0401: “Here Comes the Judge” by Pigmeat Markham

[In which the court is now in session…]

Pigmeat Markham (born Dewey Markham) was a comedian and singer on the chitlin circuit in the segregated entertainment days. One of his characters was a judge that brought a street persona and slang to the scripted stuffiness of a courtroom. Sammy Davis, Jr. caught wind of the act and used the phrase “here come the judge” on an episode of Laugh-In and it went over so well that Markham was invited for multiple cameos to do the schtick himself. Pigmeat Markham also helped set the foundation for what would become rap a little over a decade later. “Here Comes the Judge” was released in 1968 and his cadence, flow, and humor—all set to legitimately funky music—would become the blueprint for the first big name rappers in and around the Bronx in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Hip hop started out as break beats and party music that paid homage to early ’70s funk like the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” and Baby Huey. Initially, MC’s at a hip hop party just broke in and spoke like DJs or Don Cornelius from Soul Train. It was primarily about the music and stretching those break beats like Kool Herc pioneered early on. When artists started rapping alongside the music, whether they knew it or not, they were emulating Pigmeat almost directly. Doc Hollywood, one of the first rappers to make a big name, specifically cites Markham as a direct influence with a voice and style he tried specifically to emulate. Even now, almost 50 years later it is impossible to listen to this track and not hear the roots of rap and hip hop.

Hear ye, hear ye, the court of swing
Is just about ready to do that thing
I don’t want no tears, I don’t want no lies
Above all, I don’t want no alibis
This judge is hip, and that ain’t all
He’ll give you time if you’re big or small
Fall in line, a-this court is neat
Peace, brotha

This is the first verse before the music kicks in. You can hear just about every early- and mid-’80s rapper in there. Even without having heard the song you can read these lyrics and pretty much know how the flow should go in reading them. And if you think it is weird that a comedian’s album that made it to Laugh-In became a root source for the last original musical genre that America has produced, it actually makes perfect sense as the early hip hop pioneers were constantly plumbing the catalogs of the previous ten years’ worth of soul and funk. As in rock music, the ’60s and ’70s are a gigantic magnet that pulled hip hop artists in for creative influence (even the gangsta rap of the ’90s kept going back to the wells of P-Funk and the Isleys for samples and ideas). “Here Comes the Judge” has aged remarkably well, a testament to its loose genius and forward-facing sound. This is one of the most influential songs in the history of modern American music.

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0318: “Time Is Tight” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s

Booker T. & the M.G.’s were the house band for Stax Records, which meant that they played on records by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, and Albert King among many other gifted artists in Memphis in the ’60s. They were a group of four musical geniuses who helped to create, shape, and epitomize the Memphis sound to the point that everyone outside of Memphis was trying to do what they were doing. They are one of the most influential bands in all of modern American music. Their first hit single “Green Onions” reshaped R&B, soul, the instrumental, and the idea of what cool is. Though few of their albums are start-to-finish great, their place in canon of modern music is secure in the fact that their five best songs are some of the five greatest songs ever produced, up comfortably on the same shelf with The Beatles’ masterworks.

In a word association game when I think of jazz I think of precision. Even when jazz unhinges itself looking for new sounds, genres, and abstractions that attempt to transcend descriptors, I think of how precise and mathematical it is. Jazz is like poetry in that sense too: every word and note somehow seems more important than a pop song or work of fiction. And when precise notes like that embed itself into a pop song, then you really have something. That is what “Time Is Tight” is to me. Four musical geniuses hitting the exact perfect notes and the exact perfect tempo changes. This is jazz made concise and into pop. Exploring worlds of sound and pushing boundaries is legitimately exciting and awe-inspiring, but so too is a three minute instrumental pop song. Steve Cropper’s guitar on this track won’t blow you away by sheer virtuosity as compared to other guitar solos of the rock era, but within the framework of this song it is perfect. It is precise. It is one part of an engine that will make you move. The drum beat makes you move. The bass line makes you move. Booker T’s organ makes you move, and tickles your brain. All these things come together in perfect—precise—harmony. “Green Onions” is rightfully seen as the game-changing track to point to first, but “Time Is Tight” is right there. I’d put it up against just about any song from the ’60s. Here are four music geniuses just riffing. It shouldn’t be this easy.

0305: “Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)” by The Hombres

You can always tell when an artist has achieved an iconic status or is channeling the Zeitgeist because an inevitable three-step process occurs: 1) in which an overwhelming majority of artists tries to emulate them, followed by 2) their success provides for a counterpoint in the form of a new genre/sound/look, and then 3) a developed parody of the thing. Bob Dylan changed songwriting in meaningful ways while also spawning a crop of laughable wannabes (even The Rolling Stones weren’t immune to this with their cringe-worthy Wells Street knock-off “Jigsaw Puzzle”), and then people pretty much decided that it was time for metaphor-laden song poetry to take a back seat to bands like Led Zeppelin, with people parodying Dylan’s vocal styling in between and afterward—half the country has an exaggerated impression of Dylan in their hip pocket if you ask for it. Dylan himself even moved on from his ’60s Zeitgeist run but you get the picture. (I just wish he would’ve kept his sense of humor but I digress.)

