Friday, June 24, 2011

Random Thoughts

Last weekend, music fans were saddened to hear of the passing of Clarence Clemons.  The Big Man suffered a stroke earlier in the week and passed away on Saturday at age 69.  Clemons was a huge part of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band for over 30 years, his muscular saxophone providing one of the world's greatest rock and roll band with some R&B and Blues shadings over the years.  Springsteen knew how important Clemons was to his music, so much so that he included the Big Man on the cover of what would become one of the greatest rock albums of all time.  It's hard to imagine Springsteen's music without the presence of Clarence Clemons.

By now, you're probably wondering, "What does all this have to do with the blues?  Have I stumbled onto the wrong blog.  I was hunting for my Friday Blues Fix."  Well, hang in there, folks......without Clarence Clemons, there might not even be a Friday Blues Fix.  You see, it was an album by the Big Man that helped start me in that direction.

Like most teenagers in the early to mid 80's, I was a fan of Bruce Springsteen.  However, my usual music preferences by that time leaned more toward soul and R&B.  One of the things I liked about Springsteen was those roaring saxophone breaks from Clarence Clemons.  I can honestly say that I probably wouldn't have cared as much about Springsteen without Clemons.  That's why I was curious when I saw Clemons' on an LP cover in 1983.  I looked at it and on the back cover was a picture of Clemons and another black guy.  It looked promising, but I only had a cassette player at the time and, naturally, there was not a cassette of the album to be found.

In 1984, Springsteen released his latest album, maybe you're familiar with it.  That really threw them into the the summer of '84, most people knew at least half of the E Street Band and Clemons was really popular.  This meant many great opportunities for the Big Man, including more copies being available of his album from the year before.  By the fall of that year, I found a copy of the album, called Rescue, on cassette.  I played this cassette about as much as anything else I had for a long time.  Finally, it developed that inevitable cassette squeal that cassettes used to do.

"A Woman's Got The Power" was one of the singles released from the album.  How about that video?!!!  Makes you long for those fashions and all that hair spray, doesn't it? 

A few years ago, Rescue was re-issued as one of those "two-fers" that became the rage when CDs became the rage....where a record label combined two of an artist's best albums onto one CD.  Rescue was combined with Clemons' second CD, Hero, which became a big hit for the Big Man.  Me.....I hated it for a couple of reasons......1)  one of the best things about Rescue was the incredible vocals of J.T. Bowen, who sounded like Wilson Pickett's little brother.  On Hero, Clemons took most of the vocals himself and let's just say it was not an improvement and move on.  2)  The focus moved from that sizzling retro bluesy Soul/Rock sound to 80's Pop, so while it was a notable success in the mid 80's, twenty-five years later, you can't remember anything but that duet Clemons did with Jackson Browne that made the Top 40.  I guarantee that if you heard "Jump Start My Heart," or "Resurrection Shuffle" from Rescue, you would remember them now as much as you did in '83....I guarantee it. 

J.T. Bowen and Clarence Clemons

I didn't pick up the "two-fer" set... opting, after much searching, for a Japanese import of the original Rescue that I found on Ebay.  Listening to it today, I'm aware that some of the songs are thinly disguised 80's Power Pop, lifted up considerably by Bowen's raw, rugged vocals (whatever happened to him??!!!) and the Big Man's wailing sax.  Still, it's a lot of fun to listen to even today.  What Rescue did for me, though, was inspire me to dig deeper to get more of that sound that they were emulating.  From Rescue, I discovered the great vintage Soul catalog of Atlantic Records (Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Joe Tex).  From there, I wanted to read more and learn more, so I picked up Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music book (which deserves a post of its own and I promise I will do one soon).  Prior to that, even though I loved soul music, my knowledge was mostly limited to current acts, Motown, and a few artists I had picked up through friends (Maze, Bobby Womack, etc....).

From that point, it was a short hop and a jump to the blues, which was the place I wanted to be all along.  However, I might never have found my way there without the efforts of Clarence Clemons on his first album.  Thanks, Big Man......I owe you more than you'll ever know.

I'll bet that Heavenly Orchestra is raising the roof right now.

Last week, my family got on the Netflix bandwagon.  For a small fee each month, you have access to lots of great movies, old TV shows, documentaries, cartoons, etc....via your computer, your gaming console, or you can receive DVDs through the mail.  I know I'm as slow catching on to Netflix as I was catching on to CDs or mp3's or iPods (I promise to be more timely adapting to new technology when they promise that the next big thing will be the last big thing and I can stop investing in technology that's obsolete or outdated three months after I switch to it), but it's not a bad deal.  Best of all, they actually have some blues-related product out there.  I've already watched two of them......the documentary, Last of the Mississippi Jukes, and the movie, Honeydripper.

