Category Archives: Take 5

Take 5/Obit Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

Courtesy of Boing Boing

Aretha Franklin’s musical legacy is a testament to the importance of having the right collaborators at the right time. Aided the cheerleading of her doting father Rev. C.L. Franklin and her impressive gospel recordings, Franklin’s talent was recognized at an early age by the industry. She was signed by Columbia Records, for whom she recorded 9 albums over 6 years. However, the material given to her – a clunky hodge podge of easy listening, pop, and jazz – stifled her larger-than-life soulful talent. Listening to these early songs, it is clear that Columbia didn’t know what to do with her.

The Aretha Franklin that we all love and revere emerged in 1967 when she traveled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Under the guidance of genius producer Rick Hall, she gave to the world the album I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You). In addition to the title track, her inaugural album contained “RESPECT” and “Dr. Feelgood,” which remain iconic numbers in her repertoire.

This and the other recordings she made with Atlantic records remain as fresh and vibrant today as when they were originally produced. Even in an era (1967-1975) that was a Renaissance for virtuosic American vocalists, Ms. Franklin had that something extra that made her stand out from the pack. Listen to Ms. Franklin’s version of “The House That Jack Built” vs the originator Thelma Jones. Jones gives a spirited performance, but Franklin’s soulfulness better savors the rueful lyrics and her head and chest phrasings have more zing as she belts out the high notes. Consider a side by side of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man:” Etta James’ feisty, assertive version is edged by Franklin’s quietly poignant cover which makes the song more personable.

Courtesy of E! News

Aretha Franklin’s status as The Queen is complicated at best. In its prime Ms. Franklin’s voice combined a euphoric blend of heavenly and earthly tones that conveyed volcanic strength with a naked, raw, gut wrenching world weariness. While many of her peers such as Nancy Wilson, Etta James, and Tina Turner maintained and expanded their gift, Ms. Franklin squandered hers. Quite honestly, for most of her career, she has coasted on her decade of sublimity. Like many of the most supremely talented artists with natural ability, Ms. Franklin’s hedonism (smoking and fatty eating) and lack of discipline eventually diminished her umami of her voice, though glimmers of it tauntingly remained. Despite performing at 10% of her capacity, Ms. Franklin demanded to be treated (and called) as The Queen of Soul unconditionally.

For the last 30 years, Ms. Franklin gave the impression that performing was a chore and that she was doing audiences a favor with her presence. (In several of her live concerts in the 80s, Franklin stops short of rolling her eyes). Nevertheless, Franklin never left the spotlight, touring constantly and releasing several albums. Even if those records, produced by the white bread Arista, were nowhere near the quality of her Atlantic discography, there is something to be said for her willingness to continually produce new music, as opposed to just settling for nostalgia tours like so many musicians do for most of their careers. All this goes to show the strong survivor she was in her own rough way.

Courtesy of Vox

It is astonishing the many obstacles she overcame; pregnancy at 13, not finishing high school, abusive relationships, enduring the brutal murder of her father and the deaths of her sisters to debilitating cancers. It’s a shame that Ms. Franklin wasn’t able to let go of her feeling of lack, which led her to compete, rather than collaborate. This wasn’t restricted to her colleagues such as Whitney Houston and Mavis Staples (where she had the studio engineers virtually render her duet partner a background singer in post). She also undermined her own sisters professionally. The most egregious incident happened when Ms. Franklin was at the zenith of her career; when she found out that Carolyn was recording the soundtrack to the musical Sparkle, she used her clout to commandeer the project for herself. The brutal truth of the matter is that Sparkle wouldn’t be a monumental album in the hands of Carolyn, a good, but not spectacular vocalist. Sparkle marked the last stellar album for Aretha Franklin; a bittersweet last hurrah indeed.

I cannot share the enthusiasm that Carole King, Barack Obama, and social media felt when she sang Natural Woman at the Kennedy Center in 2015. Perhaps people responded to the fact that for the first time in a long while, she didn’t seem contemptuous of her public. Despite her gameness, her voice was drained and trailing. Thankfully we can always revisit the recordings when Ms. Franklin had the magic. For those precious songs, I will always love and cherish her.

