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Friday, April 17, 2015

Giving 'Soul Survivors' a New Life -- While They're Still Able to Benefit (From the Archives)







(Note -- April 17, 2015: With the passing of Percy Sledge (above), whose record Shining Through the Rain is featured in this story, I'm reminded how many of the artists featured in this 2005 story are now departed -- Jimmy Norman, Howard Tate, Solomon Burke and now Sledge. This, then, is in their memory, and to observe that they never quit trying to make a living through music, and to make good music. And hooray for Bette LaVette and her ongoing career revitalization. -- SR)

Soul Survivors

By Steven Rosen
From Los Angeles CityBeat, 2005

With her new album, “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” 59-year-old soul singer Bettye LaVette is the latest veteran R&B singer – soul survivor, if you will – to emerge from pop music’s past with relevant, new music.

As former 1950s, 1960s and early-1970s hit makers Solomon Burke, Al Green, Mavis Staples and (posthumously) Ray Charles have done recently, she has recorded a “comeback” album with polished production values and a contemporary edge to the material. 

Produced by Joe Henry for Los Angeles’ trend-setting Anti- label, “Hell to Raise” includes her taut, emotional and fiercely committed versions of songs by such female singer-songwriters as Aimee Mann, Joan Armatrading, Fiona Apple and Dolly Parton. She has a sensuous, whisper-to-a-scream range similar to Tina Turner.

But her album, released Tuesday, isn’t really a comeback per se. It’s more an attempt at a late-career breakthrough. LaVette has never really had any sizeable mainstream success in a long, multi-label career that started while she was a Detroit teenager.

But her new album is the best example yet of something fascinating that’s happening at the edges of the ongoing soul-music revival. Worthy but obscure soul singers – LaVette, Howard Tate, Nathaniel Mayer, Bobby Purify, Mighty Sam McClain among them – are being given a chance to belatedly get discovered and appreciated, much the way aging country blues musicians like Son House or Mississippi John Hurt were by a younger generation back in the 1960s.


 “They’re trying to make my career fresh,” LaVette says about Anti’s support, during a phone interview from her New Jersey home. “I’m not really coming back from anything. I’ve kept my health, I haven’t been strung out on anything, nobody’s beaten me, I haven’t joined the church, none of that. I’ve never done anything but this. I just haven’t been able to do it on a large enough scale to pay my bills.”

In that, LaVette has the commitment of Anti’s president, Andy Kaulkin. He already staged a small, exclusive showcase concert for her at the Echo – it received a rave review in CityBeat – and is supporting a national tour that brings her to the Knitting Factory on Oct. 10. He became interested in LaVette after being invited by her booking agent to a show at Sweetwater Saloon in Marin County’s Mill Valley.

Anti-, in cooperation with Mississippi’s hipster-blues company Fat Possum, won a Grammy for Solomon Burke’s 1992 comeback, “Don’t Give Up On Me.” Also produced by Henry, it featured Burke’s versions of songs by Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Nick Lowe, Van Morrison, Tom Waits and others. It has sold a healthy 108,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Soundscan.

“It seems our culture really undervalues the artistic contributions of older artists and I really don’t understand why,” the 41-year-old Kaulkin says. “People like Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf made some of their best records when they were in their 60s and that was just a given.

“There is something great about the innocence of young artists discovering themselves when you can hear that innocence in their recordings,” he says. “But there is also something equally great about a mature artist, who has the wisdom of years, having something important to say. When such an artist tries to make a statement, it’s usually pretty great.  And it’s fascinating for me to observe that, listen to that, and enjoy that.”

For older soul artists who, like LaVette, have new albums out, the stories behind their reemergence are invariably dramatic. “I had so much press after I was rediscovered,” says Tate, via phone from New Jersey, who had disappeared after recording such late 1960s/early 1970s soul tunes as the original “Get It While You Can” and “Look at Granny Run Run.” His “Rediscovered” came out in 2003 on Private Music. “I became more of a household name than I ever was before. And you know, none of us got paid back then – the black artists. That’s why I had walked away.” Now, he indicates, things are better financial – Hollywood is even considering a movie of his life.

 For some of the artists attempting comebacks or late-career discoveries, there are strong L.A. connections. For instance, the manager of Percy Sledge – whose enduring late-1960s hits included “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Take Time to Know Her” – struck up a conversation in a Hollywood office-building elevator with a consultant for a start-up film-production company called Velvet Steamroller.

They convinced the company to bankroll production of Sledge’s 2004 “Shining Through the Rain,” believing the healthy sales of Burke’s and Al Green’s comeback CDs foretold a trend. Recorded at Van Nuys’ Sound City studio and produced by Barry Goldberg, it was a respectfully updated nod to Sledge’s classic Muscle Shoals sound and included covers of songs by Steve Earle, the Hollies and the Bee Gees.

Released late last year, it was Sledge’s first album of new material in 10 years and advanced his induction this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Alas, business complications resulted in poor sales and Velvet Steamroller losing money. But the firm has no complaints about the experience.

“To be a part of this kind of art, who could turn that down,” asks Velvet Steamroller’s Lisette Bross, in her late 20s, during an interview at her firm’s North Hollywood office. “It’s like seeing a great actor. It was like rediscovering this sound that nobody knew. This music doesn’t go out of fashion, it comes from the heart. This man has lived it.”

Sometimes, fortuitous chance events lead to a new recording. For instance, New York musician Kerryn Tolhurst was helping clean the apartment of a frail, older R&B/jazz singer-songwriter named Jimmy Norman when he came across material earmarked for the garbage.

Norman’s greatest achievement came when called into Hollywood’s United/Western studios in 1964 to write additional lyrics for an existing song called “Time Is On My Side.” A New Orleans singer, Irma Thomas, was there and wanted to record it – and the Rolling Stones, of course, would then cover her. Norman’s long but unheralded career was finally sidelined by heart surgery in 1997.

“We were doing cleaning for him and he mentioned he had bags and bags of old R&B material from the 1960s and there was talk of throwing them out,” Tolhurst recalls via telephone. “So we intervened and found notepads of jotted-down lyrics and some very rough tapes. Amazingly, he remembered the melodies to the songs he only had lyrics for and he played them.  They were great.”

That started a slow, arduous process of Tolhurst recording Norman’s “Little Pieces,” on which his tentative voice is comforted by a tasteful, soothing production on those fine songs. It ends with a poignant and joyful version of “Time Is On My Side.” Late last year, Judy Collins released it on her Wildflower label and had Norman appear with her at Carnegie Hall. That has netted him much publicity in New York, although his heart condition prevents rigorous touring.

“All of a sudden things started happening and people started talking about me and “Time Is on My Side,’” Norman says, from his New York home. “Thank God – he must have kept me here for a reason. I’m still around and I’m grateful. That’s all I can say.”

Friday, April 10, 2015

From the Archives: Madeleine Peyroux's 2009 'Bare Bones'



Madeleine Peyroux
Bare Bones

By Steven Rosen
www.blurtonline.com
2009

Madeleine Peyroux has a voice that’s special. 

Quietly sultry and smoky, nonchalantly conversational yet also soothingly melodic and jazzily stylized, it has earned her deserved comparisons to Billie Holiday. Coupled with the choice in material by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Fred Neil and Joni Mitchell on her first two Larry Klein-produced Rounder albums, Careless Love and Half the Perfect World, she seemed a far more than half-perfect interpreter of post-rock standards. 

Good as they were, Bare Bones is a substantial jump forward. She has had a hand in writing ten of the 11 tracks; and written one – “I Must Be Saved,” lovely and wistful, like Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan – by herself. 

Klein again produces, as well as helping with the songwriting, and the arrangements are tastefully folk-jazz with rock underpinnings. Because he was married to Joni Mitchell and collaborated with her on her many attempts at singer-songwriter jazz, you can’t help observing that Bare Bones sounds like the album Mitchell probably wanted to make after Court and Spark had her spiky sensibilities not undermined the lyricism of her efforts. 

Klein and Peyroux’s “River of Tears,” for instance, has a gorgeously dreamy romanticism, you can get lost in its fluidity. The title song, inspired by a book by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, is one of two standouts co-written with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker. And the gently rocking guitar work recalls “Do It Again.” 

The other Becker-Klein-Peyroux tune, the irresistible “You Can’t Do Me,” has a Maria Muldaur-style naughtiness that includes the memorable lines, “screwed like a high-school cheerleader” and “spanked like a fly on a bar counter.” Other songs, co-written by Joe Henry, David Batteau and Julian Coryell, are also strong – you’ll hear the influences of Waits, Cohen, Mitchell, Randy Newman and others.

Standout tracks: “Bare Bones,” “Love and Treachery”

Steven Rosen


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Forgotten Films: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra



THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA    

By Steven Rosen
(2004; previously published)

LOS ANGELES – When people saw the weird and hilarious trailer for “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” they assumed it was a joke. There was no such movie, they thought – which could have been one reason this strange movie did so poorly in theaters earlier this year.

After all, how can clips from what looks like a forgotten low-low-budget black-and-white sci-fi movie from the early 1950s be promoting an alleged new movie? And one “from the company that brought you ‘Lawrence of Arabia?’” This has got to be a put-on, right?

