I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday

Fats Domino, Imperial 5606, 1959, #17 Pop, #22 R&B

Antoine Domino got his nickname not from his size but because his piano style reminded a bandleader he worked for of Thomas “Fats” Waller. In fact, at the time of his first hit, “The Fat Man,” Domino was relatively petite. He only grew into his nickname after he’d begun making the long string of hits that led to fame, fortune, limitless desserts, and Sansabelt trousers.

Most recording artists who have had a great number of hits have also had some misses. While some music lovers may be able to find some subpar releases on Fats Domino’s long list of hits, to me they’re all delights, almost interchangeably enjoyable. Even “Blueberry Hill,” which I’ve heard my lifetime quota of and have sung hundreds of times at senior centers—even that one I can still listen to with joy.

“I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” may edge slightly above the rest of the Fats catalog. I play this record more than any of the others, and (so far) it always remains fresh. It’s one of Fats’s few in which a guitar riff plays a prominent role, and that riff is offset by repeated shouts of “Hey!” that push it along. It was written by Fats and his producer/collaborator Dave Bartholomew, along with a fellow named Roy Hayes.
My first exposure to Fats Domino was at my Grandma and Grandpa’s farm, where my Aunt Kay had grown up. She had a small collection of 78s, including “I Want to Walk You Home.” That 78 mesmerized me and has always been a sentimental favorite, and led me to a lifelong craving for Fats.

Incredibly, he has no fewer than three top-ten hit records with forms of the verb walk in the title. “Walkin’ to New Orleans” is very similar to “I Want to Walk You Home.” They’re both sung at a steady walkin’ pace, with Fats sounding sedate and at the same time a little coy. “I’m Walkin’” speeds things up to a sprint, or at least to the elbow-flappin’ race-walker pace. I enjoy the steppy N’Awlins feel of it, but I also like to perform a slowed down, swingy version—back to regular walkin’ speed.

That brings us back to “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday.” Now Fats has abandoned the pedestrian mode altogether. He’s revved up the tempo even more, and along with the pace his tone has intensified: He’s gotten a little more boastful, almost full of himself (but not in an offensive way). And he’s not only planning to be a (big) wheel, he will have a set of wheels, and will be oblivious when he goes “rollin’ by.”

The music-related highlights of the most recent trip to NOLA my wife and I made included seeing Fats Domino’s totaled piano in a Katrina exhibit, seeing another Fats piano, restored with financial help from Sir Paul McCartney, in the U.S. Mint Building, and seeing Fats’ restored house in the Ninth Ward. Alas, that house no longer contains The Fat Man.

When I Stop Dreaming

Ray Charles, ABC-Paramount 45-11170, 1969, #112 Pop, #25 Adult Contemporary

My idea of the perfect party: having a few beers, sitting around with a group of friends singing harmony. In the Dallas area there’s an acoustic jam group of thirty-five-plus years run by a woman who is a wonderfully earthy singer and force of nature, and for several years of Sundays, I didn’t miss it. It was in this jam group that I met another force of nature, the late Jimmy Lee. Poor, bedeviled Jimmy Lee had a powerful voice, which he was able to masterfully control in order to convey intense longing on a ballad, and then follow it with hilarious irreverence.

Jimmy Lee brought a song to the jam circle once and requested that I harmonize with him on it. It was the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming,” a sweet and soaring ¾-time ballad that I’d heard but only vaguely remembered. We enjoyed our first, fumbling try so much that I learned the words, and we did the song every time we met thereafter. On every occasion, it was a thrill to sing: a well-wrought song with the strong, sure voice of Jimmy Lee laying the foundation. Yes, he sang happy-go-lucky brother Charlie Louvin’s lower melody part, and I sang the high harmony that crazy, drinkin’, wild-man brother Ira Louvin did originally. We all found out later how much more Jimmy Lee was like Ira than Charlie when Jimmy went to jail for murdering a business partner, and died there of cancer, well before his time.

It is one of those rare Ray Charles records where his cover does not outshine the original

The Louvins were the influential example of the filial harmony that the Everly Brothers carried to pop-rock immortality. Their commingling voices were sweet and pure, but their repertoire tended toward songs of death and despair—enough so that one collection of their songs is entitled Tragic Songs of Life. They could’ve sung the story of Jimmy Lee.

