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Music notes: Gershwins, Little Willie John, tribute LPs, Nuggets, Yardbirds, Morrissey and MacGowan, folk, Nina Simone, Cream, La's, Liszt, Hendrix, Robert Johnson

Thursday 5/9/24

A book about a single song: the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away from Me." Fred Astaire, the various versions, the writing of the song, the history, that which specifically facilitates its timelessness. I'd do that up nice.

If I could wish live album into existence by an artist who does not have one, I'd pick Little Willie John and a recording from, say, Detroit, in the late 1950s. Runner-up: The Five Royales, same time period.

It's rare for me to think well of a tribute album because I think there's limited value in a homage for the sake of homage, which is what most tribute albums are. An exception was Sam Cooke's Tribute to the Lady, his Billie Holiday tribute album, which features--in part because Cooke and Holiday are so closely related in key ways--in the book on Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963.

But two sterling tribute albums, each from a jazz pianist: Bud Powell's Bud Plays Bird and Earl Hines's Earl Hines Plays Duke Ellington. These are arguably the two most important pianists in jazz history. Art Tatum and Jelly Roll Morton are there as well. Both of these artists not only had a profound understanding of the artists they were paying tribute to, but each knew that the music must be the music; that is, the value has to come from the new music that is made, not from the association with music that had already been made. The Hines is a triple set; the Powell didn't come out until 1997 despite being recorded late 1957 and early 1958. The Hines recordings were made in the first half of the 1970s.

Side two of Lenny Kaye's Nuggets compilation is one of the great album sides in rock and roll history. Other sides to think about this way: The first sides of A Hard Day's Night and Having a Rave-Up with the Yardbirds.

People bemoan the singing of Keith Relf, but he's one of my favorite singers and I think he was perfect for the Yardbirds. It had to be him with them. His singing on Roger the Engineer had about as much influence on other singers--upstarts, garage rockers, those starting bands, punks--as any rocker ever has. When I first got into the Yardbirds, I couldn't wait to get home from school and listen to them.

It is a shame that Alan Lomax and Robert Johnson did not hook up. Imagine what those recordings would have sounded like?

The way Morrissey sings the word "Luxembourg" in the Smiths' "Ask." The way Shane MacGowan sings the word "Boston" in the Pogues' "The Body of An American." Morrissey pops the syllables with relish. MacGowan crushes the vowels and expectorates the word.

The other night I listened to some recordings of just Jerry Garcia with his guitar in 1970 running through material that would go on Workingman's Dead, including a version of "Casey Jones" with falsetto vocal.

I find the music of Nina Simone strident and insincere, and Simone herself a fake kind of character.

It's difficult to determine which is the best Cream album. Any of the three preceding Goodbye would be a reasonable choice. People have sort of become wired to "classic rock" as a sound, in which case, I think many would pick Disraeli Gears. Wheels of Fire very much epitomizes the band, which is both both positive and negative, but wholly Cream. I think I'd go with Fresh Cream. What a bracing sound that was when it appeared. No one had made a record that hit that way. Certain records are paradigm-changers. That was one of them. The British version is perhaps the way to lean.

The Beatles' "Nowhere Man" and the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band" draw heavily on Peter, Paul and Mary's "Puff, the Magic Dragon." On "Nowhere Man," focus on John Lennon's voice and guitar. See? The Beatles' Rubber Soul is a fusion of rhythm and blues and folk, but we never think of "Nowhere Man" as being in either camp particularly, but it's a folk song at heart, only with bell-like electric guitar (and those immaculate Ringo Starr press rolls). "Uncle John's Band" is eternal folk, that deep strain of Americana that seems to have originated in a pre-American fecund primitivism that is still somehow American, as with Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

For a group with one album, it's crazy how many La's bootlegs there are. And commercially available albums, paradoxically. The releasing of the unreleased. Not long back a complete show featuring the first performance of "There She Goes" was made available and it is a must-have document.

Franz Liszt's piano transcriptions of various operas and symphonies--which was such a Franz Liszt thing to do--has caused me to think about what Jimi Hendrix might have done in this vein had he lived. Hendrix could have adopted Berlioz's Symphony fantastique for the guitar, for instance.


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