Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul, by Mark Ribowsky

maxresdefault Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler called him “the single most extraordinary talent I had ever seen.” Impresario Bill Graham felt his concert at the San Francisco Fillmore was “the best gig I ever put on in my entire life.” His performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival made the Rolling Stones’s Brian Jones cry. Janis Joplin was characteristically blunt: “Otis is God.”

One of America’s greatest performers, Otis Redding enjoyed less than a decade of fame before dying in a plane crash in 1967 at age 26. Just days earlier he recorded the song that would become his biggest hit: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the sixth most-played song in the 20th century.

Redding’s death was tragic, but his life was not. This is the central challenge for biographer Mark Ribowsky in “Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul.” Redding was a gifted, hard working songwriter and singer — he was a pro. At age 15 he won his hometown of Macon, Ga.’s citywide talent show 15 weeks straight. From then on, the force of his talent provided a fairly unimpeded path to stardom.

Compared to the lives of some of his peers, such as Etta James, Wilson Pickett, and Marvin Gaye, Redding’s life was uneventful. He wasn’t a drug addict or alcoholic, nor was he emotionally tortured, although Ribowsky does wring some drama out of his relationship with his father, a man of strict religious beliefs who initially discouraged his son from a life of show business but eventually became his champion. Every few chapters we get a glimpse of Redding’s early idol, fellow Macon native Little Richard, who scandalized the public with his bisexuality, drug use, and freaky charisma, and think: Wow, remind me to pick up his biography next time.

Ribowsky thus makes the wise choice to broaden his scope to the Southern Soul scene itself, particularly the unlikely triumph of Memphis’s small but influential Stax Records (Redding’s label) and the music industry as a whole. Ribowsky is pleasingly candid: “The record game, to be polite, is one of the most venal and soulless entities ever known, and a bane to creatively inclined people easily manipulated by power brokers with a fast line and legal levers to rip them off.” As Ribowsky shows, Stax itself fell victim to the same “insidious but legal backstabbing” when Atlantic Records virtually stole Stax’s world-famous back catalog (including recordings by Redding, Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and many others) and all the royalties associated with it.

But before all that ugliness, the tiny, family-run Stax, with its racially integrated staff and seat-of-the-pants production, managed to create a unique and influential sound that rivaled Motown, gained the admiration of fans around the world, and “converted one of the whitest bastions of the post-Confederate South into the vital core of black music.”

It’s a great story but one that is often interrupted by Ribowsky’s awkward phrasing. A recording studio has “glutinous echoes”; he describes Little Richard as “bold and daring yet conventionally spiritual enough to wear the label derived from a centuries-old religious conceptualization of the immortal essence of the human spirit and its undying connection to a higher power,” whatever that means.

One gets the sense that Ribowsky is turning up the volume a little too high to try and make his point. It’s a shame, because the subject practically speaks for itself. Notwithstanding the soul-baring theatricality of Redding’s performances on songs such as “Try a Little Tenderness,” the power of soul music has always been, paradoxically, its sense of restraint. The greatest soul singers are masters of dynamics, starting out softly with a slow build to the climax. “It wasn’t the size of his voice,” said keyboardist Booker T. Jones of Redding, “we knew lots of people with vocal powers like that. It was the intent with which he sang.” “Dreams to Remember” provides some fascinating historical context, but most of what you need to know about the emotional biography of Otis Redding can be found in the still-vital and moving recordings he left behind.

Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul

By Mark Ribowsky

Liveright, 400 pp., illustrated, $27.95

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on June 13, 2015.

FKA Twigs, "Glass & Patron"

FK My review of the new single and video from FKA Twigs is now up on the terrific music site, Sound It Out. You can also read it below:

OK, places everyone! Here’s the video concept for the new FKA Twigs single, “Glass & Patron”: a white van is parked in the middle of the piney woods and inside a pregnant FKA Twigs goes into labor and gives birth to a magician’s endless multicolored silk streamer that billows in the breeze … fade into a “Paris is Burning”-meets-“The Cremaster Cycle”-style vogueing ball that takes place on a long mirrored runway in the middle of those woods, with an enthroned FKA Twigs judging from the far end and telling the half-dozen dancers: “Hold that pose.” Got it? Go!

