One Love: Word Sounds & Powah is a remarkable three episode series that delves deep into Rastafari and Nyabinghi culture. Often misunderstood and stereotyped, this film is a rare opportunity for an inside glimpse into the practices and ideology of Rastafari. Shot in London and Nottingham in the early ‘90s, the three episodes form a unique document of Rasta history, reasoning, and artistic creation. The film features the late Jah Bones who sets out the Rasta agenda illustrated with drums, music, poems and praises from dedicated interpreters like Jah Sheperd, Ras Anum Iyapo and Cosmo Ben Imhotep.
Part One: Nyabinghi Blood and Fire
Filmed at the Rastafari Universal Zion headquarters in Tottenham, London, this is a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity to observe the sacred drumming ritual that calls on thunder, lighting, brimstone, blood and fire to burn and destroy the weak hearted and promote the righteous. The ceremony brings together old, young, men and woman in the praise of Jah and the celebration of Rastafari.
Part Two: Blues for Rastafari
Shot mainly at the Simba Project, Woolwich, London, this episode deals with the historical dimensions and roots of Rastafari. Beginning with the Empire of Kush, 400 BC in Central Africa, the film discusses the impact of African Biblical traditions during slavery, including pocomania in Jamaica. It then progresses to the rise of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and the persecution of the early pioneers in the maroon tradition like Leonard Howell at Pinnacle, Jamaica. This section culminates with a reception given to Emperor Haile Selassie I at the Kingston Airport and the eventual globalization of the movement.
Part Three: Word Sounds and Powah
Shot in London and at the Matismela, in the Marcus Garvey Centre, Nottingham, this episode describes various notions of livity-Rasta as a way of life, as a life-force, as a sense of well-being, as a receptacle of love and creation, as humility in the face of human and corporate greed, and as a teaching which opposes isms and schisms. Musical interpretation is provided by the Naturalites, who, amongst other praises to Jah, sing their classic anthem Picture on the Wall.
The 110 minute DVD was directed by Howard Johnson, who also directed the Deep Roots series and the soon to be released, much anticipated Rocker s Roadshow. Johnson is able to capture cultural aspects from a fly-on-the-wall perspective that really brings forth the blend of music and life that exists in Jamaica and its Diaspora.
After a five-year break, Donnie McClurkin released his eighth CD, We Are All One, for Verity, which was recorded live in Detroit at the Straight Gate International Church. This project consists of 14 tracks illustrating styles from Black Pentecostal church music (“You Are the Great I Am”) to the praise and worship phenomenon that is sweeping the Sunday morning service (“You Are My God and King”). While this project presents more of the same (for those who are familiar with McClurkin’s dynamic performance style), it also expands the artists’ musical parameters by including rock and symphonic elements as well as collaborations with CeCe Winans, Yolanda Adams and Mary Mary, among others.
Notable tracks are “Wait On The Lord,” “Trusting In You,” “Purple,” and “Hallelujah Song.” However, the entire project reflects the essence of McClurkin’s distinct style of delivery, which focuses on sound musicianship and the ability to make God applicable to the listener.
Release Date: April 7, 2009
Kim Burrell is back with a fresh approach to gospel music after nine years without a new solo project. Her latest release on Shanachie, No Ways Tired, consists of hymns, gospels and even a George Gershwin piece in Burrell’s eclectic style of delivery.
This album, produced by Burrell along with Chris “Big Dog” Davis, demonstrates why Burrell is still considered a vocal powerhouse. She has mastered various music genres and has successfully positioned them in the context of Black religious music. The 12 tracks, which include a prelude and postlude, will leave one desiring more of Burrell’s melodious ministry in song. For clear examples of such ministry one could search through any track. If you have a desire to get straight to it, just listen to “No Ways Tired” and “Yes To Your Will.” Kim Burrell continues to amaze us with her tremendous gift. This project was worth the wait!
Format: CD (DVD ed. scheduled for release on June 30, 2009)
Catalog No.: 5099951283223
Release Date: April 7, 2009
Smokie Norful’s fourth album, Live, is a collector’s item for diehard gospel music lovers. This 10 track project, recorded live in Memphis, is funky, soulful, and most of all, its ministry. On the funky side there is “I Will Bless The Lord.” If you want to hear soulful listen to “Don’t Quit.” In addition, “Justified” is the quintessential song of ministry on this CD, although all of the tracks minister in a specific way.
