“amazing grace” – aretha franklin (1972)

R-5651544-1398977337-8020.jpeg

I received news over social media that Aretha Franklin was in hospice care a little over a week ago.  The new was frankly stunning.  For one, I didn’t know she was ill.   It wasn’t as if she was keeping a low profile over the last few years.  She had actively toured within recent memory.  I would never have guessed she was in ill health.

When she did pass away a few days after the news of her being in hospice broke out, it turns out she had pancreatic cancer.  I don’t know how long she had it, but it must’ve developed rapidly.  I wasn’t just stunned by the suddenness of such an announcement.  I was a fan of Aretha’s music and the impact she had on soul/R&B, pop, and female performers that came after her inspired by her talent, character, and attitude.

Aretha’s music had always been with me.  By the time I was born, her career had gone through so many changes.  The hits we all know were so ingrained in popular culture that they were presented as wallpaper music in most contexts; a score over a popular movie or playing over tinny grocery store speakers.  We all knew the hits because they were part of the lexicon of American popular music.  You didn’t seek them out.  They were already there surrounding you.

During the second semester of my freshman year of college, I started my own genre-specific show at my college radio station.  That station was unique.  We were a completely student-driven station, all volunteer, live 24/7, and with specific programming guidelines.  Many college radio stations had one or a combination of those qualities, but very few did all that.  However, from 10 PM to midnight every night, a specialty show got to go off-format and do their own thing.  It was a privilege to have a specialty show; two hours where you call the shots.  These slots were given to volunteers who applied with well-defined ideas and who had proven they were responsible.  My show was called “Soul Food.”

I had always loved soul music and “Soul Food” was going to reflect that.  However, just turning 19 and still within my first year, I still had a lot to learn about the genre.  The first year or two of the show were rocky due to its predictability and lack of a unique voice.  This was because I played a lot of soul/R&B standards with a few deep cuts from those artists sprinkled throughout.  I would often get jokes about the music I played.  I didn’t mind because I liked that music, but I was still finding my voice.

As time went on and I continued to develop “Soul Food,” I was making musical discoveries all the time.  Through Internet research, outreach to independent labels, conversations with the local record store owner, and reading through specialty trade magazines, I was able to find new, independent, and never-heard-before artists that would give my show a unique sound that wouldn’t have been heard anywhere else in town and probably the state as well.

This drive was how I discovered artists like Sharon Jones, revivalist labels like Numero Group, and so much more.  I couldn’t believe in what I was hearing.  Whether it was recently recorded music or reissues of material long forgotten or never heard, there was a market for a specific type of soul music that wasn’t the pop you heard on Top 40 at the time.

I was met with skepticism and incredulousness by my fellow college radio DJs when I talked about all this great music.  I was often told that soul music was no longer relevant.  Nevermind that Amy Winehouse was making big waves and Duffy and Adele were right around the corner, I was often dismissed and that no one cared about soul music.  Under the direction of an out-of-touch station manager, our station became more focused on playing obscure artists inspired by barely recognizable synthpop one-hit wonders of the 1980s.  I knew soul was still alive.  I tried in vain to get our station to book Sharon Jones for events before she got too big.  They didn’t think that would ever happened.

Before my discovery of all this, my knowledge and love for soul music was rather stagnant.  I knew the hits.  However, finding that niche that Sharon Jones and Numero Group were filling, it added fuel to the fire.   I think a big part of why was because they sounded like direct descendants of what Aretha pioneered.  I knew her work and now I was learning what people today were doing with it.  To me, this wasn’t wallpaper music.  This was life.

I have now come to realize that I just wasn’t in the right place to have my interests and passion encouraged.  I wasn’t surrounded by the right people.  It took me a long time and moving to a new city to find a group of people who are open to new music, new ideas, and approach the musical landscape with an open, and somewhat, academic mindset.

When Aretha passed away, I didn’t’ immediately listen to her music.  I went to the stuff that was inspired by her; the music I had discovered during my college radio days.  I didn’t realize exactly why until a few days later.  It was because there was no one doing what Aretha did before that.  Before Aretha, there were no women of color that could match the critical and commercial success of Aretha.  Certainly, many of these women were extremely talented but unfortunately were not recognized.  Aretha changed all of that and set a standard that is still being followed five decades later.

Listening to Aretha also opened the doors to gospel for me.  Admittedly, gospel isn’t an area I know that much about.  I am ware of key figures and do listen to some on occasion.  However, as compared with my knowledge and love of soul, my knowledge of gospel is lacking.

That’s why, when I was diving into my soul records and anything having to do with Aretha, I was pleased with Sound Opinion’s tribute episode to Aretha.  Jim and Greg talked about her early days at Columbia, the success she had at Atlantic, and highlight from her career since then.  However, they talked very extensively about one particular gospel record.

Amazing Grace was a 1972 live gospel album by Aretha and became her biggest-selling album to date.  Recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, it is a testament to Aretha’s massive talent.  Sure, you may have known she was talented because her most famous singles illustrate that, but they cannot match the quality of exceptionalism captured live for Amazing Grace.

I listened to the album a few times over the weekend and I am amazed by its energy and passion.  Every track breathes life.  Rumor has it that Mick Jagger was in the audience and the album inspired the sound of Exile on Main Street.  It is gritty, sweaty, and unapologetically full of life.  While many of these tracks are remarkable, I wanted to highlight her rendition of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”  With a run-time of nearly 11 minutes, this track represents Aretha in pure form.  This is Aretha will no filter and nobody stopping her as she exposes her true essence in a way very few artists can.

