WBGO Blog
  • First Listen: Gregory Porter, 'Take Me To The Alley'

    April 28, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Gregory Porter's new album, Take Me To The Alley, comes out May 6. (Image Credit: Shawn Peters/Courtesy of the artist)

    Last summer, the massively popular British electronic duo Disclosure released a new album, and chose a song called "Holding On" as its lead single. It performed well on the U.S. and U.K. dance charts and spawned no fewer than five official remixes. It also featured the vocals of Gregory Porter, which means it brought someone theretofore known as a jazz singer onto, for instance, the beaches of Ibiza.

    Full Disclosure: You won't get it here on Porter's new album. You will get a slower, acoustic, reharmonized version of "Holding On," arranged in the way Porter usually makes records. Other than a few supplemental musicians, Take Me To The Alley is driven by his working band of many years and the producer (Kamau Kenyatta) with whom he's worked since the 1990s. This is good, for that crew has developed a winning and popular formula, a pleasing summation of groove traditions where Porter's voice can overpower, manhandle, envelop and soothe, all at once.

    You'd have to mention Porter's songwriting in that equation, and that's featured a bit more than usual here. He's got a clever way with parable and metaphor, often to incite some kind of social comment, as with the compassion of the visiting dignitary in the title track or the pan-African call in "French African Queen." There's a song for Porter's young son ("Don't Lose Your Steam") and one about his young son ("Day Dream"). Porter has roots in the black church — his mother (the inspiration for "More Than A Woman") was a minister of the COGIC denomination — and "In Heaven" is a song his family sings to departed kin. Naturally, those gospel roots often transmutate into songs about various romances, and there's more than a handful of those songs here, too.

    Sonically, the band concocts a variety of pockets, both barnstorming and languid; there's little concern about fashion or complexity, just execution. And, of course, there's Porter's voice, which — what's left to say when the brawn/warmth dualism is so self-evident? Take Me To The Alley doesn't break new frontiers for Porter, nor for the genre delimiter he's said to represent, but those aren't the aesthetic ideals it seeks to reach. If forced, you'd call it pop-jazz, except it's the rare kind, with a simplicity unblemished by artistic compromise. Or maybe it's just that the now-familiar sound of his own design has become genuinely popular, even before Disclosure entered the picture, and it's a pleasure to see that sort of talent find its own way.

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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  • Beyond 'Mrs. Jones': Billy Paul's Music You Might Not Have Heard

    April 25, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Billy Paul, the singer of "Me and Mrs. Jones" and other soul ballads, has died. He's seen here in 2006. (Image Credit: John M. Heller/Getty Images)

    Billy Paul, the soul singer whose smooth voice and impeccable phrasing made "Me and Mrs. Jones" into a classic, has died at age 80. A Philadelphia native whose name at birth was Paul Williams, the singer had reportedly suffered from cancer.

    Paul's manager, Beverly Gay, tells NBC10 in Philadelphia that the singer died Sunday morning. He had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was hospitalized last week, Gay says. She says Paul died at his home in Blackwood, N.J., southeast of Philadelphia.

    A message on Paul's website confirmed his death:

    "We would like to extend our most sincere condolences to his wife Blanche and family for their loss, as they and the world grieves the loss of another musical icon that helped pioneered today's R&B music. Billy will be truly missed."

    In 1972, Paul won a Grammy Award and topped the charts with "Me and Mrs. Jones," a plaintive ballad about an affair. Thanks in large part to his vocal range and silky delivery, the confessional song became a hit for the ages.

    Two things help explain Paul's unique vocal style: his early dreams of playing saxophone ("I took my uniqueness and treated it like a horn," he once said), and his emulation of female jazz singers such as Billie Holiday.

    "I think the reason behind that is because of my high range," he said on his website. "The male singers who had the same range I did, when I was growing up, didn't do much for me. But put on Nina Simone, Carmen McRae or Nancy Wilson, and I'd be in seventh heaven. Female vocalists just did more with their voices, and that's why I paid more attention to them."

    While he's most famous for singing about love, Paul made music that focused on many topics and drew on wide influences. Fellow Philadelphia native Questlove of The Roots has called Paul "one of the criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution '60s civil rights music."

    That quote comes from Paul's website, which posted a video clip in which Questlove compares Paul to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

    "Nothing against those brothers," the drummer says, "but Billy Paul, in every aspect of his presentation, is really the first person to bring reality."

    Paul recorded more than a dozen albums; a list of highlight songs from those records could start with "Am I Black Enough For You" from 1972, when he sang:

    "We're gonna move on up
    Six by six; I gotta use my mind
    Instead of my fists"

    In 1976, Paul created a kind of mashup version of Paul McCartney's "Let Em In" that recast the song as a civil rights anthem, complete with samples from speeches by Malcolm X and other leaders.

    As part of the Philadelphia International All Stars, Paul sang alongside other soul legends — Lou Rawls and the O'Jays, among them — to record "Let's Clean Up the Ghetto."

    In 1979, he styled a plea for social harmony and stability into an upbeat disco number, with "Bring The Family Back."

    As a young talent, Paul studied at the West Philadelphia Music School and the Granoff School of Music. He was just 16 when he shared a bill with jazz legend Charlie Parker at a club in Philadelphia.

    "He died later that year," Paul said on his website. "I was there with him for a week and I learned what it would normally take two years to pick up. Bird told me if I kept struggling I'd go a long way, and I've never forgotten his words."

    In the 1950s, while serving in the Army in post-World War II Germany, Paul shared a post with Elvis Presley. But he said Presley wasn't interested in joining the jazz band he formed with Gary Crosby (Bing's son).

    "We were in Germany and we said we're going to start a band, so we didn't have to do any hard work in the service," he said on his website. "We tried to get Elvis to join but he wanted to be a jeep driver."

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • The Legacy Of The Benny Goodman Quartet

    April 21, 2016

    In the late 1930s, a bespectacled white man who played the clarinet was a teen idol. That was Benny Goodman, and he got to be that way from leading a quartet with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa — one of jazz's first racially integrated bands. In a special stage show written by Geoffrey Ward and narrated by Wendell Pierce, a young band (Christian Sands, piano; Joel Ross, vibraphone; Sammy Miller, drums) with a rotating cast of clarinetists (Will Anderson, Peter Anderson, Patrick Bartley and Janelle Reichman) tells the whole story at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

    Jazz Night In America learns about the history of the Benny Goodman Quartet onstage from The Appel Room.

    Copyright 2016 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • Prince, Musician And Iconoclast, Has Died At Age 57

    April 21, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Prince performs at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, Calif., in 1985. (Image Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

    Prince — the Purple One, who reeled off pop hits in four different decades — has died at age 57. The shocking news was confirmed by Prince's publicist after reports emerged that police were investigating a death at his Paisley Park estate outside of Minneapolis.

    Reporting from Paisley Park Thursday, Andrea Swensson tells Minnesota Public Radio that she was among a few dozen people who had gathered at Prince's estate after hearing of a death there — and that "even the journalists are hugging each other" after hearing that Prince has died.

    She added that no word has yet emerged about a possible cause of death.

    Swensson, who had met Prince and spent time with him as a part of a retrospective about his film Purple Rain, described his as being "shy, sensitive – and flirtatious."

    News of Prince's death emerged after police said they were investigating a death at his estate in Chanhassen, with the Carver County Sheriffs' Department saying that deputies were on the scene.

    Citing the musician's recent health problems, TMZ reports:

    "The singer — full name Prince Rogers Nelson — had a medical emergency on April 15th that forced his private jet to make an emergency landing in Illinois. But he appeared at a concert the next day to assure his fans he was okay. His people told TMZ he was battling the flu."

    Prince was just 19 years old when he released his first album, putting out For You in 1978. In the decades that followed, he went on to develop a unique sound and style that endeared him to generations of audiences – all while exploring new ground as an artist.

    His fifth album, 1999, exploded onto America's music scene. Released in 1983, it included hits like "Little Red Corvette" and "1999." It also set the stage for Purple Rain, the 1984 soundtrack album packed with songs such as "When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy" that became fixtures on the radio and established Prince as a pop culture icon.

    As Swensson wrote for MPR about Purple Rain for the film's 30th anniversary in 2014, "it grossed $7.7 million in its opening weekend, beating out Ghostbusters — and racked up comparisons to movies like the Beatles's Hard Day's Night and Citizen Kane in glowing reviews from major media outlets."

    Prince also won two Grammys and an Oscar (for Original Song Score) for Purple Rain. In 2007, he won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song, for "The Song of the Heart" from Happy Feet.

    From 1985 to 2007, Prince won seven Grammy awards — most recently for "Future Baby Mama."

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • The Lonely Side Of James Brown

    April 19, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    James Brown performs at the Philharmonie in Cologne, Germany in 2003. (Image Credit: Henning Kaiser/AFP/Getty Images)

    James Brown always wanted to take the stage last.

    Back in October 1964, promoters insisted that The Rolling Stones close out a concert they were billed on together. As music lore has it, Keith Richards would later say that following James Brown was one of the biggest mistakes the Stones ever made. That night, Brown didn't so much take the stage as levitate onto it: feet in constant motion, that legendary hair bobbing up and down to a beat he owned, all while the crowd screamed.

    "At the time, he was so funky and so hot and so good, and he danced so well," writer James McBride says. "He was like watching a preacher preach without having to get saved to Jesus."