I recently came across a couple of other single versions of “When I Stop Dreaming.” In 1971, Charlie Louvin, now without his ill-fated brother, sings with perennial duetter Melba Montgomery. (She got around: In addition to Louvin, her recording partners included George Jones and Gene Pitney.) With only one Louvin Brother, it just ain’t the same. It’s a beautiful song that’s hard to tarnish, but a little too saccharine without Ira on hand. Another thirty-six years later, Charlie duetted on the song with Elvis Costello. Others who’ve covered “When I Stop Dreaming” include Roy Orbison, Emmy Lou Harris, Johnny Cash, and Louvinites Phil and Don Everly. Even The Everlys’ recording can’t compare to the original. The Louvins were just too perfectly suited to interpret the song, one of the few that they wrote.

But I also found Ray Charles’s version of the song, recorded for his Tangerine label in 1969. It is one of those rare Ray Charles records where his cover does not outshine the original, but it’s a gorgeous song that Ray puts his stamp on, and so it is worthy. Ray Charles transforms show-tunes, like “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” standards, like “Georgia on My Mind,” even anthems, like “America the Beautiful.” Ray Charles could take any song from any genre and make it his own.

Ray had had his way with C&W songs before, of course, but he’s holding back a little here when I’m thinking he could be less restrained; the strings and backing vocals are a little too sweet, and the pacing is sedate. But the vocal performance is moving and true, and I imagine Charlie, like me, may have preferred it to his own duets with Melba and with Elvis. But, of course, would still rank brother Ira over Brother Ray.

Buddy Bolden’s Blues

Jelly Roll Morton, General 4003, 1939

It’s a tribute to a guy whose brief period of glory was in a place called Funky Butt Hall, before he spent his last twenty-four years in a mental institution, totally incompetent. It’s sung by a guy whose nickname is slang for the male sex organ. The singer doesn’t quote the honoree spouting words of wisdom, but instead urging someone to “open up that window and let that foul air out.”

All that said, listening to Jelly Roll Morton playing and singing “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” (also known as “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”), recorded in 1939, just a couple years before Morton died, is a glorious experience, time after time.

The mysterious Buddy Bolden is the person most people credit with inventing jazz—except for, ironically, Jelly Roll Morton, who always claimed he invented jazz. Of course, no one person “invented” jazz. It has way too many antecedents. But you can hear in this record a nice example of the mix of blues, sacred music, and swing that Bolden’s said to have made his mark with.

The record label gives the writing credit to Morton, but most agree that the music and lyrics originated with trombonist Willy Cornish and other members of Bolden’s band, as they played at the Union Sons Hall (the place everyone called Funky Butt Hall). No recording of Bolden and company has ever been found, and Buddy’s estrangement from reality began in 1907, before anything we’d think of as jazz made it to a recording studio.

Mr. Morton was all but forgotten in the thirties, after his heyday during the preceding decade. Styles had changed, former friends and associates had been alienated. But he went out with a bang, recording solo and raconteuring away for Alan Lomax, who also put together a nice bio, Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortune of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” in 1950. The full-band recording of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” with Sidney Bechet, Zutty Singleton and other New Orleans lights assisting, is probably as close to being a perfect evocation of that great city in music (and what better way to evoke NOLA?). But the solo Jelly displays piano-playing as deft and artful as always and a voice as timeless as New Orleans’ mystique. It somehow matters not at all that he’s singing about funky butts, foul air, and a man who died crazy and nearly lost to history. “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” whoever wrote it, is divine.

My True Story

The Jive Five, Beltone 1006, 1961, #3 Pop and #1 R&B

If I could pin down any doo-wop song as my favorite, it would be The Jive Five’s “My True Story.” Its verse is nothing special; it follows the usual “ice-cream changes” that 90+% of doo-wop songs do (you know: C down to A-minor, to F and then G, like “Heart and Soul”). But each chorus’s repeated falsetto up-swoop is rapturous, and I get lightheaded every time I hear it. I always find myself whistling it long after listening to it, much to the chagrin of those around me.

The Jive Five had three more singles that made the Billboard charts, but much farther down, and they produce no chills when listened to. One-hit-wonderful songs like “My True Story” are little miracles, marvels of the collaborative process that very occasionally creates one gem, never to be equaled.

