Saturday, September 18, 2010

It's a Family Affair

My Chuck Berry story began with my brother Stevo, who used to talk about Chuck Berry before I ever actually saw the man. Check the earliest posts.

But I come from a big family.

On the road today I was playing Otis Redding’s “Complete and Unbelievable Dictionary of Soul.” My brother Paul brought it into our house when I was 12 or 13 years old. It is one of the best, sweetest albums ever made, held beneath one of the best record covers ever printed. (I have one framed in my downstairs bathroom.) Otis wears a red jacket, vest and graduation cap. He’s leaning against the oversized Green “dictionary.” The words “My My My” line the bottom. The music is mostly country soul music, with ATCO horns, and thudding, wet drums, organ, guitar, and piano, and Otis Redding’s incomparable voice. I played that record at least a hundred times during Paul’s visit, then found a copy of my own for $2.54. Now I play the CD. I can’t get tired of it. My favorite song is “The Tennessee Waltz” turned soul masterpiece—“That Cotton! Pickin! Tenne! Tennessee Waltz.” But my favorite moment on the record is the climax of “Try A Little Tenderness,” when Redding moves beyond words to a series of barked syllables: “Na!Na!Na! Ah! Try a little tenderness…!” If I could sing like Otis Redding on “The Complete and Unbelievable Dictionary of Soul,” I think I could die happy, even at the age he unfortunately died, because I’d know I’d done something perfect.”

Paul is the oldest. My sister Rooney comes next. She introduced me to someone I’ll introduce to you. His name is Jerry Riopelle. This is a good tip I’m giving you, because Jerry Riopelle is one of the best well kept secrets in rock and roll. Especially, I think, his first three albums. And you can get them now, on a boxed set, along with everything else he’s ever recorded. Quite a deal. Riopelle is a star in some towns. Phoenix is one. And he made records for other people that you might know—at least as a Chevrolet ad. (“Day after day, the whole place shaking away!”) But my favorite stuff is what he recorded under his own name. If you don’t want the boxed set, you can find vinyl on eBay.

Maggie comes next. She took us to Tower Records and bought Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” I was skeptical—some young guy in a leather jacket. Then I heard it—a record that belongs just below “The Complete and Unbelievable Dictionary of Soul.” (The world became a sadder place when it started getting rid of real horns, drums, guitars and bass.) Where Otis was rough and big, Al is smooth and sweet, but with just as much religion.

Then comes Danny. He went to an outdoor rock festival in 1968 and came home talking about a screaming blues singer. Then he found the album—Taj Mahal, with Taj seated in front of a broken down mansion, plucking a National steel guitar. I didn’t know it then, but it is a “Complete and Unbelievable Dictionary of the Blues,” with Elmore here, and Muddy there, Sonny Boy II in the middle, all sung in the voice of Howlin' Wolf, played by a wonderful band—Ry Cooder, Bill Boatman, James Thomas, Chuck Blackwell, and one of my favorites, guitarist Jesse Edwin Davis. It’s a great record. So are all the others that Taj Mahal has made over the years. He’s my translator of the blues—a man who takes ancient wisdom and puts it into modern tunings that I can sometimes figure out. God bless him.   (Amazing postscript:  Bob Lohr told me that, while searching for a sound for a NEW RECORDING, the man some of us call our favorite singer/songwriter/guitarist/entertainer referenced one of the songs on this classic disk.)  It's been reissued on CD without the stick on ducks and geese that irritated Taj, (but which some young hippie children sort of liked!)

Then Ann. She brought “The Harder They Come” to my house on my birthday in 1974. This was a true revelation— Jimmy Cliff singing sweetly, Toots of the Maytals sounding like a Jamaican Otis, one song, “Draw Your Brakes” sung in a patois I still don’t come close to understanding, but all of it magic—the music of an island that had suddenly found itself in music, the way specific locations sometimes do—(Chicago in the 1950s, Detroit and Mussel Shoals and Liverpool in the 1960s, San Francisco a little later, even Seattle in the late 1980s.) “Sitting in Limbo” and “Johnny Too Bad” will always be among my favorite songs.   (Once, at a wonderful show at Seattle's Paramount, Cliff asked for requests.  There was a tiny, fortunate lull when I raised my voice to yell "Sitting in Limbo."  And lo!  He played it.)

No comments: