Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A voice for the ages: Sarah Vaughan

Artist Biography by Scott Yanow

Possessor of one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century, Sarah Vaughan ranked with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday in the very top echelon of female jazz singers. She often gave the impression that with her wide range, perfectly controlled vibrato, and wide expressive abilities, she could do anything she wanted with her voice. Although not all of her many recordings are essential (give Vaughan a weak song and she might strangle it to death), Sarah Vaughan's legacy as a performer and a recording artist will be very difficult to match in the future.

Vaughan sang in church as a child and had extensive piano lessons from 1931-39; she developed into a capable keyboardist. After she won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater, she was hired for the Earl Hines big band as a singer and second vocalist. Unfortunately, the musicians' recording strike kept her off record during this period (1943-44). When lifelong friend Billy Eckstine broke away to form his own orchestra, Vaughan joined him, making her recording debut. She loved being with Eckstine's orchestra, where she became influenced by a couple of his sidemen, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, both of whom had also been with Hines during her stint. Vaughan was one of the first singers to fully incorporate bop phrasing in her singing, and to have the vocal chops to pull it off on the level of a Parker and Gillespie.

Other than a few months with John Kirby from 1945-46, Sarah Vaughan spent the remainder of her career as a solo star. Although she looked a bit awkward in 1945 (her first husband George Treadwell would greatly assist her with her appearance), there was no denying her incredible voice. She made several early sessions for Continental: a December 31, 1944 date highlighted by her vocal version of "A Night in Tunisia," which was called "Interlude," and a May 25, 1945 session for that label that had Gillespie and Parker as sidemen. However, it was her 1946-48 selections for Musicraft (which included "If You Could See Me Now," "Tenderly" and "It's Magic") that found her rapidly gaining maturity and adding bop-oriented phrasing to popular songs. Signed to Columbia where she recorded during 1949-53, "Sassy" continued to build on her popularity. Although some of those sessions were quite commercial, eight classic selections cut with Jimmy Jones' band during May 18-19, 1950 (an octet including Miles Davis) showed that she could sing jazz with the best.

During the 1950s, Vaughan recorded middle-of-the-road pop material with orchestras for Mercury, and jazz dates (including Sarah Vaughan, a memorable collaboration with Clifford Brown) for the label's subsidiary, EmArcy. Later record label associations included Roulette (1960-64), back with Mercury (1963-67), and after a surprising four years off records, Mainstream (1971-74). Through the years, Vaughan's voice deepened a bit, but never lost its power, flexibility or range. She was a masterful scat singer and was able to out-swing nearly everyone (except for Ella). Vaughan was with Norman Granz's Pablo label from 1977-82, and only during her last few years did her recording career falter a bit, with only two forgettable efforts after 1982. However, up until near the end, Vaughan remained a world traveler, singing and partying into all hours of the night with her miraculous voice staying in prime form. The majority of her recordings are currently available, including complete sets of the Mercury/Emarcy years, and Sarah Vaughan is as famous today as she was during her most active years.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Scott Boyer: a Cowboy and Decoy leaves the stage forever

Muscle Shoals area musician and songwriter Scott Boyer died this past Tuesday. Boyer was a founding member of the bands Cowboy, the Decoys, and the Capricorn Rhythm Section. Scott and fellow Cowboy lead guitar player Tommy Talton were part of the back-up band for Gregg Allman's Laid Back album and Gregg's 1974 tour album. Cowboy was a Capricorn Records label-mate and was Duane Allman's favorite band. "Please Be With Me," written by Scott, featured Duane on dobro on the Duane Allman Anthology I album. Eric Clapton covered it on "461 Ocean Blvd."

I had the pleasure several times of chatting with Scott at various shows in Gadsden and at his Florence, AL, home. This post is dedicated to Scott, Tommy Talton, and fellow guitarist Kelvin Holly.

