Category Archives: Music

Take 5: Laura Lee

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

For those cultural snobs who persist in dismissing Blaxploitation films as totally worthless trash, prepare to be challenged again. These films employed so many talented and engaging personalities, even in the minutest roles. One of the greatest discoveries for me is Laura Lee, who appeared (uncredited, egregiously) in the overlooked Detroit 9000 (1973) as the lead performer at the senator’s fundraiser, and one of many held hostage by robbers.

Initially I was distracted by the blatantly obvious out-of-sync between the audio and video. Luckily I was able to squash the judgmental tumor momentarily to appreciate Lee’s powerfully soulful voice and her dynamic screen presence as she conveyed fear, but strength as she reprised the song and tried to help people restore their courage.

I couldn’t get Laura Lee out of my mind. I had to know more about this talented woman. Born in Chicago in 1945, Lee relocated to Detroit with her mother as a child. As an adolescent she joined the gospel group, The Meditation Singers, which was led by Della Reese before she went on to having a successful recording career. From the clips I have heard, one thing I liked was how their arrangements were simple unlike a lot of gospel. Lee’s star quality and killer voice were already on display.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Lee eventually struck out on her own, joining wunderkind impresario Rick Hall’s then-emerging record label Chess Records in 1966. She was in good company among the likes of Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett (though sadly she wasn’t featured in last year’s tuneful documentary Muscle Shoals).

As a solo artist, she forged a sassy persona with great help from her gravelly, theatrical vocal intonations. Many of her songs in the 1970s were strong, empowering emblems of emancipating women from the crap end of the gender political spectrum. Her songs still sound catchy and are still sadly relevant.

In the late 70s, Lee had a near-death battle with cancer. During this ordeal, she forged a strong connection with God, whom she cites for curing her of the disease. Subsequently, she abandoned her secular singing career for over twenty years. (If this song is autobiographical, her conversion sounds like a traumatic process).

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Thankfully in recent years she has been given the OK by God to perform secular music again. It seems as though she still performs in Detroit. In spite of the poor video quality, Lee still looks and sounds fantastic. I haven’t been able to find any activity after 2009, but hopefully, she’ll make another album in the near future.

Until then, here are five oldies but goodies.

Women’s Love Rights

Her biggest hit, this is a nice mid-tempo with a great chorus and wonderfully nonjudgmental lyrics condoning any type of love a woman wants.

Since I Fell For You

It has many of the wonderfully quaint elements of 70s Soul (namely the introductory talking narration, though Lee has such an expressive voice), but the raw passion that Lee brings to a woman who was devastated by being seduced and then abandoned by a smooth operator is undeniable.

Dirty Man

This tune represents the timelessness of the “Muscle Shoals” sound, which can’t be beat. The then 20-year-old Lee exhibits more confidence and maturity of voice than most singers ever do.

It’s Not What You Fall For (It’s What You Stand For)

In perhaps the most confrontational but inspirational song, the arrangement consisting primarily of funky guitars and vibrant percussions emphasizes Lee’s gravelly timbre.

Rip Off

Not as politically charged as many of Lee’s other songs, she clearly is having a ball with this spirited rendition of this fun “revenge is sweet” song. I love that she won’t even let her cheating man have the wallpaper.

A Guide to Holiday Music That Doesn’t Suck

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Perhaps many eons ago there was a glorious time when the world wasn’t overrun with Madison Avenue’s unrelenting push to make Christmas (or if you insist on being PC, “The Holidays”) come 264 days a year, bringing yuletide stress to people across the globe in an endless quest to have the perfect gifts for everyone.

One of the things that keeps me a shut-in in winter is the generic playlist of Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas,” and a slew of maudlin Bing Crosby covers of stale Christmas ballads, that get played at every American place of business. I believe that some really groovy holiday music can make Christmas infinitely more enjoyable. The good news is that these songs are pretty easy to find, (please take note of this businesses).

Let’s get our Christmas groove on.

Traditional Xmas ballads don’t have to be the sappy borefest that they usually are. Nancy Wilson’s warm, vivacious mid-tempo ignites fresh air to Vince Guaraldi’s oft recorded standard, “Christmastime is Here.”

The Pointer Sisters’ passionate and adrenaline-inducing gospel rendition of “Silent Night” knocks all the slow-burning lullaby versions out of the park.

Here’s another one because The Pointer Sisters are the bomb.