The performance was recorded by Sydney Pollack for a concert film he planned to direct.  Originally scheduled for released in 1972, the film could not be completed due to sound synchronization issues.  It was the shelved for 38 years until producer Alan Elliott resolved the sound issue.  The goal was to premiere the film in 2011, until Aretha sued to not have the film screened citing rights over her likeness being used.  Aretha stated “Justice, respect and what is right prevailed and one’s right to own their own self-image.”  Despite the fact the original contract stated her likeness could be used, Aretha secured an emergency injunction.

This story thrills me.  This is Aretha exhibiting full control and power over herself and is indicative of the way she has managed her career; no one tells Aretha how to do Aretha but Aretha.  As much as I would love to see this footage, it likely doesn’t do the original album justice.  I’d rather have that and leave the rest to my own mind and imagination.

Advertisements

“out of the wilderness” – the como mamas (2014)

a1469692196_10

Daptone Records came into my life a decade ago when I was in college.  I obtained my undergrad at a state school in southwestern Kentucky just an hour north of Nashville in a city called Bowling Green.  Bowling Green is a sizable city as far as Midwestern cities go.  It is the third largest city in Kentucky and coincidentally home to the third largest state university.  For its size, it still has a small town feel because of the university’s presence.  Bowling Green is a nice, quiet place to attend school or raise a family.

Bowling Green, however, is not a cultural hotbed.  The city is tucked between Nashville and Louisville which get more events and programs.  Though, there are elements that promote that value.  The university there strives to bring in more international students and increase its scope broadly through exchange and study abroad programs.  Cage the Elephant, which as seen a considerable amount of success recently, originated there.  And Corvettes, the classic American sports car, is manufactured there and maintaining its image as a homegrown icon.  Despite having a lot to offer, Bowling Green can leave a lot to be desired for someone looking for things below everyone’s radar.

That’s how I felt when I picked up my first Daptone Records release in 2007 from a small record store in Bowling Green.  It was 100 Days, 100 Nights, the third studio release from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. It instantly became one of my favorite albums and I could not stop singing the praises of Sharon Jones or Daptone to my friends.

That album dropped at the beginning of my sophomore year of college and really defined the sound of my college years.  At that time, I was entering the second semester of my radio show Soul Food that aired on my college’s student radio station.  I love soul music and Soul Food was an outlet for me to express that.  The first semester went alright, but it had trouble finding its footing in terms of sound.  I ended up playing a lot of classics and threw in some songs that sounded awkward on a progressive college station.  But when I got into Daptone, I got the sound I was looking for and the connections to find similar record labels and artists.

Though I did expand to other independent soul labels like Numero Group, Daptone was my musical epicenter in those days.  I had all the early releases from Sharon Jones, the Sugarman 3, the Budos Band, and Antibalas.  No one else had these albums.  This was exciting stuff and I had to make sure everyone knew about.

I was an early adopter for Daptone and there were challenges associated with that.  I had fans of the show and some colleagues at my college radio station became really into what I was playing.  However, I did get a lot of resistance whenever I tried to speak the gospel of Daptone.

The strangest criticism I had about playing Daptone’s music, or any soul music, was that I could not be taken seriously because I was white.  I got this a lot from colleagues at the radio station a lot in the form of jokes and snide comments.  Just the fact I was white made my show somehow subpar or worthy of ridicule because the idea of me playing music by predominantly black artists was ridiculous to them.  Despite having a solid fan base and high performance evaluations from our quality assurance department, this was something I never managed to evade.

While producing this show, I was also on the stations Board of Directors.  We planned two charity concerts events during the year and strategized on artists, ways to promote, and the overall design and theme of the event.  I would also push really hard that we book Sharon Jones.  The response to this was typically lukewarm.  This issue, to them, was that they felt soul music was no longer relevant and that an act like Sharon Jones wouldn’t draw much of a crowd.  I would protest this.  Not only because we never had soul acts on the bill, but that Sharon Jones would become too big to book within a next year or two.  I had seen her perform live and her records were amazing.  The only way to go was up.  This suggestion would always get dismissed and the station would instead book acts like Freezepop (became the band appeared on the video game Rock Band which was popular at the time) or one-hit wonder Stacey Q to talk for a little bit on a Halloween-themed radio show.  Such a waste of money.

As I was nearing completing my undergrad, I just grew further away from that station.  I was more focused on my video production capstone, internship at Country Music Television in Nashville, and listening to music that I would make an impact.  It was also during the last year of my undergrad that my radio show Soul Food was no longer renewed.  The reasoning was that people didn’t care about soul music.  I didn’t care anymore.  I had dismissed the people around me at the station as idiots who couldn’t see that there was a larger world out there.  I was emotionally checking out.  I wanted to graduate, move, get a job, and surround myself with people I knew who got it.

As I was checking out and doing my own thing until graduation, Sharon Jones did indeed blow up the way I knew she would.  With the 2010 release of her album I Learned the Hard Way, her career was skyrocketing.  She was making appearances on shows like The Colbert Report and performing at massive festivals like Bonnaroo.  When the college station got the album, it was like pulling teeth to get the music director to put a track in rotation.  Eventually, they would just so I would get off their back.

Over the years, Daptone and its repertoire of artists only continued to grow in popularity.  Sharon Jones was the crown jewel of the label, but they also supported some of the hardest working and most entertaining artists on an independent label.  Charles Bradley, the Screaming Eagle of Soul, earned his way and ultimately finding happiness and success after a hard life.  The Budos Band and Antibalas brought their own aggressive form of funk to larger venues and festivals.  Daptone music started appearing in commercials, film, and television shows (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings even performed in a Martin Scorsese movie).  Daptone was unstoppable.

Last week, I attended the opening night screening of the 9th annual Chicago International Movies and Music Festival (CIMMFest).  The featured documentary kicking off CIMMFest was the Chicago premiere of Living on Soul.  In the spirit of great music revue concert films like The Last Waltz and Monterey Pop, Living on Soul was a Daptone showcase piece.