Notable is “Jesus Is Love,” a duet between Norful and Heather Headley. This orchestrated version of the Commodore’s 1980 hit has an emotional drive that builds to a climax, and parallels the developing character of a traditional Sunday morning sermon.
Simply put, this album is a must have for those who are interested in music that not only feels good, but also speaks directly to the conditions of those who realize the power of God in their daily lives.
Release Date: March 17, 2009
Tonex is back with a new release, Unspoken, that will challenge traditional gospel listeners to expand their music stylistic parameters. With various producers including Tonex, Dwayne Swan, Rhema K, T. Bizzy and Shomari “Sho” Wilson, Unspoken presents a very radical and eclectic artistic palette that parallels the character of Tonex, who is known for pushing the perceptive boundaries of gospel artists. From the first track, “Fiyah,” Tonex asserts a bold statement highlighting his prowess as a “hot” and “saved” artist who is spiritually free and on fire for the Lord. This message of free in salvation, steeped in an “In Yo Face” hip-hop groove, may be difficult to identify. However, with careful listening one realizes that Tonex has positioned the good news in street dialect, which transcends traditional church walls-this project is definitely speaking to those on the highways and byways! Nevertheless, if one is not sure of his conviction, just listen to “Joy,” where Tonex sings about how his life has changed as a result of the love of God. Other notable tracks demonstrating Tonex’s eclectic renderings are “Again,” “Love Me 4 Me” and “Sneeze.”
Unspoken not only speaks to a broad audience beyond the traditional church, but also gives us a better understanding of Tonex as a person. He has come through many trials and, therefore, has an enormous range of sounds and images to offer the diverse body of Christ.
The Supreme Angels are continuing the legacy of sincerity and dedication to gospel quartet music that the late Howard “Slim” Hunt (who passed away in 2007) developed over several decades. With Reloaded, their new release for Malaco, the Supreme Angels maintain the group’s traditional character while also creating a more contemporary sound through the lead vocals of Quincy King, Hunt’s son. While all of the songs demonstrate contemporary gospel quartet performance styles, the opening track, “Wicked Land,” is an up-tempo original that illustrates the essence of the current genre with its great story-line and tight harmonies accented by synth horns and a driving rhythm section.
“Hold On and Never Give Up” is another notable track couched in a moderate tempo groove that challenges the listener to maintain faith in God no matter the circumstances. Other worthy songs are the bluesy “Don’t Let the Devil Steal Your Joy” and the solemn rendition of “I Need Thee.” Reloaded allows the listener to experience an accurate representation of gospel quartet music that is simplistic, thoughtful, earthy and, most important to believers, the message of God in song.
Following (in three parts) are short reviews of several gospel music CD releases from the first quarter of 2009. While there are many others that could and should appear on this list, I chose to present these projects based on a few criteria. For instance, some are highlighted because they present new music from performers who have experienced an extended absence from the industry as recording artists. Other releases were chosen based on their abundant airplay and high placement on chart listings. In addition, some appear as a result of the artist’s presence in the gospel music industry over time. Nevertheless, the aggregate of these artists exemplify gospel music spanning traditional and contemporary styles. My hope is that the reader will identify with at least one of the highlighted CDs, which might lead him/her to explore other projects by the same artists along with those who perform similar styles, thus expanding their knowledge and experience of this religious artistic expression that is gospel music.
Release Date: January 13, 2009
Heather Headley’s new release, Audience of One, might lead some to assume that the R&B singer has crossed over into the gospel music industry. However, given her background (her father was a pastor) as well as her soulful delivery on this project, its apparent that Headley never left the church. Steeped in lush orchestrations and soulful, eclectic grooves, Headley presents a vocal gem consisting of tonal clarity, well placed phrasing, and emotional drive. Put succinctly, she gives thoughtful worshipers a musical vehicle by which they can mull over the goodness of God and the significance of dependence upon Him. For a clear example of her renderings listen to “Simply Redeemed,” “I Need Thee Every Hour,” the churchy “I Know The Lord Will Make a Way” and “Here I Am To Worship.” With special appearances by Smokie Norful and the Tri-City Singers, along with arrangements by Keith Thomas, Marc Harris and Cedric Thompson, Audience of One will resonate across racial, denominational and generational boundaries.
