Friday, December 15, 2006

Tribute 2006

In the year 2006, we lost many important music industry figures. I’d like to pay tribute to three legends in particular, as these were the people whose deaths had the most impact on me personally.

Earlier this week we said goodbye to Ahmet Ertegun, a name that should ring a bell if you saw the movie Ray. The son of a diplomat, he was born in Turkey but lived in various countries as a child before his family settled down in the United States. He fell in love with the music he heard around the world, especially jazz and blues. He co-founded Atlantic Records in 1947; the label quickly became one of the top independent labels in America, known for its commitment to quality and fair treatment of its artists. Atlantic’s reign as a mighty indie ended when it merged with Warner in 1967—indeed it is now part of Warner Music Group—but the label retained a distinct identity for years to come. Ertegun remained active in music until his death, always proving himself to have a rare combination of attributes: a genuine love and understanding of music, a personal connection to the artists he worked with, and a keen business sense. Atlantic and its affiliates had much success with rock artists such as Cream, The Rascals, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills & Nash, and (for a period) The Rolling Stones, as well as pop artists like Bobby Darin, Sonny & Cher, The Bee Gees, ABBA, and Bette Midler. However, Atlantic made its fortune on rhythm & blues and never abandoned its R&B roots. Atlantic even manufactured and distributed most of the classic output of Stax Records, the famous home of Memphis soul. Atlantic’s R&B treasure trove has been heavily anthologized on CD; if you’re looking for a place to start, Warner’s budget three-disc set Atlantic Gold offers 75 selections of this sort for a surprisingly low price and with decent sound quality if somewhat lackluster annotation. A look at the list of luminaries who scored hits on Atlantic and related labels reads like a Who’s Who of R&B: Ray Charles, Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Chuck Willis, The Coasters, The Drifters, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Archie Bell & The Drells, and Brook Benton; Memphis soulsters Booker T. & The MG’s, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Eddie Floyd; and non-Gamble & Huff Philly soul from the likes of The Spinners, Blue Magic, and Major Harris. (Atlantic also gave Gamble & Huff some of their early breaks by sending Archie Bell & The Drells and Wilson Pickett to cut records in Philly.)

While I’m on the subject of Philly soul, let me segue into a tribute to native Philadelphian Richard “Ritchie” Barrett. A singer, songwriter, producer, arranger, session musician, and choreographer, Barrett made a name for himself in the New York doo-wop scene of the 1950s. Associating with hustling independent record moguls George Goldner and Morris Levy, Barrett discovered and worked with top-notch doo-wop groups such as Little Anthony & The Imperials, The Cleftones, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, and The Chantels. The latter outfit ushered in the “girl group” boom and Barrett oversaw their run of wonderful hits, including “He’s Gone,” “Maybe,” and “Look In My Eyes.” Barrett also worked with The Isley Brothers early in their career. He did not have much success as a recording artist, but his records were highly influential. In 1958, he revived the pop oldie “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”; while his version languished in the bottom of the hit parade, it most likely inspired The Platters’ chart-topping rendition later that year. Barrett’s 1962 record of “Some Other Guy”—released on Atlantic, no less—was not a commercial success, but it became a favorite cover item among British beat bands, including The Beatles, whose ripping version can be found on their Live at the BBC set. After the doo-wop era faded, Barrett returned to Philadelphia and played an important role in the creation of Philly soul. In 1964 he wrote and produced the prescient “Get Out (And Let Me Cry),” an early effort by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes which had most of the basic elements of the Philly sound and became an R&B hit. He then spent some time at Philadelphia’s Swan Records, where label president Bernie Binnick insisted that Barrett copy the Motown sound. Though he did comply to an extent, some of his productions from this era are truly fine examples of early Philly soul, as opposed to mock Motown. These include Sheila Ferguson’s “Heartbroken Memories,” Eddie Carlton’s “Misery,” and John Leach’s “Put That Woman Down”; check out Ace/Kent’s compilation Swan’s Soul Sides to hear these and more. Barrett also managed and produced The Three Degrees, who eventually included Ferguson. They scored some of Swan’s last chart hits before doing even better at Morris Levy’s Roulette label and then topping the charts on Philadelphia International. Interestingly, while Barrett was at Swan Records he wrote songs with Leon Huff, who along with Kenny Gamble would form Philadelphia International Records and produce The Three Degrees there. Sadly, there has been much bad blood between Barrett and Gamble, to the extent that Barrett declined to be interviewed for John A. Jackson’s Philly soul tome A House On Fire, thus denying himself his place in the history of Philly soul. (Barrett was quoted extensively in Tony Cummings' 1975 work The Sound of Philadelphia, but that book is something of a rarity today and much of the information presented therein is inaccurate.)

