If you grew up in Nashville in the past two decades, and you became a late convert to the joys of old soul records, you can be forgiven for thinking rhythm-and-blues music happened everywhere but here. In Chicago, definitely. In Memphis and Muscle Shoals, without a doubt. But Nashville’s vast, vibrant R&B scene of the 1950s and ’60s has never received its due. Perhaps the problem is a lack of awareness. The rise of country music in Nashville has been amply researched and chronicled, but local R&B remains a rumor to most of the city. Or perhaps the problem is musical snobbery. We’re a country town to the nation’s music presswhat could the hillbilly Mecca know about soul?
The answer can be found on Across the Tracks: Nashville R&B and Rock ’n’ Roll, a raucous, lively, and immensely entertaining new compilation on the British reissue label Ace Records. The album celebrates an unsung hero of Nashville music, R&B producer Ted Jarrett, whose career in gospel, rock, and soul marches on toward its sixth decade. As songwriter, producer, label owner, and sometime artist, Jarrett mixed voracious commercial instincts with a knack for sonic hooks and a willingness to experiment. By gathering Jarrett’s recordings between 1956 and 1965 for several early labelsincluding Champion, Cherokee, Calvert, and SparAcross the Tracks shows that the R&B coming out of Nashville could reel and rock as hard as the hottest soul music in the land.
As Across the Tracks shows, Ted Jarrett was a rare combination of businessman and artist. As a label owner, Jarrett had to find acts, records, songs, and sounds he could sell. If that meant exploiting a current trend, so much the better. At the same time, as a musician, he sought to spice up these familiar formulas with unusual sounds, catchy arrangements, and any other trick that would make his records stand out. Cue up the first track, an amazing rarity called “She Can Rock,” by a Little Richard-inspired soul shouter named Little Ike. There’s a little sonic buzz, a brief drum introand suddenly the horn section kicks in the door with saxes blazing. Then Little Ike modestly introduces himself with an air-raid warden’s holler. For the whole minute-50, frenzy reigns as Little Ike howls his appreciation for his bowlegged baby. The result is a particularly incendiary slab of late-’50s R&B, an affront to everything quiet and sedate, played with unrelenting energy. And yet it satisfies the demands of the marketplacei.e., it has a good beat and you can dance to it. If only Music Row so adeptly balanced mass marketing with an individual vision.
Many of the records share similar features: horn charts that punch like percussion, drums that carry a live-sounding snap, a bass-driven rhythm section that creates a thick, rumbling undercurrent. Almost every production, however, contains some singularly ear-catching effect, from the pianist who jackhammers his upper treble keys throughout Earl Gaines’ “Now Do You Hear” to Jarrett’s echoey response vocal on Little Shy Guy Douglas’ “Let’s Rock and Roll.” Even Jarrett’s own twist-craze knockoff, “Let’s Twist (Slow and Easy),” has a distinctly unwholesome groove; it may be the grungiest, lewdest twist song ever recorded.
Earl Gaines’ singles are especially fine, as are those of Larry Birdsong (“Somebody, Somewhere,” “Every Night in the Week”), Gene Allison (the lovely “I Understand”), the Chellows (“I Want to Be a Part of You”), and Christine Kittrell (“I’m Just What You’re Looking For”). Only a couple of the 28 tracks don’t hold up to repeated listens, mainly due to their novelty status. The weakest cuts are a prefab twist number by Johnny Keaton (actually vocalist Herbert Hunter) and a broad rockabilly track by Chuck Harrod and the Anteaters, one of the few white groups Jarrett recorded at the time.
As for the packaging, the liner notes by local producer/musician Fred James provide some needed biographical information about Jarrett, but there’s little information about session credits or the many musicians who recorded with Jarrett or elsewhere in town. The details may simply not be available, but when James drops a tidbit about John Coltrane making an early recording in Nashville, some explanation would be helpful. James deserves props, though, for shepherding this collection through years of painstaking record searches and inquiries.
Ted Jarrett still makes music in Nashville. In the next few weeks, his T-Jaye Records label will issue T-Jaye’s Best of the Best: Greatest Hits Vol. 1, a compilation of recent gospel recordings by such groups as the Dynamic Dixie Travelers, Little Wayne and the Exciting Daytonians, and the Rev. Andrew Cheairs & the Gospel Songbirds. And Jarrett isn’t fazed by the enthusiastic early response to Across the Tracks. “If you think that’s good, you haven’t heard anything,” he says over at Fred James’ studio in East Nashville, widening his eyes slyly. With more volumes of Jarrett’s mid-’60s R&B supposedly on the way, we can only wait for the next sprinkling of gems from what looks like a deep chest of treasures. For a copy of Across the Tracks, check Tower Records, call the fine R&B record source Strategy Records at 1-800-838-7774, or consult AVI Records’ Atomic Beat mail-order catalog.
Jungle musica brand of dance music that’s been brewing and mutating in British dance clubs since the turn of the decadearrives in Nashville starting Friday at Victor/Victoria’s “New Format” night. Chek Milliken, a beat-box Prometheus who’s been deejaying at the Urban Lounge and other clubs since the age of 17, discovered the music while sampling obscure mail-order services from the UK and beyond. “It’s not readily available in Nashville,” he says.
For dancers seeking new sensations, jungle music sounds pretty interesting. It started when British deejays began experimenting with slower hip-hop beats and jazz samples, layering several tracks to create a densely rhythmic sound. Since then, deejays have added everything from synthesizers and low-frequency bass to animal noises and the sound of dripping faucets. The nonstop experimentation has led to several varieties of jungle music, including “intelligent” or atmospheric jungle (heavy on the low-frequency bass, which Chek says “can shake your innards quite nicely”) and gangsta jungle (West Coast rap samples with fast beats on top of slow beats). Among the rising stars of jungle are Goldie, Alex Reece, and L.T.J. Bukem.
Chek and his partner, Mike Kenney, will spin these and other platters that matter, including hip-hop, acid jazz, and the propulsive mixture known as drum-and-bass. They’ll be at Victor V’s every Friday for the next few weeks. “For now, it’s all records,” says Chek, a self-professed vinyl junkie (i.e., no CDs allowed). But he won’t rule out bringing a live band like the Sizzle Donkeys down some night: “I just want to share my passion with other people,” he says. A statement like that can get a man into the best kind of trouble. Admission is $3.
If New York poet/rocker Jim Carroll had grown up a self-deprecating preacher’s kid in rural Kentucky, he might have ended up sounding a lot like Tommy Womack. Both men carve out savagely honest portraits of colorful characters, and both balance a cutting, concise wit with a keen eye for the details that expose a person’s true nature. Both men also have a taste for ’70s guitar chords and tight, punkish rhythms. As both writer and rocker, Womack has come into his own in recent years; he and his band, the Geniuses, headline a weekend show for the first time Saturday at 12th & Porter.
At some point in every Southern high-school kid’s formative years, he must come to terms with the specter known as Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their vehement fans swear they were “the next Rolling Stones,” a peerless boogie band that sang the white man’s blues with uncommon feeling and ferocity. Their detractorswho, truth be told, disliked them as much for their fan base as for their musicdismissed them as a ponderous behemoth that could belabor a simple three-minute song into an interminable three-guitar excursion.
The new performance film Freebird: The Movie proves that, on occasion, Lynyrd Skynyrd could be both. A fan’s dream and a document of some value, the 101-minute film consists primarily of long-unseen concert footage from the all-day Knebworth Fair in Hertfordshire, England, on Aug. 21, 1976. Much of the footage shows how intricate and exciting the group’s triple-guitar attack could be. On a rip-roaring ramble through J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze,” guitarists Steve Gaines, Gary Rossington, and Allen Collins alternately play tag, stare each other down, and haunt the melody like an unseen horn section. At the band’s most excessive, though, as on a lumbering “Saturday Night Special,” it embraced the endless solos and plodding funk that made ’70s arena rock so unbearable.
Almost all the performances in Freebird: The Movie are individually impressive. In a row, separated only by snatches of interviews, they’re exhausting for all but the most die-hard fan. Nonetheless, the director, Jeff Waxmanwho labored over the project for seven yearsdoesn’t screw up the performances with undue cutting or flashy effects: He lets the music do the talking. What it says is that Skynyrd could hold its own against the best touring bands of the day; that Ronnie Van Zant voiced the fears, temptations, and regrets of working people over music that cauterized their wounds; and that the group’s fatal plane crash on Oct. 20, 1977, was a far greater loss than many of us ever imagined.
In a fitting and somewhat poignant move, the film’s distributor, Cabin Fever Productions, will hold the movie’s first public screening at Municipal Auditorium 9 p.m. Friday night. At Municipal, Skynyrd’s fans will have the next best thing to seeing the band live in its mid-’70s heyday. And the music sounds spectacular, especially in a deafening DTS recording job that popped speakers like flashbulbs at an advance screening last week.
As an added treat, the movie will be attended by Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle; Ronnie Van Zant’s widow, Judy Van Zant Jenness; and the man who started it all, the one and only Leonard Skinner, the retired Jacksonville coach and gym teacher who gave the band its name. Tickets are $12 at the door. Don’t leave home without your lighter.
Elliptical dispatches: Guy Clark, who recently re-signed to Sugar Hill Records, will record a new live album for the label at a three-night series of shows this weekend. The taping will take place at Douglas Corner 9 p.m. this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night....
Spongebath Records hosts an evening with its bands Fluid Oz., the Features, the Roaries, and Caesar’s Glass Box Saturday at the Exit/In. We’ve heard the debut records from both Fluid Oz. and the Features, and they’re two of the most striking pop recordings we’ve heard from Nashville all year....
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