Although he invented the instrument that bears his name, Leon Theremin was by no means the only theremin virtuoso. In this episode of NOTES, we take a look at some of the other great theremin players, including Theremin’s own pupil, Clara Rockmore, and the podiatrist-turned-thereminist, Dr. Samuel Hoffman.
Hal Blaine once said: “Drummers are show-offs.”
So who is Hal Blaine, and why should you care what he thinks about drummers? You’ll find the answer in tens of thousands of recorded songs, including over a hundred Top Ten hits. Hal Blaine is, to put it bluntly, the greatest drummer of the rock era.
I got to thinking about Blaine again recently when my friend Miranda wrote on Facebook: “Who is the best rock drummer of all time?”
Miranda herself declared that mantle belonged to Neal Peart, whose athletic, jazz-inflected drumming has underpinned the hard rock of Rush since exactly 36 years ago yesterday.
Some of Miranda’s friends agreed, but others named Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Keith Moon of the Who, Josh Freese of Weezer and Devo, Alex Van Halen of the band which bears his name, and others. One friend nominated Animal from the Muppets.
But me, I’m going with Hal Blaine. All those other drummers are fine musicians, rock royalty, legends in their field.
But Hal Blaine is the man who has provided the very heartbeat of rock n’ roll.
Blaine was born Harold Belsky 81 years ago in Holyoke, Massachusetts, but he moved with his parents to Hartford, Connecticut when he was still very young. His family was musical and two of his relatives were drummers, so it probably surprised no one when, as a child, he crafted a pair of drumsticks from some dowels stolen from the backrest of one of his family’s living room chairs. On his 13th birthday, his sister gave him his first real drum kit, a cheap affair which he would set up on the front porch of the building his family lived in and bash on continuously. In high school, he formed his first bands, but his career really skyrocketed when, as a young man, he returned from a stint with the Army in Korea and studied music in Chicago before landing in L.A. in 1951.
After doing time as part of Tommy Sands’ orchestra, Blaine began to land sessions work. Eventually, he and a loose-knit confederation of young players became known as the “Wrecking Crew.” When rock n’ roll hit big, the Wrecking Crew became the go-to guys for nearly every producer and studio in southern California. Soon, Blaine was making big money playing three to seven sessions daily.
The list of songs that featured Blaine reads like a pop litany: “California Girls,” “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” — in fact, an incomplete list of Blaine’s hits on Wikipedia currently stands at 102 songs! That’s Blaine playing the iconic “on the four” bass-and-snare part which opens and anchors the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” That’s Blaine all over the classic “Pet Sounds” album by the Beach Boys. And that’s Blaine banging on his own tire chains on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Although Blaine was as technically proficient a drummer as any, part of what made him great was he knew when to add a lot, and when to go minimal — a characteristic which distinguishes him from some of the flashier percussionists listed above. Drummers may be show-offs, as Blaine himself said, but the Greatest One Ever knew when to hang back and let the song shine.
In this episode of NOTES, we learn how the inventing prowess of a man once lauded as a hero of Russia’s Communist revolution caused him to wind up doing hard time in a Siberian gulag… and how that same engineering genius brought about his eventual release.
For more on Leon Theremin, see “The Astonishing Theremin.”
Time makes fools of us all.
Plato had it right — we are all trying to make sense of the reflections from outside which flicker on our cave’s walls, unable to comprehend that the years we march from womb to grave are but an infinitesimal sliver of history.
According to modern science, a man who lives to be a hundred has existed for only approximately .000000007 of the time since the Big Bang. During his century of shuffling upon this mortal coil, any conclusions our hypothetical centenarian may have arrived at regarding the way the world operates will be (at best) highly provisional, and subject to the fallacies born of short term observation. If an Arizona mayfly spends his day-long lifespan being rained upon, might he not conclude that his was a world of continuous precipitation?
Recently, I have heard people my age claim the music of our youth will never be forgotten. They are certain their children’s grandchildren will still be listening to the Beatles. (Or Led Zeppelin. Or Bob Dylan. Or the Grateful Dead.)
I think these folks are mayflies.
