- Squeeze-Box or Groan-Box
- Ain't coming on that tab
- won't accept the proposition. Usually abbr. to "I ain't coming."
- musical notes in the upper register, high trumpet notes.
- the girl friend, a beauty
- a very homely girl, a crone.
- Lacking anything. Ex, "I am beat for my cash", "I am beat to my socks" (lacking everything).
- Beat it out
- play it hot, emphasize the rhythym.
- Beat up the chops (or the gums)
- to talk, converse, be loquacious.
- the gospel truth. Ex., "It's the bible!"
- Blew their wigs
- excited with enthusiasm, gone crazy.
- something very good. Ex., "That's a blip"; "She's a blip."
- Blow your wig
- get excited, enthusiastic
- to give. Ex., "Boot me that glove."
- Break it up
- to win applause, to stop the show.
- Bust your conk
- apply yourself diligently, break your neck.
- girl vocalist.
- outdone, surpassed.
- female singer.
- ad lib session, every man for himself, a jam session not in the groove.
- Licorice Stick or Gob Stick
- Comes on like gangbusters
- plays, sings, or dances in a terrific manner, par excellence in any department. Sometimes abbr. to "That singer really comes on!"
- old-fashioned, stale.
- Creeps out like the shadow
- "comes on," but in smooth, suave, sophisticated manner.
- Crumb crushers
- sleep. Ex., "I gotta catch some cups."
- high-class, nifty, smart.
- meet. Ex., "I'll plant you now and dig you later."
- bass fiddle.
- sleep. Ex., "I'm a little beat for my doss." [See dosshouse]
- Down with it
- through with it.
- Suitcase, Hides, or Skins
- Fall out
- to be overcome with emotion. Ex., "The cats fell out when he took that solo."
- to leave, to go home. Ex., "I finaled to my pad" (went to bed); "We copped a final" (went home).
- Fine dinner
- a good-looking girl.
- Fraughty issue
- a very sad message, a deplorable state of affairs.
- no charge, gratis. Ex., "The meal was a freeby."
- Frisking the whiskers
- what the cats do when they are warming up for a swing session.
- Frolic pad
- place of entertainment, theater, nightclub
- fickle, fooling around with no particular object.
- trumpet players.
- Get in there
- go to work, get busy, make it hot, give all you've got.
- Gimme some skin
- shake hands.
- Got your boots on
- you know what it is all about, you are a hep cat, you are wise.
- Got your glasses on
- you are ritzy or snooty, you fail to recognize your friends, you are up-stage.
- fine. Ex., "I feel groovy." [Didn't know it was such an old expression.]
- Ground grippers
- new shoes.
- low-down music.
- fine, good. Ex., "That's a hard tie you're wearing."
- Hard spiel
- interesting line of talk. [From Yiddish]
- conceited, snooty.
- build up for a loan, wooing a girl, persuasive talk, cajole.
- someone who can't dance or dig the jive
- one who is not hip, a stupid person, can't collar the jive.
- to ignore someone. Ex., "Don't igg me!)
- In the groove
- perfect, no deviation, down the alley.
- improvised swing music. Ex., "That's swell jam."
- anything free, on the house.
- Joint is jumping
- the place is lively, the club is leaping with fun.
- Jumped in port
- arrived in town.
- Kill me
- show me a good time, send me.
- a great thrill.
- give. Ex., "Knock me a kiss."
- absolutely okay, the tops.
- Land O'Darkness
- Lay some iron
- to tap dance. Ex., "Jack, you really laid some iron that last show!"
- Lay your racket
- to jive, to sell an idea, to promote a proposition.
- Lindy Crush
- Girl or Guy you would just LOVE to dance with.
- cost, price, money. Ex., "What is the line on this drape" (how much does this suit cost)? "Have you got the line in the mouse" (do you have the cash in your pocket)? Also, in replying, all figures are doubled. Ex., "This drape is line forty" (this suit costs twenty dollars).Lock (v.): to acquire something
- Lock up
- to acquire something exclusively. Ex., "He's got that chick locked up"; "I'm gonna lock up that deal."
- Melted out
- something good. Ex., "That last drink was a mess."
- Mitt pounding
- making 'em laugh, putting on the jive.
- something excellent or terrific. Ex., "That's solid murder, gate!"
- Nix out
- to eliminate, get rid of. Ex., "I nixed that chick out last week"; "I nixed my garments" (undressed).
- Off-time jive
- a sorry excuse, saying the wrong thing.
- Off the cob
- corny, out of date.
- Out of the world
- perfect rendition. Ex., "That sax chorus was out of the world."
- Storehouse or Ivories
- 100 per cent in every way. Ex., "That fried chicken was ready."
- to swing, to keep perfect tempo in playing or singing
- splendid, okay. Ex., "That was a righteous queen I dug you with last black."
- Rock me
- send me, kill me, move me with rhythym.
- terrible. Ex., "That man is sadder than a map." "That was the saddest meal I ever collared."
- Sam got you
- you've been drafted into the army.
- Plumbing or Reeds
- Sky piece
- talking too much.
- to file, to hide away, to secrete.
- To dribble
- to stutter. Ex., "He talked in dribbles."
- Togged to the bricks
- dressed to kill, from head to toe.
- to leave, to depart. Ex., "Well, I guess I'll trilly."
- Tram or Slush-Pump
- to go somewhere. Ex., "I think I'll truck on down to the ginmill (bar)."
- Twister to the slammer
- the key to the door.
- a chick who spurns company, is independent, is not amenable.
- Wrong riff
- the wrong thing said or done. Ex., "You're coming up on the wrong riff."
- uncouth, badly attired, unattractive male or female.
- Zoot suit
- the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The show in question was on Friday night, October 2, at the ornate Gem Theater. Titled Boogie Stomp!, it’s a simple premise—two pianists, Bob Seeley and Bob Baldori, playing stride, boogie-woogie, blues and backbeat rock & roll on twin concert grand pianos. Between songs they talk about their lives, careers and influences with an anecdotal ease that creates that rarest of things—the artists and audience in a shared revelry that then creates this third presence in the room. A higher love. As performing musicians, it’s what we all strive for with every show.
The relationship between Seeley and Baldori began when they met at a tribute to Chuck Berry's original piano player, Johnny Johnson. They started working together soon after Baldori went out and sat in at Seeley's regular gig at Charley's Crab in Troy. A mutual interest in the "two piano" boogie style of legendary greats Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons led them to work out some of the original four hand classics. They also discovered a common repertoire of mutually familiar blues, boogie and jazz tunes that Baldori could also double on harmonica. From there it was a short step to creating original pieces for their live show.
A brief look back at this mongrel of a genre: By the late 1930s and throughout the '40s, the world of jazz and popular music was dominated by what was known as “The Big Three" of Boogie Woogie piano---Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Meade Lux Lewis. Their style was called Boogie, but their playing covered a country mile, and included jazz, blues, swing, stride, ragtime, barrelhouse, and the roots of rock and roll.
In this age of adult attention deficiency, rapid resolution and the endless catering to juvenilia, Boogie Stomp! and both Bobs are a welcome antidote. Both men are over 60; both perform with the vitality of 25 year olds. More importantly, both men illuminate, in slightly varied ways, this long river of American music right before our eyes and ears.
Seeley is the last living connection to the founders of blues and boogie—Sippie Wallace, Meade Lux Lewis, Big Maceo Merriwether, even the legendary executive and talent scout John Hammond. He’s honored the world over as the finest living stride and boogie piano player, winning competitions and performing in European music meccas like Paris and Moscow annually. He's a musical God in Europe. An indomitable 82 that would pass for 55 at any point, Seeley sits with the terse, rounded shoulders of a boxer and plays with a rumbling, clarion intensity. Pure magic.
Baldori had a Top 10 hit in 1966 with his band The Woolies, covering Bo Diddley’s seminal “Who Do You Love” with producer Lou Adler. He then became one of Chuck Berry’s indispensable sidemen and friends, playing with rock’s founder everywhere from the White House to the Silverdome over the last 30 years. His playing has deep roots in early electric blues--Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Memphis Slim are dominant, but this is extravagantly alive music in the here and now, not some vintage period piece relic.
Between these two men, a musical continuum of 100 years is writ large, stomped out and hand delivered with the dynamic thrust of a freight train. Baldori is more in the Johnny Johnson--Professor Longhair style while Seeley actually learned his chops from Lewis. He has a lighter touch than Lewis however--more poetic, like Jimmy Yancey playing Beethoven on a bender. In another day, both players might've been called Cat House piano players. Both have booming left hands that are like granite in their time keeping.Baldori, coming from rock & roll and Chicago Blues, is more the overt showman. His harp playing is as exciting as anyone since Paul Butterfield or a young James Cotton, with a bullrush of distorted notes quickly giving away to bright, melodic runs and at times comic physical expression. Between songs he lays out the genesis of all this music, where it went and what it became, while Seeley tells stories about his vast career with self effacing wit.
Is Boogie Stomp! blues? R&B? Rock & Roll? Boogie-Woogie? Jazz? It’s all that, plus the historical oral tradition of the shaman, the elder or high priest. Is it academic? Nah. Is it history? Yea, but it’s way more fun than school ever was. All this ran through my mind as these guys were replicating the famous 1938 night at Carnegie Hall when Hammond joined Ammons, Lewis and Pete Johnson together for a performance that launched what was called the “boogie craze.” All these complimentary styles—from Boogie to Rock to Blues to Soul—are creations and extensions of the black experience in America. Both Bobs are white, but they set all that straight in their historical overview.
