Tag Archives: Motown

Domino

Music Review: A Look Back at One of Van Morrison’s Best Albums.

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A lot of attention has been focused over the years on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album from 1968, and the album that followed it, Moondance. I’m sure that many of Van’s fans would list one of these two releases as their favorite of his, but my personal favorite is His Band and the Street Choir from 1970.

Here are some track-by-track notes on this record whose songs offered a lot of variety in musical style, and were placed in near-perfect order.

“Domino” – A great rocker and album opener; Van with an eleven-piece band. John Klingberg’s fine bass work can be clearly heard on the 2015 remaster from Warner Brothers. I’ve always loved the lines: “There’s no need for argument/ There’s no argument at all/ And if you never hear from him/ That just means he didn’t call…”

“”Crazy Face” – A pre-Eagles Desperado-type song. “He stood outside the church yard gate/ And polished up on his .38 and said/ I got it from Jessie James…”

“Give Me A Kiss” – A bouncy number that sounds like Elvis Presley circa 1956. More sweet brass backing from the band.

“I’ve Been Working” – Van as a macho soul man. This has always been his best on-stage performance number, and there’s just a touch of Tower of Power, War and the Doors in the break.

“Call Me Up in Dreamland” – Ragtime meets Dixieland meets southern Belfast rock. The Band might have sounded like this if they’d been less heavy.

“I’ll Be Your Lover, Too” – The haunting love poem that closed out side one of the L.P. His then-wife Janet Planet explained this best: “I have seen Van open these parts of his secret self – his essential core of aloneness I had always feared could never be broken into – and say… yes, come in here… know me.”

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“Blue Money” – Side two of the long player opened with this blazing tune. As much as I love “Domino,” “Wild Night,” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” this has always been my all-time fave Morrison single. (I often wonder if this was the song that inspired Steely Dan’s “Peg”?) It seems that almost every time a “Best of…” Van Morrison collection has been released, there are numerous complaints because this song is not included. Janet Planet contributed the Linda McCartney-ish background vocals.

“Virgo Clowns” – A positive take on Jackson Browne’s irony. “Now you know exactly who you want to be now. Let your laughter fill the room.”

“Gypsy Queen” – Smooth as a slide across the ice… Van captures the spirit of Motown. Say it’s alright. (Van himself said in 2007, “It’s always been about soul.”)

“Sweet Jannie” – Back to the cradle, with a blues rocker featuring a B.B. King-style guitar lead. Elmore James had nothing on this.

“If I Ever Needed Someone” – Van’s “My Sweet Lord.” “To keep me from my sorrow/ To lead me on to givingness/ So I can see a new tomorrow.”

“Street Choir” – The closer. A great, downcast, tribute to a long-lost love; one who will not be accepted back. “Why did you leave… Why did you let me down?/ And now that things seem better… Why do you come around?/ You know that I can’t see you now.”

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Like all of rock’s best albums, from What’s Going On to Graceland to The Rising, this one is life affirming. My score: 89.5 out of 100 points.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note: The 2015 reissue of His Band and the Street Choir, remastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering, contains five bonus tracks; alternate takes of five of the twelve songs.

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You Beat Me to the Punch

Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar by Peter Benjaminson (Chicago Review Press, $26.95, 304 pages)The singer Mary Wells had an amazing, crystal clear voice that was to presage what came later with The Supremes and Diana Ross.   Wells’ early ’60s-era singles, such as “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “My Guy,” “The One Who Really Loves You,” and “Two Lovers” were so perfectly recorded that it’s difficult, even now, to think of anyone attempting to cover them.   (Try substituting another singer’s voice in your mind.   Try it.   It can’t be done.)

The Queen of Motown died all too young from cancer at the age of 49, and in a basically impoverished state.   Wells’ dramatic riches to rags story offered cinematic-style opportunities for the right writer.   In Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, Peter Benjaminson delivers an account that falls short of being extensive or definitive.   Biographies of artists – musicians, writers, fashion designers, actors – often come across as flawed when the biographer missed the chance to interview his or her subject.   While Benjaminson interviewed many of Wells’ “friends, lovers and husbands,” he was forced to rely on another writer’s dated one-on-one interviews with the singer.

Because Benjaminson cannot describe what it was like to be in Wells’ orbit or company, he takes the route of writing about “the sex, the violence and the drugs in her life.”   This is unfortunate because writing about Wells’ sexual partners, domestic violence incidents, and her illicit drug use does nothing to flesh her out as an artist.   The story of Wells’ life is told in such a straight-forward, chronological order that there’s no rush to turn the pages.   (It’s a book that I put down far more than I intended.)

