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

Archive for February, 2016

Soul Dynamite: Johnnie Taylor Live at the Summit Club

When people talk about the greatest male soul singers of the 1960s and 1970s, names such as Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Al Green, James Brown, Percy Sledge, James Carr, and Wilson Pickett are frequently mentioned. But one guy that deserves inclusion in that same exalted company is Johnnie Taylor.


Taylor, who passed away in 2000 at the age of 66, had a long and distinguished singing career. Born in Arkansas, he started singing with gospel groups in the 1950s and replaced Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers in 1957. He signed to famed Stax Records in 1966 and quickly established himself as one of the most popular soul singers in the business, scoring hits with songs such as “Who’s Making Love”, “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone”, and “Cheaper To Keep Her.” Taylor left Stax for Columbia Records in 1975 and scored a number one pop hit the following year with “Disco Lady.” Like those other great soul singers, Taylor had a versatile repertoire, able to belt funky soul songs along with down and dirty blues tunes, switching to achingly tender love ballads when the mood struck.


I recently bought a CD of Johnnie Taylor Live at the Summit Club, an album culled from live recordings made in 1972. This is, without a doubt, one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard, in any genre. I totally agree with the blurb on the CD’s back cover: “Nobody could work a club like Johnnie Taylor, and on this hot September night in 1972 JT worked LA’s Summit Club. This is Johnnie Taylor like no record ever captured him, squarely in his element, worrying and teasing his way through slow-burn blues and funky soul workouts to a crowd of fur-lined players and ice-cold hustlers who wouldn’t settle for second-rate. Rappin’ to the ladies one moment, smack-talking to his band the next, JT works the room like a storefront preacher gone wrong.”

Indeed, this dynamic live album shows an engaging side of Johnnie Taylor that was glossed over on many of his studio albums. Taylor is on fire throughout the Summit Club performance, storming through a selection of his most popular songs, all while trying to overcome the occasional musical stumbles of his backing band. The liner notes to the CD acknowledge that Taylor was having “some serious problems with the band” (apparently, he had to hastily recruit this unit especially for the LA show) during this performance, and yet to his credit Taylor never lets any of the musical ineptitude prevent him from putting on a powerful, exuberant show.


After detailing the mistakes that the band was making, the liner notes stress that “despite these and other flaws, what makes Taylor’s Summit Club performances so fascinating — and ultimately satisfying — is the way in which he chastises his musicians without breaking the flow. Taylor might have been pissed off at the band, yet he responded with cutting, albeit subtle, wit and proceeded to sing passionately and deliver his ‘soul philosopher’ monologues with the consummate professionalism that was his hallmark.”

Not only was Taylor an expressive and very soulful singer, he was a masterful performer and this Summit Club recording shows him at the peak of those powers. Highly recommended for fans of this golden era of soul music! Meanwhile, here are the other CDs that have been giving me that essential buzz of delight that I need to function each day:


Hank Crawford – Mr. Blues Plays Lady Soul

The Jayhawks – Tomorrow the Green Grass (Expanded Edition)

The Pazant Brothers – Live at the Museum of Modern Art

Elvin Bishop – Live! Raisin’ Hell

Trees – Garden of Jane Delawney



Various Artists – Soul of Angola

Robin Gibb – Saved By the Bell: The Collected Works

Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

The Animals – Complete Animals

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti (40th Anniversary Edition)



Petite Noir – La Vie Est Belle

Ash – The Best of

Don Henley – Cass County

The Lime Spiders – Nine Miles High: 1983-1990

Preservation Hall Jazz Band – St. Peter & 57th Street



Various Artists – Peru Maravilloso: Vintage Latin, Tropical, and Cumbia

Turnpike Troubadours – Diamonds & Gasoline

Cornell Campbell Meets Soothsayers – Nothing Can Stop Us

Brewer & Shipley – The Best Of: One Toke Over the Line

Gato Barbieri – Passion and Fire



The Toure-Raichel Collective – The Tel Aviv Session

Michael Murphey – Blue Sky, Night Thunder

Stereolab – Chemical Chords

Bonobo – The North Border

Fleetwood Mac – Mystery To Me



Various Artists – Ian Levine’s Solid Stax Sensations

Donnie Fritts – Oh My Goodness

Sea Level – The Best Of

Undisputed Truth – Smiling Faces: The Best Of

Machito – Kenya/With Flute To Boot



The Bar-Kays – Do You See What I See?