The bizarre, fascinating new video (from the album LP1, released by Young Turks) is classic FKA Twigs, with its slow build, extreme close-ups, high-drama sexuality and energetic dancing. As with all her videos, Twigs directed this herself.

The FKA Twigs cocktail is a mix of equal parts “Controversy”-era Prince + the falsetto soul of James Blake + Manchester-based late-1990s trip hop/drum and bass duo Lamb + the daffy physicality of Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s version of “Popeye.” She’s really something. Weird, intense, with a beautiful wavering soprano that floats over the stuttering static and deep bass undulations of her band, this is dark, erotic music. No matter how much you dig it, this will never be your summer jam. It’s more of a darkest-night-of-winter jam. “So do you have a lighter?” she sings, “Am I dancing sexy yet?/I can’t wait to make your body my own.”

Like Madonna and Lady Gaga, she emerged from an underground club scene (Twigs performed in London’s burlesque clubs and was a backup dancer for Kylie Minogue and Jessie J) with a highly refined total vision of herself, from the music to the fashion to the performances. Many of FKA Twigs’ points of reference seem to borrow from early 1990s Madonna, especially “Sex,” “Erotica” and of course, “Vogue.” But Twigs is no copycat. This isn’t Miley Cyrus licking a wrecking ball. This is something more convincing: a serious performer with a 360-degree artistic vision. She may be young, she may look like Prince’s runty kid sister, but like that crazy club kid Maddona Louise Ciccone before her, this little Bjork chop clearly has world domination on her mind.

You can watch the video here: [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNbFc-fa-ww[/youtube]

 

 

Love, God, Murder: Johnny Cash

johnny-cash-022112-double

Book Review: Johnny Cash: The Life, by Robert Hilburn (Little, Brown), 679 pp.

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on October 27, 2013.

The three words chosen for the title of Johnny Cash’s 2000 compilation — “Love, God, Murder’’ — told you everything you needed to know about the contradictions that defined the man and his obsessions; he was just as comfortable whipping the felons of Folsom Prison into a frenzy with his famous lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” as he was testifying to the power of Jesus at prayer rallies with his good friend the Rev. Billy Graham.

Cash called his first autobiography “Man in Black”; his final book was “Man in White,” a novel about the Apostle Paul. His struggles with drug addiction and his stormy relationship with his second wife, June Carter Cash, are well known. Now Robert Hilburn, the longtime pop music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times, delivers his new biography, “Johnny Cash: The Life.” Is there anything left to reveal?

According to Hilburn, despite two memoirs, an Oscar-winning biopic, and numerous books by family and friends, only “twenty percent” of Cash’s story has been told before now. The singer told Hilburn that “he wanted people to know his entire story — especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments — because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed.” One wonders whether Cash understood that his fans loved him because of his faults, not in spite of them.

Hilburn’s biography, based on interviews with Cash and those close to him, unearths new details about Cash’s personal problems, from his guilt at not being a better father to decades of bad behavior and occasionally bad music. But Cash’s conviction that no one knew the depths of his wickedness merely underscores the depth of his Southern Baptist spirituality and his lifelong view of himself as a sinner: Nothing in “Johnny Cash: The Life” will shock anyone who knows even the outline of the man’s career or those already inclined to love the singer or his songs. And the book’s best sections are those concerned with the music.

Cash spent the first three years of the 1950s in the Air Force dreaming of music stardom. As soon as he got discharged he headed for Memphis’s Sun Records, which had released Elvis Presley’s first recordings a few months earlier. Cash and his hastily convened band, the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant on guitar and bass), had more ambition than musical skill, but they convinced producer Sam Phillips to give them a shot. The primitive, halting sound they produced, a stuttering boom-chicka-boom, was reminiscent of a freight train and just as powerful. “It wasn’t that they thought they had discovered something; it was just about the only way they could play,” Hilburn writes. Yet that spare, propulsive rhythm combined with Cash’s authoritative bass-baritone voice and fire-and-brimstone lyrics created a signature, timeless sound.

