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Wednesday, Mar 18, 2009
Long beloved by soul music aficionados, Gloria Scott is ready to give the world new music. Here's why it's taken 35 years…

In the annals of popular music, the legacy of Barry White is secure. His blend of pop, soul, and disco was a style unto itself. His distinct voice purred low and seductively underneath his Love Unlimited Orchestra. There is no doubting his influence on the two generations of crooners who followed, though no one has quite captured the sophistication of his seminal work from the 1970s. However, there is one individual who is often overlooked in White’s oeuvre. Her name is Gloria Scott.


Right about the time Barry White had begun his ascent on the pop and R&B charts, an album entitled What Am I Gonna Do (1974) hit record store shelves. It was slated to launch the solo career of the Bay Area-based Scott, following her work with the likes of Sly Stone, Johnny Otis, and Ike & Tina Turner. Scott was signed to White’s Soul Unlimited production company whereupon White produced all eight tracks on What Am I Gonna Do.  Back to front, it was a first-class production on par with anything White released at the time or would later record. It also marked the second release for Neil Bogart’s newly launched label, Casablanca Records.


However, a combination of factors, including the growing pains of a new record company and White’s focus on his own burgeoning career, ultimately limited the reach of What Am I Gonna Do. Though a follow-up single, “Just As Long as We’re Together”, hit the R&B Top 20 and held the top spot on the Disco Singles chart in early-1975, the second album she recorded with arranger H.B. Barnum was not released. For all his solo success, Barry White was not delivering on his contract with Gloria Scott. He became one of the most seminal figures of the 1970s while Scott faded into obscurity.


Until recently. Soul music enthusiasts have long revered What Am I Gonna Do and kept Gloria Scott’s name alive more thirty years after her debut, which is her only full-length album released to date. Since 1974, it’s had a few resurrections around the world, including a 1996 CD issue in Japan and a European release in 2003. The album is currently being prepared for a June 2009 reissue by Reel Music. More than 26,000 hits of uploaded streams from What Am I Gonna Do and the “Just As Long as We’re Together” single on YouTube have raised Scott’s profile higher now than 35 years ago.


Gloria Scott also remains active onstage. She regularly performs in Germany, where her devoted fans clutch original copies of her album. Scott even rerecorded “Help Me Get Off This Merry-Go-Round”, one of the many highlights on What Am I Gonna Do, with the Baltic Soul Orchestra in 2008. The time is ripe for the reemergence of Gloria Scott and, on a recent winter evening, she expressed her appreciation for the legion of listeners who have supported her up-close and from a distance over the years. In the coming months, she might just be appearing on a stage near you! (Note: look for a special tribute to What Am I Gonna Do in PopMatters’ forthcoming retrospective celebrating the 35th anniversary of Casablanca Records.)


I understand that Sly Stone was the first person to take you into the studio. Not many people can say that!


When I first saw him, we had just moved out here from Texas. My aunt was singing in a gospel group. I was in her living room when they got ready to have rehearsal and in walks Sly Stone, his sister Rose, and his cousin LaTanya. With my aunt, they all had a singing group. I had no idea who Sly was but I thought they had a very good group. I was 14 then. When I was 17, I was at a high school dance and there he was again. I don’t know if I remember if it was him that particular moment, but my girlfriend said (to him), “Oh she can sing”, so he said, “Well come up here and sing!” I went up there and sang – I’ll never forget – it was “Gee Whiz” by Carla Thomas. From then on, he took me all around the Bay Area to different dances, along with Bobby Freeman. He just kind of took me under his wing. I sang at the Cow Palace. Sly and his sister and his cousin LaTanya backed me up and they were called the Tonettes: Gloria Scott and the Tonettes.


What happened after that? Did you want to continue working with him?
I did but then he was in the process of putting together Sly and the Family Stone. I wanted to be in that group but he was hiring people who played instruments, not just singers. Then he didn’t do anything with me after that. In between I was singing at clubs in the Bay Area. I met a guy named Charles Sullivan and he had a couple of clubs. He even owned the Booker T. Washington Hotel and the Fillmore Auditorium (later Fillmore West). He said he’d introduce me to some people. One night he called me and I went down to the Fillmore Auditorium and I auditioned for Ike and Tina Turner. I became an Ikette after that. I was with them for about nine months.