Now, I have to make known this small disclaimer, although my exuberance for this show was not increased by our friendship. When I was 19, I had two once-in-a-lifetime mentors. First was Boogie Bob Baldori himself, who put me in his band when I was greener than green. I could barely play a lick, and my hip quotient was zero. But he saw something he liked, and he taught me everything--how to work an audience, how to wrap a cord after a gig, how to listen to each other on stage, how to conduct business. He taught me about keeping tempo, using dynamics, how something quiet can kill an audience (in a good way), and how a band should work with and around the singer. He taught me where the back of the beat is. He turned me on to Howlin Wolf, Robert Johnson, Henry Adams and Luis Bunuel. He took me to Chicago repeatedly to see the best blues acts, where I'd meet these eccentric characters deep inside the music business. It's one of those debts you can never repay--you just try to live up to it.
Through Bob and his band, I was soon playing bass on some dates with Chuck Berry, who taught me about guitar playing, syncopation, feel, lyric writing and vocal clarity. Here I was working with the guy who literally wrote the book. Listen to Chuck sing—he enunciates every syllable, like the King’s English.
Baldori and Seeley have now shot enough footage all over the world that a documentary also called Boogie Stomp! will soon be finished. It will document how the basic elements of boogie woogie---rhythm and improvisation over a blues form--became the backbone of American music. Boogie Stomp!will also tell the story of the two Bobs and their unlikely pairing--two heads, four hands and two pianos that almost blew the roof off that lovely old Gem. The joint was packed, and at curtain's close we were all still standing and cheering. Do yourself a favor...see Boogie Stomp! when it comes 'round again, hopefully during the holidays.
Don't just wait for the flick.
Monday, September 21, 2009
It's nothin' new to me. Frank's always been in my house or in my head. Growing up, Sinatra’s music filled my house. As a boy I recall the presence of his voice being a symptom of good times--parties, Saturday nights, perfume and cigarettes, cuff links sweeping down to pat my hair. People briefly at the top of their game. Certain songs--”Fly Me To The Moon,” “Tangerine,” “Where Or When”--still evoke the fragile good fortune that comes with familial and social blessing. Sinatra is so laden with family emotion and generational demarcation that writing about him has seemed daunting.
In my adolescence, Sinatra became all that was square and phony: anathema to the counterculture, actually now the dominant rock and roll culture. When compared to rock’s songwriters, songwriters like Gershwin, Porter, Van Huesen, Cahn and Kern seemed like Tin Pan Alley irrelevance. That's what we thought anyway. It was not the only thing I was wrong about. I now know that the Sinatra songbook, particularly the songs of Cole Porter, represent stylized imagination at its most refined. Genius is often one word where there once were eight. And the currency of timeless work is in tackling the big subjects: Love, Death, Aging, Faith and Loneliness.
Anyway, my father hated rock and I hated Frank. Our stalemate was beautifully balanced. I’m not entirely sure when the thaw came, but, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I can’t believe how much the old man has learned in the last few years. There are still some things that can put a young listener off on Sinatra--his mythical meanness, his ribbing of Sammy Davis in the Rat Pack days (which was extremely misleading; Sinatra was an ardent civil rights activist), his clumsy interpretation of rock songs (in George Harrison’s “Something” Frank sings, “You stick around, Jack, it may show”), his punchy sentimentality, his ultimate descent into self parody. (All of the greats, with their style once so powerfully fresh and seminal, seem to eventually erode into self parody.)
Like many of this century’s great artists Sinatra is highly enigmatic. James Isaacs points out in his liner notes to Sinatra In Paris that there’s an artistic schizophrenia attendant to Sinatra’s genius: There is Sinatra--an artist worthy of mention in the same breath as Picasso and Casals--and Frank--everybody’s Pal Joey, the King of the Ring-A-Ding-Ding, in Dave Marsh’s words “the original Gangsta rapper.” It’s the difference between his singing voice, that cello-like instrument sustaining rosewood notes and romantic dreams of The Love, and his speaking voice, which is never more than a few short blocks from Hoboken via Las Vegas.
The cocky swagger fronts the bruised feelings--That's Frank. My father has always said that Sinatra achieved his tone from having his vocal cords stomped on, from getting kicked around. Sinatra was washed up a bit at 38, between recording contracts, singing poorly, divorced and hopelessly in love with Ava Gardner, not working as much as he had in his “Voice” period.
There’s little question that he went on to become the greatest interpretive singer we’ve ever heard. It was Frank who perpetrated the macho myth; Sinatra, on the other hand, lived to sing. He never condescended to his audience. Instead he increasingly valued his audience and moved closer to it as he aged. He eventually transcended popular culture completely and made age and enduring--rock’s great enemies--his most potent subject, save love.
I have a bootleg of Frank, Dean and Sammy at Sam Giancana’s club in Chicago, the Villa Venice, in November of 1962. The height of their powers. It’s hilarious, poignant, utterly embarrassing and totally dated--great period piece farce. Any good singing, even any respect for the audience’s expectations, are secondary to boozing. Out of the blue a woman, a fan from Milwaukee, hesitantly approaches the stage. Says she drove all night and can’t she please hear a serious song? Martin tells her to buy an album. Much laughter. Frank, meaner, mockingly offers her bus fare home. When she insists on hearing “Nancy” there’s an enormous sea change: Frank becomes Sinatra.
Along with “Night and Day,” “Nancy (With The Laughing Face)” was something of a charmed talisman for Sinatra; he would eventually record it four times before retiring. But on this night he becomes contrite, shuts Dean and the crowd up, calls her request “fair and reasonable” and proceeds to kill the song. Not a dry eye in the house. Frank knew where his bread was buttered; Sinatra loved his audience and had the goods to reach both their hearts and souls.
Ironically, Sinatra actually hurried the demise of the big bands he loved so much by ensuring that the front man was the focal point of the performance. It’s what he did with the projection of language that kills me, even after much hard-headed analysis. Instead of using melisma or even “sung” syllables, Sinatra developed a legato conversational quality that emphasized meaning as much, if not more, than melody. In another irony, it was this quality of Sinatra’s that then paved the way for rock’s great lyrical expressionists--Dylan, Lennon and Joni Mitchell. When they first showed up, Frank hated ‘em. Same with Elvis. By the late 60s he was doing TV with Elvis and regularly recording rock related material.
Every singer--really anybody who sings--marvels at Sinatra’s physical gifts. It’s been said that his jaw has a certain shape that accounts for some unusual projection of sound, etc. One thing is true. When he sang, nothing but sound came from his mouth; that is, very little breath or forced vibrato accompanied the full voice. In this sense his instrument was much like a cello--a brandy soaked tone reflected from wood and string.
Sinatra also did much to invent the concept album, an innovation usually associated with Sgt. Pepper or Tommy. While at Capitol in the 50s he alternated humongous concoctions of swing--Songs For Young Lovers (1954) Come Dance With Me (1959)--with sad song cycles like In The Wee Small Hours and Where Are You? 1958's Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely is simply one of the finest collection of mood songs ever recorded. “What’s New,” “Angel Eyes,” “One For My Baby” and “Blues In The Night” all on one record. Of course much credit goes to a trio of brilliant arrangers--Billy May, Gordon Jenkins and the unmatched Nelson Riddle--for this amazing emotional range over the years.
After starting Reprise Records in 1961, Sinatra had one unqualified triumph, 1965's September Of My Years, and a late 60s string of very interesting failures. But it’s the love songs we’ll forever expect--no, need--from Sinatra. Love songs are becoming a scarce commodity today. And no one sings of the Big Love anymore, that nostalgic notion that says that action is larger than intent.
My father used to tell me, once a day it seems like now, to TURN THAT GUITAR DOWN and get a hair cut, put on a tux and make a livin’ singing Sinatra songs on cruise ships. And my buddies and I would drag our ass into the garage, turn up the guitars and laugh at how short sighted and unhip he was. Now I call up the old man and he’s listening to my own record in the background. I’ve been trying to get him to listen to some of these remastered Sinatra cds for almost six months. I can’t get him to listen, can’t get him to talk about how great Frank is. He wants to talk about rock & roll or my music, of all things. Our stalemate remains beautifully balanced.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Nearly thirty years ago, my father, a GM employee until he retired in 1989, received a life insurance policy from GM as a form of compensation. It's something he was proud of, something that gave him real peace of mind over the years.
Last week, at 85 and in poor health, he received a letter from GM and the newly-involved Met Life insurance company stating that the entire policy was cancelled immediately, although he could re-apply within 31 days to pay his own premiums for an individual policy of up to $100,000. The monthly premium for that amount--a fraction of his long-held existing policy--would be $847 a month. Not possible for most folks, let alone a widower on a pension. And it comes with another lovely little clause: if he were to die within two years of initiating this policy, the only benefits paid out would be the collected premiums, not the $100,000.
Going off an actuarial table that I found at the Social Security Administration website, if an 85 year old man were to actually buy the full amount of the policy he held for all those years, premiums would be more than $45,000 for a single year. Then, consider that term life insurance policies hold no cash value, and that the actuarial tables show a one-year mortality rate for 85-year olds of about 11%. The bottom line, as corporate lemmings like to say, is this: There is not enough -- and there was never going to be enough -- money in the so-called bail-out to pay for any sustained period of time for the impacted retirees and their beneficiaries. When it comes to the bail-out, the bankers got theirs, the insurance giants got theirs, but the auto companies and their employees got theirs from behind.
