RYM Top Singles, Entry #2

SINGLE:                    Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out / Take It Right Back

ARTIST:                    Bessie Smith

YEAR:                        1929

RYM RANK:             #587

RYM RATING:          3.98 (average of 118 ratings)

A-side:

The era of the 1920s, oh so romantically labelled as the “Roaring Twenties”, was a prosperous period for the many few; a freshly mobilized workforce and a laissez-faire mode of economics created conditions whereby the American dream of achieving unimaginable wealth and happiness was more feasible than ever before. Consequently, a new breed of affluent socialites was born, consisting of seemingly self-achieved men and women (though mostly just men) who could spend the merry days of post-Great War living as if it was heaven on Earth.

However, beneath the celebration were inklings of pessimism and one modest example would be a little blues standard called “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, written by Jimmy Cox in 1923. The song is a stark, foreboding morality tale about a Gatsby-esque player whose life goes from riches to rags, recalling early fortunes only to lament about a despairing, mysterious fall from grace. Considering how monetary success was a growing phenomenon at the time rather than a dwindling one, it is difficult to surmise the relevancy that this sad ballad would have had upon its conception.

But times change, and so does context.

When the stocks collapsed in 1929, the American dream turned into a nightmare. The crippled financial market, in combination with horrid drought and disastrous austerity measures, gave rise to the Great Depression and almost overnight, the razzle-dazzle of the Roaring Twenties became a bygone era. Appropriately, it was during this harsh turn-of-the-decade that blues music started to break into the mainstream. White listeners were now better able to emphasize with the type of somber, brittle music that Black Americans had been perfecting for the past few decades and one of the genre’s earliest divas was hefty diva by the name of Bessie Smith.

Having gotten her start on Broadway during the 1910s, Bessie’s boisterous contralto and uniquely ragtime-tinted manner of blues caught the eye of producers around the mid-1920s, allowing her to release a series of singles that would transcend racial boundaries and earn her near-universal acclaim across the United States before her tragic death in ‘37. Her cover of Cox’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” – presciently recorded and released several months before the market crash – is a stellar demonstration of her gentle style, hitting a note of bittersweetness that was painfully true to the grim realities of the billowing recession while also being mellow and pleasant enough in composition to remain easy on the bitter moods of the struggling masses.

From an artistic standpoint, the track offers few surprises but I suppose therein lies the reliable charm of classic blues. Perhaps the sole standout element of the song that has not been eroded by the disciplines of time is Bessie’s booming, limitless voice – showing off a control and emotiveness that would perhaps remain unrivaled among her female counterparts until the arrival of Aretha Franklin. So indeed, while I may struggle to fully appreciate the objective qualities of this tamer vaudeville derivative of early blues, I write this review with a hopefully proper understanding of what Bessie meant to all the lonely, defeated Gatsbys of her time.

B-side:

Though not nearly as fondly cherished as it’s A-side, “Take It Right Back” is my personal favorite among the two songs. Accompanied by a modest but pleasantly bluesy chord progression played on a lonely piano, Bessie sings a daringly feminist testament about her purported displeasures over the vices of her male partner(?). Her delivery is sharp as always but what’s impressive is the registry of aggression and anger that manages to seep through the intimate production. Bessie effectively communicates a brutally sincere message from the all-too-ignored perspective of battered African-American women who have encountered particularly high hurdles on their long fought and sadly still incomplete journey towards respect and equality. Realizing the unfavourable circumstances of many Black women of her time gives one an even greater appreciation of Bessie’s short-lived but long-loved career.

RYM Top Albums, Entry #2

ALBUM:           Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book

ARTIST:           Ella Fitzgerald

YEAR:               1956

LENGTH:         118:27

RYM RANK:    #699

RYM RATING: 3.94/5 (average of 886 ratings)

 

In 1964, during the early dawn of the sexual revolution, Susan Sontag penned her now seminal essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” which sought to popularize what was until then a term shared almost exclusively in the gay community. Per Sontag’s article, camp is a style and sensibility steeped in exaggerations, effeminacy, poor taste, and cornball. There is no proper way to pin down the term accurately but to be campy is to put one a straight face of such artifice that it is actually quite queer. Indeed, with the concept having possibly originated from the French expression ‘se camper’ (which means to gesture or express oneself proudly and outrageously), Sontag’s essay points to pulp novels, theater, and other seemingly heteronormative outlets as contemporary venues of camp.

