Colt 45? No, I drank that crap when I was a kid and wanted a cheap beer buzz. It’s really horrible stuff, but occasionally I get wistful for its flavor because it’s so powerfully reminiscent of part of my youth. Oh, and doesn't Colt 45 work every time? Yeah, that's what I thought.
45 RPM? No, not that either, but that would be a good guess given that this is primarily a music blog. Do you remember that little adaptor that you had to use to play 45s on your turntable? For whatever reason, 45s came with a much larger hole in the middle than did 33s, and you popped this little plastic disc adaptor into the hole so that the 45 could rotate uniformly on the spindle. I spent a lot of time with 45s in my life as they were the primary records that you bought prior to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The Beatles were the first band that made entire albums relevant, and not just singles. Once the Beatles did that, everyone naturally followed and the 33 became the medium for purchasing and listening to records.
Back to 45. What 45 do I speak of? Well, there are 50 states in the U.S. and I have now visited 45 of them. The latest state to be conquered was Arkansas (“Woo Pig! Sooie!”). I don’t know why but it’s become a thing with me that I want to visit all 50 states.
Like everything, there is a way to make the visit “official.” Some will say that you simply have to step onto the soil of a place to proclaim an official visitation, while others will say that you have to do something there for it be a visit. For me, you have to spend the night within the jurisdiction. That seems reasonable given that you are making some kind of proclamation that you’ve visited a place. Spending a night requires some effort, and puts you into the position where you actually have to see daylight and nighttime in order to say “Yep, I’ve been there.”
What’s the point? I have no idea. Perhaps for me, it’s just that I’m American, proudly so, and want to see this great and large country of ours. It’s a big place, and it’s different and beautiful when you travel around it. Despite a homogeneous popular culture, there are still some pretty significant regional differences that are best experienced rather than simply acknowledged. And the U.S. has certain things that other countries don’t offer, and I want to be a part of them, at least for a day. Sure, it’s also silly, trite and egotistical, but hey, I’m silly, trite and egotistical. I’m not the only one; what’s the purpose of Johnny Cash’s song other than to brag that he’s been there, done that, and you haven’t.
There are places in the U.S. where you can still feel out of place, or where you are instantly recognized as not being “from there.” I was in a restaurant in northern Mississippi recently, and we had to wait on a table. The host looked at us oddly because he could tell that we weren’t from Mississippi. He took down our telephone number to text me when it was ready, and he didn’t recognize my 267 area code. He asked where I was from, and when I said Philly, he said “for real?!” Like, what are you doing here? And it’s so obvious you’re from SOMEWHERE other than here. I was still certainly in the U.S., but I clearly wasn’t in a big Northeast city or some other place where I routinely find myself.
This country has so many great places to see, too. I was in California for a wedding earlier this year, and we found ourselves in Carmel, a picturesque retirement town for the wealthy. We hiked along the Pacific coast at Point Lobos State Park (no, we didn’t see any wolves), and it was unspeakably beautiful. I would imagine that a Californian coming to see the Jersey shore would be taken by how different it is from the coastline with which they are most familiar, and that’s how I felt. I’m glad I saw it, watched sea lions bask on a hidden beach and tidepooled around some rocks at low tide. You don’t do that on the East Coast. Instead, you swim in the warm ocean and hang out in boardwalk towns that are full of little kids eating funnel cakes and other healthy snacks. Both are great, both are remarkably different from one another, but both are part of our country and ought to be experienced.
Wait a minute, what's that pickup doing here? Well, they must know that I'm a southern redneck at heart because when I got to the San Francisco rental car agency, that pickup is what they had reserved for me. Hahaha, who in God's name wants to rent that for SF? I don't know, but they had about 15 of them in a row, so I kept the damn thing and embraced my heritage. Yee-hah!
