Judy Garland – The Hits of Judy Garland

The Hits of Judy Garland

Judy GarlandThe Hits of Judy Garland Capitol ST 1999 (1963)

Watch That’s Entertainment! and listen to The Golden Age of Movie Musicals, and by comparison Judy Garland’s talents will be immediately apparent.  She had energy and character.  She never shied away from her slightly swallowed midwestern accent.  In concerts she recognized her star status but made overt efforts to connect with her audience without condescension or pretension.  In an era of when everything from racism to cronyism to plain stupidity kept plenty of under-qualified entertainers in the limelight, Judy seemed to actually earn her time there — even if that dedication contributed to her well-documented personal issues and substance abuse.  She became a camp icon for good reason.  This particular compilation isn’t definitive.  While these songs may be Garland’s hits, these recorded versions generally aren’t the canonical ones.  Many — if not all — are live and probably from Garland’s many concert performances from the 1950s, though the album sleeve gives no indication of the origins of the recordings. She is still backed by talented orchestras, finely-crafted arrangements, and the sound fidelity loses nothing despite being live.  Here’s to Judy.

Sly & The Family Stone – Fresh


Sly & The Family StoneFresh Epic KE 32134 (1973)

Sly Stone was one of the great pop music producers of his time.  Music collectors obsess over Brian Wilson‘s efforts with The Beach Boys.  Some even joke that anybody obsessively into record collecting will eventually and inevitably end up listening to the Beach Boys.  Those same collectors should devote every bit as much adulation to Sly.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On was a landmark – a dark, murky, angry masterpiece.  But that album came out in 1971.  It was still the height of black militancy in America.  Things were starting to change though.  Late in 1971 the Powell Memo was issued, beginning the conservative business backlash against progressive social causes. Even the Black Panthers, one of the most visible militant black organizations, shifted tactics and started to devote energies to electoral politics.  For instance, Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973 — just across the Bay from the San Francisco home of Sly & The Family Stone.

Fresh opens with “In Time,” a funky workout that highlights some of the innovations the album establishes.  The rhythm section of “The Family Stone” had (mostly) departed.  So instead of relying on individual ingenuity and improvisation from each player, Sly uses the song’s structure and arrangement to create its appeal.  The horn charts are the best example.  In isolation, the horn charts use fairly conventional soul/R&B harmonies.  But Sly chops them up.  The horn section plays little riffs that don’t seem to resolve fully, interrupted to create a rhythmic emphasis using what is nominally harmonic. There is some sinister sounding organ and short, punchy guitar stabs.  Underneath everything is a buoyant, throbbing bass line.  The percussion is a combination of a drum machine (a rather new invention) and a real live drummer.  Taken all together, the song emphasizes a kind of juggling act between the demands of bland commercial music of the sort that simply perpetuates the status quo.  The funkiness of the rhythms of “In Time” are kind of radical.  Yet those horn charts are certainly cognizant of an existing social landscape that assigns an established value to them.  Sly was synthesizing these two opposing sentiments.  It works because of the unique relationships between the instruments in the album’s mix.  The drums and bass, and hard syncopated rhythms in general, take a very prominent role.  The melodic and harmonic elements, even the lyrics, frequently seem to be fit around the rhythms rather than the other way around, which would be more conventional.

“If You Want Me to Stay” has Sly singing in this great high-pitched, croaking voice, with intentionally stilted and rushed rhythmic phrasing.  It may not seem like it on the surface, but this is Sly offering a kind of crypto-autobiographical statement on multiple levels.  The song might be said to rely on masking, with one reading being strictly about romantic entanglements (in relation to his future wife Kathleen Silva), but with another reading being about his position as a celebrity musician being pulled in different directions and trying of being a kind of spokesperson for a generation.

The best-known song on the album is undoubtedly the cover of “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be),” with vocals by Rose Stone.  The song was song originally popularized by Doris Day in a bright yet rigid reading used in a film.

Fresh was not a complete critical success at the time.  It was a huge commercial hit, but not quite as big as immediately prior releases.  And that trend continued.  Within a few years Sly would start to seem irrelevant.  As reviewer yerblues wrote about Sly & The Family Stone’s 1976 album Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back, “If there’s one word that sums up Sly Stone’s approach here, it is capitulation. The originality that had formerly been a hallmark of the group’s recordings is wholly absent here.”  In those later years there was more emphasis on commercial success, even if it meant chasing dull fads, and integrity in holding to certain ideals (or a cause) was discarded.  If Sly had almost entirely capitulated by 1976, that question was on the table already years earlier.  In 1973 his approach was still in flux and not at all settled.

