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Archive for February 13th, 2009

Now & Then

The recent debate surrounding the stimulus package on the U.S. Senate floor made one thing clear: as a nation, we are engaged in a battle between the past and the present. Republicans have circled the wagons and are continuing to be proponents of tax cuts as a possible solution to the current crisis. Their ability to negatively define shines through, it’s not a stimulus package, it’s a “spending bill” that’s being debated.

Democrats are looking toward to a future that includes both capital investment and work programs. Exploration of alternative fuel sources, infrastructure repair, increased availability of broadband, and greening are all on the menu, and are part of the expressed future of the Obama era.

The effect is already being felt. A nineteen year old McDonald’s worker, who’s living the life of a go getter, jumped to his feet and thanked the Lord and the president for appearing in economically ravaged Florida at a town hall style press conference. When asked what his ambitions were, he informed Obama of his desire to be a DJ or announcer. Representatives of a local minor league franchise were paying attention, and the deep fryer played himself into a shot as a minor league play by play announcer.

The working poor didn’t always have to bum rush a presidential press conference in order to be heard. They were organized, and had representation. Garbage workers in Memphis, teachers in New York, and auto workers in Detroit (to name a few), all had strong unions, and were considered to be both important political lobbies as well as consumer groups. When their struggle wasn’t depicted on TV and in film, it was detailed dramatically on the radio. Soul music kept the working man’s plight within earshot of anyone who was bothering to listen.

Many of the great practitioners of this art form had been church-going and southern. The same was true of it’s listeners. The soundtrack for the great black southern migration into northern cities was heard regularly on black AM radio stations. Labels spearheaded by innovative record men with rosters filled with historic artists, singing the songs of the working man’s loss, joy, pain, and struggle were plentiful. The companies that excelled in this area were mostly independent mom and pop operations. It was exceptional music made at a tidy profit.

As in most endeavors, independent profit leads to corporate investment. Because of the change in business culture, the innovators gave way to record men, the record men gave way to accountants, and lastly, the accountants gave way to bureaucrats. Organizations flourished and the music suffered. Increasingly, there were fewer and fewer executives who were steeped in the tradition and lore of the soul men. Soul became passe, and then experienced a resurgence with a prefix.

Hit ’70’s sitcom producer of All In The Family and Sanford and Son, Norman Lear is the principal manager/owner of the Concord music group. He purchased Fantasy Records’ catalogue and with it, control of the master recordings of Stax Records. In an attempt to revive the brand, new projects by Lala Hathaway, Angie Stone, and Nikka Costa have been released.

Stax was one of the great soul labels from the golden age. A Memphis based mom and pop with grit and flair, the great midnight shouter, Otis Redding cut there. The genius, Isaac Hayes first recorded there. The secularized gospel family act, The Staple Singers, put it down there, and one of the first integrated bands of the rock era, Booker T. And The MGs, had a string of instrumental hits in the ’60’s and ’70’s. In a contribution to the Stax Profiles reissue series, Elvis Costello compiled and annotated a collection of the band’s grooviest dates.

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STAX HAD IT POPPIN IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF SOUL

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NORMAN LEAR’S ’70’s HUMOR WAS WORKING

Booker T. Jones (organ & piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass), and Al Jackson (drums), were probably the best known lineup of the band. A crack group of sidemen, they also moonlighted as the Stax house band, and can be heard on hits by Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, and Rufus Thomas among others. It’s easy to see why they smashed. Booker’s organ and piano driven pieces had just the required amount of gravy laced with acid. Filling yet trippy.

The collection revisits the surfer sound influenced, Time Is Tight, the bluesy sanctified groove of Sunday Sermon, the Norman Whitfield like Soul Clap ’69, a rereading of Lady Madonna by Lennon & McCartney, the signature Green Onions, and a deep, jazzy, mid-tempo contemplation called Over Easy. I can hear the influence of the band on many, many artists that I’ve heard over the years, including: Santana’s early work for Columbia, Carol King, and those southern knights; Houston’s jazz/funk ensemble, The Crusaders. Plenty funky.

The south is still the region that provides us with some of the more soulful artists of today. I’ve been listening to projects by two of them lately, Anthony Hamilton, and India.Arie.

Hamilton is a veteran of the New York label odyssey. I first became aware of him and his music when he was signed to Andre Harrell’s Uptown/MCA imprint, through J Luv’s Polo Grounds Entertainment. Luv and Harrell were touting their discovery as the new Bill Withers.

As part of the North Carolina to Uptown underground railroad that had been traveled previously by Jodeci and Horace Brown, Hamilton seemingly had a bright future at the label. Then Uptown ran afoul of corporate politics before Hamilton could get his record on the release schedule. The new jack/hip hop soul dream factory was disbanded and Harrell resurfaced as the CEO of the former pop soul mega label, Motown. Hamilton was still in Harrell’s plans, but things quickly soured at the company, and Harrell was abruptly dismissed early in his tenure.

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NORTH CAROLINA’S EX PAT ANTHONY HAMILTON

Forced to find a third label before his first record was released, Hamilton linked with fellow native North Carolinian and hip hop producer, Mark The Spark, and signed to the third party financed, and Atlantic distributed, Soul Life. The venture broke out of the gate with promise, releasing 2000’s Heard It All Before, by a North Carolinian that Harrell had failed to sign, Sunshine Anderson. The fortunes of Sunshine and Soul Life began to fade quickly, and the label was unable to adequately follow up their initial success, and was shuttered. Again, Hamilton was in play without having released a record. Anthony was not to be discouraged.

His throaty, urgent, and churchy voice never betrayed him, and his reputation continued to grow. Hamilton won a spot singing background on the prestige soul tour of 2000: D’Angelo’s Voodoo tour. Things were looking up. The former barber from Charlotte, saw the world, and saw it from an interesting perch; on the stages of packed houses all over the globe, and backing up the neo bad boy. Anthony peeped the game.

In 2001, I was the Executive Vice President of Urban A&R at Ted Field’s ARTISTdirect Recordings. Urban publicity exec, Tiarra Mukherjee, recommended that I sign him to the label. I knew Anthony from around campus and I wasn’t interested in becoming his fourth label. I wished that I’d reconsidered. Fortunately, Mike Mauldin and his son, Jermaine Dupri, didn’t share my concerns, and signed him to So So Def.

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FORMER AD PUBLICIST TIARRA MUKHERJEE

Anthony Hamilton may well be the finest singer working in the soul area today. His latest release on the So So Def/Jive label, The Point Of It All, is the rare, modern, corporate release that highlights the work of an adult African American male singer, singing about a less than perfect world that is largely without glamour, and aimed at an audience that understands. He is an artist perfect for a world in need of a stimulus bill.

Hamilton uses his considerable vocal ability to communicate vulnerability, longing, and joy. He doesn’t have the song writing craft of Raphael Saadiq, the eccentric bohemian world view of D’Angelo, nor the freaky sensuality of Maxwell. He’s just a guy using his gift in an attempt to transcend his limitations. What he lacks in some areas he makes up for in soulfulness.

References to greats that have cleared his path for him abound. Echoes of the work of Sly, Graham, The Isleys, and Curtis Mayfield can be heard throughout. Influences from his time spent at labels that had the intention of competing squarely with hip hop can be heard as well. Standout tracks include: It’s Hard To Breathe, Diamond In The Rough, The Point Of It All, and the pentecostal rave, Prayin For You. If indeed this project is “The Point Of It All” than his struggle was time well spent.

to be continued…..

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