Release Date: February 3, 2009
Donald Lawrence continues to prove why he is one of gospel’s most sought after artists/producers. With his newest release, Law of Confession, recorded live in Chicago at the Living Word Christian Center, he illustrates in song how words have the power to change life circumstances. The 14 tracks are based on a book and sermon entitled Law of Confessions by Rev. Bill Winston, the pastor of Living Word where Lawrence is a congregant. The title track, “Law of Confession,” sums up the entire album, as Lawrence challenges the live audience to begin speaking the words of the Lord over their lives.
The song “Back II Eden” has also proven to be an enormous hit among the gospel audience, with its message of prosperity promised by God, which allows for “Kingdom people” (Lawrence’s term) to “live on top of the world.” Also very powerful is the rendition of “The Blessing of Abraham,” which was performed as a reflective ballad in contrast to the original up-tempo version recorded by Lawrence in 2006. This ballad style allows for “Kingdom people” to internalize the covenant between God and Abraham as well as his descendants. It is enough to usher the listener into a mode of worship. Every song on this CD could be used as a tool for shifting the mindset of the listener from a state where anything is accepted to a place where one dictates, through the word of God, what his or her life will be. The project is musically excellent and Biblically sound.The Law of Confession is a must have!
Release date: May 2009
For nearly 20 years, Zap Mama has been at the forefront of world music. They have not only exemplified the joy of crossing and (re)mixing musical and cultural genres but they have equally challenged the cult of celebrityism and the all too common sexual objectification of women in popular music and culture (Supermoon2007; A Ma Zone 1999). Experiencing a number of personnel and stylistic changes over the years, the group has consistently reflected the personal developments and insights of its mixed race founder, Marie Daulne.
Born in the central African country of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) from the union of a white (French-speaking Belgian) father and a Bantu mother, Daulne has always known the negative effects of racism. Only a week after her birth, Daulne’s father was killed by Simba rebels who were opposed to inter-racial unions. Later, when she immigrated with her mother to Belgium, Marie found that there were too few Black role models and her mixed race background set her apart from her Belgian compatriots.
As a young woman Daulne returned to Zaire where she discovered that she was not perceived or accepted as an African but as a white European and a foreigner. Daulne, however, also rediscovered the music that her mother used to sing while she was growing up, and she began to integrate the close-knit, polyrhythmic harmonies sung by the Bambuti and BaBenzélé people (a.k.a. Pygmies) into Western song. Dualne says that her musical integration enables her to “zap” between cultures, and that combining African and Western sounds shows “that to have blood from white and black was [to have] perfect harmony on the inside” (Gruno 1997). This was the inspiration behind Dualne’s creation of Zap Mama in the early 1990s that is reflected in all seven of the group’s CDs, beginning with their first recording, Adventures in Afropea, in 1993.
Zap Mama’s 7th and latest release, ReCreation, includesan eclectic mix of Native American, Moroccan and Australian influences along with salsa, Motown, and rap. With Dualne and an interchangeable front lineup of female vocalists characteristically dressed in a sundry of African head scarves, jewelry and stylish Western gear, Zap Mama emphasizes women-in-charge. And Daulne’s unwillingness to conform to the music industry’s demands for commercialism and bounded genres has allowed her (and Zap Mama) to maintain both personal andmusical integrity over the years.
ReCreation is influenced by recent events, including the election of U.S. President Barak Obama, and is distinguished by a positive message that humanity is embarking on a new social and political era more inclusive of racial and cultural differences. The recording also reflects Zap Mama’s inclusion of Western instruments (electric and acoustic keyboards, guitars, trumpets), a development beginning in 1997 that deviated from the group’s earlier a cappella recordings. The personnel on the CD includes two members from the original Zap Mama early 1990s lineup, vocalists Sylvie Nawasadio and Sabine Kabongo, along with French actor Vincent Cassell, “neo soul” singer Bilil, and rapper/harmonica player G. Love.