The “true story” involves a love triangle that includes a guy named Earl, which not only conveniently rhymes with “girl” but also happens to be the first name of quite a few doo-wop singers (though not any of the Jive Five). The sad story that makes the singer “cry, cry, cry” is a sensitive one for him. Taking off on the Dragnet intro, he sings, “The names have been changed, dear, to protect you and I.” (As a grammar nerd, I can’t help but sing “me” to myself every time I hear the line. But as a doo-wop fan, I un-correct my correction, quickly enough not to screw up the meter.)

The song is credited to Eugene Pitt, The Jive Five’s lead singer, and a fellow named Oscar Waltzer. I’m guessing Oscar got co-credit for doing some of the business of getting the song published and/or broadcast. Oscar Waltzer—I’m sorry—is just not the name of a doo-wop/R&B songwriter. (Was it a name made up as a little joke? After all, “My True Story” is in waltz time.)

A side note about Eugene Pitt: Prior to forming The Jive Five, he had a group named The Genies. Two of the Genies went on to have a ’62 top-ten hit, “What’s Your Name?,” as Don and Juan. Another late-doo-wop-era goodie. I recall a long-ago sing-along party, during which we singing partiers had had way too much of something or another to drink. We sang “What’s Your Name” and milked the song’s big finish (What’s your na-a-ame? What’s your na-a-a-a-ame? Shooby-do-wah-wa-ahhh”) for all we could get out of it. Then one of us tagged the next song we sang with that ending, and after that it was every song for the rest of the evening, from “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” to “In My Life.” It happened spontaneously and delighted us. When I tried doing that at another sing-along party years later, I just got annoyed looks. You can’t go home again.

Feeling Good

Ahmad Jamal, Argo 5504, 1965

Jazz is not for 45s.

Prior to the introduction of the 45 rpm and LP formats in the late ‘40s, jazz was recorded and heard on 78s, and there is still no better way to listen to Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, or Django Reinhardt. Then, the LP came along and changed the way people listened to jazz and changed the way jazz artists delivered their music. Monk, Mingus, Miles, and other lights of the ‘50s and ’60s created albums of songs, mostly longer than a 78 or 45 side allowed, that flowed and created a sustained mood. In the CD and streaming eras, the LP format is still the way to listen to jazz.

Yes, there’ve been some jazz instrumental singles that charted in the 45 era. Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (written by band-member Joe Zawinul) made it to #11 Billboard in 1967, and Cannonball had a couple of charting singles before that one and a couple after. It stands on its own as a powerful 45, compacting a succession of dramatic tension-release waves into a three-plus-minute live performance captured nicely—if enhanced somewhat in post-production—on record.

Ramsey Lewis did Cannon even better, with a whole string of moderate hits and a couple of blockbusters, “The ‘In’ Crowd” and “Hang On, Sloopy.” All of these songs fall into the funky-groove mode, and they all were also big vocal hits by pop singers. “Feeling Good” meets all of these criteria—except that it wasn’t an instrumental hit.

“Feeling Good” started out in Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Ahmad Jamal transforms it. His piano pattern is hypnotic, the bass punctuation keeps things going, the drums never intrude. There’s space. It’s the kind of groove song that could go on and on, but it’s just perfect under the length restrictions of the 45. (“Leave them wanting more”—advice quite a few jazz performers might’ve benefited from.) I always sigh immediately after Ahmad and the band hit the final beat. I haven’t heard the album the song appears on, The Roar of the Greasepaint–which covers of all of the songs in the musical–but it’s the closer. Perfect.

In the same year of Jamal’s recording, Nina Simone put it on her I Put a Spell on You album, and that’s the version most people remembered—at least until Michael Buble did it decades later. Many others have covered it, from Traffic to Lauryn Hill.

As much as I love Nina Simone, and as strong as this number is in her body of work, I keep coming back to Ahmad Jamal’s combo and their understated and entrancing recording.

So Young (Love Theme from “Zabriskie Point”)

Roy Orbison, MGM K14121, 1970, #122 Pop

Before I came across this Roy Orbison single not long ago, I didn’t even know it existed. It’s called “So Young” and, in parentheses, “Love Theme from ‘Zabriskie Point.’” Really? Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychedelic desert critique of American lifestyles had a “love theme” sung by Roy the Orb? Wacky but true. Roy hadn’t had any hits in a couple of years and may have been up for anything. Antonioni probably hadn’t ever heard of Roy Orbison, but maybe had a staffer who threw the idea out there as a gag, and it stuck. Roy does indeed sing the song over the movie credits (I don’t know how I could have forgotten that—oh, wait, yeah, I saw it in the early ‘70s with my pot-dealer dorm-mate), but it didn’t make it onto the Zabriskie Point soundtrack album, which is mostly made up of the predictable folks: Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones.

