Big Ol’ Blog

7 posts

Five Albums We Love

I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.

Ernie K-Doe, 1979 

Tough times call for time-tested music. Here are five albums we’ve listened to over and over again throughout the years — on vinyl, compact disc, streaming … some even on cassette!

We’re not saying these are the best in whatever musical category they happen to occupy. Nor do we claim each album’s the best offering from that particular artist. “Best” is not a debate we want to get into.

What each album offers is good company. A musical sanctuary for those who just need to make the rest of the world disappear for about 40 minutes or so.

1. Dr. John, Gumbo

Hard to believe this recording’s almost fifty years old! The songs on Gumbo are so different from the pop and jazz of the early 70s they might as well have landed from outer space. They had — and have — an infectious, driving, carefree yet wistful quality that’s a defining characteristic of New Orleans music. And co-produced by Harold Battiste, how could they not?

While Gumbo is available online and on CD it’s worth seeking out a vinyl copy (either the 1972 Atco original or the 1986 Alligator re-issue) in order to read Dr. John’s liner notes, strangely missing from the other formats.

2. Fats Domino, Greatest Hits: Walking To New Orleans

They’re all here: “Blueberry Hill” … “I’m Walkin'” … “Blue Monday” … the songs you need to get you through these hard times. Bonus activity: put “Ain’t That A Shame” on repeat, pick up a saxophone and pretend you’re Herb Hardesty.

3. King Curtis & Champion Jack Dupree, Blues at Montreux

Recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Montreux, Switzerland on June 17, 1971, but it could’ve been a decade earlier at the Drop on LaSalle. Everybody’s having so much fun here. On “Junker’s Blues” Jack plays fast and loose with the 12-bar format, dropping a measure here and adding one there as the band struggles to keep up. “When it comes to bars,” he says, “the only ones I know about are those you drink in and those in prison cells. I don’t count bars, I play by feeling.”

4. Aaron Neville, My True Story

Produced by Don Was and Keith Richards, with Richards on guitar, this album of doo-wop standards may seem as far removed from New Orleans as you can get. But oh, that voice. That soul, that wellspring of controlled emotion. “These songs helped to mold me into who I am,” says Aaron Neville. “They’re all dear to my heart, and they rode with me, in my bones, through all these years.”

We could listen all day long.

5. Allen Toussaint, American Tunes

We referenced this on a recent blog post featuring Paul Simon’s timely video, “American Tune Til Further Notice.” Now it’s time to play the record in its entirety. While you’re listening you may want to read an insightful revue by another virtuoso New Orleans pianist, Tom McDermott. A fitting testimonial to an astonishing career. Thanks, Mr. Toussaint, for helping us get though this period of isolation and loss with your unyielding optimism and matchless grace.

Ellis Marsalis 1934-2020

Ellis Marsalis“Ellis Marsalis” by gamelaner is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Ellis Marsalis, Jr. has died at the age of 85. His legacy as a performer, teacher and patriarch of one of the great musical families in jazz is immeasurable. Marsalis was a mentor to a Who’s Who of jazz luminaries: Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison Jr., Harry Connick Jr., Nicholas Payton, Kent Jordan, Marlon Jordan, Victor Goines, and Jon Batiste. Four of his sons have become jazz notables in their own right: Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis.

We have an interview with Ellis Marsalis in production and hope to have it ready for broadcast and streaming next week.

In the meantime, Gwen Thompkins talks with Rachel Martin about Ellis Marsalis for NPR’s Morning Edition:

Paul, George, Maurice and Oscar

It’s Paul Whiteman‘s birthday today, and this obscure fact sent us down a virtual rabbit hole of free association…

Once hailed as “The King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) had one of the most popular dance bands of the 1920s and 30s in this country. And it was big — at a time when most orchestras topped out at six to ten players, Whiteman’s sometimes boasted as many as 35, including strings. In 1922 he managed 28 bands on the East Coast, earning him over a million dollars. (Fifteen million today, adjusted for inflation.) Not bad for a viola player from Denver.