Daulne provides the lead vocals on twelve of the thirteen songs, while the opening track “ReCreation” features the vocals of her 15-year-old daughter Keisha Daulne. G. Love joins Daulne on her original composition, “Drifting,” a soulful Motown-style song about a traveling male musician and his female counterpart who waits for his return while she tries to keep the flames of love aglow. “Paroles Paroles” and “Non, Non, Non” are sung in French with background vocals whispered by Cassell. Both songs use the sexual play of flirtatious words between and man and a woman. ”Hello To Mama” is an upbeat salsa number that, along with “Drifting,” comprise the musical highlights of the album.
Here is the music video for “Hello to Mama” courtesy of Heads Up:
There is a possible downside of ReCreation, and to Zap Mama in general, in that the group’s eclectic mix at times reverberates as mood music, i.e. (what I define as) fragments of melody, harmony or rhythm that instill a specific mood but that lack substantial musical-generic development to readily distinguish one song from others. At their best, Zap Mama employs their unique use of vocalization and rhythms in the corroboration of distinctive songs regardless of the genre performed. ReCreation includes some of these features and, when combined with Zap Mama’s penchant for zapping between musical cultures and challenging the status quo, definitely offers something unique and special.
Whenever a band is defined as having a powerfully distinctive sound there’s a lot more going on than just great individual playing. Often such a scenario involves a combination of exceptional musicians and singers; masterful arranging and studio engineering techniques; time allotted for musicians and singers to jell and become a unified voice; and someone who provides directive oversight to steer and fine tune these elements into a cohesive unit of sound and energy. For 40 years, Tower of Power (TOP) has managed to bring these elements together to create their own brand of soul music, unquestionably establishing the band at the top of their game.
In 1968, TOP founders Emilio Castillo (tenor saxophonist) and Stephen “Doc” Kupka (baritone saxophonist), the steering duo behind the band’s success, took their cues from Sly & the Family Stone, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Booker T. & the MG’s and other 1960s masters of soul, funk, and pop musicians to establish their own sound. They added their original songs, a powerful line up of musicians in the rhythm and horn sections, equally robust lead and supporting singers, and especially rock-solid horn arrangements that gave TOP its signature sound. Regardless of the inevitable changes over the decades in the band’s membership, Castillo says “We have a definite style to the way we approach section work, we clip our notes, we get very tight. We’ve got to have this “ESP” going between the guys as far as how to interpret certain horn licks.”
For 25 years Greg Adams has defined TOP’s tight horn arrangements, inflecting a mixture of percussive and soulful linear accents above the infectious grooves of the rhythm section. The arrangements have been esteemed by a significant number of leading pop, rock, blues and soul musicians–including Bonnie Raitt, Aerosmith, and Little Feat– who have hired the horn section and used the band’s arrangers to boost their own sound.
The group’s latest release, The Great American Soulbook, stays the course. The tracks are infused with TOP’s trademark powerhouse arrangements and rhythm section grooves, while also venturing into new territory with soul and funk covers originally performed by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye, among others.
Castillo produced nine songs on the CD, while four more were under the direction of L.A. funk master George Duke. The majority of the horn arrangements are under the control of Greg Adams’ protégé, Dave Eskridge. TOP’s current lead vocalist, Larry Braggs, delivers tremendously stirring solo performances on most of the songs. The group is also joined by four equally stellar vocal guest talents: Tom Jones sings Sam & Dave’s “I thank You;” Joss Stone joins Braggs for duos on “It takes Two” and “Your Precious Love;” Sam Moore delivers a laid back rendition of “Mr. Pitiful;” and Huey Lewis croons Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789.” Overall, The Great American Soulbook is a great album and the perfect start to summer.
Jade Simmons wears her contrasting identities like a coat of arms, challenging the assumptions of what each identity should be or do. Young black women aren’t supposed to like classical music; beauty pageant queens (Simmons was Miss Illinois and first runner-up for Miss America in 2000) aren’t supposed to be persons of real substance or significant talent; classical musicians aren’t supposed to intersect with popular music, or have time for such non-musical pursuits as teen suicide prevention (Simmons’s pageant charity platform) or high fashion (she designs her own concert gowns.)