The story’s momentum comes late, when Benjaminson deals with Wells’ clearly fatal cancer diagnosis and her poverty.   Wells might have been a multi-millionaire had she taken the deal offered to her by Berry Gordy to remain at Motown as a co-owner of the record company.   Instead, she left to begin what she felt was going to be a highly successful musical career with another label.   It was not to be, and Wells’ later may have repeated her mistake by turning down an alleged offer of $1 million from Gordy when she was quite ill.   (Benjaminson is unclear as to whether this offer was, in fact, ever put on the table.)

Mary Wells, the woman who – in her own words – “helped build Motown” was to survive by playing gigs in small clubs, in hotels such as the Sheraton Airport Hotel at LAX, at San Quentin State Prison, and basically wherever someone would offer her a few dollars to walk on stage.   It’s ironic that, as Benjaminson states, Wells was to pursue fortune, not fame during her lifetime but her terrible personal decisions left her with “no money to speak of.”

Where Benjaminson gets it right is in providing readers with details about Wells’ recording sessions at Motown (with the likes of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye) and elsewhere.   These details are what draw the interest of music fans.   There are, however, some facts presented in this bio that may be open to question.   For example, Benjaminson insists that Wells was hugely popular for several decades in Latino neighborhoods in California, and specifically in the greater Los Angeles area.   This was not evident to this reviewer when I lived in L.A.

As with Mark Ribowsky’s The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal (2010), which was highly focused on personal issues rather than on the music of the three performers, this bio by Peter Benjaminson left me feeling that I knew little more about the late, great Mary Wells when I finished it than when I opened it.   I suspect that one can discover more about her spirit, her character by listening again to her records, her songs — a life’s work.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This review first appeared on the Blogcritics Books site:  http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-mary-wells-the-tumultuous/ .

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A review of Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar by Peter Benjaminson.

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Talking Book Revisited

Talking Book, a review of the cover album by Macy Gray (429 Records, $15.99)

It has often been said (and frequently on the TV show American Idol) that Stevie Wonder’s songs seem deceptively simple, yet they are actually complex and difficult to sing.   Thus, it may seem odd that Macy Gary, with her raspy voice and somewhat narrow range, has elected to not only cover a Stevie Wonder song, but an entire album of Stevie Wonder.   Talking Book – the first of her albums that I’ve listened to – is a re-working of Wonder’s classic 1972 release, and Gray covers all 10 of the original tracks in order.

Surprising though it may be, the results show that Gray’s judgment is just fine and she generally adds some energy and unique flavors to Wonder’s sometimes understated original versions.   (In college, I often listened to Talking Book and felt it was filled with great songs.   But his recordings seemed like preliminary, unfinished versions.)

“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” now comes off as nice and breezy and jazzy, with a few Brasil ’66 touches.   It would be the perfect song for a Sunday drive in a top-down convertible in southern California.

With “You and I (We Can Conquer the World),” Gray adds a sense of joy and hopefulness to the romantic tome.   “Blame It on the Sun,” one of Wonder’s almost-lost classics, is now brought back to life.   The sorrow for a love, once here, now gone, lies just on the edge of Macy’s voice.   “Tuesday Heartbreak” sounds like a track from a romantic movie soundtrack (hint, hint).   And the essential song, “Superstition,” is now spooky and moody, but awfully nice.   Gray presents the listener with a seemingly daydreamed version of Stevie Wonder’s simply great original.

“Big Brother” is more upbeat than the original recording.   In a word, it’s sweet.   Three of the songs, “Maybe Your Baby,” “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” and “Lookin’ for Another Love,” are perhaps too true, too close to the original versions, but with Stevie that’s not such a bad thing.   And Talking Book closes on the bright spot “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever).”   Here Wonder’s romantic anthem is presented in an arrangement that makes it sound as if two songs were merged into a medley.   A sense of joyfulness returns with traces of Johnny Nash-style sound (“I Can See Clearly Now”) heard in the background.

As a concept, attempting to recreate (and perhaps improve upon) one of Wonder’s better albums seemed far from promising.   It was, after all, forty years ago that the vinyl album arrived in record stores.   But Macy Gray holds her own and, strangely enough, her world-weary voice presents just the opposite message – that she loves life and the music of Stevie Wonder.

I have the feeling that Stevie Wonder will be quite pleased with this audio valentine; something that may also be true for a number of music purchasers.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Stevie Wonder’s album Talking Book was released on October 28, 1972.   Macy Gray’s cover version was released on October 30, 2012.   A review copy was provided by a publicist.

This review originally appeared on the Blogcritics Music site:  http://blogcritics.org/music/article/music-review-macy-gray-talking-book/ .

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A music review!   We take a look at Macy Gray’s album Talking Book, a complete cover of Stevie Wonder’s wonderful 1972 release.

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Drive My Car

Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Auto Makers by Bill Vlasic (William Morrow, $26.99, 400 pages)

The Germans couldn’t change their company’s name back to Daimler fast enough.   Chrysler was a bad memory, and the automotive merger of the century a regrettable failure.

