest R & B covers of ’70s soft rock songs ever-ever-ever. When I say you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Donny Hathaway turning a smoky LA club into a church on his version of “You’ve Got A Friend” or Walter Jackson rambunctiously reinterpreting Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and covering it with white powder or Carla walking down and owning James Taylor’s “Country Road”, well, you haven’t lived. I’ll explain, share 30(!) soft-soul covers and talk all kinds of loved up (and brutally honest) shiz about the songs and the artists responsible, as well as describe how years of sitting in the back seat of my Mom’s car and being endlessly showered with the sounds of ’70s AM pop radio, did unspeakable things to my future musical taste. Plus if you have a little soul in your heart, I promise you will fall in love with at least one of the covers (or be seriously confused by them and hey, that’s always fun).
A sophisticated soul diva. A regal jazz vocalist. A sugary synthesized pop babe. Natalie Cole was all of these things. She was also a swaggering, strutting, stage stalking frontman extraordinaire. Come now as we explore the rock ‘n’ roll heart of Natalie Cole. “Then she blew my mind”…
Forget the infamous opening anecdote that kicks off Mötley Crüe’s horrifyingly readable bio,The Dirt. The fact is when it comes to awful, absurdist, WTF remembrances, the tale that opens Natalie Cole’s 2000 autobiography Angel On My Shoulder is the indisputable winner. It was February 10, 1981, and Natalie had just finished a performing engagement at the Las Vegas Hilton. She and her six-foot ten-inch ex-NBA-playing bodyguard found themselves confined in her room due to what they assumed was a small but isolated fire down the hall on their floor. There was a bit of smoke seeping under the door but Natalie reasoned, if the fire were a real issue, the front desk would surely call. Besides, they’d just had food delivered and she was hungry. And so they ate.
As they did, the smoke grew thicker, and it became clear something wasn’t right. Natalie rang the front desk and alerted them to what was happening (unsurprisingly, they already knew). She was told not to worry that someone would come to evacuate both of them as soon as possible and just to stay put ’til then. As a means of defense, she and her bodyguard decided to wet themselves down fully clothed in the shower. They then lay down on the floor where “the good air” was and waited for someone to save them.
It was at this moment her protector decided to come clean and confess to Natalie that he’d been in love with her from the moment they’d first met. Their lives were in peril, they were all wet, so what better time to make his move. “We ought to make love here and now because it’s the last chance we’re going to get,” he ominously pleaded to her. Natalie’s first thought was of the “are you freakin’ serious” variety. Still, she went the kind and gentle route, telling him she was flattered but like no, wryly noting in her book, “testosterone should be considered a controlled substance.” Anyway, if this was the end, she wanted to use these final earthly moments to indulge in her favorite activity, namely getting wasted. While her horny roommate looked on in disbelief, she got up, grabbed her cocaine and freebasing paraphernalia, and began the set-up process in earnest while what was now officially an inferno raged. Yes, folks, it is then the fire brigade axed down the door and saved Natalie and her thwarted suitor.
This story features the kind of tragedy (people died in this fire), absurdity (libidinous bodyguard), and disgraceful behavior (Natalie’s) we’ve come to expect from a standard-issue, rule-breaking, rebellious rock star memoir. It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect from a markedly sophisticated, music for grown-up making, private school educated, daughter of a legendary crooner.
But Natalie Cole wasn’t quite who she seemed to be on the surface. She’d been winking and sending covert signals about her true self throughout her career. The thing is, you had to dig a little deeper than what was played on the radio to catch them. And more often than not, you had to be in the right place at the right time.
These signposts came in self-penned deep cuts on her albums, cover songs, and one-off live performances. There was a distinct and specific message hidden within all these scattered bits and pieces. That message was I am Natalie Cole and I am here to f-ingrock.
Don’t be fooled, this girl could rock and roll…
At the time of the incident above, Natalie was already a burgeoning musical superstar who’d scored several Top 40 hits, including effervescent evergreen soul sweethearts “This Will Be” and “I’ve Got Love On My Mind”, as well as a handful of Gold and Platinum albums. She’d already won multiple Grammys, including the fabled and feared “Best New Artist” and had hosted her own network TV special. She was also in the throes of an uncontrollable cocaine addiction - which had come on the heels of a recently ended heroin addiction ( started with snorting, progressed to shooting). To summarize, in the early ’80s, Natalie Cole was a mess. But she got through it. Natalie entered the Hazelden rehab clinic in 1983 and, after a six-month stay, emerged, according to her account, “fat and afraid but sober” while emphatically stating it was “the best thing I ever did.”
To characterize the Cole career trajectory over the decade that followed as a “rebirth” would be seriously underselling what unfolded. Beginning in 1987, she scored four slick ‘n’ synthy top 20 pop hits, including her perky, slightly subversive if you think about it, a cover of Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” and embraceable cornball ballad “Miss You Like Crazy”. But those confections were mere appetizers for what happened next. In 1991 Natalie released what was to become the best-selling album of her career, a behemoth known as Unforgettable, an album of standards first performed by her late father, legendary crooner Nat King Cole (better known as that CD your Dad was always playing in the car back in the day). The album went to number one, selling over six million copies. The three albums that preceded it in the number one album spot, in order, were by NWA, Skid Row, and Van Halen. The album that followed it was by Metallica. I’m not sure what that says about the state of music back then. Still, holy hell, you’ve gotta love that Natalie in her gorgeous evening gown with her huge orchestra in tow was able to interrupt the chart dominance of the rebellious boys club for roughly an entire month and a half. Take that, you rapscallions.