Rather than shrug off such externally-imposed expectations, Simmons confronts them directly in her public persona, web presence, and recordings, crafting a vision of a youthful future for classical music. Technology plays no small role in this endeavor. Like many popular artists (but perhaps not so many classical ones), she’s on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, building a grassroots network of fans among classical buffs and youth alike; and lest you question her rank in the classical realm, it’s worth noting that she was asked to host the first online broadcast of this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
This constellation (or revolution, as Simmons would have it) of identity, genre, and technology is evident throughout her new release, Revolutionary Rhythm. The album as a whole is the first installment of what Simmons calls The Rhythm Project, dedicated to exploring the rhythmic and percussive qualities of the piano. It comprises four contemporary piano pieces: Russell Pinkston’s TaleSpin (2000) for piano and pre-recorded electronics; Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, Op. 26 (1949); John Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy for Piano (1976); and three of Daniel Bernard Roumain‘s Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes (2006).
TaleSpin combines the repetitive gestures of post-minimalism with electronic sound and dancelike rhythmic motives; as an album-opener, it has enough energy to catch a listener’s ear without sounding alienating. The Barber sonata represents Barber’s foray into modernist techniques such as serialism, while still infused with Barber’s typical lush harmonies, and Simmons interprets its formidable fugue movement as a series of jazzy syncopations. Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy, a lesser-known work, stands as a breath of stillness in the midst of the other pieces’ busier rhythms, as Simmons gives its stark left-hand-only opening plenty of space and deliberation. Finally, DBR’s amalgam of hip hop beats and classical virtuosity in the Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes seems to herald one future for classical music: it doesn’t sound like classical music trying to ape hip-hop, or vice versa, but suggests a more elegant fusion of the two, crafted by artists who understand both. Although the piece was originally scored for solo instrument or ensemble, Simmons’s solo piano rendition includes pre-recorded hip hop beats laid under her piano lines (when she performs it live, she uses a loop pedal to self-accompany.)
Simmons’s technical skill and interpretive abilities shine throughout this album, making Revolutionary Rhythm not only a cohesive and interesting group of contemporary pieces, but a promising first step for an artist with a vision of where she wants to go.
Following is a YouTube clip of Jade Simmons talking about the pieces on the album:
From the first scene to the last, From Mambo to Hip Hop is fused with classic music from both genres, while also offering a detailed and comprehensive historical overview of the Bronx, the origin of its inhabitants, and the mutual oppression that they faced. Beginning in the 1920s, the documentary follows the influx of Latino immigrants who came to the United States from the Caribbean and settled in the Bronx, as well as the simultaneous migration of African “Americans” who had been emancipated from chattle slavery just over 50 years before. The two were wedded together in the Bronx.
Musically, it all began with the Afro Cuban mambo players. Their exemplary musicianship would eventually place the budding new genre on the world stage. By the mid 1960s mambo was the hippest thing, and both the Black and Latino communities in the Bronx were embracing this new marriage of cultures, dance, music, and freedom of expression (for the most part). Salsa was not only about the music and the dance; it could also be used as a voice for social and political messages. Then, almost as if predestined, the community was once again under attack by their oppressors.
After economic misfortune began to plague the area, the hardships that ensued created the perfect conditions for the birth of hip hop. Before that would happen, the Bronx and the people that lived there would have to go through hell, literally. The landlords of the various housing projects throughout the Bronx began setting fire to their own property in order to collect the insurance money. The landscape of the South Bronx was turned into a desolate wasteland, almost as if war torn. The people moved and, as fate would have it, the impoverishment followed. As the victims of injustices, the people of the Bronx underwent an infestation of crime and violence born out of the poverty that they were forced into. From the 1950s on into the 1970s, street gangs were commonplace on the main stage of the Bronx. Gang violence inevitably followed the youth of the community where ever they went. The film also highlights the importance of the gangs and the gangster hierarchy which can still be seen today in various aspects of hip hop.
After the birth of hip hop in the Bronx, the people of the community nurtured the fledgling lifestyle. Strongly encouraged and influenced by both the Black and Brown cultures of the area, hip hop quickly became a national sensation. It wasn’t long before the lifestyle and culture of hip hop went from one of the most impoverished communities in America to becoming a global phenomenon, sweeping across the planet and communicating with each and every culture.
From Mambo to Hip Hop will cause most to view the origins of the universal vibration known as hip hop through a new spectrum. Being Afro-Latino myself, I was immediately sucked into the content. With a multitude of characters from the classic mambo and hip hop eras, stories are woven together and pictures are vividly painted. The old black and white footage of the Bronx is marvelous, along with the rare footage of mambo and hip hop performances from back in the day.
