Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Finally, some new material – but…

You'll have to go elswhere to find it. I'll try to sporadically update this blog, but in the meantime, I've just contributed a piece to Popdose's ongoing series "Caught on Tape" about encounters with the greats – and not-so-great – in rock. My piece details my "interview" with the young Red Hot Chili Peppers in Dec., 1984. You can check it out here. And stay tuned for future contributions at this most excellent blog!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

More Peter Wood – Photos and a video.

We interrupt this regrettable hiatus to update one of the (happily) most popular features on this blog: The unsung hero known as Peter Wood.

As you may remember from some past posts, I had originally posted a video of what I thought was Peter playing "Year of the Cat" with Al Stewart (and several readers had identified as such), but it turned out to be Robert Alpert, another piano player.

Well, we thought we might have unearthed some footage of Peter playing (and I dug up my old photo of Peter from my Year of the Cat album) to help preserve him for Internet posterity. But we're still not sure.

However, thanks to a former rock photographer named Deborah Chesher who knew Peter and has herself written extensively about him on her blog, we know have a definite photograph and some videos of him playing – though regrettably not on "Year of the Cat."

Here's the photo she shot of him:

A little different from the photo I supplied, eh? I'm not sure of the year. But I'm sure Ms. Chesher will supply it if she visits this blog (She happened to have visited a previous test blog where I wrote about Peter. Somehow, that seems to come up on search engines first)

Anyway, if you go to her blog, you'll find a few YouTube videos of Wood performing with other musicians such as Pink Floyd and Lou Reed. I want to direct some traffic Deborah's way, so I won't post them all. But I thought I'd at least show Wood performing with Lou Reed and Robert Quine in 1984, which was around the time I encountered him. The close-ups of Peter's playing come about 7 minutes into the video.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

25 Years Later: My remix of U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love) Revisited

Hang on. This is going to be one heck of a story, beating all my previous "Stories from the War" about my brief foray into the music business.

When U2 released "Pride (In the Name of Love) in 1984 and it became the group's biggest mainstream hit to date, I had mixed feelings as the music director of my college radio station at Georgetown University, WGTB.

I loved the song's sense of urgency and its driving beat. But I wondered how many white suburban kids eagerly snapping up copies of Unforgettable Fire (the album that featured the song) really knew whom Bono was singing about: someone who has always been one of my personal heroes. Remember: This was back before Martin Luther King Day was a national holiday.

So I locked myself in the studio of my college radio station with that record and another LP I had recently acquired that featured audio snippets from 1968 – including coverage of Martin Luther King's assassination on April 4, the subject of the song. Using two turntables and an old-fashioned cart machine, I assembled a crude mix that incorporated King footage, "Pride" and the album's other King-themed track, "MLK "and dubbed it onto an audio tape.

Fast forward to a few months later, I was backstage at U2's concert at Constitution Hall – to interview Mike Scott of the Waterboys, the opening act. Then Bono came into the room.

I must have bee too proud of my work because to this day, I can't believe how brazen I was. I walked right up to him and had him listen to the remix on my Walkman.

He loved it. I mean, he really loved it.

Getting really excited, he had me play it for each one of the other band members and band manager Paul McGuiness, who asked if he could have my tape. It happened to be my only copy, but of course I gave it to him.

The next morning I heard from the college radio guy at Island Records that the tape was all that the Bono talked about during a conference call with the label. They discussed putting it out as a special 12".

Needless to say, that never happened and I never saw the tape again. Nor did I hear anything more from McGuiness or U2.

A few months later, I did another mix at the radio station. Unfortunately, the timing isn't as perfect and some of the audio clips should be louder – but you get a sense of what I was able put together. All the clips double the impact and make the song an amazingly emotional experience, Bono's historical inaccuracies and all. I dubbed it onto a TDK D-90 cassette tape and took it with me when I graduated.

A few years ago, I dug the cassette out and did an mp3 rip. Not perfect, but now at least I had something that would survive longer than that lower quality cassette.

Here it is:

"Pride (InThe Name of Love") (1984 remix)

Still, the inferior quality of the second remix bugged me. Plus, as I listened to it more, I thought there could have been more audio clips from Martin Luther King himself. If I could go back in time, I'd redo it – which of course was a big old fantasy, much like that wide receiver who drops what could have been the winning pass in a championship game.