Though never having openly associated himself with camp culture, songwriter Cole Porter is one of camp’s most prolific yet most unsung heroes. Himself a closeted gay man, Porter spent his formative young adulthood in the underground burlesque scene of Paris before finding tremendous success back in America during the post-Ziegfeld golden days of Broadway (arguably one of the prime arenas of camp art). Among the hundreds of songs penned by Porter you have classics like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “All of Me”, and “Night and Day”; all worthy staples of the unofficial Great American songbook. Treading the line between accessibly wholesome and flagrantly flamboyant, Porter’s songwriting is a fine example of gay sensibility gone mainstream.

It’s with this vague understanding of the questionably self-aware normalness of Porter’s craft that I best enjoyed Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book¸ a boisterous two-hour collection of some of Porter’s most prized numbers as sung by the legendary Ella Fitzgerald. Released in the middle of the Eisenhower years, the album plays like a Douglas Sirk melodrama: lush, kitsch and – true to camp – normal on the surface but with a pervading darkness and twisted brilliance beneath its friendly glean.

The Broadway musical is not a genre with which I’m terrible familiar and so while I may be able to appreciate a library of such respected standards, I certainly lack the ability to fairly grade and assess it. Regardless, there are clear reasons as to why this is both the first double-album on the list as well as the first album to be fronted by a woman. For me, it’s the latter milestone that sparks my curiosity the most because, as previously observed, this is largely a list made by male users for male users so while you will have your Portishead and (some of) your PJ Harvey, the focus is on music that is not only prominently fronted by boys and men but that is catered to boys and men.

So why is it that a sixty-some-odd-old recording by Ella Fitzgerald is included? I suppose that, for one thing, Fitzgerald is one of the most widely recognized voices in standard jazz and this album is her at the top of her game. Nearing her forties at the time, she sings with a smooth mezzo that shines with a warm, uplifting attitude that could relax even the most anxious listeners. Another probable reason for the record’s inclusion on this list is the virtuosity of the Cole Porter’s source music. Having a strong background in both classical and ragtime, Porter belonged to a special group of great songwriters who would adopt George Gershwin’s groundbreaking fusion of symphonics and jazz and who would produce some of the most memorable jazz standards of all time.

Fitzgerald and Porter are a match made in easy-listening heaven and she croons on all two discs with natural ease, making the runtime of the record flow past you in a soothing haze. It’s difficult for an untrained ear like me fully grasp the more objective qualities of Fitzgerald’s interpretations but it doesn’t take a connoisseur to admire the astounding lushness of Buddy Bergman’s symphonic arrangements, which usher in glorious strings that compliment yet never overwhelm Fitzgerald’s lead vocals. From this auditory quality alone, the appeal that a record like Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book had in its day is obvious. High-fidelity vinyl was a fairly new luxury for postwar families and there is no better demonstration for it than in hearing decades-old classics performed with incredible clarity and precision (and let me tell you, even through a mere YouTube stream, the production of the album still rings with indelible polish).

Nonetheless, as is the nature of camp, the sweet and asexual gloss of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book does not entirely obscure some of the seedy essence of Porter’s songwriting. The bulk of Porter’s material was written at a time when theater and film alike could indulge in the nastiest of subject matter, just as long as the content wasn’t explicitly profane. There are examples of Porter’s mild lewdness scattered throughout so if only to prove that I actually bothered to sit through this album (on more than one occasion), I’ll give a track-by-track assessment:
1) The album’s opening track “All Through the Night” is basically a gentlemanly romantic tribute to one’s fuck buddy. Fitzgerald sings gladly of the ecstasy of her partner’s nighttime passions while speaking in dismay of his daytime absence, and although the meaning is communicated through a woman’s voice, Porter’s lyrics stay true to the loneliness of pre-Stonewall cruising where short-term lust is in far more abundance than long-term love.