As a rule of thumb, Christmas is more interesting in places other than Bethlehem, such as New Orleans or Hollis as Louis Armstrong and RUN-DMC prove.

If you have the patience, prepared to be transfixed by Duke Ellington’s intricate symphonic jazz composition “The Three Black Kings.”

If you’re looking to spice things up with something pessimistic, Tom Waits’ sarcastic interpretation of “Silent Night” bookending the acerbically grim “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” is tailor made for you.

Before Sarah McLachlan had a bestseller with Wintersong, an album that featured less traditional holiday songs, June Christy did it first, and did it better. Her 1961 album This Time of Year, which features all original songs, is one of the most underappreciated gems of the season. “Christmas Heart” is indicative of the album’s Zen and humanism.

Did I leave anything out? Give me your holiday playlist.

Take 5: Weird Al Yankovic

A Special Take 5: A Celebration of the One and Only Weird Al Yankovic

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Thanks to the internet, there are a million different parodies for every pop hit. However, very few are a fraction as good as the progenitor of the pop parody, Mr. Alfred Matthew “Weird Al” Yankovic. Influenced by a wide array of talents such as Shel Silverstein, Spike Jones, Frank Zappa, Monty Python, and as an avid listener of Dr. Demento’s radio show, Weird Al got his start when Dr. Demento aired a homemade tape of 16-year-old Yankovic’s accordion-arranged parodies in 1976.

He continued honing his zany persona as a radio DJ for his college station (did you realize he studied architecture? How predictably unpredictable of Weird Al), while still making appearances on Dr. Demento’s show with classics like “My Balogna” (“My Sharona” by The Knack) and a live version of “Another One Rides the Bus” (“Another one Bites the Dust” by Queen). The latter caught on in a big way, leading to an appearance on Tom Snyder’s TV show and a tour with Dr. Demento’s live show, which quickly led to Yankovic forming his own band and making a full-time career out of his special talent.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Coinciding with the infancy of MTV, Yankovic gained prominence with his equally hysterical music videos. His early efforts such as “I Love Rocky Road” (“I Love Rock & Roll” by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts) and “Eat It” (“Beat it” by Michael Jackson), which scored him his first of three Grammy’s, provided the “idiot giggles” with fart noises and other juvenile sound effects. Both his comedy and his musical abilities drastically improved with his iconic parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” “Fat,” which was a shot-for-shot video except that Weird Al was in a gargantuan fat suit.

By the 90s popular music and their videos veered from the campiness of the 80s to a self-serious, edgy, urban style; the seriousness of music is even more pronounced today. In this shift, Yankovic has become more regarded as a novelty act than a comedian-musician, which is a far more accurate representation.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

While most singers enjoy Yankovic’s spoofs, one rapper, Coolio got his boxers in a wad over Weird Al’s take on his hit 1995 song (his only hit as far as I can tell) “Gangster’s Paradise,” with “Amish Paradise,” which was a dis of the Amish and not denigrating of Coolio or his song. Even as ridiculous as Coolio’s grievance is, Weird Al, who is respectful of other’s feelings, made sure to get firsthand permission from the celebrities, rather than liaison’s like he did in the past, though he was not legally required to do either.

The irony is that Coolio is being laughed at with appearances on Reality Shows while Weird Al is being laughed with all the way to number one of the charts for the first time with his latest album Mandatory Fun, which marks the end of his 14-year contract with Atlantic Records.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

He has taken the internet by storm with music videos, each one released for each song, spoofing Beyonce’s model. This has already received a lot of press. From reading some of the articles, it is interesting to see how Yankovic is looked down on for not doing parodies that snarkily make fun of singers and their songs (I have nothing necessarily against that mode of parody, as some like The Key of Awesome do it very well). The joy of Weird Al’s work is that he takes familiar tunes but makes them about seemingly unrelated topics, mostly food. In a gently satirical way, they do poke fun at our society.

Here are five fantastic songs and music videos by Weird Al Yankovic. Long live the King!

Like a Surgeon

For those who accuse Weird Al of being a lightweight, check out his take on Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” where he pointedly mocks the corrupt, capitalistic medical industry playing an incompetent surgeon fresh out of med school who only cares about the money. He’s a less glamorous “Material Boy,” tee hee. He mocks Madonna’s original video with a lion arbitrarily roaming around the hospital as well as the pop star herself by emulating her breathy singing voice and her showy dance moves. Credit to Madonna for inspiring the title.

