â€Ś your heart out
Composition takes as its starting point a sequence of LPs Janis Ian made in the mid-„70s and their wider context and connections. I first heard and fell in love with these records when Cooking Vinyl reissued them on CD around 2004. I really am not sure why I bought them all at the time, all at once. I wasn‟t familiar with Janis‟ work or her story. But I was listening to a lot of Laura Nyro, Carole King, and Dory Previn, and was keen to hear more records that just might be in a similar style. And Janis‟ name seemed to crop up pretty often in Michelle Kort‟s biography of Laura Nyro. So it seemed worth a gamble. I took to the Janis Ian CDs instantly, and as time has passed I‟ve grown to love them more and more. This intrigues me. Other singer/songwriters who may be more revered continue to leave me cold, emotionally uninvolved, though there is a lingering sense that I should love them more. With Janis, oh I just love her, faults and all. Musically this mid-„70s sequence frequently has the melodic invention and warm intimacy of the finest easy listening/adult contemporary sounds that were at the heart of what Radio 2 played when I was a kid and the station always seemed to be on in the background at home. I loved the sort of things they‟d play often like Glen Campbell, The Carpenters, Don McLean‟s Vincent, Helen Reddy‟s Angie Baby, Roberta Flack, Captain & Tennile, Starland Vocal Band, Gallagher & Lyle, Maria Mulduar‟s Midnight at the Oasis, Minnie Ripperton‟s Loving You, the Bellamy Brothers‟ Let Your Love Flow. Sounds that still generate a glow of contentment despite being so familiar. This series of Janis Ian LPs wonderfully avoids the traps of the mid-„70s, and the songs never seem too smooth or self-absorbed, overly polished or plush. There is a bit of an edge, an air of mischief, a suggestion of spikiness, a bit of bite. She never gets too mystical, too ethereal, too wispy. She is more earthy and argumentative than many of her contemporaries. That may be part of the appeal. It is, of course, always difficult to pinpoint why certain records appeal. The answer is not always a logical one. It may simply be something connects. Personal preferences and prejudices are often at work. And beyond an artist‟s god-given talents other forces may be at work. So, in Janis‟ case, it‟s fascinating to look at her background, experiences, environment, influences, interests, attitude and approach. It‟s also revealing to look at her associates, the people she has worked with, by design or by accident, their connections, their significance.
STARS Stars was Janis‟ first grown-up recording, her first adult contemporary LP. She had somehow survived being a controversial child star, a teen prodigy, and was now writing songs she felt comfortable with, ones that were saying what she wanted to say. It was mostly recorded over the summer of 1973 in New York. Janis didn‟t have a US record deal at the time, so the sessions were really an act of faith by all involoved. The budgets were tight, the prospects uncertain. But ultimately the record was a spectacular success, at least creatively. Commercially, it helped to open doors, and acted as a shock for anyone who had written Janis off. The stunningly beautiful title track and the opening song on the LP had been recorded a year or so earlier. It‟s a gorgeous acoustic ballad, and one of the first fruits of a creative resurgence after a difficult time in the wilderness. The story goes that Janis was inspired to write Stars after hearing Don McLean‟s Vincent, being captivated by its beauty, and playing it over and over again. Then she sat down and wrote Stars straight off, pouring her heart out, telling her story in a way she hadn‟t really done or been able to do before. Stars itself is a stark confessional number that captures wonderfully an awful lot about the experience of being a singer: “People lust for fame. Like athletes in a game we break our collarbones and come up swinging. Some of us are downed. Some of us are crowned. And some of us are lost and never found. But most have seen it all. They live their lives in sad cafes and music halls. They always have a story”. It‟s no surprise that it‟s become a popular song to cover, despite being just over seven minutes long. Cher, for example, did a beautiful version and made it the title track of the 1975 LP she made with Jimmy Webb. Songs about the pop process are notoriously difficult to pull off. Kevin Rowland has always been brilliant at it, but it‟s easy to end up with something mawkish like I Write The Songs. Phil Ochs was someone else who sang about the performing arts wonderfully, movingly, on Chords of Fame and No More Songs. Phil was someone Janis seems to have had tremendous affection for. She‟d been fond of him since she was a kid and had developed an interest in folk music, coming across his songs on the radio and via the pages of Sing Out!/Broadside. Another of Janis‟ songs on Stars which had performing as its theme, Applause, also had a Phil Ochs feel to it, with its gently mocking, self-deprecating humour: “I‟ll sell my soul for a song. Pay the price and carry on. And share with you the memories of dreams I can‟t forget, of lovers I have met. Applause, applause. Let‟s give the prize to the little lady with the stars in her eyes.”
Dance With Me was another song that had echoes of Phil Ochs. While once Janis may have kicked against the idea of having to record protest songs, because it‟s what people expected her to do, here she comes up with something really powerful at the tail-end of American involvement in the Vietnam War: “When the war was over I went dancing in the streets with the corpse of my dead brother to the sacrificial beat”. Jesse was another song on the LP with a Vietnam theme, that of an elegy to someone lost to the Vietnam War. It features ghostly whistling from her dad, and that‟s exactly the sort of little detail that can transform a great song into a masterpiece. The song was popularised by Roberta Flack, and has been covered by Shirley Bassey. Janis‟ idol Joan Baez recorded it too on her Diamonds and Rust LP. It was the first of the new songs on Stars, the first song to give Janis a new-found confidence in her ability to write songs. Thankyous is another great example of Janis writing something from the heart, something that is intensely personal, rather than something she feels she should be singing about. It is quite simply a song thanking her family for shaping her: “Papa gave me music. Mama gave me soul. Brother gave me reaching out to hold. Teacher gave me license. Learning set me free. Schooling gave me nothing”. Again, in other hands, it could have been a sentimental disaster, but it is extraordinarily beautiful. And when Janis sings “So thank you for the music. Thank you for the song” it‟s not the only time during this series of LPs that Abba will spring to mind. Janis reveals some pop roots on You‟ve Got Me On A String which has all the hallmarks of one of the great Goffin & King showstoppers like No Easy Way Down or I Can‟t Make It Alone, drenched in emotion, revealing feelings perhaps better left hid. Janis has said that when putting these songs together she was listening to a lot of AM pop radio as she couldn‟t afford a radio to play the FM adult-oriented rock, and it shows. The Man You Are In Me, for example, is a song you can easily imagine Karen Carpenter singing. It really is exquisite, with Richard Davis‟ jazzy bass and the country influences at work, and a generally understated air. In fact, the whole LP‟s uncluttered, unpolished feel really helps to make it work wonders. Perhaps the restricted budget was exactly what Janis needed to help launch this new phase.
THE SHADOW KNOWS ... Janis Ian‟s autobiography, published in 2008, starts with a snapshot of the whirlwind of controversy she got caught up in when her first single Society‟s Child smacked into the consciousness of the general public in the US. She really was just a kid at the time, but she was from a family that had never shied away from taking a difficult path. She was a „red diaper baby‟, the daughter of parents with passionate left-wing views who as a consequence attracted the attentions of the FBI. This was still in the McCarthy/H.U.A.C. era, and as a result her father had difficulties keeping his job as a music teacher for any sustained period of time. Therefore Janis and her family moved around New York every two to three years, and this rootlessness combined with the influences she absorbed from her parents were important shaping forces. Janis‟ story of growing up is almost like a parallel universe to the ordinary stories of American kids: her experiences of attending summer camps, where people like Pete Seeger would be teaching, and so on. Suze Rotolo tells stories, too, in her memoirs about being a „red diaper baby‟ in New York, and how this had given her an education Bob Dylan would be in awe of. Music played a massive part in Janis‟ life from an early age. She was prodigiously talented. She absorbed folk music at home. This was a time when Joan Baez ruled irrefutably. And she soaked up the new r‟n‟b and soul sounds from the radio and from the kids in the neighbourhoods in which she lived. Smokey Robinson was her hero. And as she
wrote in her autobiography: “White pop music was something Republicans listened to, not people like us”. When she started showing an interest in playing guitar and singing her own songs her parents made it possible for her to start playing the folk clubs in Greenwich Village. Janis managed to get the Reverend Gary Davis to give her guitar lessons. And within no time Janis was „discovered‟ and whisked off to audition for the already legendary George „Shadow‟ Morton.
The story of when Janis met Shadow is so perfect. She was taken to his office, and instructed to play some of her songs. All the while Shadow just sat at his desk, hidden behind a newspaper, with his boots up on his desk, not even acknowledging Janis. In exasperation at the end of her „audition‟ Janis decided to set fire to a corner of Shadow‟s newpaper and headed off out of his office in the direction of the lifts. Shadow came flying out of his office, begging forgiveness. It‟s pretty certain he recognised a kindred spirit, and no doubt at heart approved wholeheartedly of Janis‟ perfectly executed revenge. He got her to sing her songs again, and homed in on one particular number which was Society‟s Child. He decided he would take Janis into the studio and record it as a single. And she was barely 15 when that session took place. Society‟s Child was a song that made much of the US involuntarily take a sharp intake of breath when they finally heard it. Here was a schoolgirl singing her own composition about bringing a black boyfriend home, incurring the wrath of her mother and getting banned from seeing him anymore: “Walk me down to school, baby Everybody's acting deaf and blind Until they turn and say "Why don't you stick to your own kind?" My teachers all laugh, their smirking stares cutting deep down in our affairs Preachers of equality Think they believe it? then why won't they just let us be?” The song shocked some and delighted others. The fact that it was written by a 14-year-old made it all the more remarkable. But how many people in the industry apart from Shadow Morton would have recognised its potential just like that? He had, of course, something of a track record for provoking outrage. The Shangri-Las‟ Leader of the Pack and other hits Shadow was behind got under the skin of the establishment‟s moral
protectors, and so on. And Janis‟ Society‟s Child was very much in the same vivid pop dramatics vein, a storyline to alarm parents, a tale to thrill teenagers. The big difference, of course, was that the song was Janis‟ and not Shadow‟s. But they were kindred spirits. Shadow, to his eternal credit, got Atlantic to pay for the Society‟s Child sessions, and got some of the best session players on the scene involved. But Atlantic wouldn‟t touch it, and nor would most of the record labels at the time. The only person who would release it was Jerry Schoenbaum at Verve Folkways/Forecast. He believed in it. He was prepared to get behind it. Now Jerry Schoenbaum may not be the most well-known person in the history of pop music, but at Verve in a short space of time he signed Janis, he signed Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Laura Nyro. And Verve had the Velvet Underground. Schoenbaum kept on releasing Society‟s Child when no one else was listening, and finally Leonard Bernstein got behind it on a TV special in 1967 and the song took off.
After Society‟s Child? Well, Stanley Kramer & William Rose made a successful film out of Guess Who‟s Coming To Dinner on a similar theme, and Patrice Holloway recorded the incredibly dramatic Stay With Your Own Kind with David Axelrod for Capitol. That song was written by the Lewis Sisters, the songwriting team responsible for Gladys Knight‟s Just Walk In My Shoes among other gems, as well as making the astonishingly beautiful LP Way Out Far with Les McCann. And, as for Janis, well she had to be tough to cope with all the attention, the accolades, the abuse, the expectations, the commitments. It‟s easy to dwell on her age and how remarkable it was that she was doing what she was doing without any puppet master pulling the strings. But sometimes it seems that the story of pop and specifically the golden age of „60s femme pop has a significant number of smart, sassy, snotty street kids teeming in and out of the offices and studios on and around Broadway. Mary Weiss and the Shangri-Las were just juveniles when Shadow Morton had them act out dramatic scenarios he concocted. Toni Wine was working in the Brill Building when she was a kid, and so on. Janis Ian would go on to make three LPs with Shadow Morton and his team, including Artie Butler and Artie Kaplan who were professionals, used to working with Red Bird, Leiber & Stoller, and so on. Butler had for example, been behind the arrangement on The Jaynetts‟ Sally Go „Round The Roses. Shadow lived up to his name, seeming to fade gradually out of the picture, while Janis seems to have been riddled with doubts about those formative records where she was finding her feet and voice. Nevertheless these LPs have riches in abundance, song that capture the spirit of the age, Dylan meets The Supremes, Dusty does Pleasures of the Harbor, with Janis as the sardonic hippy kid who knows everything and nothing. The 2CD set of Janis‟ Verve recordings is really an essential part of any record collection. There are so many great moments on there. The sessions Shadow „directed‟, for example, contain Go „Way Little Girl which is like a psychedelic Shangri-Las. That same debut LP
features the fantastic Mrs McKenzie and Janey‟s Blues. The follow-up has some real classics on like A Song For All The Seasons of Your Mind and Insanity Comes Quietly to the Structured Mind which have baroque arrangements as beautiful as anything John Cameron did for Donovan, while the more reflective numbers like Lonely One and Sunflakes Fall Snowrays Call hint at what would follow in the „70s. The third LP, The Secret Life of J. Eddy Fink may have had a troubled gestation but again it‟s got some beautiful tracks on. The jazzy groove of Mistaken Identity is particularly impressive, while the fuzzed guitar and Motown groove on Sweet Misery showcases Janis at her most punk and snotty. The arrangements on this third LP were by Janis and Carol Hunter, and between them they played most of the instruments. Carol had already worked with Janis Ian‟s label-mate Richie Havens who also features on the LP playing congas. His influence can certainly be felt too.
BETWEEN THE LINES Between The Lines which Janis recorded during the summer of 1974 feels like one of those records where everyone involved realised they were part of something special. Commercially, it was a great success for Janis in the States, which was important to dispel any lingering notion that she was a child star who had the one freak hit. The LP got to the top of the charts, and went platinum, which must have felt like a true vindication after years of struggle. The same team that was at the heart of Stars worked together again on Between The Lines. This time though there seemed to be a new confidence, a new swagger. It was not a dramatic departure from what went before though. The same mix of country, jazz, folk was at work, with Janis‟ vocals sounding fantastic and very rich. At Seventeen was the big hit from the LP. It‟s one of those songs that when a writer has finished putting it together must feel like a spectacular triumph. They just know it‟s so special. By all accounts Janis worked for months trying to get the lyrics just right. And every line packs a punch. Ostensibly it‟s a song for every girl who has suffered anguish, in the shadows of a beauty queen with obvious attractions. But it‟s not really woe-is-me self-indulgent misery. It wouldn‟t work if it was. Its innate cleverness displays a certain something that is far more appealing, much sexier than “clear-skinned smiles” ever can be. Janis speaks up for all the wallflowers, ugly ducklings and underdogs in a smart way, with a certain self-effacing humour and a beautiful Brazilian feel to the music. It‟s impossible not to imagine Morrissey paying extraordinarily close attention to Janis‟ wordplay: “And those of us with ravaged faces, lacking in the social graces, desperately remained at home inventing lovers on the „phone who called to say „Come dance with me‟ and murmured vague obscenities. It isn‟t all it seems at seventeen.” The title refrain from Bright Lights & Promises on the LP seems like a misheard or reinvented line from We‟ve Only Just Begun as sung by Karen Carpenter or Curtis Mayfield. And
therein lies the appeal of Between The Lines as a record. Janis and the team seem to strike a perfect balance between the enveloping gorgeousness of adult contemporary pop or soft soul ballads and the supposedly more serious and significant singer/songwriter sensitivities. It‟s easy to see how the LP became both a pop success and an essential part of a bedsit dreamer‟s record collection where someone alone is brooding about a broken relationship, with Janis‟ songs offering succour and solace. The LP has a number of highlights but it flows perfectly as a suite of songs. It is fascinating how other artists will have been working with similar ideas and ingredients but didn‟t come anywhere close to something that fits together so well. Watercolors is a perfect example of how Janis pulls off this trick. It‟s an enduring favourite among her fans, and feels curiously familiar. It‟s sumptuous and epic, but avoids falling into the trap of becoming an overblown, suffocating power ballad. And, importantly, it‟s anything but passive. Janis always wears a sneer well. Waspishness and reflection is a good mix in a song, as it‟s what happens in real life: “Go on, be a hero, be a man. Make your own destiny, if you can. Go find a fence, locate a shell, and hide yourself. Go on, go to hell”.
BROOKS ARTHUR Stars and Between The Lines were produced by Brooks Arthur in his 914 Sound Studios, in Blauvelt, New York. There were good practical reasons for using these facilities. They were state-of-the-art facilities available at a reasonable rate, just outside the city. Bruce Springsteen made early recordings there around the same time, for similar reasons. But there were far more intuitive reasons why Janis worked with Brooks and his team on these records. Janis knew him from when she first recorded Society‟s Child at Mira Sound Studios, and Brooks had been the engineer on those sessions. Indeed, she credits him for getting the mix right, in one go, when the challenge was passed to him. So, when he was looking to develop as a producer with his own studios, he seemed a good bet. As an engineer in the New York of the 1960s Brooks Arthur worked so many of the great recordings of the time. He was trusted by Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich, Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Cynthia Weill & Barry Mann, Leiber & Stoller, Shadow Morton, Bert Berns, Jerry Ragavoy. He worked on The Angels‟ My Boyfriend‟s Back, Chapel of Love by the Dixie Cups, the Shangri-Las‟ Leader of the Pack, Walkin‟ in the Sand. He was involved with Lorraine Ellison‟s Stay With Me and the McCoys‟ Hang On Sloopy. He worked with Richie Havens, Neil Diamond and Ray Barretto.
Brooks was employed at some of the most famous New York studios: Dick Charles, Associated, Mira Sound, A&R. He then in the late „60s opened his own studios in New York, Century Sound. These facilities are perhaps best known as the place where Van Morrison recorded Astral Weeks, on which Brooks was the engineer. It was also where Evie Sands recorded most of her Any Way That You Want Me LP with Brooks, Chip Taylor and Al Gorgoni. In an interview with the Spectropop site Chip pinpoints Brooks‟ importance: “Brooks is one of these guys that was like, he didn't know more than other engineers. He might have known less. But, what he would make up for from being on the same page with you, with energy, was unbelievable. He'd be one of these engineers, I'd say, „This is a crescendo,‟ and he'd be on the board. He'd stand up like playing an instrument. So it was nice to feel like that the guy was on the same page. Probably standing up and doing all this vibration didn't mean much. I didn't know what he was doing. He was moving at the same time and wanted something very important to happen. A great guy!” As he made the transition to being a producer Brooks worked on two unbelievably wonderful late „60s titles by Astrud Gilberto for Verve recorded in Century Sound. Al Gorgoni did the arrangements on these LPs, and both I Haven‟t Got Anything Better To Do and September 17, 1969 capture perfectly that moment where artists from all sorts of backgrounds were experimenting with ornate, new pop arrangements and hip compositions from the likes of Harry Nillson, Margo Guryan, the Brothers Gibb, and Jimmy Webb. The form suited Astrud perfectly, and these LPs are probably the best she recorded. I Haven‟t Got Anything Better To Do probably has the best cover photo ever.
Brooks‟ working relationship with Janis on Stars and Between The Lines boosted his reputation, and in 1974 he got the opportunity to produce an LP by Dusty Springfield. This was to be her follow-up to Cameo, which Dusty had not enjoyed making. The record she was to make with Brooks and his team in 914 Sound was advertised by ABC Dunhill under the title Longing, but it was never officially released during Dusty‟s lifetime. Her self-esteem was at a real low at the time, and the project was never really completed, much to Brooks‟ regret. The recordings are dismissed in the Vicki Wickham/Penny Valentine biography as sub-standard, but what has since emerged proves this really was not the case. Despite Dusty‟s troubles, or maybe because of them, the performances that exist from those sessions are incredibly moving. Perhaps, by Dusty‟s perfectionist standards, the voice isn‟t what it could be, but the frailty and the vulnerability adds a whole new dimension. And musically Brooks and his team worked wonders. So many people wanted
to be involved in these sessions, and the assembled cast is incredibly impressive. Brooks‟ trusted assistants Ron Frangipane and Larry Alexander helped out technically. Gary Sherman helped with arrangements, Bernard Purdie, Ralph McDonald, Al Gorgoni, and Hugh McCracken are among the session musicians. The song selections on Longing are intriguing too. Female writers are very strongly represented among the credits: Margie Adam, Melissa Manchester, Carole Bayer Sager, Christie Thompson, Janis Ian, Cynthia Weill, and Chi Coltrane. Dusty‟s interpretation of Janis‟ In The Winter is particularly moving. Dusty seems to live the lines like a true dramatic actress, and knowing how the story goes there is an added poignancy to the very vivid opening lines: “The days are okay. I watch the TV in the afternoon. If I get lonely the sound of other voices, other rooms, are near to me. I‟m not afraid”. For Janis this recording by Dusty must have been one of the ultimate endorsements of how her songwriting prowess had developed.
AFTERTONES Janis recorded Aftertones in late 1975, riding high on the success of Between The Lines. In fact, she was so busy coping with the impact that record made that she feels she did not do justice to Aftertones. Circumstances had changed too. Brooks Arthur was the producer, but by then he‟d sold his 914 Sound Studios, and he and Janis had lost core members of the team. So, the whole process of recording the new LP was not a comfortable one, and Janis remains dissatisfied with the results. And yet, it is Aftertones‟ imperfections, inconsistencies and disjointedness that makes it fascinating. The cover is fantastic, but not to everyone‟s liking, and all the better for that. Robert Christgau in his Consumer Guide quips: “Ian here establishes herself as the most technically accomplished popular vocalist of her (post-rock? post-folkie? pre-Vegas?) generation. She's even managing to curb the melodrama, as well as permitting herself unaccustomed glints of humor. But if you want to glimpse the crippling intellectual limitations of this sort of accomplishment, just get a load of her library, thoughtfully depicted on a cover that also features an open aerogram and an enigmatic mirror-aswindow through which peers the artiste. There they stand, all her sources: a Modern Library Camus, The Second Sex, The Greenwich Village Bluebook, How to Survive in the Woods, and that encyclopedia of secondhand angst, Colin Wilson's The Outsider. How existential. One thing, though--mirrors are good windows only when surviving in the woods isn't
something you ever have to think about.” This probably says more about his world than it does about the record. Janis resisted the temptation to make another Between The Lines. It would have been easy to stick with a winning formula. And if anything there seems a certain wilful perversity at play, as if she is pushing against being labelled too easily, a reluctance to become too smooth, too comfortable. She seems to have an urge to stretch in different directions as if she was uncomfortable with where she was being filed. Even clips of her from the mid„70s, for example promoting her music on British TV via the reverential Old Grey Whistle Test, show how she seems to have arched eyebrows and a wry outlook on proceedings. One of the highlights of Aftertones is I Would Like To Dance which features the salsa star Larry Harlow, giving the track something of a Fania feel. Jerry Ragovoy was brought in to add a gospel/soulful raunch to Belle of the Blues, which features some of Janis‟ snappiest lines, laced with self-deprecating humour: “I‟m the belle of the blues – I‟m used to mingling with the crème de la crème of higher society. I promise them roses, and an eight-by-ten of me, but when the party‟s over they‟re all too glad to leave”. Generally, Janis‟ songs on Aftertones seem less confessional and more like character sketches. Boy I Really Tied One On, for example, is set in the world of New York‟s singles bars. It‟s not quite Looking For Mr Goodbar but it captures something of the hollowness in seeking out one-night stands: “I may feel a fool for a Sunday or two but it‟s better than a Sunday with you”. Intriguingly Esther Phillips did a wonderful, uptempo disco version of this song on her 1976 Capricorn Princess set, but then again the LPs Esther did for Creed Taylor/Kudu featured some bold choices of songs. Janis took more of a lead doing the orchestral arrangements on Aftertones. In her own words she was “experimenting with Stravinsky-esque strings to create ambient backdrops rather than a rhythm-driven track”. This works beautifully on the title track and on Goodbye To Morning, which are both exquisite. The closing track Hymn, too, is just perfect and lives up to its name. It feels like an old spiritual. And it‟s made all the more special by contributions by Odetta and Phoebe Snow. Apart from the fact these two ladies were spectacularly talented and incredible singers there was a certain significance in their presence on this song. Phoebe was just emerging as a new star, one of a new generation of singer/songwriters who couldn‟t be easily placed in a pigeonhole. Her vocals and her songs were steeped in blues and folk and jazz and soul, which would be something Janis could identify with. And Odetta was the person who had made Janis want to sing in the first place. There was something about Aftertones where it seems Janis is reaching out to her original inspirations, like Odetta, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, reconnecting with her roots. Perhaps the finest song on Aftertones is Roses, a tender reflection on divorce and its impact on those involved: “We never tried to save the love we knew. I guess nobody wanted to”. It‟s got a fantastic blend of country and latin influences, but the show is stolen really by Richard Davis on bass, doing that special something in that special way that he enhanced many records.
RICHARD DAVIS Richard was a vital part of the three LPs Janis made with Brooks Arthur. More generally, Janis had something of a tradition of using jazz bass players on her records, without making a big thing about „doing‟ jazz. George Duvivier and Don Payne also feature on her records, but it is Richard‟s contributions that really stand out. That‟s not surprising. There are few bass players in the history of popular music and jazz who have had a more significant impact than Richard.
Astral Weeks is probably the record which people most readily associate with Richard Davis. His playing on that record still sounds remarkable, and it is all the more surprising for the lack of guidance from, and involvement with, Van during those sessions. The record is so revered that it is easy to lose sight of certain facts about the sessions, such as how quickly it was recorded, how little preparation went into it, and what a small budget it was made on. Brooks Arthur as engineer on those sessions showed a fine understanding of dynamics when he later brought Richard in to play on Janis‟ records. Apart from Astral Weeks perhaps the other infamous record Richard Davis played on was Eric Dolphy‟s Out To Lunch, recorded on 25 February 1964. Another record Eric and Richard played on was Andrew Hill‟s Point of Departure, which was recorded a few weeks later on 21 March 1964. This was one of a series of records Andrew Hill made for Blue Note during an incredible burst of creativity during 1963 and 1964. Richard Davis was right at the heart of these sessions, playing on invaluably inventive sets like Black Fire, Smokestack, Judgment!, and Andrew!!! Richard also plays on Bobby Hutcherson‟s Dialogue, which features three Andrew Hill compositions and the great man on piano. Another associated session from that era is Kenny Dorham‟s Trompeta Toccata, where the line-up includes Richard Davis on bass and Joe Henderson on sax. There are so many great things about that series of Andrew Hill titles. They each strike a wonderful balance between experimentation and groove, showing an intuitive understanding of adventure and composition. It‟s no coincidence that Richard was so central to the sessions. There is a revealing Andrew Hill quote from Nat Hentoff‟s sleeve notes for Point of Departure: “He is the greatest bass player in existence. Most good bass players have one thing going for them. A man may walk a good line, but his intonation may leave something to be desired. A very good bass player may have two things going. He may have good intonation and walk well but if you ask for octaves and double stops technical limitations show up. Another bassist may read real good but have no imagination. But Richard he can do anything you demand of him.” Richard worked with Andrew again on his astonishingly brilliant Lift Every Voice Blue Note LP from 1969 which combined the best spiritual jazz of the era with wonderful choral vocal arrangements, which make it an absolute must for any fan of the earlier Coleridge Parkinson collaborations with Max Roach or Donald Byrd. Woody Shaw plays trumpet on this set, and Carlos Garnett is on the saxophone. Richard was understandably much in demand as a session musician and worked as part of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, but it surely can be no coincidence that he was so much a part of an incredible collection of recordings. Beyond Blue Note, Impulse! was another label Richard regularly recorded for. He played on titles by Gary McFarland, Gabor Szabo, Shirley Scott, and Chico Hamilton. Significantly Richard played on Johnny Hartman‟s 1966 set The Voice That Is! and on The Creator Has A Master Plan from Pharoah
Sanders‟ Karma. He also played on a selection of Leon Thomas‟ later recordings. Another classic recording Richard played on was Joe Zawinul‟s The Rise & Fall of the Third Stream. In 1967 Richard made an LP for Impulse! with the drummer Elvin Jones called Heavy Sounds, which had a real soul jazz feel, and featured Frank Foster on sax and Billy Greene on piano. Richard didn‟t take too much advantage of his connections to promote headlining sets of his own as a leader or composer. Among those that are out there are the excellent and very funky Dealin‟ from 1974 on Muse, with a line-up including Clifford Jordan on sax, and Hannibal Marvin Peterson on trumpet. Richard returned the favour by playing bass on Hannibal‟s astonishing Children of the Fire set which Universal Sound would reissue many years later. For 1972‟s The Philosophy of the Spiritual Richard teamed up with fellow bass player Bill Lee to make an extraordinarily beautiful record, which had the added bonus of featuring Chick Corea on piano. Richard and Bill were among the musicians who appeared on Laura Nyro‟s Smile in 1975. This was the first LP Laura had made since 1971‟s Gonna Take A Miracle and the first new songs of her own Laura had recorded since Christmas and the Beads of Sweat in 1970, which Richard had played a part in. Richard must have liked working with Laura enough to become part of her live group when she returned to live performance after Smile came out.
SMILE Between the release of Gonna Take A Miracle and Smile it almost seems as if Laura‟s children had emerged into the light. Janis Ian had come of age. Other New York singers were emerging and staking a claim, like Phoebe Snow and Melissa Manchester. Laura had prised open doors and these singers had kept in effect kept on pushing. This helped create an atmosphere right for the return of Laura with her unique approach, her inimitable abstract soul music and beat expressionism. And Smile was pretty special. Typically, Laura laid her cards on the table from the off, with a cover of The Moments‟ recent hit Sexy Mama, as if to say she was completely on the All Platinum soul side. Or as she put it on I Am The Blues on the record itself: “Soothe me horn‟s warm red love makin funky music”. Charlie Calello was back at the controls for Smile. This was both a practical decision and an inspired one. Charlie had been the guiding light behind Laura‟s world-changing Eli & the Thirteenth Confession LP which came out in early 1968, and there did genuinely seem to be a spiritual bond between the two so that as a team they could translate all the inspiration and imagination into something at once unprecedented and digestible. On Smile Charlie seemed able to act on Laura‟s instincts and channel the spiritual energies
into making something that was quite grainy and naturalistic, with quite a pronounced CTI fusion feel and a rudimentary folk flow. Calello had started out as an arranger, part of the 4 Seasons‟ organisation, working on hits like Walk Like A Man, Candy Girl, Stay, Let‟s Hang On, and many more. Branching out, beyond the 4 Seasons‟ family, he had success with his transformative powers on Lou Christie‟s Lightnin‟ Strikes and Rhapsody in the Rain, and with Shirley Ellis‟ The Name Game and The Clapping Song. Pop music doesn‟t really get better than that. Pop stories don‟t get much better than the way Calello would drift off and do some incredible thing, but then find himself back as part of The Organisation working away on whatever direction the 4 Seasons were moving in next. The 4 Seasons‟ story is an incredible one, and still largely underappreciated as a whole. One fascinating aspect was the way members of The Organisation did drift off and do their own thing. Bob Crewe, for example, in his guise as The King of New York had a remarkable set-up with his dynoVoice and NewVoice labels in the „60s. Andrew Loog Oldham recognised his importance, and borrowed Crewe‟s template. Part of Crewe‟s genius was to involve the smartest people at the heart of his labels. And much of Charlie Calello‟s greatest work was for Crewe in the mid-„60s, such as Shirley Matthews‟ Wise Guys, Jeanne Thomas‟ Too Good To Be Bad, Maggie Thrett‟s Soupy, and Come Closer by Jessica James & the Outlaws.. Two other people Crewe had at the heart of dynoVoice were the songwriters Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell whom he put together as a team. They wrote for the 4 Seasons, with Bob Crewe or Bob Gaudio, coming up with classics such as Opus 17, Let‟s Hang On, Working My Way Back To You. And for dynoVoice they were responsible for the some of the great ever pop songs, like The Toys‟ A Lovers Concerto and Attack, and The Invitations‟ Ski-ing in the Snow and What‟s Wrong With Me Baby, all of which were arranged by Charlie Calello. The same team would later come up with the Bandwagon‟s classic Breakin‟ Down The Walls of Heartache. Another person Crewe had as part of the dynoVoice team was Herb Bernstein. He, too, put in his time with the 4 Seasons, such as on Frankie Valli‟s You‟re Ready Now, which became an early success on the rare soul scene in the UK, finally charting in late 1970 four years after it was first released. For dynoVoice Herb‟s greatest moment perhaps was arranging and producing Down for Billie Dearborn, a startlingly deep track which he wrote with L. Russell Brown of Dawn fame. Herb produced another magnificent performance by Billie for Bell, the Northern Soul favourite You Need Me To Love You. Another artist Herb showed loyalty to was Barbara Banks with whom he made some astonishingly wonderful soul sides, like Living in the Past, River of Tears and Ain‟t I Worth A Dime. Another piece of pop perfection touched by Herb Bernstein is Lainie Hill‟s beat/soul ballad Time Marches On on NewVoice. It‟s so exquisite, with a gorgeous guitar motif, that it raises valid questions about how art is assessed. There really can be no question that a record this right is worth so much more than the accumulated canons of supposedly more serious artists who seem to have no intuitive understanding why a side like Time Marches On is so valuable in terms of artistic achievement. It was, however, something the New York Dolls instinctively knew, which is what it so perfect about the fact that Shadow Morton was at the controls of their Too Much Too Soon LP. One of the great tracks on dynoVoice that Herb Bernstein arranged and conducted was We‟ll Be Making Out by Jessica James & the Outlaws, produced by Bob Gaudio. Jessica was an alias for Peggy Santiglia of The Angels, of My Boyfriend‟s Back infamy. Peggy, once again, had strong 4 Seasons connections, having written with Bob Gaudio (as Peggy
Farina) the wonderful Beggin‟ and September Rain for Frankie Valli. Peggy also played a big part in making Lou Christie‟s Lightnin‟ Strikes such a fantastic song. Herb Bernstein‟s pop stock rose dramatically following the unexpected international success of Norma Tanega‟s Walkin‟ My Cat Named Dog, the single and subsequent LP that he arranged and produced. Walkin‟ My Cat Named Dog originally came out on NewVoice, and really took off in early 1966 when (rather like Lee and Nancy) Norma and Herb made music that took the best of the Jaynetts and Judy Collins, combined girl group sassiness and folk melodies with beat poetry and rhythm, and enjoyed watching it sell. Ironically as this was happening Shadow Morton and Janis Ian were making Society‟s Child with similar ideas in mind.
Norma had a hit in the UK with her Dog, met Dusty, fell in love, wrote some songs for her, wrote a song for Blossom about her: “Pink and paisley skies shining in green eyes. A magic pin wheel. London flowers in her hair”. Herb, meanwhile, working independently, outside of the 4 Seasons family, was offered the opportunity to work with Verve‟s new signing Laura Nyro, which he did, providing the arrangements for More Than a New Discovery. And he did a great job, shaping Laura‟s incredible flights of imagination and helping to create something from which she could subsequently fly off into unchartered territory. One of the best stories to come out of the More Than a New Discovery sessions is about Herb Bernstein going on to record with the backing singers the Hi-Fashions, making the classic Billy Knows single for dynoVoice, and the excellent Fireman for Atco as Vala Reegan & the Valarons which resurfaced on the Kent compilation Still Paying Our Dues in 1999. A couple of the Hi-Fashions appeared with Laura Nyro as part of her infamous Monterey Pop Festival performance. There‟s a lovely story too in Michelle Kort‟s book about how Laura and the Hi-Fashions put on an impromptu show a couple of weeks later in their San Francisco hotel room for the 5th Dimension and friends. The journalist Ellen Sander says it‟s the best performance they ever gave. In the context of the late „60s there is an irony that everyone in the 4 Seasons‟ circle is seen as sort of square, somehow uncool, even when the evidence, their activities, proves the opposite to be true. Bob Crewe‟s new discoveries, for example, speak volumes. He took on some remarkable new projects. With Glitterhouse he produced an extraordinary psychedelic soul LP, which matches the work of The Action or Zombies. And he oversaw the creation of Lotti Golden‟s Motor-Cycle, a work of spectacularly singular soul surrealism.
Then Bob Gaudio had the nous to bring Jake Holmes into the 4 Seasons fold which resulted in two of the most startlingly brilliant records of the era. First was the 4 Seasons‟ own The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette for which Jake wrote the words and Bob Gaudio provided the music. The 4 Seasons‟ story shows them doggedly adapting to the changing times, so it‟s no surprise they enthusiastically embraced the post-Peppers/Pet Sounds opportunities. In terms of ideas and invention The Genuine Life Gazette is a vividly clear set of snapshots of the era musically and lyrically. Its sweep is panoramic, astoundingly ambitious, and it succeeds spectacularly well, revealing more and more as time passes. The 4 Seasons deserve every possible credit for throwing themselves so boldly into a project that so perfectly spans the worlds of Broadway dramatics and the pop avantgarde. The arrangements are impeccable, incredibly ornate and moving, and the group‟s harmonic splendour moves the whole into the realms of jazz and classical composition. Charlie Calello was back as part of The Organisation for The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette and for the subsequent Bob Gaudio/Jake Holmes project, where he arranged half the songs and Joe Scott of Peacock Records/Johnny Ace fame did the rest. This was the 1970 Frank Sinatra set, Watertown, a song cycle or love story which is like your fantasy Richard Yates book, the tale of a failed relationship in small town America which he never got round to writing. It is an incredibly moving record, and again one which it has taken the world of popular culture an incredibly long time to catch up with and appreciate fully. The story goes that Sinatra got to hear The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, liked what everyone was doing on that record, and wanted to try something similar. There is something of a continuous thread linking The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette and Watertown. With Watertown it‟s impossible to imagine anyone else apart from Sinatra being able to carry off the dramatic gravitas of the work, and getting the right feel for the very grown-up dilemmas and themes. He captures perfectly the loneliness and delusions of the central character, the abandoned husband, a railwayman left behind in the small town, Old Watertown, where nothing much happens. There are no overwrought theatrics, and if Sinatra‟s performance recalls anyone it‟s David Ackles, but then that should probably read the other way around.
There are many remarkable things about this LP. Again, as with his great „50s concept LPs, Sinatra can really take on the character of a song. His tone perfectly captures the mood of Watertown: the bemusement, melancholy, wry reflection, desperate hope, the clinging on to small things, the imaginary conversations, the sentiments not shared, the reading too
much into things. Sinatra plays the part to perfection, and that‟s no surprise really. He never shied away from a tricky role. And he never really went out of his way to be liked. His character in Watertown is not particularly likeable, but it‟s difficult not to be touched by the self-deceit: “And there‟s so many things to say. I wrote so many times and more. But the letters still are lying in my drawer. „Cause the morning mail had left some time before”. What is really striking is the stark realism of the lyrics on Watertown at a time when so much in the music world was consumed by abstract poetic pretentiousness that could mean everything or nothing. Jake Holmes‟ lyrics are pretty much to the point, and tell the story pretty clearly. His songs are rich in wonderful vivid lines: “Just as I begin to say that we should make another try she reaches out across the table, looks at me and quietly says goodbye. There is no big explosion, no tempest in the tea. The world does not stop turning round. There‟s no big tragedy. Sitting in a coffee shop with cheese cake and some apple pie ...” Making a film or TV special out of the LP, as originally proposed, would have shattered the mood, and quite possibly Sinatra realised that. Charlie Calello‟s reputation was boosted by the wonderful work he did on Laura Nyro‟s 1968 LP Eli & the Thirteenth Confession. Janis Ian decided she too needed to work with Charlie and he was hired to work his magic on her 1969 LP Who Really Cares. By that time Janis really was convinced that no-one really cared. It was the last record she owed Verve. It was her last recording as a teenager. Many wrote her off as a one-hit wonder, the kid who caused a fuss with Society‟s Child. But as is often the case when you‟re not setting out to please anyone the results are pretty special. And on this record Janis really got close to her rhythm „n‟ blues roots, with spectacular success. Who Really Cares contains a few uptempo blasts of pure soul magnificence. It seems astonishing that these songs were not covered and transformed into huge hits, in the way the 5th Dimension and many others took Laura Nyro‟s songs. Perhaps somewhere these few songs have become northern soul floorfillers. Love You More Than Yesterday (not the Shangri-Las song) is the most commercial track on the record, and should have been covered by one of the femme soul outfits who were tackling more adventurous songs at the time. Sea and Sand and Do You Remember are similarly wonderful examples of r‟n‟b pyrotechnics, which it would have been wonderful to have someone like Dusty or Madeline Bell perform. It‟s easy to imagine a UK cover version with „everything but the kitchen sink‟ soul productions by Ian Green or Keith Mansfield. “The golden age of rock,” pronounces Janis at the end of Do You Remember, partly mocking, partly serious. A few of the songs have more of an abstract operatic/gospel ballad feel. Galveston, for example, starts with a direct reference to the Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell hit then zigzags off into a thousand other things. The song is simply tumbling with ideas, and appropriately could easily be a track from the glorious Sunshower LP Jimmy Webb made with Thelma Houston. The Galveston motifs are not the only contemporary pop references on the LP. Angel of The Morning is mentioned, and now serves as a useful reminder that Who Really Cares makes a perfect companion to Evie Sands‟ Any Way That You Want Me, which was recorded around the same time. One of the highlights of Who Really Cares is Orphan of the Wind which is gloriously jazzy, capturing Janis somewhere between Chris Connor at her bluesy melancholy best and Tim Buckley at his most reflective. Dave Friedman almost steals the show with his performance on vibes, accentuating the Tim Buckley connection. Month of May is another highlight which has more of a soulful folk flow, and is the song here that really predicts the direction Janis‟ work would take in the 1970s. Callello adds some gorgeous and very subtle silky strings on this track. It really is quite beautiful, especially when the horns come in towards the end.
MIRACLE ROW By the time Janis got around to making Miracle Row in late 1976 punk rock was taking off. If anything Janis would have been seen as part of the old world, but she was five years younger than Patti Smith and the same age as a lot of the other leading lights of the New York new wave scene. It‟s difficult to say whether she was aware of what was happening. What Janis was certainly painfully aware of at the time was the debilitating routines that were part of the music industry. Write some songs, make a record, go out on tour, promote the new LP, and start the cycle all over again, getting more and more removed from the life and experiences that helped shape the initial burst of creativity. The punk generation would find this out the hard way, and cope with the pressures a lot worse than Janis did. Miracle Row has a lot going for it. She took control of it herself, and chose to use her touring band for the recording sessions. Brooks Arthur had moved on. Among those he would go on to work with would be Carole Bayer Sager, and he produced her debut LP in 1977 which generated the prickly hit You‟re Moving Out. Ron Frangipane was back in the fold for Miracle Row. He‟s quite a fascinating character, and has worked on all sorts of important things from The Archies to Yoko Ono‟s wonderful Approximately Infinite Universe, from Bert Sommer to The Beckies, from Townes Van Zandt‟s Delta Momma Blues (with Brooks Arthur) to the very strange soundtrack of Alejandro Jodorowsky‟s The Holy Mountain (with Don Cherry). And not forgetting Lou Christie‟s incredible Paint America Love, on which Ron arranged a few of the tracks. Understandably, Janis seems to have had a lot of time for his arrangements, and clearly struck up a great rapport with him while working on the earlier Stars and Between The Lines LPs. I Want To Make You Love Me and Candlelight, a couple of the stand-out tracks on Miracle Row, attain that easy listening A.O.R. perfection that makes parts of Fleetwood Mac‟s Rumours so enchanting. Both songs seem to draw on the loneliness and longing Janis was experiencing at the time. I Want To Make You Love Me is particularly beautiful, and would fit perfectly along side Captain & Tennile‟s Love Will Keep Us Together and the Starland Vocal Band‟s Afternoon Delight on any radio show. Slow Dance Romance is another song that should have been a hit, with its country soul inflections and sensual vocals that would fit perfectly on an early Pretenders LP. It‟s so tempting to imagine Chrissie Hynde singing this one. Intriguingly the one song on Miracle Row that did become successful in its own right was Will You Dance? which became a huge hit in Japan. The song itself has a dramatic tango like feel, and seems like Abba covering something from Phil Ochs‟ Pleasures of the Harbor. Janis, here, came up with a provocative song which shines a light on the various things
that tear the human race apart: religion, drugs, violence, politics, romance: “Someone is dying. Panic in the streets. Can‟t get no relief, someone escaping. Waiting on a line for the holy revolution. Parading illusion. Someone‟s using. Most amusing”. In the period leading up to making Miracle Row Janis had been living back in New York, getting to know old neighbourhoods again. Musically the atmosphere she was soaking up comes through on the LP with a pronounced latin or salsa feel at times. I‟ll Cry Tonight is a beautiful ballad, with some wonderfully subtle latin percussion underpinning it. The title track itself, Miracle Row, is a collection of lyrical snapshots of life on those streets, which is one of Janis‟ greatest achievements. It‟s so vivid that its almost like a synopsis for a Richard Price novel. On Let Me Be Lonely the group lets fly and really gets seriously funky in a lovely Fania/CTI way. Take To The Sky is funky too, but in a rather more introspective and jazzy way. Now that really is a song Esther Phillips definitely should have covered. Like a lot of the songs on Miracle Row it feels like Rickie Lee Jones‟ doing her thing a couple of years too soon. There are two incredibly important ballads on Miracle Row. One is Maria, a heartfelt love song: “Oh Maria your eyes are like a demon lover‟s child and lips of velvet issue invitation every time you smile”. It‟s difficult to know whether Janis was amused or appalled that no one kicked up a fuss about the way the sentiments leant. Perhaps all Janis Ian‟s fans really care about is the beauty of the song. The other ballad of note is Sunset of Your Life which is up there with Kevin Rowland‟s Old in its perceptive portrayal of society‟s attitudes towards the elderly. Kevin and Janis intriguingly choose to couch their observations in melodies so magnificently beautiful that it‟s like tapping into all the beauty and experiences the elderly possess and drawing on that strength.
FLY TOO HIGH Among Ron Frangipane‟s activities after Miracle Row would be the arrangements for a few of the tracks on the 1979 solo LP by Cory Daye as she sought some success in her own right after singing with the immortal Dr Buzzard‟s Original Savannah Band. Cory‟s LP was „masterminded‟ by Sandy Linzer, and the songwriting credits feature other familiar names like Denny Randell, Charlie Calello, and L. Russell Brown. The extended Four Seasons Family‟s influence was still very much alive, and was felt throughout the „70s. In the early „70s the Four Seasons Family moved west and threw its lot in with the Motown Organisation. The partnership produced one of the great moments in pop history in The Night, and the accompanying LP, the knowingly and appropriately titled Chameleon, contained some real gems such as Sun Country and Touch The Rainchild. A slightly later but equally magnificent Motown/Four Seasons release from early 1974, paired Hickory with Charisma, and had Charlie Calello back doing the arrangements. The songs were written by Bob Crewe with a young writer he had brought into the fold, Kenny Nolan. Among the Bob Crewe/Kenny Nolan collaborations of that time was the eccentric disco/pop sounds of The Eleventh Hour whose 1974 Greatest Hits LP featured the original version of the pair‟s Lady Marmalade which, of course, was later picked up by Allen Toussaint and Labelle. The Eleventh Hour Greatest Hits set was arranged by Charlie Calello, and in many ways served as a useful template for the Disco Tex and the Sex-OLettes project which was concocted around the persona of Sir Monti Rock III, the flamboyant disco „personality‟. Two of the songs Crewe and Nolan wrote for the project became massive international hits, Get Dancing and I Wanna Dance Wit' Choo (Doo Dat Dance), and any suggestion of novelty is made ridiculous when watching vintage footage
of the Soul Train audience dancing to the sound of Disco Tex sounding strangely like Ian Hunter urging his followers to do their thing. An elaborate conceptual live review „document‟ was put together as the debut Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes LP, featuring the hits and other tracks credited to a mix of characters like Jerry Corbetta, Lu Ann Simms, Freddie Cannon, The Chocolate Kisses, and the Fangito Fireflies. Kenny Nolan did the famous falsettos. Charlie Calello did some of the arrangements. And Denny Randell was back involved, helping with the songwriting and arrangements. Denny had been off working for Frank Zappa‟s organisation, and had produced Tim Buckley‟s Sefronia LP, which was a bit controversial as he tried to take Tim in a more pop direction. The problem was perhaps, he didn‟t take Tim far enough down that road. Sefronia is still seriously underrated, though.
The second Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes LP, Manhattan Millionaire, from 1976 was almost a solo Kenny Nolan affair, and reprises a couple of numbers he‟d tried out elsewhere, like Hey There Little Firefly and Ride A Wild Horse which had been a hit for Dee Clarke in late 1975. Kenny had some real success with his bubblegum soul/disco creations that year while working for the Chelsea label, with some really wonderful pop confectionary like Jim Gilstrap‟s Swing Your Daddy and Linda Carr‟s Highwire. The great thing about songwriting partnerships like Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan was their versatility. They could come up with gorgeously syrupy ballads like My Eyes Adored You which became a massive hit for Frankie Valli in 1975. The same Close Up LP this featured on, which was arranged by Charlie Calello, also had the Bob Crewe/Denny Randell classic Swearin‟ To God which was presented as an extended 10-minute disco number and which still stands as one of the most glorious performances in the history of pop music. The Four Seasons would have great success with their own disco-infused recordings in 1975/1976 such as Who Loves You and Silver Star. As Denny Randell is quoted as saying in an interview with the Songfacts site: “In the heart of the disco era there was a point where pop music and dance music were really one and the same. There was a period of time where the hottest records in the clubs were also the hottest records on the air. But one of the neat things about this period, and it's something that really worked for me, was that it was a great union of big band and horns and strings and rhythms. My background is very broad-based in music; I've written and performed in so many different bags that there was something about that music at that time that I really loved. It was musically great. You could have great horn sections and string sections and have great melodies and great hooks going on, and very exciting rhythms happening at the same time. So for me, on the one hand, it just felt like great music that I had always been involved with. But on the other
hand, it was current and popular at that time. And it was actually very easy for me to try and get excited and work in that bag.” Denny was partially involved in a second and very different LP by The Eleventh Hour, released in 1976, which Bob Crewe put together with a great pool of LA session players and singers. Hollywood Hot was very much on the funkier, percussion-heavy side of disco, altogether more gritty, and now rightly revered by „boogie connoisseurs‟. Trevor Veitch was someone heavily involved with Bob Crewe, and around the same time they put together another heavier disco set, almost a gay concept album Street Talk, under the old umbrella of The Bob Crewe Generation. Veitch later helped co-wrote Gloria which became a big hit for Laura Branigan in 1982 and co-produced Toni Basil‟s Mickey. It‟s no surprise to note Sandy Linzer‟s activities in the „70s also had a strong disco leaning. He wrote the gorgeous You Can Do Magic for Limmie the Family Cookin‟ which was a big hit in 1973 and was brought in as producer for the 1976 debut by Dr Buzzard‟s Original Savannah Band, with Charlie Calello doing the arrangements. The team of Linzer and Calello was the perfect foil for the fanciful imaginations of August Darnell and Stony Browder Jr. and the angelic voice of Cory Daye. The brothers may have had the ideas but Linzer and Calello had the practical know-how and technical nous to make it all work. And all those songs, Sunshower and Cherchez La Femme etc., still sound fantastic. When the Buzzards decided to fly solo after their debut, Linzer and Celello took many of the exotic orchestral and magnificent melodic ideas with them and worked their magic with Odyssey. What is perhaps the greatest Linzer/Randell composition, Native New Yorker, became an international hit for Odyssey in 1977. It had already been recorded by Frankie Valli on his Lady Put The Light Out LP, produced by (oh yes!) Charlie Calello. But in the hands of Odyssey it took on a new dimension, given the mix of backgrounds involved. Linzer and Calello would be behind the first few Odyssey LPs, the third of which Hang Together hosted their immortal hits Use It Up and Wear It Up and If You‟re Looking For a Way Out. Calello also recorded his own ostentatiously orchestrated disco productions, revisiting old melodies like Moonlight Serenade and Sing Sing Sing with considerable pizzazz, using session singers such as Cissy Houston and Luther Vandross. The glamorous ideas which Stony Browder Jr. and August Darnell had been playing with, taking the spirit of Harlem nocturnes, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, big bands and razor sharp wit, were also a big influence on Chic when they were starting out. You can hear similar ideas at work too on I Remember Yesterday by Donna Summer, which she composed with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. In the late „70s, coincidentally Janis Ian had told her record company that she would love to work with either the Chic Organisation or Moroder‟s production team. Janis did, in fact, get the chance to record a couple of songs with Moroder. One of these, Fly Too High, was the closest she came to a UK hit, almost reaching the Top 40 at the end of 1979. It was used on Moroder‟s soundtrack for the film Foxes, starring Jodie Foster, along with Donna Summer‟s On The Radio. Typically, Janis‟ moment in the disco spotlight was anything but conventional. She wrote about the New York bathhouse scene in which she had invested heavily with her friend Bruce Mailman. Steve Madaio played some beautiful trumpet and Janis sang: “Anonymous autonomous will likely get the best of us yet. Before you disappear if you can lend me half an ear I'll regret. If i treat you like a number it's because i can't remember your name, so have another cigarette and help me to forget why I came ...”.
I HEAR YOU SING AGAIN So, yeah, there‟s a lot to love within Janis Ian‟s back catologue, and a lot of fun to be had making connections. There could be a lot more to explore, making links to Teena Marie or to Luscious Jackson, who have definite links with Janis‟ spirit and story, and so on. The funny thing is that sometimes, having discovered an artist‟s earlier work, it is difficult to make another connection to that person‟s more recent activities. The question of contemporary recordings is often politely avoided. And that was certainly the case with Janis. I confess that itt would be quite a while before I got around to giving her more contemporary recordings a listen. Oh, I was aware of Janis‟ activities. I knew she was good at backing causes and could be pretty outspoken about a range of issues, from gay rights to coming out controversially in favour of „illegal‟ downloading from the internet. I realised she had a thriving community of fans, that she did some journalism, and had written an autobiography. But it wasn‟t until I actually got round to reading her autobiography, Society‟s Child, that I felt the urge to hear her more recent work. And that was a smart move, because Janis‟ most contemporary collections could well be her best. Billie‟s Bones was released in 2004, and there is a lot of detail on her website about how she approached this record and the way in which it was put together in Nashville, where she had been living for some time. Quite deliberately Janis put together something quite stark which united her beloved jazz roots and her passion for country music. Richard Davis enthusiastically agreed to participate, bringing his intuition and wisdom, while the other part of the rhythm section Harry Stimson had a lot of experience playing on modern country recordings. The coming together of the two worlds works perfectly, and if at times there are suggestions of Norah Jones‟ Come Away With Me then that‟s fine. It just brings things full circle. Janis may have had to keep a careful eye on the budget during the recording of Billie‟s Bones, but that quite probably helps with the stripped-down feel. Thankfully all involved in the recording seem to have realised the importance of keeping things simple, and Richard‟s inevitably beautiful bass playing helps to break up the flow and stop things from becoming too traditional or formulaic. There have, after all, been goodness knows how many variations on the country roots/Americana theme over the past decade or so. And at best most of them have been so-so. For the occasional Gillian Welch that enriches our lives there is a flood of also-rans who are oh so tasteful and respectful, who know all the right notes and poses, who have the right records at home, but who offer nothing of substance, nothing memorable, in the way of songs or singing.
Janis has had so many ups-and-downs in her life that she can certainly sing with the voice of experience, but it‟s not as simple as that. It‟s to do with being blessed with a gift. And there are some glorious examples of inspired compositions and heartfelt performances on Billie‟s Bones. I Hear You Sing Again, for example, is achingly beautiful and nakedly emotional about losing a mother. And anyone who has read Janis‟ autobiography and revelled in her mother‟s spirit and appetite for a fight throughout her life will have an inkling of the impact her mother‟s illness and death will have had on Janis. It‟s followed by Forever Young, with inevitably a knowing nod to Bob, which again packs a telling emotional punch, with a real old murder ballad feel to it. Matthew tells the story of the murder of Matthew Shepard, the student who was killed for being gay in Wyoming in 1998. Many songs have been written as a consequence of this terrible hate crime, and Janis‟ is as chilling as Elvis Costello‟s Let Him Dangle: “Who did he harm, what was the crime? Did he walk too lightly, did he seem too shy? Did he make them wonder deep inside? Did they feel like real men when he died?”
That sense of social justice/protest perfectly demonstrated on Matthew is also very much in evidence on the subsequent LP, Janis‟ Folk is the New Black from 2006. These words from The Great Divide give a good indication of some of the themes Janis tackles on this record: “While churches counsel patience and heavenly reward they sub-divide our nations by the shield and by the sword and every congregation has its pipeline to the lord but there will be no salvation and no place to hide for those who lied and buried us alive to build the walls of the Great Divide” It may be wish fulfilment, or displaying personal passions, but this LP at times seems imbued with the spirit of Phil Ochs. You sense his influence in the way Janis tackles tricky subjects, and uses humour nicely on numbers like My Autobiography. The sound is if anything more stripped down than on Billie‟s Bones, a bit more bluesy, and Janis‟ voice sounds deeper and huskier which suits her perfectly. Roots is an overused word, but this is Janis going back to her own folk beginnings and, as the mischievous title track implies, folk music flits in
and out of fashion, on and off of commercials, and so on, but hey let‟s see who sticks around for 40-plus years. The record has Viktor Krauss on acoustic bass, and thankfully there are few other embellishments. There are some gorgeous songs on this LP too. The Last Train, for instance, is like a distant relative of Jessie, a tale for the people still searching for ghosts of conflicts passed. Tomás Eloy Martínez touched upon a similar theme in his beautiful ghost story Purgatory about the missing of the 1970s Argentinean military dictatorship. The stark accompaniment perfectly suits the intimate, meditative nature of the song: “Then in the distance, thunder pealed A whistle pierced the cricket's song and you could see the sparks and the wheels of the last train back from Viet Nam It stopped just long enough to board and as she ran, time set her free A young man helped her through the door and said - I knew you would wait for me” And elsewhere on the LP it‟s back to the question of emotional impact. Janis singing songs such as Shadows on the Wind and Home is the Heart strikes a chord within, connects emotionally and aesthetically, in a way someone else sensitively performing with an acoustic guitar may leave me cold and unmoved. Each to their own. I have always preferred the fighters to the mystics.
“There's a crack in the heavens, and a tear in the sky It cuts through the shadows living in her eyes And the gates of the city are closed until dawn when the ghosts of midnight have come and gone And the hearts of the weary carry on”