The irony, of course, is that Natalie Cole was herself a real dyed-in-the-wool rock star who even on her worst night could have blown freakin’ Sammy Hagar or Sebastian Bach off the stage. She was, in fact, a fist-pumping, fire breathing, mike-stand straddling, stage stalking frontman with swag and attitude for days.
There was no actual schedule as far as when rocker Natalie would rear her head. You could sometimes find her hiding in the form of a fiery deep-cut wolf or two among a studio album full of sheep. But she primarily came out in live settings; the stage is where Natalie Cole Rock Star™ did her killing. Whether guesting on an anodyne TV talk show or doing a cameo at a tribute concert, when Natalie was in her rock guise/persona, all previously conceived notions you may have had about her went right out the window. It never failed. She’d walk onstage, wail, flail, destroy the emotional hotel room, then dash away into the mists. I have no doubt there were many “what the hell, I had no idea Natalie Cole could do that” conversations happening after witnessing one of these performances.
Case in point, her ridiculous performance of “Ticket To Ride” at the John Lennon Tribute Concert that was held in Liverpool back in 1990 ( he was her Beatle of choice). While she’d been including a staggering cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” into her live set for years (watch here), this romp through “Ticket” is her finest foray into Beatle-dom. She absolutely, unequivocally crushes it (and looks fierce and fabulous as f*ck while doing it). What she does in the last half alone vaults this version to the top of the massive “Ticket” cover pile. Seriously, it’s one of the best. Check this out…
Yeah, damn. Just think, only a few months after this, she began recording the Unforgettable album. That’s some teenage getting into bed, Mom coming in wishing you goodnight, and you climbing out the window to go party shit in reverse.
Natalie’s rock inclinations were not an affectation. She had credentials y’all. In her college days at UMass Amherst, she’d been the lead singer in a band, backed by four white guys, called Black Magic, whose set consisted of covers by Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, CSNY, and James Taylor. She was a regular at the SF Fillmore who saw and worshipped Janis Joplin (she often referred to her in interviews as “my favorite rock ‘n’ roll singer of all-time”) and Grace Slick. The first demo tape that she presented to the record labels featured not only Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” but Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” (a big fave of hers). During her career, she covered everyone from Joni Mitchell to the man himself, Bob Dylan. And get this, when Bob got word that Natalie wanted to cover his “Gotta Serve Somebody” in 1999, he wrote two new verses to replace the ones in the original he thought might be too specific to him. That’s right, Bob, or “Mr.D,” as she calls him in her first memoir, customized a song for her exclusive usage. Here is Natalie manifesting, channeling, and testifying in honor of Janis. It is crazy:
As one YouTube commentator so eloquently put it, “she sang the fuck out of that song.”
The most fun you will see Natalie having in any of the countless YouTube clips of her live performances is when she is given the opportunity to rock. She commands the space; she ad-libs, she struts, she just plain works it. Minus the satin evening wear and regal surroundings, Natalie morphs into a completely different performer. When she’s got the pants on, she freakin’ means business. As far as her studio recordings, you have to do a little digging to find the rock ‘n’ Cole (sorry, still you knew I was gonna do that at some point). While there are some excellent covers, including an especially fine and moody version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Daddy” (listen here), the two best rock-flavored tracks in the discography were written by Natalie herself. They are both straight-up old-school FM radio chestnuts and coincidentally come from the same damn album, 1980’s Don’t Look Back.
The nearly six-and-a-half-minute-long “Danger Up Ahead” sits somewhere between late ’70s era Toto and the Eagles around their 1979 album The Long Run. It is a slickly melodic, epic piece of rock candy with an awesomely idiosyncratic vocal from Natalie full of hot sass and attitude. She stretches notes, quirks up pronunciations, and closes things out with some show-off shredding in the coda. Listen to how much fun she is having singing this thing; it positively brims with joy.
Then there is the delicate power ballad “Beautiful Dreamer” a fantastical blueprint of what it might’ve sounded like had Natalie been asked to join Heart as a third member back in the day. It’s plush and memorable, kinda like if “Dog & Butterfly” and “These Dreams” had each been melted down then gently mixed together. It sounds very, very good.
It took a while, but in 2006, Natalie finally got around to making an actual (mostly) rock-themed album. Leavin’ was an eclectic collection of rock and soul covers featuring songs by Kate Bush, Fiona Apple, and Sting. She offered this bit of brutal honesty to Pop Matters in an interview around the time of release: “I want to let the jazz people do their jazz thing, so I’m moving on. R&B, rock, and pop have always been my forte. I think that I stayed too long doing the jazz thing. I wish I’d done this record at least five years ago. I like to keep changing it up. I do more than one kind of thing. People started calling me a jazz singer, and I didn’t like that. I don’t like to be labeled “. She also admitted to being tired and bored with the standards thing and felt that it had become something of a musical straightjacket requiring unnatural amounts of restraint. She shared a few more choice nuggets regarding the motivation for Leavin‘ with American Songwriter magazine in 2006: “I missed the freedom. I missed ad-libbing and being able to holler now and then. I missed all of that energy, and I just felt like I really kind of, in a way, fenced myself in a little too much.”