This is of course morally reprehensible. Disgusting. Had he known 35 years ago that this would happen to his policy in his late years, he surely would've bought adequate life insurance along the way. That opportunity is now ripped away from him, gone. My mother passed away in 2008, so this next disturbing aspect is not an issue with our family. But the question looms: What of the thousands of other men and women of his age who are GM retirees who will now leave elderly spouses and impaired dependents penniless upon their own death?
My dad epitomizes the Greatest Generation. He was a lieutenant in the Air Force during WWII, came home, went to MSU, married and began a family. He then worked at the GM Assembly plant in Flint after the war, on the floor, before returning to his hometown of Saginaw to run the credit arm for Draper Chevrolet for many years. He's always been a car man, and he gave the auto trade his life. He began working as a salaried GM employee in Trenton, NJ in 1971, and stayed there for several years before being promoted to Detroit in the early 80s, where he oversaw a field team of 15 lobbyists working in the country's state capitals. He retired in 1989.
He was raised with a sense of obligation toward his community. You got involved and aligned your own ambition with the common welfare of your place and your people. He was the mayor of Saginaw from 1962-'66, nominated the city's first black mayor, and twice ran for State Senate. He was President of the Michigan Municipal League. While at GM, he aggressively and successfully fought for our current seat belt laws.
So when I think of my dad, I think of someone who always treated life as a progressive, optimistic adventure. He loves America and believed in and loved every minute of his GM work life. To him, life was a grand experience, to give in to the cliché, a journey of possibilities. I know few people more beloved by others than my dad, and it's probably because I've never known a better listener. His manner is to always inquire about your welfare, rarely talk of himself—and listen. His life has been made up of people of all walks, all means, all creeds, and colors. He lived his life not as he found it, but as he made it happen.
He grew up on the east side of Saginaw in the 20s & 30s, a place that formed his values and convictions But as he aged, he accepted the world’s change, and found in himself the ability to change, to think less conventionally, to think broadly about things he once thought were absolute. I think of him as someone who held in his heart the fire’s center. Someone who was alive–alive with talk, alive with faith, alive with friendship, alive with responsibility, wanting many things at the same time, always saying the reassuring thing, ambitious while still being someone you could count on, always.
And even if he thought his life to be at times too hard or frustrating, he never shared that desperation; he kept on greeting the good and the bad with the same face. And when things were really good, and he was at GM in its best days, he never lost his common touch. And when things were really bad, he did that hardest thing, and put his head down and took care of his family while maintaining his dignity.
Now it's really tough however. His health care has been decreased as well, but not eliminated in full. Amid all the recent bailout billions, banking loans, insurance industry debt forgiven, and exorbitant bonuses paid to men and women who performed poorly, something like this is being done to a man like my dad, and thousands like him. After believing things were one way for more than 30 years, to find that you're uninsured and not feeling well is very much akin to the Bernard Madoff situation, which was considered the crime of the century. And the government is finding money for those plaintiffs! Is the GM Bankruptcy also a crime?
It was, of course, the members of President Obama's task force who forced this--a result that said such costs would not be supported any longer. And it was Obama's resolution that said that public resistance, from the likes of Rick Waggoner, would be met by getting kicked to the curb (which he was, and quickly). Now that the political will has been shown to cut off these costs (and with precious little blow-back from anyone anywhere), it's not as if there will be political will to restore them. So I hold President Obama and Treasury Secretary Geithner accountable in this, for their lack of vision, and lack of concern.
It won't be GM, and it won't be the government, and it won't be Met Life, but possibly there's enough in something called the Motors Liquidation Corporation till to do something for these retirees. Or, there may one day be a class action settlement on all this, but it will be well after my dad's gone, and will likely be next to worthless, pennies on the dollar. There's no legal recourse, no answer from congressmen I've contacted, no answer from Met Life or GM. New GM (GM Reinvention) doesn't want to know about "old" GM--that's also very clear.
This last generation of GM corporate leaders, from Waggoner, Bob Lutz and John Smith on down, should be held directly accountable, their hundreds of millions in bonuses made conspicuous in comparison to the retirees' losses. In fact I hold the last generation of GM leaders responsible for the litany of failure that crushed GM, once the safest bet in the world: the Fiat fiasco, the bungling of the Oldsmobile shutdown, the Aztec, the Hummer, the disastrous end to the original Electric Vehicle program, and of course the poor financial planning that ultimately left the company far too vulnerable to the events of the past year.
A Michigan-based group called the GM Retirees Association hired a San Francisco law firm to bring their cause before the Bankruptcy Court, with no success. As their lead counsel said to me yesterday, "The first thing we learn in law school is that very few wrongs in this world are actually redressed."
The beautiful go blameless, part XXIV.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Actually three things happened this summer that remind me of LWJ and his continuing influence, but the third thing is not good at all--the sad sad death of Michael Jackson. To me, MJ was the last of something I revere and love--the brilliant string of solo romantic male soul singers, possibly starting with Nolan Strong or Clyde McPhatter and definitely ending with Michael. So many greats came between them--LWJ, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, David Ruffin, Donny Hathaway, James Carr, Ben E. King, Luther Vandross. As you can see, Detroit figures famously in this continuum of singers.
On to the better things I mentioned earlier. One of them is personal, in this sense--I was contacted through a friend by Little Willie John's son, Kevin John, who still lives in Detroit and preserves his father's lofty reputation. I was thrilled to get to know him a little bit, and look forward to more talks about music with him. We've had some good exchanges about his dad, and about soul music in general. The other event is something we all can get with: a new collection called Little Willie John,Heaven All Around Me: The Later King Sessions, 1961-63,on Ace Records out of the UK, released earlier this summer.
Now, some brief introductory comments seem necessary when discussing early Detroit artists like Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson or Nolan Strong. It's necessary to discuss genre, location and intent--what they were tryin' to do-- with these singers. Genre is the primary premise for organizing and expressing the emotional details of their music; location informs why they sang what they sang and how they sang it. Their shared intent was probably simple–to make some money singing exciting songs before their career ended. But in one sense, they were all saved by soul, their music left immortal by how they sang.
Little Willie John's high tenor singing, in songs like "Talk To Me, Talk To Me" and "Fever," is best described as thunderclap music--music to be heard from an open window on an evening when the sky is turning somber just before dark. The clouds are steel grey and heavy with rain, and the air--it's late August--is fixed with heat. This is Little Willie John weather. Right now, tonight.His musical offspring are also soul singers: Bob Seger knew where to find his own soul; he knew the distance from Detroit to Memphis to be easily traveled. It's this connection, via Ann Peebles' "Come To Mama" (changed to "Come To Papa" for 1973's Beautiful Loser) and Otis Clay's "Tryin' To Live My Life Without You," that illuminates soul's colorless, borderless state.
The story goes that Seger was so disgusted with the Eagles' crappy1980 rip-off of "Tryin To Live My Life Without You" (give a listen to the bass line and rhythm guitar on "The Long Run") that he had to cut it himself and get it right. "Tryin' To Live My Life Without You" is introduced by Seger on his live Nine Tonight as an "old Memphis song" yet it was actually recorded by Clay with the Hi rhythm section and the Memphis Horns in Chicago in 1972. Seger may have felt a sense of debt to the song's composer, George Jackson. Jackson supplied Seger, for better or worse, with his monumental hit "Old Time Rock and Roll." If Seger felt indebted, it was probably to the soul tradition; he's one of the few white rockers who can truly deliver in a strict soul idiom.
My point is that the essential Detroit music is sewn by a thread; George Clinton has as much in common with Iggy Pop as he does with Nolan Strong; Kid Rock channels Seger as well as David Ruffin. It’s not easily traced; it’s just something you feel.And when viewed as disparate elements in a related social chain, the music seems to say much more. Smokey Robinson & Stevie Wonder’s "Tears of a Clown," for instance, at first listen just another jilted love song, tells the story of the black attitude in Detroit in 1968: "If there's a smile on my face/ it's only there trying to fool the public." While Smokey wasn’t the activist others were, he spoke for far more than the lonely people in his songs. And the thing about Motown--who wasn't a listener? Hell, who still isn't?
As they were building Motown, Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson were quite vigilant in acknowledging the sources of their new sound. Gordy, as a songwriter for Jackie Wilson and others, was both a fan and participant in the 50's doo-wop, R&B and rockabilly scene that was to fuel the popular music of the sixties and seventies. Authenticity was something Gordy concerned himself with, although commercial appeal was most important to the Motown machine. Today, there's little question that Motown was, as Gerald Early writes, "The most triumphant black sound in American history." It was not only real, it was real good.
But Little Willie John, recording in the 50s and early 60s before his death at a very young age, wason his own. His music is a product of his own passion, vision, humor and ambition. Life isn't fair; a life chasing hit records is even less fair. So I'm not trying to naively demand that we remember a great singer like LWJ, who is certainly beyond obscure to a modern audience, but to illuminate him as a model and clarify his connection to the artists and music today. (Check out how the spoken middle section of Nolan Strong's 1954 hit "The Wind," for instance, sounds like a scratchy outake from Michael Jackson's Thriller.)And while LWJ earnestly sought "cross over" success, it was on his terms. For Willie John and Nolan Strong, it meant the chance to challenge white America's dominance of the fifties and sixties, an opportunity to reject the dominant ideology of the culture they saw and felt yet could not fully participate in. Willie John in particular shrugged off the final degree of American alienation by refusing to borrow from white culture. He paid dearly for this, but his immediate musical offspring--James Brown--succeeded in subverting all ideology. He invented a new music and language.