…not bad for an obscure non-hit theme from a dated movie that got bad reviews.

Zabriskie Point’s love theme is a nice little song, written by Orbison, along with record exec-turned Republican politician Mike Curb and Brian Wilson’s former car-song collaborator Roger Christian. It follows the same arc as those young-love mini-melodramas from the early ‘60s: a lower-register set of verses that gradually build in intensity and rise in pitch to an operatic big finish. “So Young” is not quite up to the level of Roy’s timeless classics, but it’s not bad for an obscure non-hit theme from a dated movie that got bad reviews.

When I joined Bowley & Wilson as a member of their Blue Bathroom Humor Band, I knew I was getting into something out of my comfort zone. I was an introvert among extreme extroverts, a reader among party animals. But it was an opportunity, the first in a long while, to make a steady income playing music. Of course, it wasn’t like the music I had been playing. I went from pursuing the sensitive singer-songwriter route to playing bass and singing backup on B&W originals like “Let’s Do It Dog Style” and “Oh Shit, Wouldja Look at Them Tits?”

John Bowley and John Wilson, who’d met in the late ‘60s as frat-mates at SMU, developed and honed their shtick over the years to transform from a progressive country duo into a raunchy-rock-‘n’-country stage show with a rabid regular following, many of them the next generation of SMU students. They were loud and nasty, but they thought of their show as a variation on vaudeville, with a magician, instrumentalists to showcase, and lots of bits involving the audience. I was the serious relief.

With the band moniker Creepy Steve, I was the nerd of the group, dressed in a Boy Scout uniform. My predecessor on bass, Champagne Billy King, had been the nastiest, partyin’est band guy of all, and we all knew I could not fill that role. I was instead the misfit, the guy who didn’t quite belong, maybe a little embarrassed to be naughtily singing about tits and ass. During each set, I’d get a feature song, a chance to go from Creepy to The Voice by singing some bravura number. There were several over the years, but the one I got saddled with for long afterward was the Roy Orbison melodramatic mini-opera “Crying.”

The song was a favorite of mine for many years already when, while I was performing with my sixties cover band Circumstance, a regular customer told me he’d bump me some coke if I’d learn it. I did learn it, he rewarded me, and then continued to do so every time I sang it. In 1979, the cocaine was a great incentive. I sang the song a lot. After the coke phase, it was still exhilarating to sing, aided only by Cuervo Gold, Guinness Stout, or even just tap water. When we added it to the Bowley & Wilson show, it worked, night after night. Set in contrast to the dirty songs, it stood out: coeds swooned, frat rats cheered, bikers wept.

I went on to sing it at karaoke bars, in other bands, at parties—so many times that it lost its charm, lost its pathos, lost its power. Somewhere, there’s a videotape of me singing it, as I did every year by popular demand, at a family reunion. Listening to it, I can hear passion and verve, but the video exposes my empty, beerlogged expression. I was just going through the motions.

Bowley & Wilson broke up back in the late eighties, but over the succeeding years were booked for numerous “Final Reunions.” In each one, my showcase was “Crying,” sandwiched between B&W classics like “Baby Shit” and “How Can I Get You Off My Mind If You Won’t Get Off My Face.” It continued to work like a champ, until the first final reunion following my development of bronchiectasis. I was having voice problems and had not yet come to understand what exactly was going on and how to deal with it.

At our rehearsal for the final reunion, I informed Bowley and Wilson that I would not be able to sing “Crying.” “Oh no,” they protested, “you have to sing it!”

I suggested other songs I’d done with them, “Only You,” “Born to Run,” even as I realized it had to be “Crying.” I was getting paid a lot of money for this gig; I needed to fulfill my obligation. I came up with a compromise: moving the song down a step, so that instead of hitting the full-out, ringing high A note at the end of the song, I’d be hitting a not-quite-full-out but still-somewhat-ringing high G. It worked, and the audience members, I’m sure, had no idea I’d wimped out on the key. But I knew, and the band knew. I felt guilty getting paid for singing “Crying” in G.