One of the album highlights is a sublime cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man”. While the studio version is super-fine, and we get to hear her go down to the basement in the fabulous vocal ( listen here), there is a fan-recorded, live version from a show in Istanbul in 2011 on YouTube that blows it out of the water. It is an epic six-minute, two-drummer-rock-soul sermon with a punchy and powerful vocal arrangement. It comes over like some crazy, lost Fillmore East bootleg from bygone days. Before you watch it, I need to warn you about one little thing though, an unwelcome guest, if you will. At specific points, you will be assaulted by the sound of a particularly annoying audience member, whom you may want to punch in the mouth retroactively. But seriously, try and ignore this devil and pretend you’re at a show. Just close your eyes and immerse yourself in what Natalie and her band are doing here because it’s crazy good. Lord, I wish this had been recorded properly, but I guess we have to be thankful it was documented at all.
On December 31, 2015, Natalie Cole passed away at the age of 65 after suffering from a myriad of health issues related to her years of IV drug use (which she was brutally honest about to the end). When I think of Natalie’s career trajectory, the most obvious comparison I can draw is Linda Ronstadt. Despite the personal issues that affected her productivity, she was just as musically restless and chameleonic as Linda. She was just as convincing singing rock songs as pop or jazz or soul or whatever took her fancy.
I want to close this out with perhaps the defining and most poignant ROCK moment of Natalie’s career. In 2011, she joined The Allman Brothers on stage for the Tune In To Hep C benefit show at the Beacon Theater. Both Natalie and Gregg Allman had been diagnosed with the disease a couple of years prior and, at the time of this show, were each wrangling with serious physical challenges.
That night, Natalie Cole, frontman, took the mike and participated in a raucous, manic, and absolutely ass-kicking version of “Whipping Post” with the backing of the great Allman B band. Natalie and the crowd singing together? Chills. What’s funny, though, is that one of the most memorable moments within the performance doesn’t involve Natalie bringing down the house from the center of the stage. After delivering a gloriously wild and fiery first verse, Natalie hangs back admiringly while the band plays. Then when the vocals are due back in, she walks over to Gregg, leans on his piano, and watches him as he belts out the next verse. With her head resting in her hand, she mouths the words along with him,” look at what you’ve done,” from the best seat in the house. We get the rare gift of seeing Natalie as both a swaggering star and rapturously devoted fan in the span of a few minutes. That look she gives him is just so gorgeous. Honestly, it’s hard to watch this scene play out without getting emotional, knowing that both of them would be gone by 2017. It’s one of those “just give me a minute to pull myself together” moments. It’s a tearjerker, to be sure…but it’s also heartrendingly beautiful.
And so with that, I ask you to raise your lighters and hold up your devil horns. Bang your head and pump your fist. All hail Miss Natalie Cole. She was and will always be a Rock Star.
You know everybody’s got their own way of doing anything, like you take this particular song for instance, it’s been done by many but I gotta do it my way…
(Bobby Womack’s spoken intro to his 1971 cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain’)
Back in the ’70s, long before that thing called streaming existed, the primary ways to hear the latest pop music were by watching TV variety shows, hanging out at the record store or by tuning into the most powerful pop music purveyor of them all, the AM radio.
And so because there were a limited number of places and airtime hours available to hear the latest pop music, people were generally exposed to a very specific bunch of songs at a time, as determined by whoever was programming all the aforementioned outlets. This meant that both younger and older generations were ultimately acquainted with the same hits. In other words, the pop Top 40 consisted of songs everybody knew regardless of their age, ethnicity or gender (a mad phenomenon we shall never ever know again).
This inevitably resulted in some existential and horrifying musical dilemmas wherein you and your parents could potentially end up liking the same song. Case in point, I loved Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”, but so did my freakin’ Mom and that was 100% unacceptable. Speaking of which…
There were a whole lotta sensitive white boy singer-songwriters and easy listening hippie chicks in the charts in the ’70s. The sound they made was collectively referred to as MOR aka middle of the road better known these days as Soft Rock. To further clarify, The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Neil Young rocked. James Taylor, Bread and America soft rocked. MOR songs were all crazy in love with everything the universe offered, most especially ladies, summer, horses and Chevy vans.
Of course at the end of the day it really didn’t matter whether a song was technically soul, country, rock or its aforementioned soft subdivision because once a song hit the Top 40 in the ’70s world, it fell into one singular category: it was a pop song.
Lady + Horse + Summer = ’70s MOR Pop Music…
And of course artists were listening too so it was inevitable that some of these ubiquitous Soft Rock songs were going to get covered. And so began a small sub-trend wherein traditional Soul artists started covering Top 40 tracks by these MOR artists and molding them into R & B songs. These covers were rarely if ever straight copies of the originals, in fact it was pretty common for arrangements to be tweaked and lyrics to be altered. And of course if you were an artist of the masculine lover man variety it was mandatory to offer a little preamble at the beginning of the song because girl, there’s something you need to understand.
