Thursday, 18 April 2013

Those black American songbirds

Ravi, who wrote this piece on  various forms of gramophone records is a certifiable music nut. He can wax lyrical (pun intended) on most matters musical. But when he does so about women 100 years old , well ........ you form your own conclusions.

The bloke writes beautifully, writes with passion and his words have magic.  If, at the end, you too fall for big black women who are 100 years old, don't blame me ! Read on.

There is something wonderful about the black American songstress of the days gone by.  They were usually big, with voices to match.  I can always tell a black singer from her voice, because of a certain something, a je ne sais quoi in their voices, in particular, in the voices of the great jazz singers of the 50s and later.   I venture an extreme opinion here when I say that singers of that era invariably were less schooled and less adept in the use of technology than their soul sisters of later decades.  For one – they had to graduate to the recording studio by singing in clubs and speakeasies, in smoky and noisy conditions where they had to make themselves heard. Second, recording technology was not as advanced as it is in these days, so a less than perfect voice could not be digitally tampered with.  As a result their voices sounded more authentic – a naturally lower timbre and the ability to hit high notes with great ease.

Last week I received my long lost consignment of LPs from France and among them was the treasured “At Last” by Etta James.  Etta was born during the Depression to a single mother who had an unsettled life – many jobs, many men, and no money.  No one knows for sure who her father was.  She was brought up in a foster home and discovered singing in a club.   Recording contracts followed. After she was relatively successful with a couple of big hits, the Argo label signed her and released this song and the eponymous LP in 1960.  The song itself was moderately successful initially, but over the years has acquired a sheen. Just listen to the voice here, filled with longing for the loved one who is finally with her.

Music reflects the times, and for me, it is very difficult to separate the performance from the context. This brings to mind the incomparable Queen of Soul, the one and only Aretha Franklin.  One of most beautiful songs from the 60s is “I never loved a man (the way I loved you)”.  And here is a story behind it.  Atlantic Records (founded by the Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun) signed Aretha from another label.  She was then flown to Atlanta to meet the backing band.  This was during the 60s, civil rights, black power etc.  The story goes that she met the band – all of whom were white and of course, all enamoured of this young lady who had already shown her talent.  So they sat down, Aretha on the piano, and they banged out this song in two hours flat. It is very hard to not discern the natural desire of a newbie to showcase her talents even if it was to an admiring bunch of musicians who had not an ounce of prejudice. But this was the sixties in the South, and one can almost hear Aretha say – listen to this, boys, you ain’t heard nothing like this.

Love songs are normally about longing and absence – at least that was how they were. Therefore it is quite rare to come across this gem of a song that combines the longing of love with the pure lust of union, no matter how wrong it is or how messy the whole aspect of a man and a woman in love can get in life. Bessie Smith was another great black musician, who lived between 1895 or so until he tragic death in a car accident in 1937. She started life as a busker and lived a hard life.  The story goes that when she was taken to hospital after the accident the hospital refused to admit her because she was black. The original recording by Bessie Smith is here. However – no disrespect to Bessie – I prefer the version by Nina Simone.  Nina was a regal singer with a strong voice. She took Bessie’s original song and lyrics and modified it in 1968.  I prefer it to Bessie’s – probably because the permissive 60s allowed Nina to include the lust in love into the song.  Here it is - it really catches you by the throat.

And how can one not talk of the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald.  She lived a long and honored life, culminating in the Congressional Medal of Freedom awarded by Bush 41.  Born in 1917, she had a difficult and unhappy childhood but soon began singing on stage until her first recording contract.  She sang scat and bebop, but really became the darling of the American people when Verve Records (a label created around her!)  got her to record the Cole Porter Songbook.  This became the first of a series of records that focused on a single composer and helped establish them in the pantheon as serious musical works.  She also performed a subtle service to America – here was a black woman singing the songs that were predominantly composed by, sung by and listened to by the white American public.  There are many songs by Ella to choose from but my personal favourite is from the Rodgers and Hart songbook, “Manhattan”.  So evocative of that wonderful city, and so full of the simple joys of love between an ordinary guy and an ordinary girl.  What could be more democratic than that?