2) The subtle filth continues with the following track, “Anything Goes”, where Fitzgerald laments about the promiscuous content of contemporary entertainment. Ironic message, considering that listeners where just treated to a prior sex lullaby and considering that this song’s own lyrics are imbued with references to “gigolos” and “four letter words”. Confusing morality aside, this is still a fun romp fit for an above-average Busby Berkeley feature. And to my discovery, it would seem like cult favorite lo-fi group Tall Dwarfs covered part of the F-minor scale progression of “Anything Goes” for their track “Canopener”. On top of that, “Anything Goes” also has a line of lyrics where Fitzgerald sang “Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock/Plymouth Rock would land on them”; these lyrics predate Malcolm X’s famous 1964 proclamation to his fellow Black Americans that “We [Black people] didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us”. Of course, Porter’s lyrics didn’t connote black nationalism but instead referred to a simple seventeenth century shipwreck. Nothing is original.

3) The heat gets turned down for the ballad “Miss Otis Regrets”. One of the most covered of Porter’s work, it’s also one of the most horridly dark, recounting a heartbroken woman who murders her abusive husband before being savagely lynched by an angry mob. The unpretentious nature of the composition, consisting solely of a romantic piano and Fitzgerald’s solemn voice, makes this a notably eerie and tragic number.

4) And then the heat turns back up – way up! – for “Too Darn Hot”, a sassy flash of swing that is the most blatantly erotic take on the record. Fitzgerald beckons for her lover to “refill her cup” and to “pitch the woo” with her but complains that temperature is just too darn hot (which is confusing since heat is proven to increase sexual desire but whatever floats your boat, Mr. Porter). It’s catchy, kinky fun and very little beyond that but it’s made notable in part due to a unexpected reference to the controversial sexologist Alfred Kinsey. Jesus, how on Earth did a track like this get released in the Leave It to Beaver era? Meh, moving on…

5) “In the Still of the Night” is brief but a modest stand-out nonetheless. Here’s a soothing samba rhythm where all the elements complement each other, from the endearing vocals to the fun jive to the romantic vocals. It’s a great song. Nothing more to say.

6) Although it’s one of Porter’s best loved songs (largely due to Frank Sinatra’s popular interpretation), “I Get a Kick out of You” is one of the less exciting songs of the first disc of this album. The lounge vibe of the arrangements doesn’t give the cutesy fun nature of the songwriting any justice; even Fitzgerald sounds like she’s in autopilot. Honestly, not even a passage about cocaine use can really enliven a track that simply doesn’t fit with the easy-listening demeanor of this record.

7) But things get much better with “Do I Love You”, a contender for the best track of this record’s first half. It’s possibly the most traditional love song on the album, reminiscent of the sort of music that Fred Astaire would sing to his female co-lead during the romantic climax of a Depression-era musical. It’s an admirably earnest and tender showtune.

8) The speed picks up with “I’m Always True to You in My Fashion” which is much more modern in how tempo and melody meanders. There’s even a spontaneous, somewhat off-putting cameo of Offenbach’s often parodied “Infernal Galop”, which is perhaps a cheeky nod to Porter’s 1953 musical Can-Can. The song offers a decent amount considering its runtime.

9) “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)” is one of the most heavily played Porter standards out there and it’s obvious why. Firstly, it’s a gentle memorable melody that can be easily covered. Secondly, depending on your mood, it can be either be a wonderful argument in favour of romance or one in favour of sex. Given the light burlesque cadence of Bergman’s composition as well as Fitzgerald’s emphasis on the words “do it”, it’s rather clear what these devils had on the mind. Otherwise, not much else to say. You’ve heard this song and this is as apt a cover as any other.