🔥 Welcome to the PuR Soul in the Middle of the Road Playlist featuring the best Soul covers of MOR-Soft Rock hits from the ’70s that were also recordedin the ’70s ( and a couple from the very early ’80s) 🔥
Sometimes weird, occasionally messy, often wonderful and in more than a few cases straight up better than the originals that inspired them. The jasmine’s in bloom…
*And yes, while Nina Simone is a Jazz artist, her version of “Alone Again Naturally” has to be heard to be believed.
Listen Here !:
*And hey one last thing ! : There are a couple of tracks I wanted to include in the playlist that are not available on Spotify. One is only available on CD as of this writing and the other you can hear below on YouTube !
Carla Thomas: In 2013 a cd featuring previously unissued music from recording sessions Thomas did back in 1970 with legendary producer Chips Moman was released. There are a bunch of covers on it including an absolutely smokin’ version of James Taylor’s “Country Road”. Unfortunately it’s neither on YouTube or the streaming services as of this writing but it’s worth picking up the actual cd, which is basically a soul version of Dusty Springfield’s classic “Dusty in Memphis” album (if only it had been released at the time, sigh).
Lea Roberts: Listen as Neil Sedaka’s 1975 # 1 soft rock classic is given a super soul injection by Roberts.
This is a sad story. British singer Ephraim Lewis made a grand total of one album. It was called “Skin” and released in 1992 and was full of chilly, introspective, life affirming alt-soul. While overall it’s a pretty fine record, it’s also undeniably “of it’s time”, featuring very slick early 90’s production values ( faux strings, muted horns, shimmery backing vocals) and that pseudo electro-cool groove that became so common in the wake of Massive Attack’s “Blue Lines”. Still, it’s full of sinewy, anthemic and memorable songs and the filler is minimal. And Lewis’s voice is absolutely beautiful, rising up from the bottom of the sea to the most glorious of falsettos with ridiculous ease. It sounds like a first album, full of promise, a few killer songs, and endless potential. And frankly, in that respect, it’s no different than Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”, another by no means definitive statement, despite the grand hyperbole regularly attached to it. Like “Grace”, it’s a snapshot of an ascending talent who was going to make something truly great in time.
While not perfect, there are some undeniably stunning moments on “Skin” , specifically the slinky, sinister groove of its initial single “It Can’t Be Forever”, the desperately keening title track, and the languid and sultry beauty of “Drowning In Your Eyes” (the latter being the finest recorded moment of Lewis’s career). The vocals are absolutely faultless throughout.
Elektra, Lewis’s label, believed in him wholeheartedly and why not, he had absolutely everything going for him, the voice, the looks, all of it. They had expectations and believed “Skin” would be big.
The video for “It Can’t Be Forever” received a bit of MTV airplay and the album garnered a few positive reviews and went on to sell over 100,000 copies worldwide. Pretty damn good for the debut of a previously unknown singer… but disappointing from a record company perspective based on the millions of promotional dollars that had been invested to launch it. Besides “Skin”, Lewis also contributed an ethereal beauty of a song on the forgettable “Made in America” soundtrack in 1993. And… that’s where it ends. That was all his recorded output. He never got to make his grand artistic statement, his big record. He was dead before he even reached his 27th birthday. He died in 1994 under dramatic, sordid, and still not quite explicable circumstances in LA, where he’d been working on recordings for his second album with none other than Glen Ballard, the legendary producer/writer behind Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill”.
His death wasn’t publicized and at that point in the technological universe, even though I was working in a mega record store, I didn’t hear about it until a month after it happened. It was shocking and extraordinarily sad news to say the least. Two years earlier I’d met Lewis at one of those old school record release party things set up by his label and he’d been a charismatic sweetheart. It was a pretty low-key event to celebrate the release of his aforementioned debut album. The venue it was held in was decorated with cheap cardboard “flats” depicting the album cover and, as apparently talking to him wasn’t enough for my immature, overly jacked up arse, I took the liberty of tearing one right off the wall in front of him, like you do, and having him sign it for me. He laughed and said “Ha, tear it right off why don’t you !”. This is it:
A bit battered and stained (from what I have no idea) as I had it hanging on my office wall, frameless and vulnerable from the next day onward. Anyway, he happily let me fangirl all over him, allowed me to ask inane questions and stand way closer to his person than I probably should’ve.
Admittedly, I was already a bit of a fan at that point and prior to that meeting had fallen pretty hard for his brand of spiritual, sexy alt soul. Plus he was British which appealed to my obsessive Anglophile tendencies. He was important enough that for all these years I’ve kept that page at the top of this piece from a 1992 Vibe Magazine in an old portfolio case in my closet. Just never wanted to throw it away.
Here’s where things get complicated. Electra believed in Lewis’s potential and were willing to keep investing in him but they needed hits. Which to them meant casting aside his producers/co-writers from the unsuccessful ( in their eyes) first album, Bacon and Quarmby and connecting Lewis with someone with a proven track record, namely the aforementioned Glen Ballard ( who at that point had a myriad of big time credits to his name including co-writing Michael Jackson’s mega”Man in the Mirror”).