    When McBride, a National Book Award winner for his novel The Good Lord Bird, decided to write an entire book about James Brown, he wanted to push beyond the hype and racism he says haunts Brown's legacy. He saw the musician's time in jail, drug use and allegations of domestic violence as well documented. Instead, McBride's Kill 'Em And Leave: Searching For James Brown And The American Soul zooms in on the James Brown from Barnwell County, S.C. — whose mother left, who never graduated from high school, who wanted to leave his wealth to educate poor kids like the one he used to be.

    "You know, you pick up these biographies in the bookstore and you just find out how the guy died," McBride says. "The more I found out about him, the more I liked him, the more I realized that he truly felt misunderstood and lonely."

    To aid his own understanding of the man, McBride tracked down a constellation of folks from Brown's life: cousins, his first wife, former band members and more. He recently spoke with NPR's David Greene about how and why Kill 'Em And Leave — named for Brown's own saying about how to nail a performance — came to be.

    David Greene: There's an amazing scene in the book where James Brown is a young janitor at a school in Georgia. You spoke to a couple people who were students there, who would sneak down to the basement and find him practicing the piano.

    James McBride: Yeah, one of the ladies who remembers it said it was a great performance. She was about 7 or 8 years old. They weren't supposed to go in the basement, but they just couldn't resist.

    So the '60s and '70s, you describe that he really personified the essence of black American pride. Why him, and not the musicians coming from Motown?

    Well, James Brown saw himself as a kind of competitor to Motown. He was a guy who you really felt represented the community. Not that Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations didn't, but they were the "Sunday best" people. James Brown was the Monday-to-Friday guy. He was the hardest man in show business. He was like your dad and your uncle: He showed up and he hit hard. He gave out free bicycles at concerts. He was always trying to tell you, directly, to do better and to educate yourself.

    You, as a young person, were sort of close to him. You were a kid in the '60s growing up in Queens, and you wrote about looking up at this very imposing house in your neighborhood.

    Oh, yeah. His house was across the tracks, on the good side of St. Albans. I used to sneak over, across the Long Island Railroad tracks, and me and my friend Billy Smith, we would stand outside. A bunch of us! Because the rumor was that he would come out of the house, and if you'd promise you'd stay in school, he'd give you money.

    That was the rumor.

    That was the rumor. It never happened. [Laughs.] And so kids would stand outside his house all the time, and then one day, my sister Dottie did something that no kid I ever thought had the guts do do: She just went up to the front door of this beautiful house, and just knocked. And she met him! And so she came running home and said, "I met James Brown." And we asked, "What did he say?" "He said, 'Stay in school, Dottie.'" And that became the clarion call of my sister for a long time.

    Look, we loved James Brown in my house. He was loved; he was admired. His music and his whole persona was so funny. He made up words. He was a complete original.

    And he took his role, it sounds like, so seriously. I mean, he did want kids to get educated; he gave reduced ticket prices for kids to come to his concerts. And he also cared so much about his personal appearance, just spending hours on what he looked like. Where did that come from?

    They call that, down South, "being proper." People from down South, of all races — they try to be very proper. And because he was so poor, and he was always a snotty kid with raggedy clothes and his hair wasn't combed and so forth, he was always very self-conscious about how he was seen, how he was treated and how he treated others. In fact, his best friend, Leon Austin — when he first met him, Leon Austin's mother took James Brown and Leon Austin into her back room and put them both in the tub, and just washed. She couldn't stand it. And when she was finished washing, she said, "Now I can stand you."

    Can you explain the darker side of him? And not just the reputation for his treatment of women and dabbling in drugs, but some band members who just felt so mistreated. He would fine his own band members for the smallest infraction — I mean, not shining their shoes.

    First of all, when you run a band, it's not easy. You got one guy who can really play, but he's just hard to handle. And then you got another guy who's a really nice guy, but he can't cut the part. A band is not a democracy: It's show business.

    The other part, about him being womanizer and having women problems: I mean, that's true. But I don't he's any [more] unique than some of these other people in show business, who have all kinds of women problems.

    Do you think people should excuse it for that reason?

    Absolutely not. Of course not. A lot of it was very true. But there were a lot of elements that were also very true, that are never talked about. The fact that he was very generous. The fact that he was never given credit for creating these different styles, that are tabulated now by Billboard and Rolling Stone.

    So I think, to some degree, he represents African-American musicians who have never had their say, in terms of history. When you talk about the Rock and Roll [Hall of Fame], when you walk through there and you see Elvis — as much as I loved Elvis — musically, in a technical sense, Elvis was not the cat that Louis Armstrong or James Brown was, in my opinion. Maybe I'm wrong! But the music speaks for itself. James Brown's music still sounds as fresh and as good and as new as it did when he first created it.

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.