Consider: To a 13-year-old Craven Lovelace IV in 2052, the Beatles’ best-known recordings will be nearly 90 years old, recorded on ancient technology, and full of cultural allusions which already require a history class to fully explicate. (What was the U.S.S.R.? Where can you find Albert Hall? Who was Chairman Mao? What was a lonely hearts club?)
The odd youngster 40 years hence who is listening to the Beatles will be equivalent to a long-haired 1970s kid searching out wax cylinder recordings of Sousa marches. I’m not saying such iconoclasts didn’t exist among the millions buying HOUSES OF THE HOLY and FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE, but trust me — they were rare.
My boomer friends who maintain that the music of the Beatles will never die are certain the music they grew up with is intrinsically better than all the music that has come along subsequently. Their evidence is the monolithic audience the rock acts of the ‘60s and ‘70s amassed, compared to the smaller fanbases of genres which followed. But that fact likely stems more from historical vagary than from musical superiority.
The Beatles and their peers burst upon the zeitgeist at a time when media had not become fractured. Radio formats had yet to be invented. Television existed in three flavors only: CBS, NBC and ABC. When the Beatles played the ED SULLIVAN SHOW, it snagged millions of eyeballs, not because the Fab Four was the quintessence of musical excellence, but because there was practically nowhere else to turn.
And so I predict your kids’ kids’ kids will be listening to something not yet recorded by someone not yet born. It will be a kind of music that their parents — and probably you, if you’re not molding in your grave — will disdain and abhor. When you hear it, it will make you feel like the world has changed in ways you never expected or desired. It will bear no more relationship to the music of the Beatles than did their songs resemble the hits of 1875.
But it will have a good beat and you can dance to it.
In this episode of NOTES, the first of a two-part look back at the truly flabbergasting life story of Leon Theremin, we examine the meteoric rise of a humble inventor who became a favorite of Lenin and the toast of New York’s intelligentsia… before his world crumbled below his feet.
For more on Leon Theremin, see “The Astonishing Theremin.”
When Neil Diamond sang about “a beautiful noise” in 1976, he probably didn’t have My Bloody Valentine in mind.
How could he? The band that goes by that name had not yet come together in Dublin. Heck, the slasher movie from which the band took its name was still five years away from being filmed. Anyway, Neil might not have considered the strange combination of atonality and melody that has come to be known as “noise pop” to be beautiful — but plenty of other folks have. Noise pop, which some dismissed as a passing fad in the 1980s, has proven to have legs.
So what, exactly, is noise pop? The term has been used to describe many different groups over the years. Bands as diverse as harmonic punk rockers Husker Du and the lysergic experimentalists known as Animal Collective have had their music characterized as noise pop. But for many music lovers, noise pop means the genre in which traditional pop notions of melody and harmony are augmented by generous doses of feedback and reverb to create a “wall of sound” like Phil Spector never imagined.
Although it has its precedents in bands like the Velvet Underground, noise pop, so defined, had its true beginning in 1985, when a pair of often bickering brothers combined their love of old Shangri-Las records and the buzzsaw attack of the Ramones to create the Jesus and Mary Chain. Jim and William Reid’s debut album as the J&MC, PSYCHOCANDY, blew the speakers and the minds of a generation of alternative rockers, and paved the way for subsequent bands like the forementioned My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo and Pale Saints.
Eventually, the noise pop of the ‘80s begat the shoegaze scene of the early ‘90s, when acts like Ride, Lush and Chapterhouse dominated the alternative charts, until the grunge movement in the U.S. and the Britpop scene in the U.K. temporarily snuffed the noise pop flame. But re-ignition came in the 2000s, when post-millennial groups like the Horrors, Crocodiles and especially the Raveonettes ushered in a new golden age of noise pop. The latter duo made explicit the link between noise pop and the girl groups of the early 1960s, by covering songs like “My Boyfriend’s Back,” and getting one of that song’s writers, Richard Gottehrer, to produce their second album.
Nowadays, bands like Best Coast, Yuck, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and the late, lamented Dum Dum Girls have continued to kick up a gorgeous racket, leaving little doubt that noise pop is here to stay.
“The Signifying Monkey” is one of the most popular songs in the history of rock and the blues… but it originated centuries ago in ancient Africa! Learn about the cultural impact when lion… elephant… and one jive-talking primate come together… in this episode of NOTES.
The photo above is by James Fischer and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.
When the spiky-coiffed, slightly grizzled and diminutive man took the stage of Staples Center in Los Angeles in January, 2014 to accept the “Best Album” Grammy with Daft Punk, a lot of young fans probably wondered: Who was that leprechaun-looking fellow doing the talking for the French robotic duo?
The answer, of course, is Paul Williams, who nabbed his first Grammy nomination (for “Rainy Days and Mondays”) 34 years earlier, a good four years before either member of Daft Punk was even born. When Williams collaborated with Daft Punk on two songs (“Touch” and “Beyond”) from their best-selling RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES last year, he became the only songwriter to have written for Daft Punk and the Monkees (“Someday Man”), Scissor Sisters (“Almost Sorry”) and Streisand (“Evergreen”), Three Dog Night (“Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song”) and the Muppets (“Rainbow Connection”). In a career that has included numerous acting roles — besides his best-known roles as Swan in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and Little Enos Burdette in SMOKY AND THE BANDIT, Williams has also played the Penguin and an ape engaged in the BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES — the man born Paul Hamilton Williams, Jr. in Bennington, Nebraska has had one of those Zelig-like careers, photo-bombing his way through musical history like nobody else.
You could be forgiven for thinking Williams’ turn on RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES was a bit of a comeback for the 73-year-old songwriter, but the truth is Williams has been more than elbow-deep in the musical industry for the past several years. As a board member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (better known by its acronym: ASCAP) since 2001, and its president since 2009, Williams has advocated for songwriters for well over a decade now.
Williams made news in May, 2014, when he penned an editorial for ROLL CALL, the congressional blog, about ASCAP’s intentions to revamp the laws which govern songwriting royalties. The last time these laws were addressed by Congress was in 2001, before the Apple iPod was invented. Since that time, the music industry has morphed in ways few could have predicted. As a result, it is sadly not uncommon now for music labels and recording artists to make as much as 12 or 14 times the amount a songwriter makes on the same streaming song on Spotify or Pandora.
To help counter the winds against the songwriter Williams and his ASCAP cohorts announced an initiative called “MAP,” which stands for “Music Advocacy Project.” As part of that initiative, Williams traveled to Washington, D.C. last year with other great songwriters like Jimmy Webb and Randy Newman, to meet with lawmakers about ways current licensing laws could be changed to be more equitable to songwriters.
Only time will tell if their efforts will come to fruit, although the ASCAP-approved Songwriter Equity Act of 2015, a (nowadays rare) House Resolution with wide bipartisan support, now sits in committee. But something needs to be done; as the author of “Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song” knows only too well, modern love songs just don’t pay like the old-fashioned ones used to.
There has never been and never will be another man like the late Rudy Ray Moore. As a singer… comedian… actor… and producer… Rudy Ray Moore left an indelible mark on the world of popular culture — and primed the pump for the hip hop acts to come. Find out more about the Human Tornado in this episode of NOTES, recorded before Moore’s passing in October, 2008.
There are many important songs in the history of American popular music, but W.C. Handy’s “The St. Louis Blues” has to be near the pinnacle of the pantheon. Here are five reasons why “The St. Louis Blues” changed America forever:
- It made the blues respectable. Handy wasn’t the first musician to publish blues songs, but he’s known today as “the Father of the Blues” because his hits transformed what had been an informal, regional, ethnically specific genre into the basis for all of the American pop music which would follow over the next century. Before the 1914 publication of “The St. Louis Blues,” the blues was considered a novelty. But within a decade, the blues had transformed from being an exotic amusement to the backbone of almost all future American musical invention. It can be argued that without “The St. Louis Blues,” there would be no rock n’ roll, no soul music, no hip-hop. And genres like jazz, cabaret and even gospel would be pallid, bloodless versions of what we have come to expect.
