Duke Ellington & John Coltrane: “In a Sentimental Mood” (Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, 1962)

Yesterday was John Coltrane’s birthday, though I didn’t realize it until a friend of mine posted a scan of the original sheet music from “A Love Supreme” on Facebook last night (and then I saw a thing on my Tumblr feed when I checked it this morning). 

As it happens, I listened to Ole yesterday, just by coincidence. That album is something like a pivot to his spiritual jazz phase, and I really like it a lot, but here’s my thing with Coltrane: as much as I love A Love Supreme and Ole and most of Kulu Se Mama, I really think he was at his best as an interpreter of ballads.

I’ve read a lot of fan thoughts on Coltrane recently, and a lot of critical writing about him, too, and this is not a common opinion, form what I can tell. He is most often praised for his innovation, and especially for his dense “sheets of sound” style of soloing, which he took to some pretty out-there extremes on records like Om, Ascension, and Interstellar Space, albums that I don’t enjoy listening to at all.

On the other hand, listen to him on this collaboration with Duke Ellington. It seems like an improbable pairing at first blush, and in many ways it is—they represent different eras and schools of jazz. Ellington mostly worked with large ensembles and was a competent but unspectacular instrumentalist. Coltrane worked in small combos and was a virtuoso. Both were visionaries—one for the band, the other for his instrument.

But it worked. The two played this session as a quartet session, with some tracks featuring Coltrane’s regular bassist, Jimmy Garrison, and regular drummer, Elvin Jones, and others featuring bassist Aaron Bell and drummer Sam Woodyard (Woodyard was in Ellington’s band). This song, oddly, features Bell on bass and Jones on drums, but they’re mostly just staying out of the way.

Ellington does what he does well on the piano, playing a memorable, airy theme not that far off from Money Jungle's “Fleurette Africaine,” which may be his finest moment as an instrumentalist. Meanwhile, Coltranedoes something he was extremely talented at, which was taking a recognizable and rather simple melody and coming at it from a dozen different angles, taking it apart so he can look inside of it and show its essence (the version of “My Favorite Things” on the album of the same title is the crowning achievement of this approach). His tone here is supple and gentle and basically sublime. 

When Coltrane played a million miles an hour, that level of control he had was always evident, but the level of control was also one of the things that was foregrounded. You were, in part, listening for it. The music had a “damn” factor, as in “damn, what did he just play?”

"In a Sentimental Mood" does not have the damn factor, and it doesn’t need it. The control he has over what he’s playing is amazing, but you have it start analyzing it to even notice it. I think it’s sort of interesting that, for me, the music that Coltrane presented as though it was tapping into some thread of the universe (Om, Ascension, etc.) is the stuff that sounds the most man-made, while stuff like this is the music that feels like it’s a part of the air and always has been. 

Different strokes for different folks, of course, but that’s the Coltrane I love most. 

The Supremes: “Your Heart Belongs To Me” (Motown 1027, 1962)

A couple weekends ago, my wife and I visited the Motown Museum at 2648 West Grand Bouleavard in Detroit. It’s not a very imposing structure, two bungalows with mismatched exteriors attached together, with a big Hitsville USA over the picture window of one of them. It’s surrounded by a funeral home parking lot and a few other former homes that have been turned into businesses, including a beauty shop, a florist and pharmacy. There is a massive hospital down the street, the flagship of the Henry Ford Health System.

The tour is pretty good—it ends in the Snake Pit, the garage-turned-studio that Motown conquered the world out of. There’s a vending machine outside the studio with candy from the 70s in it. They always put the Baby Ruths in the same slot so Stevie Wonder could get them without asking for help.

One of the coolest things about visiting the house comes early in the tour. You’re wandering around a room with memorabilia plastered all over the walls (including a business card from Berry Gordy’s failed record store, a shot of his family’s grocery store, and a bunch of 45s), and then you walk through a certain part of the room and it… sounds different. That’s because you’ve walked right under the old echo chamber, which was built into the attic. You can stand there snapping your fingers under the opening and hear the slapback effect that characterizes just about every major Motown recording.

Before there was a settled Motown sound, though, there was a lot of work done to figure out what that sound might be, and this early Supremes single, just their fourth if you count the one they made as the Primettes, makes much more judicious use of the echo chamber than any of the chart toppers they’d release over the next several years. There’s a bit of echo on the bongos, the snare and… that’s it. It’s sort of strange to hear Diana Ross without all that reverb, actually.

This song did not chart. At least not in this version. Shortly after it was released to virtually no response, a second pressing, this one loaded with reverb, was released. This one gave the Supremes their first chart showing, way down at #95 pop. But I prefer the original, dry recording. Something about the dryness makes it feel more intimate, which is appropriate, given the kind of song it is.

