Fontella Bass: “Since I Fell for You” (The ‘New’ Look, 1965)

Last week, two great soul singers, Fontella Bass and Marva Whitney, left us. Whitney, who I’ll come back to tomorrow, wasn’t well-known to the general public, but Bass was, if only for the one massive hit that cemented her as a radio staple for nearly five decades.

That hit, 1965’s “Rescue Me,” endures because it deserves to—everything about it is memorable. Bass might have had more like it, but there were complications. She co-wrote the song, but received no credit and subsequently no royalties. This happened to a lot of performers in her day (and she was doubly subject to discrimination, being a black woman), but Bass was among the few who stood up for herself.

It was the right thing to do, but it killed her momentum as a performer—she didn’t release another album until 1972’s funky Free, by which point her moment had passed, commercially. Artistically, though, she did some great work, and her two 1970 collaborations with the Art Ensemble of Chicago (she was married to AEOC member Lester Bowie), recorded while they were living in France, are awesome, inspiring records full of audacious ideas courageously executed.

Bass stepped away from music after Free failed to sell and focused on raising the four children she had with Bowie. She stepped back in during the 90s, though, recording and performing occasionally; in the 00s, she was responsible for most of the highlights on two albums by the Cinematic Orchestra. 

"Since I Fell For You" was on the same LP that included "Rescue Me," and I think it may be my favorite recording of hers. She could belt with the best of them, but I love the range she shows here. She shows her power on the refrain, but also a delicate touch in the verses that makes me think she could have had a hell of a career if she’d had the support she deserved. 

Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass: “A Taste of Honey” (Whipped Cream and Other Delights, 1965)

Have I ever told you about my quest for “A Taste of Honey”?

I don’t know where I first heard it. Intuition tells me it was used as a music bumper on All Things Considered, probably as a cheeky reference to something in the previous story, and I probably heard it on the old radio my parents kept in the kitchen, a little wooden thing with tube speakers that sounded amazing.

It could have been the Oldies station. But it was probably NPR. Anyway, I was captivated by it the way kids get captivated by random things. I remembered the bit I’d heard in remarkable detail, and it would leap into my head at completely unpredictable times.

I had no idea what it was, of course. Herb Alpert was not a name I knew, and “A Taste of Honey” is sort of a mismatch of a title for this energetic instrumental. The song always sounded sort of dark in spite of its pep to me. It would taunt me now and then throughout my childhood. I would hear it in the grocery store. It would come on the Oldies station as my mother pulled the car into the garage and snapped the radio off. It was this mysterious song, and either it was following me, or I was following it, and it was always just out of reach.

I was just a budding vinyl digger when I came across my first Herb Alpert LPs in a Goodwill. SRO, The Lonely Bull, and a couple of others. I knew about Whipped Cream and Other Delights for its notorious cover art, but I had no idea that this song I’d been haunted by all my life was on it. It wasn’t until a few years later that I finally found out the artist and title of the song. I don’t even remember how I found it out.

By then, I don’t know how many tattered copies of Whipped Cream I’d passed over or seen pinned to walls in record stores. So new knowledge in hand, I’d look for it in stores. Never too intently—it was bound to turn up soon.

But then a funny thing happened: I couldn’t find a copy of it. For years. Herb Alpert is like a patron saint of the dollar bin, and this LP for ages was known as the bad penny of used record stores. It turned up everywhere, its cheesecake cover buffed with ringwear, splitting along the top, dust jacket long ago lost. I ran across myriad copies of seemingly ever other Tijuana Brass recording. I found eight copies of SRO in a single Goodwill once, but no trace of Whipped Cream.

This was deeply perplexing. The best-selling Herb Alpert album, the only one with a song I wanted on it, had seemingly vanished overnight from all my haunts, while copies of South of the Border, Herb Alpert’s Ninth, What Now My Love, Going Places, and Sounds Like proliferated like especially randy rabbits. It reached a comical point, where any time I walked into a second hand vinyl shop, I’d go straight to wherever Alpert was most likely to be filed—under his own name, under easy listening, under Now Sound, under lounge, even under jazz a couple times—flip through the stock, see every album I wasn’t looking for, and just laugh.

I made it all the way through four years of college in Boston without managing to score a copy of Whipped Cream and Other Delights, and I was in every record store in Boston, Cambridge, Brighton and Somerville, and I was in them a lot. It’s as though space warped around me and kept me from coming into contact with it. This same streak followed me to Chicago and then Arkansas. I kept looking for it, though. When I was about 27 and living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I downloaded Soulseek, and the first thing I ever did a search for was “Alpert Taste.” 30 seconds later, I was halfway to having an mp3 of “A Taste of Honey.” I hadn’t heard it in probably eight years by that time, and oddly enough, it didn’t disappoint. It still grabbed me the same way it always had.

