In the words of Foxy Shazam, welcome to the church of rock 'n' roll. This is where it was all first recorded, Sun Studios. From small things, mama, big things one day come!
Sam Phillips was a young buck trying to make a go of it recording virtually anything that he could. He had a business called Memphis Recording Service which featured a portable recording machine (about the size of a microwave oven) that Sam dragged around town recording weddings, birthday parties, and music. After a while, he realized that musicians were turning to others to put out records, and he decided to hone in on that territory. Hence, Sun Studios was born.
It's small. I mean, really small. Basically two rooms. But what came out of Sun changed the world forever.
Sam Phillips recorded a song called Rocket 88 that was credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. But as we all know, the driving force behind that song was none other than Ike Turner. There is a great story about the amp used by Ike to record the song. It was damaged en route to Sun, and the cone in the speaker was torn. Because there was no time to get a replacement, they simply stuffed paper into it, and it gave out this amazing distorted sound to his electric guitar that became an inspiration to millions. Take a look at the picture of that amp below.
Regardless, Rocket 88, recorded in 1951, is called the first rock song ever, and it still sounds great. It came out of this humble studio in Memphis, and its success motivated Sam to quit his full-time job and dive in head first to make a go of it at Sun.
Sam's willingness to record black artists and music that was traditionally thought of as black music was quickly noticed among musicians, who then started beating a path to his door. Among them were some who would go on to become the founding fathers of rock. People like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. But also people like B.B. King, Rufus Thomas and Howlin' Wolf. He recorded them all, and turned their music on to the world.
Elvis clearly surpassed them all. His meteoric rise and iconic status is the stuff of legend. The great part of the story is that Sam wasn't instantly won over by the young Elvis. It was his assistant who first thought that Sam ought to record Elvis, and Elvis came by time and again to pay to have Sam put down a track on acetate. We'll talk a lot more about Elvis later, but he permeates virtually everything in Memphis.
You have to put this in its proper time and place. This is the mid-1950s in a southern state with Jim Crow firmly in place. There were radio stations who controlled everything and those radio stations were racially divided. Clubs operated in the white areas of town, or down along Beale Street where the black theaters were located, and the two didn't mix. If you were a young white guy, you had to go to West Memphis (i.e., Arkansas) to go see black bands in the clubs because West Memphis was more lax. To have a guy willing to record both black and white artists, and to allow them to mix up the musical heritages of both into this blend, was particularly open-minded.
Do you want to talk about influencing the world? Here's a great story for you. Bill Justis, Jr. was a session player at Sun, and had his own career, too. He played with some of the greats, but he also put out a song in 1957 called Raunchy on the Sun label. Others covered it and it was the first instrumental rock 'n' roll hit. A year later, a 15 year old kid on the top level of a double decker bus in Liverpool, England "auditioned" for two other kids for a spot in their band. The song that George Harrison played to Paul McCartney and John Lennon was Raunchy.
The run at the original Sun Studios was pretty short lived. Because of its limited size and capabilities, Sam moved to a more modern studio a few blocks away (it's still operating, and I got off the tourist track to get you a picture of it). It's output is not too shabby, either. Yes, it did record Wooly Bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, to which I always do a great fat man dance, but it also made recordings by the Yardbirds, the Cramps, Alex Chilton and Phil Collins.
But back to Sun. Once Sam moved, the building fell derelict for a long time, but amazingly, the studio remained in tact for decades. Finally, some band called U2 decided that they would like to record there for their Rattle and Hum album. The studio was basically still there, albeit in a state of disrepair. U2 laid down 3 tracks at Sun using original equipment. That ultimately lead to the restoration of the place, and voila, it is now a great rock tourist attraction with almost all of it the original stuff used in the 50s. And it has also been reborn as a recording studio with a lot of famous musicians wanting to feel the aura of the place and record some tunes there.
The tour of Sun was one of my favorite things on this trip. You get to stand in the small studio and take it all in. There is the mic used by Elvis to record, and they let you grad it and ham it up to get some photos. U2 left a drum set from the Rattle and Hum sessions, and you can sit behind it for more posing. And there are guitars and other memorabilia scattered around the room that you can check out. I don't know if you can see the baffling on the walls or the zig-zag ceiling, but I hope so. Oh, and our tour guide was awesome - fun, spunky, witty and great with two little girls who became the stars of our tour. It was terrific fun, and a fantastic start to our exploration of Memphis. Check out some of the photos below - cool, right?
That last shot has a portion of the famous Million Dollar Quartet photo, which memorialized a spontaneous jam session at Sun featuring Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Mr. Cash. Sam surreptitiously recorded the whole thing - hoo boy!
The Sun Studio tour also includes some other cool rock stuff, like Elvis's cowhide guitar case.
I could go on and on, but you're probably saying "uncle" about right now. I will leave you one more great picture of the guitar sign on the outside of Sun. I've been reading a great book about Leo Fender and Les Paul called The Birth of Loud, which is about electric guitars, amplification and their critical role in the development of rock. I'll talk about it a lot more in another post.
Anyway, I saw some examples of Fender's and Paul's influence all over Memphis. But there is a lesser known guitar manufacturer founded by Paul Bigsby. If you look carefully at the Gibson guitar hanging outside of Sun, you'll see that the bridge on it says "Bigsby." Yeah, we'll discuss all of this at a later time, but I'm laying some enticing groundwork to keep you interested. By the way, isn't that guitar sign super cool? Look at the "strings" coming out of the tuning pegs at the top, and the whammy bar on the bridge. Good detail on the fretwork, too. Well done!