The hour long documentary is divided into three major parts with each leading into the other. Beginning with the origins of mambo and salsa, the film takes a look at the people and conditions that were the catalyst for the music. Next is an exploration of the street gang subculture that sprang up from the Black and Brown people of the Bronx. From Mambo to Hip Hop does a fantastic job detailing some of the gang activities of the past, with awesome vintage footage of actual gang meetings, and of gang members hanging out. Last but not least is the segment on hip hop, which rose from the ashes of the Bronx like a phoenix. At a time when almost all hope had been lost, hip hop came along to replenish the spirit of the people. In essence, it literally resurrected a people.
If you are a fan of Latino or hip hop music, or if you just want to learn more about American history, I highly recommend that you check out From Mambo to Hip Hop. If you are in a gang or are interested in a unique piece of American street gang history, then you too should see this film. Don’t miss out on the bonus features which include extra interviews with Mike Amadeo, Joe Conzo Sr., and Jo-Jo Torres, among others, plus outtakes of interviews with featured the artists, which includes Angel Rodriguez, Benny Bonilla, Bobby Sanabria, Carlos Mandes, Clemente Moreno, Curtis Brown, Emma Rodgriguez, Sandra Maria Esteves, David Gonzalez, Eddi Palmieri, “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon, Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, and the Rock Steady Crew.
“Here you will find a glimpse of the magic of a cheerful and grinning 13-year-old Frankie Lymon and his teenage friends making music that excited millions of fans all over the world.”-Peter Grendysa.
Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers were the Jackson 5 of the ‘50s, an adolescent group led by an amazingly talented and extremely young artist. Lymon started performing at an early age with his father and brothers in New York. At the age of 12 he left the family fold to form The Premiers with neighborhood boys and achieved success on the local talent show circuit, leading to an audition for George Goldner’s Rama/Gee Records. They were quickly signed to the label, changed their name to Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, and scored a major hit right out of the box with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” released in 1956.
Their popularity soared over the next eighteen months, leading to television appearances, European tours, and a spot in the Alan Freed movies Rock, Rock, Rock (1956) and Mr. Rock and Roll (1957). Marketed exclusively to a teenage audience, they exerted a major influence in shaping the course of rock ‘n’ roll and inspiring other young singers, including Smokey Robinson and Mary Wilson. Unfortunately, fame was fleeting. Frankie left the group in 1957 for a solo career, and though he occasionally reunited with the Teenagers and both continued to record, neither produced any further hits. By 1960 Frankie’s voice had changed, he’d developed a heroin addiction, and rock ‘n’ roll was fast becoming the domain of white artists. Eight years later, at the age of 25, he died from an overdose.
Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers Rock is a compilation that includes most of the hit songs recorded by the group, in addition to several of Frankie’s solo projects, and three sides recorded by the Teenagers following Lymon’s departure, with Billy Lobrano taking over the lead vocal. Among the highlights are “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “I Want You To Be My Girl,” and three more of their top 10 hits (“Out in the Cold Again” is the only major omission). Other enjoyable selections include “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” (featured in Rock, Rock, Rock), “Baby, Baby” (with a smoking sax solo by Jimmy Wright), and “Fortunate Fellow” (accompanied by the Panama Francis Band), which was used for the soundtrack of Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll.
All of these tracks were taken from Bear Family’s 5 CD box set, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers” Complete Recordings (BCD 15782 EI). However, if you’re looking for a single CD overview, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers Rock is the best available compilation due in part to the extensive liner notes by Peter Grendysa and discography by Bob Hyde.
Bear Family Records, the German company headed by Richard Weize, is well-known among collectors for its expertly remastered and superbly crafted LP-size box sets featuring extensive hardcover book-length liner notes by notable authors. Sometime last year (and somewhat under the radar in the U.S.), they began a new “Rocks” series on their CD line which, at last count, includes 31 titles (some bearing the series title “Rockin’ Rollin’”). Though these are single CDs, they are still housed in deluxe digipacs with beautifully illustrated booklets averaging 40 pages. Each disc is devoted to a seminal artist from the formative years of rock ‘n’ roll, including major stars such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Ricky Nelson, along with many other rockabilly performers from the 1950s, some of whom have been largely forgotten.
