miriam makeba

Miriam Makeba : Miriam Makeba (#26)

Miriam Makeba | Miriam Makeba (May 1960)
RCA Victor (South Africa)
World / African – 34:42

“All day long we listen to American music. I don’t see why the radios in the US cannot even put aside one hour a day just to play music that is not American.”

We have a very blinkered view of the world. True, we now look down on the colonialist nature of our ancestors, imposing their culture on the lands which they invaded in the name of exploration. Whether it is the native Americans or Australians who we have displaced, we now feel that our generations would be more accommodating. But, deep down, we are still only concerned with those who look like us. There is a famous story from many years ago when, following bad weather descending on the English Channel, one national newspaper warned: “Fog in Channel; continent cut off”. Anything beyond our everyday experience is something which we do not feel the need to experience or empathise with. Unfortunately, this cultural snobbery results in us never fully understanding the wider world around us.

Many international stars from non-speaking English countries will resort to singing in English, simply to guarantee themselves a hit. But it is not just the language which puts us off; the music itself can seem alien to our ears. This is as much down to the mainstream radio and television channels, more content in churning out the latest home-grown artist than highlighting the work of an African or Asian artist (I admit that I am generalising a little and we do get the occasional breakout star, but it is fair to say that we prefer our songs to all sound the same). It is a real shame as we are missing out on some wonderful performers as a result.

Among those who deserve greater recognition outside of those with a more eclectic taste in world music is Miriam Makeba. An outspoken critic of the apartheid system that was in place in her home country of South Africa, the woman who was to be nicknamed Mama Africa found her first fame after featuring on an anti-apartheid documentary. After travelling to Broadway to feature in the South African based musical King Kong, she befriended Harry Belafonte who helped her with her visa. However, when she attempted to return to South Africa in 1960, she discovered her passport had been cancelled, leaving her in exile. She later said: “I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you’ve ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile.”

But while she was struggling with her own exile, she was able to use it to raise awareness not just of the political struggle within South Africa, but also the culture she had left behind. Her breakthrough album, released when she was 28, displays a range of different styles, many originating from her native land, and revealing the versatility of her voice. As Westerners (a phrase I am hesitant to use), the sounds of her Xhosa vocal clicks are completely unfamiliar to us. Certainly, we cannot rely on the words unless we happen to be fluent in that language. But it doesn’t stop the songs from having a powerful effect on us. A large part of this is down to Makeba’s voice; her ability is sensational, turning her hand to a variety of styles that leave you feeling breathless. Given the little instrumentation to support her, she is able to display a versatility that is breath-taking to hear.

Some of the traditional songs seem recognisable: The Click Song (which, as Miriam confesses in her introduction to the number, is so named by Americans unable to pronounce the African sounds themselves) is a beautiful call with a wonderful groove to it; elsewhere Mbube later became a hit for Tight Fit who, translating the words to English, released it as The Lion Sleeps Tonight – however, while this version is remembered for its cheesiness, Makeba’s version is a beautiful lullaby that all but rids the mind of any memories of the later cover. Of course, there are a couple of English language numbers, clearly included to tempt in the American record buyers who would, presumably, shy away from an album sung completely in a foreign language. The novelty number, The Naughty Little Flea, is as throw-away as it sounds, although Miriam still manages to bring a certain dignity to it. But it is her version of The House of the Rising Sun which stands out –covered by Joan Baez on her debut album in the same year, Makeba’s rendition is simply stunning and can easily stand side-by-side with the version released by The Animals a few years later, putting into question which one should be deemed definitive.

Simply regarding any music which does not fit into American or British pop as ‘World’ does no justice to the complexity and beauty of the sounds being produced outside of the Western mainstream. We should be thankful for artistes like Miriam Makeba for opening the doors to their culture and their lands. This is a beautiful, evocative album filled sung with a passion and a power that moves the heart. A definite must-listen for any list and one which will not disappoint.

 

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Miriam Makeba here:

Next time: A Date with the Everly Brothers by The Everly Brothers
 

Elvis is Back

Elvis Presley : Elvis is Back! (#25)

Elvis Presley | Elvis Is Back! (April 1960)
RCA (USA)
Rock and Roll / Rhythm and Blues – 31:54

“I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.”

