Saturday, January 8, 2022

In Memoriam: Phil Spector


Phil Spector left behind a number of things he'll be remembered for.

For most people who follow music, the first would be the Wall of Sound. The Wall of Sound method is in itself an interesting study. Wikipedia enlightens us: combine and discretely mix acoustic, electric and ninstruments poreviuously unconventional in rock music  so they sound as if they are a single instrument to provide a fuller tone: a wall of sound.

There are of course, the many musicians who he produced - despite his mostly unproductive last 30 years. This first 30 years included production credits with Ike and Tina Turner, the Ronettes and the Beatles.

What most of us don't know (or choose not to) is his demise in prison serving a 19 year murder sentence. Maybe a murder conviction is not so outrageous for a man who lived what was essentially an outrageous life: an immigrant family, mother working as a seamstress after his father's suicide, a move to LA where he began to immerse himself in music.

Also known for his in-house Wrecking Crew band of LA session musicians who played on hundreds of hits in the 60s and 70s - backing anything from the Monkees to Cher to Bing Crosby. A side trip into members of the band is an education in itself (Barney Kessel, Dr John, Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Glen Campbell and many more)

The Lana Clarkson murder in 2003 put him in prion for the rest of his life (he died in prison this past year). The evidence and circumstances were not very clear  but the jury convicted him - after several trials- of  second degree murder.

As an aside, Spector's Wall of Sound is not to be confused with the Grateful Dead's wall of the same name: a wall created literally by a wall of equipment (amps and speakers) that was devised by Owsley Stanley.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022


George who? Well, you might have known him better as the Commander, Cody, that is, the laconic, cigar chomping leader of his Lost Planet Airmen, that ragggle taggle collective of country memes and influences that beguiled and bemused many an otherwise country music loathing audience across the swathes of the 20th century's last three decades. I loved 'em, but you might have known that

Frayne started the band back in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a way of getting some beer money whilst pursuing his studies, first a BA in design, topping that with a masters in sculpture and art, two years later, in 1968, before an initial foray into teaching. However, sensing an audience for the manic fusion of country, rockabilly and western swing, he and his like minded compadres did a bunk to Berkeley, during 1969, which is where they stayed, making forever there a little home of red necked hippies in Southern California. A bandleader in the old sense, he was unafraid of the others stealing his thunder, confident and competent enough to give the limelight to the rest of the band, if then to wrest back the crown for one of his idiosyncratic sung-spoken updates of vintage classics. Every album would contain one or two such pieces, like the song above, Hot Rod Lincoln, and the paean to nicotine, Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette). The rest of the booty would be shared out amongst the other front men of the band, Billy C. Farlow, vocalist for the rockier fare, toting a big and unplugged red guitar, and the mighty Bill Kirchen, who could write and croon a country weepy like no other, tongue in cheek, as tears fell down it. Kirchen also possessed an uncanny talent with a telecaster, going later on to have a career of his own, lasting to this day, the self-styled King of Dieselbilly. Having a bevy of ace musicians in the backline can't have hindered either, the likes of Bobby 'Blue' Black on steel and Andy Stein on fiddle and saxophone guaranteeing the chops were as sound as the influences, with second guitar John Tichy, bassist 'Buffalo' Bruce Barlow and drummer Lance Dickerson no small talents either. 

Successive record companies, Paramount and then Warner Brothers, had seemingly hoped for some cali country rock to file alongside the Eagles or Poco, which, if nothing else, showed how wrong they had assessed the cut of the band's jib. But, whilst 1971's Lost In the Ozone may have been defiantly different from quite anything else around at the time, it did at least have some minor chart action courtesy Hot Rod Lincoln. Which gave them that extra foot hold to keep doing what they did best. Meanwhile, an ocean away, in the UK, the teenaged me was discovering the pleasures of honky tonks and steel guitar, if only aurally, through the works of Gram Parsons' Flying Burrito Brothers, and I chanced upon a copy of their second album, as entranced by the cover painting as the anticipation off what may lay inside, buying it on spec. Hot Licks, Cold Steel and Trucker's Favorites delighted me and disarmed me in equal doses, the heavy hit of some of the songs initially too "and western" for my untutored ears. Mama Hated Diesels, a brilliantly bittersweet fable from the pen of Kevin 'Blackie' Farrell, had my jaw drop to the ground in horror, momentarily at least, ahead of bouncing swiftly back into a fixed rictus of joy as it progressed. Hook, line and sinker, this was my kind of band, that then cemented by the Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas album. OK, it's true, I was less taken by Country Casanova and Tales From the Ozone, which seemed a little too busily wacky and less authentic, but remember being delighted as a friend picked up the latter, able to further eulogise their earlier works to him.

Which is how, in the spring of 1976 we found ourselves at London's Hammersmith Odeon, the two of us ready and eager for a taste of the live show ourselves. Unbeknownst then, it was from this show that provided the live tapes for (some of) later that years second live recording, We've Got a Live One Here, a double album I had to dig out and play, as I prepared this piece. Surpassing any of my expectations, the band were on fire, the line-up augmented by harmonica maestro, Norton Buffalo. Plus, given both he and Kirchen were also adept trombone players, this gave an opportunity for the Ozone Brass to make their debut, the two 'bones and Stein's sax, for exuberantly OTT takes on western swing staples like San Antonio Rose and Milk Cow Blues. I was in heaven, transported back there by my recent revisiting of the vinyl record.

That was sort of it, the band imploding a not so long thereafter. Frayne kept the Commander Cody title on into a number of lesser bands, but the tide had turned, for me anyway, my ears more keenly attuned to the new wave of artists like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. This tended to put my country music aside for a while. Or, actually, until Costello brought it all tumbling back into focus, as he nailed his flag to that mast with Almost Blue. Many, many years later I was lucky enough to have some of my Commander Cody favourites reprised, including, at my request, Mama Hated Diesels, when Bill Kirchen made one of his irregular small club and bar tours of the UK. I was able to chat with him in the interval, as he manned the merch stall, mentioning the tour of all those years before. He said he kept in some touch with the Commander, and had fond memories of those days. Me too. (Here's my review from then.)

Here's a great interview, from 2018, with Frayne, where he too comments on keeping links with Kirchen. And reveals that John Tichy, after the band folded, became a professor of physics. It makes for a more reflective read than the somewhat more effervescent Rolling Stone article of some near 40 years earlier.

R.I.P., George, thanks for the music and all those fond memories.

Monday, January 3, 2022

In Memoriam: Larry Harlow


On New Year’s Eve, my wife and I watched Being the Ricardos, the new film about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, directed by Aaron Sorkin, which we enjoyed greatly. At one point, I began to wonder about the popularity in the US of the Latin music that Desi Arnaz (and Ricky Ricardo) performed in the 1950s. And yes, it appears that in the 30s, 40s and 50s, Latin dance music of various styles, including the tango, samba, and rhumba, was popular in dance halls, essentially because it was fun to dance to. And some have ascribed the popularity of Latin music in the United States during the 40s in part as an attempt to escape the horrors of World War II. Arnaz was part of a mambo boom that started in the 40s with, among others, Xavier Cugat and later included Tito Puente, Pérez Prado (the “Mambo King”), and Carmen Miranda. 

During this period, the bandleader at the Latin Quarter nightclub in New York was Buddy Harlowe, whose birth name was Nathan Kahn. Nathan’s young son Larry (born in Brooklyn in 1939) often hung around, listening to the music with club owner Lou Walters’ daughter Barbara (yes, that Barbara Walters). Larry, whose mother Rose was an opera singer, was a musical prodigy who could play many instruments at a young age, and he soon focused on the piano. While attending the High School of Music and Arts in Harlem, he became fascinated by the music of Cuba that he heard coming from the buildings he passed walking the streets.  Harlow studied music in Cuba in the 1950s but didn’t finish his degree, though, because of the Revolution, so he returned to New York. 

Using a truncated version of his father’s stage name, Larry Harlow and his orchestra played the Borscht Belt hotels in the Catskills, where Latin music was extremely popular and other Jewish and actual Latino musicians performed the music. (The number of Jews playing Latin music during this era was surprisingly large). Once the US Government embargoed Cuba, it became impossible for Cuban musicians (and their recordings) to come to the States, so an American label for Latin music was needed. Fania Records was founded by lawyer Jerry Masucci (who Harlow had met in Cuba and bonded with over their common Brooklyn roots and love of the music) and Dominican-born musician Johnny Pacheco. Fania’s first signing was Larry Harlow, and it went on to be referred to as the “Motown of Salsa,” for its influence in the style of Latin music that arose in the 1970s. 

Harlow became one of the most prolific artists for Fania, recording more than 200 albums by various artists and 50 of his own, including Hommy, inspired by the Who’s Tommy. He was the first to develop the front line of two trumpets and two trombones that most salsa bands use today and explored Latin music’s African roots. When Arsenio Rodriguez, an influential blind Afro-Cuban musician died in obscurity in 1970, Harlow recorded a tribute album. Rodriquez had been nicknamed “El Ciego Maravilloso,” “The Amazing Blind Man” — and Harlow would soon be known as “El Judio Maravilloso.”—"The Amazing Jew.” As a less amazing Jew, I found that amusing when I learned about it. 

In 1974, Harlow was instrumental in collecting over 100,000 signatures for the recognition of Latin music by the Grammy Awards and led a protest at the awards, resulting in the creation of a Latin Grammy Award. Three decades later, in 2008, Harlow would receive the Trustees Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy, which runs the Grammys. (That category no longer exists, but there's now a whole separate Latin Grammy Awards.  You can decide for yourself if that is better or not.) And while constantly affirming his Jewishness, Harlow became a Santeria priest in 1975. 

Despite the fact that my parents are basically the same age as Harlow and are also from Brooklyn (and went to high school with another well-known Jewish salsa musician, Harvey Averne, who played and worked with Harlow), I’m not well-versed in Latin music, and was utterly unaware of Harlow until my son became a fan of the Mars Volta, which was made up primarily of Latino musicians, but whose sound, in general, had very little in common with salsa. However, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, of the Mars Volta, is of Puerto Rican descent, and was a fan of Harlow’s. Through the friendship of Harlow’s son Miles (who now runs a cannabis company named “Buddy’s” in honor of his grandfather) and the lawyer for the Mars Volta’s label, Harlow appeared on two songs on the band's album, Frances the Mute, "L'Via L'Viaquez" and "Cassandra Gemini." I saw Harlow perform “L’Via” with the Mars Volta a bunch of years ago, and you can read about that (and hear the performance) here

The clip above is from a film, Our Latin Thing, released in 1972, featuring the Fania All-Stars, which, as you probably can guess from their name, was an all-star collection of Fania bandleaders, sidemen and singers. You can see Harlow in the recording studio directing an overdub vocal sweetening session with vocalists Ismael Miranda, Adalberto Santiago and Cheo Feliciano, who sang lead on the tune “Anacaona,” as well as playing an amazing piano solo.