Certainly, there were other soul/R&B acts that faced similar pressures in the early/mid-1970s.  Gladys Knight & The PipsNeither One of Us (1973) also develops the sense of conflict and apprehension at a time when black militancy was waning and facing significant defeats.  Curtis Mayfield had his best albums behind him by the mid-70s, as the militant urgency of his earlier solo work faded or just seemed out of step.  Stevie Wonder might be the best parallel to Sly, using programmed bass in a way that ran in parallel with Sly’s drum machine experiments.  Though Stevie managed that by switching between switching between socially conscious material (“Living For the City,” “Pastime Paradise”) and nostalgic and romantic singer-songwriter stuff (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “I Wish”) — with a somewhat greater volume of the latter.  Stevie almost had to slip in the former among a sufficient number of the latter.  Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Going On (1971) seemed to set the tone for a lot of early 70s soul music.  Just a few years later, though, Gaye released Let’s Get It On (1973), a funkier but also more personal album that — great as it is — can be seen as a turn away from broader social movements and toward individual issues.  This mirrored Sly’s approach.  His next album, Small Talk (1974), would turn toward domestic concerns and away from songs about social consciousness.

The sub-genre of Philly Soul makes another great example of the trends in early 70s soul music.  The O’Jays released Ship Ahoy in 1973.  It is an album that presents itself as socially-conscious, up to and including a cover image of the band depicted in the hold of a slave ship, yet most of the songs push a staunchly conservative/reactionary agenda, or at least trot out familiar conservative tropes.  Take “For the Love of Money.”  Its an iconic song, and one of the best-known O’Jays tunes — second only to “Love Train.”  It lambasts being “changed” by money, and the ills of an obsession with money.  That is an old christian sentiment — bringing to mind how Jesus threw the money-changers out of the temple in Jerusalem.  This might almost be seen as an anti-capitalist song.  But it isn’t really.  It is more about deflecting attention from structural economic inequality and lack of jobs, etc.  This is illustrated by another song from Ship Ahoy, “Don’t Call Me Brother.”  That song, despite its catchy vocal harmonies, is a lecture in “personal responsibility.”  It advocates pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, rugged individualism that suggests individual decision-making is both necessary and sufficient to alter social outcomes and that social and economic issues (poverty, joblessness, incarceration, etc.) are no more than the aggregation of disparate individual decisions, rather than the products of collective and institutional mechanisms that produce, reproduce and transform social and economic relations and relegate individuals to certain positions and limit their scope of free will.  “Don’t Call Me Brother” is exactly the sort of conservative philosophy that people like serial rapist Bill Cosby have long advocated (with maximum elitist condescension).  It is also precisely the sort of worldview that suggests the black power/freedom movements are irrelevant, and that the status quo is self-justifying and inherently optimal.

So, turning back to Fresh, we have Sly offering up songs like “If It Were Left Up to Me” — with the lyrics, “If it were left up to me / we could put ideas in motion” and “now that it’s left up to me, and you / will you try? / will you try? / I promise from me to you, I will try” — and “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be).”  There is a recognition in these songs of the difficulties facing black militancy, black nationalism, the whole hippie thing, and related causes.  Yet there is both determination and perseverance on display in the face of those challenges.  Despite perhaps getting worn out from a lifestyle of partying and drugs, and the difficulties of being a public figure, Sly was still fighting for the same causes as on Dance to the Music, Stand! and There’s a Riot Goin’ on.  But at the same time he was aware of all the changing times and circumstances, and those changes are reflected in his music on Fresh.  He puts into musical terms a new sense of meaning for the new circumstances around him.

Sly tinkered with this album incessantly, and there are alternate mixes of much of it floating around (including as bonus tracks to a reissue).  The result is probably the flat-out funkiest album Sly ever made.  It was hugely influential on a lot of musicians.  Some fans rate it a little less than some of the preceding albums.  I think it is top-shelf stuff, among the essentials.  Then again, Sly & The Family Stone are a very formative musical influence for me.  Fresh is an album I loved form the first time I heard it, and decades later I still love it.  Perhaps I’m a little biased.

