Tag Archives: Tawfik Zone Take 5

Take 5/Obit: Nancy Wilson (1937-2018)

Andy Williams’ prescient introduction of Nancy Wilson stated “To make a common name like Wilson stand out… you have to have an uncommon talent like Miss Nancy Wilson.” When googling “Nancy Wilson” many of the results include Nancy Wilson, one of the duo from the rock group Heart or the similar sounding Mary Wilson, the least controversial Supremes.

Wilson, who recently died from a long illness was born in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1937 (like Judy Garland’s spunky heroine in The Harvey Girls), to an iron-worker father and a domestic servant mother. After winning a local TV talent show at 15, she worked at many nightclubs in addition to her regular appearance on a local TV show Skyline Melodies. In the next few years, Wilson caught the attention of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who encouraged her to move to New York.

In 1960, she signed with Capitol Records, making her debut album Something Wonderful. It was a solid first effort featuring her signature song “Guess Who I Saw Today.” Her next album, a collaboration with Adderley, she grew in range and it might be her best recorded work, featuring another famous tune “Save Your Love for Me.” Throughout the 60s, she made recordings that were in a pop-jazz style, veering more into R&B/soul by the end of the decade throughout the mid-1970s. It is her work in the latter era that I think has her most underrated, consistently good material. “But Beautiful,” which features earthy, minimalist renditions of classic jazz standards and “Kaleidoscope,” which has slick and slightly funky orchestral arrangements that accentuate Wilson’s sultry vocals.

As was the norm for artists signed to a major record label in the mid-century, Wilson constantly churned out album after album, most of which contained a few gems, but a lot of filler. It would be fair to say that most of Wilson’s albums don’t fully capture her vitality, which is readily apparent in all of her live performances.

In the 1980s and early 1990s Wilson’s albums were the equivalent of heirloom strawberries topped with cool whip. In her middle age, Wilson was at the zenith of her vocal prowess. Her rich velvety tones were enriched like fruit soaked in rum, her phrasing and vocal range got only stronger, and her ability to go from whisper to a roar in a split second dramatically increased. The dated electronica arrangements (which thankfully died with the 80s), on the other hand, often sound like rejected Sonic the Hedgehog scores.

Wilson’s greatest asset as a singer was her unique ability to internalize every lyric of a song and turn it into a personal narrative (hence the term “song stylist”). This proved especially useful for cumbersome and corny songs such as “You Can Have Him” and “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” (which have tripped up vocal greats like Ella and Nina Simone).

Although she resisted the term “jazz singer” (not only because it’s box office anathema, but because she crossed over into virtually every genre), Wilson returned to straight ahead jazz for her final records, winning two of her three Grammys for her final two albums, RSVP and Turned to Blue. She lost a little bit of the projection from her prime, but her feeling and phrasing remained impeccable to the end.

Unlike most singers who take 20 years to retire, Wilson actually retired when she said she would (save for a couple of guest tracks). Her ability to quit while she was ahead further proved her class and good sense.

Here are 5 tracks that show the mastery of Miss Nancy Wilson.

The Masquerade is Over

This early track demonstrates how sophisticated and confident Wilson from the beginning as well as giving insight into her storytelling skills.

Ode to Billie Joe

Wilson’s more personable approach magnifies the cruelty and tragedy of Bobbie Gentry’s haunting ballad.

Guess Who I Saw Today/Teach Me Tonight

In the first of the double bill, Wilson projects a calculating sweetness that belies a simmering rage, while on the second Wilson swings out with a classy sauciness.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight

Wilson’s rawness and the soulful arrangement elevate this 70s standard.

How Glad I Am

This 1987 live performance of one of her most famous songs demonstrates Wilson’s exuberance for her craft.

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.