Was this around the time of “River Deep-Mountain High”?
Way before. The original Ikettes were still with them. I was 19 when I got with them.  I was with a Dick Clark tour. There was a different set of Ikettes on each Dick Clark tour that went out and we were making more money than the original Ikettes! That’s one of the reasons why they quit. They didn’t think it was fair, so that’s how I got to be in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. I didn’t stay with them very long but it was very good training for me. That was the best training I could have ever had.


Once you left them, how did you go about launching a solo career?
I started writing with a friend of mine, Sunny Chaney. He’s passed away now. We were writing songs and I was doing some different things, going on the road and backing up people, and singing solo, too. He told me when I got back home that he wanted to introduce me to someone. When I got back to LA, we went over to Barry White’s office. I was showing some of the songs Sunny and I had written together and Barry said that he wanted to sign me up as an artist.


What did that entail exactly? Did he encourage you to write or just sing?
He just wanted me to sing his music. My music got set on the shelf. I helped write one of the songs on that album but I don’t even think he listened to my music. He just wanted me to interpret his music. All the songs were written by other writers in the Soul Unlimited Company. They were good songs. He produced a very good album. I think it was doing more than I knew but it just didn’t get the attention that it needed to get in order to be recognized like it should have been. I think it was because he was such an artist himself. I think that’s why I sat around for six years with that company. Six years…nothing. It was horrible and very frustrating.


Your contract was for six years, then?
Seven years, but I asked for a release before it was over. It was supposed to be two albums a year and we did record another album that wasn’t released. He did not live up to the contract.


Unfortunately that’s a situation that wasn’t all too uncommon.
In the first place, my contract was very unfair. I didn’t really know about the business and it did not serve me well. It was not a good thing. I should have just gotten somebody who could handle my situation but I did not. I got kind of angry. I got bitter but it didn’t do any good.


So, just to clarify, were you signed directly to Casablanca?
No. I think what happened was that Barry cut a deal with them.


Did you meet Neil Bogart?
I think I met him once but it was very casual. I think it was at the record release party but it was very brief. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a relationship with those people because it was Barry’s thing. He was in charge of that. Barry was so big. I probably would have done the same thing in his position but I still feel sad about it. What can you do?


What was it like working with Barry in the studio?
Actually, I think he left a lot of the arranging to Gene Page. He was really the man with the sound. I think Gene Page really had the sound and Barry got a lot of recognition from that. They worked together. When they were doing the recording for the music, Barry was there a lot but when I did my vocals, he was not there. I think he was there for the first draft but for the second draft when I went in to clean up the sound, he wasn’t there.


When you hear those songs now, what do you feel?
I think it’s beautiful music. It was a long time ago but the music still sounds good today. Everybody I play the music for goes, “Wow, that was really good!” They say, “Why don’t you just put it out again?”


Do you work with a band?
My music is not really as popular over here as it is in Germany. I’ve been over there twice. Each time I’ve gone, they’re holding up my album. Over there, the album’s worth $300. Whenever I do a gig, I sell my CDs. People love it. The musicians I work with, they do cover songs. I try to get them to do my music and they’re like, “Well, I don’t know…” A couple of times I’ve done gigs where I would just use my CDs to perform instead of using a band because I want to do some of my music. Once I did “Just as Long as We’re Together” and one of the guys in the band said, “Oh wow. That song still sounds good, Gloria!” I said, “Yeah that’s the one I was trying to get us to do”. He said, “You’re right”. I said, “Well thanks for admitting it!”


Why do you think the music is appreciated more in Europe than over here?
Well mainly because they’re hearing it. I saw a couple of shots on the Internet where people were making comments about the music and they were saying it was good. I think that was here in the U.S. I have another friend who works with computers and he set up a website. He said, “Gloria you’d be surprised how many people are interested in your music. 200 people a day listening to your songs”. When the CD is (re)released, I’m going to take it around to some of these radio stations and see if I can get anybody to play it.