And things were changing not just professionally for Lewis, but personally. By 1993, he had parted ways with his long-time girlfriend and fallen in love with a man. According to Paul Flowers, his boyfriend at the time, Lewis said he’d never felt more contented or at peace with himself as he had within this new relationship.
In early 1994, Lewis headed to LA to begin work on his second album with Ballard. By all accounts he was feeling pretty good. And more comfortable with his sexuality. It was all coming together. But it only took a heartbeat’s worth of time for everything to crumble into pieces. While in LA, Lewis immersed himself in the local nightlife. Met people. Partied. And ultimately indulged in drugs.
On the night of March 18th, 1994 police were called to the apartment complex Lewis was staying at while recording in LA. He was creating a disturbance, yelling, climbing from balcony to balcony undressed and behaving in a disturbing manner that suggested he was having a bad reaction to some kind of drug he’d ingested ( post mortem reports support this). By the time he crashed through a top floor window, the police had physically reached him and there was a confrontation. Something occurred resulting in his falling off the top floor balcony onto the street below and suffering life ending head injuries as a result. Sordid, terrible, shocking. There’s been speculation that the police had something to do with this, that they’d tased him, which resulted in his panicking then jumping. Another story went that he’d threatened them with a makeshift “knife’ fashioned from a piece of broken glass from when he’d crashed through the top floor window and was in such a deranged state that he’d suddenly leapt off the building without prompting. We’ll never know.
It’s a terrible story. A terrible waste…but there remains this sweet old record out in there in the world you can still listen to right now, that’s worth listening too, that may really touch you. And there is also this heartbreakingly beautiful live performance which says more than anything we’ve offered here :
That voice huh ? Still makes me cry. Ephraim Lewis, he was something.
So declared my 11 year old step brother to my 10 year old self as he thumbed through my meagre record collection in my blue shag carpeted bedroom many years ago. And he had a point I suppose. My favorite albums at the time were most certainly the soundtracks to Disney’s Bedknobs & Broomsticks and The Aristocats with Free to be You and Me running a close third. I was instantly humiliated but I had to attempt some kind of defense. And so I fired back with “Well what records do YOU have ?”, trying to take the focus off me, now officially the baby. “Chicago and Elton John…” he smugly declared. I ingeniously/pathetically followed up with “Oh…so uh what’s your favorite song? “. He sneered and said “Butterflies are Free“. Okay. What he’d meant to say was “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (Elton John). That “butterflies” line is just a repeated refrain in the song that even with my limited knowledge of pop music at the time, was well known to me, since it was always on the radio… but I didn’t have the guts to correct him since I’d already lost the larger battle ( I will now: it’s called “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” asshole, duh). He then laugh snorted defiantly as he spotted my worn and obviously played to death Sesame Street “Original Cast” lp. Great.
“This is the greatest album of all-time” – direct quote from a 10 year baby
That little interaction made a huge impression on me (in a bad way) but it changed nothing. I liked what I liked and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t fight it. While I listened to the radio and was aware of pop music names and songs ( see Elton reference above !), my knowledge was gleaned solely from being a passenger in my Mom’s car and just being captive to whatever she had on. And sadly I gravitated toward the questionable : Sammy Davis Jr.’s“The Candy Man” is the first song I ever remember loving and…I still love it. Leave me alone.
I swear this record was sprinkled with love and made the world taste good…
To the modern youth of today it would appear I was in a state of arrested development, 10 years old and the top records in my rotation and consciousness were, okay one more time, baby records. That was true…but the tide was about to turn. There was something stirring in my blood just waiting to be woken up. And it did suddenly and unexpectedly in the aforementioned back seat of the car on the way to the supermarket which is when I first heard “Nothing From Nothing” by Billy Preston. Billy Preston was a child piano prodigy, whose skills and reputation grew as he did, to the point where he was backing everyone from Little Richard to Sam Cooke, and led to his becoming, literally, the fifth Beatle during their tumultuous latter years of existence ( that’s him on the organ in “Let It Be” and the electric keys on “Get Back”). I knew none of this at the time and it wouldn’t have meant a damn thing to me even if I had. All I knew was “Nothing from Nothing” ruled. I liked the banging piano riff, the chorus, the bounce of the whole thing. Here’s Billy faking it (lip-synching) and shaking it on Soul Train:
And so began my first step into musical adulthood : “Mom, can you get me the Billy Preston album with “Nothing From Nothing” on it ” ? And so on my birthday, she did ( you rule too Mom), and I finally came of musical age.