Then technology opened the door for me. The advent of a simple software program like GarageBand meant that I didn't need turntables any more. In fact, I could be more precise than I was back in my college days. Plus I had acquired some vinyl-ripping hardware. I started scouring used record shops, looking for that record.

The only problem was: I had no idea what it was called, other than it had to with 1968 and was put out by some Chicago news radio station. My odds of finding that record were pretty slim, I realized. In one last ditch attempt, I even contacted my old radio station – although they had transitioned out of LPs a long time ago.

Was I completely out of luck?

Nope. Ever hear of sites called Google and eBay?

That's right. By some blind luck on the same day, I was able to pinpoint the name of the record with a few random terms plugged into Google: "Chicago," "1968," "record" or something like that. The record was called "1968: The Impossible Year" and was put out by WBBM in Chicago in conjunction with a local savings bank. Here's what it looks like and you can even still buy it on eBay, if you're interested.

So now I had it: What was I going to do with it?

Well, things repeatedly got in the way – as life always does. But a few weeks ago I was inspired: Wouldn't this January be the perfect time to put something together to honor how far we have come since April 4, 1968. More than 40 years ago, this nation mourned the death of its first transformational African-American leader. On Jan. 20, the day after Martin Luther King Day, possibly the nation's next transformational African-American leader will take the oath of office for the Presidency – something few civil right leaders, including King himself quite likely, would have thought could have happened so quickly after all that 60s bloodshed.

Here is my new remix. I've done some research about who is talking and when. I knew right away that the music dedication was from Duke Ellington, who was performing at Carnegie Hall that night. The announcement of King's death was done before that concert by its promoter Robert Mosley. You can read an excellent firsthand account from one of the concert's participants here. Excerpts from two King speeches were used: The famous "I Have A Dream" speech and the chillingly prophetic "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speech in which King eerily talks about his mortality the night before his death. I increased the volume of the audio clips and sprinkled them throughout the song.

"Pride (In The Name of Love)" (2009 remix)

I'd love to hear your thoughts on which mix works better for you. Although I really like the new version, it wouldn't surprise me if some people preferred the original mix.

It's true that whites now know who Martin Luther King is. Given the band's increasing social activism, the majority of U2 fans are also quite familiar with the true subject of the song. On Sunday, January 18, two days before the inauguration, U2 performed "Pride (In the Name of Love)" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. "On this spot, 46 years ago, Martin Luther King had a dream," Bono told the large crowd, gathered for a pre-inaugural concert that also featured Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Shakira. "On Tuesday, that dream cones true."

Keeping with the spirit of what motivated me, I created a slideshow "video" of the song and posted it on YouTube. You can see it here. Be sure to watch it until the end.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Peter Wood Mystery: Continued

Sorry about the delay, but here is the picture I promised: From the gatefold of my vinyl copy of "Year of the Cat." Sigh. They just don't package albums like they used to.

Here's another few clips of Al Stewart performing "Year of the Cat" live. I'm bad with faces (which explains why I got it wrong with the first clip) so can anybody help me judge whether any of these features the late, great Mr. Wood?

In any case, thanks for all the great comments. I never imagined that the original post could spur such discussion – and bring so many great people to this blog. Thanks so much.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Motown: So Much More Than A Hit Factory

I've got to admit that I've developed a certain dead spot for overplayed Motown songs. Perhaps it's the fact that "The Big Chill" created a certain nauseating hipness among yuppies that I still can't overcome. Perhaps because, like many songs of my all-time favorites the Beatles, many songs just get played too death.

So I visited the Hitsville U.S.A studio in downtown Detroit last week with some trepidation.

Let's just say that I needn't have worried.

I've been to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I've been to the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

This museum beats them both by the length of James Jamerson's stand-up bass.

Sure, it's smaller and less encompassing. It also only covers a small part of music history, compared to the other two.

But boy, there's something to be said about being in a place where history was made. Especially one that's no bigger than an average sized house.

I have to thank Pete Williams, the docent who guided us on the tour that lasted more than an hour. He made the entire experience well worth the $10 per person it cost to get in. Not only was he a constant source of information, but he put everything in proper context – so that all of us on the tour were properly blown away with what we learned.

Like what?