Did that get you interested? Sun is only two rooms, but Elvis's Graceland is still out there in the Memphis environs. And did you know that you can visit Jerry Lee Lewis's ranch, too? Oh yes you can. There is more, much more, to do in Memphis that talks, walks and breathes music. It is a pretty cool place if you have the least bit of interest in rock.
Three hours west of Nashville is another city with a deep and wide musical heritage: Memphis. Nashville is the capital of country music and all its variations, including bluegrass and rockabilly. You can see a statue of Bill Monroe behind the Ryman Auditorium celebrating the first bluegrass broadcast at the Grand Ole Opry. I didn't take a picture even though I walked by it a couple of times. Call me negligent.
Memphis is a much different place. It sits geographically about 20 miles north of Mississippi and was a hub of cotton warehousing and marketing back in antebellum Tennessee. It is the capital of what they call the mid-south region, and as such, it didn't just draw on the hillbilly/country influences that impacted Nashville. No sir, it was king of the blues. The unbelievable poverty from the Mississippi delta lead many people to the urban hub of the region, Memphis, and that included some amazing musicians.
Both cities had a lot of gospel influences, too. It is hard to understate the importance of gospel in the rise of rock 'n' roll, and that is one of the reasons why rock was so controversial. The use of God's music for secular purposes was frowned upon by both the white and black communities.
From the combination of blues, gospel, jazz, country, rockabilly, and big band pop came a unique Tennessee blend, and thus was born rock 'n' roll. I'll come back to that story later, but let's just recognize this town as the birthplace of all that rocks.
You would think that the drive between these two musically diverse cities would be sprinkled with other musical towns and venues. Well, at least I thought there would be something between them. The only thing I found was Loretta Lynn's ranch, which appears to have become a kind of amusement park, Loretta museum, Americana museum, campground and greasy spoon. With all due respect to the coal miner's daughter, it was a pretty easy "no thanks" for me.
The drive is straight down I-40, and it seems that every trucker in the environs is on that stretch of interstate. It reminded me of going down I-81 except it wasn't nearly as scenic. Still, it had dense and green forests for much of the way, and it was pleasing to the eye.
Now, Memphis isn't huge, but it's a sizeable city of about 700,000. It's vastly different from Nashville. In fact, it's different from almost every other city in the US that I visit. I had not been to Memphis in probably 15 years, and during that time, most US urban environments went on building and gentrification booms. Not so Memphis. Its skyline is right out of the 90s, and there is very little new downtown. OK, there is a new basketball arena and a new minor league baseball park, but not much else. I will say that it has cleaned itself up some, but it's unusual to see a modern US city still looking much as it did without tons of new glass and steel skyscrapers.
And Memphis still remains a black and white city. We were all over this town, and I barely saw any Asians or Hispanics. How can that be? I don't know. Memphis is also poor. Once you get out of the downtown area, you are into some shameful looking stuff.
Let's try to be positive. One cool thing is that there is hardly any rush hour traffic. Its a damn pleasure to drive around downtown. And there is street parking available, too. What a concept! But with that ease comes the trouble: I don't have recent stats, but Memphis has been a leader in the violence category for a long time. It's a gritty, poor urban city, but with some charm and attributes, too. Watching the news here is like watching Cops or something - it's crime after crime, and many of them violent. I'll get to those on subsequent posts, but note that downtown is pretty quiet.
Most cities have a high rise with an elevator that you can ride to the top for a sweeping view of the city. Memphis has a pyramid with an elevator. It's weird. The pyramid is primarily a Bass Pro Sports store, but also a hotel/restaurant complex, and a faux swamp complete with gators, trout, and some snazzy furniture that you can buy - in camo! Man, that's decorating right there. I don't really hunt or fish, so I went to the bathroom, did a circular tour of the place, and was back in my car in about 15 minutes. It's unusual.
Memphis is known for its BBQ, too. We're outside of Texas, so we ate the pig like we should. Pulled pork sandwiches with slaw on top, yummy! Dry rubbed ribs! Below, the top picture is from Central BBQ and the bottom is from Rendezvous. We preferred Central, but there is BBQ all over and it's high quality, too.
But the best meal that we had was from Gus's Fried Chicken. This was some tasty yardbird, and with great slaw and baked beans, too. Who says you don't eat veggies in the South? Maybe not green ones, but those brown beans count, right? Anyway, if you get the chance to eat at Gus's, jump at the opportunity. It's a humble looking place, but there's old, young, rich, poor, black, white, male and female in there tucking in to some incredibly tasty vittles. My mouth is watering thinking about it. Oh, baby!
I have a lot more to say about Memphis and its environs, and will put up a bunch of posts on the subject. Hang in there - it might take me a bit - but I'm telling you, this town has some musical highlights that are tremendous. Here's a quick B.B. King tune to get you in the mood - see if you can guess the others that are playing with him (and check out how they all know that they're playing with a master as they seek his approval at the end of each of their solos) - it's a great video:
Keep coming back for more from Memphis - I've got a lot to say and some great pictures, too. I think you'll dig it. I had a great time there. In the meantime, keep rockin' it and keep pursuing happiness - no country was founded with a better motto than that.
If there is a town that loves Johnny Cash more than Nashville, Tennessee, I haven't seen it. His likeness is everywhere, there is a JC museum downtown, and every bar band seems to play Folsom Prison Blues. I was back in Nashville this past weekend to attend a wedding, but hey, it's BRP, I love Johnny Cash, and there's live music everywhere. No caution needed here - time to party at the wedding and then enjoy Music City.