When I was in Germany this last time, they took me in the studio because they wanted to do a live version of the album. It was beautiful. I did one of the songs that I wrote because I had done a demo on it. One of the engineers had tears in his eyes and said, “Gloria, I love your album but I like this song best of all”, and it was the song that I wrote. I have an orchestra there. It’s only 13 pieces but when I go back in April it’s going to be 18. This time I’ll have five strings. I think people will be glad to hear new music from Gloria Scott!


I’m optimistic. I think there’s a lot of good yet to come in terms of people appreciating your music.
I wish they’d hurry! (laughs) I’m 63-years old. I remember the last time I heard Ella Fitzgerald, she was in a wheelchair and she sounded better than ever. That was just before she passed. I feel that my voice has changed and it’s very natural for it to change. I don’t sound like I did in my twenties. I was told that my voice sounds more mature now and rich.


It’s beautiful music and it’s withstood the test of time.
I’m so glad people are interested. It makes me feel like it wasn’t a complete waste. What I’ve noticed about a lot of music is if it’s good, it will last. I’ve been over to Germany two times and each time I’ve gone, there were people that knew my music. They’re young people. I was really surprised. I had no idea. I figured nothing was happening but when all these people tell me way over in Europe that they’re still playing my music, it’s amazing. It’s too bad that I can’t get a lawyer to dig up some of my cash. I could use it right now.


Even though I didn’t get a hit off that album, I’m glad that I had the experience of recording it because it still gives me great joy just knowing that I recorded something so great and that people are still interested. I’m happy about that. Whatever happens to the music, it’s all good. It’s something that was meant to be. I’m still here! I’m still singing! I think it’s a great opportunity to go to Germany and sing these songs after almost 40 years. It’s a miracle and I’m glad to be a part of it. The people that listen to this music have high regard for what I did but my biggest dream is to record a new album


If you could have complete direction over any new recording project, what kind of album would you want to make?
I would like to do inspirational music. I would like to do some gospel as well as the blues. I would love to do the songs that I’ve written, that were written way back in the day when Barry first got interested in me. Those songs have yet to receive that special touch that Barry gave. I want that kind of attention on my songs.


For more information about Gloria Scott, visit www.gloriascottmusic.com.



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Tuesday, Mar 17, 2009
Death is Alive in 2009

This is the reason you always remain humble, if not entirely content in the knowledge of how little you actually know. Not only about all the great art we know is out there, (and can’t get around to acquiring all of); but the great art that is not out there, obscure, undiscovered, without a champion. Without a story.


The subject is Death, and here’s the story, from Sunday’s New York Times.


Wow. This is Bad Brains before Bad Brains, The Ramones before The Ramones. Punk before punk, as Mike Rubin opines in his excellent NYT article.


It is enough of a commentary to even name-check Bad Brains without embarassment (I say this as an intrepid advocate for that band), because their debut album inspired a whole slew of styles and imitation, sprouting like weeds through concrete. It is almost beyond belief that Bad Brains did what they did in the early ’80s; to think that Death (three brothers, literally and figuratively, from Detroit) was making proto-punk like this in the mid-’70s in almost utter obscurity is staggering, to say the least. 


It doesn’t get any better than this.


But it does: if the legend is true, rock impresario Clive Davis dug what he heard, but couldn’t get past the band’s name. Change it, and I’ll back you, he said. Fuck that, Death said. And the rest is, until now, three decades and change of unwritten (and almost unrecorded) history.


It gets better, still: this would be a wonderful story, a readymade movie even, regardless of the actual quality of the music. But check it out: the music is astonishing. As I say, to invoke Bad Brains would be ballsy, even gratuitous. Here’s the incredible thing: their song “Politicians in My Eyes” can stand alongside any of Bad Brains’ seminal early ’80s output. How is this possible? Don’t listen to me, listen to your ears: the ears never lie.


Here’s hoping Death lives in 2009, and cashes in some heavy and overdue karma to become the best story of the year: 1975 and now. Do what you have to do: MySpace.


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Monday, Mar 16, 2009
The second installment in my look at some of the most memorable performances from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program.

