Friday, January 27, 2012

Rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, and funk: A trio of musical Deceased Artistes

The old adage about celebrities “dying in threes” means that sometimes actors are jammed in with authors, singers with filmmakers, and TV stars with composers. In the past month, three musical legends died in short succession. Two of them knew each other well (in fact one discovered the other), and the third individual was connected to them in terms of musical stylings, and the fact that he too was a soulful, effortlessly funky musician. (Some might argue that he wasn’t up to the standard of the other two musically, but I’ll offer evidence to the contrary below.)

Etta James was the last chronologically to depart (she died on January 20th, the next two gents left on the 17th). She is remembered primarily for “At Last,” an incredibly romantic song that has indeed been played to death over the past few years. She had a number of big hits, but that was her signature song, and much was made of the fact that when it was sung at Pres. Obama’s inaugural ball, the singer chosen was the pretty but utterly soul-less Beyonce. (Anytime you stack her up against the true r&b singers of the past and present, you find she’s… really, really pretty. And dances well too!)

James had some big battles in her life — against the music business’s treatment of “girl singers,” against drugs, and finally against leukemia and dementia. Those battles informed her absolutely gorgeous ballad singing. But first there was rock ’n’ roll.

The above song was “dirty’ in its day, so dirty that its title had to be changed from “Roll With Me, Henry” to “The Wallflower” (which is some kinda brilliant joke on someone’s part). The song was an “answer song” to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie,” and was cowritten by Etta and Johnny Otis — but more on him in a minute. First, another sample of Etta rocking it out back when it really mattered, with the terrific “Good Rockin’ Daddy” and “Shortnin’ Bread Rock.” Never has the phrase “you better see that I’m well-fed” had less to do with food.

There is a dearth of live footage of Etta in her prime online. This terrific clip, which appears to be from the mid-Sixties, gives an indication of how electric she was. This woman did not fuck around:

We do have an ample amount of clips from her later career, especially of her dueting with other artists. The weirdest one has to be The Grateful Dead, the most appropriate is Chuck Berry (whose competitive streak comes out throughout this performance — he can’t stop “responding” to Etta’s vocals, and even does the duck-walk to draw attention away from her):

One of her other killer rock/r&b tunes, “Tell Mama,” also eclipses the hell out of the gorgeous but way-too-slick “At Last” for me. Her other indelible signature song was the heartache standard “I’d Rather Go Blind”:

Etta knew true emotion in music — her only cover album was a tribute to Billie Holiday. Here is one of the prettiest of what Sinatra used to call “saloon songs”:

She had impeccable and interesting choices in covers over the years. She did a great version of Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed,” and in the early Seventies delivered gorgeous versions of three Randy Newman songs — the sexy “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” the emotion-riddled “Sail Away,” and Randy’s incredible ode to an uncaring deity, “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).” This is perhaps the most perfect version of this atheist’s ode, sung in beautiful gospel tones:


Etta’s initial mentor in the biz also died this past month, on the 17th. Johnny Otis was a 100% r&b/rock ’n’ roll legend whose obits made much of his many identities: musician, bandleader, songwriter, mentor, and DJ (for four decades!). Later in his career he left show biz for a while and served as a minister. Throughout his life he remained an activist for political causes and also had a deep interest in organic farming (!).

So there was all that feverish activity in his life, but the most interesting item about Otis was that he considered himself black but was in fact born a Greek-American. Brought up in an African-American section of Berkeley, he felt more at home among blacks, and assumed that identity (from Ioannis Veliotes to Johnny Otis) for good when he became a musician. He started as a jazz drummer and quickly became a bandleader. His biggest hit during this period was the haunting “Harlem Nocturne”:

Take in the raunchy sounding “The Midnight Creeper” and you’ll hear where his head was at in the Fifties. He was part of the wave of r&b acts who created what we know of as rock ’n’ roll — please listen to this scratchy old recording of “Rock Me Baby,” and you’ll know (as with Etta and her “rolling” with Henry) that r’n’r wasn’t intended to be background music for fucking, it was ABOUT fucking.