Nashville - wasn't it a flyover city for those on the coasts just a few short years ago? - is one fun place, and it exudes music everywhere. Not only is there ubiquitous live music, but there is music row (full of record labels, agents, attorneys and others serving the music business), the Grand Ole Opry (which was dark on my free night in town), music museums, record stores, and on and on. But like its later embrace of Johnny Cash, it is constantly changing and it isn't just a country music hotbed anymore. Far from it.
I've been to Nashville a number of times. You can catch blues nightly at Bourbon Street Blues in Printer's Alley, hit tons of venues spread all over the city, go to the Opry, or venture to the Ryman which is a cathedral of music. And if you're just in town to have fun or no one is playing of note, you can stroll down South Broadway and check out the honky tonks. Sure, you'll hear George Strait, Toby Keith, Travis Tritt, Merle Haggard and the aforementioned Mr. Cash. But people still like to rock out, and it's amazing how much rock you'll hear, particularly the electric blues. It's ubiquitous.
I saw one show at the Acme Feed & Seed that I'll post about separately, but I spent about 4 hours in the honky tonks on a Sunday afternoon/evening, and was impressed by the variety and quality of the music. Yeah, they're all cover bands, but they are GOOD cover bands, a testament to the fact that the Nashville scene has a high density of super-talented musicians looking to be discovered. And they play all kinds of music.
But let me tell you about some other things going on about town that are making it a bit less pleasant than that last time I was here about 3 years ago.
Nashville has become the number one city in the country for hosting bachelor and bachelorette parties. Cool, right? Well, maybe not cool. Maybe more like interesting. I don't know when it became de rigueur to have out-of-town, multi-day stag or hen parties, but it's the norm among the millennials, and they flock to Nashville (that might explain why they can't buy a house or pay off their college loans). I have a few pictorial examples of them riding around town in these various contraptions (some are pulled by farm tractors, haha), dancing and drinking. We saw them at 11 in the morning on Saturday already tanked up and yelling and screaming.
The locals call them "woo hoo" girls. Sorry, ladies, but the women are more visible screaming and drinking than are the men, who simply drink to oblivion. In fact, we saw a bachelor party on Friday night, and two of the 8 or so guys were so freakin' drunk it was hard to believe they were still standing. One guy almost fell down flat, and he was big. In fact, the group was going into a honky-tonk, and he slurred out that his license was incorrect: It said he weighed 380 pounds, but he really was 340. Honestly, I couldn't tell whether he was lying or not, but if he went down, it was going to take some serious muscle to get him tossed out on the sidewalk. But the women are far more visible than the men, and the woo hoo moniker is used as both admiration of women hitting it and having fun and derision for some of the over-the-top hijinks going on.
Anyway, the stags and hens are in Nashville for a different reason than many others, and I'm beginning to think that the two are becoming less and less compatible. There is an industry that has grown up around them, and it's getting to the point that the locals have had enough. There are tons of people, many of them drunk, on those electric scooters that seem like a good urban idea until you see it in practice. Those scooters are everywhere, and many are just dumped on the sidewalk, and SUI (scootering under the influence) is an epidemic and a dangerous one. Anyway, the city council is voting soon to ban them. Hmmmm, had enough? It took me about an hour in the city to say "hey, this place is overtouristed now - I wonder where the next yet-to-be-discovered music city is so we can visit?" But then I remembered I was in Nashville and that Nashville is great.
But it's different than before. Nashville is compact and not really a very big city. When something runs amok, you're going to notice it. Just like when something cool runs amok, it's going to be in your face everywhere. So we're back full circle: time to talk some music.
We were on SoBro, and went first to The Stage. We had had a great time here before, and wanted to see if lightening could strike twice. It came close - this band was kickin' it with a hopped up rockin' country vibe. The woman on fiddle was terrific and blazed through some great solos. Sure, the lead guy had the cheesy Nashville front-man thing down, but as corny as that can be, it's still fun. We hung here for a while, and then went looking for something a bit more rock 'n' roll. We decided not to eat at the Stage, but that fried bologna sandwich was tempting and looked like a good value.
I can't remember the name of the next bar, but the band below was playing. That female lead up front had a super sweet voice, and the band was tight. They played a good variety, but we only caught about 3 tunes before they took a break. Onward and upward.
Layla's was the next bar, so in we went. These guys were cranking out the Allman Brothers Whipping Post when we entered, and it was great. They moved on to CCR, The Outlaws Green Grass and High Tides (which is hard to play without that 3 lead guitar attack, but they did a credible job), Wild Night by Van Morrisson (not too good, but I love that song anyway) and then they ripped up Badfinger's No Matter What, another BRP favorite and the first time I've seen a band cover it. Our table neighbors seemed bemused that I knew every word. The last song we listened to was a mediocre cover of the Stones Street Fighting Man. Alas, they then took a break and we moved on again.
Dierks Bentley has opened up a huge honky-tonk and we plopped in there. It has about 4 levels with bands on each of them. We liked these guys as they were rocking. They played Brian Adams Summer of 69. I know Jonathan isn't a fan of this song, but he's wrong about it as it is fun and good to sing along to with tons of other baby boomers. But really blew me away was this trio's take on the Who's We Don't Get Fooled Again. The synthesizer parts of that song were played on this dude's guitar, and it sounded amazing. He was quite a good performer and really rocked it hard. We enjoyed these guys, but got the stink eye from a blue-haired waitress because we didn't buy a second round, so we hit it again.