Barely five feet tall and only 21 when he recorded Joe Seneca’s "Talk to Me, Talk To Me," Little Willie John sings the song in a voice of desperate passion. He sounds twenty years older, a man prematurely celebrating and disowning his own mortal soul. As he pleads with his lover to talk with him, his voice implies what will happen if she doesn't.
"Talk To Me, Talk To Me" wasn't Little Willie John's biggest hit. He is best known for "Fever," which he recorded in 1956 and took to #1 on the R&B chart, and "Sleep," a 1923 song that Benny Carter and Les Paul had cut in the early fifties and Willie John adapted to vocals in 1959. "Fever," of course, was recorded later by countless other artists, most notably Peggy Lee, and became a top ten pop hit, though Little Willie John's version far outsold hers.
Born William Edward John in Arkansas in 1937 (some sources say William Brooks) John moved to Detroit in the forties when his father, Mervis, took a job at Dodge Main. Willie John began singing in the United Five, a gospel quintet fronted by his elder sister Mabel.He was only 14 in 1951 when Johnny Otis, the R&B band leader who was also a scout for Syd Nathan's King Records in Cincinnati, heard Little Willie John sing at an amateur talent show at the Paradise Theater in Detroit. Nathan passed on him and instead signed the Royals, who appeared on the same bill. By the time of their monstrous 1954 "Work With Me, Annie" smash, the Royals had become Hank Ballard & the Midnighters.
Willie John then sang big band standards with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams,and recorded with the legendary Joe Von Battle in Detroit before Nathan signed him in 1955. At one of Little Willie John's initial sessions, King producer Henry Glover sped up a simple jump blues song of Titus Turner's called "All Around The World" and Little Willie John had his first hit.While the song was still on the R&B charts, Willie John wrote and recorded the sadly elegant "Need Your Love So Bad," a song of such sensual feeling that it's hard to believe the singer is only 19. To hear his tortured tenor crackle out of an AM radio in the fading light of an evening in 1956 must have been more than haunting. This was R&B that was no longer ambivalent in its aim or origin. It was carnal concentration in the white Eisenhower world. But his singing said that everything was now up for grabs.
"Fever," recorded March 1, 1956, followed "Need Your Love So Bad," and Little Willie John was a pop star. Somewhatarrogant and a notorious spendthrift, Willie John began angering the wrong people. Though he still recorded wonderful material--"Young Girl," "Person To Person," "There is Someone In This World For Me"--he didn't have another hit until "Talk To Me, Talk To Me" in 1958 and "Sleep" a year later. In 1961, the bottom fell out. "It Only Hurts A Little While" was the last performance of note; he was dropped by King after a final recording session in 1963. This is the period the new Ace cd deals with, and it's brilliant.
After stabbing a man to death in a Seattle cafe, Willie John was sent to prison in Walla Walla, Washington, where he died on May 27, 1968, not yet 32 years old. This is where his story takes on the Faustian myth of the blues man Robert Johnson: men so distinctly gifted at such a young age that they must have sold their soul to the devil for their talent. Robert Johnson is "saved" by history's recognition of his genius--a genius that rock and roll has since built much of its own myth upon.
Rumors of vicious beatings and fights with inmates abound (James Brown went to see him in prison and Willie John greeted him in a wheelchair), but his death is largely credited to pneumonia, although the 1968 death certificate reads heart attack. Brown later cut a tribute LP, Thinking of Little Willie John...and Other Nice Things, but Little Willie John, who seemed to understand love and loss greater than any other gospel trained soul singer ever, remains a legend neglected. Check out the ACE cd if you love impassioned singing in any style. It's Little Willie John weather.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
I recently spent a week up north with my family at a place on Lake Huron--same spot I've been going to since I was a boy. Just a couple hours away, it's in vast contrast to life here in Detroit. Driving north on M-13, which splits off from I-75 just north of Bay City, you enter some kind of agrarian time warp. Driving through these towns--Kawkawlin, Linwood, Pinconning, Omer, Au Gres--my nostalgia mingles with all the recent changes.
What this economy has wrought on these small towns. Twenty years ago these were towns filled with small factories, mills, farms and small services. Back then, there was just a hint of the encroaching exurbia, a gentrified, touristy, more cosmopolitan northern town. Now these towns show only traces of the old order--farmers still raise a fine spray of silt behind their tractors on summer afternoons, and manufacturers still empty a few workers out to roadside bars at midday. But not like they once did. M-13 is now like a traveling flea market; boats, cars, furniture, clothing–everything is for sale on lawns for miles. I noticed that even the homes themselves are often for sale.
The core of life is now about entertainment and lifestyle enrichment; we all seem to be consumed with enjoying enjoyment. The farms are smaller, the mills and factories are largely gone, and every little ranch house has a satellite dish. I'm certainly a part of the entertainment culture, but I'm also resistant to change. I like it the way it was--which is of course now only in my memory.
In the middle of our week, we drove up to Tawas, a gleaming resort town rimmed with cottage motels right on the water. On the road to Tawas, there are several square miles of chalky white hilltop quarries. The town in the middle of all this, Alabaster, is little more than the home of the U.S. Gypsum Company, a business founded in the 1890's by some guy named Daniel Houghton. Gypsum is actually a derivation of alabaster, which has been used to make drywall for most of this century. The entire setting sits like a bleached ghost town, hazy and surreal, with water towers, silos and quansut huts that recall an earlier, more productive time. The white dust shrouds the entire quarry. But the Gypsum-works stand as a testimonial to this time of transformation, this move from making things to making things fun.
Evidence of the old way of doing things, and how that's all come to pass, is everywhere. The most haunting fixture is a two mile aerial tramway that stands, eerily immobile, on cement based towers that run well into Lake Huron. This method of hauling Gypsum from the water looks antiquated, even sinister. I'm told it still runs, with its huge, conical containers swaying above the icy blue water. The company still employs workers, though not like it once did, and far away from this old site. At the gates of the Gypsum works sits The Alabaster Bible Church, a ramshackle house with one cracked stained glass window and white soot on its steps.
I love looking at a corn field or wheat field in the wind as much as I do the ocean. I guess that makes me a Midwesterner through and through. If you're reading this, you're most likely a Midwesterner too. You know and understand the obligations of being a Midwesterner. In the true Midwest, we rarely deflect this obligation. We place the value of living in loyalty to a few friends and family, maybe one or two chosen institutions, and finally in a deep trust with the land and water around us.
Small AM radio stations are sprinkled throughout this part of Michigan; in the summer you drive through them, a crackling aural gauntlet, leaning into the plain talk and forgotten songs as if into a lucid warmth. Removed from the radio wars in Detroit, these stations simply play what they think sounds good to the people around them--presumably without focus groups, person by person marketing, and demographic surveys. I like hearing a crop report with my music.
My friend Pam Rossi had her wonderful weekend radio show on WCSX, Over Easy, cut in half time-wise recently because her programmers cited a new kind of Arbitron rating, where barely a fraction of Detroit's 4 million people report on listening and viewing habits. Over Easy is a show devoted to real music, with real musicians--many of them regional artists, like yours truly, and it has a large and loyal audience. It's been a Detroit institution for nearly 20 years, first with Carey Carlson as host, then with Pam. It's been something the music community can agree on and celebrate...I mean, what makes "us," us? Things like Over Easy. In our growing technology-based, bottom-line-driven culture, shows like Pam's are considered expendable. It's hard, however, to justify many many things just based on their economic value. Rural AM radio may be the last place to find random radio programming in the form of traditional Top 40.
I try to avoid playing cds while driving because popular music is still, for better or worse, found on the radio. And it's still largely concerned with love and its losses, digging back into childhood or extending far into life for its romantic inventions.
While driving late one night last week on M-13 I heard, among other things, both the terrible and the transcendent: Bocephus's new "Forged By Fire," his father's (Hank Williams) "Kaw-Liga," Kenny Chesney's Summertime," Sam & Dave's "Hummin'," Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds' "Don't Pull Your Love Out," and Sam Cooke's gorgeous "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen." Unconcerned with mega numbers and musically-hip perceptions, these stations provide for a listener an emotional autobiography, playing songs that fall between the fading of the big bands and the beginning of rock, or between what's now classic rock and what's new country.
At the time I made little point of these observations, outside of noticing the pull that popular music still has as it guides us toward a way in which we want to live. But that suggestion is enormous. It’s the notion that these aren’t merely old songs on rural radio, but instead brief illuminations of the contrast between what's simple and what's sophisticated in America, between what's popular culture and what is high art–at times even between what's bad and what's good. American culture is a beautiful mess, dependent on a conversation half-heard and talked over, yet somehow still well received. So there--now I feel much better enjoying "Delilah" by Tom Jones as it sizzled across the wires just outside Au Gres, followed quickly by the okra bean report.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
This journal entry is also my first column for yournewsdetroit.com--please check out this new online news source when you have a chance. Thanks.