- It changed the way musicians did business. “The St. Louis Blues” came two years after Handy had sold the rights to his first hit, “The Memphis Blues,” to publisher Theron Bennett for $100, and then watched in dismay as the song became a huge money-maker. As a result, Handy determined to never sell his copyrights again. And that proved to be a wise choice — by the time he passed away in 1958, Handy was still making $25,000 a year from “The St. Louis Blues” royalties. (In 1958, $25k had the buying power of more than $200-thousand today.) Handy turned his songs into a fortune by creating his own publishing company, and became a model for subsequent generations of songwriters and performers.
- It cemented stardom for Bessie Smith. Whereas white singer Marion Harris was the first to score a hit with “The St. Louis Blues,” the version recorded by Bessie Smith in 1925 is widely considered to be the definitive interpretation of the song. By then, Smith was already on the music industry’s radar thanks to best-selling “race records,” but her version of “The St. Louis Blues” (replete with subtly beautiful cornet accompaniment by Louis Armstrong) caused her star to skyrocket. Four years later, Smith appeared in her only film: “The St. Louis Blues,” in which she sang the song that gave the film its title and provided her the mantle of “Queen of the Blues.”
- It expanded the blues’ musical palette. One reason ”The St. Louis Blues” turned heads in 1914 was that Handy combined the so-called 12-bar blues with a tango. In both his personal dealings and his work as a musician, Handy was a bridge-builder, and by merging the blues with a then-popular dance rhythm, he drafted the blueprint for much of the experimentation which would turn American music into the world’s most creative hotbed for the next century.
- It forever changed the role of African-Americans in popular culture. In treating the African-American experience respectfully and sympathetically, “The St. Louis Blues” set a standard that could not be rolled back thereafter. Permanently vanquished were the “coon songs” of yore. Blacks were finally treated as people, not mascots, and some historians see “The St. Louis Blues” as a bellwether moment, the butterfly-wing flutter which would grow into the juggernaut of the Civil Rights movement a half-century later.
When Philadelphia’s “gentle Don,” Angelo Bruno, wanted to make his daughter’s wedding special, he called his old buddy, Sam Giancana… who, in turn, told Frank, Dean and Sammy to be there, capish? Learn how, when Sam said, “Jump!” the Rat Pack asked, “How high?” in this episode of NOTES.
It’s one of the most famous three minutes and 48 seconds in rock n’ roll. And its story is marked by theft, madness, domestic violence — and murder.
When Derek and the Dominos’ LAYLA AND OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS hit record store shelves in November, 1970, it was widely anticipated by the fans of two guitar legends: Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. Clapton had been a star in his native U.K. since his 1963-’65 stint in the Yardbirds, after which he had, in just a few years, done time in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers… spent a couple years (and become a rock star in the U.S.) as the guitarist in Cream… cut an album with Blind Faith; toured with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends… and recorded his first solo album. In 1970, believing he would be more comfortable as a member of an ensemble rather than a headlining “star,” Clapton decided to form a new band with some of the musicians in Delaney and Bonnie and Friends as well as former Stax sideman, Bobby Whitlock. They joined together with Clapton’s old friend Carl Radle on bass and Wrecking Crew drummer Jim Gordon to form the band that would be known as Derek and the Dominos.
Duane Allman was the last to the party. After recording the first sessions for the new album, producer Tom Dowd took Clapton to an Allman Brothers concert. After the show, Clapton invited Allman back to the studio to jam. By the time their partnership had ended, Allman had contributed slide guitar to 11 of the 14 songs on LAYLA AND OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS.
The album spawned a couple of hits. But by far, its best-known song is the title track, which Clapton wrote to express his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the model wife of Beatles guitarist George Harrison. A searing guitar riff and Clapton’s tortured vocals would have made “Layla” memorable no matter what. But sealing the deal was a nearly four-minute piano coda of such sheer loveliness that “Layla” was recognized almost immediately as a new classic.
The coda was credited to drummer Jim Gordon, who played the main piano part while Allman contributed the (slightly off-key) slide guitar. But years later, it was revealed that Gordon had stolen the melody of the “Layla” coda from his ex-girlfriend, singer Rita Coolidge. Coolidge (who was living with Gordon in early 1970 but who left him after he gave her a black eye in the hallway of New York’s Warwick Hotel) had written the music for a song called “Time,” and knew Gordon had stolen her melody but, afraid of his temper, decided to shine it on.