The next day I went to Spun Discs, a vinyl-only place that was open for about two years on Township Street in Fayetteville, and there, right at the front of the new arrivals, was a copy of Whipped Cream and Other Delights.

I didn’t buy it. It would have felt like giving in to some cosmic joke. Instead, I sold a stack of LPs I could do without and picked up a copy of Pink Floyd’s A Nice Pair with the store credit. I do have a full digital copy of Whipped Cream now, but “A Taste of Honey” is the only thing on it I ever listen to.

I’m not sure what it is about this piece of music that I love so much. There’s no one element that jumps out and puts it over the top—it’s more in the way every little thing about it comes together and mixes with decades of hazy memory to build something vastly greater than the sum of its parts. I see the LP around a lot now, and I’m occasionally tempted to add it to my shelves, but I always go for something else. I’m sure it’ll be there if I ever decide otherwise…

Artist: Phil Ochs
Track: “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” 
Album: I Ain’t Marching Anymore
Year: 1965
Theme: Protest Songs 

The Miracles: “The Tracks Of My Tears” (Tamla T 54118, 1965)

I just heard this morning that Marv Tarplin, longtime guitarist for the Miracles, and later for Smokey Robinson during his solo career, passed away at the end of September. A memorial service was held in Detroit today.

Tarplin’s a guy that’s been overlooked through the years—sure, he sang and played guitar for a very popular group, but very few people know that he co-wrote a lot of those hits with Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracle Warren “Pete” Moore.

"The Tracks Of My Tears" is one of the ones he co-wrote. He was playing along with a recording of Harry Belafonte’s "The Banana Boat Song" one day—he had it playing at 33 1/3 rpm instead of 45—and as he fiddled around with it, the figure that you hear at the very beginning of the song came to him. Turn it up and listen to it—it’s a lovely bit of playing that a lot of people aren’t familiar with because of the way they’ve been exposed to this song, hearing it over public PAs, or faded out of something else on oldies radio. You notice it when it gets to the first chorus, not from the gentle guitar intro onward.

It’s a lovely bit of playing, and sets up the basic ingredients of the whole song in a few bars. Follow it through the song if you can; he’s doing a lot of nice filling in, and shadows the melody all the way through. It’s an interesting exercise to train yourself to listen to the guitar parts on Miracles records—we’re so used to focusing on the voices, and especially Smokey’s voice that it often doesn’t even register what the mix of instruments is back there.

Robinson has said in interviews that it took him days to come up with any lyrics for the melody Tarplin supplied him with, and even then all he came up with was, “take a good look at my face/look closer, it’s easy to trace,” but he didn’t figure out what was being traced until the following week.

Tarplin was happy standing in the shadows while Smokey got famous, and he stuck with his friend for literally decades, finally retiring from touring in 2008, when he was 67.

The Mamas And The Papas: “California Dreamin’” (If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears, 1965)

"I got down on my knees and I pretend to pray."

That line gets me every time. It says so much with so little and leaves itself open to a lot of probing to figure out what it really means. I wonder how it scanned in 1965, when this song was first released as a single, too.

Let’s back up a second. “California Dreamin’” is one of the most singularly bleak and haunting hit songs of its era. Though it was released in 1965, it didn’t become a big hit until 1966, when a radio station in Boston picked up on it, and it went to #4.

The song at the top of the chart when “California Dreamin’” blew up was Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets.” This, to me, is a defining example of the cultural split that was occurring in the US in the mid-60s. One was a martial, easy-listening tribute to American Special Forces that in effect celebrates the valor of soldiering; the other a melancholy, desperate and aimless search for shelter in a forbidding land.

Sadler sold more and charted higher, but decades of hindsight have left “California Dreamin’” the ultimate victor—it easily casts the longer cultural shadow today, Lee Greenwood and other outliers aside. Thing is, “California Dreamin’” even stood out in the repertoire of the group that made it. The rest of the If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears LP is light as a feather compared to this song.

John Phillips had written this song in 1963, when he and Michelle Phillips were still part of a folk group called the New Journeymen, and the first version was recorded by Barry McGuire as he was riding high on the success of “Eve of Destruction.” In fact, the Mamas And Papas version was cut over the same backing track, and they brought in Bud Shank, a jazz flutist who’d played with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, to add a solo. Shank’s use of dissonance gives the song’s mid-section a simultaneously stormy and lonely feel.