The rhythm and blues roots of rock are reasonably well represented, though some of the biggest names-Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry-are conspicuously absent. No doubt the producers at Bear Family made a conscious decision to focus on lesser known artists whose recordings haven’t already been reissued and repackaged in every conceivable way, shape and form (though I’m still waiting for the ultimate Little Richard box set). The Black artists selected thus far for the series include Shirley & Lee, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, Piano Red (a.k.a. Dr. Feelgood), Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Fats Domino, Amos Milburn, Lloyd “‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy” Price, and one of my favorite groups, the Cadillacs. Only the first two were sent for review, but I’m certainly anxious to get my hands on the entire set.
At the dawn of the 1950s, Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee were just a pair of teenagers from New Orleans’ Seventh Ward who regularly jammed together on a neighbor’s porch. One day they managed to talk legendary recording engineer Cosimo Matassa into cutting a demo for them, which Matassa later played for Aladdin’s owner Eddie Mesner, and the rest is history. They returned to the studio in 1952 and recorded their debut single, “I’m Gone,” backed by New Orleans’ finest session musicians, including trumpeter extraordinaire Dave Bartholomew (also credited as co-writer) and drummer Earl Palmer. The song hit #2 on the R&B charts, launching Shirley & Lee as one of the first male-female R&B vocal duos.
The 31 tracks on this CD represent Shirley & Lee’s “rockin’, rollin’, carnival best,” from their 1952 debut (the final track) to the 1963 release of “Somebody Put a Juke Box in the Study Hall.” Most were recorded for the Aladdin label at Cosimo’s studio using his house band, which lends a distinctive New Orleans R&B flavor, partly attributed to the rollicking piano of Edward Frank, who played on most of the sessions recorded at Cosimo’s from 1956-1960. The final sessions in 1962-63 were produced by Bartholomew for Imperial, and feature Bartholomew and his band.
I was surprised to learn how many of the songs were penned by Lee, including the megahit “Let the Good Times Roll,” (for which Shirley also received credit). In my mind, Lee was the greater talent, even though Shirley’s career lasted much longer. Shirley’s strident youthful voice, which no doubt appealed to teenagers back in the day, is an acquired taste, best sampled in small doses. Lee was the more polished singer, and the two seldom sang in tandem, preferring more of a call and response style (which nicely resolves the need to blend). Two other Top 10 R&B hits are included, the similarly titled “Feel So Good” (1955) and “I Feel Good” (1956). Other notable titles include “Rock All Night,” “Rockin’ With the Clock,” and “Everybody’s Rockin’,” all released between 1957-58 when rock ‘n’ roll was crossing over to the pop charts and fast becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
All in all, this is a very good introduction to Shirley & Lee’s rock ‘n’ roll oriented songs. The excellent liner notes by Bill Dahl provide a complete overview of their careers (both together and separate), while the detailed discography by Rick Coleman, Walter DeVenne and Richard Weize is icing on the cake. Anyone interested in delving further into Shirley & Lee’s recorded output should check out Bear Family’s 4 CD box set, Shirley & Lee: The Sweethearts of the Blues (BCD 15960 DI), from which these selections were drawn.
“You’re a just a rock-n-roll victim and I know this is true cause I’m a rock-n-roll victim too”–Death
Let me be your harbinger of Death. If you’re a rock-n-roll victim, don’t worry, you’ll enjoy this particular encounter. Formed in 1973 by David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney, Death was a Detroit-based band and has been hailed in other recent reviews as the “missing link” of punk. Although they initially started playing soul and funk, the Hackney brothers soon became enamored with Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, MC5, and The Stooges. The end result was a melding of heavy metal, funk, and proto-punk that bridges the black rock gap between Jimi Hendrix and the relatively late formations of Living Colour and other Black Rock Coalition groups in the early 1980s.