Trapped in the Drive-Thru

This epic 10 minute opus is Yankovic’s pinnacle of his oeuvre of food-themed parodies. Riffing R. Kelly’s bloated 90-minute hip-hopera saga (which I can’t tell if it’s deadly serious or if it’s intentionally funny) “Trapped in the Closet,” Yankovic narrates every detail of a laughably dull couple’s journey to the drive-thru and the obstacles they must face to order a cheeseburger and a medium soda.

White and Nerdy

This 2006 riff of Chamillionaire’s and Krayzie Bone’s gangsta rap “Ridin” is Weird Al’s artistic manifesto. He can really rap his ass off! Donny Osmond, one of the most endearing nerds in the biz, almost steals the show with his hilariously uncool background dancing.

Polka Face

This mashup medley of various pop songs kicks off and ends its trippiness with a performance of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” in an accordion polka style and runs the gamut of absurdity with terrifying stalker robots, a perverted baby Justin Bieber, a dancing pig and chicken duo, and a bubblehead figure pulling its brain out multiple times, among other demented vignettes.

Spy Hard

Required viewing for all James Bond enthusiasts. Yankovic effectively spoofs various elements from the title songs of Bond movies, such as singing in the camera under a water background a la Sheena Easton (remember her?) to the exaggerated final long note of Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” (who in real life almost passed out as she was singing it in an uninterrupted take).

Honorable Mention: Weasel Stomping Day

This short ditty, a collaboration with the team of the irreverent Adult Swim Claymation Robot Chicken, is probably Weird Al’s most morbid piece of musical comedy. The title is pretty spot, or in this case, splat on.

Take 5: The Pointer Sisters

(Top left to right) June, Ruth, Bonnie (bottom) Anita. Courtesy of

(Top left to right) June, Ruth, Bonnie (bottom) Anita. Courtesy of

For those who know The Pointer Sisters solely from their 80s dance hit, “I’m So Excited,” there might be the perception that they were a one-note band, a faddish novelty act. Actually the Pointer Sisters who have been performing in several incarnations for over forty years, were highly adventurous and versatile performers who tapped into and thrived at many musical styles.

Their eventful and colorful lives and careers would make an interesting biopic, one far more riveting than that of the bland Supremes. Born to an ultra-religious family where both parents were ministers for the Church of God, the four Pointer sisters and their two brothers were barred from all forms of entertainment except religious music. The sisters, who always loved jazz, blues, and rock and roll (referred to as “the devil’s music” by their parents) would sing together in secret, where they formed their dynamic sound.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

June and Bonnie, the two youngest sisters, were the first to rebel when they dropped out of high school and performed as “Pointers a Pair” in various California clubs. The excitement and fast-pace of performing attracted Anita, the second oldest, who quit her job and joined her younger sisters. Ruth, the oldest, was initially a replacement for June, who sporadically missed performances due to suffering nervous breakdowns and alcoholism (which was an ongoing problem) before she joined full-time in 1972. At first, Ruth performed simply as a means to provide for her children after her husband abandoned the family, though she quickly came to love the work and acted as a driving force for the group.

As a quartet, the Pointer sisters were finally able to achieve a record deal for a full-length album, which combined a selection of old timey bebop tunes and contemporary R&B songs, including their first smash hit “Yes We Can Can.” In early performances before they could afford a costume designer, their style consisted of 1940s garb that they collected from various thrift stores.

They won their first Grammy, surprisingly, in the Country & Western category for their ballad (co-written by Bonnie and Anita), “Fairytale.” Topping the Country charts, The Pointer Sisters were invited to Nashville where they were the first black performers to sing at the Grand Ol’ Opry (although the bookers weren’t aware of their phenotype before they came on stage).

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

At the peak of their success, Bonnie decided to leave the group to start a solo career. In hindsight, this probably helped the group in the long run as her brassy sugar-pop voice was the weakest in the bunch. The ever resilient Pointers soldiered on as a trio and rose to even greater heights. In 1983, with the album “Break Out,” they fashioned a new persona of the party princesses and sang many of their longest lasting hits including “I’m So Excited,” “Jump,” and “Automatic” which solidified their major celebrity status for the next few years.

In spite of the Pointer Sisters’ willingness to adapt to the garage pop sound popular in the late 80s and 90s, their popularly quickly dwindled with audiences. They were cast aside for younger singers like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Sinead O’Connor and their two albums in the early 90s were flops, essentially ending their recording career.