There’s a level on which this song is just about wishing you were somewhere familiar, and another on which it’s basically doing what everyone does: complain about the weather. If that’s all it was aiming for, though, I don’t think they’d have gone for such a heavy sonority.

And then there’s that solo verse from Denny Doherty, where he sings about stopping in that little church for sanctuary and pretending to pray so that he’ll be allowed to stay a little longer. What’s going on there? I’ve long wondered how deeply cynical that line was supposed to be—is he going along to get along, or does he more deeply suspect that praying itself is pointless? He’s in a praying pose to create the impression that he’s pious for the preacher; this implicitly acknowledges that virtually anyone in a praying pose might simply be creating an appearance.

At any rate, in 1965, this type of irreligious notion must have sounded odd in a pop song, regardless of how much was meant by it. It’s effective in the song for the way it enhances the narrator’s desperation, and maybe Phillips meant nothing at all by it, but it makes me think every time I hear it.

The Van Dykes: “No Man Is An Island” (Hue 6501, 1965)

This type of song doesn’t get made anymore. No really. Listen to it. It’s sweet soul, falsettos and harmonies, clearly influenced by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, shooting for the type of pop appeal that would put it on the charts. It’s also skeletal, the voices backed only by some brushed drums and organ that sound as though they’re hiding out of bashfulness, and a guitar played with a sort of casual magic that would probably be worth listening to even without the vocals. The song has a message, and a blunt one at that.

It’s professionally recorded, but on a shoestring, and there are mistakes left in. It ends on a totally bizarre chord—this would be an extinct type of recording if it hadn’t survived for us to listen to it. People still make records that do everything this one does, but no one does them all at once. This is why I think listening to old music is important. Our concept of what constitutes pop changes over time, as do our goals for sound and our approach to packaging it. Explore old music deeply enough, and you will find sounds that are gone.

Recorded for Charles Stewart’s tiny Hue label in Texas in 1965, “No Man Is An Island” was a shot at reaching a larger listening audience that faced an uphill climb. There were tens of thousands of these 45s made in the mid-60s. Little garage rock bands putting out 45s, and soul vocal groups cramming into booths to record with the house bands of tiny studios, which in many cases were literally just friends of the guy who ran the studio. This was a whole sort of shadow music industry, making great records and feeding them into a system that hadn’t fully coalesced. Some of them hit and most of them didn’t. The ones that did might get picked up by a bigger label that sensed opportunity.

The Van Dykes came from Fort Worth. The lead singer was Rondalis Tandy, backed by harmonies from Wenzon Mosley and James Mays. Their backing band in the studio was a trio called the Rays. The Van Dykes were named for a different group Tandy had led at Fort Hood and formed initially as a quartet in 1964, but Eddie Nixon left before they recorded anything. The group lasted until 1968, and they fared better than a lot of small-time soul acts, touring Texas and the East Coast and recording half a dozen singles, most of which were compiled on the 1967 LP Tellin’ It Like It Is.

Most of those singles were made for Mala, which also reissued “No Man Is An Island” later in 1965 on Mala 520 (Mala was part of a family of three labels; the others were Bell and Amy)—Stewart also produced these sessions. Tandy himself did all their arrangements and intentionally kept the focus squarely on the voices. Obviously, as the lead singer, he was centering the sound around himself, but there’s some risk to that, too. The voices are really left out there pretty naked, and that means the performance has to be great.

Mala’s reissue of “No Man Is An Island” reached #24 r&b and #94 pop. It was their only single to scrape the pop chart, though a few subsequent ballads managed some minor r&b chart success. The group broke up when Mosley and Mays each got married and Tandy split for California.

Jackson C. Frank: “Blues Run The Game” (Jackson C. Frank, 1965)

This song stops me in my tracks every time I hear it.

Frank claimed he wrote it on the Queen Elizabeth, a ship he was taking to England. He had nearly $100,000 with him, and he was chasing after his girlfriend, Katherine, who had decided to end their relationship by buying a ticket to England and telling him she was going. He  may or may not have understood what she meant, but at any rate he decided to come with her. She remained for four months, before returning to the US to terminate a pregnancy, and after the abortion, he returned to England alone. In later years, he’d claim he originally set out across the ocean to buy a fancy car in Britain, because he’d heard that that’s where the best deals on cars were.

Regardless of precisely when he wrote it, the song was about his life and where he felt it was headed in 1965—it has a melody and progression that make it feel as though the song is rising up out of a deep well of sadness. And it was. The $100,000 was from an insurance settlement, and he’d already spent quite a bit during a trip to Canada with John Kay, who would later front the band Steppenwolf. In Toronto, Frank had bought a brand new Jaguar. He’d left college when he got that $100,000 at age 21.