Like how a hole was cut in the ceiling of the house to get that great sound chamber echo effect on the early recordings. Like how the studio was open 24 hours a day – and there was a full-time cook on staff, just to keep musicians in the studio and out of trouble. Like how artists like Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and nearly all the Motown legends used to help package 45s in their sleeves on the kitchen table. And why Gordy avoided putting artist's pictures on Motown's first four albums, just to see if he could appeal to white audiences in ways that other r&b labels had never accomplished up until then.

Indeed, you really got a sense of the momentousness of what Motown accomplished. Starting 50 years ago this year, out of that tiny house came Motown's most important output, thanks to the talent involved and one man's innovative ideas. If you put the No. 1 records produced by the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Madonna all together, you still wouldn't come close to the number of chart toppers this Detroit label produced, redefining the way "black" music was perceived by white Americans forever.

Unlike the Stax studio in Memphis, which was rebuilt after a fire, Hitsville U.S.A. is still the original studio that remained active until the early 70s when Motown headed west forever. Thanks to Gordy's sister, who turned the house into a museum, not a thing has been touched Not the couch Marvin Gaye used to sleep on. Not the switchboard where Martha Reeves answered phones when she wasn't making hit records. Not Studio A, which still has the drum set and vibraphones once owned by Stevie Wonder. (Or for that matter, the old-fashioned candy machine with the Baby Ruth always third from the left – because it was Stevie' s favorite candy bar)

It truly is a slice of the Smithsonian in downtown Detroit.

In honor of the visit, I put together this quiz – partly from my own knowledge, but also partly on information that Pete shared with us during our tour. Answers are on the bottom along with explanations. (You can take the quiz for real when you follow the Spoofus link in one of the columns and sign up for the free site)

1 – Record label founder Berry Gordy Jr. got some of the seed money for starting Motown for penning hits like "Reet Petite" for this pioneering artist who Van Morrison later immortalized in one of his songs.

  • A – Smokey Robinson
  • B – Jerry Butler
  • C – Jackie Wilson
  • D – Curtis Mayfield
  • E – Marvin Gaye

2 – What peculiarity inspired folks who knew him to nickname original Motown artist William Robinson "Smokey"?
  • A – His velvety voice sounded "Smokey."
  • B – He loved the TV show "Gunsmoke."
  • C – He was a chain smoker never seen without his Lucky Strikes.
  • D – He learned how to do smoke signals from a relative who was Ojibwe.
3 – Although this artist originally came to Motown to work as a session drummer, there were no such jobs available. Instead, this legendary vocalist started out as the janitor at Hitsville U.S.A, the tiny two-house complex at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit, Michigan that was the label's primary recording studio throughout the 60s.
  • A – Marvin Gaye
  • B – Levi Tubbs
  • C – Lionel Richie
  • D – Eddie Kendricks
  • E – Barry White
4 – Although the label claimed Diana Ross "discovered" the Jackson 5, the first Motown artists to see the group were actually Gladys Knight and this guitarist from the Motown band, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, who would later become half of a famous comedy team.
  • A – Tommy Smothers
  • B – Jerry Lewis
  • C – Dick Martin
  • D – Mike Nichols
  • E – Tommy Chong

5 – Spurred by anti-Payola laws that prohibited radio stations from playing more than a certain number of songs by a single label, Berry Gordy Jr. created more than a dozen Motown-affiliated labels that put out R&B, jazz, rock and even spoken word recordings. Which of the following well-known personalities did NOT have any of their material released by Motown or one of its affiliates?
  • A – Aretha Franklin
  • B – Dionne Warwick
  • C – Bobby Darin
  • D – Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • E – Sammy Davis, Jr.