The Hombres were a garage band from Tennessee who heard Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and decided that it was nonsense posing as profundity. They had a counterpoint to it and made a parody of it while at the same time crafting a legitimately catchy song. The lyrics are just words strung together randomly—the spoken word intro is a reference to an old novelty song punctuated by a raspberry—but the music thereafter is jangly garage rock infused with a kind of go-go and early Haight-Ashbury mix and it works much better than what it should when you see such a description on paper. It enjoyed brief success when it was released, peaking at #12 but then was relegated to cult classic status. I was introduced to it when I bought The Nuggets box set in the late ’90s and my first inclination was to laugh admirably at it. On a box set that included some truly weird garage rock and psychedelic oddities of a bygone underground era I appreciated the earnestness of their silliness. If I heard this song alone I might think it was pure novelty, but listened to amongst some really out-there songs and singles it became more clear that these kids had some real talent, even if it was winking at you.

0303: “Chest Fever” by The Band

The Band have one of the most interesting origin stories in American rock music in that they were birthed as Bob Dylan’s touring band at a time (1965-1966) when Bob Dylan was the undisputed Zeitgeist of American music and songwriting, and arguably international music and songwriting. Add to this that they were a Canadian-American band, with the latter part of that hyphen representing some Deep South roots, and you have a unique band with a unique perspective traveling with a unique icon. The Band’s debut album Music From Big Pink featured music that was almost entirely composed at a house called Big Pink near where Woodstock would take place a few years later. The songs that were composed at Big Pink took place in 1966 and have Dylan’s fingerprints all over them, as evidenced by the fact that much of what did not make it on Music From Big Pink, released in 1968, was released on Dylan’s The Basement Tapes in 1975. Big Pink, to casual music fans, is almost singularly known for its third track “The Weight,” a pop-folk anthem with the chorus that begins with “Take a load off, Franny.” But on side two of the vinyl incarnation, there is another third track and that track is called “Chest Fever.”

While I love lyrics and vocals, I am at heart someone who will gravitate to music before the lyrics. I absolutely love songs with great writing (Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” is a masterwork in my book) but it’s the music that hooks me to the point that then I will seek out the lyrics and their meaning. Lyrically, “Chest Fever” has zero lyrical meaning. None. Nothing. Robbie Robertson has admitted as much in interviews. The power of “Chest Fever” resides in Garth Hudson’s Lowrey organ, an M1 Abrams tank of sound that both sounds like a church organ on steroids and something that presages the overproduced arena rock of a decade later. In any other band in 1968, this organ would most likely be set to a psychedelic track. Instead, it’s a foundational sound to an electric folk-y song, which helps explain yet again what made The Band so unique: they kept the wildly diverse and experimental music of the late ’60s grounded, a band that could seamlessly borrow elements from the gamut of rock of that time without ever losing grip of the roots music that defined their musical and storytelling ethos. “Chest Fever” may mean nothing, but it sure as hell feels like something.

0302: “Come See About Me” by The Supremes

Whenever you hear or read a complaint from someone about modern music that goes along the lines of “Today’s pop music sucks because it’s so manufactured” just run away from them. Run away from them because their point is bullshit. Their point is bullshit because it’s all just coded language for what they’re really trying to say, which is: “I don’t like anything new to begin with” and/or “The music that I was introduced to in my formative years matters more.” Either way, their argument whiffs of contempt for a newer audience but wrapped with a bow of believing in an authenticity that never existed in the first place; it’s a way of saying “Lawns were nicer when I was younger!” instead of yelling “Get off my lawn, you kids!” The proof of why this outlook is bullshit is Motown Records. The core philosophy of Motown Records was to treat making music in a similar vein to the assembly line model of mass producing automobiles. Songs at Motown were written (mostly) by the Holland-Dozier-Holland trio of songwriters, and then it would be passed off to another group of people to make the music, and then passed off to the band (who had little input most of the time) to perform, all while the CEO oversaw the production and operation divisions he created by specific design. Motown was a small Corporate America. And yet… the people who have a problem with Taylor Swift or The Artist Of The Moment don’t ever seem to have a problem with The Supremes or the manufacturing ethos of the label with which they were employed. (Motown even referred to its first headquarters as Hitsville U.S.A. for God’s sake; they branded their style of manufacturing.) So to say that your biggest qualm with modern music is that it’s too manufactured is bunk and, worse, transparently disingenuous. Motown was all about manufacturing and they churned out legitimate masterpieces and game-changing singles.[1] The early singles of The Supremes might not have had the focus testing arm of a One Direction album but they were in fact manufactured. And you know what? Who cares and so what. “Come See About Me” was and is pop nirvana, a warm and summery and light and breezy single that masks the sad lyrics—and it sounds pretty similar to another future single of theirs, “Back In My Arms Again” because, again, manufacturing. The music of “Come See About Me” is summer dresses and young love and lemonade on a hot day and the smell of rain from your front porch. It, like the first ten or so singles by The Supremes, is perfect. And it was manufactured. Made in America; the best side of capitalism.