I realize that the debate over same sex marriage is a divisive one, among friends and sometimes even family members. However last week’s upholding of Prop 8 in
I’ve been in what the court (and most of the country) refers to as a “normal” marriage for 20 years. They’ve easily been the best years of my life, although they’ve also been very challenging. Marriage is a little like hang gliding or scuba diving or even a near-death experience--only those that have been there can truly provide any lasting insight to it--why it works or doesn’t work, why it’s the most enlightened experiment in human connection, or why it may be mankind’s most preposterous folly. (I believe the former.) Like those other activities I mentioned, you can only know by doing, and there’s no going back.
I can’t speak for my wife, but I got married for many reasons--most were emotional, some societal, others never to be understood. It was important for me to be jumping into something, in a social sense--into a kind of acceptance, into a practiced art, out of my own panicky rebellion. I didn’t settle, as all unmarried people will accuse those that marry; I armed myself. If you haven’t notice lately, it’s an often brutal and unpredictable world, with loyalty and honesty being rare. If life is a game played against chaos and death, against entropy, then marriage means having more home games on your schedule than away.
So I’m writing this as an instinctive reaction to the California Prop 8 ruling, which upheld making same sex marriages illegal. Here’s the main point of this thing to me: no one ever called into question my ability (my right?) to marry the person of my own choosing.
The Prop 8 ruling is correctly perceived by the gay community as a double-barreled attack on human rights. I’m sure that the Christian righties and other opponents of gay marriage find the impetus for their opposition based in some public employment of what they consider to be moral. However, it seems to me that arguing about pre-established or preferred sexual behavior is akin to arguing the morality of a tree--that is, it’s something that simply is, static and obvious. So this ruling tries to give all of us the parameters of what a marriage is or should be. If you don’t think that affects you, and you happen to be a heterosexual, you’re wrong.
Our supposedly sophisticated and free society tends to be embarrassed by the entire idea of sex. What’s known as the “Other” or “Otherness” in this culture--anyone outside the accepted notion of what or who an American is--should never be automatically associated with unaccountable behavior. And that’s exactly how I read Prop 8’s results. Gay people are not to be trusted. Ridiculous.
Accountability, in fact, may be the only measure of a man or woman—gay or straight--that the government need concern itself with, if they need to concern themselves at all. The irony is that nothing, and I mean nothing, leads to more stringent accountability than the shared promise and demands of a marriage. So the questions should be ours, and they should be directed at opponents of civil same sex unions. For starters--Why are you not in favor of intelligent people moving freely toward a life of love and societal accountability?
They would probably counter with the belief that it’s simply wrong—immoral—to conduct yourself in this way and thus illegal for the state to condone behavior so contrary to “God’s wishes.” Being just a simple human, I could never assume to know God’s wishes. And so often, the word morality is used as a means of oppression, a cover for political tyranny and failed imagination. For the sake of argument let’s call morality any action that is unselfish, kind and noble. Add to that the fact that it’s any action done with some sort of Karmic concern; that in the long run we won’t be sorry for what we’ve done, whether it’s in line with some petty human law or not. Or better yet: moral action is simply action which is life affirming.
We're currently all talking about this issue with an idealistic, moral and even romantic view. The practical side of it is even more compelling--I have several gay friends that want to be married for the real life reasons, in addition to love and emotional security. They want what hetero marriages take for granted--health care when a spouse or partner is covered, tax breaks filing jointly, equal protection under the law.
As insignificant as it may seem to the hetero-married or the unmarried, it makes a difference when your relationship is validated by both society and our byzantine government. It's just one less thing to worry about.
The fight for equality and justice is a fight for all of us, gay or straight, white or black, man or woman. When law is created or upheld due to a hazy consensus on religious beliefs, it's inherently at odds with logic. If there are real values, and I believe there are, and those values celebrate, affirm and explore human life, then they should be confirmed by American society as good. Anyone wishing to marry another person they’ve deemed fit for them is saying to me that they’ve made some peace with their own idea of freedom and commitment. They know that with that freedom comes a responsibility to look and listen, to own up to their idea of love, and feel in their hearts and bones what God or Time requires of them. And that no law can touch.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
To the members of the Arts & Enrichment Commission, to your honor Mayor Seals, to all of you in the audience. Good evening. Thank you for inviting me and my family back to Saginaw and my deepest thanks for this honor. It means a great deal to me, coming as it does from my hometown and the people here. And in these tough economic times, the generous annual stipend that goes with this award will really help.
Saginaw means so many things to me now--so many memories are conjured up when I drive in from the highway or cross the Holland Bridge. I try to hang on to them as I grow older….skating at Hoyt park in the brittle cold air, slow dancing to the Stylistics at the Y with the Schmolitz sisters. If anyone's seen the Schmolitz sisters. I'd love to hook up with them again.
I swear it was just yesterday that my friends & I were rumblin' outta the Court Street Theater on a Friday night, with our mullets & letter jackets…too cool for school, ten thousand watt fools, existential cowboys in a one horse town. There we were, and these really were our nicknames--Big A, Cedric, Rodney, Chinaman, Carley Carl, Doobie & Smoothie.
We’d drive around town all night in those big ol’ 70s cars burning tons of fossil fuel, with V-8s and snow tires, long bench seats and girls by our side. Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, her daddy’s Electra deuce and a quarter, with Stroh’s and sloe gin, goin' to hear a guy in polyester pants sing like John Denver at the Holiday Inn lounge over on Davenport. But that was all more than 30 years ago now. I shoulda never blinked.
Then there was Saginaw in Summer: river raft races, playing baseball for the Uncolas, tennis at Garber courts with the cotton buds blowing by in the hot wind and Get Back on the loudspeakers. All these ghostly names come back to me …Freddie stark, Kenny Tabascko, George Purdie, Charlie Raymond, Ted Grigg, the Loicana sisters…where are the Loicana sisters? Goin to get slurpies and pretzels at Bill’s Party Store, until Jim would chase us out. I went back to Bill's today since I was back in town, and Jim’s still there, 34 years later!
So many memories: Watchin’ Shakey Jake do the shake & bake at Hoyt Park, my grandma’s wild rhubarb in her backyard, night rides for ice cream at Mooneys, the Children’s Zoo, WSAM & WTAC, James Bond movies at the Temple, swimming at Anderson pool, Mr Hot Dog, Officer Ed, chester miller, the crisp, electric Friday nights at Arthur Hill stadium watching football under the lights, the smell of cigars and fresh cut grass in the clear autumn nights.
It was a great gift to grow up where and when I did, and to cross paths with the people I did. We were kids then, and things like the war and economy were a million miles away. We thought of football, baseball, music, movies and friendship.
Football was really the main thing at that time–my first and best coach in any sport was my youth football coach John Picard. He was, as a lot of you know, the spirit and coach behind The Pickles, a city league flag football team for boys ages 7-11. I actually started playing for him when I was 6, and then played every fall for the next 5 years.
The team was run by Mr. Picard as the ultimate non-star system: navy blue sweatshirts, no numbers, blue jeans, black cleats and helmets spray-painted a Notre Dame gold. It said to us, “You’re better than no one else and no one is better than you. “
He ran the team with extreme punctuality, discipline, respect, simplicity and precision. He knew my dad, and I remember on the first day he asked me if I was his son. “Yea,” I quietly replied. His coddling reply was “It’s ‘Yes Sir’ or ‘No Sir’ or get the hell outta here”. I was 6!! And a sensitive boy!! He only used last names and he’d sometimes smack you on the helmet or swat you in the rump, things you probably can’t do to young kids today. But we all quickly got used to that, and learned to recognize the consequences associated with being late, a missed block or a fumbled snap. It encouraged us to be better... and I loved the whole thing.
Mr Picard does unfortunately call me by first name now, but it seems a struggle, and I wish he’d just call me Francke. The things I learned from him have lasted me a lifetime. The discipline and sacrifice allowed me to gain a scholarship and compete in sports at a collegiate level.
Many of the things taught to me by Mr. Picard and reinforced by my parents actually helped me realize the demands of an artistic life and also survive a long & difficult illness. Some kids did go away in tears, and he never did allow any mothers near practice (which we all secretly loved) but last time I checked the world remains indiscriminate in handing out difficulty and heartbreak. You gotta be tough, smart and prepared. Mr. Picard gave us that. In my songs, and in my imagination, Saginaw’s been a place both common and sacred. Writing songs about this place has allowed me to discover my self. I am, and we are, Midwesterners. In the Midwest, we place the value of living in loyalty to friends and family, maybe one or two chosen institutions like a church or a union, and finally in a deep trust with the land and water around us.
My music has allowed me to understand these things about myself… Why am I drawn to soul music? I’ve had to come up with an answer to this question: What is Soul? Soul is, for better or worse, about suffering, survival and then, bearing an ornery optimism. It’s about scar tissue. Soul is faith when cynicism is easier. It's hangin’ in there when you've had it. It’s knowing we’re born to die, yet living with passion. It's not necessarily about unconditional love, but it is about letting a person's character be your main source for your judgment of him or her. Al Green says that soul is "fearing no evil." Maybe that describes it best. It's a quality of heart, especially after you know all there is to fear. Solomon Burke said he dreams of writing a soul song that would do no less than save the world if everyone sang it.
I guess that’s an ideal close to the one I strive for. I’m trying to write songs about what we choose and what we lose while on this journey—how easy it is to get lost, and how difficult it is to transcend. But getting lost is also a part of the process--you get lost in the music, and find yourself along the way.
