Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Songs are Like Asparagus

"The Song Remains the Same" is a great title by the Zep, but the fascinating truth is that songs change, they wane and hide away, then return with trumpets blaring...they are perennial. And they endure to nourish the next generation, generously, like our green vegetable friend in the garden.
"Rocket 88," the agreed-upon beginning (1951) of rock 'n roll music, was cooked up in the car ride to a recording session set up by B.B. King for Ike Turner's Rhythm Kings. (Producer Sam Phillips credited "88" to Jackie and His Delta Cats). Both Ike and his lead singer Jackie Brenston claimed sole authorship, but Ike said all he got was $40 while Jackie received a new Olds 88 from General Motors for the great publicity. The tune was a #1 R&B hit (there was no rock chart yet, of course), and like many iconic pop hits, it had both a backstory and a long future. It seems Jackie sort of stole the song idea from Jimmy Liggins' 1947 "Cadillac Boogie." Jimmy's wild stage antics had a direct influence on Little Richard (and thus Jimi Hendrix), Chuck Berry and Elvis. Little Richard even lifted the intro for one of his own songs! Poor Jimmy is a forgotten footnote today, but his song and his style stretches from 1947 to today.
I really liked "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" on a 1976 Robert Palmer album, not only for the fun lyrics but because it reminded me of the pleasure of listening to my dad's big stack of Harry Belafonte folk and calypso records. I was aware that Mr. Belafonte had recorded it (1952) and thought that was the source -- how naive. It was composed and recorded by one of Trinidad's hundreds of "Calypsonians," one King Radio (real name: Norman Span), way back in 1936. Another song of his, "Mathilda," was later a big hit for Belafonte also. It got around: performers as diverse as the Grateful Dead and The Carpenters also did covers of "Man Smart".
Calypso has similarities to original old school hip-hop, in a way. Calypso wars were held at Carnival time where the singers would set up tents and compete in composing songs on the spur of the moment, mostly consisting of insults directed at the others. Their tradition goes back over a hundred years; they started out as "chantwells," lead vocalists for Carnival masquerade bands. The songs have always featured biting wit and humor, but when it was directed at the British colonial government, they had to be more circumspect. That may be the reason why all adopted fun street names instead of using their own: The Growler, Lord Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow (considered to be the hands-down champ), The Caresser (!), The Roaring Lion, and the Lord Executor. Social commentary and the scandal of the day were prime components, also. A 1939 murder in the Grass Market involving a frying pan was the grist for "Stone Cold Dead," written by Wilmoth Houdini and made popular in the U.S. by Ella Fitzgerald.
This Spring's asparagus tips are new, but the roots are old.


  1. Looks like I've got a lot of albums to buy. You mention B.B. -- I'm there.

  2. I desperately wish I could have gotten those Oscar Peterson, Belafonte and Ahmad Jamal albums my dad had. And the quality of those RCA and Columbia 360 Sound recordings! Thanks to Rhino, Rounder and many other labels, most any old genre music is easily available now. I'm out of the game, though -- no room left anywhere.
    Our rabbit is named B. B. Bunny, but he never has the blues; he's a happy guy.

  3. Funny. The Calypso rhythm was presented to me by the Kingston Trio. Of course the Belafonte "Day Oh" also took it's place. Throw in some boogie-woogie and a big mix of blues thanks to the English covers. The origins don't matter, the results are what makes us listen.