From my book "Rock 'n' Blues Stew II:

Shot From the Saddle
The Decoys (Muscle Shoals Records)

          As I recall, a ‘decoy’ is meant to be something to draw attention away from a main interest, or to act as a distraction. This terrific little package of spliced-and-diced R&B cuts has the opposite effect:  grab your hat and keep focused, because these guys have a serious “Men at Work” sign in the road.  It’s like a club sandwich, with layers of good fixin’s and straight-to-the-point delivery when you want the real thing. 
          The Decoys show that the sum of the whole is indeed supported by the parts (or players).  It’s nice to have Johnny Sandlin as the commander of this brigade, because he’s got some stable.  Here’s a four-corner framework of painful, soulful vocals (Scott Boyer of Cowboy, part of the Allman Brothers Band extended family), short-but-sweet guitar licks (Kelvin Holly of Little Richard’s band); David Hood’s slunky, funky bass, as thick as tar as he stays right on top of every bass drum kick; a turnstile of tormented keyboard (NC Thurman), and a muscular rhythm section, supplemented by a cast of local heroes and rogues. Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts, Bobby Whitlock, The Muscle Shoals Horns, Brian Wheeler, James Hooker—there’s enough guys here to field a damn good softball game, too, as long as the barbecue is kept up (and no duck on the menu, mind you—and that goes double from the Sandlin home). 
The Decoys work from afar and close, so when there’s a gig, the paycheck beckons.  However, friends also count, and when there’s room to play and the time clock is off, let’s cook!
          And do they!  The title song immediately shows Scott’s growl is a dangerous thing, especially when he’s caught on that another man has been prowling around his den. 
Well, if “Nadine” from New Orleans was the source of his loss, it sounds like she could melt steel with her charms, and it’s no wonder why his imagination is on overdrive.  This has a very strong vibe like Mr. Lucky’s “Memphis Stripper,” so the ceiling sprinkler system may ignite any minute.  Ya gotta just love those clean lines that Kelvin slices—he’s got such a simple but effective approach.  Service notice on Steve Cropper that there’s a helluva reason to hook up with Kelvin for a duet. 
Hats off to Scott for his delivery on Eddie Hinton’s “Down in Texas,” because the sweat is fresh on Boyer’s work clothes with honest toil.  His portrayal of Eddie’s zest makes you want to hug yourself with his memory, and you make sure you notice the fast-setting cement of the horn section.
          Walt Aldridge is a busy author with four tunes featured, and his “Bits and Pieces” gets a man’s sorrowful view on an old flame (my Georgia Songbird friend E.G. Kight does a separate version of this for the ladies on Come Into the Blues); but rejoice, because Scott’s singing from the rooftop about his new main squeeze on “24-7-365,” and those measurements are the ones he loves best. 
But there’s got to be some kind of action that’s getting a lot of attention, because “Neighbor, Neighbor” has been snooping too close for comfort.  Credit Scott again with taking the gentleness of a song (here it’s Gregg Allman’s “Melissa”), adding subtle changes (a finger-picking intro versus strumming), and giving it a new set of wings.  Kelvin, too, rides the ocean currents on guitar. 
          When these guys want to have fun, “Get Down” is more than an order—it’s a call for comradeship and musical joy, and that’s what these guys do best.  Getting back to those sad times just won’t be avoided, though, and “Good Days, Bad Days” is testimony why depression is a serious condition.  Get Scott to a love doctor, because he’s gotta get cured, y’all.  Kelvin’s sinewy guitar offers some remedy on “What’s Up with That,” ‘cause it’s getting time to trade in on that woman again.  For sure, it’s because “Her Mind is Gone,” and don’t be the last man out the door.  But do these guys learn their lesson?  They don’t call it the blues for nothing, especially when “Desire” is knocking—or swaying, I should say…and Lord, is she calling my name?
Maybe the Decoys were right: the road sign might have said ‘Dangerous Curves ahead,’ and I have to pull over and have another look—or listen.  Just remember that a good pickup in a dark smoky place also refers to more than a truck or a guitar accessory.  Sounds like there’s some bad-is-good company to find on this disc—and I’ve got mine in mind.  You should get some too, before the Decoys beat you to her.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Boz Scaggs smooths things out in concert, 2004

A late Valentine's Day wish of joy for everyone who has companionship, and condolences for those who have lost a loved one, c/o Mr. Boz Scaggs in concert, 2004.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Red-headed Wild Man: Ginger Baker on life and drumming

For every drummer who wanted to know who is the Godfather of it all: behold Ginger Baker's life story (and volcanic barrages). I'll cover Ginger Baker's Air Force and the Baker-Gurvitz Army on another post.