It's amazing that this much talent is just playing without cover charges. They ask for people to hit the tip jar, which I do every time if they are worthy (most are), but you'd be surprised how many people just strut out without parting with a thin dime. But they pony up when it's time for bar food and drinks. I felt downright svelte in Nashville, which was nice. It was also nice to be surrounded by a lot of people from the South, with their kindness and manners. There were also a lot of people who were wearing Americana stuff - flag shirts, veteran shirts and the like. It's different here.
Anyway, we sauntered down to Acme Feed and Seed, which is at the very end of SoBro and has a nice view of the Cumberland River. It was worth it. The band that we caught, but only for about 5 songs, was just RIPPING it. They rocked hard - I can't remember every tune, but they played a particularly memorable version of Sweet's Barroom Blitz at the appropriate volume and level of enthusiasm. We were groovin' to these guys. But once again, we didn't catch their entire act, and thus, we moved on yet again. I had to hit the head before we left, and came upon one of my favorite signs about hippies, too. Nice!
Dierks isn't the only one who has put up a huge new honky-tonk since the last time I was here. Another one is Kid Rock, who now lives in Nashville (well, outside of town in a trailer with a huge party deck - it's true, look it up). We were disappointed with the band who played a mediocre version of the Allman's One Way Out. But we had 20 minutes of fun at the American Bad Ass's venue.
We were heading back to get something to eat, and passed the Mellow Mushroom. I don't think I've ever seen a funk band on SoBro, but here it was and we pounced on it. Whoa, baby, did we save the best for last. These guys were great, having fun and playing just wonderful songs. They did an 8 minute version of Ben E. King's Stand by Me, complete with a verse of Cupid and a verse of Tracks of My Tears thrown in. They played Marvin Gaye, they played Stevie Wonder and we were loving it. But we were also burning out and getting hungry. When they cranked into (wait for it....) Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues, we called it a day. But what a day!
Yeah, Nashville. It's great, but it's getting saturated and overtouristed. But it's great. I would go back again in a heartbeat, and bitch about the woo-hoo's as I jump in bar after bar featuring cover band extraordinaires. It's fun fun fun. And when you pump yourself full of barbeque or hot chicken, well, you get to strut around having fun in a way that you just can't replicate north of the Mason-Dixon line. Yeah, I know, I love Philly and it's music scene, but Nashville doesn't have a scene, it has a way of life. And it's cool. The only other places that are anything like it are Austin and New Orleans.
Well, and maybe another town in Tennessee where I'm off to next. Oh, and there's this place in Georgia called Athens that also has a pretty pumped up scene for a city it's size. Check back as my mid-South music adventure continues. I hope it's nice where you are, and that you're inspired enough after reading this to listen to Folsom Prison Blues, a truly great song. Keep rockin'!
The Jayhawks were in town last week. No, not the University of Kansas basketball team, but the alt-country band from Minnesota. Gary Louris is the original member that keeps the band going to this day, but back in their mid-80s founding, Mark Olson was the other founding member. The band has 10 albums out, and has continued to record and tour. I've seen them a few times, and when the opportunity arose to see them at the local music venue in Ardmore, it was too good to pass up.
Now I am not a huge fan of the Ardmore Music Hall. It's acoustics are just so-so. And its layout is terrible. Let me show you a picture (well, two, but I won't comment on the outside one) and describe it.
Check out that picture on the right. While it looks like a compact standing venue, it's actually separated into a standing and a seated section; standing is in the front with the seats behind. Here's the trouble: if you look to the left, there is a large (make that HUGE) bar that runs the length of the venue perpendicular to the stage. It's in a terrible spot, and what's worse is that the restrooms are behind the stage. If you want to go anywhere in that crowd, you're constantly running into that bar and there is a steady flow of patrons and waiters/waitresses going back and forth. It's hugely distracting and getting jostled all night sucks. You can avoid this by getting to the right, but then you're stuck. Make sure you go to the bathroom before the show begins.
If you think that you can avoid this by grabbing a seat, you're put in the back and the floor isn't sloping. So if you don't show up early and get the closest seats, you're stuck in the with a lot of heads in your way.
This could all be easily fixed by putting the bar in the back and moving the restrooms toward the entrance, but that would cost money. And if you are a regular, you realize that they pack this place most nights. It's a money maker so why mess with success, right? I guess that's the thinking. I don't know if the bands complain about the place, but there isn't much room on that little stage, and I have no idea whether they even have much of a backstage - I can't fathom where it would be.
That was too much complaining - sorry about that. I still go to AMH because they occasionally get good bands, it's about 10 minutes from my house, and it has ample free parking around town. Plus, it's small and generally full of easy-going, aging boomers - I've never seen a fight or even a healthy disagreement.
However, there was a dude at the Jayhawks show that was bugging the heck out of me. He was right behind me, pretty drunk, and didn't shut up the whole time (except to sing the 3 songs he knew). He had a booming voice and seemed very interested in high school sports because that was the topic of most of his conversations. And I saw him stiff the barmaid - no tip whatsoever - who does that? He seemed like the type that had been captain of his high school baseball team or something and couldn't believe that he was now an overweight, loud-mouthed, boorish jerk.
Glory days, indeed. Hey, at least I didn't go to high school in these parts and have to bump into Bro's like this dude at AMH. That would suck.
Back to the show. The Jayhawks are one of the best alt-country acts out there, and were instrumental in pushing the genre out. Other bands, like Uncle Tupelo (and hence, Wilco and Son Volt) were heavily influenced by the Jayhawks. Their songs are generally about love and the huge range of emotions that are part of that human need. When they hit on all cylinders, they have some of the most singable, memorable and catchy tunes out there. Here's one that had the entire crowd singing at AMH, Save It For A Rainy Day:
It was an interesting night. I had bought the tickets a while ago, but we had somehow screwed up and had invited people over for dinner on the same night. We moved up dinner by an hour, and had a relaxed and great time. Our friends split, and we quickly scooted out the door and up to AMH. We parked in the SEPTA lot, and got in just after the Jayhawks had taken the stage. Yeah, we missed the opener, which I am loathe to do, but we caught the Jayhawks and felt pretty good about ourselves for pulling off that two-fer.