I finally retired “Crying” a few years ago, after age and my respiratory condition made it too difficult for me to reliably sing it. At the most recent Final Reunion, probably the actual final Final Reunion, I sang “Only You,” and it went over just as well.

It’s a testament to Roy’s ethereal voice and exceptional song-craftsmanship that the shy and homely West Texas boy was the voice of young love in the early sixties. He had a string of six perfect works, recorded in the space of four years, that are among the greatest legacies of pop music.

In addition to “Crying,” here are Roy Orbison’s “Young Love Mini-Melodrama” masterpieces:

  • It’s Over (1964, #9)—my favorite Roy performance
  • In Dreams (1963, #7)—made creepily famous by Dean Stockwell’s pantomime in the David Lynch movie Blue Velvet
  • Running Scared (1961, #1)—“Oh, Pretty Woman” was Roy’s only other #1
  • Falling (1963, #22)—a lesser-known hit fully on a par with the others
  • Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel) (1960, #2)—another well-known oldies-collection staple

There are others that come close to making this list: “Leah” has the trademark upper-register intro statement and stratospheric big finish, but the story is too specific, and doesn’t really fit Roy. One can see him pining over lost loves, mistakenly fleeing from romance, agonizing over bad choices. But it’s just hard to picture him diving for pearls. But I think I can add “So Young”—classic Roy melodrama that remains obscure.

All Alone

Cliff Edwards , Pathe 025124, 1924, #6 1925

Cliff Edwards chose the instrument that gave him his showbiz name, Ukulele Ike (misspelled four times on the “All Alone” record label as “Ukelele Ike”), out of practicality. He was singing in saloons in the 1910s, subject to unreliable, out-of-tune pianos, and wanted a convenient instrument to play. The uke seemed to be the most portable—other than the harmonica, which ain’t so easy to accompany your own singing with. He learned to play the instrument, and with it became one of the most successful recording stars of the ‘20s and ‘30s, also appearing in numerous movies. Much of the popular-song sheet music of the era features chords for ukulele accompaniment, thanks to Ike. We also should acknowledge that it was Ukulele Ike, and not Gene Kelly, who introduced the world to “Singin’ in the Rain,” back in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. It was a #1 hit for him. Uke Ike died, broke and forgotten, in 1971. His last recording had been ten years earlier.

Cliff Edwards is best known (often only known) as the voice of Pinocchio’s muse Jiminy Cricket. His rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star” is exquisitely sweet, and every time my three-year-old Disney-fan daughter Kelley sang it for me I had to dab my eyes and blow my nose, Not known to most Disney-movie lovers is that Edwards also was the uncredited voice of the unfortunately named Jim Crow in Dumbo, and sang the minstrelly “When I See an Elephant Fly.”

Ukulele Ike could certainly ham it up on up-tempo novelty numbers, flailing away at his uke and scatting in a high register. That stuff’s pretty entertaining, but it’s the sentimental ballads, in the mold of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” that I’m especially fond of, and they sound so gorgeous on a 78 rpm disc. A prize possession of mine is Cliff Edwards’ recording of the Irving Berlin song “All Alone.” Ike’s frail tenor elicits a sigh every time, as he croons, “Wondering where you are, and how you are, and if you are all alone, too.” I sing along, gazing out my bedroom window with a longing look, swept up in the nostalgia for something I can’t name.

No fewer than seven artists, including Cliff Edwards, milked the song for hits in 1925. It is superbly crafted and perfectly simple, like Berlin’s better-known “What’ll I Do?” Edwards doesn’t appear to have recorded that one. If he had, I’d have it on my “must-have” list.

At any rate, I’m going to have daughter Kelley, now 34, learn “All Alone,” and I will accompany her on my tenor ukulele and try to keep my eyes dry until the ending.

On the Road Again

Canned Heat, Liberty 56038, 1968, #16 Pop

The only two Canned Heat songs I really love are “On the Road Again” and “Going Up the Country.” Since both of these songs are wonderful because of Alan Wilson’s lead vocals (a role usually handled by Bob Hite), I guess I’m an Alan Wilson fan but not a Canned Heat fan.

I have a rule—which I may break someday—that I won’t pay more for one record than I paid for the record player.