Gordon continued to work steadily after the Derek and the Dominos sessions. (You can hear his work on Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” among others). But years of cycling between heroin, cocaine and alcohol had taken a grim toll on the talented musician. Through the 1970s, Gordon wrestled with acute schizophrenia. He was paranoid. He heard voices. He became convinced his mother was evil, and had killed Karen Carpenter and comedian Paul Lynde. Finally, in 1983, he murdered his own mother, bludgeoning her with a hammer before stabbing her with a butcher knife. Jim Gordon, the man whose piano-playing on the “Layla” coda has brought grown men to tears, is now in his 32nd year in prison in Vacaville, California, where he is expected to spend the rest of his life.
There wasn’t much Frank wouldn’t do for his old friend, Sam. So why did Sam eventually want to put a bullet in Frank? In this episode of NOTES, we explore the unhealthy friendship of singer/actor Frank Sinatra and mob boss Sam Giancana.
For more on the relationship of Frank Sinatra and Sam Giancana, see “With Friends Like That…”
For more on the music of Frank Sinatra, see “The Concept Albums of Frank Sinatra”
Last week, we learned that America’s appetite for god-awful racket makers goes back more than a hundred years, to acts like the Cherry Sisters and Florence Foster Jenkins. But after the Cherrys retired and Florence died, there were other women ready assume the mantle of most successful, worst singer in the world.
Some of these acts were parodies. Take Darlene Edwards, for instance, who caterwauled while her pianist husband, Jonathan Edwards (a man with two right hands, if the cover of the duo’s GREATEST HITS package is to be trusted) accompanied her on songs like “I Love Paris” starting in 1957. In actuality, Darlene’s off-kilter (and off-key) singing was performed by the musically gifted Jo Stafford, a pop singer who had scored hits like “The Trolley Song,” “Candy” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” in the 1940s. And Jonathan Edwards was actually Stafford’s real-life husband, the very gifted Paul Weston. Stafford and Weston won a Best Comedy Album Grammy in 1961 in their guise as the Edwards (tying with the classic THE BUTTON DOWN MIND OF BOB NEWHART that year).
In 1957, at almost the same time the Edwards were winning by failing, a 72-year-old woman with operatic dreams released one of the true classics in the genre of horrible singing. MUSIC TO SUFFER BY was Leona Anderson’s only album, but it launched a ten-year career that found her billed as “the World’s Most Horrible Singer.” In addition to butchering standards like “Carmen,” Leona also assayed originals like “Rats in My Room” and “Fish.” (The latter included a young Bil Baird playing tuba, some years before he would find fame as a world-class puppeteer. If you remember “The Lonely Goatherd” puppet sequence in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, that was Bil Baird’s work.) Anderson had been working at the fringes of show business since she was a young woman. Her brother was the famous movie cowboy, “Bronco Billy” Anderson, and Leona herself appeared in silent films during the 1920s. Her last film role came in William Castle’s camp classic, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, a year after the release of MUSIC TO SUFFER BY.
Probably the most famous terrible singer of all time emerged during the following decade. In April, 1966, Mrs. Ela Ruby Connes Miller released her first album, MRS. MILLER’S GREATEST HITS, on the Capitol label. The album was a hodge-podge of current pop hits like “Downtown,” sung in a high-pitched, warbling voice that, while never rising to the level of good, was certainly unforgettable. Within a year-and-a-half, the album had sold over a quarter-million copies and Mrs. Miller had become a sought-after guest on television shows like THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, LAUGH-IN and THE TONIGHT SHOW. In 1967, she appeared in the motion picture, THE COOL ONES, opposite Roddy McDowall and Phil Harris.
It was never entirely clear if Mrs. Miller understood the kitschy appeal of her singing. But when she recorded her 1968 album, MRS. MILLER DOES HER THING (produced by future Republican lieutenant governor of California, Mike Curb), with song titles like “Mary Jane,” “The Roach” and “Renaissance of Smut,” it is clear that she didn’t recognize the double entendres present throughout the album. Reportedly, when the drug references were explained to her later, she was outraged. She self-released two “straight” singles in the early 1970s, and then retired until her death in 1996.
