Friday, June 4, 2010

In the Midst of War, Gushing Oil, and Chaos-- a Bud of Hope!

I was a kid in the 1970s and I'm afraid that my image of Lou Rawls was shaped by the beer ads that he did for Budweiser somewhere back there. I couldn’t stand those ads—and I hated them all the more because I knew there was something to like in the star.

But a week or so ago Bob Lohr clued me in on a record. It was a blues piano tutorial—too short.  He started with Johnny Johnson. He morphed into Otis Spann. He channeled Professor Longhair for just a moment, and Lafayette Leake touched the keys for a second or two. But then he revealed his favorite.

“Les McCann, on that first Lou Rawls blues album, the one with “Stormy Monday.”

It was one of those musical lessons you file away, without question.

(I remember watching Chuck Berry try to teach a piano player how to play “Wee Wee Hours” the Johnny Johnson way. Berry slid from an E to F to Gb to G. He gave up on the piano player eventually and turned to me, standing at the foot of the stage, thinking to myself: “Eureka! That’s it!” And he spoke to me. “You’re remembering someone, aren’t you?” I was just trying to make sure I remembered how to play that the next day.)

If someone else had mentioned Lou Rawls I would have stupidly thought: “Beer ads. Leisure suits. Boring.”

But when someone is channeling Lafayette Leake and Les McCann before your very ears you listen and learn. I’d heard McCann's name, but not necesarilly the music. And I knew that my brother Stevo, an original genius of musical genius recognition, had told me certain things. One was that Nat Cole, recognized as a singer, was one of the greatest jazz pianists. Another was that Lou Rawls was the real thing.

So the day after the piano séance, I went to my favorite record store and found Lou Rawls’ first album, “Stormy Monday.”


As the man says, “It goes to show you never can tell.”

Especially when you’re 17.

I mean—hell—some of us are pretty smart at 17. I found Chuck Berry and T-Bone Walker and Elmore James. Bob Lohr found blues and boogie piano. My daughter G. is not even 17 and she’s writing poetry.

But I never looked or listened beyond those beer ads until a few days ago— 37 years after 17.

Lou Rawls was a hell of a singer. And Les McCann played right on the jagged edge between jazz and blues, (if indeed there’s any difference at all).

That was Rawls' trick, too, if I can define his "trick" now after listening to one album (37 years hasn’t made me a whole lot smarter)-- he is right there at the edges, mixing blues, jazz and gospel.

In fact, the best of what we have always tends to be where the purities mix and meld and make something new. Chuck Berry mixes country and blues and bits of big band jazz. Otis Redding tears your heart out doing a "Tennessee Waltz" with a mixed race, Memphis, Tennessee soul band. Jazz men like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins do pure blues. Al Green sings Willie Nelson. Cassandra Wilson does The Monkees AND Robert Johnson. Sharon Jones sings Woody Guthrie.

And Lou Rawls—I’m glad now he got his beer money, because damn! He deserved it.

Another gift. Not smarter than I was at 15 or 17, but in the midst of oil spills, war and chaos I continue to learn more about the good parts of the world, and that may be all that matters.

(He is sort of cool, isn't he?  But if you’re as ignorant as I was about Lou Rawls and Les McCann, and if this is allllll you know, you can rectify that by listening to bits and pieces of the "Stormy Monday" album  HERE.  This one's for you, Lou.)

(You're the bes, Les.)

(Tell us more, Lohr.)


Jake said...

I love the new Guinness "fortune favors the bold" ads. They're very clever.
You should check them out.

Robert said...

...early Lou Rawls (pre-Gamble & Huff)on Capitol is almost uniformly excellent, especially the live records...also like "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing", one of his early hits. My fave Lou Rawls is "Stormy Monday" with Les McCann, who is easily one of the baddest piano players of all time regardless of genre labels. If you want the template for uptown/sophisticated blues/jazz/gospel piano, this is it. Les' work with Eddie Harris is also killer...check out "Swiss Movement" with Les' big hit "Compared to What"...