Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Rivers’

‘Lookin’ For A Soul Brother . . .”

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Sometime in the late 1950s, musician and civil rights activist Oscar Brown, Jr., sat down and worked out a tune titled “Brother Where Are You,” a song of despair that was also a quiet call to action and its listeners’ self-reflection:

A small boy walked down a city street
And hope was in his eyes
As he searched the faces of the people he’d meet
For one he could recognize

Brother, where are you?
They told me that you came this way
Brother, where are you?
They said you came this way

The eyes of the people who passed him by
Were cold and hard as stone
The poor boy whimpered and began to cry
Because he was all alone

Brother, where are you?
They told me that you came this way
Brother, where are you?
They said you came this way

Now there are many
Who will swear that it’s true
That brothers are we all
Yet it seems there are very few
Who will answer a brother’s call

Brother, where are you?
They told me that you came this way
Brother, where are you?
They said you came this way

“Brother Where Are You” first showed up on record, as far as I can tell, on Abbey Is Blue, a 1959 album by jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. (A year later, Lincoln would team with Brown, Coleman Hawkins and other jazz luminaries for the album We Insist! – Freedom Now, a civil rights-themed project released in anticipation of the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963.)

The tune is familiar to me – and others of my vintage, I assume – because of its inclusion by Johnny Rivers in his 1968 masterpiece Realization. In those environs, the song became less a plaint about racial injustice and more a call for economic and political justice. (It was, of course, not uncommon in the late 1960s and early 1970s for young, socially aware white men to call each other “brother” with no irony and little self-consciousness.)

I have no way to know where Rivers found the song, but there were several versions of it out there. (Tracking the song on indices can be difficult, as some listings have a comma after “Brother” and some don’t. Additionally, some include a question mark at the end of the title while others don’t. The number of possible permutations means I no doubt missed some covers while digging.) Among the more notable versions I found were several early soul/R&B versions of the song, one by a group called Thee Midniters from 1965 and another by a singer named Richard Simmons (not the exercise dweeb) in 1966. I also found a live 1965 performance by the composer himself, later released on the album Mr. Oscar Brown, Jr. Goes to Washington.

One of the more interesting covers of the tune is by the Remo Four, a Liverpool group from the mid-Sixties that released some good records and worked with, among others, Beatle George Harrison. Among its members were Tony Ashton and Roy Dyke, who with Kim Gardner, later scored a one-hit wonder – “Resurrection Shuffle” – in the U.S. as Ashton, Gardner & Dyke. In 1967, the Remo Four’s version of “Brother Where Are You” was included on Smile, an album released in Germany. (It’s now available on CD anywhere.)

One of the most indelible parts of River’s recording of the song on Realization is the chant of the background singers: “Lookin’ for a soul brother all around me.” I’m not at all sure where that originated, but it’s included as well on the version Al Wilson used to close his 1968 album Searching For The Dolphins. As Rivers produced Wilson’s album, which was then released on Rivers’ Soul City label, I’d really like to know which of the two, Rivers or Wilson, was the first to record the song.

There have been other covers of the tune over the years, of course. A combined total of the listings at All-Music Guide shows about eighty CDs on the market that include the song. Subtract – as a guesstimate – half for duplication and other songs with the same title, and there are still about forty artists and groups that have covered the song. And it continues to attract attention. A 2008 version by a group called Masters of Space And Time caught my attention this morning at Amazon. But as is the case with many tunes, I still hold the familiar close. So the version I first heard, Rivers’ take on the tune, is the one I turn to.

The Ultimate Jukebox, Part Two

Monday, February 1st, 2010

We’re back – that would be Odd and Pop, the two little imaginary tuneheads who sit on my shoulders, and me – from our unplanned time off. And we have our very own domain name now, which should provide some insulation as we continue to examine music and my life and how the two intersect.

