What are we doing New Year’s Eve? Oh, not much. Just sticking close to home, staying socially distanced.
“When the bells all ring and the horns all blow “And the couples that we know are fondly kissing “Will I be with you or will I be among the missing?”
We’re all among this missing this year, making this classic all the more poignant as 2020 finally ends. Maybe next New Year’s Eve.
Written by Frank Loesser in 1947, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” has been described as the only notable jazz standard with a New Year’s Eve theme. This sophisticated tune tempers an unrequited love with some hope. We all could use some hope these days.
It’s great no matter who does it. Let’s go.
It’s the ’60s. You’re in a roadhouse, the one hard by the tracks. You hear this.
“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” King Curtis, from “Soul Christmas,” 1968. (Recorded on Oct. 23, 1968, at Atlantic Studios in New York. That’s Duane Allman on guitar.)
Then you head uptown to a nightclub. You hear this …
Ace Frehley played at our local Memorial Day weekend festival on Friday night. I didn’t go. Didn’t want to stand for a few hours on a staggeringly hot evening. Besides, I’ve seen him twice already. Each time I was pleasantly surprised.
When KISS played in Milwaukee in 2000, Ace was a much better guitarist than I expected. “Astonishingly good,” I told a friend.
Likewise when I saw him at another summer festival in 2012. “Ace Frehley still one of the best guitarists I’ve seen live,” I posted to Facebook back then. That also was the night when Ace urged fans not to drink and drive, then laughed and said “This next song’s about alcohol.” His encore was “Cold Gin.”
A year earlier, in 2011, Rolling Stone put out “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” a so-called “special collectors edition.” I picked it up, probably as vacation reading. It has long since made for excellent bathroom reading.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to see 14 of that group of 100 great guitarists. In order of their ranking on that Rolling Stone list, they are Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Derek Trucks, Neil Young, Buddy Guy, Angus Young, Brian May, Stephen Stills, Joe Walsh, Slash, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen and Lindsey Buckingham.
Of that group of 14, Chuck Berry, Angus Young, Brian May, Bonnie Raitt and — believe it or not — Lindsey Buckingham wowed me most.
There are, of course, other guitarists I’ve really enjoyed seeing. Perhaps they’re among the next 100 greatest guitarists. Or not. Here are three.
Ace Frehley is one. David Lindley, who plays a bunch of stringed instruments in his world music-tinged shows, is another. Then there’s Steve Stevens, who’s best known as Billy Idol’s guitarist. But he also plays a mean Spanish and flamenco guitar. That was something to see and hear. Who’d have thought?
However, the only Steve Stevens cut I have is his 1998 version of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” the familiar holiday song. It starts out gently and pleasantly enough, but devolves into shredding. So we’ll pass on that.
We’ll leave you with something in Stevens’ adventurous spirit. I picked up this record at the wonderful Mill City Sound in Hopkins, Minnesota, last summer. It’s a highly recommended digging spot if you’re in the Minneapolis area.
This is the same Sonny Curtis who was in the Crickets. The same Sonny Curtis who wrote “I Fought The Law.” The same Sonny Curtis who wrote “Love Is All Around,” the theme to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
He was 27 when this, his first LP, was released in 1964. It’s a fun listen.
Our premise, revisited: Since we last gathered here a month ago, we’ve lost even more music greats. Keith Emerson, Sir George Martin and Gayle McCormick, the lead singer of Smith, even Clare MacIntyre-Ross, the woman who inspired the Harry Chapin’s classic song “Taxi.”
Time, then — well past time, really — to appreciate four music greats who are still with us. These are my four. Yours may be different. We started with the eldest, Chuck Berry. We then paid homage to Little Richard. We continue with …
The legend: Jerry Lee Lewis.
Still performing? Apparently so. There are no dates listed on his website, but his last gig was about six weeks ago in Mississippi. I’ve never seen him play live.
What we must acknowledge but won’t dwell on: The Killer has gone through a whole lot of unsavory business. A scandalous marriage to a cousin who likely was 13 when they were wed in December 1957. Six other wives. Allegations of domestic abuse. Substance abuse. Arrested outside Graceland in November 1976, drunk and waving a gun. Jeebus.
Where I came in: Hm. Not really sure about this, either. Perhaps when he covered “Chantilly Lace” in 1972, or perhaps when “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” crossed over from country radio in 1973. It wasn’t until 1989 that I bought my first Jerry Lee record, the “Milestones” greatest-hits comp released on Rhino Records to coincide with the release of “Great Balls of Fire,” the film in which Dennis Quaid played Jerry Lee.
Appreciate the greatness: I have always loved piano pounders, and Jerry Lee stands with Little Richard as perhaps the greatest of them all. Jerry Lee’s late ’50s hit singles are among the cornerstones of rock ‘n’ roll. That said, here are some other tunes I dig.
“Live from the Birmingham Municipal Auditorium and the WVOK Shower of Stars, the one, the only, Jerry Lee Lewis!”
They recorded this on July 18, 1964, a Saturday night. (The liner notes incorrectly say July 1.) To hear this astonishing side, Jerry Lee clearly brought the greatest live show on Earth to town that night. In a mere 15 minutes, the Killer rips through covers of tunes by Little Richard, Charlie Rich, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Ray Charles.
“Well, I’d like to do one for ya now. Ah, hope you enjoy this one. Um, pretty good tune that, uh, has done quite well for a, a lot of artists. But I’m think I’m gonna give it a little treatment here that, that it deserrrrves. I’m gonna throw the old, real, true, down-to-earth, go-gettin’ rock-and-roll beat into this one now. Boy, if you can’t shake it, you better set down because this is one you can really shake it bahyyyy!”
At which point, Jerry Lee and his Memphis Beats tear into …
“Roll Over Beethoven,” Jerry Lee Lewis, from “Jerry Lee Lewis: By Request,” 1966. It’s out of print. Recorded live at Panther Hall ballroom in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Shotgun Man,” Jerry Lee Lewis, from “Soul My Way,” 1967. It’s out of print, but is available on this double CD with “The Return of Rock” LP from 1965.
After turning to country music with some success, Jerry Lee returned to rock with mixed success on some interesting records on the Mercury label in the early ’70s. Here are a couple more rip-roaring covers.
Our premise, revisited: We are not even two months into 2016, and David Bowie is gone. So are Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson. So are Maurice White, Vanity and Otis Clay, as are Glenn Frey, Gary Loizzo and Dan Hicks.
Time, then — well past time, really — to appreciate four music greats who are still with us. These are my four. Yours may be different. We started with the eldest, Chuck Berry. We continue with …
What we must acknowledge but won’t dwell on: All those folks who got down on Richard Penniman over his style, his sexuality, his sensuality and/or his spirituality. Basically everything that made him great.
Where I came in: Hm. Not really sure. Seems like I’ve known about Little Richard since forever, but I never bought one of his records until I picked up a Specialty Records greatest-hits compilation sometime in the ’80s. It might have been after his career was revived after his memorable film appearance in “Down And Out In Beverly Hills” in 1986. It’s still the only Little Richard record I own.
Don’t take my word for it: As a suburban London kid in the ’50s, David Bowie sent away for two pictures of Little Richard. He eventually received one, “dog-eared and torn and, adding insult to injury, sized at 6-by-8 instead of the expected whopper.” Years later, that old picture of Little Richard sat on Bowie’s piano “in the original Woolworths frame I bought for it over 4o years ago, a small piece of yellowed Sellotape holding its ripped edges together.”
My evening with Little Richard: I’ve had two, actually, and was thrilled to have them both. He twice played our local casino. The first time was at least a decade ago. I got one of the little prayer books his people handed out after that show, but I’m not sure I still have it. The second and last time was in May 2007. What I wrote then:
I’ve seen and heard so much music over the years, yet I can honestly say it’s exciting to see Little Richard, and to see him for a second time.
The man is 74, yet still pounding the piano, belting out rock ‘n’ roll and the blues and doing a little preaching. He was in fine form, feisty as always and in fine voice. He’s backed by a scorching 10-piece show band — three saxes, trumpet, two guitars, bass, two drummers and a second keyboard player.
Little Richard was looking pretty, even if a bout with sciatica forced him to walk onto the stage on crutches. He wore a lemon-colored suit, its jacket covered with rhinestones, and a lime-colored shirt.
Perhaps my favorite moment: His cover of the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It).” No, no, no, it was the giddy, thrilled reaction of a Japanese woman, one of several attractive ladies invited up on stage to dance, as she scooted off stage after shaking Little Richard’s hand.
To be honest, words fail to convey the essence of Little Richard’s greatness.
So, we’ll heed Little Richard and do as he says … shut up!
“Lucille,” 1957. My mom was Lucille. This song was not about my mom.
“Good Golly Miss Molly,” 1958. No less than the great Tom Jones calls this his favorite Saturday night record. “It’s tremendous,” he tells Mojo magazine in the March issue. “I thought he was a girl at first, covering Billy Haley and the Comets, but he did it first. The lyrics were more risque!” Sir Tom and Little Richard duetted on this one on his variety show in November 1969.
All by Little Richard, all from “Little Richard’s Grooviest 17 Original Hits,” 1968. My only Little Richard record. It’s out of print, but all these tunes are available digitally.
Once upon a time, there were rock and soul and R&B revues that traveled the land, stopping at clubs, college rathskellers, frat houses, roadhouses and beer bars across the Midwest, then rocking the house. That scene, and those groups, are mostly long gone. But not quite.
A year ago, during an all-too-short couple of hours on the Fourth of July, I saw what may be one of the last of the original soul and R&B revues.
Harvey Scales and the Seven Sounds played before a couple of hundred people in a beer tent at Sawdust Days in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It qualified as a revue because the Seven Sounds — actually 10 players strong with a five-piece horn section, three guitarists, a drummer and a keyboard player — played a long instrumental jam before Harvey and his backup singer ever came out.
Some of those in the tent remembered Harvey from the glory days of the club circuit. Those folks are older now, in their 60s. They’re like my friend Mike in Ohio, who recalled this when I mentioned that I was going to see Harvey.
“Wow, saw him and the Sounds there at the Five Oaks in ’67.
An amazing night.”
Harvey Scales has been around that long.
Harvey — who by most accounts turns 73 this year, or is younger by his own account — grew up in Milwaukee and emerged on the scene as Twistin’ Harvey in 1961. In short order, he teamed up with the Seven Sounds, another Milwaukee group. They released a string of soul and R&B singles on the small Cuca and Magic Touch labels during the ’60s. Though not widely known, they are highly regarded among Northern soul fans.
Harvey Scales is one of the great characters of the American soul and R&B scene. To hear him tell it, he was the first black soul singer to make the rounds of Wisconsin venues outside Milwaukee and an early member of the Esquires, whose members were classmates at North Division High School in Milwaukee. (Listen to this great interview with the late Bob Abrahamian of Chicago radio station WHPK. Scroll down to 7/27/2008.)
He’s rubbed shoulders with everyone who was anyone: Al Jarreau (another Milwaukee native), the Jackson 5 (and a young Michael Jackson, of course), Otis Redding, Chubby Checker, Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Bobby Bland, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Booker T and the M.G.’s, the O’Jays, the Dells, the Dramatics, Tavares, Millie Jackson and Cissy Houston.
He’d hoped to raise $16,000 to stage a show in Milwaukee — “think ‘The Last Waltz,’ but for Harvey Scales,” Mollan says — for use in the film. However, the Kickstarter campaign didn’t get funded.
“The only risk involved with this film are the consequences of it not getting funded and made. If that happens we run the risk of losing the memories and stories of a music business survivor. We’ve recently lost two industry giants in Don Davis and Bobby Womack. Our challenge is to not let any more stories pass without being told.”
Mollan hopes to finish the film in 2015, then screen it at festivals.
Harvey doesn’t play a lot of gigs anymore, at least not in Wisconsin. He splits his time between California and Georgia, with only occasional homecomings. This year, Harvey has another Fourth of July gig, at Summerfest in Milwaukee.
When I saw him last Fourth of July, the first of two short but energetic sets featured a raucous 12-minute jam on “The Yolk,” a 1970 single on Chess. Always a ladies’ man, he invited some to dance with him on stage, then closed the show by surrounding himself with five “disco ladies” as he performed the No. 1 hit he wrote for Johnnie Taylor in 1976. The first time I saw Harvey, four summers ago at a small festival in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, he stepped down from the stage and closed the show with a snake dance through the audience.
One of the songs played in Oshkosh last year was the first one released by Harvey Scales with the Seven Sounds.