The insurance money was for something that had happened ten years earlier, in an upstate New York town called Cheektowaga. Frank was 11 years old, in a music class at Cleveland Hill Elementary School, which was held in a wooden annex, when a furnace exploded, killing fifteen of his classmates and burning him over half his body. It took him seven months to recover enough to leave the hospital. He was permanently scarred, and the burns also damaged his thyroid, causing him to have weight problems for the rest of his life. From that point on, he also struggled terribly with depression. He began playing guitar during his hospital stay—a teacher had brought it to him to help him stave off boredom.

When Frank returned to London alone, he fell properly into the local folk scene, and was introduced to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. He gigged around England, often with Simon, and Simon early on offered to produce an album for Frank.

During the session, which lasted three hours, Frank performed behind a screen because he was nervous. Simon, Garfunkel and folk singer Al Stewart were the only ones present in the control room, but apparently Frank was uncomfortable with anyone seeing him while he recorded (Stewart does play a bit of guitar on one song, though). The album was well-received in Britain—John Peel was an early fan—and his profile rose with radio shows and better gigs. He dated Sandy Denny for a time and may deserve credit for getting her to stick with music.

Jackson C. Frank would be his only album. Frank worked as a successful concert booker in London for a while and kept performing (he was a formative influence on Nick Drake), but after a while the songs stopped coming to him, and he was sliding into depression as the money ran out. He went back home to the United States, where hardly anyone had heard of him. By the time he returned to Britain, his mental state was not good, and after a few disastrous shows, he was back across the Atlantic.

Frank’s life after that was rough, though he managed enough stable patches to father two children, one of whom died young of cystic fibrosis. He took a bus to New York City in the early 70s, hoping he might be able to find Paul Simon, but instead wound up living on the street, and he spent much of the decade in state tenement houses and institutions. He tried to record a second album in the mid-70s, but couldn’t find interested labels, and returned to a transient life, bouncing in and out of institutions and state housing. As if that wasn’t enough, he was blinded in his left eye in a random pellet gun shooting during his last days in New York City before folk singer Jim Abbott could get him moved to a rest home in Woodstock.

In the very last years of his life, Frank returned to writing and performing on a limited basis and seemed to find some measure of stability. He died in 1999, leaving behind that one great album and a handful of other, unreleased recordings, including some now-probably-lost tapes of him performing Civil War-era folk songs for his friends as a teenager. This song is a peek into the finest moment of a tragic life.

Nina Simone: “Feeling Good” (I Put A Spell On You, 1965)

Have you heard the new tUnE-yArDs album, w h o k i l l? It’s received a ton of praise in the last few weeks, all of it richly deserved. It is sort of the definition of “not-for-everyone;” it’s in-your-face, strident music with its own sense of internal logic, beauty and structure. It blows me away—there are things I’ve listened to more and will continue to listen to more this year, but this to me is the album of the year so far.

So I’ve been listening to Tune-Yards (and I’m going to abandon the weird-caps orthography here because it’s a pain to type) and trying to think of other music that it reminds me of. I think of it as a challenge to myself, because there’s so little that this album actually sounds similar to, so you have to link it to music that has a similar spirit, stridency or personality.

Nina Simone was the first person I came up with. I think there are a few reasons for that. Merrill Garbus is a woman making music with a strong personality, clear views and a fair amount of virtuosity. There is a tinge of androgyny to her voice. She’s not afraid to go out on a limb and dance there for a while. The music is basically accessible, but doesn’t fit easily in any of-the-moment boxes—it’s of-the-moment on its own terms. Take out the name and you could be describing Nina Simone there.

Simone’s career had a few immediately noticeable dimensions. There was Nina the songwriter, which is where her fiercest views on race, rights and poverty come through with the most force. And then there’s Nina the interpreter, who took songs written by others and made them hers, often finding threads of anger or sadness in them that had previously gone untugged.

"Feeling Good" was written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for their musical The Roar Of The Greasepaint - The Smell Of The Crowd in 1964, the year before Simone covered it. The musical is about the British class divide and features cipher characters called Sir and Cocky. Sir represents the upper class, while Cocky is the lower class striver trying to move up. Sir constantly manipulates the rules to ensure Cocky’s continued lower class status. I have to think that Simone had in mind the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when she chose this song—in her hands it certainly has the feel of a freedom song.

Simone sings it brilliantly, using the arrangement to tell a story. She begins a capella, almost like an echo of a field song, before shifting the song to fully orchestrated jazz—it sounds as if she rises from oppression to freedom during the song’s two and three-quarter minutes, ending in a wild scat solo that underscores the freedom. This ending is not pretty, really, but it is brave and ultimately affecting. This was a journey Simone herself understood well from growing up black and poor in North Carolina (her given name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon).