First impressions of The Kids & Me album, home to my beloved “Nothing…” : That cover ( see at top ). Billy’s laughing face. His glowing ring. The mysterious paper he’s looking at. The peace loving kids. Honestly it’s still one of my favorite sleeves of all-time. As for the record itself well,uh… it was slick and funky and fun but if I’m being honest it was really home to only one killer (“Nothing”) and a whole lotta filler. Plus there was one song on it that gave me the genuine creeps. It was called “John the Baptist” and joyfully mentioned Jesus and baptism which I sensed as a Jewish kid (albeit an “un-practicing” one) that I probably shouldn’t be bending an ear to. See, religious things scared me and this John the Baptist guy seemed like some kind of boogeyman who was trying to get me and if I played the song, he ultimately would. I would run to the turntable to skip it every time it came on. I wish I could explain this, but like some imaginary monster in the closet, there was no logical reasoning that could be applied.
Still, once Billy entered my life, the baby record years ended. Billy had thrown a ladder down to me and I climbed up and never looked back (well mostly, like I mentioned, I still love “Candy Man” and it’s something I just have to live with). AM radio, Soul Train, Creem Magazine, Casey Kasem’s Top 40 and The Beatles, well Billy kind of took my hand and led me down that thrilling pop hallway.
As for the man himself, after the Kids… album, he remained in demand as a session musician, most prominently with the Stones, while continuing to pursue a solo career. He went on to have a huge hit in 1979 with Syreeta called “With You I’m Born Again” which as love ballads go is oddly mournful but remains an unerringly lovely thing.
Sadly Billy passed away in 2006 at the too young age of 59 ( as did beautiful Syreeta, his duet partner on “Born” and a wonderful artist in her own right, in 2004 at 57). He had some well-documented troubles and personal challenges but I’m not going to recount all that here, just know the deeper story is out there if you are interested in knowing more about his life.
“Nothing from Nothing” is still a fun and funky song but I rarely put it on. And though I’d like to say Kids… is one of my favorite albums of all-time, it’s not….but then neither are The Aristocats or Bedknobs, or Free to Be. Still, Billy will always have a special place in my heart: he ushered me into the pop/soul/everything musical universe and yeah, truth be told, helped my ears to finally grow up….and so eternal thanks Billy, gonna end this with a little fire…
At some point in the very late 80’s a vocal plague spread across R & B and pop music. The name of this affliction was “Melisma”. “Melisma” is of course defined as singing a single syllable of text while moving between several notes. And while Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, 2 outrageously gifted singers, were the initial purveyors, to these ears Boys II Men were the real starting point as far as spreading the plague, the true guilty party ( “Motownphilly” excepted, because shit, who doesn’t love “Motownphilly”). Anyway, they employed the technique on literally every track they released, and once they hit it big, that was it. It was the signal for every up and coming R & B group to feature ” the Melisma” on what felt like every single song on the radio. Screw economy and grace, gratuitous vocal runs became the norm. And people loved it. “I Will Always Love You”, “What A Girl Wants” and of course the Boyz/Mariah collaboration “One Sweet Day” ( and an interminable number of others) were all beyond massive hits. The standard was set forever. The pop delicacy of a Mary Wells vocal, like the kind you’d hear on “My Guy” was instantly an artifact from a bygone era.
The style reached it’s peak of manifestation on American Idol, and a little bit later, on The Voice, and continues to fester to this day, generally in the most predictable, immaculately produced, and technically manipulated ways. Now I know this all sounds very “get off my lawn” but I honestly don’t hate “Melisma”, it’s just that this slick, show-offy version of it feels like just that . The only thing I can liken it to is a painting that looks just like a photograph: it becomes all about technique and not so much about content, which makes the art feel kind of empty…the fact is “Melisma” coupled with unbridled, unrefined, imperfect emotion can make for some amazing, spiritual, mind blowing listening. Let’s go back in time for a minute….
Linda Jones was both Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight’s favorite singer. Linda’s recording career was short, running from 1964 to 1972, when she unexpectedly passed away at the far too young age of 27. Within that time, she achieved only middling success ( couple of hits on the R & B charts in the late sixties , the biggest being “Hypnotized”, which was also top 20 on the Billboard pop chart). While she never made what would be considered a classic album within that time, she did kick out some incredible singular songs that positively beggar belief. As in, the vocal performances were nuts. Listen to this insanity :
I know, that thing should come with a warning attached. In less than 4 minutes Linda has crushed the entire earth into a dust like powder. I’ll be honest, the first time I heard this, it made me laugh because it was just soooo over the top…but I immediately loved it, because it felt lived. You believe Linda. That’s “Melisma” in the hands of a master. That’s technique and content in one giant heart-shaped mass.
Then there’s this. McKinley Mitchell’s vocal on “Town I Live in” starts oh so sweetly, full of longing, and lonely love…but then about halfway through it turns into this raw, raspy, desperate monster and obliterates everything in it’s path. It happens so suddenly, and jarringly it’s like being woken up from a deep sleep by someone throwing cold water on your face. This song was recorded in freakin’ 1962, and still sounds weird and off kilter in 2018: a perfect marriage of rough and smooth that transcends time. Check it out:
I know. It’s nuts right? 19-freakin-62.
Screw the visuals. These were records. And yes, in some way the relics of a bygone era…but lord, aren’t they beautiful ? Has anything on The Voice/Idol ever come near these ? Okay “East Coast Family”, as you were….
Andy Moreno talks on the song that saved her soul and everything else, Eddie Holman’s 1969 classic Hey There Lonely Girl.