They made another comeback of sorts with a nationwide tour of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” where they sang a collection of Swing-era songs. Their success was short-lived due to the increasing unreliability of June, who became addicted to crack in addition to her alcoholism. Ruth and Anita officially ousted her in 2001. June spent the remainder of her life in jail and in poverty before her death in 2006 of a stroke in conjunction with breast and lung cancer.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Ruth and Anita still tour under the billing “The Pointer Sisters.” While they still look and sound fantastic, much of the magnetism is gone because their band is of a lower quality and June’s replacements, Issa and Sadako (Ruth’s daughter and granddaughter), don’t match her vocal intensity or her charisma.

Friend’s Advice (Don’t Take It)

In spite of the negative critical and audience reception to this period, I dig their spirited take of this catchy and sassy tune about judgmental and hypocritical friends who disapprove of their friend’s “bad boy.”

Yes We Can Can

At one time in history, it was mainstream to sing about women standing up for themselves. This song, headed by a soulful Anita, is one of the catchier and resonant rallies for gender equality. There’s a great drum solo by Gaylord Birch.

Neutron Dance

One of their most consistently dependable raise-the-roof tunes, this rendition stands out because of its gospel infused sound and spirited background riffs by June.


They fully immerse themselves in this classic bebop vocalese standard. The scat solos are fantastic, but even more impressive is their perfect synchronicity of the chorus.


Some fans have complained about the lightning-fast speed of this 1988 rendition. I think that the pace gives June the best opportunity to show off her great dancing, and the lower key showcases her gravelly rock-and-roll voice.

Take 5: Carla Cook

Take 5: Carla Cook

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

By Adam Tawfik

Jazz, like many art forms, experienced a renaissance in the 1990s. In the 1980s, much of jazz’s output, with prehistoric abrasive synthesizers, sounded like elevator music. In the following decade, we saw many musicians turning to a more traditional sound (and real instruments) and updating the standards with their own personality. At the tail end of the 90s, MaxJazz, an independent record label, formed and introduced the consumer to a crop of brilliant and original musicians, quickly establishing an esteemed reputation for honoring artists’ creativity.

One of its brightest discoveries was Detroit vocalist Carla Cook, whose auspicious debut album It’s All About Love, helped put MaxJazz on the map with its critical and commercial success, and even scoring a Grammy nomination (though she lost to the higher profile, but bland Diana Krall). In just three years, Cook continued her string of excellence with a duo of albums- Dem Bones (2001) and Simply Natural (2002). (In my opinion, Dem Bones is the strongest because it has more bopping and avant-garde funk, and many of the tracks feature a real groovy horn section). All three albums are available on MaxJazz’s website.

Sadly, she hasn’t recorded another album since. Although she still tours all over the world, appearances seem to be few and far between and they’re not very well-publicized. Until she returns to the recording studio, here are five tracks for your pleasure while you crave for Cook to hurry on back.

5. Solitude

Cook’s powerful pipes ably hold up with the brasstastic Brooklyn Jazz Orchestra on this Duke Ellington classic. Although she sings one bridge, her beautiful chest voice makes every moment magical.

4. The Way You Look Tonight

This romantic ballad, made famous by crooners Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, tends towards soppiness. With the help of this up-tempo arrangement, Cook’s straight-forward yet soulful phrasing keeps things fun and swinging. With solid accompaniment from drummer George Gray and pianist Cyrus Chestnut, it’s largely a duet between Cook and Daryl Hall grooving the bass. Cook’s scatting is top-notch.

3. Estaté

Cook brings her earthiness to this mid-tempo rendition of the romantic bossa nova. The other highlight is Cyrus Chesnut, collaborator on all three of her albums, playing a sensuous piano and a Fender Rhodes, (an electric piano that creates the vibraphone-esque sound).

2. Inner City Blues

Aided primarily by a funky electric piano and a vibrant set of percussions, Cook’s soulful cover of Marvin Gaye’s immortal classic stresses the desperation and anguish of black oppression in America (the lyrics are sadly just as relevant today). She provides some nice scatting throughout the track before it finishes with a fantastic drum and percussion solo.

1. The More I See You

Jazz with strings is often dicey, as they tend to either overtake the syncopated jazzy vibe or remain too much in the background. The Brazilian-based Orchestra Jazz Sinfônica, with the perfect balance of brass, woodwind, and strings, effortlessly grooves with Cook. After a soft and gentle introduction, things get popping with Cook swinging and scatting away.