Paring down a top 5 is super hard, but here I go.

I Say a Little Prayer For You

Although Dionne Warwick put Burt Bacharach’s songs on the map, Ms. Franklin’s cover elevates this sweet, catchy ditty to sublime bliss. This version is the tops.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Ms. Franklin’s gentle piano playing alongside her powerhouse gospel vocals, on-point harmonies from the backup queens, and a fiery organist make for a stirring, sumptuous rendition of this Simon and Garfunkel song.

Call Me

In addition to fierce singing by Ms. Franklin and her backup goddesses, Call Me also demonstrates Ms. Franklin’s songwriting talent. There are so many good live versions of this song, but this one edges them out because of the way she goes to a hushed lullaby to a spirited riff at the end.

Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)

Ms. Franklin’s heavy piano pounding and uninhibited belting make for one of the best renditions of anger and heartbreak ever captured. The background singers are pretty, but pretty useless. Never mind, Ms. Franklin more than carries the song.

(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman

The slower tempo of this version gives Ms. Franklin more opportunity to wax the gorgeous Carole King lyrics, and when she belts “makes me feel so aliveeeeee,” honey, she soars through the speakers. And the way she slides those chest notes at the end is magical.

Very, very close 2nds: Angel, A Deeper Love (a guilty pleasure), Ain’t No Way, See Saw, You’re All I Need to Get By, I’m In Love, Spanish Harlem, and Brand New Me. Also check out an overlooked acid soul Mr. Spain.

Take 5 Sarah Vaughan

Courtesy of National Jazz Museum in Harlem

Some singers can have all the formal training in the world and hit the right notes. Others, like Sarah Vaughan, can open her mouth and radiate divine and sassy otherworldliness. Though racism in the country and the conservatories barred her from her dream of studying opera, Vaughan, with her three octave range, had the power and the vibrato to match, even surpass any classical prima donna. Her baroque grandiosity and playful joie de vivre was clearly better suited for jazz where she was equally at home doing scat-filled bebop and searing ballads delivered as torchy arias.

She honed her piano and vocal abilities in church. Initially Vaughan entered herself in the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night as a pianist, where she did very well, winning second prize. As good as her piano skills were, her singing was her forte. When she reentered as a singer, she won top honor and scored a recording contract with Mercury Records.

Her warm, personable voice helped her become one of the most in-demand vocalists. Widespread success was a bit of a double edged sword as she wound up recording a fair amount of subpar novelty songs (like “Broken Hearted Melody,” which she later denounced strongly) with maudlin easy listening arrangements. However, she never entirely embraced being a jazz vocalist as she crossed over into other genres. (Some of her pop material like “Brazilian Romance” was quite good).

Later in her career, she boldly displayed her impressive range and cute silly humor in performances. While some critics found some of her later work to be heavy-handed, I found her to be at her best when she was at her biggest (though I will concede that she sometimes took it a bit too far with her rendition of “Send in the Clowns.”)

Although Vaughan chain smoked, boozed and feasted freely, you’d never know by listening to her sing. Her voice and her technique sounded more impeccable and effortless. If her hedonism didn’t tarnish her talent, it eventually got her body. After a year of struggling with emphysema, Sarah Vaughan died in 1990 at the age of 66. Here are five performances that represent her superhuman talent.

Easy Living

She performed several different, but wonderful renditions of this ballad. I like this version best because it’s the most playful (I love the way she delivers “but it’s fun”) and the most virtuosic. The way she slides from baritone to soprano is jaw dropping.

Sassy’s/Scat Blues

This entirely vocalese number demonstrates Vaughan’s brilliant ability to swing, belt, and sound bluesy at the same time whilst switching octaves in split seconds.

I Remember April

Although she more often sang vocalese, she was equally adept at fast paced scat as she does here with gusto. The pianist is also on fire.

Black Coffee

Even at in this minimalist, quiet rendition of this torch song, Vaughan conveys so much. Listen side by side with other versions by Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney and you’ll appreciate how special Vaughan’s voice is.

Bill Bailey

You can tell that Sarah Vaughan loved to perform, and her infectious energy rubs off on this Swedish audience who commanded to take not one, but two encores. Vaughan really works it out here.