As a pre-tween heading into what I could only imagine at the time as a very bleak future, I fantasized romantic notions of suicide or dying a tragic death. Not all the time but too often, and these thoughts became an ongoing comfort food for my mind, to help me move through dim periods. It doesn’t sound healthy now but I argue that in a sad way, it was a clever use of the tools in my box. While I completely embraced the highs and beauty of most music, I probably stayed much too long swimming in darker sounds. Because of this though, I did gain a huge appreciation for the power of a single song, of how a chord change or vocal intonation could change the room, and thereby my entire world.
Before I became entrenched in the wailing rock guitars of the 70’s, I synched cosmically with the soul music that saturated Midwest radio. All their sad, orchestral chords and falsetto voices, where old souls like mine could find respite. The Chi-lites. The Delfonics. The Motown Sound. A playground for a young girl’s melancholy. Love songs to my own already weakened spirit. And I distinctly remember listening to Eddie Holman’s “Hey There Lonely Girl”. Maybe that was the first time I fully understood the scope and depth of a song’s reach. It took me years to develop an intelligent understanding of lyrics and meanings of songs and at that age, honestly, I could only feel them as a whole, the mood a certain one could bring, how it could put a salve right on the wound or drive a dagger in it.
The introduction to that song was such a bare and gentle stage to place my emptiness. And this kind stranger promising to make it all better. It’s a little deep for a kid but goes to show just how resilient and rooted we are as humans.
The new feelings these sweet soul songs ignited made me feel so much more alive than I was able to muster on my own. “Lonely Girl” broke the numbness and from that point on I became addicted. This music was so powerful. It had the ability to move me up or down and I would never forget or ignore that.
I won’t say I came out the other end of a depressed youth. I reside more in a side door alcove. The main thing is I stay among the living and no longer glamorize destruction of any sort. The good life that music feeds me is one of the main reasons I choose to keep on keepin’ on to this day.
“I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand”
Okay, I think that’s one of the best opening lines of any pop song ever. Up until I heard Prince sing those words in 1984, I’d been convinced that Morrissey was the only person who really and truly understood me. I even wrote him and told him so ( still waiting for a response). This song changed all that.
I didn’t really get into Prince until the 1999 album came out which, as hardcore fans go, is kinda late. At the time I had a secret crush on this guy I went to school with named Manuel who had pretty eyes, an eternally serious expression and was a talented artist. I would daydream about him for hours on the train every day while my 1999 cassette played in an endless loop on my Walkman…or at least I did for a little while, until I had my epiphany. Well, not a sudden one, maybe it was more of a realization over time, which was that my affection for him was solely based on his slight resemblance to Prince in the “Little Red Corvette” video. Why was I wasting time on the middle man (Manuel) when it was Prince I was actually in love with ?
“You were only fooling yourself girl…”
And so pretty soon, upon that inner acknowledgment, it was all about Prince and I wanted more. When the release of Purple Rain was announced a year later, both album and movie, I could, not, wait.
“When Doves Cry” was the first single released off the album and…I didn’t like it. I know, I know, I have no excuse for myself other than to say I’d grown up listening to ELO records and wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to appreciate its genius at the time. What I liked was big swooping synthesizers, a lot of big orchestral junk, and whale sized hooks and…that was it. ELO provided that plus cardboard spaceships inside the albums.
Of course as it turned out, Prince had something up his sleeve.
I bought the album the week it came out and for some inexplicable reason, never removed the shrink wrap, I just opened the slit to remove the record. And tragically there it remains to this day, hanging desperately off the sleeve, baggy, wrinkled and distended, being kept alive for no other reason than “well I’ve had it this long why get rid of it now”.
And yes, the record store was actually called “Slipped Disc”.
See Photo Exhibit A below :
Let go, and let God…no,no, I just can’t.
The Song: On side 2, right after Doves it appeared. Layers of big fat synth. A radiant hook. And the lyrics, oh man. “I Would Die 4 U” dammit. I loved everything about it. It did all those things a brilliant song is supposed to do, made you feel overwhelmed, exposed, sick and like you were starring in your own epic movie…and maybe made you feel like you were actually cool because it made all your desperate thoughts sound positively valiant and beautiful. It ticked all the boxes and I played it over and over and over again.
The Words: There are 2 ways you can interpret the lyrical content, as in it’s either Prince talking or it’s, well you know, “Him”, Jesus…of course with any genius pop song, it’s your voice too ( in this case it’s you at your most histrionic, self-important, and love consumed). I’d like to say something noble like I always hear it as Jesus’s voice, but no…It’s only ever Prince or uh, me.
The Movie: “Someone” was very excited to see Purple Rain, so much so that “someone” insisted on seeing it the day it was released at a theater some distance from their town. I went with a friend, and no expectations to that first afternoon showing and from the moment Prince mounted that motorcycle in his heels, I was with him. I felt an ecstatic energy in me every time a song started. When people laughed at some scenes that were clearly not meant to be funny, I took it personally, felt protective of him, thought “God, what is wrong with you people”. He wasn’t a joke, they just didn’t get it; “I am something that you’ll never comprehend”.
Yes. I really thought this. I know.