I love bands that use a multitude of instruments, and the Jayhawks popped out the harmonica, fiddle, mandolin, plus had a heavy keyboard thing going. They had excellent flow to their setlist, letting the crowd get hopped up for a few songs, then gently bringing them back down for a slower ballad. The band also mixed in their "hits" through the show, which allowed for multiple sing-along sessions that were sweeter than most (probably because the songs are so great). When they played Save It For A Rainy Day, Blue and I'd Run Away, the crowd just loved it. As they should, because those are three great songs.
How good are those tracks? Man, they are fantastic. Even the high school sports hero recognized them. Unfortunately, his harmonies weren't quite as good as the band members, but so be it. I love those tunes and it's always great to see them performed live.
I will say that the Jayhawks are not the most dynamic band that you'll ever see on stage. If you watched those videos, the live ones capture the essence of their shows. There is great musicianship, harmonies, and lovely songs, but also a lot of standing around. Nonetheless, given the music they are performing, it's about right. And since there is no room to move about on that crappy little stage anyway, it was cool.
You also gotta love this band's gumption. Like I said, they're from Minneapolis, and I hear it can cold up there. They played the Super Bowl there a few years back - hey, didn't the Eagles win it all there? Why, yes, they did! - and the band did an OUTDOOR concert as part of the festivities. This is February in Minnesota. Check it out - they played outside bundled up in coats and scarves:
There are some darn good bands from Minnesota: Prince, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Husker Du - and the Jayhawks are right up there with these groups. Well, maybe not Prince, but you know what I'm saying. I was glad that they ventured south to do a gig in sleepy Ardmore.
I've got some more good stuff coming up soon, so check back and I'll let you in on the goings-on. I'm going to take a rock 'n' roll memory lane detour for all of you soon, and you won't want to miss my take on it. In the meantime, it looks like the rain stopped just in time for the weekend, so go do something fun outside, OK? I'll be here waiting for you when you come back.
A pox on me! I thought that putting together the ultimate playlist would be a relatively simple task. I started with the 1950s, and it just rolled. Well, let me tell you, I bit off a task that is monstrously huge. It’s fun and interesting, no doubt, but it’s also going to take me a year or two to pull this off.
Luckily, none of us have much better to do. Right? Right.
Now that I am committed, I have been trying to organize the list into sub-categories that make sense, and then within those sub-categories, to start compiling artists that are truly worthy of respect and adulation. I decided to do what I wanted to do first, and then to fill in the blanks later. But I’m also trying to do this on a bit of a timeline. What does that mean? License for BRP to do whatever! I did talk to the owner of this blog, and after careful consideration, he came around and said, yeah, do whatever you want. My powers of persuasion remain.
I don’t know if you’re aware, but this year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of Motown (it actually started as a label named Tamla). For those not familiar with the story, a songwriter named Barry Gordy, Jr. had an idea to establish a black-owned record label to record African-American artists outside of the stronghold of the blues-based south. He also wanted to create a crossover label to get black acts heard by larger audiences, a gap that was not being filled by the major labels. Gordy did that in his hometown of Detroit, and he turned out to be a visionary. Motown went on a tear and put out a truly incredible string of singles and albums that are an essential part of the American songbook.
A lot of the artists/songwriters/musicians were originally from the Detroit environs. Why did Detroit have this tremendous talent base? I don’t know, probably something having to do with the automobile industry kicking out enough money up and down the employment chain to fuel a large middle class that had the money to foster the arts, even if inadvertently. But sometimes a confluence of talent just happens, and it is embraced and enhanced by the local culture until it explodes across the nation.
I’m pretty interested in Detroit and think that it remains one of America’s most interesting cities. I’ve been there a bunch of times, and all I can say is that it’s unlike any other American city. It has huge swaths of city blocks that have been razed and left fallow. The buildings that do remain seem randomly distributed; some are derelict and others still house people or businesses. The old industrial buildings, while often in dilapidated condition, have wonderful architecture that was meant to make a lasting statement.
The loss of population and abandonment of the city are well documented, but those that remain are determined to stage a comeback and that effort is well underway, at least in certain pockets – downtown and the area around Wayne State University for sure. The Detroit metro area has the largest Muslim population in the US, and has incredible middle-eastern food. The US automobile industry is still headquartered here, and there is a strong blue collar streak that permeates the city. The area has Greenfield Village, the Henry Ford Museum, and one of America’s best art museums with murals by Diego Rivera. It also has a fantastic musical heritage that includes, but goes beyond, Motown
Hitsville USA. We’ve all heard of it right? It’s the former home of Motown Records and ground zero for the Motown sound. It’s an unassuming former house – and now a museum – where some of the best songs to ever come out of the US were recorded. If you’re of a certain vintage (that’s a nice way of saying if you’re old), you grew up with these songs. That’s because Motown and its affiliated labels had 79 records in the top-ten of the Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 1969. For a small label featuring African-American performers, that is stunning.
