Sunday, July 21, 2013

Singing in the Dark

Soulful Scotsman

Lisa Fischer in the spotlight

Claudia Lennear

I was listening to WXPN (from the U of PA in Philadelphia) yesterday, and the host said, "that was Rodriguez from his famous album Sugar Man, and one of the finest singers you've never heard of, Frankie Miller."  I'd heard of Rodriguez, who had been living in obscurity for decades (and thought to be long deceased) in Detroit since his last recordings or performances, because he'd been rediscovered as a result of the documentary film made by a persistent overseas fan.  Miller's recording was more compelling, arresting even, but I had indeed never heard of him.  His work isn't even in the Goldmine Record Album Price Guide; only a country artist by the same name who recorded in the early 1960s is.

Mr. Miller is not once-and-done musical mystery man, though; he's had a long career, mostly ascendant in the 1970s, interrupted in 1994 by a serious brain hemorrhage which put him in a coma for almost half a year.  But he's written songs since he was a teen, recorded many, and even had his compositions covered by other singers and songwriters such as Bob Seger.  Rod Stewart said he's "the only white guy who brought a tear to my eye."  He's worked with Nicky Hopkins and Joe Walsh and dozens of others known everywhere.  Fortunately for him, he hasn't faded away later in life, having the closing song in the 2011 Johnny Depp movie, The Rum Diary (which I really need to see).  Some artists (and that's using the term generously, in a lot of cases) are known for decades for one novelty song, many make a lifelong career based on that one song if they don't just disappear, and many others like Mr. Miller never seem the break the surface tension despite persistent and quality efforts.  And many don't get credit at all, remembered or not, like Darlene Love and the Blossoms being used by Phil Spector as the voices for recordings issued under others' names. 

As brought out in the recent movie Twenty Feet from Stardom, many superb vocalists rarely leave the shadows that backup singers and studio session journeymen labor in, despite being as good as or better than the stars.  You'll remember Lisa Fischer if you see the movie, especially for the scene of her recording an operatic song-without-words for a movie soundtrack; she has immense reserves of talent and and intuitively knows exactly what to do without seeming to work and worry over it.

Both Ms. Fischer and Claudia Lennear had moments up front with the Rolling Stones, like Merry Clayton did on the epic "Gimme Shelter."  Claudia was supposedly the inspiration for "Brown Sugar" (you've always wondered who that was, haven't you?) and a song by David Bowie. 

Who knows, maybe fame and exhausting world tours would have done more damage than good to these people's lives. While things like Garth Brooks and Kanye West sell millions of albums and amass a billion dollars, you can only conclude that maybe the wheels of justice do grind very slowly indeed.         

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