Monday, December 24, 2012
You've heard me rant about this before - here in the NYC area, radio station WLTW (aka "Lite FM") has made it a holiday tradition to start bombarding us with "holiday favorites" (because heaven forbid they have the balls to say "Christmas music") about TWO WEEKS BEFORE THANKSGIVING! Thanksgiving! We've just put the Halloween decorations back in the attic and these clowns are shoving Christmas (er, sorry, THE HOLIDAYS) down our collective throats! ARRRRRGH!
To make matters worse, as I've said time and time again, the station programs the most homogenized, safe, and BLAND versions of Chris - oops - HOLIDAY songs they can come up with. It's like the musical version of the pink slime they use in McDonald's food; extruded from a machine, like one long gigantic turd, no variation whatsoever. Only the bottom of the barrel here, folks; Rascal Flatts, Rod Stewart, oh, and I hear that Taylor Swift has now come out with a nifty new version of "Santa Baby" (JUST what the world needs). Also, it seems that, just for my own personal annoyance, the station contracts every one of the artists they play to do a version of "Silver Bells" - my LEAST favorite Chr - damn it, HOLIDAY song.....
I think that's what annoys me most about the station; their insistence on calling the music "holiday favorites". Funny, every song they seem to play is a CHRISTMAS song. I've never heard any Chanukah (or Hanukkah, however you wanna spell it) songs on there, and I certainly haven't heard any Kwanzaa tunes (hell, I haven't even heard "Back Door Santa" on there, even in an inferior version by the likes of Keith Urban or Jason Mraz or Josh Groban).
If I had the opportunity, I would LOVE to go to the station's studios, tie up the program director (or unplug him, since it's most likely a computer), and take over for a day. If I did, you'd hear some GOOD holiday music by folks like James Brown, Paul Revere and The Raiders, The Ventures, The Staple Singers - and this one, celebrating Kwanzaa, by Akim.
Akim is the daughter of famed record producer Teddy Vann, who produced many, many soul and R&B artists in the 1960s, such as The Bobbettes, Johnny Thunder, The Sandpebbles, Dave "Baby" Cortez, Donald Height, and Frankie and The Classicals.
But Teddy was much more than just a record producer; he was one of the first to get into the "black consciousness" movement in the 1960s. Calling himself a "born-again African", he gave his three children traditional African names - Akim, Kayode and Chinyere - and let his (and his childrens') hair grow out into a "natural". But lest you think Teddy was simply a black militant, he also preached multiculturalism; many of the Jews who lived in his neighborhood in Brooklyn noted that he could speak Yiddish almost as well as they could.
In 1973, Teddy decided to take his oldest child into the studio with him to record an LP which celebrated the holidays - the holidays as HE saw them. Teddy did not want his children growing up thinking that there was no one to represent their people at Christmas time. So he wrote this tune and made it the title cut of the LP, and the LP's one and only single. It's probably the ONLY holiday song that wishes its listeners a Merry Christmas AND a Happy Kwanzaa.
Hmmmm.....and Lite FM doesn't play this because.....?
I mean, it fits in with their "multicultural" approach to programming..... could it be that, after all these years, the station is afraid of the term "black"? I dunno. But what I DO know is that I'm gonna blast this 45 at my house as long as I'm able to. Sure, I'll never be able to relate to the lack of cultural identity vis-a-vis white America that caused Teddy Vann to write this, but I can totally get behind a dude teaching his kids about their cultural heritage, making the holiday season an opportunity for EVERYONE to enjoy their holiday without fear of ridicule, and in the end, isn't that what America is SUPPOSED to be about?
Of course, someone DID ridicule it - namely John Waters, filmmaker extraordinaire. He included "Santa Claus Is A Black Man" on a compilation called "A John Waters Christmas" (illegally) and then proceeded to call the record a "crackpot carol" and a "Christmas lunatic song". Teddy Vann was not amused. He sued Waters for improper use of the song in 2008; I don't know how the case turned out, since Teddy Vann died from cancer on December 6, 2009.
No matter how you hear this record, I guarantee that it will become one of your favorite Christmas / Kwanzaa tunes!
So, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and for you atheists, have a nice day. But I will not wish ANY of you a "Happy Holiday".
Akim and The Teddy Vann Production Company - Santa Claus Is A Black Man (Simtone 2001) - 1973
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Before you all think I'm a Gloomy Gus, I WILL say that that line doesn't matter to me so much anymore, because I'm waaaaaay too busy to be sitting round, waiting to die. But as I get older, I find I'm more concerned about the passage of time. For years my girlfriend (who is wise beyond her years) has been telling me, "you have NO concept of time". For the longest time I thought this meant that she was annoyed that I was always late getting somewhere. But I have finally figured out what she means; time moves, whether you like it or not, and you only have so much of it available to you. More simply put, get yo' ass in gear.
Another thing she may have meant about my lack of the concept of time is that time changes things. For years I lived by a strict set of rules, basically limiting myself to what I thought was "correct", never changing, never growing, because I was JUST PERFECT the way I was. Thank goodness I don't think like that anymore. I have new priorities, new responsibilities, and while that's as big of a pain in the ass as I always thought it would be, the rewards are much greater. I finally see that. Thank you Jessica.
Which is why I pull this old 45 out every December and listen, really listen to it. And that's not easy with Chris Kenner slurring his words like the drunken madman he was. I can't understand half of what he says on this record, but it sure sounds important. One of the few lines I do understand is "time makes the world go 'round / and time never forgets where you're bound / after they put you way down in the ground / it keeps movin' on." Chris follows up these lines by yelling "can I get a witness?" and a chorus answers each time with a huge "OH YEAH!!" It's a thrilling record, even if it is largely incomprehensible. Which is also a pretty good summation of Chris Kenner's career.
Chris Kenner (1929-1976) was one of New Orleans' greatest songwriters. He was also one of New Orleans' greatest drunks, and one pretty much cancelled out the other, unfortunately.
He made his first records, oddly enough, for the Baton label out of New York in 1956, but then got a record deal a little closer to home when he signed with Imperial in 1957. His first 45 for that label, "Sick And Tired", became a big local hit and caught the ear of Fats Domino, who remade the song the next year and had a big national hit with it (after buying a third of the royalties from the perpetually broke Kenner). Unfortunately, Kenner's follow-up, "Will You Be Mine", didn't do as well, and label prez Lew Chudd dropped Kenner from the roster, mainly because of his unreliability; he would regularly miss scheduled recording dates, or show up so drunk that it was hard to get a decent performance out of him.
Kenner knocked around a few more years, making records for local label Ron Records and a single for Lloyd Price's Prigan Records. In late 1960, Kenner wrote and recorded a tune called "I Like It Like That", and released it on a small New Orleans label called Valiant Records in early 1961. The record started to pick up heavy sales in New Orleans, but soon there was trouble; Valiant Records got a cease and desist letter from Valiant Records in California (later home of The Association and The Cascades). So they had to change the name of the label to Instant Records (no idea why) - but the record kept selling. Label owner Joe Banashak made a deal with Atlantic Records to distribute the disk, and it soon became the #2 record in the country, selling over a million copies, and Chris Kenner was on his way - or so it was thought.
Unfortunately, Chris shot himself in the foot again with a weak follow-up ("A Very True Story") which curtailed his chart career. He continued to make interesting records for Instant, however, writing the New Orleans standard "Something You Got" (later remade by Alvin Robinson, The Moody Blues, Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown, and of course, Fats Domino) and a little tune called "Land Of 1000 Dances" (later remade by basically everybody). "I Like It Like That" was also remade by The Dave Clark Five, and it became a huge hit for them.
Kenner should have been rolling in dough at this point, with huge royalty checks coming in, but his fondness for the bottle neatly took care of that. He sold part of the publishing of "Land Of 1000 Dances" to Fats Domino in late 1962 (thereby ensuring Fats tons of royalties on a song he originally had nothing to do with), and did the same with "Something You Got" in 1964.
Things only got worse. Kenner continued to record sporadically for Instant (when they could get him to show up) until 1968, when he was thrown in jail on a conviction of statutory rape of a minor. He served three years, and after his release in 1971 he continued his downward spiral, basically living on the street. He did manage to record one single for the Hep' Me label in 1973, but soon faded out of sight, passing away a month after his 46th birthday from a heart attack. If only he had listened to the opening lines of this record - "time changes things / it keeps movin' on". But for Chris Kenner, time didn't mean a thing, and he decided not to change his ways, and it ended up destroying him.
Chris Kenner - Time (Instant 3244) - 1962
Saturday, December 8, 2012
Sometimes, however, a record was made to be straight country - no strings, no sweeteners, no Anita Kerr Singers. Like "Unmitigated Gall" by Faron Young.