10) And here’s another Porter favorite: “Just One of Those Things” is not one of my personal favorite Cole Porter tracks but it seems to be everyone’s else’s; the number of big names who have played this diddy is utterly astounding and while I don’t have the life to compare Fitzgerald to each and every single one of those artists, I’m nearly certain that this energic take is as good as any. It was interesting to hear her voice waver (perhaps unintentionally) around the climax of the track, providing some emotional nuance that suggests a higher vocal range than one would expect considering how her consistent her delivery has been throughout the album.

11) “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” is one of those Porter standards that always seems to be played as morbidly slow as possible (with john Coltrane’s being the most exaggeratingly lumbering). Slowness is fine, in theory, but it’s very welcome for Fitzgerald and Bregman to turn up the pace a little with this interpretation, turning what is usually a sleepy sweetheart’s melody into an uplifting interlude with a childlike sweetness fitting of Lady and the Tramp’s soundtrack.

12) I have a strong recollection of my grandmother playing “All of You” on occasion at her grand piano and it was always played without a beat and without any strong sense of drive. That’s my biased preference and while this version is fine, the andante-to-moderato motion hardly lets the beautiful of Porter’s songwriter truly shine through the resulting product is a forgettable detour that ends all too abruptly. This song should be an adagio, at the fastest.

13) “Begin the Beguine” is…wait, what a beguine? Well, Wikipedia is telling me that it was a Caribbean-based dance that was popularized around the 1930s, largely due to the prominence of this song. Cool, though that’s peculiar considering that this song is just straight-up swing. It’s strong swing, regardless, and the way Fitzgerald hits that higher octave near the ending is enough to make one’s health jolt.

14) “Get Out of Town” is your grandpa’s break-up song; a calm letter left by the fire telling a once loved-on to simply fuck off. It’s a soft approach with soft results; a welcome calm after a series of other swingy numbers.

15) Written for his musical Can-Can, “I Am In Love” appears to be one of the less celebrated of Porter’s songs but it’s easily one of the strongest tracks of the first disc. Bregman’s string-composition is exotic and rousing, reminiscent of a main theme for a Sean Connery-billed Bond picture (and recorded several years before the first theatrical Bond film). It’s stellar.

16) And then the first half ends with “From This Moment”, a big band stomper with triumphant verses belted by an equally triumphant Fitzgerald. Her vocals are at her brightest and sharpest, hardly taking a breath while keeping up with the band’s preppy tempo. It’s an interesting way to get listeners amped to the following disc.

17) The second disc commences with “I Love Paris”, a humbling tribute to the city where Porter had his musical (and possibly sexual) awakening. The track is one of the most notably theatrical or cinematic takes on the record, beginning with a yuletide-esque intro before begetting mainly instrumental movements what give Bregman a much-deserved moment to shine. As opposed to many other Porter standards, “I Love Paris” – having been initially penned for the musical Can-Can – seems rather lonely without visual accompaniment. Nonetheless, this is a pleasant way to start this album’s second half.

18) “You Do Something To Me” is a notably older number of Porter’s, dating back to his 1929 musical Fifty Million Frenchmen. Despite its age, it’s archetypical Porter, filled with innuendo and adequately cheesy arrangements. Fitzgerald and Bregman’s skill thankfully elevates it beyond the songwriting’s derivative qualities.

19) What saucy sounding horns! The was the first thought to pop into my head upon hearing “Ridin’ High”, a cocky and rambunctious tune that shows a much more caustic side of Porter and Fitzgerald alike. Ella’s vocals venture into her higher octave with surprising ease and help make this the most buoyant track of this disc thus far.

20) “Easy To Love” is a very handsome piano-driven lounger; one that reminds me of the slower pieces that one would find on Miles Davis’ earlier hard bop releases. The improvisatory nature of the piano playing is a good reminder of just how much Porter’s music lends itself to the jazz genre, with each timeless standard of his giving countless artists comfortable rubrics upon which to demonstrate their own styles and imaginations. Fitzgerald’s voice is notably belle on this way, having her sing at a lower octave and volume to produce some very heartwarming results.

21) And wow, we are back to brass-heavy business with “It’s All Right To Me”. You know, its with this disc that you get the strongest idea of just how choppy this collection of songs is. There is a most sense of slow-to-fast-to-slow sequencing but it’s done with such bombast that songs like this one are borderline invasive. Still, “It’s All Right To Me” is a fun enough banger on its own, with some eyebrow-raising lyrics about promiscuity (“They’re not his lips/But they’re such tempting lips”).

22) “Why Can’t You Behave” is a trip back to Porter’s more string-heavy romanticism and it’s honestly quite boring. It’s as competently performed as any other track but something about the cut-and-dried chorus and Fitzgerald’s tamed delivery that make this more lawn-inducing than smile-inducing. Bregman’s arrangements are quite stellar here, however, particularly during the break of the second half which adds a much-needed sense of bittersweet nuance to this overlong snoozer.

23) “What Is This Thing Called Love” is a significant improvement over the previous slog, providing some cheery horns and peculiarly youthful vocals that enrich what is already one of Porter’s most identifiable and respected pieces. While unforgivably short, this track is a neat curiosity whose swing-vibes and danceable moderato beat is a seeming nod to the sort of material that Sinatra was chugging out during that decade.

24) And here we have it, ladies and gentlemen: the absoluter gayest song on this album. “You’re The Top” is…well, the title alone is a strong enough indication of the sort of seme-adoration flaunted in this song. In literal terms, however, the lyrics are merely an innocent series of euphemisms to the Colosseum, the G.O.P., and other supposedly “big” things. With its catchy melody and its overt camp, it’s no surprise that this is one of the most adored (and widely parodied) works of Porter’s catalogue.

25) The mood gets classier for “Love For Sale” but significantly less interesting, a song with the sincerity and focus of a filler scene from a Bob Hope musical. Porter’s music works its way up and  down the scales but can’t seem to find an interesting hook to latch onto let alone any fun directions to steer itself into. The atmosphere is an attempt at that oscillation between sweet and sultry that characterizes much of the album’s music but instead of sounding intuitive, the attitude here instead sounds confused and unengaging. “Love For Sale” is possibly the dullest anthem to prostitution that I’ve ever heard.

26) “It’s De-Lovely” is the song whose name would eventually be the inspiration for the 2005 musical biopic De-Lovely which recounts the awkward, barely genuine marriage between Porter and Linda Lee Thomas. As one of the poppiest Porter favorites, it’s hard for Fitzgerald and Bregman to make this one anything but wonderfully amusing. It’s one of the better demonstrations of Porter’s signature wordplay, with a preppy chorus where Fitzgerald gleefully cheers “”It’s de-lightful, it’s de-licious, it’s de-lovely”. Obviously not one of the highest brow songs of Porter’s oeuvre but it’s certainly one of the most lovable.

27) The feeling gets toned to the key of Benny Goodman for “Night And Day”, a noir-esque love letter set to the backdrop of a seedy urban landscape. Bregman’s arrangements in particular manage to strike an efficient balance between light and dark, showcasing the descending harmonic sequence of the song with surprisingly dramatic and exciting results.

28) I’ll cut the pretense: “Ace In The Hole” is good and little beyond that. There’s nothing terribly noteworthy about this interpretation or even of the source material but I offer no criticisms and can comfortably say that this is as deserving of its inclusion as any other song.

29) The mannerism turns surprisingly exotic for “So In Love” with strings that evoke an essence that’s peculiarly similar to what a score to a Cecille B. Demille’s Biblical epic would elicit. This interpretation is, I suppose, as strong as any other and the samba beat makes the song all the more mysterious and alluring.

30) “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is one of those standards that even a showtune novice like myself was more than familiar with before being confronted with this version. The approach here is safe though it’s surprising to hear Fitzgerald choose a lower octave for the signature hook, giving the message an interestingly sinister mannerism (which is appropriate, considering that this is a song about obsessive love).

31) “I Concentrate On You” is just a more boring iteration of the themes communicated in the previous song, though with some sweeping work by Bregman and his band. That’s all there really is.

32) And then the album comes to a close with “Don’t Fence Me In” and it’s one of Fitzgerald’s best moments on this whole album. Here she performs sung dialogue with the sort of clarity and precise rhythm that can easily be botched (re: Gerald Butler in Phantom of the Opera, possibly the worst mainstream example of musical storytelling in the last 25 years). The songwriting is also Porter at his most playful, offering a Wilde-esque vocabulary (with the assistance of cowriter Robert Fletcher) and an idiosyncratic key signature that keeps listeners on their toes.

And now I’m done with Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book and my impression is a combination of exhaustion and gratefulness; exhausted by how I endured two hours of showtunes that I’d otherwise have never forced myself through but grateful of the introduction to a brilliant vocalist and an equally brilliant songwriter. While the album has a visage of sameness to my untrained ears and while the pacing is more suitable for a compilation than a full-fledged studio release, the Cole Porter Song Book is nonetheless a thorough but approachable beginner’s guide to one of America’s best loved songwriters; true proof that successful camp can bring normies and weirdos alike to mutually appreciate art that is simultaneously pristine and perverse.

-Graham Hebert

RYM Top Singles, Entry #1

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SINGLE:            Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground / It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine

ARTIST:            Blind Willie Johnson

YEAR:                1928

RYM RANK:     #218

RYM RATING: 4.05/5 (average of 511 ratings)

A-side:

“Dark was the night and cold was the ground
On which the Lord was laid;
The sweat like drops of blood run down;
In agony he prayed”

– “Dark Was the Night”, Thomas Haweis

The opening words of Haweis’ limerick, dated all the way back to 1792, allude to the moment when Jesus Christ lay in the Garden of Gethsemane in solitude and sorrow, pleading to God to pardon him of his inevitable fate; a plea that would go unheard as Jesus would later be arrested by the Romans that very night. The hymn depicts one of the more humanizing moments of the life of Christ, where he dreaded the inevitably of death and begged – as most do – for a prolonged stay on Earth amidst the comfort of his friends and family.

Gospel music, particularly in the context of African-American culture, is stereotypically associated with joyousness and good hope and will towards fellow man. However, as exemplified by Christ’s final prayer in Gethsemane, the Bible is hardly a happy tale; it’s instead a story that reeks of oppression, despair, and – ultimately – death. And certainly, the history of enslavement and persecution that has forever plagued Black America is reflective of this kind of grimness which is partly why Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” – itself an allusion to Haweis’ hymn – rivals “Strange Fruit” as being the most emblematic testament of the worst of the Black American experience.

Blind Willie Johnson was certainly a man whose life was rife with unhappiness. Said to have been violently blinded by his step-mother as a child, Willie had spent the near entirety of his life alone in darkness. Though he was a devout Christian, having written most his songs in the vein of gospel and having spent his later life as the reverend of a small town, “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” was indicative of a great sadness and fear; of the dread of having your life end like Christ’s, where you’re left die without justice and without the full satisfactions of the human experience.

For this subliminal content alone, “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” is perhaps the purest example of blues ever recorded. The song’s pureness of heart is only rivaled in bareness by the fabric of its composition, whereby the recording consists of little more than a lonely wandering guitar riff and Willie’s wordless, soul-crushing humming. The audio quality of this single is aged but that omniscient hiss which clouds over Willie’s playing shrouds the song like heavy rain, only amplifying the melancholy of his soft cry for help.

Indeed, it’s possible that the wrinkles and emptiness of “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” is what embeds the track with its timeless essence. Its cross-generational admiration is strong enough for the song to have titularly inspired the remarkable 2008 compilation, Dark Was the Night, which features a faithful cover of the track as performed by the Kronos Quartet. The compilation was a means for the Red Hot Organization to raise money for AIDS research and while the comp offers plenty of optimism to enjoy, the stench of death pervades throughout its runtime. For a compilation that possesses such an arching sense of gloom, there is no doubt that Willie (himself the fatal victim of a sexually transmitted disease, in his case syphilis) would be the ideal American artist to whom to pay tribute to and although his discography is rich with one brilliant single after another, there is no song of Willie’s catalogue more legendary or haunting than “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground”.

This singles list, I must say, is off to an amazing start.

B-side:

“It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is a stellar follow-up the single’s much better known first track. With this flipside, Willie moves on from the ghostly, nearly formless character of “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” and instead dishes out a toe-tapping, boisterous slice of classic Southern blues. Here, Willie has actual lyrics to sing; he thus unleashes his husky voice in all its fury and boy, what a tremendous voice he has. His deep, wavering growl speaks exudes anger as he belts out some deeply self-defeating and judgmental words that alternative between allusions to subservience to the spirit of his parents and subservience to the spirit of God. His singing is lovely but perhaps most notable is his incredibly guitar-playing; his tempo is erratic but his plucking effortlessly alternatives between the lead and rhythm roles in a fashion that eerily predates Jimi Hendrix’s similar craft by nearly four decades. Willie’s clear influence – whether direct or indirect – on Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf, and just about every other guitar-playing master to come is unmistakable and “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is hard-hitting, entertaining testament to the brilliance of his technique and his songwriting.

RYM Top Albums, Entry #1

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ALBUM:            Clifford Brown & Max Roach

ARTIST:            Clifford Brown and Max Roach

YEAR:                1954/5

LENGTH:          42:36

RYM RANK:     #786

RYM RATING: 3.94/5 (average of 927 ratings)

 

And so it begins – or rather, so it began.

Let’s flashback to postwar America: the bomb was dropped, the Nazis were defeated (or were they?), and the Greatest Generation were coming back home in celebratory flocks. Those sex-starved soldiers would produce children in record numbers, consequently creating what would become the Baby Boomer generation (arguably the single most influential force modern popular music, as this list will find out). Accommodations for these large families were conveniently plentiful, being that Roosevelt’s expenditures for both the New Deal and the war-effort had created a prosperous middle-class ripe for consumerist habits.

On top of that, the nuclear age saw technology evolve at a tremendously rapid pace and innovations were to be enjoyed in nearly all aspects of life, including commercial music. After nearly a decade worth of development, Columbia Records engineer Peter Carl Goldmark had successfully engineered a new format of playback: a multigrooved, foot-long ‘long-play’ (or LP) that would eventually phase out the more delicate, constrictive 10-inch format popularized before it. Clocking in at approximately 20 minutes per side, listeners could finally enjoy concert-length recordings of music in glorious high fidelity. Men, women, and their countless kids could happily sit by the fireplace of their newly bought homes in their safe, beautiful suburbs and enjoy nearly an hour’s worth of the dandiest music they could possibly dream of.

This was to be known as the supposed Golden Age of America. Life was good…or at least it was for some.

Beyond the picket fences of the White burbs was a country where there were few worst burdens than being Black. State-sponsored segregation was still a horrid reality in the Deep South and even north of the former Confederacy, racism and anti-Semitism were common attitudes that locked many hard-working people out of the luxuries enjoyed by the postwar Caucasian majority. This is a good moment to remark that twenty-four of the albums included on this list are from the 50s and of those releases, nearly four-fifths of them are fronted by African-American musicians. Though their faces were often excluded from even the front covers of their own records, these Black musicians would be belatedly recognized as the premier mavericks who would turn the album-format into a bone fide art form.

Beyond their consistent mastery of the medium, these particular artists also had another thing in common: all of them were jazz – or at least the ones on this list are. Not just any form of jazz though but specifically of the bebop (or ‘bop’) variation, which was a notably auteurist approach to jazz that was predominantly instrumental, frequently fast-moving, and curiously improvisatory. Indeed, if average music fans were pressed to name their favorite jazz artists, the few who could answer would likely mention bop-kings such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, or Thelonius Monk (all of whom have more than their fair share of work included on RYM’s list).

However, two names that may go overlooked are trumpet-player Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach. Though I had never heard of either Brown or Roach before beginning this list, their album Clifford Brown & Max Roach is the first album that I was to listen to while making this list (on account of it being the oldest). It was an unexpected start to my RYM challenge but hardly an inappropriate one because this record marks several important transitions. Firstly, having been initially released in 1954 as a 10” record, Clifford Brown & Max Roach was rereleased the following year on the 12” format with two full songs added – clearly cementing Goldmark’s invention as clear preference among Western musicians. Secondly, the album’s stylings are stuck somewhere between chiller sounds of early bop and the harsher, in-the-making sounds of so-called ‘hard bop’. Hard bop saw an incorporation of Afro-America reintroduced into the music, mainly from gospel and blues, and would remain the dominant subgenre of jazz until the turn of the decade.

Clifford Brown & Max Roach is an interesting beast for those reasons and many others. Its opening number, “Delilah”, is a truly unexpected diddy: a jazzy, horn-driven interpretation of the main orchestral theme from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 epic Samson and Delilah. For those who don’t know, biblical vehicles like Samson were lavish productions whose success was in part due to DeMille’s cunning whitewashing of Biblical tales, planting Anglo-Saxon stars in the place of Jewish, Arabic or Mediterranean characters so as to make such corny, lumbering shitshows more accessible to the racist sensibilities of movie goers. Therefore, it’s a wonderful novelty to hear such a formalist piece of music caustically reinterpreted by Black musicians. And they do so wonderfully, creating an atmospheric and seductive eight-minute mood-piece that demonstrates Brown’s remarkable control of his horn. As is customary on these early jazz albums, this opening track gives every member of the band at least one solo to perform, including Roach terrific drumming and the equally adequate contributions of saxophonist Harold Land, bassist George Morrow and pianist Richie Powell.

For me, however, it’s the second track “Parisian Thoroughfare” that stands out – if only due to its amazingly precocious sound. Roach imbues the intro of the song with an alarmingly fast pace before sending the listener on a trip of unpredictable breaks and tempo changes that would easily be associable with the experimental tendencies of subgenres-to-be like post-bop or avant-garde. Not to say that the track is inaccessible compared to the remainder of the album but its manic and idiosyncratic nature is extremely surprising for a sixty-three-year-old recording. Side A of the album is then happily close with “Blues Walk”, an exuberant trumpet-driven and danceable number that – while indeed being bluesy – showcases the swing- and big band-origins of the bop era, perfectly contrasting with the exoticness of the record’s two preceding bangers.

Then comes Side B of Clifford Brown & Max Roach which, comprised mostly of original compositions penned by Brown, blurs into a satisfying albeit indistinguishable whole. “Daahoud”, aside from its exotic name, is straight-laced bop fare that nonetheless packs some terrific drumming and a pleasingly playful chorus made memorable by Brown and Land’s impeccable synchronicity. The following track, “Joy Spring”, is somewhat of an allusion to the cool jazz scene that was occurring alongside hard bop so the mood of the song is pleasing and the playing more tempered, allowing Powell’s (otherwise poorly mixed) piano playing to shine through in all its greatness. The coolness continues with the catchy though unadventurous “Jordu”, which runs its brisk course before the album ends with the fast-paced “What Am I Here For” which – while being a peculiar choice for an ending track – makes sure that listeners end their experience on a happy note.

And there we have it: the first out of 1000 albums to be completed for this list. Clifford Brown & Max Roach is a strong record but one that is works best as a hint of things to come. Though Brown and Roach were two talents who certainly knew how to open an album, the rest hardly follows a coherent pattern. By comparison, Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool was released only two years later and while it was merely a compilation of early 10-inch records (and therefore disqualified from RYM’s list), Davis had a notably stronger sense of sequencing; he knew when to go fast or to go slow and knew how to close with a soft lullaby like “Darn That Dream” rather than a rollicking yet conspicuously anticlimactic number like “What Am I Here For”. Regardless of its imperfections, Clifford Brown & Max Roach remains one of the best revered artifacts of the hard bop age, much of that recognition due to the expert technical abilities of the quintet. For a modest jazz fan like myself, I’m left with appreciation of Brown and Roach’s legacy but also with a yearning for those who would arrive later into this Golden Age of America.