Last of the Mississippi Jukes was directed by Robert Mugge, who also gave us Deep Blues in the early 90's.  The newer film was released in 2003 and it's a look at what many consider to be a dying breed in Mississippi, the juke joint.  The film's primary focus is on two locations, the legendary Subway Lounge in Jackson, MS, and Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale.  Your mileage may vary on whether or not Ground Zero qualifies as a juke joint (who cares.....the blues is being played there, so go support it), but there's not much doubt about the Subway Lounge's authenticity.  During the filming of the documentary, there was an effort being made to save the Subway Lounge.  It was located in the basement of the Summers Hotel and the building was in bad shape and in danger of being condemned.  Unfortunately, the building was demolished a year after the film was released. 

The Summers Hotel - Home of the Subway Lounge
There's also some great music, although lots of it is interrupted by interviews (why don't these folks realize that most people watch these documentaries for the actual music.....I mean, I love Morgan Freeman, but I get to see and hear him a whole lot more than I do Alvin Youngblood Hart or some of the others whose performances get stepped all over).  Interrupted or not, it's still cool to see local legends like J. T. Watkins, Levon Lindsey, King Edward, Jesse Robinson, and Melvin "House Cat" Hendrex, and relative youngbloods like Vasti Jackson, Patrice Moncell, Chris Thomas King, and Eddie Cotton, Jr. get some exposure.  It just would have been nice to see more of them in action.  Fortunately, there is a soundtrack available with the music in its entirety, and it's a killer album (though I would have loved to see an Eddie Cotton track on there somewhere).  Overall, Last of the Mississippi Jukes is an enjoyable movie, but if you haven't seen Deep Blues yet, see it first.

In late 2007, the film Honeydripper was released. It was written and directed by John Sayles and set in 1950 Alabama, where a frustrated club owner named Pinetop Purvis (played by Danny Glover) is trying to breathe life into his struggling establishment.  Hoping to draw a crowd, he tentatively books one of the new electric guitarist, Guitar Sam, to appear in his club, but things quickly go awry.

Among the other performers in the movie are Charles S. Dutton (as Pinetop's friend and partner, Maceo), Lisa Gay Hamilton (as Pinetop's devoted, but conflicted wife, Delilah), Stacy Keach (as the corrupt county sheriff), and Yaya DeCosta (as Pinetop's beautiful young step-daughter, China Doll).

Musical performers are also prominent, with Mable John playing an old-school blues singer who's phased out (in more ways than one) at the beginning of the picture.  Keb' Mo' also appears as a mysterious blind street performer, who fades in and out throughout the film.  Finally, young Gary Clark, Jr., a up and coming Texas guitarist, stars as Sonny Blake, a drifting musician who shows up at just the right time.  Keen eyes will also spot sax man Eddie Shaw and harmonica ace Arthur Lee Williams in the club band.

I found this movie to be pretty entertaining.  Sayles always has interesting dialogue between his characters and this movie is no exception.  Some of the characters were fairly stereotypical and familar (redneck sheriff, blind street musician, revival meetings, etc...), but the actors and the story are strong enough that you can work your way through that pretty easily.  The movie moves along at a nice, leisurely pace, taking it's time and slowly building to the climax.

Gary Clark, Jr. does a great job playing Sonny.  He gives a nice, understated performance and his scenes with DeCosta show a lot of chemistry between the two.  Of course, he saves his best for the final scenes of the movie, which I won't spoil for you if you haven't seen it, but if you like the blues in any way, shape, or fashion, you will enjoy this movie.

In July, we will be looking at a few new releases, a few old releases, and hopefully, we will have a Ten Questions, maybe two, as well.  Meanwhile, let's close out with a couple of Gary Clark, Jr. videos, including one of Clark with the Honeydripper band, which includes Shaw and Williams, from 2008, and one from the wonderful 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival DVD, with Clark and Doyle Bramhall II.  You're going to be hearing a lot more from this guy, I promise.


PiscatawayMike said...

J.T. Bowen will be performing with the Sensational Soul Cruisers at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park on July 17, 2011. They will be performing the Rescue album in its entirity. BTW, from 1:03-1:17 mark in the Woman's Got The Power video you can see Bruce Springsteen. This was Springsteen's first appearance ever in a music video.

Graham said...

Thanks for the info re: J.T. Bowen. I'm glad he's still out there performing. Maybe somebody will record him again someday.