When we went to Memphis, I immediately seized on the idea of going to Arkansas for just one night. It’s right across the Mississippi River, and Little Rock, the capital, is all of 2 hours away. Since I was driving, off we went. I will say that the drive from Memphis to Little Rock is kind of boring save for the many trucks that plow I-40 and that are constantly jockeying for position along the way. The landscape is flat, agricultural and open. Think of driving along the Delaware eastern shore, and you’ll get a clue. It always strikes me that the U.S. is still remarkably free from development compared to the rest of the first world countries. Asia is simply teeming with people, and there isn’t a square foot of land that isn’t purposefully set aside for something. Farmers live in skyscrapers in Korea, I kid you not. And Europe is also densely populated in comparison. It has 100 million more people in half the size of the U.S., and you notice it. I like the open spaces and the feeling that there is still land aplenty for our citizenry.
We got to Little Rock with, let’s face it, low expectations. I knew the Clinton Presidential Library was there, as well as Little Rock Central High School, but other than that, I was pretty ignorant of the place. I was happily surprised. The city is compact, but has a nice setting astride the Arkansas River. Downtown is spruced up with new buildings, charming older places that have been restored and preserved, and there is a thriving arts and culinary thing going on there. We strolled through a gallery composed of the output from Arkansas artists, and it was large, diverse and interesting. You know I love the visual arts, and while Little Rock certainly can’t compete with the big cities in terms of museums (although the Waltons have funded a museum in Bentonville that is supposed to be pretty amazing), that didn’t diminish the artistic beauty and relevance of the works on display here.
The Clinton library is worth seeing. It has the typical stuff of many of the presidential libraries: the replica Oval Office, presidential limo, and history of the presidency of Mr. Clinton. And they threw in a replica of the Cabinet conference room to boot. The curators did a good job of putting his presidency into perspective, although it was a bit too rah-rah for my tastes. The building is designed to resemble he main library in Dublin’s Trinity College, and after comparing pictures, there is a similarity of design. As always, I found the gifts that people and dignitaries had given the President the most interesting thing on display. I’ve been to LBJ’s and FDR’s libraries, and this one held its own. It also has distinguished architecture and a lovely spot along the river. I liked it.
I’ll talk about Little Rock Central High School in a separate post that discusses the plight of black people in the U.S, and particularly in the Jim Crow south. My heart aches for what was done to them.
Little Rock also has a free downtown trolley system with antique cars that tool around.
It was fun to ride one for a bit. We were just messing around and figured that it would be a quick and easy way to discover some spots we might not otherwise see, when bam! I look out the window of a small club about 4 blocks from our hotel and it is advertising that Dash Rip Rock, the New Orleans cowpunk band, is playing that very night. I had seen any live music in, well, hours, and I was itching. Did we go? Oh yeah. I’ll write that up separately, too. Here's a couple more pics from Little Rock, including the Ten Commandments on the state capital grounds. Really? Yeah, really.
All in all, it was a well-spent 24 hours in Arkansas. I’ve now visited 45 states, and only have Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska to go. The Dakotas have plenty to interest me – Custer’s house and the battlefield at Little Big Horn, plus the Badlands. I know a lot of people from Iowa, and I pretty much like them all, so I’ll figure out something to do there. Nebraska has the Lewis and Clark trail that goes up the Missouri River. And Alaska is huge, majestic and full of characters. See? Everyplace is interesting, sometimes even BRP. Catch you soon, I hope.
Every great studio that produces tons of hits seems to have a house band that plays on track after track. Think about it. At Hitsville USA in Motown, it was the Funk Brothers. You’ve got the Swampers down in Muscle Shoals. In LA, you had the Wrecking Crew. And at Stax Records in Memphis, you had Booker T. and the MGs coupled with the Memphis Horns. Unlike those other house bands, Booker T. had a massive hit all by themselves, the fantastic instrumental Green Onions.
Yeah, these guys, like their city, were gritty and played with a rawer edge than many of those others. But let’s not try to rank or do something silly like that. Let’s instead dive into Stax and its legacy to see what was going on in Memphis in the post-Sun period.
