Ella Fitzgerald Was Born 100 Years Ago

The centenary is a big one, and Ella’s is coming up next week. She’s perhaps the greatest of jazz singers, without a doubt in that conversation and most likely on top of the heap, but rooting around in her discography yesterday I came up with a record called Sunshine of Your Love, which was recorded in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel in 1968.

It isn’t a rock album, but it takes it’s title from Cream’s classic rock song.

I find the cover of Hey Jude, which precedes this on the elpee, to be the worst of rock-jazz fusions, but this is different and pretty hot. Not Cream, but rockin’. I can just imagine the hep cats in their Nehru jackets at the Venetian Room, waving their cigarettes over their Scotch on the rocks as they listen in time.

Oddly, thinking about jazz and rock and what can work across the genres got me thinking about Anything Goes, an old Cole Porter chestnut that happened to be a hit single for a band called Harpers Bazaar in 1967. Ella covered it in 1956, and unlike the willful nostalgia of the insipid Harpers Bazaar version, and other cute stage versions of the tune, her version is absolutely adult and knowing. An acknowledgement of the ways and passions of the grown ups in the room.

This doesn’t make the music rock, the song is an 80-year-old show tune, but it connects the tune to the emotional directness and honesty that grew out of jazz and soul and r&b in the 50s into much of the best rock songwriting of the 60s and 70s. The singer does that, with the help of a crack band.

Happy birthday, Ella!

J. Geils Blues Band Loses J. Geils

John Miller came into the lunch room at Smithtown Central and said something like, I’ve got the new Rolling Stones. What he meant was he’d heard the J. Geils Band’s first album.

It turns out that the J. Geils Band wasn’t the new Stones, the Stones themselves were just escalating into an incredible streak of great music, but the J. Geils Band was great fun. Especially before they became sexy hitmakers. Good for them to make the money, but the love was in those early cuts, like this one.

The Definite Article

There is a quiz today at Slate called Does This Band’s Name Start With The?

I did very badly on the quiz, but got the last question right, which led to this band that I’d heard of but had never listened to.

This is a San Francisco band from the 90s that I think still mittens on. This clip is the entirety of their seventh elpee, which I’m listening to as I type, and which I’m liking quite a bit. Retro, but also fresh. Good rockin’ sounds that could spiral into dancey camp, like the B-52s, but don’t. Unfortunately cute name, however.

Melvins, The Man Down There

So, looking into the Sonny Boy Williamson/Elmore James/Whoever song, One Way Out, I came across this single by a band called Melvins from Sweden in 1965, derived from the old song. This isn’t blues, it melds Coasters/Platters gimmickry to an old narrative, with a touch of the Mersey beat. Chances are when you listen you’ll be one of fewer than 700 who have heard this in recent times. Pretty cool!

Allman Brothers, One Way Out

Sonny Boy Williamson wrote this song, or maybe he wrote it with Elmore James. Or they wrote it together with another guy, too. Someone knows the story, and he’s probably gone.

This cut is live, comes from the Fillmore East but was from the last show ever at the Fillmore East, in 1971, not at the other shows in which the band made their bones at that place.

It’s a remarkable cut. Berry Oakley is percolating and that great rhythm section is propulsive. The guitars are sweet, and Gregg sings. You taught me good. This band was great at getting jazzy and improving and turning meh lyrics into musical profundity, but given this piece of meat they come back concise, energetic, and unbeatable. In other words, with the best.

The Little Bits, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)

The version of this song you may know, by the Four Seasons, is a gorgeous slow burn, though a version by the Walker Brothers that has a touch of Merseybeat baked in was a bigger hit.

This version was recorded first, and it punks it up, as Gene might say, in a Spectorish way. The common denominator is Bob Crewe, who wrote the song with Bob Guadio, and whose record labels released both versions.

Allman Brothers, Dreams

My old friend Russ and I fashioned ourselves in the mode of Neal and Jack, at least sometimes, living a sort of vagabond life of simple ascetic pleasures traveling the world the way the monks of Tibet once famously did.

That meant hitchhiking after school from St. James to Cold Spring Harbor to try on and sometimes buy Hit Em Hard corderoy work pants, baggy the way they wore them back in the depression. If we found a beer or a J to go along with our Camel cigarettes we would enjoy it, and when we got hungry some yoghurt usually did the trick.

Most days we played basketball in Gaynor Park. There was always a game on the single court there, and we’d rotate in and out, playing full court hard, against our high school friends, and Freddy and Jay and others who had cycled back from Vietnam and brought a steely dark humor and cynicism to our lives.

The hoops court at Gaynor Park was the locus for our social life. This is where you went when you wanted to find your friends, who were either jamming on the court or flopped over the concrete pump house on the other side of the unused tennis courts. I didn’t know how all the boys and girls who spent so much time in that strip of tarmac, grass and concrete ended up there, it all seemed magical, but some part of it was because the Eastman clan, Russ and family, lived catty corner across the avenue.

It was there, at Russ’s house, that we hung out at lunch, and on days when school was shortened for testing. It was there we sat in the yard discovering that granny smith apples and Madeira Rainwater were an incredible combo. It was there that we watched Bogart movies, read Tin Tin (Rich, having colored all the dog images in a book with a yellow marker: “Don’t eat the yellow Snowy.”), and learned what Thai stick was (in the garage, in case it was volatile).

Russ and I also spent many weekends hitchhiking around Long Island, setting some goal (Hey, Southhampton!) and often making it there and back. The adventures weren’t usually dramatic. A dip in the ocean, flirting with some girls who droves us two miles, finding somehow some beer. Not exactly Tibetan simplicity, but basic, elemental, life distilled.

We talked to everyone. Drivers who picked us up, of course, but also road workers, and convenience store clerks. The workers in Army Navy stores and wherever we went to buy Dannon yoghurt as a snack. Local gossip, news, the weather, that downhome chatter was part of a package of values that we developed and shared and which I think has endured. In later years, when we were actually in control of the car, we’d stop and help people whose cars had broken down, Russ making them feel safe as we helped or found help for whatever the problem was.

We often found ourselves, because of our long hair and baggy pants, talking to police officers who assumed we took drugs. I remember a number of times that we chatted up those cops, while holding a joint or two, talked seriously about the problems with Nelson Rockefeller’s increasing penalties for pot possession, and managed to save our hides by good grace and luck and maybe a certain amount of innocent guile.

Until we didn’t, at which point our wanderings and self-inventing become more publicly known at home, and lawyers had to be called. We’ll blame Frank Zappa for that. We ate the yellow snow, metaphorically at least.

Through all of this we listened to a lot of music. And the music that we listened to most was the Allman Brothers. When I heard from Russ’s sister that he’d died this past Saturday I thought about his cancer, and the unrelenting beat of disease that transforms a life of love and devotion into an unrelenting agony and violation of all of that. And I ached, for the many years in between those strange halcyon days Russ and I shared figuring out how to live in the world, and these strange days when whatever script we’ve been given makes the ending seem as inevitable as one of those Bogart movies. And much more terrible because it isn’t just a story.

I started thinking about this Allman’s tune today. It’s from their first album, which for some time was underappreciated, though nobody cares anymore from whence the good stuff came. And this is the good stuff.

So sit with Russ and me on the pump house, with our friends, and argue about Jaimo and Butch, and Duane and Dickey, appreciate Berry’s amazing bass line, and think about motorcycles and eerie coincidences and terribly sad moments. And raise a Stegmaier, please, for Russ. And don’t klunk.