musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for August, 2011

Spinners

Philly Soul was a very popular musical genre throughout most of the 1970s, and one of the most popular groups of that era was the Spinners. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were the most popular producers of the Philly Soul sound, and they even started their own Philadelphia International label to release music by their acts, but another producer, Thom Bell, also has lots of success with this sweet soul sound and the Spinners were his personal pet project.

Even though they get pigeonholed as a Philly Soul act, the Spinners were actually from Detroit and recorded for many years on the Motown label. In fact, in the UK they recorded as the Detroit Spinners because there was a folk band in Liverpool also using the same name. Throughout much of the 1960s, the Spinners toiled away at Motown, releasing some very good music, but they never received the promotion that top-tier Motown acts like The Temptations and The Four Tops enjoyed and their records never became huge hits.

And then a funny thing happened. Label mate Stevie Wonder had written a new song, “It’s a Shame,” for the Spinners to record. But it wasn’t until 1970, a full year after they recorded it, and just when the group’s Motown contract was about to expire, that the song became a big hit. By that time, the Spinners were clearly frustrated with Motown and had jumped ship to Atlantic Records, where Thom Bell embraced them. The first result of their work together, the self-titled Spinners album in 1973, one of the greatest soul albums ever made. As a teenager I originally bought it on 8-track tape a few months after it came out. I later wore out copies on cassette, vinyl, and now CD. Obviously, I cherished this album greatly growing up, but decades later, these songs still sound sweet and magical. The hit singles “I’ll Be Around”, “One of a Kind (Love Affair)”, “Ghetto Child”, and “Could it Be I’m Falling in Love” are the most obvious gems on there, but dig deeper and the quality of the songs does not diminish. “We Belong Together,” “Just You and Me Baby”, and “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (a tune also recorded by Wilson Pickett, Doris Duke, Johnny Adams, Wet Willie, Keb’ Mo’ and others) are just a few more of the tasty gems on this classic album.

The follow-up album to Spinners, Mighty Love, was another seamless masterpiece, nearly as good a collection as the first Atlantic album. Songs like “Since I Been Gone” and “I’m Coming Home”, although not hit singles, ranked up there with some of their strongest material. Singers Philippe Wynne and Bobby Smith (they alternated lead vocals on various songs) were both in fine form, their superlative vocals elevating each song to a soulful high. During the rest of the decade, the Spinners continued to release strong albums — most notably Pick of the Litter and New & Improved — fortified with hit singles such as “Games People Play”, “Then Came You” (a duet with Dionne Warwick), “Sadie”, and “Rubberband Man.” Their output slackened towards the end of the decade after Wynne left the band in 1978 to pursue a solo career, and by the mid-80s the Spinners had all but vanished from the charts. But during that impressive run in the 70s they gave us some sensational music to savor.

Some people dismiss the Spinners as just another lightweight Top Forty act, complaining that their albums were “over produced” and too syrupy, a criticism stemming from Thom Bell’s frequent use of brass and string sections. Other critics point to the fact the Spinners didn’t write their own material, and the lyrical content of the songs lacked the social dynamic found in music by 70s soul artists such as the O’Jays, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations. But all that sniping is missing the point. Bell’s production gloss doesn’t take away from the magic of the music. Get past the hit singles and listen to those albums, ya’ll! The Spinners recorded solid albums that lacked the usual filler associated with pop acts of that period. Even if they didn’t write the songs themselves, their heartfelt interpretation of these compositions was nothing short of breathtaking. This is music that floats above the mediocre scrum of pop, songs that stick in your head, and make you smile. And that’s a good thing.

 

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Kuala Lumpur Scenes

In any city I visit, I like to spend a lot time just walking around and absorbing the feel of the place. In addition to how it looks, each place has a different vibe, even its own unique smell. The scenery can also provide plenty of contrasts; modern buildings or run-down shacks, parks or ponds, museums or markets, mosques or pagodas, games of football or a single child playing marbles. It all interests my wandering eye.

Kuala Lumpur doesn’t boast much in the way of magnificent scenery and there aren’t many older, historic buildings to gawk at, but they do have plenty of impressive skyscrapers (the famous Petronas Twin Towers being the obvious highlight), a forest preserve that gives the city green space (the bird and orchid parks are quite nice), and some areas full of street food vendors. KL is also easy to navigate thanks to a very good — and affordable — commuter rail system, including an inner city monorail and several subway lines.

At my hotel one day I overheard two employees speaking Burmese. I surprised them by striking up a conversation in Burmese. The young man told me that he was from Yangon and the woman hailed from Mandalay. I told them I had visited Myanmar the previous month. In fact, I still had photos on the memory card in my camera, so I showed them some of the images; Pindaya Cave, monks amuck in Mandalay, pagoda ruins in Bagan, and other scenes. I asked if there were any Burmese restaurants in the area near our hotel, and they told me that indeed there were. They directed me to one large restaurant, just a block from Central Market. I found the restaurant easily enough, thanks to a sign written in Burmese. Stepping inside I felt like I was back in Yangon or Mandalay.  There were huge colorful wall murals of various natural and historic sites around Myanmar. Burmese pop music was played in the background. There was even Myanmar Beer on the menu! Pretty damn cool to find this little Burmese oasis in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

For breakfast that morning I ordered a hearty bowl of monhinga, along with a cup of Burmese style tea. The food was good and I enjoyed speaking with the waitress in Burmese. I don’t get many chances to speak the language when I’m in Thailand so it’s always nice to practice with someone before it’s time to go back to Myanmar. I returned to the restaurant the next night and before I had even ordered the same waitress told me that they were out of monhinga. I hadn’t planned on eating that for dinner anyway, so I had a hearty bowl of Shan kauk swe noodles. And outside the restaurant there was yet another touch of Myanmar: a guy rolling up packets of betel nut and selling them at a little wooden stand.

Sam Cooke

I just finished reading Dream Boogie: the Triumph of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick, a fascinating biography of the legendary singer who was tragically shot and killed in a Los Angeles motel in 1964 at the age of 33. I’ve enjoyed reading other books by Guralnick, all of them related to music. Sweet Soul Music took a look at the southern soul artists of the 1960s; Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love both documented the life of Elvis Presley;  and Lost Highway and Feel Like Going Home were books devoted to American “roots music,” focusing on musicians in genres ranging from Blues and Country to Rock and Soul.

Dream Boogie is more than just a biography of Sam Cooke; it’s also a revealing historical snapshot of the USA in the 1950s and early 1960s, an era when the country was still wrestling with the injustice of racial inequality and outright hate and bigotry. There is a fascinating cast of characters populating this book; well-known musicians such as Bobby Womack (who scandalously married Cooke’s widow only a few months after Sam was buried), Little Richard, Johnnie Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples, Clyde McPhatter, Lloyd Price, Roy Hamilton, Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., Herb Alpert, Lou Rawls, Etta James, Ray Charles, and many more. Their reminiscences of Cooke and those musical times make for engrossing reading. A young boxer named Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) also makes several appearances (he calls Sam Cooke up to the ring on the night he defeated Sonny Liston), as do Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Cooke’s ruthless business manager Allen Klein.

One of the more interesting, and frequently quoted acquaintances of Cooke’s is a woman with the so-good-you-couldn’t-make-it-up name of Lithofayne Pridgeon. It may not be accurate to call her a groupie, but she obviously knew who was who in music circles of that era. Before dating Sam Cooke she was also a girlfriend of the singer Little Willie John. Later, in the early 1960s, she introduced Sam Cooke to her newest boyfriend, a young guitarist by the name of Jimi Hendrix. While doing a bit of online research I ran across a very colorful statement that Lithofayne, also known as Faye, made about Hendrix:

“He was well-endowed. He came to the bed with the same grace a Mississippi pulpwood driver attacks a plate of collard greens and corn bread after ten hours in the sun. He was creative in bed, too. There would be encore after encore, hard-driving and steamy like his music. There were times when he almost busted me in two, the way he did a guitar on stage.”

Lithofayne, from what I gather, is still alive and well. If that’s the case, she should think about writing her own memoirs. This woman undoubtedly has scads of other amazing stories to tell about the musicians she met over the years.

Last year I belatedly purchased a couple of classic Sam Cooke albums on CD. One of them, One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club, was a 1963 live recording in Miami (and not the Harlem in New York City that most would assume) that has been hailed by many fans as one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. Indeed, this is a lively album that showcases Cooke’s raw and sweaty side, as opposed to the neat and manicured version that you hear on his studio albums. The only complaint made against the newest “remastered” CD version is that Cooke’s vocals have been cranked up so much that they drown out the rest of the band. And that’s not a trivial criticism; his band at this club date included the masterful King Curtis on saxophone and Cornell Dupree on guitar. Cooke’s label prioritized other studio albums, as well as a Copacabana live concert on their release schedule, so this live album was never issued while he was alive. In fact, it never appeared on record until 1985 and the remastered CD with the bonus cuts didn’t materialize until 2005. It’s too bad that Guralinick’s book doesn’t tell us more about the recording of this important album, especially what it was like to be a member of the audience at the show. Sadly, the building in Miami that housed the Harlem Square Club is no longer standing. So much for historic preservation!