Finally, the death that hit me the hardest: that of ‘60s pop star Gene Pitney. Even though I grew up in the ‘90s, Pitney was one of my favorite singers growing up, one of a handful of artists who really defined my teenage years. In my early 20s (I’m 25 now) I would still occasionally raid my sizable collection of Gene Pitney CDs and just go Pitney crazy. The guy had staying power. He could sing almost any style of music and sing it well. He could convey almost any emotion, yet he was best with songs that were either sad or angry. They were the perfect vehicles for his pained, wailing tenor. He remained active until his death and was always ready to put on a show. A concert he did for public television while in his late 50s showed that he'd retained more of his vocal power than many of his contemporaries. In it, he also did the finest version of Robbie Williams' "Angels" that I've ever heard. (Were you thinking that Jessica Simpson's version was my favorite?) In addition to his impressive vocal talent, Pitney also possessed songwriting ability. Intriguingly, he usually wrote songs for other artists—Rick Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou," Bobby Vee's "Rubber Ball" (under a pseudonym), The Crystals' anthemic "He's A Rebel"—while as a singer he tended to expose up-and-coming songwriters. These included such now-famous names as Burt Bacharach & Hal David ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Only Love Can Break A Heart," "True Love Never Runs Smooth," "24 Hours From Tulsa"), Randy Newman ("Just One Smile," "Nobody Needs Your Love"), and even Jagger & Richards. In fact, Pitney's recording of the latter pair's "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday" was Mick and Keith's first composition to become an American hit. No, it was not originally recorded by the Stones; they gave the song to him while he was on his first UK tour. Indeed, once he became popular in the UK, he was always more appreciated there than here. The media frenzy in his home state of Connecticut notwithstanding, Pitney’s death went largely unnoticed in the US, while in the UK it received due attention. Maybe his passing would have grabbed more headlines in the US if he'd been a braggart. "I had 24 hits on the Hot 100! I'm in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! I was the first rock 'n' roll singer to perform at the Academy Awards! I survived the British Invasion! I was a superstar in Italy!" But no. He wasn't the type. He was a reserved, quiet fellow, at times reclusive. Yet, at least during his later years, he made himself accessible to his fans. He encouraged us to e-mail him; he chatted with us on message boards; he sent us Christmas cards if we joined his fan club; he even contributed a regular column to his fan club's newsletter. He didn't need to brag to us because we knew he was special. Apparently, a lot of people didn't. If you were one of those people, I hope you now realize how much the music world lost when it lost Gene Pitney. And Ahmet Ertegun. And Richard Barrett. Talents like these don’t come along every day, and we should all be thankful that they got a chance to make a mark on this world before their time ran out.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

[June 9, 2007 note: Since writing this piece, I have found much evidence to demonstrate that Atlantic's treatment of its artists was not always as "fair" as I made it out to be here. I learned of Atlantic's "fairness" from Both Sides Now's Atlantic story, yet I later discovered that several Atlantic artists were indeed cheated on royalties. This was addressed in public television's American Masters special about Ahmet Ertegun ("Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built"). According to the program, Ertegun took responsiblity for cheating those artists when the story broke in the 1980s and the whole affair inspired him to start the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.]

Monday, December 4, 2006

Book Review: A House On Fire

John A. Jackson’s A House On Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul (Oxford University Press, 2004) is a highly convenient source of information on Philly soul, the style that was to the ‘70s what the Motown sound had been to the ‘60s. Jackson builds his story around the three men at the top of the Philly soul heap—Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell—but in the process he sheds much light on numerous lesser-known, but pivotal, figures in the history of the subgenre. These include arranger/producer Bobby Martin, record executive Ron Alexenburg, and jack-of-all-trades Weldon McDougal. Jackson also delves deeply into the personalities and backgrounds of the recording artists, session musicians, songwriters, engineers, and Gamble/Huff subordinates who made the Philly sound possible. His narrative follows a fairly straightforward, linear chronology. A survey of major trends in R&B and the shape of Philadelphian society in the ‘40s and ‘50s leads to that fruitful-yet-frustrating early ‘60s phase in which Gamble, Huff, and Bell struggled to make names for themselves. Things heat up in the mid-to-late ‘60s as the Philly sound begins to blossom and find favor with the public. By the early ‘70s, Gamble and Huff form Philadelphia International Records and Thom Bell is flying high as an independent producer with intriguing ties to many of Philly’s power players. The Philly sound influences everything from rock to disco as the decade wears on, and the Philly soul train appears to be unstoppable—until 1979. Then, it’s a slow and painful decline, especially for Philadelphia International, which survives into the 21st century despite being a mere shell of its former self.