[1] And the manufacturing that goes on today produces good music! Have you listened to 1989 by Taylor Swift or Emotion by Carly Rae Jepsen? They’re really great!

0202: “St. Stephen/The Eleven/Turn On Your Love Light” by Grateful Dead

Yeah. I know. You probably don’t like the Grateful Dead.

The fans were annoying. You find tie-dye to be unacceptable in any situation. Their live songs were too long and/or too boring. They possessed a je ne sais quoi that you couldn’t overcome. You don’t really like ’60s or early ’70s music in general. Some or all of these things. I get it. The Dead are a tough sell; they are a polarizing group. I was not a fan of them at all until the series finale of Freaks and Geeks opened my eyes to American Beauty (beyond “Truckin'”). From there I became hooked on the Dead, specifically the years between ’67 and ’77. The Dead of 1978 and beyond never really connected with me, which makes sense as I tend to gravitate towards the psychedelic and more towards weed-and-alcohol rock than coke-and-heroin rock. The 10-year run the Dead had after the release of their debut album shows a band that went from standard Haight-Ashbury fare to a more polished presence, especially live, as the group and Robert Hunter began crafting songs about outcasts (“Me and My Uncle”), refining and reshaping older favorites (“China Cat Sunflower”), and generally embracing storytelling (“Wharf Rat”).

The early years with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Tom Constanten also showed a wild and raucous improvisational side. In 1969 the Dead released their first live album Live/Dead, a landmark album that not only perfectly encapsulates the band’s essence but also one of the greatest live albums ever released in general. In its vinyl incarnation, it was a double album and Robert Christgau wrote thusly about side two (“St. Stephen/The Eleven”) upon its release: that it “contains the finest rock improvisation ever recorded” and this I still believe holds true. “St. Stephen” sounds like its studio counterpart but is more raw and includes the additional “manzanita” lyrics before bleeding into “The Eleven.”

“The Eleven” is high-energy rock right from the get-go and it shows that Garcia was a helluva raucous guitarist when he wanted to be. Are the vocals great? Probably not for most casual music fans, but goddamn that music though. Mickey Hart is just beating the shit out of the drums and Garcia is just unleashing riffs and Phil Lesh is doing Phil Lesh things with the bass and Constanten is hitting the right improvisational notes on the organ. I get it. You might not like the Dead but goddamn this is quality live craftsmanship. “The Eleven” bleeds into “Turn On Your Love Light” and, yes, there is a bit of lull for a few minutes in the latter half as the song slows down and Pigpen gets repetitive but the Dead’s touches overall on this cover are tailor-made for a live performance—the lull and the downshifts are all about the buildup at the end, and the end doesn’t disappoint (neither does the eruption that occurs around the 6:48 mark either). The buildup finally gives way to the explosion at the 13:00 mark and all hell breaks loose. Guttural screaming, inscrutable screaming, and the band playing so damn loud for about two minutes straight. And the recording quality for all of this is excellent. I get it that many people don’t like the Dead but this is some top shelf live rock. I’m not looking for conversion here, just a chance to point out that the Dead’s improvisations early on had a rowdiness that maybe a lot of people are unaware of. This troika of songs shows this in spades.

0104: “B-A-B-Y” by Carla Thomas

Carla Thomas is music royalty in Memphis. Her father was Rufus Thomas, who was a huge presence in Memphis as a DJ and a master of ceremonies before becoming an artist on the Satellite and Stax Records labels. She sang duets with Otis Redding before his sudden death. She caught the attention legendary Atlantic A&R man Jerry Wexler while in high school. She is to Memphis what someone like Professor Longhair or Clifton Chenier was to New Orleans, a regional treasure that many tourists would probably be unfamiliar with. Her most recognizable song is probably “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)”—which helped catapult Stax to a national level in 1960—but I think her best single was the one co-written by two other Memphis institutions, Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter: “B-A-B-Y.” Because it was a single recorded at Stax, the backing band is Booker T. & the M.G.’s which means that Steve Cropper’s blues rhythm guitar is on point and perfect and Booker T. Jones’s wizardry is on display. Jones starts out playing piano with a nice fluid movement and he also plays an organ that skates and flourishes in a old school night club kind of way. Add in some horns and Thomas’s playful, soulful, flirty way of singing “baby” and “I can’t stop loving you” and you have a sub-three minute gem from the late ’60s Memphis scene.