The film featured performance recorded during a three-night revue at the Apollo Theater that was held in December 2014 to celebrate Daptone’s 20th anniversary.  This was an incredibly big deal.  No one had played a multi-night residency at the Apollo since James Brown in the 1970s.  Coming from their humbling beginnings in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Daptone had worked for two decades to get to this point.  And they deserved it.

The residency featured over 40 different musicians including performances from Daptone stalwarts such as Charles Bradley, the Budos Band, Antibalas, the Menahan Street Band, Saun & Starr, and Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens.  The film featured a performance form each band as well as behind-the-scene footage and interviews with them preparing at the Apollo or working at the Daptone studio.

Sharon Jones, the leading lady of Daptone, had two performances in the documentary kicking off the festivities as well as brining everything to a satisfying close.  At the time of the filming, she had just beaten cancer.  At the closing, she performed “Get Up and Get Out” from her latest album at the time Give the People What They Want.  She announced that the arrangement was changed from the studio release to give it some Tina Turner flair.  She performed the song spectacularly with the lively stage presence she was known for.  During the performance, she was shouting not unlike a southern preacher about her journey beating cancer and the joy she felt performing that evening at the Apollo.  It was an emotionally driven performance that filled me with absolute joy and brought tears to my eyes.

The film was emotional on a lot of levels.  First, it was great to see these incredibly talented musicians talk about their lives and their struggle to get to this point.  Secondly, both Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones passed away in the last year.  Both had found success very late in their lives after having difficult experiences.  Bradley spent a lot of his time on screen talking about never giving up on your dreams no matter how hard it gets.

Lastly, it was emotional for me personally because I had been a fan of Daptone for a decade.  Admittedly, I have strayed away a bit since my initial discovery.  Over the years, you discover new interests or get busy with jobs, relationships, or anything else life throws at your way.  Still, Daptone had been a big part of my life during formative years and still are one of the best record labels around.  Daptone consists of a group of people that struggled to get the success they absolutely deserved.  And I feel some pride in being an early fan of theirs (though they had technically been around for 13 years, they were still quite small in 2007).  I loved Daptone and I was passionate about them because I wanted to support and elevate these talented artists.  I’m not bitter about the resistance or ridicule I received early on about this.  It is merely just a part of my history with Daptone.  Besides, I ended up being right.  Daptone and artists like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley became huge.  I’m not bitter, but I do feel validated.

While Sharon Jones’ closing performance was the highlight of the documentary, one performance continues to stick with me.  One of the first few performances in Living on Soul featured the Como Mamas.  The Como Mamas are a trio of a Capella gospel singers from the small town of Como, Mississippi.  Ester Mae Smith is powerful and raspy, Angela Taylor provides a deep soothing voice, and Della Daniels is the energetic voice of the group.  Together, they bring their story and experiences to gospel music and breathe new life into it.

The song they performed was “Out of the Wilderness,” a traditional gospel tune.  Their performance on Living on Soul was a Capella, but the recorded versions have a backing track.  It was initially released as a 45 single in 2014, but would appear on their second studio album Move Upstairs in 2017 with a whole new arrangement.  Before going into the song, the group projected pure energy and joy about their excitement performing at the historical and acclaimed Apollo Theatre.  They absolutely loved coming all the way from Mississippi to bring the people of Harlem to church.

Before their performance, there was footage of them backstage hanging with Sharon Jones.  They sung spirituals and offered their praises to Jesus for the opportunity to be a part of something truly special.  Much like the Sharon Jones’ and Charles Bradley’s history I can’t imagine that the women of the Como Mamas had an easy life.  However, they take every opportunity they can to feel joy and I find that so remarkable.

The provided an introduction in the film to “Out of Wilderness.”  Whether you were going through a divorce, illness, or other calamity, you must get through those trials because there is joy and relief when you overcome adversity.  When you emerge out of the wilderness, there is satisfaction and a love for life because you survived.  I really gravitated towards that message because it is something I forget sometimes.  I am here because I have survived and I didn’t quit.  And that means I need to take stock of the good things around me and appreciate them.  That’s the best thing anyone can do for themselves.

 

“the world (is going up in flames)” – charles bradley & menahan street band (2007)

R-1161055-1337349825-9040.jpeg

Soul music has been a big part of my life for a long time.  Growing up, I loved listening to old Motown CDs.  I learned all the big hits early on.  As I got older, my tastes became a little more eclectic and refined.  When I started hosting and producing a soul radio show for my college radio station, that is where I started to cut my teeth in the world of independent soul music.  With every new show, I strayed further away from the classics we all love and took chances on niche releases from labels like Daptone and Numero Group.  These labels and their artists were new to me and the college town in Kentucky where I broadcasted from, but their influence, popularity, and significance would only grow from there.

On Saturday, the world lost Charles Bradley.  Affectionately known as the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Charles Bradley was a soul music darling coming from Dunham and Daptone Records.  In his early 60s, he was releasing his first studio albums in front of adoring fans over the world.  However, the popularity and fame he acquired late in his life wouldn’t last long.  He died of stomach cancer at the age of 68.  The golden age of his career would only span six years from 2011 through 2017, but he will be missed and his legacy will only grow.

