Etta James famously remarked, “When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life.” And her life was blue in many ways—she had troubles with drugs and men; she never knew her dad. But the greatest tragedy of James’ life was probably her interactions with the music industry, which rarely gave her the outlet she deserved. James came up with the help of Johnny Otis, who also died last week. He gave the woman born Jamesetta Hawkins her stage name and helped her get her first recording contract with Modern Records. But it was her second contract, with Chicago’s famous Chess Records, that catapulted her to fame. Her debut album at Chess, At Last!, contained a number of hits: the famous title track, of course, but even better were the smooth, mournful rendition of “Stormy Weather” and the yearning “A Sunday Kind of Love”.
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Upon learning that R.E.M. announced it was disbanding yesterday, my reaction was a mixture of dull acceptance and a steadily increasing, wistful sadness. Although the landmark, three-decade-old alternative rock group has somewhat stealthily become one of my favorite bands over the last decade (one day you’re walking around your apartment and you realize you own four out of the first five full-lengths and a best-of, and then decide it’s time to get more), after 30 years and its best work long behind it, the end of R.E.M. is an eventuality that would’ve been coming sooner than later. Judging from the information currently available, the breakup was amicable, which at least allows the band to be put to rest on a peaceful note.
Instead of laboriously laying out in meticulous detail what R.E.M. (first as a quartet, then continuing as a trio of singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills ever since drummer Bill Berry retired in 1997) has accomplished and what it has meant to music, I’ll give you the quick hits. R.E.M. was not the first alternative rock band—there really was no such thing, as the genre’s messy birth out of punk and post-punk landscapes resulted in simultaneous, like-minded strains that would meld together to form the basis of a broad style—but it might as well have been. In the early 1980s, the (then) quartet’s ringing Rickenbacker guitar jangle, intertwined yet arching harmonies, and obtuse lyrics and artwork were a refreshing contrast to punk’s straightforward anger, New Wave’s slick kitsch, post-punk’s dour demystification, and hard rock’s feel-good macho swagger—and a definite portent of things to come.
From day one, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson had the real thing. No matter the era or style of music, the compositions of Ashford and Simpson were porous with emotional acuity. Whether “I’m Not That Tough”, “Is It Still Good to Ya”, or “Gimmie Something Real”, their voices illuminated the kind of intimacies that only lovers share in private moments. As the primary lyricist in a songwriting partnership that’s spun nearly 50 years, Ashford plumbed the depths of the human heart. The circle to that decades-long partnership closed when Nickolas Ashford—a poet of exceptional insight and perspicacity—passed away on 22 August 2011.
Upon meeting at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church in 1964, Ashford & Simpson cultivated a synergy that bred one of the most enduring and successful catalogs of songs in the history of popular music. They first debuted as “Valerie and Nick” that same year, selling a series of sides to the Glover label for a mere $75. (“We were pretty excited that we could make $75 just by sitting down and writing songs,” Simpson recounted to Ebony magazine in 1979.) As songwriters, their melodies graced the rosters of Scepter/Wand, Vee Jay, and ABC, where Ray Charles earned the duo their first pop hit with his recording of “Let’s Go Get Stoned” in 1966. Soon after, Ashford recorded a number of solo singles for Verve Records, including “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “California Soul”. The latter song was later popularized by artists ranging from The 5th Dimension to Marlena Shaw to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
I can still remember the first time I heard Amy Winehouse sing. She was sound-checking for a TV show I was producing for Channel 4 in the UK, and it was to be her debut appearance. There she was: no make-up, wearing sloppy oversized white t-shirt and black-leggings, absentmindedly strumming a Fender guitar put through a tiny amp in a television studio while lighting engineers and floor-staff hustled around preparing for what would be that night’s filming. And because she was (a) unknown at that stage, and (b) demure, no one had even noticed her walk out onto the floor. There’d been no entourage, no drama; just little Amy Winehouse, shy as you like.
But then, seemingly without effort, she closed her eyes, tilted her head to one side and rolled out the opening line of what was to be her first single, “Stronger Than Me”. And I kid you not, everyone—and everything—just stopped, in sheer disbelief. The entire studio-floor, the control room—all the clanking and banging and cursing you get on set. Zip. And the craziest thing was she didn’t even look like she was trying. In that moment, I knew what people in books meant when they tried to explain hearing Elvis Presley or Mahalia Jackson or Marvin Gaye sing in chapel or around the place. Because some rare souls, it seems, are born blessed with the kind of voice to make you believe.
This past February, the chitlin circuit became a little less funky when one of its greatest performers died following complications from pneumonia. Marvin Sease, a native of Blackville, South Carolina, was 64 years old and only eight days short of his 65th birthday when he passed. He was originally a gospel singer and as is the case with many southern gospel singers, he made his way into secular R&B music. In 1986, Marvin Sease released his self-titled album which included the tune that would become his trademark for the remainder of his days, “Candy Licker”.
From that point on, Marvin Sease built a career and a cult following based on his racy and raunchy songs. He never saw even a portion of the mainstream success that some of his peers did. Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis, and to a lesser extent, Bobby Rush all come to mind. Perhaps that’s something to be expected here though. With songs like “The Power of Coochie”, “Rather Be Licked”, “The Bitch Git It All”, and “I Ate The Whole Thang”, chances of getting radio play would have to be slim to none.