By Hans Ebert
It seems to have all happened back in the day. It probably did. And because “back in the day” was a much more simple time, we seem to keep needing to go back there often to understand how so much happened to change the world and educate ourselves on those game changers.
Less was more. More opportunities to create new opportunities that might have started off as hobbies for those who saw beyond what was staring back at them. Being passionate about something which grew to become businesses, they made it their life’s work. Like music. And we. who are in the Here and Now need to go back to “back in the day” to understand what they did so that WE can bring about Change relevant to these times.
It’s not about continuing to be a nostalgia act and playing trivial pursuit. There’s a reason why it’s called “trivial pursuit”. Nostalgia is a nice place to visit. Absorb everything. And then leave.
When it came to music, it was virgin territory back in the day. No one really knew where anything was going. There was nothing to compare anything to. It was starting with a clean slate. Many might have been hoping things might lead somewhere because those pioneers of especially the arts- movies, advertising, music, writing- were driven by passion and doing what they did for all the right reasons. Everything seemed spontaneous. Nothing was bogged down in red tape and time wasting overthinking.
There were no rules to stunt creativity. This is where and why and how so much of everything today goes off the rails. Putting barriers and hurdles where there are no need for any. Because it’s easier to reject an idea than to embrace one. Easier to accept those who swim with the tide as opposed to those swimming against it by questioning things we know to be wrong. When it’s a No No to see a chasm and try to fill that void. Like wanting to hear something more than a looped snare drum sample “beat” and an auto tuned voice repeating a nursery rhyme into submission. But everyone is doing it so it must be right. Yes? No? It doesn’t matter.
Much of this has to do with the end of teamwork. Teamwork too often ends because of politics. Because of one side thinking the other is becoming more powerful. Insecurity. Suspicion. That environment of fear which many in positions of power spend time cultivating. Dividing and conquering.
When (record producer) Gerry “Jerry” Wexler, who came up with the term “rhythm and blues”, called out to Carole King when driving by and spotting her on the street to try writing a song about a “natural woman” for a singer he was working with- Aretha Franklin- it wasn’t any different from the creative director with an ad agency receiving a brief from a client.
With her songwriting partner and husband Gerry Goffin, Carole King delivered on the brief from Wexler. It’s why he’s thanked by being credited as one of the songwriters. No one argued that he didn’t deserve the credit. After all, the idea to write a song about a “natural woman” came from him. Goffin and King turned this idea into a song that would become an anthem.
How did the melody come about, especially that segue which leads into “Oooh, baby, baby, look what you’ve done to me etc” before hitting the chorus? Magic? Experience? Part of the songwriting process? Teamwork? Knowing chords? Melodies playing in their heads? Probably all of the above.
Jerry Wexler then went about assembling the best team he knew to turn this song into a record. The best possible record it could be. Aretha Franklin gave the song a Voice. A soul. Here was this man who when asked what he would like written on his gravestone replied, “More bass”.
This soul from the voice of Aretha Franklin was augmented by the idea of bringing in a string arrangement which is there in the grooves. Those strings are there to enhance the end product. Not to distract.
Strings on a Pop record. How many used strings and how were these recorded? In those small studios with rudimentary equipment. But with the musicians on the track, they made it happen. They being the team of Jerry Wexler, and engineer Tom Dowd.
By 1967, Aretha Franklin’s career was peaking. She was enjoying success with “Respect”, “Think” and “Chain Of Fools”. Those wasted years with Columbia who threw everything against the wall hoping something would stick were over. She left for Atlantic Records, the record label started by one Jew- Jerry Wexler- and two Turks- Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun.
Atlantic became this House Of Soul and Home for everyone starting with Ray Charles and eventually attracting the much underrated Dusty Springfield. Listen to the “Dusty In Memphis” record. Amazing. She knew session guitarist Jimmy Page. Wexler and the Ertegun brothers knew of him through his work with the Yardbirds. This led to Led Zeppelin joining the label. And so did the Allman Brothers Band. Cream. The Stones. So many others.
Nesuhi Ertegun looked after the business and the Jazz side of things. Artists like Mingus. Ornette Coleman. Brother Ahmet, too, loved his music, respected musicians, who paid him back with respect. He wanted to make their music heard. On Atlantic. Jerry Wexler stayed with his music and those he chose to be around. He brought that Muscle Shoals Sound into the mix.
This sound belonged to The Swampers- the all white band comprising session musicians Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood and guitarist Jimmy Johnson. This sound was on Atlantic Records’ partner Stax through a distribution deal.
Stax was based in segregated Memphis. Wexler and his team from Atlantic and the artists and executives from Stax broke down those walls, at least with music. They integrated those recording sessions by bringing together black and white musicians. It was a jumbo mix of music that reached the ears of young musicians and groups on the other side of the world. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. Lulu. Dusty Springfield.
In America, this music was the soundtrack to what Dr Martin Luther King was preaching against. It was what led to him being assassinated.
The Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton owned Stax label had brilliant artists of their own. Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas, Irma Thomas, Isaac Hayes.
With success, however, comes big business and legally binding contracts. Some signed without reading the fine print. The creative product was more important. While Atlantic Records prospered, the relationship with Stax/Volt soured. They went their separate ways.
I write to inspire. Most of the time it’s to inspire myself because that sweet inspiration is in short supply these days. These days are not like “back in the day”. But don’t think “back in the day” was all lollipops and roses. Black artists were seeing “big money” for the first time. It’s well known that Wilson Pickett and James Brown were very often not the most pleasant people to be around.
Meanwhile, in Detroit, Berry Gordy Jr saw the opportunity for there to be “The Sound Of Young America”. His Tamla Motown label with artists like the Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, the Miracles, Little Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell etc made music by black artists more acceptable to white audiences.
This was Hitsville USA. Everything and probably everyone signed to Motown belonging to Berry Gordy.
How did Berry Gordy Jr achieve everything? A vision. And to make this vision a reality were the in-house songwriting teams like The Corporation, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
There were then the in house studio session musicians- The Funk Brothers- who went from one session to the next and never ever received what they were owed. The credit nor the money.
Was Berry Gordy Jr the bad guy here? Or was he just looking after business? A black man taking on the white, mainly Jewish, music executives? Hard to say.
What we have is the music and the history. Here in Hong Kong, Rufus Thomas’ daughter Sybil has made this city her home for almost a decade.
Some who say they were signed to Motown and worked with the greats have made these stories work for them and become a small part of Hong Kong’s more “mature” music scene.
What’s missing is anything new. Anywhere. There’s an appreciation of where it all came from and the need to reminisce. But this eventually becomes tiresome. It leads nowhere. It belongs “back in the day”. But people like Jerry Wexler remain great mentors.
Having been in advertising and journalism, they might have honed my writing skills and help understand marketing, film production and presentation skills, but music has taught me about life.
It’s brought me close to the greats in that very large world of entertainment- film makers, the Mad Men of advertising, writers and, of course, musicians. Streetwise musicians who had seen it all and survived.
Great doesn’t mean that they were all nice. But in those grooves of their records, in their films, in their business successes is incredible passion. Amazing talent. Great vision.
Music is the glue that holds everything together. It doesn’t mean having to be a musicologist to embrace music. Music embraces you, me, and everyone without us even knowing it. And that’s magic. That’s why what some of us only need is More Bass. And inspiration so we can actually DO than just talk and reminisce and try oneupmanship. That’s just boring.
#music #JerryWexler #TomDowd #AtlanticRecords #AhmetErtegun #NesuhiErtegun #ArethaFranklin #CaroleKing #GerryGoffin #Motown #BerryGordy #Stax #MuscleShoals