I must admit that I was unaware of Death’s existence until this rather unimposing-looking CD crossed my desk as a potential review candidate for Black Grooves. I popped “For the Whole World to See” into my car stereo system on the way home and immediately fell in love with the growling bass and completely unstable vocal style, which shifts from snarls and shouts to the half-swallowed in-the-back-of-your-throat punk sound favored by the Ramones. Even better, the CD has one of the qualities I value the most in my punk-a raw creative energy driven by the need to create an entirely new sound and not by the pressure to cater to a mainstream audience.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing sadder than falling in love with a band that’s been gone for nearly thirty-five years. Aside from their 1976 single (which is now an extraordinarily rare collectors’ item and probably sells for more money than Death made off the entire original release), For the Whole World to See is all there is. This particular CD is comprised of a demo tape that was recorded from October through December of 1974. To put this date in perspective, the Ramones formed in early 1974, sonically shocked their first club audience at CBGB’s on August 16th, and recorded their debut album for Sire Records in February 1976. Although it took thirty-five years to rescue the demo tape from Bobby Hackney’s attic, For the Whole World to See is at long last available and has become a strong contender for the title of earliest punk recording.
Another thing that makes Death absolutely amazing is that the band was totally removed from the support of the New York proto-punk scene of the mid-1970s. Although there were a few other Detroit groups flirting with the emerging punk aesthetic in the late ’60s and early ’70s, such as MC5, The Stooges, and The Dogs, Death was trying to make its home among the clubs and parties of Detroit’s predominantly African-American east side, where funk and soul were king. Although there are definitely funk elements in the mix, which make Death sound more at home with the punk bands of the ’80s and ’90s than with their contemporaries, the band’s use of screeched vocals, power chords, driving rock rhythms, and even their nihilistic name received criticisms from black audiences. Ultimately, the band fell apart after the release of their single and reformed some time later as the reggae band Lambsbread.
The CD starts with “Keep on Knocking,” the B side for “Politicians in My Eyes” on Death’s 1976 single. The song opens with a string of power chords isolated on the right channel before kicking into full stereo and a rollicking guitar sound on a par with Slash’s solo from the end of “Paradise City.” “Rock-n-Roll” adopts a heavier, grittier bass guitar sound, and a goofy shouted falsetto in the vocals that almost makes the song seem like punk parody than the real deal (obviously not possible, since this is proto-punk and there wasn’t really anything to parody yet). Bobby Hackney’s fantastic bass sound continues to resurface on “You’re a Prisoner,” which drops the falsetto in favor of some extreme vocal reverb, as well as “Where Do We Go from Here?” and “Politicians in My Eyes.” Both of these latter songs have a funkier flavor to them. Some heavy-hand drumming drags down the bridge sections in “Politicians,” although it’s hard to tell whether this was done intentionally to downshift into the slower instrumental section or if there was some serious disagreement over the tempo among the band members. “Freakin’ Out” is quintessential early punk-fast, simple, two or three chords, neurotic lyrics, and lots of fun to crank-up on your stereo.
I personally don’t have enough patience to be a fan of “Let the World Turn.” The song opens with widely spaced, almost intermittent, guitar chords strummed beneath a languidly flowing vocal line with plenty of reverb. The song gradually picks up a beat and a little bit of speed and then suddenly whiplashes into a great punk-style chorus followed by a rather banal drum solo. Just when you think the song is over, it returns to the syrupy slow opening and then gives you one more blast of the chorus before falling dead in the middle of a guitar riff. Although somewhat interesting, and you definitely have to admire Death’s willingness to experiment, I have to fight the urge to take a stabbing lunge at the track forward button every time this song rolls around.
If you’re into early punk and metal, your collection will not be complete without this CD. There’s no doubt that Death is historically important, which is reason enough to add this item to a library collection. Unlike many other historic recordings, however, the music on this particular release was so cutting edge in the 1970s that it still sounds fresher and more innovative than most bands playing today. It’s a definite must-have for all rock-n-roll victims.
Posted by Ronda L. Sewald
Editor’s Note: This review is part of our ongoing examination of rock in preparation for “Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music,” a two-day conference organized by the Archives of African American Music and Culture to be held on November 13-14, 2009, on the Indiana University-Bloomington campus. Visit the conference website.
This month we’re featuring historical compilations that profile seminal figures in rock ‘n’ roll, including Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and Shirley & Lee, as well as Death, a Detroit-based band active in the early 1970s that has been hailed as the “missing link” of punk. Notable gospel music releases from the first quarter of 2009 are summarized in a series of three posts. New DVD releases include the documentaries From Mambo to Hip Hop and One Love: Word Sounds & Powah, about Rastafari and Nyabinghi culture. Also featured in this issue are new releases from Zap Mama, Tower of Power, and Jade Simmons, who performs contemporary piano music including Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes.