Monthly Archives: November 2007

Three under the tree, Vol. 8

This has been quite a remarkable year for Mavis Staples.

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In April, she released “We’ll Never Turn Back,” an album full of freedom songs old and new, produced by Ry Cooder. It’s one of the best albums of the year (and will make a swell gift for someone on your list).

In September, some of her earliest work with the Staple Singers was re-released.

“The 25th Day of December,” is a 1962 Christmas gospel album simply and elegantly sung by the Staples family — Roebuck (Pops), Mavis, Yvonne and Pervis — and accompanied by Pops on guitar, Maceo Woods on the organ and Al Duncan on drums. It was recorded in two days in late July 1962 at Universal Studios in Chicago.

At the time, the Staple Singers still were a gospel and folk group. This album was the Staples’ fifth album since their debut in 1959, and just their second on Riverside Records, a jazz label. It wasn’t until 1967 that they turned to more commercial R&B and soul.

The first two of tonight’s three selections come from “The 25th Day of December.”

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“Go Tell It on the Mountain.” This is the traditional African-American spiritual, with an arrangement by Pops.

“There Was a Star.” This is an original, written by Pops and William Westbrook.

Both by the Staple Singers, from “The 25th Day of December,” 1962, re-released on CD, 2007.

Here’s still another traditional tune featuring Mavis Staples.

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“Born in Bethlehem,” the Blind Boys of Alabama with Mavis Staples, from “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” 2003.

This album pairs the Blind Boys, one of America’s great gospel treasures, with an eclectic mix of duet partners. Some work great, like this one, on which Jimmy Carter has the lead vocal. Others less so. It’s largely a matter of personal taste.

It’s certainly worth checking out, though. The Blind Boys’ other duet partners: Robert Randolph, George Clinton, Michael Franti, Solomon Burke, Tom Waits, Chrissie Hynde, Richard Thompson, Aaron Neville, Shelby Lynne, Me’shell Ndegeocello and Les McCann.

We might circle back to this one. Until then, enjoy. More to come.

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Three under the tree, Vol. 7

In addition to all the albums and CDs I dig out at Christmas time, I also dig out one cassette tape.

I can play it in only one place in the house — who has more than one tape deck, if any, anymore? — but I always play it.

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I taped it off the radio one night in the late ’80s. It was from a show on a most remarkable radio station in Madison, Wisconsin.

WORT, 89.9 FM, was — and is — listener-sponsored, volunteer-run, free-form Back Porch Radio. They spin a staggeringly diverse mix of local bands, indie rock, R&B, soul, dance, jazz, punk, country and performance art. (You can stream it live if you live outside Madison.)

The DJ called himself Willie Wonder, and he played R&B, soul and jazz late at night one night a week. One December night, he was dropping Christmas tunes into the usual mix.

I probably was listening to the show as I drove home from the paper, started digging it, and popped in a tape when I got home. I say that because the tape picks up in mid-program and Willie Wonder signs off before the 90-minute tape ends.

In the 20 or so years since I taped it, I’ve been collecting the Christmas tracks from the tape. Here are three of them.

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“This Christmas,” Donny Hathaway, 1970, from “Soul Christmas,” a 1991 compilation.

Widely covered, this is the smooth original, written by Hathaway and Nadine McKinner. It was recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York in November 1970 and released as Atco single 6799 on Nov. 30, 1970 — 37 years ago tomorrow.

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“You’re All I Want for Christmas,” the Salsoul Orchestra, from “Christmas Jollies II,” 1981.

One of my guilty pleasures has long been the Salsoul Orchestra’s “Christmas Jollies” from 1976. I had it first on CD and recently found a vinyl copy. Call it dance, call it disco, it’s certainly of its time, a blend of Philly soul, funk and Latin sounds orchestrated by Vincent Montana Jr.

I’ve long been looking for “Jollies II” and recently tracked it down. It’s out of print and hard to find. But dig a little on the web and you might find it.

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“Christmas Blues,” the Ramsey Lewis Trio, from “Sound of Christmas,” 1961.

This cool, laid-back bit of instrumental jazz — just Lewis on piano, Eldee Young on bass and Red Holt on drums — might have been the hardest to track down. I don’t think Willie Wonder name-checked it that night.

But it all fell into place when I came across this cut — still not knowing its name — on a budget Christmas CD found at Fleet Farm three or four years ago.

(Midwest folks will know how odd it is to find it there. Fleet Farm is a big discount farm and home supply place, with everything from guns to fishing tackle to jeans to tires to work boots to tools to light fixtures.)

Then “Sound of Christmas” was re-released on CD in 2004, and I snapped that up. The first side, the first five cuts, has the trio only. The second side, the next five cuts, has the trio backed by a string section for a lusher sound. I prefer Side 1, but you can’t go wrong with either side.

From the original liner notes by Nelson Noble of radio station WILD in Boston:

“While you’re listening to The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s Sounds of Christmas, please keep in mind that all of us wish all of you a very Merry, Swingin’ Christmas.”

I’ll second that. Enjoy. More to come.

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Three under the tree, Vol. 6

Tonight, a little misdirection with our three tunes. It’s not all that complicated. You’ll get the hang of it quickly enough.

The first one sounds like “Oye Como Va” but really is …

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“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Gary Chapman, from “Christmas on the Border,” 1994.

This album by a bunch of Nashville session musicians is described as “a spicy holiday recipe of Texas blues, hot country and Mexican salsa” but doesn’t quite live up to that billing. That said, it’s pleasant enough. Chapman — perhaps best known as Amy Grant’s ex … or a Christian music performer … or a TNN talk-show host — is the biggest name and has the best tune.

The second one sounds like “La Bamba” but really is …

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“Feliz Navidad,” Los Straitjackets, from “‘Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets!”, 2002.

This is a fun album from those surf-rock instrumentalists in the Mexican wrestling masks. I thought about putting up another tune that sounds like “Pipeline,” but figured you didn’t want to hear “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” again, at least today.

The third one sounds like “In the Mood” but really is …

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“Gettin’ in the Mood (for Christmas),” the Brian Setzer Orchestra, from “Dig That Crazy Christmas,” 2005.

In which Brian and the lads abscond with Glenn Miller’s classic ’40s swing piece and make it into a holiday tune that works. Especially when you see them live, as I have three times. All three shows have been much the same, but how often do you get to see a big band with a charismatic front man, glamorous girl singers and a horn section with a big sound? Highly recommended if they come to your town.

Enjoy. More to come.

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Three under the tree, Vol. 5

From time to time over the next month or so, we’ll take our three Christmas tunes from the same album, giving you a little taste of something you really should go out and get the rest of.

Tonight’s selections come from an album I seemingly have had forever. If memory serves, I bought it in 1980 or 1981 on the recommendation of Mike, the laid-back gent who ran — and still runs — Inner Sleeve Records in Wausau, Wisconsin. I don’t know how I would have otherwise found out about it. Folk guitarists weren’t played on the radio I listened to at the time.

Commonly known as “The New Possibility,” its full title is “The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album.”

Released in 1968, it is perhaps the most accessible of the eccentric folk guitarist’s albums. An excellent web site on Fahey describes his style as “American primitive guitar,” and that’s fairly accurate. His sound on the steel-stringed acoustic guitar is spare yet elegant.

Here is what Fahey had to say about “The New Possibility” in 1979:

“Well, the arrangements are pretty good, but on the other hand there are more mistakes on this album than on any of the other 17 albums I’ve recorded. And yet, here’s the paradox … this album has not only sold more than any of my others, I meet people all the time who are crazy about it. I mean really love it. What can I say. I’m confused.”

I have two other Christmas albums by Fahey — “Christmas Guitar” from 1982 and “The John Fahey Christmas Album” from 1991 — and he recorded two more. Each has its moments, but the first is still the best.

Fahey is no longer with us, having died in 2001, but he’s left us this wonderful gift. It isn’t Christmas at our house without this one, either.

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“Joy to the World”

“Medley: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing; O Come, All Ye Faithful”

“Silent Night, Holy Night”

All by John Fahey, from “The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album,” 1968.

Enjoy. Hope you’re getting a nice little Christmas mix out of what you’re finding here. More to come.

If you have a request, drop me a note. I’ll see what I can do.

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Three under the tree, Vol. 4

Tonight, we pay a visit to the tropics for some Christmas instrumentals with a little different flavor. Three under the palm tree, if you will.

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“Winter Wonderland,” Arthur Lyman, from “With a Christmas Vibe,” 1959.

Call it exotica, or call it Hawaiian jazz, but Lyman is bringing the good vibes — literally and figuratively — on this classic album. Its original title in 1959 was “Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas),” and it was re-released on CD in 1996 to some warm reviews.

I’m older than dirt, but even I am not old enough to remember Lyman’s appearances on TV variety shows and on the old “Hawaiian Eye” detective show in the ’60s. (Quick! Who starred on “Hawaiian Eye?” Robert Conrad and the always swell Connie Stevens.)

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“Feliz Navidad,” Robert Greenidge, from “It’s Christmas, Mon!”, 1995. Good luck finding this CD. (It’s Intersound 3529).

Though Greenidge gets no cover billing, he’s playing the steel pan. If you’re a Jimmy Buffett fan, you know his work.

Greenidge, who’s from Trinidad, has been with the Coral Reefer Band since 1983. He and Coral Reefer keyboard player Michael Utley also play together as Club Trini, an instrumental group. Greenidge started out as a session player in the early ’70s, then spent six years with Taj Mahal.

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“O Come All Ye Faithful,” unknown artists, from “Christmas in the Caribbean,” 1996.

This is the familiar carol, also done on steel pan. It’s from a no-name, low-budget CD, but is charming nonetheless.

Enjoy. More to come.

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Sleepy Sunday, Vol. 39

If you are visiting only for the Christmas tunes, we invite you check out another of our regular features here at AM, Then FM.

Each Sunday, we serve up a little slice of greatness from Sleepy LaBeef.

Sleepy LaBeef, the human jukebox, is a national treasure. I don’t remember how I came to know his music roughly 20 years ago, but he instantly became one of my faves.

Born in Smackover, Arkansas, he stands a solid 6-foot-6 and belts out rockabilly, roots, R&B, blues, country and gospel tunes — almost all of them covers — in a deep, smoky baritone while raking away on his guitar. He’s 71, and still touring.

Today’s tune, “Blues Stay Away From Me,” is a slow roadhouse blues done first by the Delmore Brothers in 1949. It’s also been covered by Ace Cannon, Asleep at the Wheel, Bob Dylan, The Band, Jeff Beck, NRBQ, the Sweet Inspirations and Merle Haggard, among others.

The Delmore Brothers co-wrote it with Henry Glover and Wayne Raney, who explains how it came to be recorded in Cincinnati on May 6, 1949:

“About four o’clock one morning in Cincinnati’s Gibson Hotel, Alton and Rabon Delmore and I were getting ready for a recording session the next day. Alton knew a guitar riff he had learned from Henry Glover, a black songwriter on the King Records staff at the time. We decided to put words to it and a song was born. We recorded it the next day.”

Sleepy recorded his version during a ’70s session at Singleton Sound Studio in Nashville. His baritone is in fine form, and he’s backed by some nice piano work.

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“Blues Stay Away From Me,” Sleepy LaBeef, from “The Human Jukebox,” 1995.

(Source of Wayne Raney quote: This page on the Roots of Bob Dylan web site.)

And if you are visiting just for the Christmas tunes, they’ll return Monday.

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Three under the tree, Vol. 3

One of the advantages (or drawbacks) to being older than dirt is that you can be nostalgic about several decades.

And so it is tonight, as we fondly recall the early ’80s and bring you three from the early days of MTV, along with some YouTube links.

Believe it or not, there was a time when artists made Christmas videos and MTV played them at Christmas time, just as radio would play their Christmas singles at Christmas time.

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“Christmas is the Time to Say I Love You,” Billy Squier, 1981, from “A Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas,” a 1994 compilation with some other good tunes on it. (We’ll be hearing more from it.)

Squier was one of the biggest stars on MTV at the time, so a Christmas single seemed logical. And who could forget these lyrics: “From grownup to minor/No one could be finer” and “From rooftop to chimney/From Harlem to Bimini.” I know of no other Christmas song with “Bimini” in the lyrics.

You can watch Squier lip-sync it with the MTV VJs and crew here. It’s a guilty pleasure, perhaps even corny, but it’s a good memory from that time. How many of those VJs can you name today?

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“2000 Miles,” the Pretenders, from “Learning to Crawl,” 1983.

Talk about playing a guitar like ringing a bell, quietly, gracefully. A modern Christmas classic about a loved one gone at Christmas. That it came from an album with so many other great, straight-up rock songs — this was the flip side to “Middle of the Road” — makes it all the more remarkable.

Watch a live performance of it, complete with strings, here.

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“Do They Know It’s Christmas,” Barenaked Ladies, from “Barenaked for the Holidays,” 2004.

I’m not at all a fan of this Canadian band — I found this posted online sometime this summer — but I’ve come to enjoy their fairly straightforward cover of the Band Aid tune from 1984.

Bob Geldof wrote the words, Midge Ure wrote the music and everyone who was anyone on the British music scene at the time sang it. The song, which benefited hunger relief in Ethiopia, was huge — a solid No. 1 in Britain and close to it in the States. (Likewise, Barenaked Ladies’ version benefits AIDS and HIV projects in Africa.)

See what all the fuss was about here. How many of those performers you can name today?

Enjoy. More to come.

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