Magical Musical Moments

12 May

Fame Recording studio, Muscle Shoals, Alabama

Fame Recording studio, Muscle Shoals, Alabama

My first record purchase was a 45 rpm single by young hot singing sensation known as Elvis Presley, circa 1956. I didn’t buy another record until 1960 — The Cannonball Adderly Quintet, Live in San Francisco. And I now believe that moment marks the beginning of my intense attachment, the almost seamless integration of music and sound into my perception of the world. Such was my commitment to listening to music that I did not for a long time interest myself (much) in the back stories and inside baseball stuff of the music culture and business. In fact, despite being both an omnivorous reader and having an appreciation of a wide swath go musical genres and also having spent a years of living a dimly mean spirited year as a local record promotion guy in Chicago, up until recently the only books I have read about music are David Hadju’s brilliant bio of Billy Strayhorn ,his book about early Bob Dylan and friends, Dylan’s loopy but compelling Chronicles,Crystal Zevon’s well executed oral biography of Warren and Peter Guralnick’s excellent profile of Sam Cooke, and a sadly under appreciated survey of soul music Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music
by Arthur Kempton, and A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz.

These days I have developed a taste for music history, especially American Regional music. Coincidentally in the last few years the quality of such narratives seems to have upgraded from the hagiographic and fan’s notes to deeper and more telling stories. A few years ago the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown gleaned one of the better stories to come out of the Motown music machine. In addition to give much deserved attention to the previously unheralded studio cats, Motown founder Berry Gordy’s commercial genius was credibly exhibited.

A couple of years back the Oscar winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom chronicled the lives of a few of great voices Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Jo Lawry and a few more, who sang back up both for super star bands and a large cache of hit records.

The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman

The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman

As a kind of bookend to the above mentioned Motown story, Kent Hartman’s The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret,filled in a vital piece of music history, putting the spotlight on a small cadre of West Coast studio musicians aka The Wrecking Crew reputedly known in the record business as “the secret weapons behind the top recording stars— included Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, guitarist Tommy Tedesco,drummer Hal Blaine,keyboardist Larry Knechtel as well and non-pareil bassist, Carol Kaye.

Legendary session bassist Carol Kaye

Legendary session bassist Carol Kaye

The hit records to which these players contributed, not to mention in some cause created — from Derek & the Dominoes Layla, Simon and Garfunkle’s Bridge Over Troubled Water virtually all the Beach Boys Records to Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night are a greatest hits discography of the 60’s and 70’s. Hartman’s diligence is evident from the wealth of first person citations and collection of engaging anecdotes. M<y favorite is the story of how Ray Charles appearing in segregated Birmingham Alabama managed to pass off his Jewish guitar player.

Currently there is a serviceable documentary, The Wrecking Crew in the theaters produced and directed by Denny Tedesco, son of Tommy Tedesco. A bit to hagiographic for my tastes, it does give you some visuals for Hartman’s narrative.

A most transcendental music story is gracefully told in a lovely film ,Muscle Shoals, about that legendary, magical recording venue deep in backwater Muscle Shoals, Alabama and the extraordinary assemblage of solid gold musicians (Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, and David Hood) that Fame Studios founder Rick Hall attracted, nurtured, shepherded and goaded. Its equal parts biography, travelogue, anthropological study, business gossip and visual feast.

The short interviews and commentary by Etta James,Bono, Keith Richards, Stevie Winwood, Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Rich Hall, Jerry Wexler, Greg Allman and more are illuminating —almost all sharing a mystical view of what made Muscle Shoals a very special place. Alicia Keyes ends the film with a competent performance/ contemporary recording of Bob Dylan’s beautiful gospel song “Pressing On,” backed by the Swampers, Fame’s original session band— an understandable if miscast attempt to bridge the history to the present.

Post Script

Poster for the film “Get on Up”

I first saw James Brown live at the Regal Theater in Chicago in 1966 and continued listening to him through subsequent decades — by my tastes he never lost his infections groove. Brown put the soul into soul music and the biopic Get on Up with a jumping performance by veteran actor Chadwick Boseman (who gave a fine performance as Jackie Robinson in 42) makes a plausible and riveting
narrative whether you are or not inclined to give credence to the facts of Brown’s complicated life

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