There was a time that the surest way to end a prodigious cinematic career, you need to award the actor an Oscar. According to Hollywood legend, once you’ve been handed an Academy Award, then you would never be able to work again. Take such talent as Cuba Gooding, Jr. By the mid-1990s, he had been building up a wealth of roles that proved he had talent in spades. Boyz n the Hood had put him on the map and it was only a matter of time that he finally showed his true worth; in 1996, he finally achieved it, taking the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Jerry Maguire. The world was at his feet; finally he had the power to pick roles to match his talent. So what happened? A string of poor performances in terrible films: Pearl Harbor, Rat Race, Snow Dogs – he even took on a part in Daddy Day Camp, a sequel so awful that even Eddie Murphey had turned it down. The talent was clearly there; sadly, for Cuba, the parts were not.

Talent and quality do not always go hand-in-hand. No matter how good you may be – how great your gift may be – if the material isn’t there to work with, then you will always be limited. No matter how hard you try, you simply cannot polish the proverbial. Many great artists have fallen by the wayside, simply because they were unable to find the right pieces to reflect their ability. You don’t even have to be an Oscar winner – or even a movie maker. There are plenty of examples of artistes across the board who failed to capitalise on their talent. And, as sacrilegious as it may be to fans of the King, among those who often seemed to squander what God had given them was Elvis Aaron Presley.

Elvis is one of those singers whose legend far outweighed anything else. We’ve already come across a few, but, in truth, the King led the way on this front. Even before his death, his following showed unwavering devotion; since his untimely demise, his stature has grown ever greater. But you only have to take a look at his back catalogue to find that the material given to him was not always of a high quality (the less said about many of his movie roles, the better). When it worked, there was nobody who could equal him; but he too often had to make the best of weak material. It seems particularly sad given how talented Presley was.

By 1960, Elvis fans had been without any new songs from the King for two years; Presley had been unable to record during his spell in the American army. The fans were desperate, to say nothing of the studio bosses at RCA, for him to begin releasing again. Despite the best efforts of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, to build the hunger further, RCA got its way and forced the singer back into the studio, along with a group of musicians who had previously worked with him. The idea was to get new material out as quickly as possible to feed the fans’ appetite. Rather than spend time slowly rebuilding the following, the idea was to provide exactly what the public wanted. The result was Elvis is Back!, an album that within less than a month had been pieced together from these sessions. And, as beautiful as his voice can be, this is one album that doesn’t always hit the mark.

Things start off with Make Me Know It, the first track to be cut and one which took numerous attempts to nail. It’s a jaunty number with a rocking piano background, brass and Elvis’ voice hitting all the notes. And, like much of the album which is to follow, it sounds…well…ok. In fact, this is probably the biggest criticism that can be levelled at Elvis is Back!; there is nothing here which stands out as a classic. There isn’t anything wrong with any of the songs: they are all performed competently. But after two years away, you would have hoped for something so much greater. Take the second number, a version of the wonderful Fever. It is an incredible song, one that has a sultry edge of danger to it. Elvis’ voice is smooth and full of desire – it sounds good. But no matter what he does, even Presley cannot compete with the definitive version by Peggy Lee. It says something when you are suggesting that the King’s take on a song is the second best.

By the third track, The Girl of My Best Friend, things start to look up. A fun pop classic, there is a reason why this is one of the songs which Elvis is always remembered for. It suits him well and he seems to know it, enjoying every moment of singing it. Interestingly, two of the most iconic songs he would ever record were part of these sessions – It’s Now Or Never and Are You Lonesome Tonight? Tellingly, neither of them feature on the album. It was almost as if these were too good to include (although I admit the slower numbers which the King performed have never been my favourite; his voice worked best with the rockier tracks). Not much can be said about I Will Be Home Again other than the fact that it is one of the dreariest numbers that I have ever heard; it may only last for 2 minutes and 30 seconds but it feels ten times as long. Thank goodness for the wonderful Dirty, Dirty Feeling, a fast paced number that whizzes past and yet gets the shoulders pumping to every beat. It is what Elvis does best. It is something which is repeated throughout: for every strong number (Such a Night is a prime example), there is something which feels like it should be cut from the set list (Soldier Boy is particularly grating).