His music has enhanced films of every genre… and even video games! Discover more about the amazing Ennio Morricone… and especially his aural contribution to Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST… in this installment of NOTES.
One of the oddest trends in popular music — and one of the longest lasting — has been the American penchant for women who sing very, very badly. You think you know what I mean by “very badly,” but no — worse than that. Worse than Jessica Simpson. Worse than Paris Hilton. We’re talking women for whom the word “caterwauling” might well have been invented. Women whose tonsils, could they be smelled, would lead you to think something crawled under the house to die. Yet weirdly, these women have found large, eager audiences for over a hundred years.
Take, for example, the Cherry Sisters, who rose to prominence in the late 1890s. These four dour sisters rose from performing at local school presentations in their native Linn County, near Cedar Rapids, Iowa to long runs on the big-time circuit of vaudeville, eventually playing in Oscar Hammerstein’s opulent Broadway “palace,” the Olympia Theatre. The Cherrys did a sold-out, six-week run at the Olympia, saving Hammerstein from bankruptcy and establishing the venue as one of New York’s most important vaudeville houses. And they managed to accomplish this with nary a whiff of talent or craftsmanship. At many of the theaters where the Cherry Sisters played, so awful was their performance that they were met with what one newspaper called “vegetable applause” — fusillades of tomatoes and rotten fruit sent hurtling by aggrieved vaudeville patrons. At first, the sisters didn’t take kindly to this form of criticism. The eldest, Effie, would sometimes come onstage brandishing a shotgun, and in more than one city, the local law was forced to intervene during their performances for fear that someone would get hurt. But being incredibly bad proved to be better than being merely competent, and the Cherrys parlayed their lack of musical skills into a long career, until the death of youngest sister Jessie put an end to their act in 1903.
It was nine years later that Florence Foster Jenkins launched her musical career. Jenkins was the daughter of a wealthy attorney from Pennsylvania who lavished his daughter with musical lessons when she was a child, but who refused to bankroll Florence’s ardently coveted career as an opera singer when the young woman came of age. And who can blame him? For, having heard young Florence sing, he probably recognized she was as tone deaf and rhythmically insensitive as a fence post. But whatever Florence lacked in talent, she more than compensated for in sheer passion to perform. When her father passed away in 1909, leaving her a sizable inheritance, she founded the Verdi Club in New York City, where she proceeded to star in numerous musical recitals, often bedecked in ridiculously ornate costumes of tinsel and bangles. Soon, like the Cherry Sisters before her, she became popular for her very lack of vocal ability. That popularity continued to grow until she played a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall, just a month before she died.
We’ll look back at other remarkably successful and remarkably awful singers next week. Until then, take a lesson from the Cherry Sisters and Florence Foster Jenkins and remember: It is better to sing poorly than to never sing at all.
Jackie Chan is well-known the world over for his work as a film action hero. But few in the west are aware of his status as a musical pop star. Learn more about singer Jackie Chan in this episode of NOTES.
To some, the study of popular music may seem the very model of a trivial pursuit.
After all, BILLBOARD‘s charts are often littered with flash-in-the-pan fashion fads and jejune novelties. In the pop domain, art can be eclipsed by P.R. and talent can be trumped by spin. For every Beatles there is a Pipkins, for every U2 a Right Said Fred, for every Michael Franti a Kevin Federline. It is a world where the forgettable and insubstantial frequently elbow their way to the front of the V.I.P. line, a world where the A-list is all too commonly dominated by the Z-grade.
Nevertheless, there is much to be learned about our nation in the study of popular song. Sometimes, like the shadows on Plato’s cavern wall, the hits of the day reflect the history and zeitgeist of the universe which spawned them.
Submitted for your consideration is the old baptismal hymn, “Wade in the Water” — a song that has been covered by literally hundreds of artists and which has crossed effortlessly from its gospel origin into the genres of rock, soul, jazz and easy listening.