I was drawn to the eerie spell of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” whenever I heard it on the radio as a young lad. The harmonica (also Alan Wilson) and the pulsing bass line set the ominous tone, and the falsetto vocal complemented the instrumentation. It was years later that I got the same eerie feeling, and a sense of déjà vu, hearing Floyd Jones’s 1951 song “Dark Road.” I didn’t immediately associate the two songs, but read later that Wilson drew from “Dark Road” to come up with “On the Road Again.” Jones, who’s credited as a co-writer on the Heat song, had derived his song from “Big Road Blues” by Tommy Johnson, which I only heard (and loved) for the first time 86 years after it was recorded. Tommy also wrote “Canned Heat Blues,” which gave the group its name. The droning music of “On the Road Again,” based around an E chord, features, in every third bar, the E – G – A riff popularized by John Lee Hooker.

The other Canned Heat road-song hit, “Going Up the Country,” was borrowed from an old acoustic blues song. “Bull Doze Blues,” recorded by Henry Thomas in 1928, and had the same guitar rhythm and flute part to back the same melody. The Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane) had recorded a similar song in 1927, about being “Beale Street Bound.” In one verse, Stokes sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin’, what you want me to bring you back?” Al Wilson, forty years later, sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin” where the water tastes like wine.” The blues is a borrowing style, but all pop music borrows to varying degrees from roots predecessors. There’s truly nothing new under the sun—but there continue to be delightful mergings and mutations.

Quite a few of my all-time favorite recordings are country blues songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s, but I’m afraid I’ll never own them in their primary, essential state. I have Bukka White’s “Shake ‘em on Down” on an LP, but the 78 rpm in any playable state would cost me thousands. At least hundreds. It would be the same for any record by Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and any of their peers. These records are unaffordable treasures not only because they are so damn good, but because so few people back in those days thought they were any damn good. Few were pressed, and very few survive. It’s a rarefied group of old white guys who’ve bought these up, and when they die, others who may be interested and have a lot of “walkin’ money” can grab the records they’ve coveted.

Of all the 78s out there, the percentage of valuable ones is minute; the supply of most 78s exceeds the demand. I am fortunate to be broad of musical scope and forgiving of disc condition. (Another reason I wouldn’t pay two grand for a blues rarity is that my player is a $49 portable hooked up to computer speakers. I have a rule—which I may break someday—that I won’t pay more for one record than I paid for the record player.) So I happily buy five-to-twenty-dollar 78s by The Ink Spots, Fats Waller, Johnny Hodges, Bill Monroe, Memphis Minnie and others who were popular enough that quite a few records survive today. And listening to these recordings on 10-inch shellac discs is just glorious—the best of cheap thrills. (But I would pay twenty bucks for someone who owns a clean copy of “Shake ‘em on Down” on 78 to just let me listen to it one time.)

Mean Mistreater Blues

Memphis Minnie, Columbia 37295, 1944

I had my first opportunity to become a Memphis Minnie fan back in 1967, but I failed to pursue it. I was just a junior-high kid, after all, with almost no exposure to the blues of my grandparents’ generation. (My grandparents had little to no exposure to it either.) A schoolfriend’s dad worked for RCA and passed along a promo LP copy of Jefferson Airplane’s first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, and my friend passed it along to me. I loved every song on the record, including its only cover, “Chauffeur Blues,” which was the standout vocal number for Signe Toly Anderson. Signe left the group shortly after that album’s release, to be replaced by Grace Slick.

“Chauffer Blues” is credited on the Airplane record as being written by Lester Melrose. He was one in the long line of producers who claimed writer credit in order to grab royalties. The original recording, made in 1941 as “Me and My Chauffer Blues,” is credited to Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlar, third husband of Lizzie Douglas, otherwise known as Memphis Minnie. Minnie is thought to have been the actual songwriter, as she was for most of her couple-hundred recorded songs. She lived another six years after the Airplane cover, without acknowledgment or royalties from them. Was she even aware they’d recorded it?

I was a dumb teenager. I had no idea what I was missing by not investigating “Chauffeur Blues,” just as I blithely failed to follow up on Robert Johnson, Reverend Robert Wilkins, Tommy Johnson, and other blues singer-songwriters covered by sixties rockers. It didn’t help that there was no YouTube then, nor did it help that I mostly listened to top 40 radio and played in a band that tried to cover The Beatles and The Byrds.