The Stax museum is definitely worth visiting. Stax took over a former movie studio, modified it to contain a large control room and studio, and then punched out the hits for local and national adulation alike. Take a look:
Who recorded there? How about Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, Albert King, the Bar-Kays and the Staple Singers to name a few. This was soul music, gospel with secular lyrics, and it was a sound that came out of Memphis and other black urban hubs throughout the nation. But having people like Otis Redding carrying the flag makes it hard to compete. Once again, Memphis boasts a larger musical heritage than its modest size would otherwise indicate.
The quick Stax story is that a brother and sister combo, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, set up a record shop and eventually a recording studio, and they operated the place in a color-blind fashion. Opening up in a traditionally black neighborhood referred to as Soulsville, this team of white people would record anyone with talent, and formed an integrated band well before integration was acceptable in this part of the world. Word got around, and Stax made a distribution deal with Atlantic Records that allowed its songs to get the national exposure that ensured commercial success. Tons of great music was recorded here, and the place competed with other local studios/labels like Hi and Argent (Argent ended up becoming a somewhat partner, and recorded other great bands, like the Box Tops and Big Star). The whole thing came spiraling down after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The place then ultimately falls derelict before being resurrected as the current museum.
Unlike most of the other music museums, this one told the story of soul music whether or not it was recorded at Stax. Sure, they focused on some of the great Stax artists and had more artifacts from them, but they also had some great stuff from Ike and Tina Turner.
But the collection of Stax memorabilia is super cool and some is over the top. Check out Isaac Hayes’s custom Cadillac:
Wow, can you imagine that thing driving around town? It would certainly catch your attention. Other great stuff includes Otis Redding’s stylish suede jacket, instruments used by the Bar-Kays, and lots of stuff from Booker T. and the MG’s: Steve Cropper’s Fender Telecaster, Donald “Duck” Dunn’s Fender Precision bass, Al Jackson, Jr.s drum set, Wayne Jackson’s Besson Brevete Trumpet, and Booker T. Jones Hammond M-3 organ. Take a look:
I don’t know why, but I love seeing that stuff. How about this send-off of the Beatles Abbey Road picture, done Memphis-style by Booker T. and the MG’s:
And let’s not forget the wall of 45 singles that were recorded at Stax:
Stax tells the story of American soul music, with a special emphasis on what Memphis brought to it. There's great video, too, and you can spend a lot of time in the joint just watching and then checking out the artifacts. One young kid was there, and the adult with him referenced the Theme From Shaft. The kid had never heard it, which blew the adult and me away (notice how I don't reference myself as an "adult"), and then we played it for him on Spotify. Yeah, he liked it. Who doesn't?
Memphis. How can such a small, gritty city have such a large impact on the world? Location, individuals with ambition, and great local talent all conspired to make Memphis a music hub. It's days are not gone, either. I still have to write up the Beale Street experience, where I came into contact with an extraordinary musician named Jason James. We'll get to that soon. But I need a break from Memphis. Can I take one? Phew, the boss said OK. I hope you'll like my detour. If not, skip the posts and then roll on back for more from Memphis. In the meantime, turn up the volume and rock it!
About a half hour south of Memphis is Nesbit, Mississippi. It’s a rural area with very little development. But Nesbit sports the home of one of rock’s early masters, Mr. Jerry Lee Lewis.
Before going to Tennessee, I read that you could go to Nesbit and visit Jerry Lee’s home, called the Lewis Ranch, and I was intrigued. Jerry Lee is still alive, and still lives part-time at the ranch. What star opens up their home for tours while they are still living in the home? It doesn’t happen in Hollywood, or Nashville or anyplace else. It’s highly unusual and an interesting opportunity. I couldn’t resist.
Unlike Graceland, the home isn’t just open – you have to make an appointment and you get a private tour. Two people give the tour – Jerry Lee’s son and Jerry’s Lee’s security guy. We got the security guy (Alex?) and we were the only two on the tour. We learned a lot about the Killer and how he lived, and got to see a ton of personal items. We even went into Jerry Lee’s bedroom. It was intimate.
