Some albums showcase great songs or excellent compositions, some great arrangements and some showcase great talent. The title is misleading, as this is more of a jazz and blues album than a soul album, and a much more appropriate title would have been “Aretha 1969.”
This excellent album, released January 17, 1969, showcases one of the great vocal instrumentalists of the last hundred years at her best. In general, the arrangements set up Aretha Franlin to effectively display her incredible musicality. On this album, Aretha is not song-interpreter in the manner of Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Johnny Hartman, or Chet Baker, but is an expressive instrumentalist like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, or Eric Dolphy. For anyone wishing to explore what made Aretha so great, this is a perfect album to start with.
We also get a myriad of skilled jazz musicians backing her up.
I’m a pushover for early Neil Young, whether it’s his simple, uncomplicated songs (uncomplicated harmonically and lyrically) like “The Loner” or his repetitive, extended songs with unfathomable lyrics like “The Last Trip to Tulsa.” Nothing here on this album to get a Pulitzer Prize for music or a Nobel Prize for poetry, but how can you not love how Neil cuts to the core of what the singer songwriter experience is all about and provides the equivalent warmth and informalness of those Saturday lunches at a friend’s house? It’s always a pleasure to take this timeless debut album, released January 22, 1969, for a spin — a classic album which winningly captures and represents Neil Young being Neil Young.
The Beatles: Yellow Submarine
And of course, I have to mention the Yellow Submarine “soundtrack” album, released January 13, 1969, which importantly contains one masterpiece, John Lennon’s 1968 blues-based “Hey Bulldog” with its opening, addictive riff emphasizing the melodic dissonance of the tritone and McCartney’s solid and sometimes improvisitory bass work, and one other very strong composition, George Harrison’s 1967 “Only a Northern Song.” Also included is the 1967 early psychedelic, “It’s All Too Much.”
In November 1968, Spirit follows up their impressive first album with an even stronger and more polished second album, again produced by Lou Adler with arrangements by Marty Paich.
The album starts out with Randy California’s rock classic “I Got A Line On You Babe”, first released as a single a couple of months prior to availability of the album, achieving some airplay on FM radio before later becoming a modest hit on AM. Full of energy and unstoppable enthusiasm with a aggressive, celebratory guitar work, it represents youthful romantic optimism reversing the viewpoint of that classic Kink’s song “You Really Got Me” but sharing many musical and emotional qualities.
“It Shall Be” is evocatively sensual with flute and wordless vocals alternating in A-B-A-B-A form with a more down-to-earth B section. This is followed by a set of three semi-psychedelic songs by Jay Ferguson, and a country-like tune, “Darlin’ If” composed by Randy California
Side two opens up strongly with “It’s All the Same,” a mixture between psychedelic and early seventies rock, including a brief, relatively uninteresting drum solo in the middle. The second track, is Caifornia’s “Jewish”, a short but expressive modal-melody pre-progressive track with Hebrew lyrics. The album ends with with three more Jay Ferguson tracks, each with its distinct identity but all three incorporating elements of the psychedelic era of songwriting; note the intriguing guitar work in the not-always-so-consistently-interesting last track, “Aren’t You Glad.”
Bonus tracks are available on the CD, including the artful, ambient instrumental, “Fog” and two other instrumentals by keyboardist John Locke as well as Ferguson’s sweeping, gothically dark “Now or Anywhere.”
This fine double album, one LP from a live concert in June 1968, and the other from 1968 studio recordings, sparkles with precise, consistently clearly articulated acoustic and vocal passages that nicely blend folk, rock, jazz and classical renaissance elements to provide an engaging audio and musical experience. Highlights of the live LP include Danny Thompson’s rendition of Mingus’s Haitian Fight Song, the group’s interesting take on Mingus’s homage to legendary Lester Young, “Good Bye, Pork Pie”, and the medley of three renaissance dances. Highlights of the studio LP include the immersive contrapuntal “Three Part Thing”, Jaqui McShee’s rendition of “Sovay”, the jazzy Brubeck-like instrumental “In Time”, the bluesy “I’ve Got a Feeling”, the classic folksy “The Trees They Do Grow High” and the final track of side two, “Hole in the Coal.” Throughout the four sides the interplay between the two guitars and bass is exceptional. Additional tracks are available on CD that were not on the original two LP Set.
Though not one of my favorite albums, one has to give credit where credit due and there are a number of reasons to recommend this often blues-based, somewhat historic album.
The first is the earthy and relatively respectful rendition of Robert Wilkins”Prodigal Son.” Is that Mick Jagger on vocals? Hard to believe…
The second is Nicki Hopkins on piano.
The third is the mournful “No Expectations.”
The fourth is the bluegrass/country-blues “Dear Doctor.”
The fifth is the anthem-like “Salt of the Earth” replete with a chorus.