Today, if Paul Whiteman is remembered at all, it’s for introducing the world to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Rhapsody in Blue — which Whiteman commissioned — premiered at an afternoon concert on Tuesday, February 12, 1924 in New York City’s Aeolian Hall. Whiteman called his concert “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Rhapsody was second to last on a long and tendentious program. According to Wikipedia, many important and influential musicians of the time were present, including Sergei RachmaninoffIgor StravinskyFritz KreislerLeopold StokowskiJohn Philip Sousa, and Willie “the Lion” Smith. Gershwin himself was the soloist.

In 1984 the late conductor Maurice Peress set out to recreate the entire concert in a recording with pianists Ivan Davis (Rhapsody soloist) and Dick Hyman. It’s a treat to hear the work in its original jazz band orchestration with banjo and saxophones. It’s also worth seeking out the physical CD for the excellent liner notes by Peress.

So many recordings of Rhapsody have been made over the years, but our favorite will always be the one featuring the pianist, celebrity and professional hypochondriac Oscar Levant. A music critic once asked him if Gershwin’s music would still be around in a hundred years. Levant famously replied, “If George is around, it will.”

Sadly, no videos seem to exist of Levant playing Rhapsody. But there is a memorable scene in “An American In Paris” featuring that other Gershwin masterpiece, Concerto in F … and a lot of Oscars:

About that “King of Jazz” title? Some critics have called Whiteman’s ornately orchestrated music “pseudo-jazz,” lacking the improvisational and emotional depth of true jazz. But in his autobiography, Duke Ellington declared, “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.”

Well, if the Duke said so, that’s all right with us.

Open Range

An extraordinary thing happened the other day. An episode of Music Inside Out reached the program’s biggest audience ever on Facebook — more than 47,000 people, who clicked nearly 8,000 “Likes.” Talk about a kick in the head.

Part of what made the result so singular is that the episode we ran was dedicated to country music, which is not as popular in New Orleans as it is in other areas of the state, or the region.

Courtesy Univ. of Texas Press

We’d interviewed historian Bill C. Malone who wrote the book on country music back in 1968, updated it in 1985 and in 2018 issued a 50th anniversary edition. Country Music, USA  has never been out of print and Malone, 85, has kept his ear to the airwaves all these years, finding new angles, artists and songs to talk about. His many subsequent books and articles explore the music as well as the working class people who created it and for whom it has always meant so much.

When the Ken Burns team went looking for an expert to guide them through the history of the music, they could do no better than Malone — and didn’t. He was the resident historian of the PBS Ken Burns: Country Music series and when he wasn’t on camera, the narrator Peter Coyote was repeating ideas that Malone had formulated originally in print so long ago.

The Singing Historian

What makes Malone compelling as a retired university professor, author and songcatcher, is that he sings. At Tulane University, where he spent 25 years in the classroom, he would bring his guitar to class and perform some of the most cherished songs in the country music canon — standards by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, the Carter Family and more.

But for a man who sang repeatedly to a captive audience of students, he was no ham. Before anyone would think to applaud, he’d be talking about the particulars of the songwriter, the performer, the listening audience, the radio station. He knew that hearing the song sung simply and in real time had the potential to move students emotionally, pique their interest and help them better understand why the music matters. During our interview he did something similar. Malone, singing a capella, conjured a song that his mother sang on their cotton farm in East Texas and I just about cried.

When the world from you withholds
Of its silver and its gold
And you’ve got to get along on meager fare
Just remember in His word
How He fed the little bird
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there
Leave it there, Oh, leave it there
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there
If you trust and never doubt
He will surely bring you out
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

Leave it There, written by Charles Tindley

“I didn’t learn until many years later that was written by an African-American composer named Charles Tindley who had a church in Philadelphia at the early years of the 20th century,” Malone said quickly. “And he wrote a lot of songs that moved beyond his church out in the hinterland and became the possession of white and black people. I think anyone who was poor and isolated and suffering could find release in that song.”

Can you imagine what his classes were like?