The backstory is obviously one of the things Merrill Garbus is never going to compete with, but I still think of her as a kindred spirit to Simone because of the way she sticks so faithfully to her own vision, regardless of the consequences.

The Kinks: “I Go To Sleep” (recorded in May, 1965, unreleased at the time)

If you don’t want your demos to be released to the public, destroy them. If I’ve learned anything from buying and reviewing reissues over the years, this is it. Your demos and songs you didn’t want to release at the time will be dug up and released as your music is repackaged and resold over the years. You don’t even have to be a particularly well-known band for this to happen. Some bands push for the release of this stuff themselves.

Usually, I listen to bonus discs or extra, previously unreleased tracks tacked on to the end of albums and it is immediately clear why we are only hearing them now. It can be instructive to hear the throwaways and demos of a favorite artist, even if it’s a listen-once deal. But every once in a while, one of those once-forgotten songs turns out to be well worth the new look and insinuates itself among your favorite songs by a band.

Pink Floyd has plenty of unreleased music that fits this category (and the band members have shown no interest in putting it out—my guess is that Capitol, EMI and Columbia will go nuts with it when the final member passes away, hopefully many years from now), and one of my favorite Soft Boys songs is “Only The Stones Remain,” which was a castaway that only surfaced on that two-disc reissue Matador curated in 2001.

And this is one of my favorite Kinks tracks. “I Go To Sleep” is a 1965 outtake—a demo, really—for a song they never worked on again. I don’t know if it was recorded with an ear toward a full-band version down the line or what, but I do know that the demo itself is beautiful and haunting, the ghostliest recording ever credited to the Kinks.

1965 was a big year for the band, and Ray Davies in particular, in terms of artistic growth. They followed up the roaring punk singles that had blown them up in 1964 with “Tired Of Waiting For You,” a quantum leap in Davies’ songwriting. And even thought Kinda Kinks, their sophomore album, was banged out in a week after an exhausting tour, it has a clutch of songs that are amongst their best. “Tired” is chief among them, but “Something Better Beginning,” “Come On Now,” “Nothing In This World Can Stop Me Worrying ‘Bout That Girl” and “Look for Me Baby” would make an amazing EP.

And the singles and b-sides they released off-album that same year are even better—1965 culminated in the release The Kink Kontroversy in November, but by then they’d already unleashed “Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy,” “Set Me Free,” “I Need You,” and the Kwyet Kinks EP, which included “Wait Till The Summer Comes Along” and “A Well-Respected Man”.

Still, “I Go To Sleep” stands out. Its first release was at the very end of the Essential reissue of Kinda Kinks, where it capped that run of non-album singles, almost as if to signal how worn-out the band was in mid-1965. Davies’ lyrics don’t immediately tell us the woman he’s singing to has left, but the queasy piano part does. It’s hard to imagine it arranged any other way because of that. I’m not going to say that “I Go To Sleep” belongs in the conversation when we’re talking about the greatest Kinks songs—that’s the province of “Victoria,” “David Watts” and “Too Much On My mind,” among many others—but it is a great song that shows a side of the Kinks that never made it onto any of their official records.

Bettye LaVette: “Let Me Down Easy” (Calla 102, 1965)

Sad songs come in a lot of varieties, but for me, some of the most devastating are the ones where the narrator knows things are going wrong and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it. This is one of those songs. Bettye’s about to get dumped, and at this point, all she can do for damage control is hope that it’s not too unpleasant.

Man, hasn’t everyone been there at some point? If not a breakup, then something else—we like to think we have our lives under control, but there’s always some way in which we don’t. Songs like this cut right to the part of us that realizes how little control we often have.

This one heightens the gut-punched sense of loss by throwing LaVette into a chilly orchestral void—no drums to push the beat along, no warm horns, no backing vocals, just a bit of vibraphone, bass and guitar, which squeezes out a little sultry solo in the middle almost as consolation. It’s the one thing that reaches out to Bettye as she wanders the emotional wasteland.

Bettye LaVette (nee Betty Haskins) was not quite 20 when she recorded this—the usual thing to say is that it’s a precocious performance, weary beyond her years, but I don’t know about that. I think her youth is key to the performance. When you’re in your teens every letdown hits like a ton of bricks because you’ve had so relatively few of them—people over thirty, when was the last time something went wrong and it felt like your whole world was ending?

LaVette’s still doing this one live all these decades later. She never became a big soul star, though she had the voice and the ear for it.