The sixth is the Keith Richards application of his chance-discovery of the already existing technique of five-string “open G” tuning, basically removing or avoiding the low sixth string, with the five strings tuned G-D-G-B-D (aligning with the overtone series of G-G-D-G-B-D) and in the case of Richards, and others to follow, using a sliding three-fingered guitar technique.
The sixth is the stretching of the then-current record-industry norms with songs with lyrics like “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Parachute Woman”. and “Stray Cat Blues”, the last two, perhaps even more offensive now in the context of political correctness than in 1968.
The seventh is the historical impact of this record, setting the tone, whether we like it or not, for how future bands would approach traditional blues and country music (like the music found on pre-WWII 78s) and songs about Satan and groupies.
This work veers away from the accelerating trend of greater complexity and sophistication, taking a U-turn towards simplification. It really is a collection of the basics of music, some as simple and crude as the album cover the Stones had originally intended for the album. My apologies if I offend anyone by using the original LP cover that I associate with this album instead of the one prevalent on the CD reissues.
Recorded in 1967, while Stevie Wonder was still 17, this ninth studio album, released December 8, 1968, after Wonder was eighteen years old, is really the work of a mature adult artist. Though Wonder only is credited as a co-author for the eight selections that lists his name, one can distinctly hear the composer of the early seventies albums. Besides the developing compositional skills, we have strong vocals and quality harmonica and keyboard work .
“The House on the Hill” (Lawrence Brown, Berry Gordy, Allen Story) 2:36
James Taylor: James Taylor
There is always something reassuringly soothing in James Taylor’s voice. Like so many baby boomers, my first exposure to Taylor was his second album, Sweet Baby James, which my next door neighbor loaned my in 1970.
This first album, released December 6, 1968, and on the new, but short-lived, Beatles’ Apple label, which signed Taylor after Apple label A&R director Peter Asher (friend of Paul McCartney, brother of Paul’s girlfriend from 1963 to 1968, and member of the British group Peter and Gordon, which had recorded several of McCartney’s songs including their #1 hit, “A World Without Love“) had heard a forty-five minute demo tape Taylor had sent into to the new label.
Overall this is an amazingly strong debut, and rivals or surpasses the quality of later Taylor albums, with the exception of the second one, which has the wonderfully transcendent “Fire and Rain. Beatles fans should note that George Harrison and Paul McCartney make guest appearances on “Carolina on My Mind” and jazz fans should note Freddie Redd’s keyboard contributions.
Besides James Taylor’s simple, home-spun, relaxed vocals, and his quality song-writing, there are some sophisticated instrumental introductions written by arranger Richard Anthony Hewson that are worth mentioning, whether they are an integral part of the track, as with “Sunshine Sunshine” or seem more like they were added after the final take of the song. Yes, they don’t effectively assist in creating a single artistic identity to the album, or even bring out the best in the inherent nature of these James Taylor compositions, but both the handful of introductions and the arrangements have merit and add interest to the album, bringing an additional dimension to the final work.
If you have not heard this album, its worth the effort to check it out, particularly with the number of strong songs, the fine acoustic guitar work and other instrumentation, the quality of the arrangements and production, and the sterling sound quality (for 1968), partly as a result of the entire album having been recorded at Trident studio in England, at that time a state-of-the-art studio, using some of the session time that was previously booked by the Beatles.
Track listing [from Wikipedia]
All songs written by James Taylor unless otherwise noted. Times are from the original Apple LP vinyl label.
Though the first BS&T album, a work of love from Al Kooper, includes jazz instruments, this second album really begins the era of what is commonly called “jazz-rock”, a genre quite different than jazz fusion or rock-influenced jazz. Later adherents to this style, more or less, included American groups like Chicago and Chase, the Canadian band Lighthouse, and the British group If.
This second album (produced by James William Guercio at the same time he was producing the Chicago Transit Authority album) left the generally more critically admired, Al Kooper first BS&T album in the dust, commercially,selling millions of copies and by March of 1969 taking the top US album chart spot away from Glen Campbell, twice until the Hair soundtrack displaced both for a bit, with the BS&T album again rising to the #1 spot for four more weeks in late July and August.
The album provided three top five singles, Laura Nyro’s “When I Die”, Fred Lispius’s arrangement of fellow-BS&T-band member and lead singer David Clayton Thomas’s “Spinning Wheel” and the Al Kooper’s arrangement of Brenda Halloway’s modestly successful single, “You Made Me So Very Happy”.
The album is yet another 1968 that includes music by a classical composer. In this case, this album starts out with an abridged, but tasteful arrangement of two of the three pieces of Eric Satie’s “Gymnopédies.” For many listeners, including myself, this was one of the highlights of the album, and was my first introduction to Eric Satie.
This is followed by BS&T’s extended version of Traffic’s “Smiling Phases”, with its traditional jazz piano trio middle section and then the evocative Dick Halligan arrangement of Steve Katz tune “Sometime in Winter.” Next is “More and More”, which, as a thirteen-year old, was my favorite track on the album, with its fierce brass and drums.