We began the exploration of the Ultimate Jukebox in one of our last posts at the other location, and I mentioned a few of the notable records that weren’t among the two-hundred and twenty-eight that would play in that mythical jukebox. Some of them were likely surprises. Two of them –  Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” and Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” – were in fact the last records trimmed. And I should note that I’ve only replaced one of them for sure: I have one slot that I’m keeping as quasi-available among the six selections for Week 38, the last week of this tour. I have a record in that slot right now, but if something comes into view that I think works better, I’m reserving the right to switch it. That might even turn out to be “Baker Street” after all. But the other two-hundred and twenty-seven songs are set.

What eras do they come from? Well, the earliest was released in 1948, and there are three from 1999, the last year I examined. Even before I count, I’m certain that the years 1969 and 1970 will be heavily represented. Let’s take a look:

1948: 1
1949: 0
From the 1940s: One

1950: 0
1951: 1
1952: 1
1953: 0
1954: 0
1955: 0
1956: 0
1957: 1
1958: 3
1959: 2
From the 1950s: Eight

1960: 0
1961: 3
1962: 0
1963: 2
1964: 2
1965: 4
1966: 6
1967: 7
1968: 13
1969: 23
From the 1960s: Sixty

1970: 32
1971: 15
1972: 17
1973: 12
1974: 9
1975: 11
1976: 10
1977: 5
1978: 7
1979: 3
From the 1970s: One-hundred and twenty-one

1980: 3
1981: 2
1982: 3
1983: 3
1984: 3
1985: 0
1986: 3
1987: 2
1988: 3
1989: 0
From the 1980s: Twenty-two

1990: 1
1991: 2
1992: 2
1993: 4
1994: 1
1995: 1
1996: 1
1997: 1
1998: 0
1999: 3
From the 1990s: Sixteen

So there you have it: Massive domination by the 1970s, with the period 1968-1976 providing one-hundred and forty-two of the two-hundred and twenty-eight records – about sixty-two percent – of the tunes in my Ultimate Jukebox. Is this a surprise? Anyway, here’s the second cluster of six songs:

A Six-Pack From The Ultimate Jukebox, No. 2
“Comin’ Back To Me” by Jefferson Airplane from Surrealistic Pillow [1967]
“Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers from Realization [1967]
“Black Diamond” by the Bee Gees from Odessa [1969]
“Summer Breeze” by the Isley Brothers from 3+3 [1973]
“Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez from Diamonds and Rust [1975]
“Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen from Born To Run [1975]

More than forty years after the fact, it might be difficult to realize, and instructive to do so, that the acid-folk rock of Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow was once revolutionary. Today, even the crunchy chords of “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover” – the album’s heaviest sounds, by my reckoning – are pretty mellow. Back in 1968, when my sister brought the record home, however, I thought it was a little loud. But there was one moment of mellow bliss on the record: “Comin’ Back To Me.” Hushed, lyrical, thoughtful and heart-breaking, “Comin’ Back To Me” just might be the oft-ignored heart of Surrealistic Pillow. Key lines: “Strollin’ the hill overlooking the shore, I realize I have been here before. The shadow in the mist could have been anyone. I saw you. I saw you comin’ back to me.”

I’ve written before about “Summer Rain,” although none of those words are easily accessible. I don’t know for sure why the record remains among the top four or five of all time for me. Part of it, I think, is the descending bass line in the verse, a compositional technique – some might call it a gimmick – that always pulls me into a song. Part of it, I’m sure, is that the story the song tells is a happy one: Boy meets girl, boy woos girl (with the help of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), boy wins girl. And part of the attraction is the way Rivers sells the song. In a long career filled with good performances, this might be Rivers’ best. Like the vast majority of the versions of “Summer Rain” found in hits packages, the version here is pulled from the album Realization. Thus, it includes the storm sound effects before the guitar figure opens the music, and it fades out before more sound effects arise to connect to the next track on the album. According to regular reader Yah Shure, the single – released in late 1967, about six months before the album (and which went to No. 14) – had no sound effects, opening with the guitar figure. Key lines: “We sailed into the sunset, drifted home caught by a gulfstream. Never gave a thought for tomorrow. Just let tomorrow be.”

