Tag Archives: Chicago

Poet Laureate of the Suburbs: John Prine

John Prine

John Prine

When heburst’ onto the fading folk/emerging roots music scene in the early 1970s, John Prine was saddled with the extraordinarily arrogant and burdensome label, ‘the new Dylan’, by the music press. In what his fans were soon to recognize was one of his most enduring traits, Prine shrugged his shoulders and got on with the job of writing and singing some of the most wonderful, moving and humane songs in the American songbook.

In fact, beyond the fact that both Dylan and Prine had Midwestern roots and wrote and sang their own material, you would be hard pressed to find much territory they shared. While Dylan has changed from protest singer to angry young man, recluse, Christian preacher and interpreter of American roots music , John Prine has pretty much ploughed the same furrow for going on 45 years now.

And what a furrow it is. In it Prine digs the rich soil of the basic human nature of the average suburban American. His ridiculous dreams, his car accidents and broken plumbing, his tendency to drink too much beer, his bewildering freakish teenagers, and his loving, long suffering girlfriend. Where Dylan put suburban America on notice with The Times They Are a Changin’, Prine can only shake his head and sigh when Barbara Lewis runs off to join the Hare Krishnas. “Come back to us,” he pleads, not liking the fact that the youngster has left a gaping hole in the family.

Prine’s lyrics are as straight forward and unpretentious as a boilermaker’s bowling shoes. Long words that need dictionaries are nowhere to be found in his songs. He just uses the language and syntax of the guys at the bar. And annunciates in all the wrong places (listen to how to he speaks the word ‘coward’ in the middle of the Great Compromise).

Love, though, is Prine’s great theme. Love between a man and his woman and the kind of love that ebbs and flows and is full of idiosyncrasies like smelly socks and embarrassing tattoos. And when love breaks and fails or doesn’t quite get off the ground, the only response is to take it on the chin and get on with life.   No use sitting around crying and moping. No need for angst ridden screeds of revenge ala a certain period Voice of a Generation. “If you don’t want my love/I’ll find someone else to give it to.”

If love makes Prine’s world go round, humor is the grease that lubricates the whole messy contraption. Listen to almost any of his lyrics and somewhere embedded in them is a sly, laid back joke. Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven, Dear Abby, Let’s Invite them Over and Yes, I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You are just a few exhibits. While others like Loudon Wainwright III are able to make you smile too, you get the feeling that the song has been written precisely as a joke; to get a laugh.   With Prine, even his overtly funny songs are first and foremost about the character and his or her life. Though we may laugh at their stupidity more often we are chuckling, ‘there but for the grace of God’. Prine’s songs confirm that without a sense of humor we would hardly qualify as humans. And its central necessity to living a healthy, balanced life.

For your listening pleasure I’ve selected 30 prime cuts (which has been incredibly difficult; there are SO many other equally worthy contenders for inclusion) which reflect the philosophy of the poet laureate of the American suburbs.

Prine House

Track Listing:

01 The Great Compromise

02 Shop Talk

03 If You Don’t Want My Love

04 Sailin’ around

05 Bear Creek Blues

06 It’s Happening To You

07 Morning Train

08 Ubangi stomp

09 I just want to dance with you

10 Everybody

11 Dear Abby

12 Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven

13 Angel From Montgomery

14 Please Don’t Bury Me

15 Sam Stone

16 Let’s Invite Them Over

17 Storm Windows

18 The Frying Pan

19 Blue Eyed Elaine

20 Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You

21 So Sad (To Watch Love Go Bad) (With Connie Smith)

22 Pistol Packin’ Mama

23 Automobile

24 This cold war with you

25 Bruised Orange (Chain Of Sorrow)

26 Middleman

27 Old Rugged Cross

28 One Red Rose

29 Souvenirs

30 Baby Let’s Play House

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The Best of Them All: Muddy Waters

McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield

McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield

To my mind (ageing and limited as it is) Muddy Waters is the undisputed king of the blues. I love Lightnin’ Hopkins ability to never tell the same story twice. Fred McDowell’s blues are some of the deepest dug songs ever recorded. And the frisson filled snappiness of Buddy Guy’s electric guitar is impossible to replicate. Any number of blues men and women can be praised for one, two or even multiple contributions to the music but no one was able to sum it all up like the colossus of Chicago.

