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Music

Elisabeth Withers: It Can Happen to Anyone

Dear Oprah, I know you're busy. But you should start a music club. And I know which CD you should select first.


Elisabeth Withers

It Can Happen to Anyone

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2007-01-30
UK Release Date: Available as import
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What if, in addition to hosting her book club, Oprah Winfrey started a music club? Picture it: Ms. Winfrey leading roundtable discussions with her posse (Gayle King, Dr. Maya Angelou, Dr. Phil, and any reviewer from PopMatters), sipping coffee and tea and listening to tracks from the Selection of the Month, which would open the door to cheerful musings about life and music and the intersections of the two.

Each club pick would of course wear the Oprah Music Club seal of approval prominently and proudly. That darling seal, and the weight it would carry, would quickly separate platinum artists from the bands that brick, and prompt all those 400-CDs-for-a-nickel music clubs to call it quits.

Each club pick would be featured in O Magazine, with photo spreads of Ms. Winfrey interacting with the music, like posing with the CD or jogging to it or eating gourmet food to it (the caption will explain that the music's playing in the background).

I know what you're thinking -- an Oprah Music Club could either be very good or very, very bad -- there's no in-between. But it's not like I'm the first to make the suggestion. The idea for Ms. Winfrey to use "the Oprah Effect" for the good of music has been floating around since at least 2004. Hey, who knows, the Oprah Music Club (are you down with O.M.C?) might be an easy way to squash one of the most bizarre, alternate universe beefs of all time -- The Rappers vs. Oprah. Ms. Winfrey would then have a reason to invite rappers to her show, or her after show, and she could ask them the hard hitting questions her audience has been so desperately awaiting answers to ("Is 'jiggy' always spelled with a 'y' or can you use an 'i-e' combination?") and that would be that. Otherwise, I guess we'll have to get all the parties together on Maury to settle this thing (although Maury's solution is likely to be a paternity test).

I can name the CD that should be the club's first pick: It Can Happen to Anyone by Elisabeth Withers (the CD was featured in the "O-Zone" section of O Magazine's February issue). Of course, you might argue that Ms. Winfrey, along with Quincy Jones, already picked Ms. Withers (sometimes credited as Mrs. Withers-Mendes) when they cast her as Shug Avery in the Broadway version of Alice Walker's A Color Purple. She earned a Tony Award for that performance.

Although It Can Happen to Anyone is Elisabeth Withers's debut for Blue Note, she's no stranger to the music biz. After graduating from Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, Ms. Withers distinguished her vocal skills as a backup singer, then showcased her songwriting abilities, under the pseudonym Elle Patrice, as co-writer of the dance tunes "Rising" and "Emotions". As a performer, she has shared the stage with Luther Vandross, Mary J. Blige, Brenda Russell, and Cher.

This year, she's rocking on the solo tip, with a solid solo album to promote. As such, It Can Happen to Anyone has two major assets, both of which are necessary to the album's appeal.

Asset #1: The Voice

There's a difference between being able to hold a note ("Oh, yeah, she sounds nice"), being able to sing ("She sure can sing"), and being able to really throw down on the vocals ("Whoa, that woman can SANG!" -- that's right, past tense sang). Ms. Withers's voice is phenomenal, rich yet versatile, robust yet capable of communicating the subtleties of emotion. Do you really wanna know how good her voice is? Here's the obligatory comparison: her voice is part Angie Stone and part Gladys Knight, with a hint of Karyn White and a smidgeon of Blu Cantrell.

Ms. Withers's ability to adapt her voice to slow, soulful R&B (as on "Simple Things" and "Heartstrings"), as well as joyous party jams (like "Get Your Shoes On" and "Sweat"), makes her presentation a treat. When the record stops spinning, you're left feeling like she could sing her grocery list, name it "I Ain't Got No Milk Blues", and you'd be clapping your hands or nodding your head to it.

Asset #2: Avoiding Clichés

The greatest voice in the world won't mask well-worn themes and hackneyed lyrics. That's not to say musical clichés automatically make for "bad" songs -- they don't. If that were the case, imagine all the songs we'd have to toss into the "Unlistenable" category for containing one "You did me wrong" or "My heart belongs to you" too many. It Can Happen To Anyone's avoidance of clichés makes this 11-song spread of love, partying, and self-confidence a lot fresher than you'd expect.