How about we get to the music and start talking about the best of the best artists that epitomize Motown? Just to note, not all of these artists recorded on the actual Motown label – to qualify here, if someone recorded on an affiliated label within the Motown family, they are included. BRP takes artistic license again, but in this case it’s entirely justified. I’m going to start big. I’m going to start with:
I love Stevie Wonder. What a legacy of music he has left for all of us! From the very early days when he was a child prodigy performer right up through the present, he is an American Treasure. The number of truly great Wonder tunes is breathtaking. If you remember, I’m only supposed to go with one tune per artist, but I can make exceptions if I clear it with the BRP boss, and this one got cleared. Let’s go with Superstition, and Higher Ground. There are so many more to choose from, and I’m ignoring the entire Songs From the Key of Life masterpiece. In fact, that would be a travesty, so I’m putting I Wish in here, too. Three songs! Whoa, but this is Stevie, and I’ve left off other worthy candidates, like You Are The Sunshine of My Life, Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing, If You Really Love Me, For Once In My Life, … well, you get the point. Genius. Master. Oh, and Stevie is still out there performing. I’ve seen him a few times, and he’s worth it. Pay the money, get the experience.
Diana Ross gets a lot of the acclaim, and she’s worthy of it, but this trio was much more than Diana. Harmonies and that velvety lead voice knock you off your feet. But the songs! The group’s heyday was only 3 years – 1965-67, but look at the list! Many of these tracks are simply synonymous with the word Motown. We have a great friend of many decades who adored the song Baby Love, and that’s what I’ll put on this list. Shame on me for not going with Stop! In The Name of Love, Where Did Our Love Go?, or You Keep Me Hanging On. I am a big fan of the Supremes, but I can’t go with multiple songs by every Motown artist or we’ll never get to Dearborn. Well, maybe two from the girls because I think You Can’t Hurry Love is just too good to leave on the cutting room floor.
Marvin wasn’t from Detroit – he’s a DC guy – but he’s also one of the biggest stars to record on the Motown label. He sang some of the most romantic and sexy songs ever put on vinyl, but with What’s Going On?, he also sang about the national dysfunction that gripped the nation at the end of the turbulent 1960s. I’m a romantic, so I’m going to skip that particular track. Here, instead, is Let’s Get It On, a song you shouldn’t play on your first date (I think Sexual Healing is more appropriate for that). Yep, I skipped I Heard It Through the Grapevine which many believe is the best song ever to come out of the Motown hit machine, but I disagree. I don’t think it’s even Marvin’s best track. And since its BRP, I’ll stake out the controversial position on this one and roll with my choice. Dig it.
I’ll get back to these guys in a bit when I talk about Rick James, but man, here’s another group that put out great single after great single. Just My Imagination, Papa Was a Rolling Stone, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, I Can’t Get Next to You. Jeez, most artists would kill to have just one of those songs as the flagship of their artistic output. But for me, the best Temptations song of all time is My Girl. It’s sweet, loving, and perfect to sing to your girl as you realize just how in love you are with her.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Smokey! Holy cow, look at this list so far and then realize we’re on artist number 5 who is, quite simply, one of the best singers of the rock/soul era. And Smokey wrote a ton of the best of the best of the Motown hits – I only included the songs that he performed here and not those that others recorded. I had a real struggle picking my favorite song. I quickly threw out Tears of a Clown, You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me and Shop Around, but needed to flip a coin between The Tracks of My Tears and I Second That Emotion. Heads! Here’s The Tracks of My Tears, a perfect BRP special because I can go dark sometimes and this elegant song about the false public face of a heartbroken lover is just amazing.
The Four Tops
The hit machine continues. They didn’t call it Hitsville USA for nothing! I was not a huge fan of Reach Out I’ll Be There, but when discussing this list, I was called a fool for not appreciating that song more than I do. Well, I’ve been called worse by better, and in this instance, I’m right, so there. There were other huge hits, like Standing in the Shadows of Love, but for me, the choice came down to I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) and Baby I Need Your Lovin’. And the winner is … drumroll please … Baby I Need Your Lovin’.
The Jackson Five
It’s true that the J 5 is from Indiana, but they recorded on the Motown label. As a kid, I was a huge fan. I still am. Again, it’s hard to pick just one song, but for me, the standout track has always been I Want You Back. I love the way the song starts with the piano and then the bass line kicks in and we’re off. You can argue that I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save, I’ll Be There or Never Can Say Goodbye are better tracks, but you’ll lose that argument. Now, I know it’s popular not to listen to anything recorded by Michael Jackson because he turned out to be a child molester. But during the J 5 years, he certainly was not that person, and hey, if we start judging artists based on their personal lives, well, we’re going to be depriving ourselves of a lot of great stuff. You do what you want in this regard, but MJ is still getting played in my house.
The King of Pop. His musical output is in the stratosphere. Huge albums, number one singles. Yes, a bad guy in his personal life. But musically, there aren’t many that are bigger. Beat It, Billie Jean, Thriller, Rock With You, Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, Wanna Be Startin’ Something. The best-selling artist of all time. Clearly a troubled man, but the musical and creative legacy just can’t be ignored. I’m going with Rock With You because I think Off The Wall was his best album.
Martha and the Vandellas
What’s a Vandella? You’ve got me. But if you want to hear one of the best songs from the Motown songbook, you simply have to include Dancing in the Street. Or is that Heat Wave? What about Nowhere to Run or Jimmy Mack? Uncle! These ladies were awesome. While I like all of these songs, I think Dancing in the Street is the cream of the crop, and I’ve included that track for your listening pleasure.
How big were the Commodores? They still get played constantly, with classics like Easy, Three Times a Lady, and their signature song, Brick House. I’m going with Brick House because everyone knows it and it’s got a great funk sound that will get you moving and grooving. Lionel Richie (see below) left the Commodores for a solo career and continued the huge commercial success story.