Take 5: Ernestine Anderson

Courtesy of jazztimes.com

Courtesy of jazztimes.com

There is a bad tendency to fully appreciate and talk about one’s artistry only after the person dies. I have been guilty of this many times, most recently with Ernestine Anderson, an underrated jazz and blues singer who died March 10th at 87 years old of natural causes.

I suppose I took Anderson’s mortality for granted because even as an octogenarian, her vocal prowess was still in full command and she looked like she was fifty. Her second to last album, A Song for You, is a must for jazz lovers. She tackles standards like Day by Day and Make Someone Happy and pop songs like A Song for You and Candy with freshness and ease and nary a bum note.

While her career spanned for more than 60 years, it was never an easy one with a large share of major ups and downs. Even as a child, Anderson gravitated towards singing. However, her father, who wanted her to focus on school, relocated the family the family to Seattle, where supposedly there wasn’t much of a music scene. This proved to be dead wrong. There, she pursued her career harder than ever. Eventually, her parents came around and took care of her children while she went out on the road with various bands.

While she worked fairly steadily, including singing at Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953, she wasn’t having the success of many of her peers. Wanting to stretch herself, she went to Europe, where she was warmly received. In Sweden, she recorded her debut album as headliner, what would become known as Hot Cargo. When influential jazz critic Ralph Gleason heard it and loved it, he put it on the map in the States. In the midst of being the toast of the town, she secured a contract with Mercury records.

The handful of her albums she made with Mercury in the late 50s and early 60s are very highly regarded by critics and fans then and now. I am not personally a fan of Anderson’s early work, feeling that she sounded like a generic girl singer with very little feeling in her voice.

Courtesy of www.eljefe.net

Courtesy of www.eljefe.net

I think she came into her own in the late 1970s, when she returned to the spotlight after an approx. 15-year hiatus due to a legal dispute with Mercury blocking her from recording for five years, the loss of gigs as a result, the lack of popularity of jazz in the 60s, and her own guilt from being separated from her children. Her voice beautifully matured into a soulful contralto with a sassy, crisp phrasing.

While Anderson’s voice could take on a harder edge possibly as a result of the hard knocks, there was also a smooth, warmness too that developed around the time she converted to Buddhism. Her discography reveals her versatility and consistency as she sang ballads, the blues, and bebop with equal authority.

Even though she recorded over 30 albums and received 4 Grammy nominations, money was still an issue. In 2008 Anderson made news when her house was at risk for foreclosure (thankfully friends and colleagues Quincy Jones and Diane Schuur raised the funds to save the house.)

For more interesting details on her life, I recommend listening to an NPR documentary as well as reading obits from the Seattle Times and The Guardian. Here are five songs that display the beauty of Ernestine Anderson.

Time After Time

From the first drawled out note, she creates a hypnotic trance out of this lovely ballad. BTW, it’s a different “Time After Time” from the Cyndi Lauper song of the same name.

Sunny

Anderson takes this one to great heights, seamlessly transitioning from a pensive beginning to an exuberant, improv-filled finale.

All Blues

In this cool, funky mid-tempo arrangement, Anderson combines her rhythmic jazz and soulful bluesy sensibilities to convey the good and bad blues present in everything and everyone

Please Send Me Somebody to Love

Anderson perfectly captures the desperation and longing of the love-starved narrator in this uber soulful and bluesy rendition of what she rightly notes is a timely and timeless torch song.

Honeysuckle Rose

She swings the hell out of this one, in a rollicking rocking arrangement of a song most associated with an easy listening version by Lena Horne

Take 5: Laura Lee

Courtesy of www.ladylauralee.com

Courtesy of www.ladylauralee.com

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 devildick.blogspot.com

Courtesy of devildick.blogspot.com

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 www.harmonytrain.com

Courtesy of www.harmonytrain.com

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.

Take 5: Weird Al Yankovic

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

Courtesy of exclaim.ca

Courtesy of exclaim.ca

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 www.theatlantic.com

Courtesy of www.theatlantic.com

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 www.youtube.com

Courtesy of www.youtube.com

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 www.salon.com

Courtesy of www.salon.com

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.