Cash’s songwriting and charisma carried him through the next several decades of performance and recording, and Hilburn charts it all, from the county fairs and prison concerts to Cash’s beloved gospel albums, recordings with the Highwaymen, and all the TV shows and schmaltzy Christmas specials in between. Like the touring schedule, Cash’s cycles of drug abuse, health scares, repentance, and relapse were unending; they exhausted those who knew him. After several hundred pages of day-to-day details they become something of a blur. Happily, Cash’s career and the pace of the book pick up again in the last decade of his life.

In 1993 Cash believed “his recording career was over.” Then hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin called. Cash was skeptical, but the Rubin recordings were a watershed, six albums of intense, painfully stark, and often solo performances “that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him,” Rubin said. “It was epic, and that’s what Johnny was to me — epic.”

After two decades of subpar records and halfhearted touring, Rubin’s American Recordings label brought Cash acclaim and his first hits in decades. They also reminded a world of music lovers that he was still relevant. “Rick made me think I might have a legacy after all,” Cash said, “I vowed not to let it slip away again.” They continued recording until just a few weeks before Cash died of diabetes-related complications in 2003.

Cash’s legacy as an icon of American duality had been restored: an outlaw with an angel on his shoulder; a holy prophet with a back-up plan. U2’s Bono spoke of his admiration for Cash and his music. “I think he was a very godly man, but you had the sense that he spent his time in the desert. And that just made you like him more.” He remembers sitting down to dinner at Cash’s home. “Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard,” Bono says. “Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’ ”

The Best Christmas Music: Tim Minchin's "White Wine in the Sun"

[embed]http://youtu.be/fCNvZqpa-7Q?t=1s[/embed]

Like Tim Minchin, I'm not religious but I love Christmas. I love Hanukah, too! Neutrality has its rewards.

 

And there is no better "I'm-an-atheist-but-I-still-love-Christmas" song out there than Minchin's funny and sweet "White Wine in the Sun." Apart from the often-skipped first verse of "White Christmas," it's the only warm weather Christmas song I know. Minchin is from Perth, Australia, and this vision of a midsummer Christmas depicts that Antipodean holiday reality: Christmas on the beach.

But it's not a song about summertime or even Christmas; it's about family and loving one another. I cannot get through it without crying, not even once. Can you?

If you haven't seen it, watch it now. Lyrics are below, because they're just too good not to read twice.

xo BJ

WHITE WINE IN THE SUN

by Tim Minchin

I really like Christmas

It's sentimental, I know, but I just really like it

I am hardly religious

I'd rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu, to be honest

And yes, I have all of the usual objections

To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion

To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian

Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer

But I still really like it

I'm looking forward to Christmas

Though I'm not expecting a visit from Jesus

I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I don't go in for ancient wisdom

I don't believe just 'cos ideas are tenacious it means they're worthy

I get freaked out by churches

Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords but the lyrics are spooky

And yes I have all of the usual objections

To the mis-education of children who, in tax-exempt institutions,

Are taught to externalise blame

And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong

But I quite like the songs

I'm not expecting big presents

The old combination of socks, jocks and chocolate's is just fine by me

Cos I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

And you, my baby girl

My jetlagged infant daughter

You'll be handed round the room

Like a puppy at a primary school

And you won't understand

But you will learn someday

That wherever you are and whatever you face

These are the people who'll make you feel safe in this world

My sweet blue-eyed girl

And if my baby girl

When you're twenty-one or thirty-one

And Christmas comes around

And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home

You'll know what ever comes

Your brothers and sisters and me and your Mum

Will be waiting for you in the sun

Whenever you come

Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles

Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum

We'll be waiting for you in the sun

Drinking white wine in the sun

Darling, when Christmas comes

We'll be waiting for you in the sun

Drinking white wine in the sun

Waiting for you in the sun

Waiting for you...

Waiting...

I really like Christmas

It's sentimental, I know...