But that was hard to sell on AM radio, so more polite metaphors were necessary. Hence Otis’ biggest hit, with a riff taken off of Bo Diddley, “Wille and the Hand Jive.” Here a troupe of Broadway dancers show us that rock is safe for white people (while Johnny produces an “earworm” hook like no other):

Johnny’s other identity in the early years of rock was as the man who discovered a raft of major talents, including Etta James, Little Richard, Hank Ballard, Big Mama Thornton, and Jackie Wilson. While he was doing that, he also found time to release killer singles like “the Hash”:

Otis was a versatile musician who picked up on a bunch of genres, including Latin music (which we’ll get back to with our third Deceased Artiste), as in his sequel to “Hand Jive,” “Willie did the Cha-Cha.” He didn’t remain stagnant as the years went by, and the music made by his band, wonderfully called “The Johnny Otis Show,” moved with the times. Check out this awesomely funky number that posits a dance that probably never existed outside of Johnny’s vivid musical imagination:

And drink in this bluesy jazz tune, named, well… just listen…. (Barbara Morrison supplies the terrific vocal):

The singer on the “Watts Breakaway” above, Delmar Evans, joined Johnny and his virtuoso rock guitarist son Shuggie Otis for an album credited to “Snatch and the Poontangs” that contained some wonderfully dirty novelty music, including this old chestnut performed by many other artists including “Dolemite" himself, Rudy Ray Moore:

Although Mr. Otis was a man of God, and by all accounts an extremely moral individual, there is no other word to use to accurately describe his brand of raw rock ‘n’ roll than “raunchy.” In closing, I pass you “Low Down Dirty Dog Blues”:


The third member of this troika didn’t ever work with the first two, but his music overlapped with theirs, especially Otis’s, in its emphasis on soul, Latin, and funk. Jimmy Castor was a NYC boy (who grew up, according to which obit you read, in either the Bronx or the Sugar Hill section of Harlem) who first established himself in a doo-wop group called Jimmy and the Juniors. He wrote a song, “I Promise to Remember,” that became a hit for his friend Frankie Lymon.

He continued on a saxophonist and percussionist until his first hit in 1966, the Latin-inflected “Hey Leroy, Your Mama’s Callin’ You” (you don’t get many excellent direct-address titles in music).

Castor’s percussion work drives tracks from that time like “Southern Fried Frijoles” and his cover of Joe Cuba’s fucking awesome “Bang Bang” (go away, Donna Summer witcha “bad girls”).

Castor’s lyrics were always, how shall I put it, silly, but sublimely silly. Here he is in 1973 performing a medley of “Hey Leroy” (watch him kick ass on the timbales!) and the sequel-tune — yes, this is the full title — “Say Leroy (the Creature from the Black Lagoon is your father).”

Castor’s music was terrific and his lyrics were, yeah, pretty bizarre. Being a fan of novelty records, I love them to pieces, though, particularly because of their mix of funky music and nonsense lyrics. In 1972, he had his biggest hit with “Troglodyte (Cave Man),” which introduced the immortal refrain, “Gotta find a woman, gotta find a woman…”

And the equally immortal sequel, the “Bertha Butt Boogie”

As the Seventies continued, disco eclipsed funk and Castor was right in line with the dance beats of the time, as in the trippy and relentless instrumental “Psych Out.” His music was heavily sampled in later years by rap artists, and he set a precedent for other recording artists by suing the Beastie Boys for using a sample out of his “Return of Leroy” without credit or remuneration (he made a settlement, and later claimed he had pursued it not for the dough, but for the principle of the thing). One of his most “utilized” tunes, funky as all hell (minus the novelty lyrics), was “It’s Just Begun”:

My favorite piece of odd trivia about Castor is that he filled his albums with renditions of songs you wouldn't figure he'd cover. During his Latin period he covered "Winchester Cathedral," later on (during the funky era) it was Elton John's "Daniel" (lounge-y!), on another LP it was "Stairway to Heaven," and on one of his later disco-funk recordings he for some damned reason had a cover of "You Light Up My Life."

Since I do really love novelty records, let me close out with two of Jimmy’s silliest, his ode to the one and only Dracula:

And my favorite of all his songs, a tune that burned itself into my brain a quarter of a century or so ago. All bow down before “King Kong!” Here Jimmy performs the song’s opening verse live:

But here is the full version of the song with my favorite verse: “He didn’t dance or party/he spoke at times but hardly/One woman heard his love call/but he was too big and too tall.” Jimmy, we’re gonna miss you, Kamasami!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ken Russell on “the Richard Lester style” and Spike Milligan

I’m editing the last half of my 2008 interview with the late Ken Russell for upcoming Deceased Artiste episodes of the Funhouse TV show, and thought I’d share the clip embedded below. By way of explanation, a program of Russell’s early homemade shorts and some of his later oddities (including a screen test he shot for Twiggy) played at the Thalia Soho in the late Eighties. (The theater, now known as the Soho Playhouse, was indeed where I was interviewing Russell, whose only theatrical production, Mindgame, was mounted there.)