Also, leaving an impression on me was the last track of the first side, Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” As I had not heard the original version, or any Billie Holiday recordings, I made the mistake of considering this the reference version of the song. (What kind of society would make it possible for the vast majority of Baby Boomers to have no knowledge of Billie Holiday until the release of the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues”?)
Blues — Part II has an interesting, progressive rock opening with Dick Halligan on organ, which is followed by a short brass outburst and then electric bass and drum solos as well as some flugelhorn, sax, electric guitar, and reflective, bluesy vocals. The album ends with a short reprise of Satie’s first “Gymnopédie“, providing a complete, fulfilling and distinct listening for anyone in 1968 and 1969 that had only a smattering exposure to real jazz. Just as seventh grade Physical Education introduced me to basketball, which led to my watching John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins and then in 1969 West, Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain’s Los Angeles Lakers, groups like BS&T and Chicago help lead my way towards the many jazz classics recorded prior to 1968.
Track listing [from Wikipedia]
“Variations on a Theme By Erik Satie” (1st and 2nd Movements) – 2:35
Though 1968 was the era of electronic music, there are many fine acoustic or mostly acoustic albums that were released in October 1968 including John Martyn’s second album, and The Beau Brummels’ fifth album.
Approximately a year after the release of John Martyn’s first album, London Conversation, a relaxed, leisurely studio rendition of mostly original British folk material he was performing for small venue audiences in 1967, Martyn released a more upbeat, energetic and stronger album. The Tumbler, that better showcased his musical skills with the music incorporating rock and jazz elements.
On The Tumbler, Martyn adds additional musicians for a fuller sound and to support the greater musical variety of the compositions. In London Conversation, we get a sampling of flute from Martyn himself, but on this second album we get Jamaican-born jazz flautist, Harold McNair, who played and recorded with Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones, as well as appeared on a number of Donovan albums and on tenor sax on the James Bond Dr. No theme. The quality of production handled by twenty-two year-old Al Stewart is quite good, with a more forward, active sound, spotlighting individual instruments. All instruments are acoustic, with no drums on any track. The album closes with the guitar-dominated instrumental “Seven Black Roses”, the highlight of the album.
Track listing [from Wikipedia]
All tracks composed by John Martyn except where indicated.
As noted in earlier posts, the latter half of 1968 introduced several albums that blended rock and country music, albums often authored by Canadian-born or Californian-based musicians. One notable such album was The Beau Brummels’ Bradley’s Barn.
The Beau Brummels hailed from San Francisco, forming in 1964 and releasing their first two albums in 1965, incorporating folk and British-invasion elements. Though later denied by band members, legend has it that they chose the name, “Beau Brummels” for its English sound and so their albums would be shelved in records store bins immediately after the best-selling Beatles.
Their first album, heavily influenced by the British Invasion sound, peaked at number 24 on the Billboard album chart and included ten of twelve original songs, all written by lead guitarist, Ron Elliott, or in one case by Elliot and sometimes collaborator, Bob Durand. Sal Valentino was the lead vocalist, and its interesting to follow his development as a singer and his greater, often extreme use, of vibrato as well as Elliot’s and Valentino’s shift to more of a country sounds in their subsequent albums.
in 1966, with their label, Autumn, verging on collapse, the band starting recording their third album. Warner Brothers purchased the group from Autumn, but the transaction didn’t cover publishing rights. So despite a number of already recorded original songs planned for this third album, Warner Brothers directed the group to record an album of covers, The album was a commercial flop.
In 1967, the group released a concept-inspired album of mostly original music, Triangle, considered by many a pre-country rock classic mixing folk, rock, country and hints of psychedelic and progressive elements. Outstanding tracks include”Magic Hollow”, “Triangle” and the excellent “The Wolf of Velvet Fortune.”
In 1968, The Beau Brummels, down to just two members, Sal Valentino and Ron Elliot, after losing their bass player to the draft, recorded their fifth album at Bradley’s Barn, a studio a few miles from Nashville. Joined by studio musicians like guitarist Jerry Reed and drummer Kenny Buttrey , this album named after the recording site, is perhaps the most authentic and highest quality of the handful of early country-rock albums recorded in 1968. I say, “perhaps”, as I am not really a country music fan. I love bluegrass, particularly live, and can listen intently to the country music recorded on 78s in the twenties and thirties, but generally not much attracted to the commercial country music or country rock of the last sixty years. Yet, this album of all but one original song holds my attention and gets my respect. Valentino continues to evolve his use of vocal vibrato, incorporating an authentic country twang, some Bob Dylan influence, and extending his own range of effective emotional delivery.
With this level of excellence, the group was set up nicely for greater artistic and commercial success, but shortly after the release of Bradley’s Barn, Valentino and Elliot went their separate ways, Valentino soon starting up a new band, Stoneground, and Eliot releasing a solo album and producing or playing guitar on various albums. The band temporarily reformed in 1974, and at various times later, with their most recent album, Continuum, released in March 2013.