For a song that is more than 150 years old, “Wade in the Water” has proven remarkably spry. In 1966, it was a hit for jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. It has been dressed in blues by Big Mama Thornton and Dr. John… funkified by Billy Preston and Booker T. & the MGs… and folked up by Bob Dylan and Odetta.
As with other American negro spirituals (like “The Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), “Wade in the Water” had a dual meaning for the slaves who sang it in the mid-19th century. Although it served as an accompaniment to baptism, the song’s lyrics were also codified instructions for black runaways seeking freedom via the so-called “Underground Railroad.” Until 1850, slaves fleeing the plantations of the south could find independence just north of the Mason-Dixon line. Gospel songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” reminded the runaways to steer north using the Big Dipper (the titular “Drinking Gourd”), while “Wade in the Water” exhorted them to evade the pursuing bloodhounds by running by night through streams and rivers.
Even the biblical locales mentioned in the song were encrypted references to specific checkpoints along the Railroad. For instance, in the song’s third lyric:
Jordan’s water is chilly and cold.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
It chills the body, but not the soul.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
Jordan represents the Ohio River, which slaves would cross on their way to one of southern Ohio’s several African-American settlements or further north to Canada.
It’s possible that some who sing “Wade in the Water” today are unaware of its Underground Railroad roots. Many have enjoyed the song for its spiritual message, timeless melody and rhythmic possibilities. But like other popular American hits, it also tells an important story about a part of our national history that must not be forgotten.
Here’s a thought: How about I hum today’s post?
Okay, I acknowledge that probably wouldn’t work very well in blog form. But sometimes, in the strange world of pop music, wordless singing is just what the doctor ordered.
There are many kinds of wordless singing we could talk about nowadays, ranging from humming to scat-singing to beatboxing, and beyond. But when the phrase “wordless vocals” is used to describe a song, it is generally distinguished from improvisatory techniques like scat or percussive techniques like beatboxing to signify the use of the voice as a melody instrument — er, without words, that is.
Probably the most famous example of wordless vocals in a rock song is British singer Clare Torry’s anguished (but melodic!) wail on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” from DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. Torry was paid 30 pounds for coming into Abbey Road Studios on a Sunday and improvising a vocal part over a chord sequence written by Pink Floyd’s keyboardist, Richard Wright. In 2005, Torry sued Pink Floyd for a share of the songwriting royalties on “Great Gig” and eventually settled out-of-court for an unspecified financial payment and a co-writer’s credit on all subsequent releases of DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. She also performed similar wordless vocal duties 11 years later on the Culture Club’s pacifistic ditty, “The War Song.”
But when Torry laid down her tracks for Pink Floyd in 1973, there had already been a long tradition of wordless vocals in rock and jazz. One of the earliest recordings to utilize the singing style was Duke Ellington’s 1928 single on the Victor label, “Creole Love Call,” which featured Brooklyn-born song thrush Adelaide Hall crooning exotically over Ellington’s torchy melody.
Wordless vocals were very popular during the lounge era. Juan Garcia Esquivel’s stereo masterpieces were liberally dosed with finely harmonized “oohs,” “ahhs” and “zu-zu-zus” provided by the Randy Van Horne Singers. Les Baxter frequently spiced his records with wordless vocals from the likes of Beverly Ford or the bordering-on-the-outlandish Bas Sheva.
And many a television and film soundtrack has been enhanced by memorable wordless vocals. Burt Bacharach used the technique on the track, “South American Getaway,” from his award-winning score to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. Bacharach turned to the Ron Hicklin Singers to perform the wordless vocals for that song, just a couple years after they sang on the television themes to BATMAN and FLIPPER, and only months before they would sing all the background vocals on the songs of the Partridge Family.
Meanwhile, Italian singer Edda Dell’Ors made memorable wordless contributions to Ennio Morricone’s scores for Sergio Leone films like ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and DUCK, YOU SUCKER. And sessions singer Loulie Jean Norman provided one of the most famous examples of wordless vocals of all time when she warbled the classic theme to STAR TREK.
Singers like Torre, Dell’Ors and Norman are unknown to most people, although their work has been heard — and loved — by millions. Their songs may have been wordless, but it is long past time their names be sung.