Jackson clearly did a massive amount of research for this project, drawing from a vast selection of books, articles, CD liner notes, and original interviews. He was unable to conduct any of the latter with Gamble or Huff, but this is not surprising. Huff was never the most talkative individual, and Gamble is known for being picky about whom he’ll tell his story to. Fortunately, Jackson collected so many Gamble and Huff quotes from other sources that the reader still gets a good idea of the masters’ perspectives. His detailed storytelling exposes a seemingly endless stream of secrets, rivalries, recording techniques, and mentalities, making well-worn chestnuts like “Love Train,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine),” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” seem new again. He also makes it extremely clear that Philly soul was the result of collaborations that transcended obvious boundaries. Soul may be considered a black music style, but several of the Philly sound’s key studio musicians, songwriters, producers, and arrangers were white. The names most associated with Philly soul belong to men, but Jackson shows that many women played highly important parts in the story as well. Most importantly, what do The Spinners, Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler, The O’Jays, and Archie Bell & The Drells have in common? They all made exemplary Philly soul records, yet they were not from Philadelphia. What mattered was that they cut those records in the City of Brotherly Love.

For all the good things that can be said about A House On Fire, the excitement of reading it comes from the actual information presented and not from Jackson’s clumsy, limp writing. On page 181, he writes, “In the end, CBS refused to meet Gamble’s demands for control of future recordings by Philadelphia International, although an agreement whereby CBS continued to market and distribute Philadelphia International’s records was worked out. But beginning in 1976, the control of all future Philadelphia International master recordings, as well as the publishing rights to them, reverted to Gamble and Huff.” The message of those sentences comes through eventually, but only after navigating Jackson’s confusing wording. A House On Fire is full of such passages.

More troubling is Jackson’s imbalanced treatment of racism. A book about soul music should devote considerable attention to this subject, but it’s hard to see any method to the way Jackson handles the issue. As a means of setting up his narrative, he opens the book with the story of a race riot! Is this a tome about racism or music? Pages 20-21 contain this infamous tirade: “When you leave [downtown Philadelphia] traveling east over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, headed for the morass of urban mismanagement, decay, and corruption known as Camden, New Jersey, the first building of significance to the left that you see is Riverfront State Prison. Riverfront is an apt metaphor for Camden, itself a prison to the overwhelming majority of poor blacks and other minorities who live there. Leon Huff […] was one of those fated Camden residents. But Huff […] successfully made it over the wall.” Read this paragraph after checking out the rather whitebread photo of the author on the cover jacket, and Jackson is begging to be tagged a “guilty white liberal”—a stance that is quite patronizing, even insulting, in this context. He lays on the race issue with a trowel until around page 100, when the story enters the early ‘70s. Then he cools off for the rest of the book, simply placing the music in a larger social context, discussing racism when relevant but not structuring his story around it. This strikes me as a misstep. I have many relatives who made the simple mistake of being black in Philadelphia during the ‘70s (in case you’re wondering, my ancestry is mixed). Any one of them can tell you that Philadelphia was a hotbed of extreme racial tension at the time, with the notoriously racist former police chief Frank Rizzo serving as the city’s polarizing mayor. If Jackson was going to focus on racism during Philly soul’s formative years, why not devote more attention to the issue when discussing the subgenre’s peak period? It’s not surprising that Thom Bell was discriminated against as a musician seeking high-profile work in the early ‘60s. It is surprising that a black-run, Philly-based music empire experienced so much prosperity during the tumultuous Rizzo era.

Finally, Jackson commits a few errors that are just plain stupid. For example, he describes The Intrigues’ “In A Moment,” one of the watershed moments in Philly soul, as a “falsetto-led ballad” (90). Apparently he’s hearing-impaired; “In A Moment” is a fast, funky dance track with about three seconds of falsetto in all. But Jackson’s known for such goofs; no one who read his American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire (Oxford University Press, 1997) can forget his deadpanned assertion that The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” came from their Sgt. Pepper album. Still, A House On Fire is worth reading, if only because it provides so much insight into a style of music that we have come to take for granted and compiles so much data into one concise source. Unfortunately, I must offer the same words of caution that I offer readers of most writings on the history of popular music: take what you read with several grains of salt.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.