"Your Heart Belongs To Me" was written and produced by Smokey Robinson, and it’s one of a handful of Motown songs from the early 60s that eerily looks ahead to American escalation in Vietnam. The song’s forthright devotion and faith that the lover the song is sung to may be tempted to stray so far away from home but won’t are almost heartbreakingly innocent considering what was coming.

Even before Vietnam spiraled into the war that changed everything, the members of the Motown family would have been plenty familiar with having family and friends shipped overseas for periods of military service. It was a simple reality of being black in America—members of your race formed a disproportionately large percentage of the active duty military. This is one of the primary reasons that Robinson’s treatment of the story in this song is so humane and real.

Ross really sounds the part of a smitten young woman—her voice was never a booming instrument, and truth be told, this is the first Supremes single on which she sounds especially good. On earlier singles, you can hear intonation problems—she had trouble staying in key. The other Surpremes in 1962 were Flo Ballard and Mary Wilson, and they do a fine job here with the dry production.

The b-side of this single, “He’s Seventeen,” is pretty awful, but more than “Your Heart” it does point toward the sound the Supremes would become famous by in 1964 when they were paired with Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers. The drums fills in particular are classic Motown sound. Meanwhile, The Supremes had another year and a half of obscure toil ahead of them before they broke through.

Eddie Holland: “If It’s Love (It’s Alright)” (Motown 1031, 1962)

After yesterday’s White Stripes post, I feel like staying in Detroit for another installment of Every Great Song Ever’s nascent Undiscovered Motown series.

The Eddie Holland-Lamont Dozier-Brian Holland songwriting team is one of the most successful ever. They were the writer/producers for a staggering 25 #1 singles during their tenure with Motown from 1962 to 1967. But in 1962, the trio was still coalescing and wasn’t yet the hit single steamroller it would turn into. They had their first H-D-H composer credit on Lamont Dozier’s solo single “Dearest One” in June, but both Dozier and Eddie Holland were primarily performers, while Brian Holland was a staff writer.

Brian co-wrote “If It’s Love (It’s Alright)” with Mickey Stevenson for Eddie—it was Eddie’s ninth single and eighth since joining the Motown family (he had a flop on Mercury in 1958 called “You”). In late ‘61, he’d managed a minor hit with the song “Jamie,” but Motown for some reason couldn’t figure out how to get him back on the charts until December 1963, when he finally managed to #76 Pop/#27 r&b with “Leaving Here.”

In the meantime, he released a handful of singles that were certainly chart worthy. Eventually, I’ll get to all of them, but I want to start with “If It’s Love” simply because it’s one of my favorite Motown singles. The compilers of Hip-O Select’s Complete Motown Singles series speculate that this was an outside session, recorded away from the Snakepit, and I’m inclined to think they’re correct—it has a different character from Motown’s in-house recordings.

The arrangement is spectacular—listen to those strings! It’s as though they’re having a conversation with him. I also like the palm-muted guitar that flits through the middle of the mix, bridging the gap between the lightly brushed drums and the aggressive strings. But the real delight of this song is Holland himself. What a singer this guy was. He retired from performing in 1964 after experiencing stage fright, but under different circumstances, he really could have been a star with a voice like that.

It’s not just the basic power and tone of his voice, either. His highly syncopated phrasing and command of an unorthodox melody is hugely impressive. His performance is essential to sell a song that doesn’t really have a hummable tune. And he does sell it, even if nobody bought it. A little more than a minute in, he even sells it a little too hard for the recording equipment—check what happens to his voice when he sings the word “deep.” He falls into an echo chamber for just the split second it takes him to sing that word.

I don’t think there’s a single second of this song that’s not exciting in some way. It is just about a perfect pop song.

The Marvelettes: “Beechwood 4-5789” (Tamla T 54065, 1962)

This morning, I was saddened to come across an obituary in the Detroit Free Press for Gladys Horton. Horton is not a household name, but she holds a special place in Detroit musical history—she sang lead on Motown’s first #1 pop hit, “Please Mr. Postman.”

Horton was the co-founder, with Georgia Dobbins, of the Casinyets (a corruption of “Can’t Sing Yet”), later the Marvels, and finally the Marvelettes. They were Motown’s first big girl group and the definers of the girl group template that Berry Gordy would later use to make massive stars out of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Diana Ross and the Surpemes.

Being the innovator is often a thankless task, though, and though the Marvelettes remained on the Motown roster until the very late 60s in various forms, they were completely eclipsed by their descendants and essentially ignored by the label—they made some great songs that flopped because of that lack of attention.