I think it’s cool that Elvis is the King, but Jerry Lee is the Killer. JLL got that nickname because he was gonzo when playing the piano, and because of his wild personal life. There’s no sugar coating how influential JLL is in so many ways, including how to live the crazy rock ‘n’ roll life.
Unfortunately, the Killer wasn’t there when we toured. Apparently, he’ll show up on occasion. He reportedly has another house about 20 minutes away that is more modern, and he spends a fair amount of time there. And Jerry Lee suffered a stroke a bit ago, and so his health may not be top-notch. But I was bummed that we didn’t get to meet him personally. I’m not much of a star-chaser, but how often do you get to meet one of the original rockers and the inspiration for thousands who followed his lead? It would have been nice to say hi and tell him to read BRP, the best damn rock ‘n’ roll blog published in my house.
It wasn’t hard to find the house. You get the address, and it has a gate with a piano prominently built into it. You hit the button, the gate opens up, and off you go. Unlike Graceland, JLL doesn’t care if you take pictures and post them (except for his bedroom) and so I’ve got a ton of shots inside the house. Want to see them? Of course you do. But first, let's see the Killer in action.
This house is not opulent. JLL has had some financial issues with the IRS and maybe that has something to do with it. But what the house lacks in luxuries, it makes up for in accessibility and memorabilia. Like a lot of southern dudes, the Killer likes his guns and knives, and we got to see an armoire that he shot and the back of his bedroom door which was riddled with hundreds of knife cuts. Apparently, the Killer likes to throw his knives. And just so you know, it’s not that easy to get a knife to stick in a door. Once in college, I went to a buddy’s apartment where the boys were throwing kitchen knives into the back of a door. They were having trouble getting the knife to stick, and when I walked in, they demanded that I try. I took the knife, never having done this before, and on my first (and only) throw, I put that bitch right into the door where it stuck and wiggled. American bad ass! Haha, anyway, I watched for a while, and I’ll bet only about 30-40% of the throws resulted in a stick, and so Jerry’s door was impressive. Well, that and that he did it in his bedroom.
We saw a lot of other stuff, too. There’s a grand piano used by the Killer, and we were allowed to pose with it. Hey, just so you know, I can throw a knife, but I can’t play a lick on the piano.
There were the gold records.
There was the bar where luminaries like Johnny Cash passed out after a few too many (and few more gold records, too).
And there was the couch where Jerry Lee posed for an album cover.
We saw a lot of other items, too, much of which qualified as mementos from a long and lustrous career. Like the Jerry Lee and Skooby Doo sketch, or the keys to the jail.
Or how about Jerry Lee’s first electric piano?
He’s got a nice lake outside, and has a Rolls Royce sitting in the carport. Unfortunately, his “piano key” swimming pool is being repaired, so we couldn’t check that out. But we did go out on the back patio with a nice view of the lake. And we saw the kitchen, dining room and living room.
Let’s be real: this is not luxury living, but it’s homey and comfortable the way a normal person would live. Yeah, it needs updating, but it was cool getting to stroll around the house, hear stories of the Killer and see pictures and mementos of his life, and to do it on a very small tour. There was no need for an iPad or jitney bus here, and we hung out until we had run out of questions.
The Lewis Ranch is just another piece of the Memphis music story that hangs all over the region. You see pictures of Jerry Lee at Sun Studios, go to his house, and then hit his Beale Street honky-tonk. The presence of these influential and seminal musical personalities is universal in Memphis, and it makes it cool and different.
The Killer rocked it. Given how inspirational and influential he was on subsequent keyboard frontmen, right down to modern guys like Adam Weiner in Low Cut Connie, it was a privilege to get this kind of experience. Keep rolling, Jerry Lee, and live that rock ‘n’ roll life!
I've got so much more on Memphis - Stax Records, Jason James, Beale Street - plus some surprise stuff, too. You've just got to keep coming back and checking it out. I'll be here whenever you get the inkling.