I’m catching up now, grabbing Memphis Minnie 78s as I’m able, making up for lost time by playing the hell out of ‘em. Among my favorites is “Mean Mistreater Blues,” which features the insistent rhythm guitar of Little Son, and the sharp, dancing guitar fills and rides and the powerful vocals of Minnie. It is hard to find affordable copies of 78s recorded by most of the men who created the greatest country blues music. It is a real treat that records by the only woman who regularly pops up in the country blues pantheon can be found in very nice condition for a reasonable price. Unlike most of her male peers, Memphis Minnie recorded into the fifties, maintaining the style and quality of her earliest recordings. The earliest ones may be a bit on the pricy side, but the later gems are plentiful.

Ms. Minnie’s vocal quality on “Mean Mistreater Blues” and many of her other recordings reminds me of her friend and mutual admirer Bukka White, whose records are in short supply and way out of my price range. But, you know what? I don’t feel like I’m “settling” for Memphis Minnie. She’s right up there with Bukka and the country blues men’s club.

Hot Fun in the Summertime

Sly and the Family Stone, Epic 5-10497, 1969, #2 Pop and #3 R&B

My favorite song of summer and probably my strongest contender for best single of all time is “Hot Fun in the Summertime.” The song does a lot of blending: strings against Larry Graham’s funky bass; lush four-part harmonies against belted-out solos; straight-eights against syncopated rhythms. Not to mention the band’s diversity of personnel: black, white, male, and female. It all manages to work together and make magic happen, like most of the band’s output during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

It did make Dave Marsh’s list of the “1,001 best singles ever made,” in his 1999 book The Heart of Rock and Soul. But it only came in at #314, barely in the top third. Marsh talks about the corny beginning of the record that seems to represent the middle-class, halcyon image of summer in America, which sets you up for the funky trade-offs in the bridge that represent unrest and defiance, kind of “Dancing in the Street” meets “Street Fighting Man” (two other great “summer” songs, by the way). I love both aspects of the song, and prefer not to read any meaning into them. The best summer songs of my era are about memories, and this one brings back a flood of them every time I hear it.
Sly Stone’s 1969 hit grabbed me instantly (along with a lot of other folks—it hit #2 on Billboard) and has never let go. I’ve heard covers of it that were OK, but the song as originally produced by Sly cannot be improved. “Everyday People,” another great example of a perfect record, is further evidence that songwriter/singer/bandleader/ keyboardist Sly was probably most talented as a producer. Covering these songs is like remaking Psycho—why mess with perfection?

Sly and the Family Stone were the ultimate representation of racial unity in pop music. Their lineup was interracial, and songs like “Everyday People” and many others on their albums Stand! and There’s a Riot Goin’ On promote racial harmony or lampoon intolerance.

Duke Ellington was often criticized for not being vocally opposed to segregation and racism back in the day. He would respond that he not only had suffered the indignities of being black in America but had long portrayed black life and culture in his music. Music was his way of supporting black culture and, as one of the most popular artists of his time, exposing white audiences to it. His longer work Black, Brown, and Beige (“a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America,” as Duke said), and songs like “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Sepia Panorama,” “Creole Love Song,” and many others celebrated black life.

My all-time favorite Ellington recording, out of many contenders, is from his meet-up with John Coltrane. “In a Sentimental Mood” is a beautiful song written by Duke (with a big assist from early band-member Toby Hardwick) in 1935 and recorded many times by his Orchestra and by other artists. But the 1962 recording of the song trumps them all. Duke’s influence (and his compositions) brought out Coltrane’s lyricism and soulfulness on Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. And I think Coltrane made Duke a bit more adventurous than usual.

There’s an interesting tidbit about this song in the fine 2013 Terry Teachout bio Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. Duke chose “In a Sentimental Mood” when a white friend asked him which of his compositions he felt was “a typical Negro piece.” When the friend said he was surprised by the answer, the composer of “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call,” and Black, Brown, and Beige explained: “Ah, that’s because you don’t know what it’s like to be a Negro.”

“Hot Fun in the Summertime” has always seemed to me to be the most perfect slice-of-black-life song of its time—over all the great contenders from James Brown or Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye, but Duke (and maybe even Sly) would probably say, “You don’t know what it’s like…”