Johnny Cash: Love, God, Murder.

Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn

(Little, Brown: 2013) 679 pages

 

imgres-1

(Photo credit: Jim Marshall, Folsom Prison concert, California, 1969)

This review was originally published on October 27, 2013 in the Sunday Books section of the Boston Globe.

The three words chosen for the title of Johnny Cash’s 2000 compilation — “Love, God, Murder’’ — told you everything you needed to know about the contradictions that defined the man and his obsessions; he was just as comfortable whipping the felons of Folsom Prison into a frenzy with his famous lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” as he was testifying to the power of Jesus at prayer rallies with his good friend the Rev. Billy Graham.

Cash called his first autobiography “Man in Black”; his final book was “Man in White,” a novel about the Apostle Paul. His struggles with drug addiction and his stormy relationship with his second wife, June Carter Cash, are well known. Now Robert Hilburn, the longtime pop music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times, delivers his new biography, “Johnny Cash: The Life.” Is there anything left to reveal?

According to Hilburn, despite two memoirs, an Oscar-winning biopic, and numerous books by family and friends, only “twenty percent” of Cash’s story has been told before now. The singer told Hilburn that “he wanted people to know his entire story — especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments — because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed.” One wonders whether Cash understood that his fans loved him because of his faults, not in spite of them.

Hilburn’s biography, based on interviews with Cash and those close to him, unearths new details about Cash’s personal problems, from his guilt at not being a better father to decades of bad behavior and occasionally bad music. But Cash’s conviction that no one knew the depths of his wickedness merely underscores the depth of his Southern Baptist spirituality and his lifelong view of himself as a sinner: Nothing in “Johnny Cash: The Life” will shock anyone who knows even the outline of the man’s career or those already inclined to love the singer or his songs. And the book’s best sections are those concerned with the music.

Cash spent the first three years of the 1950s in the Air Force dreaming of music stardom. As soon as he got discharged he headed for Memphis’s Sun Records, which had released Elvis Presley’s first recordings a few months earlier. Cash and his hastily convened band, the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant on guitar and bass), had more ambition than musical skill, but they convinced producer Sam Phillips to give them a shot. The primitive, halting sound they produced, a stuttering boom-chicka-boom, was reminiscent of a freight train and just as powerful. “It wasn’t that they thought they had discovered something; it was just about the only way they could play,” Hilburn writes. Yet that spare, propulsive rhythm combined with Cash’s authoritative bass-baritone voice and fire-and-brimstone lyrics created a signature, timeless sound.

Cash’s songwriting and charisma carried him through the next several decades of performance and recording, and Hilburn charts it all, from the county fairs and prison concerts to Cash’s beloved gospel albums, recordings with the Highwaymen, and all the TV shows and schmaltzy Christmas specials in between. Like the touring schedule, Cash’s cycles of drug abuse, health scares, repentance, and relapse were unending; they exhausted those who knew him. After several hundred pages of day-to-day details they become something of a blur. Happily, Cash’s career and the pace of the book pick up again in the last decade of his life.

In 1993 Cash believed “his recording career was over.” Then hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin called. Cash was skeptical, but the Rubin recordings were a watershed, six albums of intense, painfully stark, and often solo performances “that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him,” Rubin said. “It was epic, and that’s what Johnny was to me — epic.”

After two decades of subpar records and halfhearted touring, Rubin’s American Recordings label brought Cash acclaim and his first hits in decades. They also reminded a world of music lovers that he was still relevant. “Rick made me think I might have a legacy after all,” Cash said, “I vowed not to let it slip away again.” They continued recording until just a few weeks before Cash died of diabetes-related complications in 2003.

Cash’s legacy as an icon of American duality had been restored: an outlaw with an angel on his shoulder; a holy prophet with a back-up plan. U2’s Bono spoke of his admiration for Cash and his music. “I think he was a very godly man, but you had the sense that he spent his time in the desert. And that just made you like him more.” He remembers sitting down to dinner at Cash’s home. “Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard,” Bono says. “Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’ ”