One of my friends was a huge Spinners fan. I didn’t really agree with him, thinking that they were a bit too saccharine for my tastes. Still, with songs like Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, One of a Kind (Love Affair), and Games People Play, they were all over the radio for a while there. My favorite is Could It Be I’m Falling In Love.
Gladys Knight and the Pips
The Empress of Soul. Gladys did a lot of covers in her day, but Midnight Train to Georgia was a MONSTER hit. I love it and am including it here because it’s just so good. I have a question: why do songs always reference midnight trains? There aren’t many midnight trains. And why would you take one? I guess it sounds better in a song than it does in reality.
Ooooh, I love Rick James! While Super Freak, a catchy song about a nymphomaniac with background vocals done by the Temptations, gets all the props, for my money the best RJ song is Give It To Me, Baby. The bass riff that introduces this tune is enough to get your head bopping, and then the song kicks in and you’re just gone. Don’t believe me? Listen to this and try not to bite your lower lip as you keep time.
The very first number one song for Motown was Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes. I’m putting that on the list even though they also recorded a song near and dear to my heart, Don’t Mess With Bill. There are just so many good songs about Bill. I may have to revisit a long-ago BRP post about the great Bill songs.
It’s easy to underestimate Mary Wells. While other Motown performers went on to greater fame and acclaim, she was the first “star” to come out of Hitsville, USA. I love My Guy, her signature song and the one featured on this list, but please don’t overlook songs like Two Lovers and The One Who Really Loves You.
The former Temptation had a monster hit in 1973 with Keep on Truckin’. What is it about the word “truckin” that makes its use so ubiquitous in the rock/soul lyric book? I don’t know, I think it was just a hippie slogan (along with things like “take it easy”) but this song makes me think of my young teenage years. The album version is much longer – the single got cut back in order to make it more commercially viable. And it worked.
How good is the song All Night Long, with its catchy Caribbean-influenced groove? It’s good enough to put Lionel in the Motown stratosphere. This is one fantastic track and my favorite Richie song. The former Commodore also had big hits with You Are, Stuck on You, That’s What Friends Are For, and My Love. He was a mega-star and also a good performer – I’ve seen him live a few times.
Boyz II Men
Yes, this group from Philly actually recorded on Motown. While they have a string of singles that make younger hearts pound, I’m going with their first single, Motownphilly, which mixes the Midwestern funk with the Eastern doo wop into a slammin’ combination.
A white rock band in the Motown quiver? Yep, Rare Earth was that unlikely group. They made a living covering songs by other Motown artists but I Just Want to Celebrate was theirs alone. It’s a great song and still sounds fresh today. I’m a pretty big Get Ready fan, too, and prefer the Rare Earth version to other covers of that song.
Junior Walker and the Allstars
OK, we’re in that portion of the list where artists just had one big hit to their name. Hey, one is better than none, and some of these hits are such great songs that they shouldn’t be overlooked regardless. Such a song is Shotgun which came out on the Soul label where the harder, less commercially oriented R and B artists were recording.
A virulently anti-war song, War was a huge hit for Edwin Starr. It’s been covered by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, and Jackie Chan bothered Chris Tucker by singing the signature verse over and over during Rush Hour. Are those James Brown grunts in there or what?
Who? Most of you know David Ruffin of the Temptations, but this is his older brother. So, yeah, you might not know the artist’s name, but when I say What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, you go, oh, right, that’s a great song. It is. This song was originally meant for the Spinners, but they didn’t get it. Go Jimmy.
I know one song by Thelma Houston, but it could well be my favorite disco song: Don’t Leave Me This Way. I love how the song builds to the chorus and it is just so danceable. It’s a Gamble and Huff song from Philly, and was a cover by Thelma. Motown was originally going to have Diana Ross do the cover, but somehow it ended up with Thelma. Remember that cheesy slut movie, Looking for Mr. Goodbar? It was the big song from that soundtrack as I recall.
Wow. Seriously, take a look at that list. How can you not be bowled over? And let’s not forget that some great artists, like the Isley Brothers, also briefly recorded for Motown. Moreover, the Motown label is still functioning, but I decided not to get into more current artists because for me and my generation, “Motown” means the 1960s – 1980s music featured here.
Did you watch those videos? What a simpler time. I love the synchronized dance moves and the matching outfits. But the songs! And remember that I just featured one or a couple from each artist. The catalog is just so freakin’ deep that it’s still hard to comprehend.
And it would be wrong to go this far with a Motown list and not acknowledge one of the best group of session musicians in the history of popular music: the Funk Brothers. They played backup on so many signature Motown tracks that it’s hard to figure that they never got much credit for driving Hitsville USA to its Everest of heights. Hats off to you, guys.
I’m tired. That was a lot. But it’s great and I’ve got many more such lists to go. Any requests for what’s next? Arena rock? British Invasion? Punk? C’mon, give it to me baby.
I occasionally go off on The Man. We all know about The Man, right? If not, I was watching The School of Rock, and this scene rocked it. That's one great movie, and this is one of the reasons why.
Everybody loves sticking it to The Man. Even The Man likes to stick it to The Man. Do you remember this commercial? It was a classic.
I was recently reading where a motorcycle magazine called Easyriders used a tagline that said "California residents: Add 6% sales tax for The Man." That was in 1979. While the government is clearly the best example of The Man, I use it for anyone in a position of authority. And sticking it to authority figures is the stuff of rock legend. But authority always wins, right? Maybe, but that doesn't mean you don't fight it anyway. I love the end of this video!
Rock music was born to stick it to The Man. How many great songs are there that basically are all about sticking it to The Man? Here's a smattering of some of the best.