The first time I heard Charles Bradley was in 2007.  That year, 100 Days, 100 Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings came out.  I bought a digipak copy of the album that came with a bonus CD that featured a heavily stylized faux radio show called Ghettofunkpowerhour hosted by Daptone regular Binky Griptite.   Just shy of an hour long, Ghettofunkpowerhour featured a compilation of Daptone singles and releases up to that point.  Extended snippets of over 20 songs were included in the compilation and featured Daptone stalwarts such as Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, the Sugarman 3, the Budos Band, Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, and, of course, Charles Bradley.  Bradley, in fact, had three songs on the compilation which included “Take It as It Come” (with Sugarman & Co.), “This Love Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us” (with the Bullets), and “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” (with Menahan Street Band).  I played Ghettofunkpowerhour on repeat because not only is it a great compilation, but it is also a fantastic introduction to Daptone.  Their catalogue has expanded and grown in recognition over the last decade, but they were already solid when I first heard them.

Other than those few singles from Ghettofunkpowerhour, Charles Bradley pretty much stayed off my radar.  Unlike Sharon Jones and his Daptone contemporaries, he wasn’t putting out full-length albums.  That changed in 2011.  To promote his first studio release No Time for Dreaming, he went out on tour.  While the album was backed by Menahan Street Band, Bradley assembled his own crew under the name the Extraordinaires.

Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires were scheduled to play Subterranean.  The show was in July.  I had just recently moved to the city that February and I found that going to shows were a great way to explore the city.  Plus, I loved what I had heard from Bradley before.

I am known for my punctuality and being early, so I was one of the first people to show up for the gig.  This worked for me because the club is kind of small and I wanted to planet myself front and center.  And how glad I am that I did!  Bradley put on such an excellent performance.  He was 62 at the time, but performed with the energy and vigor of a man half that age.  This was someone pouring their heart and soul in bringing the best show to the people and he accomplished that.

Bradley’s excellent stage performance shouldn’t have shocked me.  He was someone who worked for years to perfect his stagecraft.  Part of Daptone’s revivalist approach is to channel the energetic exuberance of funk and soul music from the 1960s and 70s.   Bradley fit right in with that spending 20 years earning extra money between odd jobs doing James Brown performances.  A pivotal moment in his life came when his sister took him to see James Brown perform at the Apollo Theatre in 1962.  Bradley, after that, would impersonate Brown around the house. He modeled his stage performances after the hardest working man in show business to the degree that he effectively a spiritual successor.

Bradley lived a hard life.  At 14, he ran away from to escape a poverty-stricken household only to live on the streets for two years.  When he was old enough, he enlisted in the Job Corps and worked as a cook for ten years.  After that, Bradley decided to hitchhike around the country finding work wherever he could.  When he overcame his stage fright and channeled the excitement he saw at the James Brown performance, his talents were shown and recognized by the right people.

Bradley’s career got as big as a soul revivalist performance could get.  He released three studio albums, performed in festivals all around the world, and was even the subject of a documentary called Soul of America that premiered at South by Southwest in 2012.  This was a man who had worked hard and lived harder, and it was finally all paying off.

His life experiences were reflected in his songs.  In December 2010, he rereleased the single “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” for the release of his first studio album No Time for Dreaming which was released 2011 (the single initially came out in 2007).  In it, Bradley sings about a world engulfed in flames where no one has any accountability.  He laments about the hardship he has lived through and that no one can tell him what to do if they’ve never felt the same pain he does.  It is a heart wrenching soulful song filled with the emotional authenticity from a man who knows what he’s talking about.  He’s weathered the harshest storms and still has the hope that we can make a better world.

Bradley is a shining example of how we can all choose to live our lives.  Times will always be hard.  Sometimes, things will be less hard.  Other times, you’ll encounter life’s most difficult experiences.  The key is to just move forward and live your life the best way you can.  Things will get better even if they get worst first.  However, that is no reason to give up.  Even if it takes decades, your dream is never worth giving up.  Bradley never gave up and his final years were his most fulfilling.  What an inspiration.

“writin’ on the wall” – boscoe (1973)

R-1242530-1369061828-4181.jpeg

Like many people around the country, I’ve been upset by the violent events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend.  When white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and the Alt-Right descended upon the city to preach their own brand of hatred and bigotry, violence erupted resulting in many being injured and the death of three people including Heather Heyer.

Before the wounds of Charlottesville have even begun to heal, the painful feeling was only exacerbated by the President Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn the violence perpetrated by his supporters.  A few days after reading a half-assed generic statement from a teleprompter, he showed his true colors yesterday when he coined the term “Alt-Left” and refused to condemn the violent white supremacists at Charlottesville.  He cited that both sides were to blame and that he demanded he have all the facts before making any kind of statement.

The incident at Charlottesville had occurred 72 hours before his press conference yesterday, but Trump still insisted on not issuing a formal statement until he felt satisfied that he had all the facts.  Beyond what he did say about the (non-existent) “Alt-Left” going to the protest armed and without a permit, it is also troubling to consider what was not said.  Trump, the man who is currently holding the highest office in the country, did not sincerely vocalize any condemnation of his supporters for the chaos and madness they caused.

Trump’s psyche has not been hard to understand.  In his world, there is no “right” and no “wrong.”  His assessment about your value to him is only determined by how well you like him.  If you praise and support his actions and words, you are “good” and deserving of his respect and attention.  If you are critical of him, or simply did not vote for him, you are “bad.”

He has exemplified this view countless times, but yesterday’s press conference was the worst.  Reporters and members of the press were asking simple questions about Trump’s feelings about the Charlottesville violence.  During this, Trump pointed aggressively at them calling them fake, questioning their integrity and honesty as reporters and journalists, and made statements aligned himself with the violent rhetoric and actions of his reporters in Charlottesville.  By saying that both sides were to blame, he made a clear statement comparing violent Neo-Nazis to people who wish not to be hurt by violent Neo-Nazis.