The 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide called the Bee Gees’ Odessa “the Sgt. Pepper’s copy all ’60s headliners felt driven to attempt,” adding parenthetically, “the Bee Gees’ wasn’t bad; faulting it for pretentiousness makes absolutely no sense.” I’ve puzzled over that statement for more than ten years now, and I’m still not sure what reviewer Paul Evans was trying to say. But that’s okay: I’ve been listening to Odessa for more than forty years now, and I’m not entirely certain what the Bee Gees were trying to say, either. I shared the album here once, which indicates, generally, the regard I have for it. But there is no doubt that the album is studded with ballads whose lyrics are willfully obscure at best. “Black Diamond” might be the most obscure of all, but the opaque lyrics are offset by music so eloquently gorgeous that it might not matter at all what the Brothers Gibb are singing about. Key lines, I think: “And I won’t die, so don’t cry. I’ll be home. Those big black diamonds that lie there for me, by the tall white mountains which lie by the sea.”

The Isley Brothers’ reimagining of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” is a marvel. The original had been, of course, a folk-rock/singer-songwriter-type hit, anchored by a sweet instrumental hook and truly beautiful harmonies. The Isleys found the R&B song inside the pop-folk record and stretched it for more than six minutes. And maybe it’s just me, but I find a sonic connection between the Isleys’ version of “Summer Breeze” and two versions of “Strawberry Letter 23,” those being Shuggie Otis’ 1971 single, which predated the Isleys’ work, and the Brothers Johnson’s 1977 cover of Otis’ song. Whatever the sonic influences in any direction, “Summer Breeze” finds a sweet groove. The Isleys released a single with the album track split into parts one and two, but neither side hit the Top 40. (I have a hunch that the two-sided single might have done well on the R&B chart; does anyone out there know?) Key lines: “Feel the arms that reach out to hold me in the evening, when the day is through.”

The album Diamonds & Rust was released in April 1975, but it wasn’t until the following autumn, I would guess, that I became aware of its extraordinary title song. The record became one of my student union jukebox favorites that fall, and it did pretty well in other areas, as well, as it went to No. 35 in the Billboard Top 40, only the second Baez single to do that well. (The first was her cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which went to No. 3 during the late summer and autumn of 1971.) Musically and lyrically, “Diamonds & Rust” is quite simply the best thing Joan Baez ever wrote or recorded. The shimmering music is perfect for her unsentimental, guarded and affectionate reliving of her affair with Bob Dylan. Baez’ intimacy with the topic – as opposed to the seemingly reflexive distance she’d frequently placed between herself and even the most intimate of songs – pulls listeners into her world and helps us understand her place in a pairing that was momentous to both Baez and Dylan at a time when their work was helping to defining an era. (For a take on that topic from Dylan, whose work can often be more difficult to penetrate than a black curtain, I turn to – as starting points – “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and “Visions of Johanna” from Blonde On Blonde.) Key lines: “Our breath comes out white clouds, mingles and hangs in the air. Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there.”

I have seven versions of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” in my collection, including an alternate take from 1975, some live versions (including a killer acoustic version I once shared) and a bootleg or two. All have their attractions, but I keep coming back to the original, the version that led off Side Two of the Born To Run album. And the song grabs hold of me tighter and tighter as the years go by. It’s not the tale of the mythical backstreets that holds me, although I have some affection for the kids huddled on the beach in the mist. It’s the pure sonic audacity of the song that pulls me in time and again, the young Springsteen’s ambition for musical significance that’s almost as audible as that great count-in just before the last verse. Then consider that Springsteen has almost certainly exceeded his ambitions over the thirty-five years since “Born To Run” went to No. 23, and one realizes that “Born To Run” (and the rest of the LP, of course) was neither wish nor hope nor dream but a statement of intent. (Writer and Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh had the same reaction; while reviewing Born To Run in the second edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, he said: “clarity of purpose and mammoth ambition drip from the grooves.”) Key lines: “Will you walk with me out on the wire, ’cause baby, I’m just a scared and lonely rider. But I gotta find out how it feels. I want to know if love is wild, girl, I want to know if love is real.”

Note:
Regular readers – and I have to assume they’ll find this new location – will observe that I’ve changed my approach slightly. I think all my readers will understand. 

–whiteray