While my wife and I were busy being lousy counselors at a big Baptist retreat on Green Lake, Wisconsin, two of the most important musical celebrations of that era were exploding in the state of New York: the much-heralded rock extravaganza in upstate Woodstock and the lesser-known Harlem Cultural Festival over six weekends 100 miles south in Harlem's Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). We've all seen the popular films and heard the live albums chronicling Woodstock, but the Harlem event has been all but forgotten, its film by Hal Tulchin stored safely away with no commercial takers--until now!
First-time director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson has somehow taken the many hours of Tulchin's films and turned them into what will surely become the documentary star of the summer of 2021, if not the entire year: "Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)." Now in theaters and streaming on Hulu, see it at the biggest theater you can find, so you can not only enjoy the ecstatic sounds of some of the best soul, R&B, jazz, and gospel music of the time, at the decibel level it deserves, but also so you can again experience the live community of theater-goers and music-lovers that we have been sorely missing for the past fifteen months.
Exit the theater and listen to everyone exclaiming about their favorite parts of this extraordinary film. Mine were Mississippi's Chambers Brothers who I saw at Fillmore East sometime around 1970. A very young and vibrant Gladys Knight & the Pips, who I caught some years later at more advanced ages in Reno and Myrtle Beach. Nineteen year-old Stevie Wonder pounding out exuberant drum and organ solos. And Sly and the Family Stone doing what they so joyfully do and in the process truly stealing the show.
So many others: B.B. King, the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, David Ruffin, Abbey Lincoln, the 5th Dimension, Nina Simone, and on and on.
So do yourself a favor. If you want to smile again--after what we've all been through--vaccinate up and go see "Summer of Soul!" You owe it to yourself.
Back on August 9, 2003, on a steamy Delta Saturday night, the Bob Margolin Blues Allstars closed out the Sunflower Blues & Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The band featured an elite combo of former Muddy Waters band members: Margolin (guitar and vocals), Hubert Sumlin (guitar), Carey Bell (harmonica), Willie "Big Eyes" Smith (drums), and Pinetop Perkins (piano).
As the band gathered on the stage for the festival finale, the piano bench remained conspicuously empty.
"Where's Pinetop?" echoed over the sound system.
And there, in front of the stage, standing next to me in his patented black flannel suit stood the 90 year-old virtuoso, slowly sipping the bottle of water I had just brought him.
"Pinetop," I said, "you're on."
"Really?" he said, surveying the stage.
"Let's go," I said and led him up onto the stage and the waiting keyboard.
Then...drowning out the hum of the cicadas and the applause of the audience, all-out blues nirvana broke out!
There's not much good I can say about the COVID-19 Pandemic, except for one: I had a chance to catch up on a lot of streaming videos that I had missed, but wanted to see.
And one of the best was a fine music documentary entitled "Streetlight Harmonies" about Doo-Wop music. Directed and co-written by Brent Wilson, the film recounts the history of the genre from its origins in African-American gospel music to "the streets to the subways to the hallways" all over urban American, as Jerome Anthony Gourdine, the lead singer of Little Anthony and the Imperials ("Tears on my Pillow"), says in one of 45 interviews captured in the 83-minute film.
But it's not just talking heads, as the interviews are interspersed with rare archival footage of concerts, civil rights protests, and other informative and entertaining commentary.
Altogether, "Streetlight Harmonies" presents a joyful noise of the soundtrack of much of my generation's lives and loves.
My first Doo-Wop memory was of sitting in the dark Trail Theater in little Olathe, Kansas, and watching transfixed over and over, at least three times, the 1956 movie "Rock, Rock, Rock, with the Moonglows ("Ten Commandments of Love"), the Flamingos ("I Only Have Eyes for You"), and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers ("Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"), not to mention LaVern Baker and Chuck Berry.
Fast forward to 1965 when the Drifters ("This Magic Moment") played an all-night Kansas University frat party in Lawrence.
Later, around 2015, my daughter Emily and I caught Martha and the Vadnellas ("Dancing in the Streets") at B.B. Kings in New York City.
Then, one night, in 2019, after a canoe trip in southern Mississippi, my son Sam and I went to a Charmaine Neville show at the Snug Harbor Jazz Club in New Orleans and were surprised when Charmaine invited one of New Orleans' Dixie Cups to join her and the mainly older tourist audience in a choir-like chorus of "Chapel of Love"..."Going to the Chapel and we're going to get married..."
So it goes: Fantastic music, fantastic film! Be prepared to sing along.
Pre-Father's Day Book Signing
This Saturday, June 19, 2021
Harrison Brothers Hardware
The Blues Foundation held its 42nd annual Blues Music Awards program this past Sunday, virtually as it was done last year, because of the continuing pandemic.
It seems as though it was another case of "round up the usual suspects," as veteran blues performers, garnered most of the hardware: Shemekia Copeland, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Walter Trout, Bobby Rush, Mike Zito, Robert Cray, Keb' Mo', Bettye LaVette, Curtis Salgado, Rory Block, Ruthie Foster, and others. Not that these well-weathered stars don't deserve the accolades, because they surely do.