I watched all of those back-to-back-to-back, etc. I feel like rampaging against … shoot, anything right now. Yowza.
This all started so sweetly with Jack Black lecturing about The Man, and ended up with Rage Against The Machine just ripping into authority. You gotta love it.
Go forth and take this advice: Keep calm and stick it to The Man! And if you have the time, watch the rest of School of Rock. That movie is good for the rock 'n' roll soul.
If you go to Europe and visit castles or the Tower of London, there's a lot of bad stuff that went on inside those walls. Like taking princesses and holding them in dank basement cells.
Underground Arts is a great club. It's the basement party venue of your dreams. But is it a good place to hold a princess and make her perform for her freedom? That appears to be the case. Sumo Princess opened for the Meat Puppets recently at UA, and while UA may resemble those dark basement keeps in Europe, Sumo Princess made the best of the situation. This two piece band was on FIRE!
Speaking of fire, whenever I'm at UA, I'm wondering "how am I going to get out of this place if there's a fire?" I eventually come around to thinking, hey, no worries, the place is a concrete block. I'm not sure that anything in it would burn. Except for the bands that spark and play with incendiary passion. Such was Sumo Princess.
I'm not going to declare a trend, but there has clearly been an uptick in good opening bands for me lately. I had never heard of Sumo Princess before, but they put on a really hot 1/2 hour set that had us all going "Damn!" Here's what I found out about the band. They are a duo based in LA. Abby Travis sings and plays bass, and Gene Trautmann plays drums. Abby has an interesting voice, and uses a lot of tone and modulation to spice up the lyrics. She can also rip on the bass, and has a footboard that is double the size of most lead guitarists that I see. Abby uses all those gizmos effectively to make her bass roar, fuzz, roll and pitch. She's really really good.
Gene has played with a lot of well-known acts, like Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal. Abby has toured and sessioned with a wide range of stars, too, including Cher (hey, why does Cher keep popping up on BRP?), the Go-Go's, Beck, and Eagles of Death Metal. They just released their first album, and LA Weekly just named it their album of the week. Sumo Princess is on a roll!
Sumo Princess describes their music as "post punk, stoner rock." Whatever. It rocks hard and works. They are good live because Abby is a really good performer and works it up there. SP had the place buzzing and the heads bobbing. It was a strong set by and up-and-coming band. Check out their first single, Click Bait:
How come they only have 680 views on that? ABBA had 342 MILLION for Dancing Queen! This is one messed up world.
I've given all this time to Sumo Princess and they weren't even the reason I went to UA. The Meat Puppets were the headliner. I had never seen them before and wasn't quite sure what to expect. Their career has gone from hard-core punk to cowpunk to psychedlia to alt-country. That's quite a trajectory. And they've been around forever with lots of albums out. It was not clear to me what was going to be in the offing.
The band came out and tore into, well, a hillbilly bluegrassy kind of rave up called Comin' Down. It was a great start. From there they basically hit all of the genres except for truly hard-core punk. Don't get me wrong, there was a punk edge about everything they played, but they just didn't do the 1:30 high speed, little tune song. Here's a link to the setlist, but note that setlist.fm got the venue wrong.https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/meat-puppets/2019/world-cafe-live-philadelphia-pa-1b90d928.htm
How good is setlist.fm? I love that site. Not only does it list the songs, it then links them to videos and audio versions of the tracks. It's one of the blessings of the internet.
The Puppets hail from Phoenix, Arizona. They are fronted by two brothers (the dudes with the gray ponytails in all the photos), Curt Kirkwood and Cris Kirkwood. Curt sings and plays guitar. Cris wears mom jeans, makes some of the most amazing faces at the crowd, and plays the bass. They've had a lot of people come and go in the band, but these are the driving forces.
I personally like punk, even some hard-core, but I also like alt-country and cowpunk. These guys do it well, and their set is fast-paced. But they do get into their solos. In fact, the first part of the show clicked along great, but the second half was a bit too self-indulgent for my tastes. Nonetheless, they were really enjoyable.
The other guitarist in the photos, who I believe is named Elmo Kirkwood (seriously, what mother names their kid Elmo? I half-expected a stuffed red muppet. His t-shirt is hot dogs by the way.), could rip it. We were right in front of him, and his finger dexterity was amazing. It's particularly notable because he had one of those electronic cigarette things that he was toking on half the show. I've never seen that before, but so long as it didn't negatively affect the performance, I was fine with it.
The crowd was one interesting mix. There were 3 women standing next to us, and one must have taken over 1000 pictures during the show. She took pictures of the bands, selfies, pictures of her friends, pictures of the crowd, pictures of stuff at her feet, and on and on. What do you do with all those?
There were plenty of other women at the show, which is important because (a) they were shorter than me so I could see over them and get good pictures, and (b) they were not happy when some buttwipe who was clearly very, very stoned decided he was going to mosh. He was the only one, and he just started piling into people. The women WERE NOT digging it at all. Neither were the men. He slammed into one guy, sent that dude's beer flying (I was sprayed by it some and he must have been 10 feet away from us), and then that guy wound up and threw a roundhouse punch. Unfortunately, it just glanced mosh-boy's face. I was hoping for the KO.
The MP's played a lengthy set and we didn't get home until past 1 am. Thankfully, the next day was Saturday and I didn't have to get up and cow-tow to The Man. Well, not until the afternoon anyway.
It's time for me to run. It's sweet summertime, so get outside and enjoy it. I'm going to go watch some baseball today. Whatever you're up to, have fun, be safe and remember to turn it up and rock it out.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.