I’m also interested in the "now-what?" that comes after our illusions fall apart. " How you gonna live after your world falls apart? After 9/11? After you’ve lost all our money? After you’re told you have cancer? After the death of someone indispensable to you. What are you gonna do about it?" The romantic aspects in my songs come from trying to find what's heroic when faced with that kind of unrelenting reality. Maybe just facing it is heroic. Everyone has their own moment of hardcore reality, where they see who they really are and what their life is really worth. That’s the moment you try and capture in a song. I try and tell myself: Be happy you were born each morning; make some music today; stir it up a little, make somebody smile. Looking into the abyss is no way to make a living.
Here's a brief story about the spirit of survival, about what we call in music the “gospel vision:” I recall sitting in a dismal waiting room, with a table full of Redbooks and orange chairs, waiting to have a Pentamidine antibiotic breathing treatment to fend off pneumonia. I was very thin, very bald and still very very sick, just a couple months after my bone marrow transplant day, when I had no hematological signs of life–no white blood cell count, no red blood cell count, very low platelets, on and on. Next to me, the only other person in the room, was a lovely older black lady, also very sick, hooked up to a central lumen and looking very very tired. We smiled at each other, a knowing smile that is exclusive to people battling cancer while also still striving to be people, or, persons. In the upper corner of the room was a small tv. On this particular morning in early 1999, the tv stations were all flush with the same image: an immaculately dressed President Bill Clinton privately testifying before a Special Prosecutor on the details of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. You remember: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” That day. We both watched this for awhile, another person trapped by events out of his control. After about 25 minutes of Executive Squirming, the lovely lady turned to me and said, “Ain’t it nice to see someone who’s more fucked than we is?” Now that’s the gospel vision, turning all of the things that conspire against us into, if not things that lift us up, at least something we can laugh at.
Thanks to the Nancy Koepke, Marsha Braun and everyone involved with the All Area Arts Awards. I want to thank my friend Bob Martin, who has been an enlightened supporter of me and my music for nearly 30 years. You’re fortunate here in Saginaw to have a soul and intellect of Bob’s caliber, someone who’s kept the cultural heart of the tri-cities beating. Right from my very first night gigging at Meinberg’s in 1981, Bob was there and “got it.”
Another terrific person who got it is Sue White of the News, who has been vigilante in attending shows and writing about my career. I’d also like to thank Bo White for his historic joint over on State street, and the way he values musicians. I want to thank all of the Saginaw people that make it worth it—friends, audiences, radio people and record buyers… I’m thinking of guys like Tiny, the door man at the Pub, who helped carry our gear out at 3 in the morning when it was 3 below, all through the 80s. And my friends from my third hometown of Au Gres and Pt Lookout—thanks for coming and good to see y’all.
Thanks to my good friend and assistant Pete Wurdock, who has been profoundly encouraging in the down times and clear headed in the good times and always selfless in his help. I want to thank all my old band mates, particularly the late Guy Garber, who had terrific musical instincts and left us too soon. And of course a shout out to Johnny Krogman, Johnny Van Benschoten, Duane Miller & Jeff Shaw for getting together at an assembly at Arthur Hill and inspiring me to play guitar when I was 14 or 15. Thanks to my friend Brian d’arcy James, just nominated for a Tony award for Shrek. Thanks to my friend Rob Dewar, who’s been about the closest thing I’ve had to a brother.
I’d like to thank my good friends and mentors, Dave Marsh, Bob Baldori & Mitch Ryder, and all the many many musicians I’ve played with over years, and all the great musicians & songwriters from this part of the world, from Isham Jones to Jack Bruske to Ben Weissman to the Funk Brothers to Dick Wagner to Mike Brush To Jeff Scott to Carl McRae. I’m standing on their shoulders.
I of course thank my Mom, who is surely watching and metaphysically asking from the 5th Dimension if I shaved for this event. As all of you know that knew her, my mom had a wonderful random kind of vitality and humor that I may have been lucky enough to have inherited just a bit of, and it has made me well suited for a life in music. I love you Mom, wherever you may be now. I want to thank my Dad, who is in many ways my best friend and just a beautifull guy—a model of what a man can and should be—love you Dad. Of course I want to thank both my sisters, Martha & her husband John, and Kit & her husband Jamie, for their friendship, gift of life, and a roof over my head when I came up here to play.
I want to thank my beautiful kids, Tess & Stew, who gave me a renewed love of the world and an urgent passion to make some kind of a record of my life here on this journey. My kids have made me want to make music that matters, to write and sing songs that carry some kind of moral force.
I don’t think I have the appropriate words to fully thank my wife, Julia, who has been everything to me since we met nearly 30 years ago—muse, lover, girlfriend, wife, sounding board, sponsor, supporter, great mother of our children, critic, manager, best friend, and the last link to sanity during the really hard times of cancer, death and addiction. I realize that everyone has their own fights to fight, yet no one but the two of us can really know what we’ve been through together. Julia, you’ve handled desperate, desperate times with unbending grace and beauty, always. We all know the old saying “Behind every man is a good woman. etc." In our case it’s “Behind me is Julia saying get a real piano player to play that part.” I love you Jule with all I got. So thank you for this wonderful award and for making a kid from Saginaw very proud and happy. Good night.
Friday, April 17, 2009
This new interview, conducted by Review Magazine's Robert Martin, is the fourth time in their 25 year history that the two Saginaw natives have sat down together for a lengthy, all-encompassing interview. Instigating this latest conversation is the May 7 Saginaw Arts Commission Award Ceremony honoring Stewart Francke with a Special 20th Anniversary Arts Award for his music. This interview will appear in the April 22, 2009 issue of Review.
RM: Within this context, and apart from your semi-autobiographical 'Saginaw' material, you've also chronicled a lot about the trials, tribulations, and legacy of Detroit. When you look back at both Saginaw and Detroit over the past 20 years, what are the types of changes you notice? Apart from the obvious economic issues impacting both areas, are there any interior changes with the mindset of the people that populate these communities that have either inspired or give you pause for concern?
SF: The artist’s job is to clarify and share his own obsessions. To make people care about his obsessions, whatever they may be. Then find a context for them in the times he lives in. Then the music has a chance to transcend those earthly conditions. A big part of my job is to be an emotional alchemist. My obsessions have included the spiritual and physical well being of my primary and secondary hometowns in Michigan—Saginaw and Detroit. So what I'm trying to capture is what's going on in the minds and hearts of folks that live in this state. What is the real cost of living an engaged life? And what are the costs of isolation?
As you said, the changes in both towns have been many, but the biggest issue remains race.
Saginaw and Detroit have historically been segregated by physical boundaries. In Saginaw it’s the river and in Detroit it’s 8 Mile. And on either side of those physical boundaries come differences in lifestyle, health, education, income, opportunity and safety. And that is still cause for great stress and bewilderment—why there remains such economic disparity among people living three, four miles apart. There’s a moral obligation to care for each other. We’re dependent on each other regardless of whether we know each other’s name. As musicians we aren’t color blind—we recognize and glorify the differences in each tradition.
However, you asked about our collective mindset, and I think it’s one of prideful defeat right now. It's a very dark time right now. Coming from Detroit, we were like everyone’s drunk uncle to the great economic and political forces in New York and Washington.--big, loud, tough, crass and ill mannered but we did the back breaking, every day physical labor that allowed them to do what they do and be who they are, so we were tolerated.
Now we’re out of date and bankrupt of cash and ideas—that’s the perception anyway—so we get shat upon by New York and DC. They give the banks and insurance giants hundreds of billions of dollars as unaccounted for gifts, but break the balls of the car companies and the UAW when they ask for a loan ten times smaller. As a result of all of this, we’re filled with this civic paradox of self doubt vs. pride and fear vs. hope. So trying to capture this paradox in a song is both inspiring and very difficult to get right.
President Obama is the personification of the hope; the fact that all your friends are unemployed is the personification of the fear. We’re Midwesterners, and that carries a code like any other regional distinction. In the true Midwest, we place the value of living in loyalty to a few friends and family, maybe one or two chosen institutions, usually unions and churches, and finally in a deep trust with the land and water around us. We’re a lot more open to change than the rest of the country realizes when it’s clear the way we used to do it isn’t working any more. That was my point behind the song “That’s The Way We Do It In Detroit”—we have a lot of pride that we were the backbone to this country once and know we can do it again. Just don’t deal us out of the game.
RM: Your output has been considerable and consistent over the past two decades. For the record, how many albums, books, and articles have you published and where do you draw your inspiration to tackle age-old issues of the human heart and life in general with a fresh perspective?
SF: I’m a late bloomer. Because I was bucking so many established things to just be an artist in the first place, to try and function as a musician, I was uneducated in the arts and had a defiant street rock and roll attitude that was based on insecurity and anger. So I felt I needed an apprenticeship that was long and intense, to overcome my lack of formal musical education. I overpaid my dues in bars and clubs, learning how to play and perform, and didn’t make my first record for public distribution until I was 34, when my daughter was born. I just noticed that Leonard Cohen was the same age when he made his first record, and he’s now the toast of the town all over the world at 74—there’s my career arc right there.