The other Sam Cooke album I got was Night Beat, a moody, downbeat classic that veered more toward blues, as evidenced by his covers of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” Charles Brown’s “Trouble Blues,” and the traditional “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”. Whatever the inspiration, it was a deeply heartfelt album that flowed seamlessly. Not a collection of singles but a thematic album. With an absence of lightweight pop tunes, it didn’t rocket up the charts, but the mournful, passionate songs stirred a cauldron of emotions within the souls of many listeners, making this album a favorite for many Sam Cooke fans. Night Beat also featured a 16-year-old organist by the name of Billy Preston who would soon record many noteworthy albums of his own. Guralnick wrote the liner notes for the CD reissue of Night Beat, and he raves about this album, calling it “one of those moments of pure transcendence that can only arrive mysterious and unbidden even in the midst of the most fully committed creative life.”

King Curtis, one of the musicians on Cooke’s Harlem Square album, features predominantly in two other great live recordings too. His own album, Live at Fillmore West, is chock-full of hot, steaming instrumentals, including “Memphis Soul Stew” and “Soul Serenade”. Unlikely cover versions such as “Whole Lotta Love”, “Ode to Billie Joe”, “Mr. Bojangles”,” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” are also given the funky treatment thanks to Curtis’s sax work and Billy Preston’s keyboard wizardry. Then there is the “other” Live at Fillmore West album, this one by Aretha Franklin, which was recently re-released as a deluxe 2-CD version. Yes, both the King Curtis and Aretha Franklin albums were recorded at the same Fillmore shows, from March 5-7, 1971. King Curtis was the opening act for Aretha at those shows, and he also was a member of her backup band. Busy guy! And if you want to be an absolute completist, you might search for the now out-of-print offering from Rhino Handmade label: Don’t Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live At Fillmore West.

On a further Sam Cooke note, and just to make his life story even more convoluted and bizarre, his daughter Linda ended up marrying Cecil Womack, the younger brother of Bobby (who later divorced Barbara Cooke after a decade of marriage). Linda and Cecil eventually formed their own act, Womack and Womack, and released several very good albums, including Love Wars and Radio M.U.S.I.C. Man. I’m told that one of Sam Cooke’s grandchildren is also a singer. Family tradition indeed!

Colin Cotterill

Thailand-based author Colin Cotterill dropped by my bookshop earlier this month. I won’t tell you what he bought, because I am sworn to secrecy, but it did surprise me that he was such a big fan of harlequin romance novels. Ha, just kidding! He didn’t buy anything that remotely bizarre, but he was his usual charming self and we had a very pleasant conversation. I thought about bugging him for an interview, but he was preparing to leave for a trip to the US (no book tour, just regular touring), so I decided to spare him the torture. The week before, there had been a glowing review of his new book, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, in the New York Times. This was not the first time that Colin has received very favorable coverage in that famous paper, so I asked him if had any friends employed there. “No, I don’t know anyone there at all,” he shrugged, and then grinned. “But they do seem to like me.”

Indeed they do. And so do a growing number of other discerning readers around the planet. If you haven’t read any of Cotterill’s delightful Dr. Siri mysteries (there are seven in the series), all set in Vientiane, Laos, it’s time to get started. Cotterill’s books have been compared to Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Club” series, mainly due to the rustic foreign setting (Botswana is a long way from Laos, but at least there is the common denominator of farm animals), using more humor than horror, and employing a charismatic and unconventional protagonist. Cotterill’s books are a bit more bloody (no gratuitous violence, but real dead bodies turn up, as opposed to the dead car batteries in the Smith books), but that’s not a surprise since a coroner is the main character. It’s not exactly comic crime, but closer to that classification than some sort of creepy serial murder thriller.

The Dr. Siri series is definitely one of the more charmingly unique ones in the current crime fiction genre. Not only is it set in communist Laos during the 1970s, the main protagonist is a feisty doctor in his early 70s who is unexpectedly appointed the national coroner just as he is planning to enjoy his retirement years. Besides being an adventurous, opinionated and well-read fellow, Dr. Siri also channels the spirit of an ancient Hmong shaman. He’s definitely not your typical crime-solver, but that’s a big part of his appeal. Earlier this year, I finished the last two books in the series, The Merry Misogynist and Love Songs from a Shallow Grave. It’s said that some writers get better as a series progresses, and I think that’s the case for Cotterill and these books. Absolutely top notch stuff.