The Charlottesville violence and death of Heather Heyer hit me so hard.  Since then, within the last few days, I still haven’t really found my balance yet.  Like many people, I couldn’t stop looking at the news.  Videos of fights and photos of armed racists were all over my social media feeds.  It was inescapable.  As I watched video footage of unknown militias marching, men holding shields with white nationalist imagery chanting “fuck you faggots,” and Neo-Nazis proudly wearing the swastika.

As I watched this, I felt a fear I hadn’t felt since the 9/11 attacks.  Our country has gone through some difficult times over the last 16 years.  However, at no point did I ever fear for my safety, the well-being of my friends and family, and the security of this country.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to be optimistic about where we are going.  And that is because I have no idea where this country is going.  Since Donald Trump’s election win last November, our state of affairs have steadily declined.  The threat of political violence is always present to the point where this insane discourse is becoming normalized.

The fear and anger I have felt since Saturday has put me in a place I do not like to be.  Reading through all the commentary and posts on social media, I got caught in the mire of the sickening depravity that is the Alt-Right’s social media presence.  I started engaging with white supremacists online shaming them for advocating additional violence and murder.  I knew you couldn’t reason with these people, so my goal was to call them out for their asinine behavior and holding them accountable.

I quickly realized how naïve that was.  By engaging with this scum, I had opened myself to receiving targeted threats of violence, death threats, called names aimed at my masculinity, and other targeted attacks.

Frankly, it was strange and fascinating.  I took their comments about committing murder and laughing at the death of Heather Heyer seriously, but I could not take the people behind those words seriously.  All of these disgusting people had one thing in common beyond their hateful rhetoric: they are all cowards who hide behind monikers and Pepe avatars.  They are afraid to show themselves as they spew their garbage.  They hide behind their racist frog meme as they call you faggot and make statements about how afraid you are to meet them.  Real tough talk coming from someone hiding behind a cartoon.

It got to a point where I found the exchanges fascinating and comical.  I would call out someone’s racism and that they were too afraid to show their true selves.  And the only thing that would happen is that they would send me some meme implying committing violence or murder against me or others.  Or that they would send their supporters from multiple states to come find me.  No matter how you looked at it, they were just losers throwing cartoons at me.  One even used my picture as their profile picture thus making me the representative face of their vitriol because they are too frightened to use their own.

These disgusting social media fiends are actually afraid.  They hide behind their memes out of fear of being “doxxed” (term to describe when a person’s identity and contact information has been discovered and shared).  When doxxed, their hatred is shown to their family, schools, and places of employment who will then respond appropriately.  These racists don’t want to lose their jobs or be expelled, so they use anonymity as their only weapon.

As I engaged further, I learned so much.  In addition to the psychology of these pathetic losers, I also learned some of their tactics they use to further spread hate.  In the spirit that these people are truly frightened of being discovered, I noticed that most of the users I engaged with would change their identities every day or two.  This included changing their profile picture, profile name, and social media handle in order to make it harder to trace their hateful rhetoric.  To do so properly, you would have to track them with databases and a lot of screenshots.  But, who has the time to follow racists assholes (besides me for the few days that I did).

When I got bogged down with this over the weekend, I spent a few days treading through their shit.  I didn’t care about the threats of attacks.  I was on a search and destroy mission.  My goal was to engage these people, discover who they were, and make them pay.  Now, I don’t know how to dox someone properly.  I’m not a hacker.  That’s how this stuff gets done.  But, I was able to find out who one of the guys was and called his university’s police to report the violent threats he was making in relation to the Charlottesville.

I tried to tell myself that taking down one of the people was worth it.  However, I know that isn’t the case.  Engaging with anonymous assholes on social media is the not an effective way to deal with what is happening right now.  We are all still healing from this weekend and processing what is happening.  Between the violent white supremacist gathering and Trump’s statements (or lack thereof), it is easy to get emotional and lost in confusion.

Never in a million years would I be telling myself in 2017 that this country needs to stand together to take down literal Nazis.  Trump and his administration has emboldened a movement with a specific agenda. An agenda that says that racial purity is required to make this country better.  And many of them want to achieve this through violence.

The most frustrating aspect of their movement is their quickness to play victim when it is convenient.  They will gather, carry tiki torches symbolizing torches and pitchforks, claim their white heritage gives them dominance over this land, and vocalize that any non-white people, homosexuals, and women should submit to their will.  However, stand up to them and they cower by claiming the legality of their actions.

They remind me of those kids who want to get a reaction out of someone by hovering their hands over the other person and saying “I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you. You can’t get mad because I’m not touching you!”  And the moment that you smack away their hand for invading their personal space, they cry and play the victim as they condemn you for your reaction.   So when these white supremacists gather to saying awful, violent things about non-white people and they are met with resistance, they cry that they were only gathering peacefully and that the antifas broke the law.  They say the resistance didn’t have a permit or that they are violating their freedom of speech.  They deflect, pass blame, and change the narrative to make sure, in their minds, that they are legally protected.  Their goal is to antagonize someone so much that their reaction can be spun to reflect their narrative, embolden their supporters, and gather centrist support who are too stupid to see the difference.

There can be no room for centrists.  If you are someone of sound body and mind watching the violence unfolding on your television or phone and you cannot tell the difference between those who advocate violence and those who wish to live free from violence, then you are a complete fucking moron that is ruining this country.  Much like the actual Nazis in the Third Reich, the Nazis in Charlottesville are trying to appeal to centrists.  Their movement, which started out as a fringe before picking up mainstream support, relies on recruiting people on the fence.  Before, they were too weak to take on the mainstream.  So, to gain strength, they rely on the stupid who cannot pick a side. Slowly one by one until they are now a force that must be dealt with seriously.