After that. my aim was to make a record a year, which is what I did until leukemia came calling. Cancer is not a good career move. So I’ve made 11 since 1995, with a new one on the way this fall. I also worked as a freelance writer for several years and wrote countless reviews, interviews and features for a lot of publications—mostly the Detroit Metro Times--between 1983 and 1994. Many of those pieces were collected in a book called Between The Ground & God, which came out in 2004.
It’s almost humorous to think about now, but when I was 19 and jamming in garages and basements, then in every shitty bar in Michigan for ten years, it was a real point of contention with my dad, who wanted me to cut my hair and work for GM. He worked for them; all my uncles and cousins worked for them or wanted to. Everyone I knew was associated with the auto trade in one form or another. I’d spent nearly 18 months bending transmission hoses at Steering Gear and putting water pumps on engine blocks on the assembly line at Oldsmobile in Lansing and knew I didn’t want to work for GM.
It’s important to remember that playing guitar in a band was once a thing of real rebellion—a loud ‘fuck you’ to the establishment and a rejection of some safer things in life. Now it’s a preferred career choice—parents sign their kids up for rock school and make sure they have the best gear and a home studio! My father and I have been given the gift of time to work things out and he’s seen me have some success, so we’ve been very very close for many years now.
My point is that I had to fight, hard, to carve out this life for myself. So there’s a weird irony when thinking that GM will have to declare bankruptcy before I will. I say that only as it relates to my own story--in the larger picture it’s of course heartbreaking to watch friends and family lose jobs, benefits and 401k money. But the ironic reality is astounding: Who would ever dreamed that being a musician was the wiser choice in the long run? It goes back to the age old thing of following your heart of hearts. There really was no choice. It chose me as much as I chose it.
As far as finding inspiration, I’ve been lucky. I always have a fresh title idea or a melody working in my head. You take it where you find it. It's my job, too. True inspiration lasts seconds, really. Just enough to glimpse the whole song or get the whisper of the melody and feel. Then you just grind the rest out with the tricks of the trade. There are a whole lot of things that you have to do to remain open to inspiration, and a lot of them can make you appear very strange and out of step with every day society as far as personal behavior. So folks—don’t judge your artists too harshly. We’re listening to satellite radio without a radio.
RM: Every artist has high points, low points, and breakthrough moments in his or her
career. What are some of those high and low points in your own career and can you recall those moments when you knew the work you were producing would take you to a different higher level? Also, what are the three favorite albums (discs) that stand out for you as representing your strongest work?
SF: Because I’m the kind of songwriter who uses his own life as both material and measuring stick, the high points in my every day life have also been high points in my artistic life. And vice versa. There’s a real right brain-left brain aspect to my survival. There’s the actual work, the conception of songs, the music, the arranging, recording and performing live. Then there’s the business and the general idea of “success.” We delude ourselves by re-defining the terms of success until we get closer to it.
I always feel optimistic and enthusiastic about the music and the songwriting and recording. It’s why I do all the other things. But as we all know, the music business is a brutal, bone crunching, heart stomping business. The low points, to be honest, have been many over the years—when the travel is long and low rent, when the phone doesn’t ring, when a gig isn’t done well, when you’re not given the respect or paid even half of what you’re worth, when I was sick and performed poorly, when you question devoting your life so completely to one thing. It’s not easy.
Yet you knew all this going in, as a young person who could and would survive anything to stay in touch with and true to the music. So there’s no complaining. Because the music is both the reward and an end in itself. And I am married to a woman who deeply understands the artistic struggle and its importance, and we love each other like the day we met.
Fortunately a lot of the real dark days are behind me for a little while, knock on wood. I have the respect of my colleagues and a real relationship with a loyal audience. I can call myself a success by my own stringent definition now, not by how the world sees me, or by how the entertainment industry hands it out. I never knew that the music I was making would matter, or take me to another level. I’ve always approached it with self doubt and a hopeful urgency.
The high points are too many to mention: so many great gigs, recording with The Funk Brothers, watching little sketches of songs become breathing documents of our condition. There’ve been a ton of amazing nights here in Saginaw, several at Bo White's place, several at Meinberg's, one with Leo Najar and the Symphony doing some of my songs, and then the 2007 show with Brian James for Dr. Fields Foundation at The Temple. The night the Detroit Music Awards honored me in the midst of the transplant with a special award and a lengthy standing ovation; that tore me up. So there’s just a general sense of satisfaction knowing I’m better than I was. I worked at it, found my voice and what inspired me, and in all areas I think I’m better than I was when I began.
Look at the way things were when I started—there was very little respect for the survival of the independent artist. You had the initial set of gatekeepers—the labels, run by A&R men and women who often got the job because an uncle was the promo man in Buffalo, then radio, with program directors that weren’t music people, making decisions about airplay based on a whole set of corrupt ideas. Then agents and promoters. And here I was, making music for my audience. Skipping over the gatekeepers and making music for a perceived group of like minded, well intentioned, emotionally involved people that I wanted to reach on both a very deep yet conversational level with my songs. I wasn’t playing to the gatekeepers. And it was very hard to get to the intended audience unless you got through the gatekeepers first.
But then there’s this secondary set of gatekeepers—the rock press, the record stores, regional booking agents and promoters and TV licensing companies. And that’s really where I caught a break. My work was validated and understood by some very insightful and influential writers. Then the people at the Palace and what is now Live Nation put me on tons of shows with national acts, and that spread to other agencies and promoters, and I worked and worked and all of a sudden had a real career because I had finally reached a portion of that mythological audience—without being crowned by the first rung of gatekeepers.
Now, in 2009, the first rung gatekeepers—the labels, commercial radio, monopolized promoters—are not as relevant to my ability to make music, increase my audience and make a living. The digital realm for music changes everything. There’s never been a middle class for creative artists—it’s either been very very famous and rich or very very broke—but that reality has shifted in the last 10 years. There’s more power in the hands of the creators themselves, and your ability to reach people is based on the emotional reach of your music, the reaction it engenders via word of mouth, and its accessibility. Recorded music will soon be free to all—I don’t see any other way that can go. The option to pay for music and support an artist you love will be one way of subsidizing careers, along with live work, which has always been the staple and always will be.
The three records that I’ve made that I think work well are Where The River Meets The Bay, my first one, that really is a realized daydream about this part of Michigan and its fictional characters. The lyrics were influenced by three things—the poetry of Theodore Roethke and James Wright, my youth in the Saginaw area, and my talks with you about it all. Then House Of Lights, which is a poetic examination of family life and the fragility that domestic life brings. The last is What We Talk Of… When We Talk, my homage to the Funk Brothers and Marvin Gaye that really helped me find my adult voice as a singer, musician and songwriter working in the soul idiom. I have to add to that the single “Motor City Serenade,” which is an extension of What We Talk Of, and the record I started to really sing well on. My inner Sam Cooke/Rod Stewart/Frankie Miller voice. And Sunflower Soul Serenade taught me how to use the studio as an instrument—A lot of fans and friends tell me they love that record best.
RM: Does music feel as 'strong' to you today - not only in terms of being a motivating force personally and professionally - but in terms of its significance and importance to audiences, as it did back when you first started out?
SF: The slightly cynical part of me says that it’s not as important and self defining as it was when we came of age in the 70s, or how it’s depicted in Cameron Crowe’s brilliant Almost Famous. But my daughter is now 15, and her love of her bands and their songs is every bit as intense as mine was, if not more so. I could argue that she’s not hearing music as good as ours—by good I mean inspired, mystical, nuanced, vibrantly alive, evocative, well written, well sung, and life affirming. But that would sound like every father in every generation since 1920. As I said earlier, it’s now a very viable career choice for these kids. Their dads all manage them. I think my dad wanted to strangle me.
So the answer that trumps my cynicism is yes, it’s even more important today for people, for two reasons. First is its ubiquity. It’s everywhere, whether we want it or not. We’ve grown up and grown old with this music. The tradition has borne its own fruit and lasted as a real art form, with a worldwide commercial apparatus to support it. So yes yes yes, a song can still quite literally change a life, save a life, heal a broken heart, and see a person through the best and worst parts of their life. If I didn’t believe that, my adult life would be a hollow act. I think it’s generational conceit to think “our” music was any more important than the music is today.
RM: What is the best advice you received from any of the famous (or not so famous) musicians you've worked with over the decades - or any individuals apart from the music business - that you feel made a pivotal impact in your life and career?
There are many aspects to answering this question, and I’ll try and hit on each of them briefly. When I was 19, I had two once-in-a-lifetime mentors. First was Boogie Bob Baldori of The Woolies, who put me in his band when I was greener than green—I couldn’t play a lick and didn’t know my fucking name. My hip quotient was zero. He taught me everything--how to work an audience, how to wrap a cord after a gig, how to listen to each other, how to write a business plan for budgets. He taught me about keeping tempo, dynamics, how something quiet can kill an audience, how soul and R&B music remains primarily a vocal music, and how a band should work with and around the singer. He taught me where the back of the beat is. He turned me on to Howlin Wolf, Robert Johnson, Henry Adams and Luis Bunuel. He took me to Chicago repeatedly to see the best blues acts—James Cotton and Luther Allison—and meet these shady characters deep inside the music business.
Through Bob and his band I was soon playing bass on some dates with Chuck Berry, who taught me about guitar playing (duh), syncopation, feel and vocal clarity. Here I was working with the guy who literally wrote the book. Listen to Chuck sing—he enunciates every syllable, like the King’s English. Chuck always said, "Ain’t no such thing as a dumb artist.” Chuck was way out front on the whole DIY thing. Don’t get ripped off, don’t be naïve, stupid and trusting. Be an artist, but do things yourself. Chuck is a brilliant man. Put all your eggs in one basket, then watch the shit outta that basket. Chuck Berry music probably remains my favorite kind of music.