Hard to imagine anyone hating this one, but for some this might be one of those game-changer type musical experiences, just as much as Sly’s other best work.

Carpenters – Horizon


CarpentersHorizon A&M SP-4530 (1975)

By the mid-1970s, extensive touring and television appearances had taken a toll on The Carpenters.  But in 1975 they bounced back with the excellent album Horizon.  This has much of the same lush “soft rock” sound with dark undercurrents that made the brother and sister duo famous.  Now, though, there were more and more recording studio tricks being deployed, making the music sound a bit more like a continuous sonic fabric.  Some great songs here, like “Happy” and “Desperado.”  Side two is practically flawless.  This might not be A Song for You, but it is still one of The Carpenters’ best.

Fabrizio De André – La buona novella

La buona novella

Fabrizio De AndréLa buona novella Produttori Associati PA/LPS 34 (1970)

La buona novella (translation: “The Good News” or “The Good Book”) is a concept album about Jesus.  It draws from both the canonical New Testament and the Biblical Apocrypha.  On “Laudate hominem,” the closing song, De André sings, “I don’t want to think of you as son of God, but son of man, even brother of mine.”  He had this to say about the album in 1998:

“When I wrote La buona novella it was 1969. At the time we were in the very middle of the students’ protests, and less attentive people, which are always the majority among us — comrades, friends, people of the same age as me — regarded that record as anachronistic. They told me: ‘What’s this? We go fighting inside universities and outside universities against abuses, and you instead tell us the story, which moreover we already know, of Jesus Christ’s preachings?’ And they did not realize that the Good News was meant to be an allegory, it was an allegory that consisted in a comparison between the better and more sensible instances of the revolt of ’68, and some instances, certainly higher from a spiritual point of view, but similar from an ethical-social point of view, raised by a gentleman, 1969 years before, against the abuses of power, against the abuses of authority, in the name of egalitarianism and universal brotherhood. That man was called Jesus of Nazareth. And I think he was, and remains, the greatest revolutionary of all time. When I wrote the album I didn’t want to venture into roads or paths that would be difficult for me to travel on, such as metaphysics or even theology, first of all because I don’t understand anything about those, secondly because I always thought that if God did not exist we should invent Him, which is exactly what Man has done ever since he set foot on Earth.”

When put this way, it is clear that he was looking at christianity in a similar way as film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who wrote the screenplay St. Paul around this time but was unable to find funding to film it.  (Pasolini also made the trite Gospel According to Matthew).  They both were interested in the radical underpinnings of christianity, viewed from an atheistic point of view.  It is a perspective that has gained some traction in academic philosophy in more recent years (Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism; The Fragile Absolute — or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?).  Actually, musicians and others have for some time argued that Jesus was a communist.  For that matter, Ernst Bloch‘s Atheism in Christianity touched on this approach back in 1968.  At bottom all these are attempts to link the foundations of (purely atheistic, materialist) egalitarianism to the revolutionary content of early christianity, separate from the way the christian church has evolved (especially since the Roman Empire).  La buona novella can also be seen as something of the polar opposite of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which debuted on Broadway the following year and dwelt on the melodrama of being a messiah — in the superficial trappings of hippie garb.

The melodies here are memorable.  De André applies his wonderfully smooth, resonant voice to treatments that might be called folk-rock mixed with christian chorale music.  These recordings can be appreciated even by listeners who do not speak Italian.  Yet De André is renowned as a lyricist.  Reading translations of his lyrics by themselves is worthwhile.  (There are translations available online.)

One of the best songs here, “Il testamento di Tito” (“Tito’s Will”), includes the lyrics:

“honor the father, honor the mother
and honor also their rod
kiss the hand that broke your nose
because you asked for a morsel

“when my father’s heart stopped
I felt no sorrow
when my father’s heart stopped
I felt no sorrow”

This is more than a bit reminiscent of Luke 14:26:

“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

The story draws from the Syriac Infancy Gospel and is narrated by Tito/Titus, the so-called “good thief” or “penitent thief” (also called Dismas).  Tito describes himself violating nine of the ten commandments, unrepentant, with “though shalt not kill” violated by those crucifying him.  The last lines of the song are Tito saying,

“I, in seeing this man who is dying
Mother, I feel sorrow
in the piety that doesn’t yield to resentment
Mother, I learned love.”