In 1973, Boscoe released their only studio album.  Initially only pressing 500 copies, their eponymous studio debut became a lost record of the South Side of Chicago’s rich culture of black music.  Such a profound musical statemen remained obscure until being reissued by Numero Group in 2007.  That is when I bought my copy.  A decade later after my purchase and 44 years after recording the album, the message remains as relevant today as ever.

“Writin’ On the Wall,” running over eight minutes, is a powerful condemnation to those who cannot see for themselves what is happening.  While the context of the recording in 1973 was about the passing of Malcom X, the message of black America struggling for peace still carries on.  As white supremacists battled against Black Lives Matters protestors and chanting for their death, it is so difficult for me to understand how someone cannot see the truth when it is right in front of them.  And for our political leaders to carry a message that “both sides” are responsible for our current violent discourse, it only makes the situation worse.

We’re still healing from Charlotte and I don’t know what to do.  As ready as I am to fight, I am also afraid of what the next day will bring.  And I feel that way because things will only get worse before they get better.  I know where I stand and my enemy knows where they stand, but people who stand in the middle silently are the ones who will shift the direction this nation will go.  And if they can’t see the writing on the wall, then goddamn them.

“dead!” – carolyn sullivan (1967)

R-991747-1268408561.jpeg

For about three years, I hosted an independent soul music radio show on my college radio station. I loved soul music and my station didn’t have a block of programming that focused on that particular genre. It first aired January 2007 and really offered a mixed bag in the beginning. I played a variety of already well-known standards plus songs I wouldn’t have played once the show matured. Until I got to the point where the material was interesting and cohesive, I had to do my homework while the show was clunky for it’s first semester or so.

At the same time, I obtained a leadership role within the station handling promotions. This meant taking the station’s brand and increasing visibility within the community. I figured one way of doing this was partnering with businesses that catered to the station’s listening demographic. Places like record stores, coffee houses, and comic book shops. I became pretty good at this type of work and developed a lot of great relationships with vendors.

One particular vendor that was close was a record store; really the only one in town. The owner had been a long-time listener of the station as well as my show in particular; he even would record my shows onto his computer for later listening which never bothered me. The record store owner was also a soul music aficionado and turned me onto some new stuff he was recently getting in. At the tail end of 2007, he introduced me Sharon Jones and the Daptone record label. When I heard Jones, I knew that was the sound I was looking for to kick off the second half of 2007 as the show entered into it’s second semester.

What really thrilled me about the Daptone label was the raw sound. It sounded dusty, but was recorded that very year. I then wanted my show to focus on independent soul artists that were contemporary, but had the style and appeal of an aged, obscure group. Through my experience doing promotions with the station, I worked out a deal with the record store owner. He could sponsor my show in exchange for free CDs for me to play. This worked out really well for me because I needed more content, but didn’t have the money to constantly buy CDs for the show. At the tail end of 2007, I became acquainted with soul record labels like Numero Group and Jazzman. Looking back, I may have been the only person in town who knew of these kinds of record labels. If not, then I was the only one who really cared.

My last show was December 2009; a Christmas show. I had one more semester left, but external circumstances took all motivation out of me to pick it back up again. Now that I wasn’t doing my radio show, I kind of stopped listening and keeping up. Graduation was coming and I just wanted a job. I then turned my attention to other kinds of music I had neglected over the last few years. I knew I loved soul music deep down, but I needed a break.

Within the last couple of months, I’ve been breaking out my old soul compilation CDs again. Southern soul mixes from Mojo, UK imported northern soul collections, and even my sizable Daptone collection have been getting rediscovered. I love compilations featuring obscure artists. One of my favorites is a 2006 release called Dead! The Grim Reaper’s Greatest Hits. This compilation features an eclectic mix of rock, pop, psychedelic, funk, and soul. Every track is about death. Some of it funny. Some of it macabre. All of it fascinating jewel within my collection.

One track that stood out for me was the 1967 single “Dead!” by Carolyn Sullivan. Now, I cannot tell you a single thing about Sullivan. According to Discogs, she only released three singles and appears on only a handful of compilations. Like many of the other artists on obscure compilations, she may have been someone who recorded a single and just couldn’t sell it. Or maybe it was something else. Who knows?

Our station featured breaks in the normal programming called “specialty shots.” These specialty shots began with a promotional introduction for that particular show while the song served as a taste of what a listener could hear. “Dead!” became one of my favorite specialty shots.

The track actually has two versions. One is darker and evokes the imagery of a woman slicing her wrists open while the other is a lover’s lament that her boyfriend has left her because he won’t pick up the phone. Naturally, I prefer the former. That version is so powerful and shocking to hear. The vocals are dark, sad, and project a sense of dread. Sullivan is on the verge of killing herself and you hear every aspect of her pain through her words. At times, it can be a bit too much and you need to resurface from the murky depths Sullivan is dragging you down into. Regarding the backing track, it may have been recycled from another single. The organ appears to sound jaunty at times and creates a stunning juxtaposition to the lyrics. The mood and tone of the organ change throughout the song and leaves the listener confused yet mesmerized.

Soul music offers a vast array of possibilities for the listener to suit whatever mood they may be in. The happy, party soul music can ease. The breakup soul music that can comfort. And then, you have “Dead” which serves as a sobering reminder that things can always be worse, so enjoy life while you can.

“village ghetto land” – stevie wonder (1976)

673061_com_songsinthe1

I have a soft spot for holiday novelty songs. For me, they are so incredibly fun and embody the unique appeal of the holiday. Every major holiday has their own novelty records, but fall and winter is when we hear them the most. Halloween has the “Monster Mash” and its countless knockoffs while Christmas music becomes inescapable for a few months. Though, in between, you have Thanksgiving. There are not a lot of songs embodying the spirit and imagery of turkey and stuffing, but what is there is quite entertaining. I keep a list of songs to write about for this blog and I had a special list of Thanksgiving tracks to choose from. I mulled over tracks like “Groovy Gravy” by Quincy Jones, “Thanksgiving Day” by Ray Davies, and “Pass the Peas” by James Brown. Any of which would have been excellent choices to discuss Thanksgiving, but I went in a different direction.

