Monday, July 8, 2013

How I Developed a Love for R & B aka Soul Music

You wouldn’t think I would be a prime candidate for R&B/Soul music since I was a young white lad growing up in the City of Toronto in the 1960’s. Everyone else was more into the British sound. Our next door neighbour, who was a lot older, would play Elvis’ records loud enough that the plaster wall that we shared between our houses wouldn’t provide that much of hindrance to the pounding beat.

And a little later a friend in the next house over played an album from a new group from “across the pond” called simply The Rolling Stones, which was the title name for the album as well. And a little later they launched their second album called 12 x 5. I bought both of them even though I didn’t have my own record player but we had one of those furniture style phonograph things that was full of tubes and had just one big speaker at the bottom. I would have to battle with my dad because he wanted to play his shellac polka records that were all 78’s.

Some of the less popular songs on those albums caught my attention, particularly the tracks “If You Need Me”, “Walkin’ the Dog”, “Can I Get A Witness” and “Under the Boardwalk”. I think that my curiosity got the best of me and I found all of the original recordings on 45’s digging through the R & B (Rhythm and Blues) sections in the back areas of Sam’s and A & A’s record stores on Yonge Street just above Dundas. I spent many a Saturday afternoon combing through the entire sections from A to Z and then through all the miscellaneous stuff at the end of the artists section. Later that would expand to The Village Record Shoppe after Whitey moved his store from the Danforth location.

Well hello Solomon Burke, Rufus Thomas, Marvin Gaye and The Drifters (no need for me to look those up today). Red, baby blue, yellow and red again labels if I remember correctly—Atlantic, Stax, Tamla or Motown, and Atlantic again. Thus it began. They cost 66 cents each or 99 cents if they were harder to find or imports.

And then there was this black and white movie called the TAMI show (pronounced tammy) which we saw during the Christmas break at the newly opened Yorkdale Theatre in Yorkdale Plaza. I think we saw it on the release date (December 29, 1964) or just shortly after that. The fact that it was in black and white was actually quite significant in retrospect because all of the players were either light skin or just a little darker skin—not black, not white, not coloured. And they all were having this big party on stage. It was fresh, too because it was just recorded a couple months ago in Santa Monica. The backup band included Glen Campbell and Leon Russell.

Some of the bands came from across the pond but most were from the USA. There were the Stones and this 16 year old was getting into his “happy, happy” groove, then it got “turned up a notch” when Smokey took over the stage, Marvin was cool and The Supremes were their usual acceptable selves. (I really never got into the Supremes or Diana Ross. They always seemed a little too commercial and were lacking the raw power of singers like Gladys Knight who was on that same label of the time).

And then this little darker skinned guy with the puffed up, glued into position with cans of hairspray kind of cartoon looking hairdo starts doing his moves and letting out his unique vocal sounds…and that was it!! I t was WTF, Holy #$%& and lordtunderinJesus all rolled into one. I was safe, I was in a darkened theatre and I wasn’t going to suffer from the wrath of Mom or Dad. You wouldn’t use those words around the house back then because you couldn’t sit down for a week if you did.

Young lad, meet “James Brown and The Famous Flames”.

Actually, I was speechless. You could have parked a Chevy in my mouth, my jaw had dropped so low and my eyes were trying to touch the movie screen. What an experience!!! I think I owned everything that James Brown recorded in his early years at one time.

And then the list grew to include Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett (The Falcons), Jackie Wilson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Ben E. King, Jerry Butler, Ray Charles, and a host of other artists with darker skin but they all had one thing in common. They sang from their toes!! (Yes that might be my top eleven when you add in JB).

It led me to spending a lot of hours visiting clubs, working at some (underage only since the drinking age was 21 then) and running high school dances that pretty much only had local R&B acts (mostly light skin players but mixed in with lots of darker ones, too. Nobody was really concerned about that). The Toronto music scene had a huge R&B following and created a sound of its own that was directly connected to its foundations south of the border.

I also used to try to listen to a radio broadcast at night around 9:00 o’clock coming out of either Nashville or Memphis. Nashville is about 650 miles from Toronto and Memphis is closer to a thousand. (Interesting that a drive from Toronto to those Tennessee cities would take you through Detroit—home of Motown, but they do have an inseparable connection.)