Cotterill recently wrapped up the Dr. Siri series, but by no means has he stopped writing. His new novel, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, finds him offering readers a brand new protagonist, Jimm Jurree, a female Thai journalist who has recently moved with her rather colorful family from Chiang Mai to a small beach town in Southern Thailand. Jimm finds there isn’t much to do, or write about, in this sleepy hamlet until a couple of dead bodies show up. A few days later a monk is found dead and suddenly there is a lot to do and write about. Like the other Cotterill books, this is a breezy, addictive read with lots of playful dialogue, and a wacky cast of characters. Looks like another fun addition to Cotterill’s growing catalog of mysteries, one that will keep readers enthralled.

http://www.colincotterill.com/

Prayers and Pathetic Politicians

I woke up one morning last week and realized that Yingluck Shinawatra was now the Prime Minister of Thailand. Pinch me. Slap me. A bad dream becomes reality. Is this another episode of that absurd soap opera known as Thai politics, or a harbinger of worse things to come?

 

You know, it would be a marvelous thing to celebrate the fact that Thailand now has its first ever female prime minister, a sign perhaps that Thailand is growing up and that government is no longer just another good old boys club. But the fact that Yinkgluck’s party was elected by Thai voters is no sign of anything, other than sheer nepotism and the return of a dubious cadre of well-connected politicians.

 

Yingluck is unashamedly a proxy for her older brother, the controversial ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. She was even referred to as “my clone” by Thaksin himself during the campaign. I’ve heard it said that it’s a shame that Yingluck won’t be allowed make decisions on her own without consulting big brother. But maybe that’s for the best. Yingluck is a political novice who has never held elected office of any kind. She has held staplers and fashion magazines. As an “executive” in the Shinawatra family’s telecommunications and property development businesses, it’s not clear what she exactly did. But hey, whatever it was, it’s apparently enough to make her a valid head of state in the eyes of the voting public.

 

As frustrating and silly as things can get here in Thailand, I keep thanking my lucky guavas that I’m not living back in the USA, where citizens are trying to salvage their sanity — and bank accounts — amidst the latest crippling waves of political and economic turbulence. Barack Obama seems keen on proving that he can be just as awful a president as George W. Bush was. That may sound like an absurd statement, seeing as how Bush was one of the very worst US presidents ever, but the reality is that Obama is doing a pretty awful job of his own so far. Granted, he has been hamstrung by obstructive Right-Wing Republicans and misguided Tea Party loonies, but his inability to prioritize job creation, his well-intentioned but horribly-executed health care plan, and making too many concessions to the Republicans in the recent debt ceiling fiasco, all make for a fairly miserable report card. What happened to Obama’s vision, his hoped-for leadership, and his ability to inspire? At this point, the silver-tongued fellow in the oval office can’t inspire anyone more than his wealthy core of campaign donors. (Read this week’s excellent opinion piece by Drew Westen in the New York Times for more on the “missing Obama.”)

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/opinion/sunday/what-happened-to-obamas-passion.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all&src=ISMR_AP_LO_MST_FB)

 

Meanwhile, the US economy continues to sputter, millions remain unemployed, and yet the profits of big corporations are soaring and the wealthy elite are paying a paltry percentage of taxes. There is an ugly, ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in the US, and a lot of citizens are very angry. Will people really be shocked when London-like riots erupt in American cities in the near future?

 

Obama would be looking very much like a one-term prez at this point except for the incredibly lame lineup of Republicans who have announced their candidacy for the 2012 race. One of those potential candidates is Rick Perry, the current governor of Texas. This guy is so off-the-wall that he makes Sarah Palin look normal. But he’s a born-again Christian, so that explains the weirdo angle. Yes, another one of those crackpots who dismisses the threat of climate change and thinks that prayer is the answer to solving any problem. A column this week by Timothy Egan in the New York Times provided an excellent look at Prayin’ Perry. Here is one excerpt:

“ … Perry’s tendency to use prayer as public policy demonstrates, in the midst of a truly painful, wide-ranging and potentially catastrophic crisis in the nation’s second most-populous state, how he would govern if he became president.

Perry: “I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, ‘God: You’re going to have to fix this,’” he said in a speech in May, explaining how some of the nation’s most serious problems could be solved.

That was a warm-up of sorts for his prayer-fest, 30,000 evangelicals in Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Saturday. From this gathering came a very specific prayer for economic recovery. On the following Monday, the first day God could do anything about it, Wall Street suffered its worst one-day collapse since the 2008 crisis. The Dow sunk by 635 points … given how Perry has said he would govern by outsourcing to the supernatural, it’s worth asking if God is ignoring him.”