It’s important to go to the Mountain. In this case, that’s Graceland. Other than the White House, it is the most visited home in the U.S., with about 600,000 annual visitors. Elvis Presley bought this house and lived here until he died at the ripe old age of 42. I had never been to Graceland until last week. It was well worth the wait.
Let’s get some things clear right up front. I like Elvis, but his real moment in the sun as a musician happened before I was born. I remember watching him when I was a kid in some of his cheesy movies on Saturday afternoons, but I don’t remember anything about his early rock ‘n’ roll days. Bands from the 60s resonate a lot more with me.
But I still have TREMENDOUS respect for the King. I’ve listened to his songs many times, and watched enough bio-pics on the dude to understand just what a phenomenon the guy was. I won’t pretend to be a know-it-all about Elvis. I haven’t seen all 31 of the movies he starred in, don’t know how many gold records he has, and don’t remember him impacting U.S. popular culture the way my elders do. By the time I was getting conscious about music and pop culture, Elvis was already a huge established star. Many others have spilt tons of ink researching and writing everything you would ever want to know about Mr. Presley, and I’m just not going to get into all of that.
Here’s the lowdown, BRP style. Elvis basically took a lot of black and hillbilly music and turned it onto the greater white world. But it wasn’t a conscious, calculated move. He was raised poor in Tupelo, MS before moving to Memphis with his folks, and he listened to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night, went to church and heard gospel music, and was living in Mississippi at a time when great bluesmen were playing their songs. He basically just took the influences that were all around him and emulated them. And it’s not like he wrote his own music anyway. Elvis thought of himself as a ballad singer, and he was a great one, but I remember him as a rocker. Nonetheless, the guy had great natural talent, charisma, boyish charm, and oozed sex appeal at a very prudish time in our history. You can’t give him too much credit for popularizing rock ‘n’ roll.
We forget sitting here in 2019 how narrow the world was back in the early 1950s. There was basically no TV, no internet, limited movies, and limited radio. You got what you got, and there was still tremendous regional variation throughout the country. To put it in perspective, much of the rural south was ruled by Jim Crow, and was just getting electricity. It was not unusual for homes in rural America to have outhouses and no electricity. In the South, church was the center of life, not only as a place of worship, but as a place of companionship and fellowship. And Mississippi was dirt poor with sharecroppers picking cotton in the fields and singing call-and-response gospel and blues tunes like slavery had never ended. That, along with the Grand Ole Opry radio show, were huge influences.
But it was also the post-war period, and things were looking up. Moving to Memphis allowed Elvis to be exposed to a lot more opportunities than in rural Mississippi. And the boy could sing. Nonetheless, there were no rock ‘n’ roll role models out there. When asked why he danced and swung his hips when he sang, Elvis said that he wasn’t even aware he was doing it; he was just feeling the music.
Whatever, once he got Sam Phillips to believe in him and start recording his songs, he burst on the scene. Not only did he become a regional hotshot, he got national airplay and was ominpresent. The string on number one hits is amazing, as is his move into movies and television. Maybe Col. Tom Parker was an exploitive SOB, but he was also a marketing genius, and he built Elvis into an icon and international star. And part of the story of Elvis is so non-traditional that it blows your mind. At the height of his musical popularity, he did what no rock star would ever do these days: he took a few years off and served in the military. For real? Yep. Sure, he was drafted, but he served.
Once Elvis hit it big, he started to get rich very fast. Well, maybe not very rich, but for a poor dude, he was rolling in bucks like he never dreamed. Thus Graceland. A previously owned home on acres of ground in south Memphis, he turned it into his home where he lived with his parents, his wife Prisciilla and his daughter Lisa Marie. That is, until he got divorced and his ex-wife and daughter split for Southern California.
Let’s get a little lowdown on the Graceland experience circa 2019. First, the area surrounding Graceland is, well, derelict. You wouldn’t go there unless Graceland existed. It’s cruddy and poor and simply not very nice. And then, all of a sudden, there sits a big-ass new hotel right on Elvis Presley Boulevard which is owned by Graceland. Across the street, you are directed to park and you enter the Graceland complex.