Among the offerings was “Portrait of a Goon,” a short that Russell made in 1959 for the TV show Monitor. The film is currently locked away from public view on the academics-only BFI site.

Chronicling a day in the life of the mighty Spike Milligan, the short surprised me because it included quick cuts, odd camera angles, and other aspects of what we now call “the Richard Lester style.” Lester famously directed Milligan and Peter Sellers in “The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film” (1960). The story goes that, when Lester was hired to direct A Hard Day’s Night, Goon-fan John Lennon was very impressed with this prior credit of Lester’s.

Watching the Russell short I began to think that, while Russell was certainly using that style a year before Lester, that perhaps its true source was neither “Unkle Ken” nor Richard L., but Spike himself. Although he never directed a film, Milligan’s work on The Goon Show on radio and in plays like The Bed Sitting Room (later, of course, adapted for film by Lester) indicated his love of momentum and jumping from situation to situation.

Whatever the case may be, two things remain inarguable:
—Richard Lester is an incredibly talented filmmaker (as was Russell, who at his best was a visionary)
—he was basing his style in part on the rhythms of silent comedy and the jump cuts introduced by Godard in A Bout de Souffle.

But, when one sees Russell’s “Goon” short, one realizes that Spike was indeed the *other* auteur behind the style that, after A Hard Day’s Night, became the standard way to edit rock music on film — and in commercials, and music videos, and…..

NOTE: To see the style pass down to a bunch of folks who would *never* credit the Spike, check out the first season of Laugh-In, which included blatant visual rips from "The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film." (Hey, if they could rob from Ernie Kovacs, why not Lester/Milligan also?)

New York, “Nu Yawk”: Deceased Artiste Lynn Samuels

The best radio personalities hold a very special place in our hearts, despite the fact that we have never met them in person and are very unlikely to do so (unless you’re plotting a Play Misty for Me stalking campaign). Lynn Samuels, who died this past Xmas Eve at 69, had an ultimate “Nu Yawk” voice and was one of the most unconventional presences ever in the world of talk radio.

Lynn had an incredibly unique trajectory as a radio call-in host. In a few short years, she moved from a no-pay position at the legendary local Pacifica station in NYC, WBAI-FM, to being on the central talk-radio station in the Tri-State area, WABC-AM. And she did so with a voice that was, to put it kindly, “untrained” — you either enjoyed its nasal, often shrill, tonality, or you had to turn the dial.

When I first heard Lynn on WBAI in the early Eighties, I thought she sounded like Julie Kavner in her Rhoda incarnation. I very quickly got used to her voice because I enjoyed the content of her show which, more often than not, consisted of interviews with local folkies and comedians, calls from people who were further-out neurosis-wise than she, and a copious amount of Lynn complaining about something or other for minutes on end.

Lynn was from my home borough of Queens (no obit stated which part), and she fucking LOVED to complain. These complaints could range from the political (bellicose foreign policy) to local (reporting the dismal state of MTA service in NYC) to extremely personal (petty accounts of being pissed off by someone she passed on the street).

The degree and depth of her complaining was nothing short of miraculous, and that is why I kept on listening. The true appeal of media curmudgeons is that they make listeners feel content about their own life — Lynn often seemed to be mad at the world and everyone in it.

She started out on radio as an ardent Leftist and developed into a Right-wing contrarian. Thus, she developed a hearty loathing for Obama during the 2008 elections, claiming he was an “empty suit” and wasn’t a true progressive. I’ll go with her on the latter, but how did Lynn choose to attack him once he became president? By contesting the status of his birth certificate, thus placing her firmly in the crackpot category and obscuring what might have been genuine objections to his policies and time-wasting quest for “bipartisanship.”

So how could I and many, many other listeners be so addicted to a radio show hosted by a person with an abrasive voice whose political opinions got more and more jaded as time went on? Well, as was the case with George Carlin, Lynn was a disappointed idealist who sounded incredibly bitter when discussing politics, but could still revel in the simple pleasures that delighted her no end. As much time as she spent complaining that “we’re all fucked!” (and I will give her that one), was as much time as she took to discuss things she really loved.

In her WBAI days, I remember her keeping us apprised of the activities of various local folk-rockers, including Mark Johnson and the Wild Alligators, who supplied the theme song for her show “Part of the Act” (“everything is the same old thing/it’s all part of the act/it’s analogous to the fact/that it all comes back/to the same thing…”).

In later years, she would spend entire segments (on NYC’s biggest talk-radio station!) discussing things she’d found on sale, or a trash TV show that she was addicted to (man, did she love crap TV), or just flashing back to one of her earlier obsessions. I remember fondly a fangirl-ish interview she conducted with Julius La Rosa, whom she had idealized as a teen.