 

Sure, it’s easy to make fun of kooky politicians like Perry, but he’s already served three terms as governor, so most of his constituents must be happy with the job he’s doing (which includes executing more prisoners than any other state in the country). And the sad truth is that unabashed Christian politicians, the so-called Evangelicals, like Perry are the norm not the exception in the USA. In fact, if you are not a bible-toting, Jesus-loving, happily married, family values kind of guy — or gal — you have zero chance of being elected to the highest office in the United States of Amnesia.

 

Having faith in a higher power is one thing, but when those religious beliefs lead to bullying people and making illogical decisions based on “faith”, then it becomes a problem. An emotional crutch for one person becomes a danger to others. It should be obvious to any sane individual that religion should be kept out of politics. So why is it that so many people support religious zealots like Perry? Maybe it’s just the sobering fact most of the voting public are religious zealots themselves and have no qualms about their leaders being similarly delusional. They certainly don’t seem fazed when their elected leaders resort to voodoo-like superstitions like praying, expecting to receive divine guidance for answers. Personally, I would prefer my elected leaders to think about matters intelligently, using facts and logic to come up with solutions. They’re going to pray about it? That should frighten people. In God We Trust? There’s your problem right there.

 

You hear all this talk about respect for other religions and tolerance for those with different beliefs, but I think it’s better to turn that notion around: there should be zero tolerance for religion in politics, and zero tolerance for religious groups who attempt to impose their hackneyed beliefs on others. As the wise philosopher George Clinton once said: “Free your mind … and your ass will follow.”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/11/rick-perrys-unanswered-prayers/?ref=opinion

Burmese Water Break

Whether walking or cycling around villages and towns in Myanmar, you can’t help but notice that there is always a place to stop for a refreshing drink of water. And no, we aren’t talking about an abundance of 7-Eleven stores like you see all over Thailand.

Throughout Myanmar, little roadside stands are everywhere; in the heart of the city and out in the sticks, in front of schools and monasteries, outside homes and businesses, and even inside caves! Thirsty? No need to ask, just help yourself!

 

Cannonball Adderley

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley was one of the most versatile jazz saxophone players I’ve ever heard. He could play sweet, mellow tunes and standards, deftly spacing notes in exactly the right places, shift into a seductively syncopated rhythm, or blast you out of your seat with a fantastically funky groove. “Sack ‘O Woe,” “Work Song,” “Jive Samba,” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” rank among his best known compositions, but those songs are only just a fraction of the dynamic gems he recorded. Anyone who has been moved by the stirring call of “Stand Tall” or “Why (Am I Treated So Bad?)” knows the triumphant power of this man’s music. A “cannonball” indeed!

After a short stint as a high school band director in his native Florida, Cannonball Adderley formed a quintet that included his brother Nat on cornet. The band struggled for a few years and Cannonball took side jobs, one of them with Miles Davis, most notably on his classic album Kind of Blue. After leaving Miles’s group in 1959, the Cannonball Adderley Quintet signed with Riverside Records and recorded several well regarded albums before moving over to Capitol in 1964.

I recently picked up a copy of what is ranks as Cannonball Adderley’s strangest album, Soul Zodiac. This is a concept album of sorts, with Cannonball putting his musical touch on the entire zodiac, from Aries to Taurus. Besides the album’s theme, this was also a musically dramatic departure for Cannonball, with lots of spacey fusion-type compositions, splashes of psychedelic guitar, and spoken word descriptions of each zodiac sign by DJ and astrology buff Rick Holmes,. Despite the unconventional nature of the album, there is some real magic in the music thanks to strong performance by both Adderley brothers, George Duke on keyboards, and Ernie Watts on sax and flute. Produced by David Axelrod, this was album originally released as a two record set in 1972, but can now be heard on one single CD. Not the best introduction for anyone wanting to discover Adderley’s music, but a worthwhile one for open-minded fans to savor.

Cannonball Adderley passed away in 1975, just a month before he would have turned 47. By all accounts, he was a very kind, open-hearted and articulate man. To lose such a great musician and person at a relatively young age was a definite loss to the music industry, but luckily Cannonball Adderley left behind a wealth of great music. There are tons of Cannonball Adderley albums out there, but one of his most acclaimed studio albums is 1958’s Somethin’ Else. Beginners might do well to start with one of several excellent compilation albums, such as The Definite Cannonball Adderley, Deep Groove: The Best of Cannonball Adderley, or Walk Tall: The David Axelrod Years. But be wary of The Verve Jazz Masters, which contains weaker and less interesting material. In addition to those titles, check out top-notch live albums such as At the Lighthouse, The Cannonball Adderley Sextet in New York, and In San Francisco. Cannonball and his various groups were definitely at the top of their games during these live performances.

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