For the first half of my life blues was the stuff played by Lamont Cranston, The Minnesota Barking Ducks and a whole work gang of other bar bands in the pubs and taverns around the University of Minnesota. Dancing and sweating for long hours on those crowded and cramped floors was some of the best fun I’ve ever had. And yes, it’s true, I actually thought that Baby, Please Don’t Go was an original composition of the Barking Ducks! When Willie Murphy banged on the keyboards and howled, (Wednesday nights at the 4 Corners) I had no clue that he had been an apprentice with all sorts of Delta, Chicago and Detroit blues men and was widely regarded as one of the minor prophets of the blues piano.

My only knowledge of Muddy Waters had been from his rendition of Mannish Boy in the film, The Last Waltz. And I didn’t like it. It was too black, too primal, too beyond my ability to comprehend. I could see he had a voice to contend with but honestly? He’s nothing on the bands we listened to on the West Bank.

Slowly the waves of truth eroded the naïve ignorance of my musical shore. A Lightnin’ Hopkins record picked up for cheap was surprisingly accessible. None of this Muddy Waters shit screaming about his being a ‘maaaan!’! That moved me to venture into the music of Hound Dog Taylor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Hurt and Champion Jack. I was starting to get the blues. Thankfully, I came to understand that all those great songs I heard at the tavern were actually fucking old. They had been around forever, it seemed and everyone had recorded them. Again and again.

Muddy WatersAnd in the back of mind, like a whisper, was the nagging ‘You gotta listen to Muddy Waters.’ I resisted. He may be a grand figure, the one whom everybody seemed to kowtow and do homage to, but I was willing to try to navigate around him. One day in a Borders shop in Tucson (remember that chain?) I forced myself to buy a CD of the Mr. Waters. It was a deal with myself: put the CD on the shelf for credibility but that doesn’t mean I’ve got to listen to it.

Back home in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (don’t ask) I found myself sitting around on one slow Saturday afternoon feeling brave. I popped in the CD I’d picked up on the other side of the Universe and crossed my arms in a defensive harrumph.

It was good but nothing earth-shattering. I started to read something and didn’t pay the music much mind. But then this song which I thought Buddy Guy had written (She’s 19 Years Old), and whose version I figured was the ultimate electric blues song, came on. It was wild and raw but what really blew my mind was this amazing high-pitched choking murderous guitar solo. The slide was simply terrifying in its determination and intention. To do what, I’m not sure, but since the song was about having the hots for a teenage girl, I could easily imagine.

waters_muddyAt that very moment I got Muddy Waters. All resistance fell away. Everything he did on the rest of that solitary CD instantly, and I mean instantly, turned to gold. Ever since I’ve been collecting every recording of McKinley Morganfield I can get my hands on. In one fell swoop I heard his voice for what it was (a booming bravado growl of incredible emotional power) and concluded he was one of the most important and under appreciated guitar players in American music.   Over the journey I fell in love with his complex psychological makeup (an immensely disciplined leader of his band and cultivator of his art, yet a man ready to accept a white man’s largesse for his living) and his sense of style. Whether he was sang a dusty acoustic country blues or raved it up with America’s great rock ‘n rollers, whether he shook his jowls like an insane bulldog or ran his sharecropper’s hands up and down the neck of his guitar he had it all. He spoke, like they said of Jesus of Nazareth, with a preternatural authority. His art came from somewhere else than this world.

I could rave on, but I’ll spare you. I’m a disciple of this man. And here are 35 (just the tip of the tip of the iceberg) tracks that demonstrate his genius.

He is, indeed, the maaaan!

muddy

Track Listing:

01 Got My Mojo Workin’

02 Little Geneva

03 You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone #2

04 My Eyes (Keep Me In Trouble)

05 Leavin’ In The Mornin’

06 What Is That She Got

07 Twenty Four Hours

08 You Shook Me

09 She’s 19 Years Old

10 Come Back Baby (Let’s Talk It Over)

11 When I Get To Thinking

12 Cold Weather Blues

13 Take The Bitter With The Sweet (Alt 1)

14 One More Mile

15 Long Distance Call

16 Mannish Boy

17 Rollin’ And Tumblin’

18 Little Brown Bird

19 Sugar Sweet

20 Gypsy Woman

21 Instrumental

22 My Home Is On The Delta

23 32-20 Blues

24 Crawlin’ Kingsnake (Live)

25 Elevate Me Mama (Alt)

26 Baby Please Don’t Go

27 Tiger In Your Tank

28 Deep Down In Florida

29 Tell Me Baby

30 Country Blues (Number One)

30 Forty Days And Forty Nights

31 I’m Ready

32 Standin’ Here Tremblin’

34 Feel Like Going Home

35 Nine Below Zero

***********

Back Story: Odell Brown

Chicago-Rapid-Transit

Whenever I visit Washington D.C., I’m struck, as most visitors are, by the number of homeless people living in the vicinity of the White House. Men with matted beards and bag ladies, all silently, slowly pushing carts that were once overloaded with the tins and packages of a throw away culture  but are now filled with rags, bags, bent coat hangers and despair.

 

Who are these people? What are their stories? What circumstances conspired to drop them to such a place?

 

A well-to-do parish in Chicago has in the past weeks commissioned a sculpture of a homeless man, sleeping under a thin blanket on a park bench.  From a distance it is so life-like that upper class citizens and members of the church have protested to their pastor and the city council to get the scumbag out of the neighbourhood.  Up close, it is only the nail marks on the man’s feet that identify him as Jesus Christ.

 

What are the stories of the homeless?

 

Several decades ago one of those homeless Chicago scumbags was a man named Odell.  This is his story.

 

Born in 1940 in Kentucky (Louisville), Odell Brown came from a solid southern educated Afro-American family.  His father had attended the historic Fisk University in Nashville and Odell intended to do the same.  At the age of 19 he moved to Nashville himself but enrolled in Tennessee State University (at the time, known as Tennessee A&M and whose other alumni include Oprah Winfrey and Rufus Thomas) where he found his first gigs as an organist and piano player, in various R&B bands. During the day he took course in composition and stared to write music.

 

In 1960, like Elvis, he was called up to serve Uncle Sam an opportunity which he always was grateful for. As a member of an Army band in Ft. Carson, Colorado he was exposed to other mentors who guided him further in the fields of orchestration. Of his army years, Odell says simply, “Awesome!” Not exactly what one would consider to be the standard response in the 1960s.

 

After the Army, Odell moved to Chicago and with old Tennessee compatriots put together a band called Odell Brown and the Organ-izers. Picked up by the Chess label the band made several albums and enjoyed some moderate chart success with numbers like No More Water in the Well.  In addition to playing with the Organ-izers, Brown arranged, composed and played with the full suite of Chess superstars from Muddy Waters and Ahmad Jamal to Etta James and Ramsey Lewis.

 

I969 saw the Organ-izers cease and Odell moving on as an independent arranger, working with many of America’s top drawer jazz, blues and R&B artists.  1981 Brown was holed up with Marvin Gaye in France and working on Midnight Love, Gaye’s last album. Indeed, they wrote the huge international hit, Sexual Healingtogether and things seemed to be completely on the upside for Brown.

Alas, for not the clearest of reasons–depression was probably both a cause and effect–by the late years of the 80’s Odell Brown was homeless and living rough in the Windy City.

 

Odell Brown

Odell Brown

The time soon came when Uncle Sam repaid Brown for his service.  Assisted through a government veteran’s program Brown was able to stablise his life, build a studio and return to the music world as both a performer and arranger.

 

Tonight’s selection comes from 1966, nearly a half century ago.  Raising the Roof is a brief but immensely satisfying workout with the Organ-izers. Unlike many organ-led bands of the day, Brown and the Organ-izers stayed away from the greasy, blues-based jams, working instead in a jazzier mode. This was in large part due to the playing of Artee ‘Duke’ Payne on tenor sax, who added a sharp, Coltrane-influenced ‘inside/outside’ feel to his playing.  One of the group’s trademarks is the unison playing of Payne and fellow tenor blower Tommy Purvis. In fact, the saxes are as important (sometimes more so) to the group’s sound than Brown’s organ.

 

This is not to say that Brown isn’t often the focus of their sound. In an ear where many of the key organists had a gritty, heavy sound, Brown used a combination of stops to create a slightly smoother but no less exciting sound. He was also the Organ-izersmain original composer, with Payne, Purvis and drummer Curtis Prince making contributions as well. (http://funky16corners.com/f16zine/WEB/7_odellbrown.htm)

 

So the next time you pass quickly by a homeless person spare a thought for what that person’s story might be.  You just never know.

Raising The Roof

Track Listing:

01 The Honeydripper

02 Raising The Roof

03 A Cool Señorita

04 Strike Up The Band

05 Day Tripper

06 Maiden Voyage

07 The Thing

08 Enchilada Joe

♪♪♪♪

None But the Righteous: Chess Gospel Greats

Rejoice-and-shout

 

This collection of gospel music tells you a few interesting things.

 

  • The fabled Polish immigrant brothers Chess sure had an ear for good music.  Before they constructed their world-heritage-worthy reputation as producers of the very defining moments of American electric blues with records by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Little Water and Junior Wells, they knew how to capture a good gospel shouter on tape.
  • Chicago was truly the hub of African-American musical culture not just for the blues but for gospel as well.  Aretha Franklin and her Rev. father. Sam Cooke’s Soul Stirrers, The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Rev. Utah Smith, all worked out of the Windy City or made a point to spend significant time there.
  • Gospel groups have an explained fascination with the suffix, aires. Here we have the Violinaires. Because we are believe that we’ll be playing violins upon arrival at the Pearly Gates?
  • Aretha Franklin is every bit as good a religious artist as a sexy secular one. Check out her contribution, Never Grow Old.
  • Chicago was not just a jumping hub of the music business it’s reputation as a sort of new Jerusalem for southern African Americans was non pareil. Witness the presence of the Original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Evangelist Singers of Alabama, the Southern Stars. These deep southern groups were obviously finding big audiences who knew of their music in this cold northern metropolis of factories and stockyards.
  • The Rev. Utah Smith, is a damn fine guitar player.
  • There is no doubt why gospel is at the root of so much American R&B, blues and jazz.

 

God Bless you All! Amen, Brother. Pass the Biscuits!

None But The Righteous

 

Track Listing:

01  Don’t You Want To Go [The Meditation Singers]

02 None But The Righteous [Norfleet Brothers]

03 Anyway You Bless Me Lord [Bells of Joy]

04 Never Grow Old [Aretha Franklin]

05 Oh What A Meeting [Soul Stirrers]

06 I’ve Been Weeping For A Mighty Long Time [Original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi]

07 When My Time Comes [Rev. Alex Bradford]

08 Resting Easy [Soul Stirrers]

09 Two Wings [Rev. Utah Smith]

10 Your Mother Loves Her Children [Rev. C.L. Franklin]

11 Old Time Religion [The Violinaires]

13 Walk In The Light [Evangelist Singers of Alabama]

14 The Angels Keep Watching Over Me [Sammy Bryant]

15 Floods Of Joy [Windy City Four]

16 I’m Gonna Tell God [Elder Beck]

17 You’ve Got The Jordan To Cross [Martha Bass]

18 Don’t Give Up [Southern Stars]

 

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