There is no doubt that Elvis deserved his status as the leading singer of his time; his voice possessed depth and soul which, when used with the right song, was something to behold. But he was forever let down by weak, badly-chosen material. Elvis is Back! is no exception; when it works, there is nothing quite like it. Unfortunately, for half the time, you wish the King had been a little more discerning in his selection of songs.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Elvis is Back! here:

Next time: Miriam Makeba by Miriam Makeba

Joan Baez

Joan Baez : Joan Baez (#24)

Joan Baez | Joan Baez (November 1960)
Vanguard (USA)
Folk – 46:02

“I think music has the power to transform people, and in doing so, it has the power to transform situations – some large and some small.”

Throughout history, man has possessed a dream. He has fought for his rights; he has stood up against those who have oppressed, determined to release the shackles and walk tall. From William Wilberforce to Emily Pankhurst, great men and women have battled the establishment in protest at how they have been treated. Sadly, it sometimes feels in the 21st Century that those passionate individuals have become relics of the past. Instead, we have become an apathetic generation, more content to allow the status quo to dictate our lives in the misplaced belief that we can never make a difference. It is a sorry state of affairs. You don’t have to look far back to see battlelines being drawn up; throughout the last 100 years, there have been times without number when this was more than apparent. And the decade which stands out the strongest in terms of making a stand against the man was during the 1960s.

From this position, 50 years later and viewed from the perspective of one who never lived through it, it seems a decade like no other. Talking to my parents, who experienced it first-hand, there was a feeling that it was a time of radical change. Young people were beginning to rally against their parents, wanting to make their own mark on the world. It was the age of the protest song. By the end of the decade, the Hippy movement had turned protesting into an artform; counter-culture had made it a way of life. But in the earlier part of the 1960s, it was folk songs which dominated the cries for justice and freedom. And heading the marching soldiers was a 19-year-old guitarist from New York.

Joan Baez had social justice in her blood. Her father, the physicist Albert Baez, had rejected lucrative offers of work for the military, instead focusing on education, working for a time with UNESCO. According to Joan, it was – and remains – more important to her than music. She was influenced by Martin Luther King, who she eventually befriended, and was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement (her version of We Shall Overcome eventually became an official anthem for it). She was still at school when she committed her first act of civil disobedience, refusing to take part in an air raid shelter. You would expect that anything she turned her hand to take the form of a cry for justice for all. All of which makes her debut album seem something of an enigma, focusing more on traditional folk songs than any outright attempts at protest music.

Things begin at a pace with the plucking of an acoustic guitar; it is the style which I have always dreamed of achieving (while I can play rhythm guitar, anything beyond strumming has eluded me). For much of the recording, this is the archetypal folk album aside from Joan on vocals and guitar, the only other musician to feature is Fred Hellerman of The Weavers on a second guitar. Following the first track, Silver Dagger, a lament from a woman to a would-be suitor – the musical style perfectly suits the lyrics – the album moves on to Fare Thee Well. And suddenly the record starts to grate. Joan Baez has been praised for her beautiful voice; sadly, I’m not sure I concur. At times it has a soothing quality, but on Fare Thee Well, during the chorus, it becomes more of a screech, burning the ears. This effect continues in her version of House of the Rising Sun; a wonderful song, and one that sounds stunning in Baez’s quieter moments. But when she raises the volume, it becomes difficult to listen to.

I always fear in these moments that I’m missing something; that I’m not refined enough – or capable of – understanding a certain style of singing. But as the album progresses into All My Trials, I wonder whether there are simply singers which, not matter how hard you try, you cannot appreciate. I am sure that this is an important folk album; while it isn’t the worst I’ve heard, it isn’t the kind of record which I would race back to either. Baez has become something of a legend in the folk world and you cannot doubt her passion for making the world a better place. And while that passion can be heard in the music, it wasn’t enough to instil me with desire. Music can move you; it can drive you, through emotional resonance, to do marvellous things. Unfortunately, Joan missed the mark for me.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Joan Baez here:

Next time: Elvis is Back by Elvis Presley

Headphones

Jukebox Jury : A look back at 1955 to 1959 in music

“Rock ‘n’ Roll: the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.”