Anyway, how much did I love the movie ? Well I went to see it again the next day alone.
Our union was sealed ( Prince and me).
April 2016: The first weekend after Prince died, screenings of Purple Rain were scheduled all over the U.S. I bought tickets thinking it would be the perfect way to mourn with other Prince fans. I pictured scenes akin to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with everyone singing, reciting dialogue affectionately back to the screen and spontaneously dancing in the aisles to “Let’s Go Crazy”…but it wasn’t like that. Not at all. Apart from some brief laughter during the early scene where Prince sidles up behind Apollonia, in his giant fly sunglasses and plays hard to get, it was a pretty somber event.
And 2 things were abundantly clear since I’d seen it years before in my initial fog of infatuation :
1. The acting was wooden and occasionally really terrible
2. It’s pretty misogynistic
That’s usually how it is when you see a movie you loved when you were young years later through more mature and maybe cynical eyes i.e. it’s never as good as you thought it was and maybe, not good at all.
…but despite all that, there was also a revelation, which was that the live performances were absolutely transcendent.
Up on a giant screen in the dark they were more beautiful and stirring than I ever remembered. As in you couldn’t believe what you were hearing or that this guy was ever real. And while Purple Rain, the song, triggered waves of tears and audible sniffles all over the theater from its opening notes, “I Would Die 4 U” was the one that I fell apart to.
When the song starts, we see him onstage, and after a minute cut to a scene where Prince is in the basement cleaning up the rage inspired mess he made, gathering strewn sheet music and all of sudden finds the earring he gave Apollonia, that she threw at him during an argument ( justifiably I might add) on the floor. He gently fondles it, smirks ( see lead photo above, that’s a freakin’ smirk) and tosses it backward with laser accuracy to Apollonia, who it turns out is actually there with him because they made up.
I cried through the whole song. Even that corny scene. Crying over his death but mostly thinking about how much this song meant to me as a teen/loser/geek who didn’t know who the fuck I was, if I mattered or if I was ever going to fit into this world or be understood. “I’m not human, I’m a dove, I’m your conscious, I am love”. Yeah.
And while there’d been no singing or aisle dancing, at the end of the movie, everyone applauded for several minutes for this miraculous guy we got to experience in real time.
Sometimes I can hear “I Would Die 4 U” and feel fine, wash dishes or whatever…but other times it’s tears. Still, to this day. It’s never been “Purple Rain”, it’s always been this.
Last year, I got on a ladder with a handful of crumbling colored chalk and wrote out the lyrics on a bumpy wall at Rough Trade in Brooklyn. A tribute to Prince of course, the one who created it, but also to the damn song itself…and for the infinite amounts of unconditional love it gave me when I needed it.
Here is some medicine to relieve the stress, pain, and tears that this seemingly worldwide mayhem has caused over the past year for all of us. The Dynamic Superiors were a latter era Motown act, who recorded 4 albums for the label from 1975-1977. Their lead singer, Tony Washington’s sweet falsetto was every bit as beautiful as that of his contemporary, Russell Thompkins Jr., lead singer of the million selling Stylistics i.e. utterly angelic and not of this world. Still the Dynamics never achieved near the Stylistics level of success. They did however have one shining moment in the sun, releasing one of the most perfect slices of ’70s soul ever, “Shoe Shoe Shine”, written by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Ashford & Simpson. And so, we invite you to please watch this sublime and insane performance by yours, The Dynamic Superiors from “Soul Train”, December 21st, 1974 because there is so much bad sh*t happening right now and we could all use a little medicine. As long as the earth is turning, these guys will be here for us, in all their yellow suited glory. And for 3 minutes and 30 seconds, that slow spin will make everything feel okay.
I was working my very first summer job at the “One Hour Photo Lab” wearing a blue lab coat the first time I heard the System. Just doing my ordinary shift, mixing a huge vat of film developing chemicals (not fun), with the radio on when “Promises Can Break”, their new single off the X-Periment album came bursting out of the junky boombox we had there. The song was soul, yeah, but it was fueled by a fat synth, so it sounded kind of different, modern. It also featured a dizzying hook and downright swoon-worthy ascending vocal line. I was instantly in love. I went and bought the album from which it came, X-Periment, the very next day and discovered that track was the tip of the iceberg and that the whole thing was full of tunes with lush electronic heartbeats and everyone sounded like a single.
The band itself consisted of David Frank and Mic Murphy w/assistance from Paul Pesco and their singular, hard-earned moment in the sun came with their 4th album, Don’t Disturb This Groove whose title track was a mega-hit and is still justifiably beloved today (with over 2 million Spotify plays and counting, not bad). Now while that album is pretty fine, the bands charms and gifts shine the brightest on the aforementioned X-Periment, and it’s follow-up The Pleasure Seekers. Both feature plush, melodic, electro-soul pop of the highest order, all melodic, edgy, anxious and emotional, and are absolutely worth seeking out. And with that let’s raise a glass to these guys, the true pioneers of electro-soul, they still deserve a lotta love and all of our ears.
Have a listen/look at these sweet things:
And here are the X-Periment and The Pleasure Seekers albums on Spotify if you wanna go deeper: