Category Archives: Jerry Butler

Anatomy of THE Groove: “The Devil In Mrs. Jones” by Jerry Butler

Jerry Butler,known as the “Iceman” from Philadelphia DJ George Woods,is someone I consider to be one of the prime architects of the soul ballad. He co wrote the song “For Your Precious Love” with the Impressions. And as Rolling Stone magazine once put it,it embodied that marriage of gospel and doo-wop pop music that became the essence of soul music. Shortly after this 1958 crossover hit,Butler went solo. Many of his early hits such as the calypso flavored”He Will Break Your Heart ” were written by the late,great Curtis Mayfield. He currently serves as County Commissioner for Cooks County,Illinois.

The first time I heard Jerry Butler was from a very unusual source. It was via one of many free vinyl albums from a 1994 WMEB radio giveaway at the University of Maine in Orono that I often reference. The album was a 1976 Motown release entitled Love’s On The Menu. Didn’t yet know anything about Butler’s importance to the history of soul. The song that first stuck out to me was the “Motownphilly” style opener “I Don’t Want Nobody To Know”. Looking into the album today,another stand out song was its only R&B hit in the song “The Devil In Mrs. Jones”.

A cymbal heavy drum swing opens the album,with a thick Moog bass rising into a clucking wah wah guitar. That gives way to the slow crawl of a drum shuffle that’s the rhythm foundation of the song. The thick,ultra funky bass line is uppermost in the song-filling in the empty spaces between the Moog and drums. Female backup vocals and horns color the bluesy melody that leads directly into the chorus of the song.  All the instrumental elements of the song come most prominently into play during the choruses. And its on that chorus that the song repeats on as it fades out.

Somehow when I first heard this album,this song got ignored. Today,it emerges as the heaviest funk I’ve yet heard Jerry Butler record. And of course,the vast majority of Butler’s recorded catalog isn’t something I’m particularly familiar. Known for his deep,smokey baritone on melodic pop soul numbers,”The Devil In Mrs. Jones” not only gives up the funk,but does so with the heaviest possible stomp. Its got the walking wah wah guitar,snaky bass,ticklish Moog synthesizer and slow shuffle that really defined mid 70’s “united funk”. Right along with Butler’s growling vocal turns as well.

 

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Filed under 1976, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, Jerry Butler, Moog bass, Motown, musical innovators, wah wah guitar

The Cover Story: Sometimes,It Really Was About Races

cover-story

All eight of the late 1950’s to mid 60’s album covers have two things in common. All of them feature white people’s faces on the cover. And all of them are by black artists.  This topic first came to my attention when my father purchased a coffee table book called 1000 Record Covers by former DJ/record company exec Michael Ochs. One section of the book specifically featured a series of album covers by black artists with the faces of white people on them. It even pointed out how,in general in the case of Motown,other albums by black artists featured cartoons on the covers.

Mister Ochs book brought up the reason for this-one I’ve generally accepted as the most prominent truth. During the late 50’s and halfway into the 60’s,the civil rights movement in American was making it clear for the 20th century that black lives did matter. Yet the American South in particular were concerned that albums by black artists would sell better to the area’s more heavily racist population if the artists faces weren’t pictured. This was done in many different ways. The reason why putting white faces on covers stood out so much for me is because it went along with a similar matter of the day: cover songs.

In the 1999 PBS documentary Record Row: The Cradle Of Rhythm & Blues,the topic of white artists covering songs from black artists was brought up. In that docu,the late Jerry Butler and Dick Clark gave counterpoints on the matter. Clark pointed out that most radio stations in the early civil rights era wouldn’t play original versions of songs by black artists. So,for example it was more common to hear Pat Boone’s infamous cover of “Tutti Fruiti” than Little Richard’s original.  Clark contended that this was a big deal over nothing as the original artists eventually got their due.

Jerry Butler’s comment on that issue was that it was easier to feel a personal injury was less severe is one wasn’t experiencing it themselves. He cited the higher levels of sales by white cover versions of R&B/soul songs by black artists. And the economic/racial schisms behind it. So taking all this together,the elimination of a black presence on 50’s and some 60’s R&B/soul/jazz/doo-wop songs and album covers comes across as yet another method by which white Americans subsidize black Americans,their accomplishments and creative innovations.

Is any of this shocking today? In doing research for this article,it would seem this matter is rarely discussed online. Even as part of America’s musical history. There are some personal observations I have about the matter though. Seeing a white infant on the cover of a James Brown album was particularly eyebrow raising. Especially in light of JB asserting he was black and proud eight years after said album was released. As far as the Isley Brothers’ This Old Heart Of Mine? That album came out in 1966,the same year as the founding of Oakland California’s Black Panther Party.

Miles Davis is especially interesting in this case. His autobiography with Quincy Troupe made it clear many times that he resented,as he stated “white people always trying to take credit for what black people did”. I know some who cite Miles as being a reverse racist for saying such things,in fact. He was known to have vocally objected to having a blonde white woman on the original cover for his 1957 release Miles Ahead. This lead him to fight Columbia records for his wife Francis to appear on the cover of his 1960’s album Someday My Prince Will Come. In the end,Miles’ point was entirely reality based.

One topic Henrique Hopkins and I often discuss is the rap segment of Michael Jackson’s song “Black Or White”-where the rapped bridge states “its not about races,its’ about faces/places”-even saying “I’d rather hear both sides of the tale”. As of this writing and the presence of president elect Donald Trump and a strong resistance to the idea that racism is still a problem has me thinking a lot. Sure there are many people who feel blackness in America can stand up for itself on its own terms. At the same time,people should understand history so it doesn’t repeat itself (in some form) in the future.

 

 

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Filed under 1950's, 1960's, 1966, Blogging, Dick Clark, Jerry Butler, Michael Ochs, Miles Ahead, Miles Davis, racism

William Bell and the need for legacy soul radio

William BellWilliam Bell and the need for legacy soul radio

By Ron Wynn

 

William Bell, classic soul and the need for legacy radio

By Ron Wynn

Many years ago (early ’90s) I made a trip to Chicago for my first face-to-face meeting and interview with the legendary Iceman himself, the great Jerry Butler. It was for a CD-Rom project (a technology that has long since faded into oblivion), and we had a wonderful 90-meeting plus conversation on a host of topics. The only time Butler got agitated during our entire encounter came when we talked about the problems he’d had with a recent album he’d recorded for a Southern Soul label (I think it was Urgent, but it was a long time ago, so it might have been something else).

“It’s OK for Tony Bennett to make new music, it’s OK for Barry Manilow or whoever to make new music, but for whatever reason I can’t get the radio stations to play my new music,” Butler complained. “They will play my old hits, but these new PD’s won’t give my new music a shot.” I recall that lament while listening to the songs from another soul legend’s latest release. William Bell may be the most underrated great male soul singer and songwriter active today. If not, there aren’t many others in the conversation.

If Bell had only written “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Born Under A Bad Sign” (along with Booker. T. Jones) those two are enough to certify immortality. But they are only the tip of his compositional iceberg. William Bell has been penning and singing glorious numbers since his teen years, and the new release “This Is Where I Live” (Concord/Stax) stands as both a wonderful retrospective portrait and a work every bit as good as anything coming from vocalists half or more of his 76 years. The title track is a glorious, demonstrative declaration of career achievements, sung without a hint of regret or pity, while “Poison in the Well” has that wonderful combination of irony, edge, heartbreak and the quest for salvation at the base of all great soul, country and blues tunes.

He also updates “Born Under A Bad Sign,” bringing in the wry understated tones that made it such a rousing hit for Albert King, while taking it just a bit slower, but with equal stature and resolve. The album is getting rave reviews everywhere, from NPR to The New Yorker. These are heady times for Bell, as he’s also featured in Martin Shore’s highly praised film “Take Me To The River,” and he even appeared at the White House in 2013.

There’s only one thing missing here for Bell, and it’s the same problem faced by Mavis Staples and Betty LaVette, two other superb veteran soul artists making wonderful and contemporary music. Other than specialty shows on college, community and public radio stations or internet sites, there’s not many places you hear their current music. Urban radio’s already super-tight playlists won’t even air the songs of many youthful Black acts whose sound doesn’t fall into a carefully defined, easily identifiable blend of heavily tracked vocals girded by hip-hop refrains. That’s not to dismiss out of hand the many talented and popular performers out there in the urban sphere, nor to vilify their sizable audiences. These stations make money for the corporations that own them, the artists they play sell out concert houses and get lots of airplay via streaming. A few of them even still sell a lot of physical product.

But there should still be a place where you can hear William Bell or Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings without having to pay a monthly fee. There’s a sizable constituency in the Black community for instance that doesn’t listen to  specialty or satellite radio, and isn’t really into downloads or getting everything off the Internet. These are the people who regularly attend shows at places like the Municipal Auditorium in Nashville whenever acts like The Spinners or Artie “Blues Boy” White (to name just two that you also don’t hear on urban radio) appear.

This is the audience who would no doubt love an album like “This Is Where I Live” if they even knew it existed. Even the syndicated radio programs like “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” or “Steve Harvey Show” seldom air anything by someone like Bell. They generally play old-school funk and soul hits of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, or lately even blending in current material from recognizable urban artists, even those whose music they have to censor to fit their format. Plus there is as much emphasis these days on celebrity gossip and politics as on music, perhaps even more in some cases.

With June being either Black or African American Music month (depending on your preference), what is really needed to fill this gap are more legacy stations devoted to airing the entire spectrum of Black music. As someone who grew up in the era when there were far more Black-owned radio stations, I can recall a time when great personalities would introduce you to all types of wonderful performers. They still played the hits to be sure, and blues, jazz and gospel were already mostly restricted to weekend specialty shows. However that music did still get aired, and there were occasions when a Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann/Eddie Harris, B.B. King or Edwin Hawkins Singers would break into the main rotation alongside the other Motown, Stax and various hits of the day.

Today, an artist like William Bell or Mavis Staples has almost zero chance of getting on an urban radio station. Staples can open for Bob Dylan, but you’ll only hear cuts from her current music on specialty shows. To those who say the same thing is true for Paul Simon or Bob Dylan, neither of those people need radio airplay at this stage of their career. It would be pure icing on the cake for Simon to score a hit, but it would really mean something for William Bell to have his music heard by a larger audience, particularly those in the Black community who still remember “Trying To Love Two” or “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”

A natural place for this to happen seems to me satellite radio, which already has a number of special formats dedicated to Black music. I don’t know if you’d call it legacy radio or updated soul sounds or whatever, but there’s certainly enough of this 21st century soul being made to merit exposure. After all, you’ve got the likes of Leon Bridges playing at Bonnaroo, Staples out there with Dylan, Bell drawing big crowds on his current concert swing, and even some in neo-soul wing like Anthony Hamilton and Angie Stone who also could work in this format.

In the meantime, I hope the handful of Black-owned legacy stations out there in the broadcast sphere like Nashville’s WVOL-1470 AM are giving this new William Bell a lot of exposure, because it deserves it. Not only does it NOT sound like a retro project (the biggest complaint I’ve heard about people like Bridges and Hamilton from contemporary music programmers), but it’s also a wonderful indicator that soul in the greatest sense is timeless, and that William Bell is still one of its finest performers.

 

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Filed under Booker T Jones, internet, Jerry Butler, old school, Radio, Soul, Stax Records, Uncategorized, William Bell