She truly loved and hated in equal measures, and what you heard on the radio was the real Lynn, for better or worse. Her friends confirmed this on the radio tributes to her that aired after her death. They also talked about another aspect of her career that made her one of the most unique talk-radio hosts ever: the fact that she had “day jobs” not before but *during* her mainstream radio career.

I remember her announcing on WBAI that she hawked newspapers on the corner of 57th St. and Fifth Ave. At least twice I made sure, when going to the Doubleday’s on Fifth between 56th and 57th, to walk up a block and hear her very distinct “Nu Yawk” voice hollering out a headline about Reagan (the paper was The New York Post).

Walter Sabo (right) has posted a wonderful article about how he recruited Lynn for her first paying gig in radio on Saturday afternoons on WOR. Going from no-pay WBAI to a mainstream station in one of the biggest markets in the country was a quantum leap, and an incredibly rare one. (To illustrate: the latest “new talent” announced for local talk-radio is Geraldo Rivera, whose career in TV news and “shock” daytime TV-talk is now apparently over.)

The WOR slot on Saturdays didn’t vault Lynn into the spotlight, but it did help her score her next, seminal job at WABC-AM five mornings a week doing lead-in for “the new guy,” Rush Limbaugh. Lynn was an incredibly odd presence on mainstream radio, and especially at ABC, because the station was slanted to the right.

At that time, she held to her Lefty beliefs, which were always colored by her own odd take on the issues. Here is a great fan-made compilation of moments from Lynn’s first months on WABC. The clip stats out with a rare TV interview with Lynn and her then-colleagues Grant and Barry Farber:

Lynn rarely argued issues on hard facts or logic. She responded viscerally, and her voice rose to a wild shriek at times when she was outraged. This reached a crescendo in 1990 when she was memorably paired with Farber (pictured) for two days. I remember those shows fondly as the most fucking abrasive radio I’ve ever heard. My memory was that Lynn was incredibly shrill during that pair of shows, but the sole fragment that has surfaced indicates that Farber was equally obnoxious — this was a team made in Radio Hell. Lynn’s behavior got her fired from WABC for the first time (she was dismissed on three separate occasions).

After the Farber debacle, Lynn ended up making ends meet by taking a job at a laundromat, where she made change and assigned the dryers to the customers. The fact that she went from a five-day-a-week mainstream talk-radio job to an hourly-wage position, and then came back to mainstream radio (she was rehired at WABC by John Mainelli, the guy who had hired her in the first place, but had left in the interim), makes her very unusual indeed in the world of entertainment.

Lynn’s career got more unusual: after her third firing from WABC in 2002, her WOR patron, Walter Sabo, got her a five-day-a-week gig at the Sirirus satellite “Left channel” in 2003. In 2011, after her politics had taken a sharp turn to the Right, or Libertarianism (or whatever the hell it was), she lost her slot on the Left channel and was reduced to two weekend morning slots.

At that point, according to one of the tributes, she once again took up a job at a laundry (this time in the West Village); this is disputed by her webmaster, who said it was never mentioned by her on-air (and, again, it's not the kind of thing she would've hidden from her listeners), and she never mentioned it to him. From what I could discern from her final shows, she deferred taking Social Security until she was 70, so she could receive the maximum amount — that’s a bet the government always wins, because in many cases (as happened to Lynn), you kick off before you’re eligible.

During her stints at WABC, she developed the habit of cultivating friendships with Right-wing hosts and alienating the Left-wing ones. She got along famously with the uber-right-wing and genuinely nasty talk-radio NYC legend Bob Grant, and also befriended Limbaugh — who, according to Lynn, did offer her some job leads when ABC fired her, so that was indeed a good enough reason for her to like him, even though he remains a foully pompous broadcaster.

I lost track of Lynn after she was booted from ABC in 2002 because, despite my love of radio, I can’t justify paying over 100 dollars a year for satellite (read: the stuff you used to hear for free, now “niched,” a la cable television). I did look at her website several times a week, because she created a valuable news round-up, providing click-throughs to a shitload of interesting articles from both mainstream and partisan (Left and Right) websites.

Upon her death, thanks to one very generous blogger, who posted a number of her last Sirirus shows, and her webmaster Billy Masters, who posted not just one but two terrific podcasts (the first-linked offers the best cross-section of Sirius clips), I was able to “catch up” with Lynn.