The Old Grey Whistle Test was a live music show that ran on the BBC from 1971 to 1987. The three DVD collections that have been released of Whistle Test are some of my favorite music DVDs, not just for showcasing amazing live (and the occasional mimed) performances by bands I love, but for introducing me to band’s I had yet to hear or had heard only a song or two from (usually the hits). The discs, for me, have been a treasure trove of musical discovery. Thanks to YouTube more performances from this seminal show have been made available and I’ve decided to start showcasing some of my favorites in a possible ongoing series of blog entries. Keep in mind these are just my own personal favorites and not necessarily the “best” or most important.


For five unfortunate years I worked in a factory making parts for airbags. After one particularly slow, grueling day I was driving home listening to the radio when a song came on that I didn’t know but was exactly what I wanted to hear at that moment. It was so mellow and relaxed, yet had a definite groove. I took note of the title and found out it was by someone named Al Stewart. The song was “Year of the Cat” and this performance on Whistle Test from 1978 is a great version of the song. From the wonderful piano intro on, the song takes it’s time as every instrument and every note gets room to breathe. I still know very little about Stewart, but I do know that “Year of the Cat” still has that calming effect on me every time I hear it.


The Only Ones are best known for the punk classic “Another Girl, Another Planet”, but that wasn’t their only great song. “No Peace for the Wicked” is a wonderful, shambling ode to pain and heartache with Peter Perrett’s distinctive voice asking “Why do I go through these deep emotional traumas?” before answering his own question… “I’m in love with extreme mental torture…”. Perfect.


Obviously with someone like Thomas Dolby, I knew “She Blinded Me With Science”, but it was through his performance of “Hyperactive”, included on volume two of the Whistle Test DVDs, that I realized he was more than a one-hit wonder. There could not be a more fitting song title for this frenzied funk jam. Shakers, trombone, synths, and a vocoder are all employed throughout along with the vocals of Adele Bertei who provides the track with an almost childlike innocence amidst all the frantic instrumentation. A joy to watch.


The third volume of the Whistle Test DVDs was my introduction to the underappreciated and often overlooked Prefab Sprout. Intricate guitar lines weave over top warm synths and tight, occasionally jazzy drumming with the male lead vocals/female backing vocals dynamic that may draw comparisons to the Dream Academy. Prefab Sprout are much more than that though and you only have to watch this magnificent performance of “When Loves Break Down” to see that. There’s a real gentleness here, like they’re trying to play as soft as they can without losing the sound completely, until, at the end, they do; fading out like someone is slowly turning the volume dial.



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Thursday, Mar 12, 2009

Several years ago I was a member of a very short-lived band, Sonic Boob. (Note: Band names have been changed to preserve the anomymity of the victims involved.) We made some great music together (a strange combination of soul, post-rock, and emo), but, ultimately, we went our separate ways, because our opinions were too disparate on one key issue: the Backstreet Boys.


For those of you that just landed on Earth, the Backstreet Boys were a pre-millenial boy band, a pop music enterprise whose main purpose was entertainment and commerical success—not to create meaningful, groundbreaking, or divisive art.


Given this information, naturally, the question that divided Sonic Boob was: could the Backstreet Boys produce good music?


In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that we were a band of music nerds, first and foremost, and so such questions seemed incredibly meaningful to us at the time. (Or perhaps that is already too clear.) At any rate, I fell on the side of the argument that thought the Backstreet Boys were capable of (and actually did produce some) good songs. Did I prefer to listen to these songs instead of, say, the works of Black Star, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, or Oswaldo Golijov? Certainly not. But, I also did not believe, as many of my bandmates did, that the Backstreet Boys’ apparent pandering to pre-pubescent youth was necessarily related to the group’s ability to perform/produce/create good music.


I supported my view with several alcohol-fueled points: 1) The Backstreet Boys utilized talented songwriters, producers, and arrangers who, while they surely wanted to make a buck, were musically-trained and have at least some artistic integrity. In most cases, the songwriting team and process is even insulated from the marketing machine for an album. 2) Extreme popularity and commercial success does not necessarily mean you suck. You can look at pop music as music of the masses. In other words, it’s a folk music (Intro to Anthropology, don’t fail me now). It doesn’t break new ground, sure, but it connects with people - -a whole lotta people—in a meaningful way and makes them feel. That counts for something—a variable or two in the complicated differential equation of good music. 3) A good song is a good song no matter how much you dress it up. (Please, no pig/lipstick metaphors.) AutoTune, synthesizers, and orchestral flourishes are nice, but they cannot cover up a crappy song. Similarly, they cannot make a bad song sound good. I mean, wasn’t the original Incredible Hulk TV show far superior to the recent CGI-saturated motion picture?