Now that “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” is being released on DVD on June 22 in a special edition, people will see it is a joke. The movie is a loving spoof of clumsy but inadvertently inspired sci-fi movies of the 1950s like “Robot Monster” and Ed Wood’s “Plan Nine From Outer Space.” The kind of movies kids used to spend Sunday afternoons seeing at neighborhood-theater triple-bills.

The plot, according to the production notes, features “foil-covered aliens, space toys and a Fay Wray-esque heroine who actually feels for the misunderstood mutant.” And that’s just the start – there’s also an evil skeleton and a woman who is actually a human incarnation of several wild animals. (And she eats dinner like a wild animal.)

The trailer takes the overall spoof one step beyond. Michael Schlesinger, a Dayton native who as vice president of repertory sales for Sony Pictures discovered the independently made film, is responsible for that. And he’s proud of it.

He licensed music from 1940s-era Universal Pictures horror movies to give the trailer a sense of nostalgic gravity. And he wrote a self-consciously portentous voice-over script that promises “a cast of thousands” and “cost of millions’’ even as the trailer itself pictures four actors in a plywood space ship. 

The trailer also says the film was shot in the non-existent camera process known as Skeletorama. And, since Sony is releasing the film under its Tristar banner, Schlesinger felt free to promote “Skeleton” as coming from the same company that brought audiences “Lawrence of Arabia.” (That was from Columbia Pictures, now part of Sony.)

The result? “Some people aren’t sure from the trailer if the movie is real,” Schlesinger said. “I went to see ‘Triplets of Belleville,’ and four people in front of me were watching the trailer and a woman asked that.” 

He helpfully leaned over and told her “Skeleton” was indeed a real movie. “I told her the rights to Skeletorama alone cost a fortune,” he said, laughing.

But others get the goof and consider it a riotous exception in a field – movie trailers – that usually seeks to portray its product as a virtual shoo-in for Oscars. Even if the film is a dead-on-arrival stinker.

“Matt Groening said the trailer was the funniest thing he had ever seen, which is now officially the best compliment I’ve ever had,” Schlesinger said.

Schlesinger, a 53-year-old film buff, is the chief studio backer of “Lost Skeleton.” The movie was made independently by writer/director/star Larry Blamire, producer F. Miguel Valenti and a game if small cast in various Los Angeles locations. Schlesinger saw it at a Thursday-night independent-film screening at Hollywood’s American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater, where he is a board member. “I get in free,” he said.

He found the movie amusing. “One thing I like is that it’s good-natured, not mean-spirited in the way so many spoofs are these days,” Schlesinger said. He also liked the way the premise is played straight-faced, like a Christopher Guest movie.

The crowd at that screening also loved the film, and the discussion that followed was enthusiastic. And when Schlesinger learned during the question-and-answer period that “Skeleton” had been made for about $100,000, he really flipped. 

“That’s when I said to myself, I’ve got to have this movie,” he said. “It’s guaranteed to be a cult classic, and maybe it could be something more. And since it only cost $100,000, how could it lose? I went to Sony, and they said, ‘Sure,’ but I’d have to do all the work on it myself.”

Schlesinger was ready. He had moved to Los Angeles in 1981, having previously booked in the mid-1970s an experimental Cincinnati repertory-cinema program while working in Dayton for the theater’s owner. That earned him a job with a Cincinnati film-booking agency – eventually he became a part-owned of The Movies art houses in Cincinnati and Dayton. Since arriving here, he has handled theatrical bookings of classic films for several studios. (For the past 10 years, he has been at Sony Pictures.) 

He was involved in the 50th anniversary re-release of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” and the subsequent green-lighting of “It’s All True,” a documentary about Welles’ aborted film project in Brazil.

That documentary filled in a crucial missing episode in film history. Welles was in Brazil, working on a never-finished project also called “It’s All True,” when his studio butchered his follow-up to “Citizen Kane,” “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Many say Welles never regained his standing in Hollywood, or his confidence in his work, after that experience.

“Lost Skeleton” is hardly Wellesian in its ambitions or accomplishments. But it is a lot of fun – and Schlesinger is having a lot of fun trying to market it. “So far, everybody who sees it seems to love it,” he said. 

And he’s talking about the film, not just his trailer.