In 2005, the Ford Motor Company built 4.8 million cars and trucks, and sold 3.3 million of them.   This meant that 1.5 million sparkling new cars, SUVs, trucks and pick-ups were destroyed.   Such was the prelude to the disaster that fell upon the auto industry when the U.S. economy hit rock-bottom three years later in the summer of 2008.   Ironically, Ford was the manufacturer left standing, while General Motors (GM) and Chrysler came within days and weeks of shutting down operations forever.

How bad was it?   Well, by the end of ’08, GM was losing $60 million every single day.  Instead of buying 16 million cars a year, Americans were purchasing just 10 million.   Gas prices were up, leases were non-existent, and the home mortgage crisis was in full swing.   As Vlasic puts it, “The U.S. car market had imploded.”

GM had made some tough decisions, but it had not made them soon enough.

This is the tale of that implosion caused by faulty leadership and tepid management at two of the Big Three auto firms.   GM was within just weeks of insolvency when Barack Obama took over as president.   Yet GM’s then-chief, Rick Wagoner, “refused to even discuss bankruptcy as an option” and flew on a fancy corporate jet when he first traveled to D.C. to ask the nation’s politicians for a hand-out.   Wagoner’s leadership proved to be so disastrous that the Obama administration made Wagoner’s resignation one of the pre-requisites for federal support.

In its time of need, GM was missing the one attribute that could save it: credibility.

Wagoner was so detached that, “…he left the actual duties of building cars at arm’s length.”   Vlasic, though, not only details Wagoner’s many failings in this “fly on the corporate wall” account, he also takes us through the hopeful marriage and subsequently messy divorce of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler; and he shows us how and why forward-thinking leadership ensured that Ford would survive without needed dollars from American taxpayers.

Did America care enough about the autoworkers to save them?

(The) help was not simply to save GM or Chrysler, but rather to prevent an economic catastrophe on the order of the Great Depression.

Vlasic’s uber-detailed 400 page reporting will leave even the most skeptical reader with a full and fair understanding of why the federal automobile bailout of 2009 was essential; well, anybody not named Mitt Romney.   For years, the Big Three had been operating on razor thin profits (literally, working for cents on the dollar); in ’08 Ford brought in $38 billion in revenue, of which only $100 million remained as profit.   It was a business model that could not last, especially because more than 3 million jobs in the U.S. were tied to the auto industry.

The Big Three had to hit bottom – or avoid doing so, in Ford’s case – and refocus in order to see a future in which American consumers would prefer to drive a Ford Focus rather than a Hummer or Escalade: “It had a special, European-style direct injection turbocharged engine.”   It’s a new day in Detroit and Once Upon a Car tells the story of how we arrived here, for better rather than worse…  And, baby, you can drive my Focus.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The reviewer once served on the Ford Motor Company Consumer Advisory Board.

General Motors lost $45 billion in the last 15 months of Rick Wagoner’s tenure as CEO.

Bill Vlasic is also the co-author of Taken for a Ride: How Daimler-Benz Drove Off With Chrysler (2001).

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Nowhere to Run

The Insider by Reece Hirsch (Berkley Books; $7.99; 330 pages)

Reece Hirsch employs a confident narrator’s voice to draw in the reader in this, his debut mystery novel.   What seems to be a nice change of pace with opening scenes devoid of terror, soon shifts as a startling event culminates in a gruesome death.

The main character is Will Connelly, an aspiring fourth-year associate with a prestigious San Francisco law firm.   Will’s gullibility may be alarming to the reader.   He has a very promising future with the firm; however, for a fellow being considered for an equity partnership, Will’s short on street smarts.   Perhaps that failing can be attributed to four 2,400 plus billable hour years?   His dedication to work has left him without a steady girlfriend.   Will’s decision to go out and, on a whim, fall into a barroom pickup may just be a way to let off steam.   Questionable actions like this create not-so-subtle plot turns and complications.

The shifting story tempo continues as two Russian gangster-wannabes and the negotiations for a super-big Silicone Valley acquisition vie for the reader’s attention.   The notions of lurking threats, pain and criminal charges keep Will off-balance for the duration of the story.

Hirsch makes the city of San Francisco serve as the backdrop for the book’s action.   A trip to Silicone Valley and an outing on the bay round out the list of locations visited.   There is rarely a moment of downtime as the plot ensnares more characters.   Ironically, the Russian gangsters and the attorneys are portrayed as complex folks who want to climb the ladder of success and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

“With his immaculate gray suit and perfectly coiffed salt-and-pepper hair, he looked as if he had been genetically engineered to make board presentations.”

The Insider joins a group of this reviewer’s favorite novels that make San Francisco their home.   The other two books are Death in North Beach by Ronald Tierney and Jessica Z by Shawn Klomparens.

This book is highly recommended as an entertaining Grisham-like look at the pressures of corporate law practice.   Let’s hope most mergers and acquisitions are not as painful!

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the author.

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