Horton was the lead singer on everything they did through 1965, and while “Please Mr. Postman” is wonderful, my favorite thing they did in those years is “Beechwood 4-5789.” Beechwood was a telephone exchange—the “b” and “e” stood in for the first two numbers of the phone number (which makes the number 234-5789). But while the song’s syntax might glue it to its era, everything else about it is still fantastic.

Horton’s lead vocal is dexterous and imaginatively phrased—that kind of syncopation was a staple of the Motown Sound that this song helped establish. Why this didn’t perform as well as “Postman” (#7 r&b, #17 pop) is beyond me. It’s one of my favorite Motown a-sides. Incidentally, that’s Marvin Gaye playing drums.

Horton left the group in 1967, and ultimately made the same move to the West Coast as Motown itself. She performed at times as Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes, and reunited with her one-time replacement as lead singer, Wanda Young, for an album in 1990. She passed away in Sherman Oaks, California, yesterday. She was 65.

Gino Parks: “Fire” (Tamla 54066, 1962)

In the late 60s and early 70s, Motown was a machine, cranking out hits at a mind-bogglingly prodigious rate, and with an efficiency that none of its competitors ever matched. But a machine has to be built, and the label’s early years are fascinating because you can see the process unfolding almost in real time on the singles it released on Berry Gordy’s various imprints.

Hip-O-Select’s Complete Motown Singles series was a real revelation as far as charting the construction of the machine goes. Hearing every a- and b-side, including some that were deleted before release, collected in chronological order is an amazing experience, and I had the pleasure of writing about nearly the whole series for Pitchfork. In the process, I fell in love with the label’s lost history—all the worthy stuff that never became radio staples. So this’ll be the first in an occasional series I’m calling Undiscovered Motown, which’ll feature Motown songs that never charted in the Pop Top 20 or the R&B Top Ten.

I chose this one to kick it off because it’s one of my all-time favorites. Gino Parks was born Gene Purifoy in 1933. Like so many young black men and women of his era, he left his hometown in Alabama to come north, landing in Detroit in 1954, when Berry Gordy was still trying (unsuccessfully) to get a record store that specialized in jazz off the ground. Parks was a relatively early resident of Hitsville, USA, signing in 1960 after a few fruitless years across town at Fortune Records.

He cut three singles, one for the Miracle imprint and two for Tamla, and none of them went anywhere. His debut was an entertaining “Yakety-Yak” ripoff called “Blibberin’ Blabbin’ Blues,” but I think “Fire,” his last Motown a-side, is his definitive performance. He clearly had heard James Brown, but he’s also not an imitator, and the Funk Brothers’ gospel revival backing gives him a thrilling platform for some serious vocal pyrotechnics.

The song is purely secular, but the gospel-ish arrangement is echoed in the lines about “fire in my bones,” which was a colloquialism explaining the feeling that made people dance during church service performances. It’s one of the best obscurities in the Motown vaults.

Update: the great Jonathan Bogart points out in reply that the colloquial “Fire caught up in my bones” is drawn directly from Jeremiah 20:9.

The Tornados: “Telstar” (Decca F11494, 1962)

While Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric” is generally considered to be the first synth-pop song to hit #1 in the UK, it occurred to me after I posted “Cars” yesterday that Numan may have been beaten to the punch by nearly 20 years.

"Telstar" is one of those rare creations that is at once completely of its time and completely out of time. It was released a month and a week after the launch of the Telstar 1 communications satellite, the first satellite ever to relay television, phone calls and faxes. Compared to modern telecommunications satellites, the thing was a piece of space junk—it didn’t have a geosynchronous orbit, so its signal wasn’t available to the ground stations in the US and UK all the time—but it still managed to relay the very first live transatlantic TV feed and captured people’s imaginations at a time when people really believed you and I, in 2010, would most likely be accustomed to space travel as a routine activity.

So in that sense, “Telstar” the song is all about the zeitgeist of its era—the Space Race was on, and Joe Meek wasn’t about to be left behind. The song was credited to and played by the Tornados, but it was really a creation of Meek, an oddball UK record producer who’d already had his head in the stars for a few years: he produced the weird and wonderful “I Hear A New World” EP series in 1959 (more on that tomorrow).

The thing about “Telstar” that makes it sound so out of time to me is the actual sound of it, which is nothing like anything else that was going on in 1962. That sweeping verse melody is played on a clavioline, a forerunner of the analog synthesizer that had been used on only a few pop songs to that point, most notably Del Shannon’s 1961 hit “Runaway,” which used a modified version dubbed the Musitron. Its tone is weird and wonderful and makes it sound quite modern—it’s maybe the best example of the paleo-future in music. And the melody Meek wrote for it is an ecstatic, soaring thing. It celebrates the triumph of space travel very literally—the sound effects in the intro give you the launch, the clavioline gives you the arc of the escape, and the guitar chorus is the weightless drift around the home planet.