For that afternoon, I felt as if I were back at school, except this time I could ask more questions and there was no grade to worry over. Many of our local listeners must have felt that way also.

World Music

And yet, the most surprising thing about the listening audience that week, according to Facebook, is that the overwhelming majority of people who heard or showed interest in the program were in Kenya. East Africa has a long history of country music fandom. Radio stations across Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan spin country favorites every day on the radio, or people play the songs on their own devices. I wrote a story saying as much from Nairobi in 2007.

So it came as a pleasant surprise that all these years later, Kenyan listeners — many of them young — are still as eager to hear country music. As I recall, they were particularly enamored with Jimmie Rodgers, Jim Reeves, and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton singing separately or as a duo. On a six-hour drive from Northern Uganda to the capital city of Kampala, I remember hearing “A Coat of Many Colors” more than dozen times.

Back through the years
I go wonderin’ once again
Back to the seasons of my youth
I recall a box of rags that someone gave us
And how momma put the rags to use …

Coat of Many Colors, written by Dolly Parton

In Nairobi, the songs of Kenny Rogers, who died this month in Sandy Springs, Georgia, meant a great deal to radio listeners. No one there, or anywhere, could deny the power of his storytelling and he had just the right material: “The Gambler,” “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” and, in particular, “Coward of the County,” in which the hero, a lifelong pacifist, fights the “Gatlin boys” who had raped his sweetheart.

Twenty years of crawling was bottled up inside him
He wasn’t holding nothing back, he let ‘em have it all
When Tommy left the barroom, not a Gatlin boy was standing
He said, “This one’s for Becky,” as he watched the last one fall
— Coward of the County
, written by Roger Dale Bowling and Billy “Edd” Wheeler

Turn Your Radio On

Country music — and particularly the old songs — can keep you company like almost no other popular music. The stories are often unforgettable and they unfold like morality plays, continuing the oral traditions that originally grew out of rural communities across the United States. And, as Malone stresses in our interview, the music has always been the expression of black and white people from those communities and others. That’s why country music appeals to people in Africa and around the planet, including listeners of Music Inside Out.

On the last day that I saw my friends Nadine and Simon Blake, I played that part of the Malone interview in which he sings the hymn, “Leave It There.” It ended the dinner before we self-isolated against the spread of the novel coronavirus. Turns out, that song has a kind of universal power that may transcend religiosity. It expiates worried feelings and gives calm and hope in return. Dang, that Malone is good.

Happy Birthday, Carol Kaye

In the words of Dr. John, “Carol Kaye is a sweetheart and a kick-a– guitar player as well as a kick-a– bass player!”

You may not recognize the name but you’ve heard her on literally thousands of recordings, TV themes and movie scores. A member of L.A.’s legendary Wrecking Crew, Carol Kaye stood out in that group of virtuoso studio musicians as one of its very few women.

From CarolKaye.com:

Carol Kaye circa 1955

“Carol Kaye was born [Ed. note: March 24th, 1935] in Everett, Washington to musician parents, Clyde and Dot Smith, both professionals. She has played and taught guitar professionally since 1949, played bebop jazz guitar in dozens of nightclubs around Los Angeles … accidentally got into studio work late 1957 with the Sam Cooke recordings.

“In 1963 when a Fender bassist didn’t show up for a record date at Capitol Records, she picked up the Fender bass (as it was called then) and augmented her busy schedule playing bass and grew quickly to be the number one call with record companies, movie and TV people, commercials and industrial films.”

So Much Music

The list of Carol Kaye’s credits on electric bass is truly mind-boggling: The Beach Boys … Phil Spector … Quincy Jones … Frank Sinatra (and Nancy Sinatra) … Ray Charles … Sonny and Cher … Diana Ross and the Temptations … as well as New Orleans own Soul Queen, Irma Thomas. And Mahalia Jackson. By her count, over 10,000!

As Taj Mahal said to Carol when they both appeared at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, “Carol Kaye, you are the best!

Here’s a 2013 interview with Carol Kaye by the Snapshots Music & Arts Foundation: