Tag Archives: Motown

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 5: Mercy, Mercy Me by Marvin Gaye

James Jamerson, the man widely and repeatedly cited as the greatest bass player in the history of popular music (or at least the greatest bass guitarist), was a genius, peerless.

But unfortunately, Jamerson had a weakness for alcohol, a weakness that would eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver and his death. Motown found that they needed a reserve in Detroit who could be relied on to turn up on time and deliver the goods when Jamerson couldn’t.

Babbitt was that man. He had come into contact with some moonlighting Funk Brothers, including Jamerson himself, while playing sessions at a studio called Golden World, owned by R&B producer Ed Wingate. Through this association, Babbitt found himself playing in Stevie Wonder’s live band, and then Berry Gordy acquired Golden World for Motown. Guys like Uriel Jones and Benny Benjamin who had played with Babbitt at Golden World for Wingate’s sessions knew Babbitt could play – and read written charts – to a high standard, so when the decision was made to try to find a bassist who could bring something of Jamerson’s style to the sessions Jamerson couldn’t make, Babbitt got the call. His first session was Wonder’s version of We Can Work It Out.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On brought out the best in every musician involved in cutting it, and Babbitt was no different. Jamerson plays on the lion’s share of the cuts, but Babbitt got the sessions for Inner City Blues, Wholly Holy and Mercy Mercy Me.

Mercy Mercy Me has always been my favourite of them. Babbitt’s bass is a big, but not destablising, presence in the mix, and the pattern he plays is glorious. He locks in with the dominant kick-drum strokes at the front of each bar on the root note, before playing a funky melodic pattern with the octave note and fifth, stressing the downbeat by playing the first of those prominent octave notes in time with the snare. I love grooves that work like this, that add high-register melodic elements to a great low-end pocket. John Klinberg’s bass line on Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic is another favourite of mine for exactly the same reason.

He plays that pattern on the E, C# minor and F# minor chords, but changes things up on the B by playing a funky vamp mainly on the root, but incorporating a little chromatic run back up to the E.

It’s details like that run, so like what we think of when we think of James Jamerson’s playing, that have led many to assume he was the player on Mercy Mercy Me. Nowhere but Motown would Babbitt be in anyone’s shadow. He may have gotten his start at Motown because he could reproduce the Jamerson style when called upon, but the man was his own player, and is one of the finest there has ever been.

Inner City Blues; Mercy Mercy Me; Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours; Midnight Train to Georgia; Ball of Confusion; Agent Double-O-Soul; Band of Gold. All Babbitt, all classics.

 

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She’s Gone – Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates always seemed to view popular music as a playground for them to have fun in. Many white soul singers and groups have suffered from a purism born of a desire to be taken seriously. Daryl Hall was taken seriously – by Thom Bell, by Gamble & Huff, by Smokey Robinson (who tried to get him signed to Motown), by the Stylistics and the Delfonics, whose members Hall knew when he was a kid (he’s 69 years old – the band have been going since the very early seventies), and by the Temptations, with whom he and Oates struck up an easy friendship.

Knowing that he had the respect of these guys seems to have freed Hall to be whatever he’s wanted to be in the moment, and so his music has ranged far and wide. In the late seventies, it acquired new wave synths. He moved to New York and made a punk-infused art-rock solo album with Robert Fripp, king of gonzoid guitar, before casually returning to pop to become an icon of the early MTV age. In the 1980s, Hall, with his huge mullet, and Oates, with his bubble perm and porn-star moustache, were almost like a cartoon of themselves, and always looked like they were having a hell of a lot of fun.

But at heart, Hall and Oates are soul brothers, and their most enduring and emotionally affecting songs tend to be soul ballads, records like Everytime You Go Away (made famous by Paul Young, but recorded in a bravely minimal gospel style by H&O), Sara Smile and, above any other, She’s Gone.

She’s Gone is one of my favourite records of all time, no question. Top 10, easily. Right up there with Native New Yorker, Wedding Bell Blues (Laura Nyro’s recording, obvs), I Need Your Lovin’, What You Won’t Do For Love and the rest. It’s a masterpiece, and I love everything about it: the A/B to B chord change that 10CC nicked for the intro to I’m Not in Love a couple of years later; the way Hall doubles Oates’s melody in the verses an octave higher before stepping out at the end of each verse, letting the words pour out of him, as if from some from unhealable wound; the masterful string and brass arrangement; the bluesy guitar in the intro; Bernard Purdie’s patient shuffle on the drums. It’s all wonderful.

That’s before we get to what’s probably the finest key change in popular music. Unearned within their songs, most key changes fall flat. They signify no emotional release, only the idea that a raising of pitch might have been connected in some way to a raising of the emotional stakes in some other song in the past, and so might work again here, in some Pavlovian fashion. This “X Factor” key change has given them a deserved bad name. When I noticed Lou Barlow incorporating key changes into a couple of songs on his recent record, I had to stand up and applaud his bravery.- few serious songwriters risk it these days.

The key change in She’s Gone is the opposite of the lazy key change. For a start it happens late in a song filled with patient build-up and intelligent lyrical detail. Moreover it comes about in semi-tonal increments, with the listener unsure what key the song’s going to land in. It becomes a dare: when we arrive, finally, at whatever key we’re going to be in, are the singers going to be able to hit the high notes still? It’s like Hall & Oates are setting themselves a challenge, egging the band on to keep raising the bar, always confident they’ll be able to clear it. But the actual key change is accompanied by a kind of emotional key change too, from grief to something very close to joy – the journey taken by so much of the best soul music. So much of the best music, full stop.

If you only know Hall & Oates as the group that did Maneater, or Private Eyes, or even Rich Girl, She’s Gone is the song to make you permanently re-evaluate them.

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Holiday Harmonies Part 5: I Want You by Marvin Gaye

I’ve written about this song before, but in a first for this blog, I’m going to write about it again. Because it’s one of my favourite songs ever.

Nobody ever sang harmonies with themselves like Marvin Gaye. Not Prince. Not Joni Mitchell. Not Michael Jackson. Not even Michael McDonald, the self-harmonising hero of many a Steely Dan tune.

So far we’ve looked at harmonies created by two or more people singing with each other, but since Patti Page first sang the Tennessee Waltz, stacked vocals recorded by just one singer have been an extremely common alternative. Today it may even be the more common of the two approaches, as more and more records are the result of one person beavering away in a home studio by themselves.

In some ways it’s less satisfying for the listener. The way different textures and timbres blend with each other is a big part of what we respond to when we listen to singers harmonising. Some voices that are satisfying by themselves become less so when they double tracked or harmonise with themselves. Too much of a good thing. Too much of the same thing.

Other singers, though, and Marvin Gaye is the foremost example of the phenomenon, can create something magical when working this way.

It’s not just that Gaye’s voice naturally had a different grain when he sang in his low, tenor and falsetto ranges – although it did, and that definitely fed into it. It’s that he was skilled at manipulating those naturally different timbres (for example, making a high harmony part deliberately more wispy and thin to make it sit differently on top of another line that was close in pitch) and that he chose which octave to sing a given note in brilliantly.

Play a C triad on the piano consisting of middle C and the E and G just above it. Now add the A just above that G. That’s a voicing of C6. Now put the A underneath middle C. You might hear that as Aminor7, or as C6, but how you perceive it will depend on the context of the chord progression and the other instruments in the arrangement. Now, play that first C voicing again, add a low C and G in the left hand underneath it, and stretch out the right hand so the A is an octave above where it was in our first example. Each time the effect of that A within the chord is different.

The implications of this sort of game for vocal harmony singing are obvious. Notes that are “distant” from the underlying chord will tend to sound sweeter and clearer if they’re pitched up high. Putting them in the middle of the fray, so to speak, will make them sound darker, or more dissonant. Marvin understood all this and used his adaptable voice and very wide range to create gorgeously rich and often very harmonically dense block chords of oohs and aahs.

I Want You is a symphony for vocals. Although the mix does contain prominent horns and electric guitar, it’s the vocals – the overlapping leads, the ghostly oohs mixed left and right that span an almost unfeasible range – that cut deepest. When they suddenly seem to burst forward in the mix after the line “Ain’t it lonely out there”, it’s a truly spine-chilling moment.

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Marvin Gaye, king of self harmonisers

 

Holiday harmonies, part 4: You Really Got a Hold on Me – The Beatles

With a straight face, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame inducted the Manhattan Transfer before The Beatles.* Really.

So absurd is the scale of The Beatles’ achievements within popular music that we sometimes put them in a box by themselves, lest we be unfair to everyone else by making comparisons. We talk about, say, Don McLean and James Taylor as singer-songwriters without acknowledging that, by any meaningful definition, John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and for that matter Stevie Wonder and James Brown) were singer-songwriters too. But Lennon and McCartney were Beatles, which makes them somehow other, a category unto themselves.

We’ve got the big picture right – they are incomparable within popular music. But our judgement of them is skewed in favour of the huge obvious masterpieces. Of course we bow down in awe before Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, Hey Jude and so on. Who wouldn’t? But The Beatles would have belonged to the ages if they’d never made another record after A Hard Day’s Night.

One of the chief pleasures of listening to The Beatles’ early records is to hear them tearing through styles and genres, delivering precociously accurate yet idiosyncratic takes on each of them, then moving on to the next thing. Girl group pop. Bakersfield country. Hollywood musicals. Hard R&B. They could do everything. As much as they were the originators of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock and pop music, The Beatles were the world’s greatest human jukebox, their ability to assimilate and mimic styles of pop honed in sweaty late-night gigs in Hamburg clubs and adrenalised lunch-time sets at the Cavern.

Lennon and McCartney had the two greatest rock ‘n’ roll voices Britain has ever produced, both of them with enough acid in their throats to strip paint off the wall if they so chose. Yet they could harmonise like angels too, switching from one to the other with the sort of ease most singers would kill for.

Probably only McCartney could tell you what sparked the band’s collective interest in harmony singing. We know that he and Lennon were practised Everly Brothers imitators in their teens, and that hints of that influence are audible throughout their work, up to Let it Be, where they recorded Two of Us explicitly in the Phil-&-Don style. But the dominant influence vocally on The Beatles’ first few albums are The Shirelles and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.

Boys, a 1960s Shirelles single that The Beatles covered on Please Please Me with Ringo on lead vocal, features Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison singing three-part harmonies in call and response with Starr (in a dead-on recreation of the original arrangement). It’s huge fun, and all four throw themselves into it excitedly. It’s probably the least self-conscious, most satisfying vocal Ringo ever sang, and shows a band forthcoming about its influences.

You Really Got a Hold on Me is something else again. Recorded not much more than six months after Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ own version, it sees Lennon and Harrison singing the verses with McCartney joining in on the high third part (taken on the original by Claudette Rogers) in the choruses. The rhythm section on the Miracles’ record is slightly more subtle than the Beatles were, but not by much, and this impression may just be because of the relative lack of low end on the Beatles’ early records. Vocally, though, Lennon’s lead is hugely impressive technically and emotionally, and McCartney and Harrison are magnificent in support. Lennon would probably not have accepted the compliment, as he was always rather insecure about his singing voice, but he’s every bit as good as Smokey was on the original.

If you don’t know the Beatles’ early albums, do check them out. The singles (which you can get on the Red album, or Past Masters Vol. 1 or the newly remastered and re-released 1) aren’t the whole story by a long way. Their first few records (everything up to Beatles For Sale) showcase the band’s full, enormously wide, musical range. As such, they are full of great harmony vocal performances, on both the original material and the covers. The couple of songs I’ve talked about just happen to be among my favourites.

Of course, the band’s other achievements are so vast that we just consider their harmony vocals as a mere facet of what they did, but among everything else they did and were and represent, The Beatles are one of pop music’s finest harmony singing groups.

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*Six years before, in fact. Because the ability to travesty Edith Piaf and sing “ra-da-da-da-da” in perfect unison is presumably a greater achievement then anything the Beatles did.

 

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 4: I Heard it Through the Grapevine – Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye’s version of I Heard it Through the Grapevine is one of Motown’s highest achievements: a fantastic song by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong (writer and original performer of Money (That’s What I Want), produced brilliantly by Whitfield and featuring an inspired arrangement by Paul Riser, a career-highlight vocal from Gaye and top-notch performances from every musician and technician involved in it.

As was often the case when his staff produced something technically innovative or emotionally raw, label boss Berry Gordy was suspicious of the record and blocked its release as a single. Whitfield went on to produce another version with Gladys Knight. Despite a busy bassline by James Jamerson, Knight’s version is approximately one-tenth the record that Gaye’s is: a rather lame attempt to muscle in on Aretha Franklin’s turf. Gordy didn’t much care for Knight’s cut, either.

What Gaye’s version had and Knight’s lacked was genuine edge, the desperation that’s evident in Gaye’s record from the first note of its ominous intro: a single snare hit like the slamming of a door, quickly followed on the other side of the stereo field by that classic intro riff, supported by a simple kick-and-hi-hat groove, over which a tambourine hisses like a rattlesnake. The right hand of the piano and a harmonised guitar enter (again on opposing sides of the stereo field), the brass swoops in, and Marvin starts singing.

“Oooh-oooh I bet you wondered how I knew…”

It’s a bravura moment, and the record’s barely begun.

Whitfield’s genius extended right down to the way the drum track was arranged. Playable by one person, the drum part for Gaye’s take on Grapevine was – at least according to this article – performed by two drummers, with a third adding bongos. The three guys in question were Uriel Jones, Richard “Pistol” Allen and Benny Benjamin. I don’t know for sure who played what, but most of the sources I’ve seen suggest Allen and Jones both played “drums” (meaning a drum kit) and Benjamin “percussion”, implying that he was on bongos (the tambourine was almost certainly Jack Ashford). One of the two drummers played kick and hi-hat, with occasional full-kit fills, while the other simply hit two and four on what sounds like either a particularly slack-tuned tom-tom or a similarly low-tuned snare with the wires off.

It’s a fundamental part of the grammar of pop music that the backbeat is provided by a snare drum. Any time a drummer chooses to substitute a snare drum for a tom, the alert listener will feel that something is up. It creates a tension. Is the drummer eventually going to break out of this pattern and switch to the more open-sounding snare drum, releasing the tension, or will the drummer simply keep going and ratchet it up even further?

At 1.57, for four bars, the drummer playing full kit finally brings in the snare, while the other drummer reinforces the beat with his tom. But just as soon as the tension is released in this way, the final verse begins and the original groove is restored. And that’s how it stays, with Gaye unable to break free of the trap he’s caught in. It’s a demonstration of how a great drum track can narrate a song, just as surely as any singer.

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The unbelievably incongruous sleeve of I Heard it Through the Grapevine

The shuffle

I started my current job a little over two years ago, going from three days a week up to four after a few months. From next week I’m going to be working full time, which is going to leave me a little less time for blogging. I’ve got a couple of options, I think: reduce the word count and the attendant research and fact checking that goes into one of these posts (it typically takes between 90-120 minutes to put one of these together, depending on how many books I have to search through to find exact quotes and so on) or go down to one post a week. I’m a bit loath to do that, so I think slightly reduced word counts of between 300-600 words per piece is going to be a better solution (nowadays I regularly reach 1000 words for substantial pieces like the Holst thing I did the other day).

And I’ll probably just do more pieces where I just shoot from the hip about whatever happens to be in my head that day.

Like this piece to follow.

The shuffle

What is a shuffle anyway?
When you google “songs shuffles drums” or similar, you’ll come across drummer’s forums where the participants suggest a bunch of songs, at least half of which aren’t shuffles. Not even nearly. A whole discussion of the quality of Talking Heads’ version of Take Me to the River passed before someone piped up to say, Hey guys, it’s straight eights, not a shuffle.

It does bring home how slippery some of these concepts are. For example, one drummer suggested Killer Queen, so I went and took a listen, sceptically (Roger Taylor’s style tended towards stiffness). It’s an interesting case, as Roger Taylor is decidedly not shuffling. In his usual ham-handed way, he’s playing big straight quarters. The shuffle feeling comes from Freddie Mercury’s piano playing – not enough where you feel, “Yes, ah ha! A shuffle!” But enough to introduce some swing into the track.

Drummers love their complex half-time shuffles
Jeff Porcaro’s work on Boz Scaggs’s Lido Shuffle and Toto’s Rosanna, Bonham on Fool in the Rain, Bernard Purdie on Home at Last and Babylon Sisters. These are beats drummers continue to deconstruct and learn how to perform. With good reason – they’re awesome, those ghost strokes on the snare (present in all four beats) in particular.

Country would be nowhere without it
Of course, the shuffle is most associated with the blues (in a pub near you right now, some guys are cranking out Sweet Home Chicago, with varying degrees of success), but I learned all about the shuffle by playing bass on country songs and watching drummers do what I couldn’t: alternating right and left feet (bass on one, hat on two, bass on three, hat on four) while playing a shuffle rhythm on the snare drum with brushes. I’m getting there, but it’ll be a while yet before you see me playing any kind of shuffle it in front of an audience.

Motown
You might associate Motown principally with a big stomping drum style (something like Reach Out, I’ll be There, say). To which I’ll add, sure. But also: My Guy. Baby Love. Where Did Our Love Go. How Sweet it is to be Loved by You. Shuffles all.

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Bernard Purdie, master of the half-time shuffle

Give some to the bass player, part 3 – What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye

James Jamerson had no peer. Even at Motown, who could also call on the services of Bob Babbitt in Detroit and Carol Kaye and Wilton Felder in LA*, Jamerson stood tallest, at the apex of the art.

The factory ethic at Motown instilled by Berry Gordy militated against too much individualism on the part of its players. Stylistically, the musicians that came to be known as the Funk Brothers played in a house style. Jamerson was the wild card. Jamerson could not be constrained. His outrageously (in their context) chromatic, syncopated and rhythmically complex lines seemed to come from somewhere deep within him, and he was wisely given the freedom by Motown’s producers** to play what he felt. Any of the bass players associated with Motown could play tight, tidy, groovy lines. Only Jamerson could rip your heart out.

His bassline on the title track of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On has been admired and deconstructed by fans for four decades now, and it remains a thing of wonder. The story, whether it’s true or not, goes that Gaye was determined that Jamerson should play on the track and tracked him down, already drunk, at a local club and asked him to come by the studio. Jamerson, too drunk to sit upright, played the line horizontally. Arranger David Van DePitte claims to have written a part for Jamerson , which the latter played verbatim. If so, he captured Jamerson’s style perfectly. Listening to the isolated part, I find it hard to believe that all the little Jamersonian licks were written by Van DePitte, but then we are talking about a couple of musicians of the very first rank.

The fluidity, the sheer ease, with which Jamerson plays these complicated runs (listen to the part he plays on the B chord at the end of the first verse to hear the sort of thing I’m talking about) is what defines him as a player. Most of us can’t get near this. When most of us play complicated stuff, we make it sound complicated. Jamerson made it sound beautifully simple.

*There’s an extremely long-running controversy over the authorship of bass parts on Motown records, with Carol Kaye laying claim to some parts that thitherto had been considered signature Jamerson performances (I Was Made to Love Her is the most contentious). Kaye has an impeccable CV, so one would assume no reason to fabricate a story like that. Still, it’s hard to give her story much credence when numerous Motown insiders have denied it. Can they all really be complicit in a cover-up?

**Jamerson had the great good fortune to work under producers and songwriter-producer teams including Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Henry Cosby and Norman Whitfield. None of them got where they did without learning to get out of the way of genius.
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James Jamerson (left)