6 – Although choreography was a big part of how Motown acts performed, this legendary group never could do anything more elaborate than some back and forth movement – simply because its members couldn't dance.
  • A – The Temptations
  • B – The Four Tops
  • C – Diana Ros & The Supremes
  • D – Martha & The Vandellas
  • E – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles

7 – Besides Martha Reeves (of Martha and the Vandellas), who is a member of the Detroit City Council, this singer who is a Cook County (Ill.) Commissioner is the only other former Motown artist (as of 2008) who serves as a publicly elected official.
  • A – Dennis Edwards
  • B – Tito Jackson
  • C – David Ruffin
  • D – Jerry Butler
  • E – Florence Ballard

8 – This group of four friends from Ferndale (MI) High School started with one of Motown's lowest affiliates, VIP Records, and spent most of the 60s as chauffeurs, chaperones and shipping clerks for the company before breaking out in 1970 with the Stevie Wonder-penned hit "It's A Shame."
  • A – The Commodores
  • B – The Chi-Lites
  • C – The O'Jays
  • D – The Manhattans
  • E – The Spinners
9 – Although relatively unknown, this vocal trio made up of Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps appeared on more No. 1 hits than any other Motown singer or group – because they provided the backing vocals for many of the songs and even stepped in for missing Supremes from time to time. What were they known as?
  • A – The Chordettes
  • B – The Andantes
  • C – The Marvelettes
  • D – The Funk Sisters
  • E – The Mary Jane Girls

10 – This landmark 1973 album – recently listed by Rolling Stone as one of the top 500 albums of all time – is said to be the final album primarily recorded at the Hitsville U.S.A. studio before Motown shifted the base of its operations to Los Angeles.

  • A – "Innervisions" by Stevie Wonder
  • B – "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye
  • C –"Masterpiece" by The Temptations
  • D – "Get It Together" by the Jackson 5
  • E – "Touch Me in the Morning" by Diana Ross

1 – (C) Jackie Wilson. But you knew that already if you had been following my blog. Gordy wrote "Reet Petite," "To Be Loved" and "Lonely Teardrops" and received a loan from family members so he could quit his job on the Ford assembly line and start making records instead.

2 – (B) He loved "Gunsmoke." Supposedly, as a kid, Smokey would race in front of the TV whenever his favorite show was on, blocking everyone else's view. Hence the nickname.

3 – (A) Marvin Gaye. The legendary singer came to Motown because he wanted a job as a session drummer. But all the slots were filled. So Gaye took the only job that was available: As a janitor, who would clean up the studio and the offices once everyone was done. Needless to say, that job was not permanent.

4 – (E) Tommy Chong. This bit of information from Pete almost knocked me out. I mean, c'mon. Michael Jackson and Cheech & Chong forever linked? What a strange pair. I think you would agree. (That's him, second from the right on an early album by the Vancouvers)

5 – (A) Aretha Franklin. Although a native of Detroit who stil lives in her hometown, Franklin was discovered by Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertugun of Atlantic Records before Gordy could get to her. The others? Well, they all recorded on Motown affiliates during the 60s and 70s. Gordy released many of MLK's great speeches on vinyl. In fact, Pete claimed that the popularity of the "I Have a Dream" speech is due to the fact that people were able to listen to it on their record player. I have my doubts about that …

6 – (B) The Four Tops. If you've ever seen the Four Tops perform, you probably knew the answer. They just go back and forth, back and forth and put their hands in the air. Though choreography was an important part of marketing Motown acts, the Four Tops simply couldn't dance. But boy could Levi Tubbs sing …

7 – (D) Jerry Butler. Though his best recordings weren't with Motown, "The Ice Man" briefly signed on to the label during the 70s. Then, in 1985, he was elected to the board of commissioners for Cook County, which is where Chicago is located.

8 – (E) The Spinners. I stumped both Pete and my wife (a Ferndale graduate, no less) on this one. The fact is, the Spinners were with Motown for a number of years without getting much of a shot from Gordy and the other label executives. "It's a Shame" and the Wonder-penned (and produced) "We'll Have It Made" were the group's only Motown hits. In 1971, at the suggestion of Aretha herself, they switched to Atlantic and with the help of Thom Bell and some killer songs, became oe of the biggest r&b groups of the 70s with songs like "Rubber Band Man," "I'll Be Around" and "They Just Can't Stop It (Games People Play)"

9 – (B) The Andantes. Some day I hope some filmmaker takes these women out of obscurity, in the same way that the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002) gave the Funk Brothers their due.

10 – (B) "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye. It was simply a revolutionary recording – and it was fitting that Hitsville U.S.A had its swan song with this classic album. The last piece of music recorded at the original Detroit studio? The instrumental "machine Gun" from the Commodores' debut 1974 album (the one that, thankfully, lacked ballads from Lionel Richie or any other group member.)

How'd you do?