This is the essence of christian universalism, by taking the criminal (of a low social strata) and making his acceptance of the duty of christian love — agape, love as charity — an example of gaining direct, personal access to the universal something depicted in a positive light (rather than a usurpation or transgression itself).  There is still no transcendence.  The thief dies, and so does Jesus.

De André is known for his sardonic criticisms of the catholic church, a major institution in his native Italy.  His popularity there arguably maintained or increased after his death.  A bit like Camarón de la Isla in Spain, he is a people’s musician, an iconic champion for the marginalized (even as De André came from a well-off family).

Gladys Knight & The Pips – Neither One of Us

Neither One of Us

Gladys Knight & The PipsNeither One of Us Soul S 737L (1973)

The early 1970s were an interesting time for soul music.  The genre underwent seismic shifts.  Those musical shifts went along with shifting social circumstances.  As the liberal “freedom movement” (AKA “civil rights movement”) stepped back following its “victories” (which proved small and mostly temporary), and as severe backlash (including torture and assassinations) against anti-capitalist black militancy set in, there was a kind of metaphorical fork in the road.  The best and brightest black Americans could accede to the dictates of the establishment, forsake the “movement” in exchange for narrow personal benefit, or, instead, commit to solidarity with a large class-based coalition in spite of the scorn and repression of the vested interests and all their concomitant tactics of racial bigotry.  So take the title track, “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye).”   There is a long tradition in black music of “masking,” with two meanings embedded in songs (usually one light and often romantic, the other socio-political and often dealing with racism).  The title song could be seen as being about the decision point as the freedom movement and black militancy were receding and facing real defeats — in the face of state violence in the form of COINTELPRO and the like.  Stick with it or turn one’s back on it and say goodbye?  The song is brilliant, and one of Knight & The Pips’ best recorded performances, up there with their later hit “Midnight Train to Georgia.”

A lot of soul music in the early-/mid-70s drew on a sense of urban elitism.  Adolph Reed is one of the best commentators on that phenomenon, asserting that “race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. *** As I have argued, following Walter Michaels and others, within that moral economy a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.”  Or as Pete Dolack put it, “liberal ideology tends to fight for the ability of minorities and women to be able to obtain elite jobs as ends to themselves rather than orient toward a larger struggle against systemic inequality and oppression.  *** A movement serious about change fights structural discrimination; it doesn’t fight for a few individuals to have a career.”  The upshot of that now-prevailing mindset is that so long as a representative proportion of racial minorities are given privileged positions in a system of stark and brutal inequality then the all forms of social activism aimed at the larger, systemic and institutional inequalities are deemed inappropriate, even invalid.  This sort of undercurrent flows through a lot of “Philly Soul”, which could seem a bit opportunistic and self-congratulatory.  But Neither One of Us conveys a deeper sense of conflict.  It was poised right at the historical juncture when different paths forward were possible, and people, in essence, had to collectively and individually choose their path.  It may not be explicit about it, but the album is chock full of a sense of apprehension about the future.  Gladys Knight & The Pips were deftly conveying that sense of the times, as were a few others like Sly Stone (Fresh).

The arrangements and production on Neither One of Us are by an army of supporting personnel – six producers and eight arrangers!  But it works damn well.  Just check the phenomenal “This Child Needs Its Father,” opening with a seductively lethargic melodic line played on strings and a growing element of psychedelic guitar.  Contrast the limp and boilerplate strings on O’JaysBack Stabbers from the same year, which seem to simply magnify a single idea across many string players rather than using the orchestration to build something premised on the interactions of a multitude of players.  This difference is precisely that between the urban liberal “there is no alternative” attitude exemplified by the formulaic, immutable and homophonic orchestrations of the O’Jays, on the one hand, and the more diffuse egalitarianism represented by the sort of interactive, layered orchestration on “This Child Needs Its Father” (or, say, early 1970s recordings of Curtis Mayfield), on the other.

This is a great one, up there with the very best Motown-affiliated LPs, like David Ruffin‘s My Whole World Ended, Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Going On, and Stevie Wonder‘s best few albums.