On a clear night the signal wasn’t too bad so you didn’t have to press your ear up against that big speaker or play with the dial trying to get the station to tune in properly (like that would have made a difference). The Wallace Brothers “No More” is a song I remember getting introduced to on that station and I found it in Whitey’s Danforth store I think on the way to work at the Gogue Inn on the red rocket ride (Subway didn’t go that far yet).

I was known to take the Greyhound ride to Buffalo and visit my aunt and uncle and no visit would be complete without a trip to Audrey and Del’s to sort through their offerings. My uncle was upset with the store clerk because he thought she was taking advantage of me but I was just finding a lot of stuff I couldn’t get in Toronto—O.V. Wright’s 8 men, 4 women comes to mind. I don’t remember paying duty for any of that stuff but I guess they didn’t bother searching my bag. I was a good kid. My mom did a good job.

I actually was introduced to Ray Charles’ music a few years previous at a friend’s house where I used to spend hours playing their 45’s. “Born to Lose” kind of stuck out at the time and I since learned that there is a connection between R&B/Soul music and Country and Western—Nashville and Memphis.

One of my more recent additions to that collection was a CD compilation with a whole host of stars from R&B and C&W singing duets called Rhythm, Country and Blues. Interestingly, it was released 30 years after the TAMI show. A track that stood out for me was an updated version of a Willy Nelson classic called “Funny How Time Slips Away” with vocals by Al Green and Lyle Lovett and the unmistakable Hammond B3 phrasings of the great Billy Preston—what a combination. I highly recommend this mix. There are a few sort of average cuts on the CD but overall it is quite spectacular.

I don’t have many of the original records anymore. They wouldn’t be worth much since they are full of scratches, pops and crackles since I played them so much. I did a lot of DJ stuff in my youth as well. My iTunes collection is jammed with cuts from that era and the few I can’t find in digital form well I just “borrowed” those form YouTube where record owners have posted a copy of the original recording so some are not so good.(eg I Can't Stand It by Jimmy Holiday. A young Roy Kenner live version got me hooked on that song. Roy was probably the best voice in town at the time.)

And they still sound so great today, almost 50 years later. I am a sort of average musician as well (started playing the guitar back then) and have learned how to take down tracks on my computer and most of them are my own versions of old R&B classics. I’ve also been told that I have a pretty good voice, so maybe you’ll see me one day on iTunes or CDBaby—working title for the band is “Johnny’s Invisible House Band”. There’s nothing there yet but I’m working on it. Even have an original tune to honour the Toronto Sound. Just waiting for a new keyboard to show up. Steve’s Music tells me that there aren’t any available in North America right now, they are quite popular.

I promise that I will try to recreate the proper feel in anything that gets put down to a track; otherwise it won’t show up anywhere but on my computer.

Nevertheless, I will have a ball doing so.

Recently, I was just poking around the Internet and googled online radio and eventually I tripped over 411 Reality Radio out of Dallas Texas. Well it brought back all the memories of listening to that Tennessee station and digging through the stacks of 45's in the back of all my favourite record stores. This station covers everything in my collection and then some. I kept bouncing back to my iTunes window to see who was singing that and lots of times I guessed right. 

I actually found it on another link and used the iTunes download connection. You are also able to load it into other music players if you don't use iTunes but that wouldn't be very many people I know who love music. The only downside I found was that the stream is 64kbs which isn't normally a problem but when all the youngsters out there get on your Internet hub well then your ISP provider isn't going to give you a consistent stream. You may have to upgrade your service to a faster stream rate (Mine is up to 25Mbps download but that is only at optimal conditions which you don't get from around 4 in the afternoon to about 11:00 at night. Funny how radio reception is always better in the wee hours of the morning still today).

Time to turn up the volume, Chuck Jackson is singing Any Day Now on my Bose Companion 3 speakersonly $100 and they sound like those refrigerator size speakers we had in our youth. Even old mono recordings sound like something you never heard before. Everything is so clear. 

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