We’re old and get up early most days, and have learned that, like the marines, it’s best to be first on the beach when going to popular tourist attractions. We got there a few minutes before the place opened, got our tickets, and started the tour. In case you were wondering, you have a bunch of choices with your ticket options, and they are all kinda pricey. We opted for the Elvis Experience, which gets you into Graceland the house, all the museums, and into the airplanes. How much? $65 per person. Ouch!
You enter the Graceland complex in the middle of a big group of not-very-attractive buildings which house the ticket office, a theater, a bunch of museums, 4 restaurants, a live music venue and acres of $10 per car parking. I think you can camp there, too, as the number of RVs on premises at 9 in the morning was impressive. Once you have your ticket, you get in line to see a quick and very good intro film (about 8 minutes long) that recounts Elvis’s career (but with none of the bad parts). Then you go outside, get on a jitney bus, and head over to the mansion itself.
They give you an iPad and headphones as the tour of the house is self-guided. The iPad is good and works well, with lots of side information available if you want it. You aren’t rushed through the house, but it’s crowded because the house itself isn’t very large. I don’t know the square footage, but I’ve been in bigger houses many times on the Main Line. Here are some pictures of the experience and of the back of the house.
I took a ton of pictures, but am only showing the outside ones. There was a sign that said you could take as many pics as you want, but couldn’t put them up for “commercial” use. As you know, BRP is a de facto non-profit, nay a money loser, but I’ve come across these serious types before – read my Taylor Swift post for more on that – and Graceland is nothing if not a serious effort to part you with your money. I’m not going to tempt fate, but if you’re interested, swing on by my house and I’ll show you the inside pictures – they’re cool and worth putting up with me for a while (well, that’s a big statement, but you get the point).
With the Elvis Experience, you get lots of Elvis information, but only if you’re looking for the good and flashy side of him. You get nothing on Col. Tom Parker (I think I saw his name mentioned once even though he managed Elvis’s career his entire life and at one point took 50% of everything), you hear nothing about Elvis’s slide into depression and drugs, and there is precious little about his divorce and post-divorce years. And of course, you get zero information on who now owns Graceland (from what I can tell, it’s Lisa Marie and maybe some other company that bought Elvis’s name/likeness from his estate). By the way, the internet estimate of Lisa Marie’s net worth is $300 million, and Elvis was worth all of $5 million when he died. If you think about that, and how much he is estimated to have generated during his lifetime ($1 billion is the estimate), well, someone was getting fleeced.
Still, Elvis had money to spend. He decorated the house in the manner of a poor kid done good. Some of it is tacky, some nice, some crazy (the jungle room) and some extravagant (the racketball court complete with lounge). He bought cars, motorcycles, modified snowmobiles, and all kinds of other toys. Elvis had a small jet and big touring plane that was decked out to the nines. And he was a generous soul, constantly giving money to those in need and to worthy causes. You come away from Graceland thinking that he was a fun loving, good guy, and that fame boxed him in, but he was free at Graceland. You also find out that he had some odd habits. One was that he had a police car light, and would occasionally pull people over and give them a safety tip. Can you imagine that happening today? Me either.
We spent about 3.5 hours at Graceland. On an hourly basis, that admission fee isn’t so bad after all. It was well done, very slick and “corporate,” but also chock full of great Elvis memorabilia. I’m going to show the wall of gold records because it’s about 50 feet high and they used every square inch of it. It’s highly impressive. But they also had a bunch of his cars and motorcycles, stage outfits, a big thing on Elvis in the military, an area devoted just to his Hollywood days, and lots of other artifacts. It was slim on video, but that’s what YouTube and BRP are for, right?
Yes, we went to the Mountain. It was important. It was worth it. But Graceland is like the Everest of rock locations. The Lewis Ranch, which I’ll talk about in another post shortly, is more like one of the forgotten Himalayan peaks that, on their own, are mind-blowing, but in reality are always in the shadow of Everest/Graceland. Maybe that’s for the best.
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.
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.