There are key moments in history when the world changes, never to be the same again. In centuries past, these were often decided on the battlefield or in the political arena. But something changed in the middle of the last century. Suddenly something happened that altered the face of the planet; over the coming years ahead, they would continue to have growing repercussions across the face of the globe. But when battle was declared, it wasn’t between empires hoping to expand into new territory. This time, it was a fight with an enemy which was unstoppable – even unbeatable. Because the 1950s saw the rise of the most dangerous creature known to mankind: the teenager.

There has been lots said and written over the last six decades on the importance of the teenager and the culture which has sprung up around them. And while much can be dismissed as hysteria caused by a misunderstanding of youth (at least by those of us who still remember being that age), the impact they have made on the world – particularly in terms of culture – cannot be underestimated. Whether we like it or not, we live in a world where the teenager is king, and whatever he says, goes. MTV’s demographic is 18 to 24-year-olds; these are the ones who decide what is popular or cool. So it is interesting going back to the 1950s, when these strange new creatures were first making themselves heard.

During the last few months, I have been listening to the albums which, according to a select group of music critics, are the most important (I hesitate from saying ‘best’) from the period of 1955 to 1959. It has been an eclectic mix of sounds. We’ve covered jazz, swing, rock ‘n’ roll, country, folk – the list is far longer than I imagined it would be. I’ve been surprised at how much jazz was around, particularly as it covered a wide range of sub-genre. Alongside this, I’ve also witnessed the birth of my own particular favourite style of music – rock – from some of the early greats. And, given that my musical knowledge of this period is limited, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve heard.

True, I’ve not become a great jazz lover as a result; I still don’t get Miles Davis or his contemporaries. But that hasn’t meant I haven’t enjoyed moments and, such as the recent case of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, there have been times when I’ve found myself starting to be moved by it. I’ve also been given the pleasure of some wonderful easy listening thanks to two rather wonderful Frank Sinatra albums and a feast of the Gershwins, courtesy of the stunning voice of Ella Fitzgerald. Country still eludes me – I pray that I never have to listen to the Louvin Brothers again (although Marty Robbins’ brand of country mixed with folk and rock wasn’t too terrible); Little Richard and The Crickets, perhaps unsurprisingly, were clear favourites, alongside the fabulous Jack Elliott. But it was the hidden gems which struck me most during my journey through the late 1950s. The likes of Tito Puente and Palo Congo were wonderful to hear for the first time, opening up a new world of styles. Perhaps the greatest ‘unknown’ I came across (I use the phrase lightly as I had heard of him, even if I didn’t know his songs) was Louis Prima. If there is one reason to keep doing this, to keep listening to these albums, is for moments like this; that time when a something a little different suddenly pours out of the speakers, causing you to sit up and listen intently. I’m looking forward to the next period, hunting out those hidden gems from 1960 to 1964. In the meantime, if you don’t want to listen to all 23 albums, below are my recommendations for the three albums I enjoyed the most…

Recommended listening for 1955 to 1959:

  • Louis Prima – The Wildest!
  • The Crickets – The ‘Chirping’ Crickets
  • Jack Elliott – Jack Takes the Floor

Next time: Joan Baez by Joan Baez

Time Out by Dave Brubeck Quartet

The Dave Brubeck Quartet : Time Out (#23)

The Dave Brubeck Quartet | Time Out (December 1959)
Columbia (USA)
Cool Jazz – 38:21

“My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.”