Consider "Listen", a funky analysis of a love disconnection ("Maybe it's what I wanted to hear and what you did not say / That got us started on the wrong foot today"). There are plenty of songs that pinpoint relationship woes, whether it's the lack of trust and fidelity in Toni Braxton's "Love Shoulda Brought You Home Last Night" (or, actually, a big chunk of Ms. Braxton's catalogue) or the need for R-E-S-P-E-C-T we most often associate with Aretha Franklin. "Listen" approaches the problem by going inward. The speaker of the song challenges herself to become a better listener instead of placing all the blame on her partner's shortcomings ("If I bite my tongue next time / Before things get out of hand / Think twice before I say a word / I know you'll misunderstand").

Another example is "Be With You", a soft, rhythmic romp adorned with the swirling sounds of the 80s. The lady in the song wants to be sexy and hopes to fulfill her lover's fantasies, along the lines of En Vogue's seduction in "Givin' Him Something He Can Feel" and the intensity of Prince's "Scandalous" ("Tonight is gonna be scandalous / 'cause tonight I want to be your fantasy"). The twist here is the nature of the fantasy, which involves role-playing, as she sings, "Tonight I'm gonna be every woman in your fantasy" -- see, that's not quite the "every woman" Chaka Khan had in mind way back when. Withers also coos, "What's on your mind, what turns you on, 'cause baby it's okay / You know I love you and tonight we're gonna play".

Earlier in the song, the lead voice asserts that she's not concerned about being out on the town and having her partner notice an attractive woman; she's confident enough to embrace those moments and transform them into a romantic game. Thematically, in terms of satisfying another's wants or needs, it reminds me of "Cater 2 U" by Destiny's Child, yet "Be With You" tweaks the fantasy paradigm and, in the process, straddles the line between spicing things up in the romance department and sacrificing oneself to satisfy someone else's desires. Personally, I don't think the song crosses that line, but then again, as a male listener, I wonder if I'm biased in this regard. If a sista told me she wanted to pretend to be my Gabrielle Union, I'm almost positive I'd be telling everybody we were soul mates.

Finally, "The World Ain't Ready" personalizes the Be Yourself mantra of songs like Mariah Carey's "Hero" ("And you'll finally see the truth / that a hero lies in you") and "The Greatest Love of All" (I like George Benson's version best). Over the song's dancehall rhythm, the first verse tells the story of a cross dresser ("She had the mind of a woman and the body of a man") who struggles with being accepted while dancing as a woman at the clubs in a sort of free spirited, liberating Flashdance ritual. Meanwhile, the second verse details a young lady's conflict with her father over her attraction to other females. Daddy's disapproval is far from veiled as he tries to influence his daughter's "morals" by buying her "pretty dresses instead of baseball caps". The daughter grows up wanting, and perhaps even needing, to appease him and make him proud, so she marries a man, all the while feeling rotten because she believes she has deceived everyone she cares about. Now that's heavy. I'm only unsure of one thing: whether the tales would be more effective in first person, with the lead voice singing from a vantage point within the conflict, rather than being sung in the third person omniscient view. Queen Latifah used the first-person persona brilliantly in "U.N.I.T.Y.", especially in the second verse's depiction of domestic violence.

As for the album itself, there aren't many flaws. My most tedious nitpick is that the party numbers "Get Your Shoes On" and "Sweat" are too short at around 3 minutes. My biggest critique would be the remake of "Wind Beneath My Wings". Frankly, I just don't care for the song -- it has always irritated me to no end -- but, aside from that, I think it disrupts the album's momentum. It's nicely arranged, with a church-like quality that's endearing, but it struck me as tired and overused on an album that mainly avoids such pitfalls. What's more, most of the songs were written by Ms. Withers anyway, which makes the inclusion of the remake a little unnecessary, in my opinion. But, hey, that's what the "skip" button is for.

Overall, It Can Happen to Anyone is explores a range of sounds and emotions. If you like R&B, you'll definitely want to give this disc a listen.

7

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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