This past weekend, I revisited one of my favorite records while getting some work done. Stevie Wonder’s 1976 masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life is a two-LP (and extra 7”) testament to humanity. It is such a breathtaking and layered album. The collection of tracks offer a diverse listening experience including massive pop radio hits, sullen reflection pieces, and out of this world jams. Songs in the Key of Life represents the dynamic and fluctuating nature of man and our relationships with one another.

I feel every song borders on perfection, though some more than others. These are tracks where I have to stop what I’m doing and become lost in the moment. Songs like “I Wish,” “Ordinary Pain,” and “As” are breathtaking in terms of their narrative and musical composition. Wonder is crafting a world of experiences for the listener. These experiences and stories may not reflect those of the listener, but they serve as a window into another world; a life many of us may not know.

The most underrated song on the album is certainly “Village Ghetto Land.” Lyrically, the imagery Wonder is conveying and striking and poignant. Wonder is asking the listener to take his hand so he can show them a world that many of us don’t (or won’t) see; a world of marginalized poverty where people struggle to survive from day to day. Specifically, Wonder is singing about the struggles of the poorer black communities. In these communities, people starve and do not have adequate access to medical care or even money to buy proper food. The land serves as a reminder that systemic oppression has real-world consequences on those of certain classes and ethnicities.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that can split a room. On one side, it is a holiday for those to reflect on their lives and be grateful for luxuries and love they have in their lives while gorging. On the other, it is a white-washed reminder of the colonialization of indigenous people. Both of these are things I try to remember this time of year. For one, I am happy for the opportunity to be surrounded by friends and family because that is something I cannot usually do on such a scale. I’m also aware that many families or individuals don’t get to share in that collective spirit of unity.

In an already incredibly powerful song, these lines stand out to me the most:

Now some folks say that we should be
Glad for what we have.
Tell me, would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?

Such a sobering question. Considering the duality of the holiday, I do my best to focus on my life and being grateful for what I have. However, it is easy for me to grateful. I have a loving support system, a job, and access to societal opportunities not readily available to people who have less. Wonder is right to ask that question because you wouldn’t be happy living in a world like the one in “Village Ghetto Land.” For someone who comes from a place of privilege to tell someone who has less that they should be grateful is disheartening and devoid of all human empathy. There are many reasons why some people have less, but they should not be looked down upon. We’re all in this together, and we have to lift each other up.

Musically, “Village Ghetto Land” is just as remarkable as it is lyrically. Wonder is the sole musician on the track. Composed on a Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer, the track evokes the imagery of a large concert hall with a full string orchestra. It is quite a majestic and almost aristocratic sounding track. The composition adds dignity to the narrative where its inhabitants may not have any.

“Village Ghetto Land” is not a Thanksgiving song by any means, but it carries the spirit of the holiday. The leaves have fallen and frost is gathering on the ground. It is getting colder, and that’s a problem for a lot of people. This is why, when it starts to freeze, we should keep our hearts warm and open. Take time to reflect on your life and what you can do to better the lives of others.

“les fleur” – minnie riperton (1970)

R-1545026-1237443861.jpeg

Daydreaming is a great escape from the droll aspectds of life. There is absolute freedom in reaching the furthest corners of one’s imagination. It is where personal reflection and wild fantasies converge and create amazing feelings of comfort and wonder. There is an exhilarating thrill to daydreaming. It comes from that natural curiosity about what the future holds. Within the confines of the mind, we can craft our future while keeping the allure of surprise.

For me, daydreaming is about discovery. And even that in the broadest sense of the word. The discovery element can the discovery of a part of one’s self or the discovery by someone else. How many of us dream about our potential and the adoration of fans? In my mind’s eye, would I get the validation I seek if I became a famous rock star? It is perfectly natural to want to be perceived a certain way. So, if someone looks within you, what do you want them to see? What is the best part of you that is going to achieve reality of your dreams?

Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleur” is a great tribute to the act of daydreaming. Consider the thoughts Riperton is sharing with the listener. Riperton is connecting with nature and imagining herself as a flower that is ready to bloom. While she waits to bloom and share her radiance, Riperton is contemplating the potential she has. Who will discover her soft, shimmery petals and validate her purpose in sharing beauty in this world? This is the question she is asking herself. Whether it be worn in someone’s hair or pinned to someone’s clothes as they tour a fair, how will the flower that is Riperton be put on display to the world and rightfully adored?

As the song progresses, Riperton declares she knows her role. She knows that she has an inherent beauty that needs to be shared with everyone. That is her sole purpose and the fact she has this self-confidence is so empowering. While I believe that I do not require anyone’s validation as to who I think I am, that is not the message in “Les Fleur.” There is no question in Riperton’s self-image and identity. She is here and you have to accept that. And if you don’t dig her style, then someone else will. Another person will pick that flower and show it off to the world spreading joy. Though the song is about a flower, it is a very human song that touches upon very human feelings. “Les Fleur” is a triumphant soul track that is powerful in its message; that we’re all beautiful on the inside and the only way to light up the sky and banish darkness is to share that inner beauty.