Since then, I’ve learned a little something from everyone I’ve played with. Warren Zevon once emphasized to me, over a vat of pureed garlic, that show business was all about the coming and going—the entrances and exits. Make a splash coming out—start on fire---then leave them wanting more.
One thing that really pushed me ahead as far as my own songs was a letter I received from Dave Marsh on Christmas Eve, 1990. I had read Dave since the 70s, in Creem and Rolling Stone etc, but we were just getting to know each other. I’ve been as influenced by the great rock critics and historians as much as I have by the music itself. Marsh, Greil Marcus, Craig Werner, Ben Edmonds, Daniel Wolff, Lester Bangs, David Ritz, Eric Rasmussen, Thom Jurek, Sue Whitall and Jaan Uhelvski—all those people made me feel I wasn’t crazy, that other people sought as much and found as much in a song or concert as I did.
I had made a couple cassettes at home with many of the songs that would appear on Where The River Meets The Bay, and Dave wrote me an incredibly honest and encouraging note about the nature of my own talent, the sacrifice an artistic life calls for, and the kind of difference I could make. It validated my desires. He was the first person I called when I was told I had leukemia, for many reasons. I needed the words to tell my wife and Dave had unfortunately been through the cancer experience and is also one of the most compassionate, learned people on the planet. Dave has become a very close friend over time.
I learned a lot about staying fresh with takes in the studio from the Funk Brothers. They also completed the lessons I learned from Beach Boys’ records—how each player and each part forms a miniature schematic making up the whole engine. Visualize what you hear and put it together backward like that, and always try and hire the best players.
I’ve had the great luck and joy to work with so many people I admire and respect. I once opened for Mick Taylor at the Bottom Line in New York and he was very encouraging about my songs and helpful with arranging ideas. And then as a journalist myself I was able to interview Johnny Cash or Sting or Yoko or Seger, or spend a couple days with George Clinton in the studio, and ask them the questions I found most important. You find after awhile that you already knew what you needed to know--that your initial instincts were true and that you could and should trust yourself.
The working principles of rock and soul music are all shared and repeated by the best people. Over the years I guess I’ve gleaned them down to this trio of rules: Less truly is more; content dictates form; and then of course lastly comes the rule that there are no rules!
That’s the best part about this however—this job comes complete with a very precise and inspired set of instructions and road maps. It’s all right there on the records you love, on the songs that gave you goose bumps, or in the books that changed you. The whole history of recorded music is a map. There it is…get your own music so it sounds close to the best stuff without sacrificing your own individuality and story.
Mitch Ryder and I have become good friends over the last few years, and we play new things for each other before they’re released. He’s an incredible artist and friend and among the best soul singers I’ve ever heard. He’s been very supportive. Growing up in Saginaw when I did, with WTAC in the 60s & 70s and FM rock later, Mitch Ryder was a God. Sometimes I think to myself, “I’m just a kid from Saginaw and Mitch Ryder’s my friend.” Blows my mind sometimes.
My editor at the Metro Times, Thom Jurek, opened my eyes, mind and soul up to the possibilities of art and the concept of the creative connection, how Louis Armstrong begot Jay McShann begot Count Basie begot Ike Turner begot Booker T & The MGs begot CCR begot Pearl Jam begot The Hold Steady. There's an online group called Strat I'm a part of--writers, musicians, academics, critics--and it's made up of people I've become very close to. Strat is like a mentoring social/activist group, for all concerned.
I obviously learned a tremendous amount from both my parents about the simple joy found in work and friendship—that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. They were often surrounded by people, by friends and family. Have some fun man. My family’s always been close—my sisters and my parents and I—and that’s been something you don’t fully appreciate until even just a part of it is gone. I miss my Mother more than I can express. My dad is a bona fide great man—caring, smart and larger than life in many ways. The best listener I’ve ever known, and a lifelong advocate of Saginaw. His example made it impossible to settle for anything less than all I could muster.
I can’t think of anyone I haven’t learned something from. My wife is incredibly wise, and is always reminding me about brevity and levity and is easily the person I listen to the most. And of course one’s kids are always reminding you to shut the fuck up and stop embarrassing them. Not bad advice.
RM: What are some of your future goals and how do you view the architecture on this next stage of your career?
SF: I feel like I’m just starting anew, after a merciless period of illness, death and hard growth. Starting anew, but doing my best work now. I’m as excited about making music as I’ve ever been. My most immediate goals are to finish recording this new record and get it out by October of this year. Then I’d like to finish the book about the bone marrow transplant and aspects of survival. At some point I’d like to do a live recording of the entire What We Talk Of…album, with strings and all, not unlike what Van just did with Astral Weeks. I’d also like to write a musical around my songs and their attendant themes. I’ve talked about this with my friend Brian d’arcy James, who is now playing Shrek on Broadway and probably will be for some time to come. But I’d like to write it with him.
I know very well that no one is promised tomorrow, so I hope I get a chance to try and fulfill some of these dreams. You need dreams at every age—maybe more so as you get older. But physically I don’t really feel any different than I did at 30 while I’m on stage, and that’s saying something after the torture my body’s been through. I’d also like to make a record of all Chuck Berry covers—there’s a responsibility to keep that kind of music alive and out of the hands of bad country acts.
RM: I love those 'Proust Questionnaires' that they publish in Vanity Fair, so given the nature of this pending All Area honor, feel a few of them are appropriate:
a) What is your idea of perfect happiness?
SF: The minute right before you are introduced to go on stage is a moment of perfect happiness. Carnal moments create perfect happiness—clean sheets and a beautiful woman. God, that last sentence sounds like Himmler’s dying wish. It doesn’t take much to make me happy…hmmm… I love late night, listening to Marvin Gaye with a bottle of Tavel. Or when a song comes through and I realize the melody is something new, I still tear up every time that happens.
b) What is your greatest fear?
That’s easy, as it’s my only fear. I don’t even want to give it voice, but it involves my children and is the worst thought for any parent. Everything else I was afraid of has happened.
c) What living person do you most admire?
d) What is your greatest extravagance?
I have 22 guitars. That’s my only extravagance. But my life has been extravagant in an empirical, dramatic way, not in material rewards. I drive a ten year old Jeep and live in an 86 year old house and have many of the same friends I had when I was 12.
e) What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Patience is over-rated. I almost died, and there ain’t no yellow light or warning shot to let you know it’s comin’. The clock ain’t just ticking; it’s exploding. I often feel like I’m running a relay race against time, but I’ve lost my shoes, and I just dropped the baton, and the rest of my team is white.
f) What words or phrases do you most overuse?
I probably tell people I love them too often, or that I’m impressed or excited by something they’ve done. That’s all due to leukemia and the bmt and the specter of death and the brevity of life. Why wait, and why hold back? Being unable to express love, pay a compliment or encourage is a character flaw. Stoicism is about seeking attention and narcissism as much as fawning is. “Look at me, look at me!—I never comment, compliment, explain or complain. I’m John Fucking Wayne, American Male stoic.” Hemingway had a motto that went, “Praise to the face is a form of disgrace,” and a lot of men of his generation lived by that. Probably why one of his sons cross dressed, then killed himself. It’s bullshit. Say it now, what you feel, while you’re alive, and say it often.
g) When and where were you the happiest?
My childhood from birth to age 11 was very very happy, in school at Chester Miller, summers at Hoyt Park and on Lake Huron. Then the shit hit the fan. Then there was a period between 26 and 30 when I discovered this certain strain of arcane music and singers. It was the longest time I ever lived alone, before I was married, and I was finally starting to write some good songs. My Little Willie John and Roy Orbison period--very moody in a good way. Then the shit hit the fan again. But I have to say that this is the happiest time of my life, despite the recent loss of my Mom, my in-laws and a couple friends. I have a deeper understanding of who I am, what I can do, why I want to do it, how I can be of help to others, and I no longer have the frantic compulsion that comes with the longing for more. I am of course always waiting for the shit to hit the fan again.
h) What do you most value in your friends?
That they are at my constant beck and call and serve me with blind loyalty. (smile) Oh I’d have to say a sense of humor toward themselves and everything else is what I value most in my friends. I guess I value the fact that my friends find something in me worth loving, something worth befriending me for.
i) What is your greatest regret?
I’ve lived my life with the singular aim of having no regrets. But still, here they are, although numbered just a few and not totally debilitating. I regret not befriending more people, sooner. Being full of hubris in my youth. Letting some relationships wither. Addiction was highly destructive to everything I loved—that's a real regret.
When it comes to cancer care, I feel like Oskar Schindler at the end of that movie—how he’s distraught that simply buying more Nazi pins would’ve saved more Jewish lives. I lose sleep over this every night—how I could do more for those with cancer, play more fundraisers, go see more people, try to help on every level. Just wish I had more time and money to go toward it.
j) What is your motto?
1. What goes ‘round comes ‘round. Karma is very real and quite immediate.
2. At the end, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do, not the things you did. Life’s short. Get busy.
3. Assume positive intent. It reduces paranoia.
4. If one’s good, ten are better (which got me into a lot of trouble).
5. If you’re walking on thin ice, you might as well dance.