But it's also good to hear the new, young artists who carry on the blues tradition, while bringing a pleasing freshness and originality to the genre. Folks like Clarksdale phenom Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, who won awards both last year and this year and Emerging Artist Album of the Year ("Harlem") vocalist and guitarist King Solomon Hicks, both authentic talents who have great presence and bright futures as blues stars and influencers for many years to come. Welcome!
Back in 2008, when I was beginning to research Soul of the Man: Bobby "Blue" Bland, I spent an intriguing and insightful day with Wolf Stephenson and Tommy Couch Sr. at Malaco Records in Jackson, Mississippi, where they, along with Mitchell Malouf, three Old Miss frat brothers, had founded the company in 1967.
Wolf was particularly generous with his time and reminiscences of the company's beginnings, ups and downs, and all-arounds. From the early years, when both Couch and Stephenson were still working part-time as pharmacists and recording whoever, whatever they could to make ends meet, to the first big hits by King Floyd ("Groove Me") and Jean Knight ("Mr. Big Stuff"), to Dorothy Moore's two-million copy megahit "Misty Blue," through some lean disco years, until Texas bluesman Z.Z. Hill surprisingly hit it big with his "Down Home Blues, a throwback to earlier soul and blues music that most in the business thought was long since dead.
From there, their course was set for the next several years to come, as Malaco, with the expert advice of veteran promo director Dave Clark, signed the great soul-blues artists that no other record company wanted: Latimore, Denise LaSalle, Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor, and, of course, Bobby Blue Bland.
As I was leaving from that first visit, Wolf gave me a brief tour of the warehouse and pulled off the shelf and handed me a big box CD set of Malaco hits that had been packaged for Malaco's 30-year anniversary in 1999. Included in the box was a 44,500-word, 108-page booklet by Grammy Award Winning Author Rob Bowman (author of tons of liner notes and Soulville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records). Now, at Malaco's 50th anniversary, Bowman has expanded the booklet to include a bunch more photos from Malaco's archives, as well as how, with the passing of most of the old blues artists, Malaco transitioned to becoming the world's largest gospel music producer and to providing today samples for a myriad of modern rappers and hip-hop artists everywhere.
So somehow, through it all, with some luck, lots of hard work, and plenty of perseverance, Malaco Records has outlasted all the other once-successful independent record labels--Motown, Atlantic, Stax, Chess, et al.--to become, with Tommy Couch Jr. now at the helm, the oldest and still flourishing independent record company...by focusing, in different ways over the years, on one thing: recording great Black music primarily for a Black audience.
I'm a couple of months late, but I do want to give a belated shout-out to blues great Bobby Rush who won his second Grammy on March 14 for "Rawer Than Raw," the Best Traditional Blues Album of 2020.
The 87 year-old bluesman wrote about half the songs for the album, while adding his own unique interpretations of a few old standards by Skip James ("Hard Times"), Howlin' Wolf ("Smokestack Lightning"), Willie Dixon ("Shake It For Me"), Sonny Boy Williamson ("Don't Start Me Talkin"), and Robert Johnson ("Dust My Broom"). It's a fun package that the veteran singer delivers with award-winning panache!
Sam and Jacob Farley, adhering to the time-honored Fenway Park tradition, signing Pesky Pole.
Last year, my April 1, 2020 blog listed my all-time favorite baseball movies, but, thanks to the magic of Netflix, I have to add another one: the 2014 documentary "The Battered Bastards of Baseball," that I enjoyed the other night after having watched the first place Red Sox pummel the Tigers at Fenway Park last week and, a few days later, the Rocket City Trash Pandas (Single A Affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels) thrash the Tennessee Smokies 12-8 in a 13-inning slugfest that included not one, but two grand slam homeruns by the home team at their new digs at Toyota Field in Madison, Alabama:
Almost as uplifting as "The Battered Bastards of Baseball," an inspiring film about the 1973-1977 Portland Mavericks, an independent minor league team in the Class A--Short Season Northwest League. Founded and owned by the bit actor and lifelong baseball enthusiast Bing Russell (best known for his 13-year role as Deputy Clem on "Bonanza"), the Mavericks held open tryouts that resulted in a team of motley misfits, retreads, and ragtag rejects, including local bar owner Frank "Flash" Peters as team manager, Bing's own son Kurt (of famous actor fame) as V-P and designated hitter, and ex-Yankee pariah Jim Bouton, who, together with a colorful cast of cast-offs, ended up becoming one of the best teams in the minor leagues, beating major league affiliated teams with million dollar bonus babies and former college stars, while packing the Portland ballpark and creating one of the coolest, underdog rags to riches stories in baseball history.
If you care about baseball or just true tales of the little guys besting the big boys, you gotta check this out.
Charles Farley is an author who lives and writes in Huntsville, Alabama.