Here are my bandmates’ also alcohol-fueled rebuttal of my points: 1) The Backstreet Boys suck and so anyone who writes music for them also sucks. You certainly don’t need talent to write formulaic songs with a maximum of four chords and the most inane lyrics on Earth. 2) Economics and art do not make a tasty cocktail. They run counter to one another at nearly every step of the way. If you are worried about popularity and mass appeal, then you are at least unconsciously making decisions that compromise the artistic integrity of the music. Let’s say that as the songwriter for the Backstreet Boys, with your background in dodecaphony and atonal musical serialism, you are feeling a D diminished 13 chord as the next chord in the song you are writing for the group. Well, the audience certainly won’t stomach that kind of dissonance so, instead, you are forced to alter the artistic integrity of the song by plopping in a D minor triad—yet again. Over time, these compromises make music bland and boring—they make it suck. 3) A good song is a good song no matter how you dress it up. But in most popular music they successfully fool the masses into believing million-dollar production equates to a good song. Essentially, they make you believe the Hulk movie is way better than the original with its limited special effects. And the box office numbers don’t lie—they fooled most people.


In the end, Sonic Boob’s arguments were more interesting than our music and the band split. This brings me, in a most roundabout way, to my main point: Chris Cornell.


A brief, and albeit incredibly unscientific, survey of the growing body of (largely negative) criticism mounted at Cornell’s latest effort, Scream, a collaboration with pop-producing sensation Timbaland, shows, in essence, the debate I had with my bandmates lo those many years ago. Can a serious rock dude with major indie music street cred team up with a commercially-cognizant producer to make good music? Most critics have said “no.” In fact, the only reason I thought about a possible similarity between criticism of Scream and the debate within Sonic Boob was the extent to which critics have slammed Cornell for his apparent “change in direction.” What is significant, however, isn’t that critics dislike Scream. That’s certainly their job and what we love and expect from music criticism. What is significant is the way in which the critics have expressed their displeasure for Scream. This expression is what closely echoes my band’s disagreement.


Let me break it down: Many critics who dislike Scream seem to suggest that the album’s failings are related to Cornell’s desire for mass market appeal. As a result, these critics appear largely wary of the idea that good music can be birthed by artists aiming at commercial success. It’s not necessarily that these critics consciously believe that artists aiming for commercial appeal are incapable of producing good music. Rather it’s that their criticism of Scream is related to their belief that Cornell is aiming for mass market success. They believe, like my bandmates did, that this aim helps the music in some way to suck—at least a bit.


On the other side of the aisle are the handful of critics (myself included) that are at least somewhat fond of Scream. For the most part, they separate Cornell’s music from his potential desire for commercial success. As a result, they seem overtly open to the possibility that good music can come from artists with eye towards popular appeal.


(I am of course oversimplifying the issue, but I think it’s useful to do so in this case to show how differently people view the relationship between commercial appeal and artistic integrity.)


Of course there are plenty of critics who do not fit my rubric. But the question is still a relevant one, particularly in this age of growing commercialism, where your favorite song may just end up appearing in a Geico or iTunes advertisement. At least it was relevant to Sonic Boob.


Tagged as: chris cornell, scream
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Thursday, Mar 12, 2009
by PopMatters Staff
Miranda Lee Richards recently released her latest album Light of X via Nettwerk Records. The singer-songwriter checks in with 20 Questions

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Slumdog Millionaire. The Alchemist.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Santiago.


3. The greatest album, ever?
Parallel Lines, Led Zeppelin III.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars.


5. Your ideal brain food?
Salmon.


6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Arranging the strings on my album, Light of X. Because I had the wherewithal to stick with the task even though I wasn’t initially sure I had the ability. That’s always good for one’s self esteem! :)


7. You want to be remembered for…?
Being a great singer, songwriter, and musician.


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