Tag Archives: R&B

Talking books with Michael Jackson

Walking down the hill to the train station this morning, I passed a line of cars waiting for the traffic light to change. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” was blasting from one car window. A few vehicles down, “I Want You Back” took over the available airspace. It wouldn’t have surprised me a bit if “ABC” or “The Love You Save” had been playing a little further down the hill, but the light changed and so we’ll never know if Michael Jackson was on the verge of scoring a posthumous hat trick on Raritan Avenue.

My reaction to Michael Jackson’s death was about the same as my reaction to Elvis Presley’s death — pretty much nonexistent. It had been roughly the same amount of time since either man had released music that caught my attention, and at the time of their respective deaths each man was the center of a celebrity freakshow in which it as hard to tell which side was more grotesque — the fans or their object of adoration.

I don’t know if Michael Jackson was as bizarre as he was made out to be. He lived in the Marabar media cave, where all ideas, emotions and tragedies are converted into meaningless noise, and his death only upped the volume. As a child of an abusive household, growing up in an environment where cultish religion and show business were the dominant factors, spending his childhood as a cog in the Motown music machine and his later years simultaneously courting and cursing the public’s attention, Jackson would have needed superhuman strength and luck to turn out as anything approaching normal, to the extent that term has any meaning. I don’t know. I never met the man, and all I “know” comes from the pseudo-journalism of celebrity infotainment news, which invariably tips toward the morbid and the creepy. Celebrity culture sucks. It started out sick and it gets unhealthier by the minute.

The only time in my life I ever thought it might have been interesting to meet Jackson was earlier this week, when I came across this GalleyCat item about the former owners of a bookstore the superstar used to visit. Apparently Jackson was very well read in psychology and history, and his taste in poetry might have surprised a lot of people. Talking about books with Michael Jackson — now there’s something that would have been interesting.

Since that’s never going to happen, I’m happy to leave my reaction at this: he died too young, and I remain fond of his music. What I heard going down the hill this morning is the essence of the story, and you can revisit that anytime you like.

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Blue Monday (on Tuesday)

Jerry Wexler, who died Friday at the age of 91, brought an extraordinary range of interests to the work of making records, and perhaps for that reason he became one of popular music’s greatest pioneers. Like his friend and fellow blues obsessive John Hammond, Wexler was the right man in the right place at the right time, and it’s safe to say that if Jerry Wexler had never been born, American popular music would have taken a much different course.

As a young journalist under the spell of Ernest Hemingway, James M. Cain and John O’Hara, Wexler coined the term “rhythm and blues” to replace the “race music” term used to ghettoize black music. As a producer and partner in Atlantic Records, Wexler helped turn R&B into a commercial as well as an artistic force. He took young Aretha Franklin, whose career was going down the drain after some jazz-flavored recordings for Columbia Records, and brought out the sound that made her the Queen of Soul: with her first two Wexler-produced singles, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Respect,” Franklin became a superstar. Wexler went on to produce Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and Dusty Springfield, and cultivated a relationship with Memphis-based Stax Records that brought its powerhouse soul music roster to a worldwide audience. Like Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, who invited him to join Atlantic in 1953, Wexler was a hipster with business sense and invincible confidence in his own tastes, and (like the Erteguns) he was usually right.

When Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian in the late Seventies, he abandoned his previous seat-of-the-pants recording philosophy and asked Wexler to produce his first gospel album, Slow Train Coming. Wexler, not knowing the turn in Dylan’s life, was surprised to find himself recording a disc of hellfire Christian ditties:

Naturally, I wanted to do the album in Muscle Shoals — as Bob did — but we decided to prep it in L.A., where Bob lived. That’s when I learned what the songs were about: born-again Christians in the old corral . . . I liked the irony of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel . . . [But] I had no idea he was on this born-again Christian trip until he started to evangelize me. I said, “Bob, you’re dealing with a sixty-two-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I’m hopeless. Let’s just make an album.

The work paid off. Slow Train Coming remains one of Dylan’s best sounding records, and the strongest of the gospel works that made everybody’s jaws drop in the early Eighties.

Wexler’s 1993 memoir, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, is a long out of print collectors’ item, but worth tracking down for great stories about musicians and the music business.

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