Faron Young (1932-1996) was one of the GREAT honky-tonk singers of all time. Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Faron had the advantage of being in close proximity to the #2 country radio show in the nation, "The Louisiana Hayride". For a time, the "Hayride" gave serious competition to The Grand Ole Opry as the top country music show on the radio, discovering and signing stars such as Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Jim Reeves, Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, Johnny Horton, and some kid named Elvis Presley. Many of these stars were later snatched up by the Opry, but it was the Hayride that gave them their start. Faron got his foot in the door as a member of Pierce's band, but his playing and singing (and his Hollywood-style good looks) were too good to keep under wraps. By age 19 he had cut his first record, released by Gotham Records of Philadelphia (!!) and by age 20 he was signed to Capitol Records, having a #2 country hit with "Goin' Steady" in late 1952. Unfortunately, Faron was drafted shortly afterwards. Despite being unable to promote his records through concert appearances, Faron still managed a trio of Top Ten country hits - "I Can't Wait" in 1953 and "A Place For Girls Like You" and "If You Ain't Lovin'" in 1954.
But once Faron got out of the Army, he was unstoppable - during 1955-1956, every record Faron released hit the country Top Ten. He also began appearing in films such as Hidden Guns, Daniel Boone: Trailblazer and Raiders Of Old California, which was where Faron got his nickname, "The Sheriff". He became Capitol Records' biggest-selling country artist. He even cut some rockabilly sides during the late 1950s (check out "I Can't Dance", if you can find a copy), and continued to have Top Ten country hits through 1962, including his biggest hit, "Hello Walls", which was #1 for 9 weeks (and was written by one of Faron's buddies, Willie Nelson).
Then, in a shocking move, after 10 years with Capitol, Faron left the label and signed with Mercury at the end of 1962. But, as they say, the hits just kept on comin', with records like "The Yellow Bandana" and "Walk Tall" hitting the Top Ten.
But behind that Hollywood-handsome smile lurked a wild man. It was common knowledge that Faron liked to drink (hell, it was common knowledge that everyone in country music liked to drink), but Faron liked to play with guns while he drank - he used to like to come home drunk and shoot holes in his kitchen ceiling when he wasn't pointing the gun at his wife and threatening her. He also had a couple of drinking buddies in his band in 1960 - Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck, two of country's most notable loonys. Faron was once famously quoted as saying, "I'm not an alcoholic, I'm a drunk!"
The above record, from 1966, is, in my opinion, one of Faron's best. Great fast-strumming acoustic guitar (sort of like a country Bo Diddley) which perfectly frames a great Mel Tillis lyric about an ex-lover who's come back (sample lyric: "Well how can you have the unmitigated gall / to come back now, expecting me to fall / right down on my knees and kiss your feet / feet that one day went-a-walkin' / out on me with a fast talkin' slob / you hardly knew his name / your mind is DERANGED").
Faron continued to have big country hits all the way into the mid-1970s, but he didn't really need singing to pay the bills anymore, due to wide-ranging investments and his founding and publishing of The Music City News, which for years was sort of the C&W version of "Rolling Stone" magazine. The strange behavior also continued - in 1972 Young was fined for spanking a six-year-old girl onstage at one of his concerts (he claimed she spat in his face). After the hits dried up, Mercury dropped Faron in 1978 and he signed with MCA the next year. After a couple of years there, Young basically dropped out of sight for a few years, resurfacing with a few records on the independent Step One label, but only one of them, "Stop And Take The Time", managed to chart - at #100.
Faron's health took a turn for the worse, and by 1991 he was no longer recording. Years of smoking had left him with emphysema and prostate cancer. The emphysema got so bad that Faron couldn't even sing a line without running out of breath or coughing. That depressing fact, combined with a poor mental state in which he was convinced that Nashville had turned its back on him (not surprising, considering how they've turned their backs on ALL the classic country artists in favor of Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and some Justin Beiber-wannabe named Hunter Hayes) caused Faron to load up his gun one last time on December 9, 1996. But instead of pointing it at his kitchen ceiling, Faron Young pointed it at his own head and pulled the trigger. He died the next day, and Nashville had the unmitigated gall to suddenly recognize him again, putting his face up on a video screen for a few seconds on awards shows - a tawdry tribute to one of the greatest country and western singers of all time.
Faron Young - Unmitigated Gall (Mercury 72617) - 1966