Despite the strong message of this tune, I find the music even more enriching. The orchestration is soft and mellow. In this garden Riperton is lyrically painting, the song starts slow like a barefoot walk through the grass. It is soft to the touch and easy like a sunny morning. Riperton’s voice lays over the arrangement and carries the listener through the song’s opening. But, the song isn’t entirely effortless in its delivery. There is a flower ready to bloom in this garden and is signified by the swelling of strings, horns, and backing vocals. As vocal registers rise, the chorus erupts with a golden harmony that heightens the experience. Like the sound of a thunderous gospel choir, this is the time to rejoice because this is when a new time is born and a flower blooms to spread love and joy.

“Les Fleur” is the opening track from Riperton’s first album. It is also an underrated track overshadowed by her quintessential high-note hit “Loving You.” It is a truly amazing song blending a rich soul orchestration, humanist themes, and one of the most talented voices in music. Riperton unfortunately passed away in 1979 after losing a battle with terminal breast cancer. In her short ten year career, Riperton truly embodied the spirit of this song. She did more with those ten years than many do in a lifetime. She had a beautiful gift backed by an even more amazing message, and she used them to spread joy and happiness. Her blooming as an artist, while short, was as bright as any garden.

“how long do I have to wait for you?” – sharon jones & the dap-kings (2005)

R-1280505-1206033520.jpeg

We all want the quality of our lives to improve. With our own individual dreams, passions, and interests, each one of us has our own motivations to achieve happiness, or what we may think is happiness. It is the chase; the pursuit of happiness where we manifest a perceived outcome. If I do this, it will make me happy. I want this because I believe I will be happy when I have it.

Fame and success, specifically in the celebrity sense, is a common motivator for a lot of people. The appeal of being lauded by the public for their own individual artistic expression drives them. And it really is appealing. Some may like the concept of celebrity more than others, but doesn’t the attention and the adoration sound at least little appealing to all of us?

Instant fame and celebrity status can be very damaging on a young psyche. Sure, we all the cautionary tales of Hollywood child stars. Cute kids with one-liners that get bombarded with sensory overload. The constant attention diminishes opportunities for self-reliance and the flashing lights can be blinded.

The stories of those who experienced fame early are a dime a dozen. I want to focus on how fame affects older people; people with decades of experience outside of the limelight. I find more often than not that people who find fame later in life tend to handle the negative consequences of international success a lot more maturely. This is because they have gratitude and appreciate the hard work and patience behind their success. Such is the case with Sharon Jones.

Currently 59, Jones attempted to break into the music industry. She crafted her sound singing in church gospel choirs and eventually got picked up as backing vocalist for session bands. However, she didn’t get her share of the limelight. Dismissed because of her looks, Jones had to find employment elsewhere. For years, Jones worked as a corrections officer and an armored car guard, but she never gave up on her dream.

In 1996, Jones was starting to get attention for her vocal performance after backing soul legend Lee Fields. It would be six years before she released her first album with the Dap-Kings, another six years before she gained international attention and played festivals, and finally, seven more years until she earned her first Grammy nomination. It took Jones nearly two decades to finally earn the respect and praise she deserves as a spirited soul goddess.

Though it wasn’t the first song I heard from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, but “How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?” has since become one of my favorites. Released on her 2005 release “Naturally,” this song is a perfectly crafted soul single.   Everything works. Jones’ vocals are strong and emotive as she pleads for an answer; she loves her man, but she can’t wait forever because a girl has got to live her life. And the instrumentation from the backing band is fantastic. The Dap-Kings have earned a reputation of being a precise and tight backing band (even supporting acts like Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse). The horns are rich and the analog recording adds levels of warmth and vibrancy missing from digital recording. This track could’ve easily been an R&B radio staple in the 60s and 70s. Even upon its release in 2005, it stands out as a unique contemporary treasure a decade on.

I discovered Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings after buying their 2007 release “100 Days, 100 Nights” from the Great Escape when I was in college in Bowling Green, KY. I was instantly impressed, and I told everyone about this band. It seemed no one else had known about this band and their amazing retro-soul style. This was my first experience at being an early adopter of a really cool record. They weren’t fully recognized yet, so it felt like my own little secret; my own musical treasure. Since then, Sharon Jones is a common name among the indie soul, college radio, and festival crowds. She’s found an audience and people are paying attention. She couldn’t wait on her man much longer because she had records to make and people to entertain as a true soul diva.

“sugarfoot” – black joe lewis & the honeybears (2009)

R-2918600-1307279613.jpeg

What makes great soul music? For fans of the legendary Detroit-based Motown, it might be the pristine production value and star power. Those passionate about horns and southern charm, look no further than Memphis’ very own Stax Records. And, of course, the songwriting talents of Gamble & Huff and lush funk instrumentals helped put Philly soul on the musical map. All soul music is great soul music. Soul music, in its essence, is designed to fill in a hole in the listener; to make one complete. It’s a very intimate experience. Oftentimes, that intimacy can turn animalistic.

Representing Austin and carrying on the rich tradition of Texas funk, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears skillfully craft their own brand of fierce and sexually-charged soul music. “Sugarfoot” off their 2009 debut album Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! is a testament to the energy of Texas funk amongst the contemporary music scene. With an arrangement of dirty, greasy horns, “Sugarfoot” is pure animal lust. Wham! Bam! Thank you, ma’am. No breakfast in the morning.

Lewis counts down the intro as the track opens and the band comes in on the mark without holding any punches. Playing hard and intense backing Lewis’ screaming vocals, the band performs on point without missing a beat. The call and response between Lewis and the Honeybears is gratifying and playful. Controlled and disciplined, the Honeybears know what the listener wants and they’re going to give it to you. You can feel the sweat rolling off the players as they recorded the song.

I’ve seen Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears perform twice. Both times in Chicago. As great as the band is in the studio, they shine even brighter live. Their energy is astonishing and the experience will leave you exhausted. If you’re new to independent soul music, or if you want to broaden your funk horizon, check out this band.