(Steven Rosen’s E-mail address is srosenone@aol.com.)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Garland Jeffreys' Successful Second Act Continues: Archival Story from 2014

It’s Never Too Late

Garland Jeffreys’ successful second act continues at age 71

BY STEVEN ROSEN · NOVEMBER 3RD, 2014 · MUSIC
music2_garland_jeffreys_photo_providedGarland Jeffreys
Veteran singer/songwriters stop performing and recording for all kinds of reasons — health, fatigue, lack of success, too much success or changes in music trends all sometimes figure into it. 
But the reason the New York City-based musician Garland Jeffreys, who will be performing Wednesday at Southgate House Revival, didn’t issue a U.S. album of new material from 1992 until 2011’s heralded The King of In Between is more unusual. He wanted to spend time with his daughter. 

Before that, he had been active since the late 1960s. His first album, Grinder’s Switch Featuring Garland Jeffreys, came out in 1970 and was followed by seven more studio albums of new material until 1992’s Don’t Call Me Buckwheat. 



“I have no doubt that staying home and being with my child, walking her to school and nursery school and being with her all those early years, was very good for her and very good for me,” Jeffreys says, during a recent phone interview from his family’s Manhattan apartment. “It was a more important experience than anything in the world, as I look back on it.”

With his daughter now in college at Wellesley and his wife managing his career, Jeffreys has resumed writing and performing and is finding a devoted audience for his groundbreaking mixture of Rock, Folk, Soul, Latin, Blues, Doo-Wop and Reggae. Last year, he released another album, Truth Serum. Besides his active touring schedule, he’s guested with Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nile and Alejandro Escovedo. When The King of In Between was released, David Letterman invited him to perform on The Late Show to celebrate.



He’s become very busy and very forward-looking at age 71. 

“Some people say it’s kind of late. But it’s not too late at all,” Jeffreys explains. “I’ve been so fortunate. I have my health, I’m playing and I have a wonderful family.”

Jeffreys helped create the urban wing of Americana — marked by sometimes-romantic, sometimes-gritty songs about the diverse groups of people who live in cities, especially New York.
His background (his father was African-American and his mother Puerto Rican and he was raised in Brooklyn) gave him an original perspective. 

His songs could be empathetic like “Ghost Writer” or “Matador,” observant about arts, news items and pop culture (“Lon Chaney” and “Wild in the Streets”) or angry at injustice (“Don’t Call Me Buckwheat”). While his influences are varied, he was especially moved by Van Morrison’s classic Astral Weeks album; his 1970 Grinder’s Switch used the same producer. And rising above everything was his love for Rock & Roll as a unifier. While he never had big U.S. hits, “Matador” proved popular in Europe.

For his U.S. comeback, The King of In Between, Jeffreys chose songs that represent who he is and where he’s from. 

“Opening the album with ‘Coney Island Winter’ was perfect,” he says. “It made an identification between me and where I came from and reintroduced me to my public. 

“I left Brooklyn quite a while ago, but I still go to Coney Island and visit some of the spots that I love. And a song like ‘I’m Alive’ (also on the album) makes that statement that I’m alive in terms of my vitality. If I didn’t have that vitality, I couldn’t do it. But I have all the energy I need.”

Racial identity has been a topic that Jeffreys has long explored because of his own background, but his take on it has never been rote. 

“In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, you could move around very easily,” he says. “It was unusual; it was very mixed. I had Italians on the left and right and we were a mixed-race family. I was raised a Catholic, and the Baptist church in the next block was all black. So I had the experience very early of being around all kinds of people at the same time. The people in the neighborhood were very friendly. It wasn’t a conflict.”

But as he got older and ventured more often into the larger city (and country), he discovered not everyone was like that. He sometimes was the object of racial epithets. 

“I would hear that and I would cringe,” he says. “I knew I never wanted to be compartmentalized. I knew very young that I wanted to be part of the world rather than part of a part of the world. And I thank my lucky stars for that unusual perception at an early age.”

After enrolling at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, Jeffreys became friends with another student from Brooklyn who loved Rock & Roll, the late Lou Reed.

“We both loved the same kind of music — Doo-Wop,” Jeffreys says. “Frankie Lymon was my idol. That music was just incredible and Lou felt the same way. That’s the thing that bonded us initially.”

After Jeffreys actively resumed his career, Reed showed up at a show at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan and guested on several songs. 

“And then Lou said, ‘I got to go,’ ” Jeffreys says. “He stepped down and as he started walking, I started singing a cappella: ‘I have a girlfriend/She says I'm her only one/We wanna get married/But we're so young/So young/Can't marry no one.’ Lou turns around, comes near stage, gets down on his knees in front of whole crowd and bows down to me. It was fantastic.”



Told by this reporter that the song he has started singing over the phone — 1961’s ethereal ballad “I’m So Young” — is by a Cincinnati group, The Students, Jeffreys replies, “Isn’t that something? Small world, isn’t it?”

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