Everyone has a dream, an ambition they are striving towards; that goal in life that we wish to achieve above all other things. Some of these dreams seem more achievable than others: to raise a good family or keep a steady job; others are more fanciful: to walk on the moon or to win an Oscar. But regardless of where these ambitions lie on the spectrum, most of all we want to be remembered. Whether our achievements are known by a few, who see us in our everyday life, or by countless thousands, the ultimate desire is to have others approve of how we have done; to say ‘I’d like to be able to do that one day too’. Which is perhaps why we so often get jealous of those we hold dearest; as the Mancunian poser Morrissey once sang: “We hate it when our friends become successful.” And don’t even get him started on how he feels if they happen to be Northeners…

So spare a thought for poor Dave Brubeck. He was one of the most respected composers of the 20th century; considered by some aficionados as one of the leading lights in the genre of cool jazz. He wrote numerous compositions, many of which have become jazz standards. His group’s album Time Out is one of the biggest selling jazz albums of all time – indeed, it has proved so popular, that it was the first jazz album to ever be certified platinum. And yet the one thing for which the Dave Brubeck Quartet will be eternally remembered – the very group which he led and gave his name to – wasn’t even written by him. It was written by his best friend, Paul Desmond. To his credit, Brubeck didn’t even bat an eyelid, particularly given the pair’s less-than-auspicious beginnings.

Desmond and Brubeck had first encountered each other during the Second World War, when the future bandleader auditioned for the 253rd Army band, which Desmond already belonged to. Following the war, the two worked together again but Desmond eventually cut Brubeck’s pay before replacing him. A disgruntled Brubeck headed back to California, where his trio gradually began to receive acclaim. Hearing the three playing on the radio, Paul made his way west to convince his former bandmate to take him on. Brubeck at this stage had not forgiven Desmond, and told his wife Iola not to let him into the house. It was only when Desmond corned Brubeck and agreed to babysit his children if he could play with the trio that the friendship truly began. By the time of Desmond’s death in 1977, the pair had become so close that Brubeck’s son Darius believed that the sax player was really his uncle. So it comes as little surprise that, when Desmond’s composition Take Five proved to be the group’s biggest commercial hit, Brubeck was more than happy for it to take the accolades.

Listening to Time Out, however, there is clearly much more depth to this album than this one song would suggest. While I’m more than familiar with the quartet’s most famous number, I was still cautious about what I would find on the album. It wasn’t just my reticence of listening to another jazz album; Brubeck was famous for his experimentation and the title of the work, Time Out, is the key to the entire album – none of the compositions are written in conventional 4/4 (or even 3/4) time. Instead he drew on a range of time signatures, including 9/8 and 5/4, to create a different sound. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get, but feared that the music I’d struggled to understand from other greats would now overwhelm me. How wrong I was. This is comfortably one of the easiest records that I have ever had the pleasure to hear.

Brubeck’s exquisite playing opens the album on Blue Rondo a la Turk, setting a pace that races along, before the sounds of Desmond’s alto sax begins to take up the melody over the top. Brubeck got the idea for the number after hearing Turkish musicians performing and, picking up the sound of the rhythms, chose to copy it. As the piece slows down in the middle, there is a real sense of being at the heart of easy listening territory; I mean this in no bad way as the record draws you in and allows you to wallow in the wonderful sounds of the instruments. Things slow down even more for the beautiful Strange Meadow Lark, with the incredible piano playing of Brubeck at the forefront creating a dreamy sound of warm summer evenings, before we get to that track. Time has done nothing to diminish its sheer brilliance, with Desmond proving to be every bit as talented as the group’s leader when it comes to composition. While it is hard not to picture some 1980s style advert playing beneath it, this is still one of the all-time great jazz numbers. No wonder Brubeck had no problem with his group being remembered for it.

The flipside of the album (back in the day of vinyl recordings) is just as strong as the first. Three to Get Ready may be a gentler number after the joy of Take Five, but it is a much needed break that manages to flow with the rest of the album. By the time you reach Everybody’s Jumpin’, the momentum has picked up, creating a track that manages to rock while retaining the laidback feel of the rest of the album. Things finish with Pick Up Sticks, perhaps the weakest number on the album, but by this point you have been drawn into the quartet’s wonderful world. This is a warm album that could complement any evening; sit back in your comfiest armchair, pour yourself a glass of something nice and let the master’s music wash over you.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Time Out here:

Next time: A Look Back at 1955 to 1959 in Music