Let’s conclude with my personal favourite from Billie Holiday.  Another big black lady, with a voice that was made for wit and play with a beautiful vibrato.  Her childhood was anything but happy.  Born in 1915 to a teenaged single mother, she spent her childhood with a relative for the most part since her mother worked on the railroads.  Billie (born Eleanora Fagan) played truant from school at the age of 10 and was sent to reform school. At the age of 11 her neighbour raped her.  Her mother moved to Harlem, and both mother and daughter became prostitutes.   She was arrested and released at the age of 14.  She then started singing in bars and clubs in Harlem. Talent will out, and she made her first record at the age of 18.  Towards the end of her life (she died in 1959) she made an album for Verve whose title song “Day In Day Out”  showcases her amazing talent.  And when you listen to it you will understand why she is one of the great influences on jazz and pop singers since. 

This cannot be an exhaustive list by any means and neither is this anything but a set of purely subjective opinions.  I love these songbirds, and listening to them gives me hours of joy. It is always poignant to remember how unhappy their lives were, and wrought from these tempestuous beginnings were a musical gift we must treasure. Do explore these singers.  Switch on the music. Take your favorite senor or senorita by the hand to the dance floor.  On commence!


Deepa said...

It has ROMANTIC written all over it! Hadnt heard your ladies before, but it was a pleasure getting introduced.

Sriram Khé said...

oh, hey, love them all ...

as i was reading, i was thinking that you were not mentioning one of my all-time favorites: nina simone. and then you did!

after reading your post, i played a few from an interesting CD: carmen mcrae singing some of billie holiday's songs.

all these women and their singing styles are just awesome in how they are able to make me feel so content especially when not feeling on top of the world.

interesting coincidence that your post follows-up on a gorgeous TV show just two days ago--PBS telecast a program on the awesome soul music out of memphis. i wondered whether it might be online now; it is:

happy listenin' everybody

oh, if there is anybody who doesn't know nina simone, you have to, have to, watch this animation set to a fabulous number of hers and see if you can watch it without a smile and without ever tapping your feet ;)

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J said...

Like Sriram, I was also thinking about the PBS show that we let our kids stay up late for on a school night. Lovely piece. I once heard Aretha Franklin live and even though her age was obvious in her voice, it was still so much larger than life. Love the sax in all this music too. Enjoyed all the links - thanks.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Ramesh - thank you so much for boost and for posting my stuff. I really appreciate it. I must stop hijacking your blog!

@Deepa - thank you for your comment. It is impossible to not be a romantic and love music at the same time...

@Sriram - thanks again! If you can get the "Songs For Distingue Lovers" CD. Its wonderful!

@J - thanks. I must watch the PBS documentary. PBS and BBC Four deserve so much of credit for keeping culture alive - they really represent the best that the West is all about - inclusive, open-minded, gentle...

@Anon - how did you know I have bad teeth? DO you have a spycam in my bathroom? God knows what else you are privy to (yuk yuk). Please stop browsing online and go troll somewhere else for a change!

Asha said...

The reason why i don't prioritize news papers these days is because of newsposts like these.
Very edutaining post. Like Deepa, i too never knew about these ladies. i was a huge fan of another black singer Stevie wonder(blind man) during my college days.

Hopfrog said...

Nice post. Billie Holiday was one of a kind that so many have tried to emulate over the years (Adele anyone?).

You might enjoy Jazz, a documentary by Ken Burns.

I think it's on iTunes/Netflix/Amazon... apologies if none of those are accessible there.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Asha - thanks for leaving a comment. Stevie Wonder is a great musician.

@Hopfrog - Thanks, Will check out the Ken Burns documentary..

Anonymous said...

An extract and a book that may be of interest

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