What I heard was by turns jaw-dropping and touching. Her voice had that same “Qweenz” combination of nasality and shrillness that I remembered from my youth. Her petty complaint segments now took up a quarter of the show, and were as delightful as ever. (Like every died-in-the-wool New Yorker, I like hearing someone who makes me seem like a contented optimist.)

Her political shift was depressing, though. She always enjoyed a good argument, but in her incarnation on Sirius, she had moved into the Right-wing, Libertarian (read: conservatism with a “cool” edge), anti-government mindset. This was best illustrated when she advocated in a straightforward manner that the solution to the illegal immigrant problem was that “illegals” should be shot and killed at the border as they try to enter America. (She took great pride in telling listeners that Sean Hannity had told her that was too extreme, “they are human beings…”).

However, as she discussed this ridiculous position with a viewer two weeks before her death, the caller then brought up capital punishment. Lynn made clear that she opposed executing death-row prisoners on principal, citing facts she had clearly learned in her Left days (“it actually costs more to execute an inmate than it does to keep him in prison for life”).

When the Right-wing caller noted that these two positions didn’t jibe, Lynn simply noted that, “I know it makes no sense — I’m very inconsistent.” This kind of illogic was one of many reasons it struck me as sad that Lynn wanted to be accepted by her Right-wing radio colleagues — her opinions were too emotional even for them, and she remained a weird mascot figure, a former member of “the loony Left” who was now more extreme than they were.

Her friend (and one of the few Left-wing hosts she hadn’t alienated entirely) Mike Feder noted on one of the two very touching tribute shows he dedicated to her that, in the early 2000s, she carried on a “Platonic” love affair with Matt Drudge, the Winchell-wannabe conservative web-hack for whom she worked as a call screener (and constantly, on WABC, defended as “not conservative”). Drudge, according to Feder, broke Lynn’s heart.

As she praised the Right-wing hosts (she looked forward eagerly to every broadcast by hate-speech specialist and thickly-accented ex-NYCer Michael Savage), Lynn seemingly went out of her way to openly insult Left-wing hosts. I remember hearing Randi Rhodes (pictured), another host who has kept her deep Brooklyn accent, saying that Lynn had been rude to her. WEVD/WWRL host Sam Greenfield (now of WVNJ) has noted on-air that Lynn made a disparaging remark about his daughter that he couldn’t forgive. In addition to these personal slights, she often expressed on Sirius her absolute loathing for Stephanie Miller, Thom Hartmann, Ed Schultz, and her "nemesis," Alex Bennett.

Thus, when she died, Feder, Mike Malloy, Richard Bey, and Alan Colmes had nice things to say about Lynn, but several Lefties avoided making any personal comments, positive or negative, in their death notices (as with Amy Goodman, whom one Samuels diehard fan said had been called “a cunt” by Lynn) or were brief and praiseworthy, but also totally honest (as with Lionel, who praised her unique on-air style but did note she was a “big pain in the ass”).

Setting Lynn’s simplistic (and often downright ridiculous) political opinions aside, I do think that she was a very good broadcaster and a top-notch entertainer. This became apparent to me again — and erased all the bile she had been unleashing — when I listened to a number of her final shows and heard segments where she just chatted calmly and amiably with her callers.

At its best, her program was a hipper sort of coffee klatch (listen to Lynn describing her experiences taking ketamine for an explanation of the “hipper” label), a 21st-century update of the friendly “personality” radio that existed in the Forties and Fifties, and continued on mostly with “women’s shows.” (In NYC, WOR has had the lock on this type of program for decades, from the heyday of Arlene Francis and Pegeen and Edward Fitzgerald, to the only program of that kind still on in this area, Joan Hamburg’s show.) When she was calm, Lynn was an engaging host who could transform her pop culture tastes, her preference in food and shopping, and show-biz gossip, into very engaging “appointment radio.”

The few full-length radio tributes indicated that she was a person whose heart had been broken both romantically and professionally several times, and who had virtually turned into an agoraphobic (she did her show from her Woodside apartment, and bragged at the end that she only left her home to shop).

She will be remembered for a long while by her listeners. I’m glad Billy Masters is uploading more “everyday” moments from her WABC and Sirius shows. I’d of course love to re-hear the “prehistory” WBAI hours and those stunning, shrieking pair of days with Barry Farber. There are a scant few clips of her on YouTube (just as there are very few photos of her online). Here is Lynn in her what was surely her only movie role (!), and here she banters with an ABC newscaster, exhibiting her sometimes sick sense of humor:

In the final analysis, Lynn was a one-of-a-kind personality who was never “professional” in the standard sense of that word. She was, again, an entertainer who possessed what was definitely the most "un-radio” voice ever heard on the radio….