Saturday, July 23, 2011

Local Gem Polishes National Treasures

We recently ventured out in the summer heat to hear a gifted pianist, singer, storyteller and musicologist present a grand tour of American popular music, a kind of "best of" sampler of Jazz, Broadway and Blues. I first heard John Eaton more than a dozen years ago when one of my basketball buddies (who grew up in Plainfield, IN) invited us to hear John perform at a local community center doing a concert called Indiana on Our Minds: The Music of Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael. He was as funny as Hoagy on the silver screen and his piano playing was as memorable as a Porter lyric.

On this recent night he began with "Lullaby of Birdland" and followed it with an anecdote about a gig in Georgetown when a guy who slipped onto the piano bench and started playing along turned out to be George Shearing. He introduced "It Might As Well Be Spring" from State Fair by saying Richard Rogers hated the jazz version. Then it was Ahmad Jamal's signature song, "Poinciana," written in 1936 and debuted by Glenn Miller.

Next up was a Jerome Kern medley from Show Boat that Eaton described as "no score ever written was greater or more melodic," a view affirmed by the fact that the musical's most recent Broadway revival came eighty years after it first opened. He began with "Make Believe," and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and by the time he got to "Ole Man River," which he slowed to a single note pace, you could feel the ghost of Paul Robeson on stage as the lyrics ran through your head.

Staying in the 1920's, Eaton made no attempt to sing Bessie Smith's version of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" but as he spoke the lyrics against the piano counterpoint, you got an instant lesson in what "talking blues" were all about. Ironic how those lyrics seem relevant today:
"So if I ever get my hand on a dollar again
I'm gonna hold on to it till them eagles grin"

Then it was a Bessie Smith version of "Empty Bed Blues" (When you get some sweet lovin,' don't tell no one else...they might get some lovin' too), followed by a Duke Ellington medley that brought the Steinway roaring to a toe-tapping finish. Eaton and bass player Tommy Cecil had given us a great musical ride.

Eaton ( has done public television shows on George Gershwin and Duke Ellington and his Smithsonian Conert Series have aired on public radio. In his introduction to the "Indiana" CD, Gary Burton described Eaton's work as "imaginative interpretations...and the keyboard wisdom of a true expert in the genre."

In another tribute to American pop music, Bob Edwards aired a July 4th interview with Philip Furia author of a number of books on Ira Gerswhin, Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer.
He has also written American Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. Sounds like the perfect beach book.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Capitol Fourth: Motown on The Mall

In Washington, D.C., when someone says, "Bring in da funk, bring in da noise!" it usually just means Congress is back in session. But this Fourth of July weekend, when the people took over the mall for fireworks and the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, it was the real thing. This year's tribute to Rhythm and Blues featured some founding fathers (and mothers) of the modern music era. For me the main attraction was The Funk Brothers, another group of studio musicians who have shed the phrase "back-up" and become their own act, show band and even documentary film (with award-winning sound track).
Assembled in Detroit's Motown studios starting in 1959 they played for everyone that Berry Gordy invented or produced: The Temptations, Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, et al. They were introduced as having played on more # 1 hits than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined. Numbers aside, the music they created has become part of our cultural DNA, from 45s to film soundtracks to television commercials. All they had to do was to hit the opening chords to "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and the packed tent ooohhed and aaahed in anticipation of listening pleasure. The dance floor was jammed for hit after hit, from "Heat Wave" to "Dancing In The Street" and even audience tryouts for "My Girl" solos because everyone knows those lyrics.
Watching tourists and baby boomers boogieing in the 94-degree heat made me wonder if the Park Police had some ambulances idling nearby because "there aint no party like a Funk Brothers Party cause a Funk Brothers Party don't stop."

Earlier we caught a set by the legendary doo-wop group, Sonny Til's Orioles. There are no original members left from the Baltimore days but this group would make the founders proud the way they carry the musical mantle of being the "first" R & B vocal group. Dressed in matching light blue leisure suits (a basic jumpsuit-pajama style that seemed appropriate for a hot July day) they sported gray beards and bald heads. But when they launched into the Orioles first hit, "It's Too Soon To Know," recorded in 1948, it gave new meaning to the word ageless. It was as if their bodies had changed around their voices which still sounded as fresh and young as we all once were. They too had us up dancing with hits like "Baby Please Don't Go," "Mother-in-Law" and "Crying in the Chapel." Their show ranged from a song written during World War II, "Why Don't You Write Me" to Michael Jackson's "I'll Be There."

We also sampled a few songs by Shirley Jones and the Jones Girls and Nat Dove and we stuck around for a glimpse of Swamp Dog (aka Jerry Williams) a Virginia native who quit his job as an A&R man for Atlantic records (Patti Labelle, the Drifters and Gary U.S. Bonds) for a solo career that produced what The Washington Post called "the fiercest, funkiest album the world still has never heard," Total Destruction To Your Mind. The title track opens with these lines:

Sitting on a cornflake
Riding on a rollerskate
Too late to hesitate or even meditate.
Always looking up what's down,
They've come to get me from the lost and found.
But believe me I'm feelin fine
To the world I toast some wine,
I do total destruction to your mind, mind, mind.

Swamp Dogg did not disappoint, appearing in a velour suit the color of lime green sherbet with matching fedora and tie.

It was great day for listening to music that not only made history but made you tap your feet and smile.