Fittingly, it was the first single by a UK band to hit #1 in the US (fourth UK single overall), which means that a song celebrating the first satellite to relay a transatlantic TV feed also became a transatlantic smash, topping both charts at the same time. Meek, always reaching for the cutting edge, had a Scopitone video produced for the song. The original Scopitone video for “Telstar” doesn’t seem to have survived, though this charmingly corny video for “Robot” has.

Oh, and about those Tornados: they’re never talked about much on their own terms because Meek was so responsible for their output, but they were a good band, backing most of Meek’s acts in the studio and at one point challenging the Shadows for Britain’s best instrumental act. Their lineup on “Telstar” was George Bellamy* on rhythm guitar, Clem Cattini on drums, Heinz Burt on bass, Alan Caddy on lead guitar, Roger LaVern on keyboards, and non-Tornado Geoff Goddard playing clavioline and adding those worldess vocals that double the clavioline in the last verse.

This band began to fragment in 1963, and the Tornados became a name for whatever band Meek had together at the moment. The last single ever credited to the Tornados was 1966’s “Is That A Ship I Hear?” It’s not musically notable, but its b-side, an otherwise forgettable lounge instrumental, is interesting for being perhaps the first released British popular song to feature gay subject matter. “Do You Come Here Often?” features a brief conversation between two men that probably sounded banal enough to the average censor but would have been recognized for what it was by a gay man of the time.

Meek himself was gay, and it was no easy thing to be homosexual in 1960s Britain. The country’s retrograde sexuality laws made homosexual acts between two men in private illegal until 1967’s Sexual Offences Act, which itself only partially rectified the problem and maintained some inequalities. As one can imagine (and there are many who don’t have to imagine, even today), a law that makes your sexual preference illegal places you under enormous pressures. By all accounts, Meek was already a pretty tightly wound guy, and it seems certain that his inability to live openly weighed very heavily on him. This, combined with his financial losses as his success waned in the mid-60s, sent him into the depression that ultimately led him to murder his landlady, Violet Shenton, and take his own life in 1967. He was 37.

Meek’s violent end leaves an unfortunate cloud around his life, but he left behind some really stunning and inventive music that still sounds strange today. Not bad for a guy who was completely tone deaf.

*Fun fact: George Bellamy is the father of Matthew Bellamy, the lead singer and guitarist of Muse.

Also: don’t confuse this band with the Tornadoes, who were an American surf band.

Lilis Surjani - Gendjer Gendjer (Indonesia, 1962)

Gendjer (also spelled genjer) is a type of edible weed that grows on the island of Java. It’s usually translated as something like Velvetleaf, and varieties apparently grow across much of Asia. During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia from 1942-1945, it became central to the diets of many poor Indonesians, who were simply trying to stave off starvation under the oppressive rule of Imperial Japan.

In 1962, when Lilis Surjani (also spelled Suryani) recorded this song, gendjer was still on the menu, such as it was, for many in Gang Kelinci (Rabbit Alley), the part of Jakarta that Surjani grew up in. “Gendjer Gendjer” is a song of pity for the poor—I haven’t been able to get a good translation of the lyrics, which are sung in Bahasa Indonesia, but I’ve been able to gather enough phrases like “half-dead people” to know that the words match the ache of the music.

It’s amazing to think that Surjani was just in her mid-teens when she recorded this as part of her …Ia Tatep Dias LP. Her delivery is unhurried, and no one should sound that world-weary at that age.

The song was picked up by the PKI, Indonesia’s Communist party, as a sort of hymn, a fact that would come back to haunt the singer when Suharto took over in 1965 and destroyed the PKI, leading a campaign in which half a million Communists and suspected Communists were killed over the course of about two years. “Gendjer Gendjer” and in fact the whole LP it came from were banned.Not that Surjani had ever intended it as a pro-Communist song.

Surjani nonetheless maintained a career that lasted until her death from cervical cancer in 2007 at age 59.

My favorite mini-story about Surjani’s recording career comes from an incident in 1965, when she was reprimanded by the government of Indonesia’s anti-Western first president, Sukarno, for playing rock and roll-ish music. By some accounts, she issued an official apology, then turned around and recorded “Pergi Perdjoang (Depart Warrior),” a song that was clearly rock and roll, but that also couldn’t be reasonably banned by Sukarno, on account of the fact that it was strongly supportive of his low-level war against Malaysia.

But anyway, “Gendjer Gendjer.” This is a gorgeous, perfect song whether you understand the lyrics or not.