Diane Coffee – Everybody’s A Good Dog

Bob Dylan and the Band – The Basement Tapes Raw

Dexter Gordon – American Classic

New Order – Music Complete



The Hues Corporation – Freedom For the Stallion

Brainstorm – Journey To the Light

Various Artists – Studio One Funk

Russell Smith – Sunday Best: The Cream of the Solo Albums

Richard Thompson – Mock Tudor

Village Girls Unite!


I spend a lot of time in Tat Ein village, just down the dusty and soon-to-be-paved road from Nyaunshgwe in Myanmar’s Shan State. Something about this village, and these villagers, is so very welcoming. I occasionally teach English classes in the village’s primary school, make donations to the monastery, and take the novice monks and students on field trips in the area. The kids are very polite and friendly, and the teachers and senior monks are personable too. It’s a place I never tire of visiting.




Most afternoons, after classes are over, I’ll spend time at the monastery talking with the monks or letting them borrow my camera for “inspired” shots of their own. But the village girls are not to be denied either! They are a sweet bunch are just as eager to pose for the camera as the novice monks, perhaps even more so. Here are some shots of the village girls from my trip this past November.
















Parade in Nyaungshwe


They say that “everyone loves a parade.” Cliché or not, that old saying seem to hold true for the people in Shan State too. When I was in Nyaungshwe in November, during the time of the Tazaungdaing full moon festival, there were frequent processions — parades of a sort — down the main streets of town.



These mini-parades usually consisted of a few pickup trucks and tractors pulling a trailer loaded with donations — often highlighted by bank note “trees” — destined for a local monastery. The trailers were decorated with lots of flowers and more elaborate decorations, complete with a Buddha figure or photographs of revered local monks.



The vehicles and trailers were also packed with locals, helping to carry the donations to the monastery or sometimes walking alongside the procession and seeking additional contributions from passersby. If a vehicle had a particularly high load of ornaments, there was always a couple of fellows armed with long poles who made sure that their float didn’t get snagged on any power lines along the way.







People, Places, Signs & Things: Moments in Myanmar


A vendor hawks her wares in Taunggyi.



November is the start of kite flying season in Nyaungshwe.



Ko Maw Hsi lights a fire in Mandalay.



Three teachers from the primary school in Tat Ein village take a break at a teashop in Taunggyi.



School crossing sign in Mandalay.



Handmade paper umbrellas in Mandalay.



Female students in Shan State’s Tat Ein village.



Don’t feed the birds in Mandalay?



Ma Pu Sue prepares a meal at her Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaungshwe.



Getting ready to finally pave the road to Tat Ein village.



Saing Aung, a novice monk from Tat Ein, surrounded by balloons in Taunggyi.



Sunset near U Bein Bridge in Amarapura.



A young girl helps prepare a snack in Tat Ein village.



Peace and solitude at a temple in Mandalay.



Novice monks from the monastery at Tat Ein.



The world famous Catfish Museum in Mandalay!



Petrol bottled to go in Nyaungshwe!



On the road to Tat Ein village: Welcome to Shan State!



A farmer takes advantage of the low water level at the lake near U Bein Bridge.



Cooking up snacks at Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaungshwe.


Birthday Dining


Yesterday was the birthday of my friend Chiet, so I took him out for a big dinner. Chiet is from Cambodia and I met him about 14 years ago when he was a little brat, wandering around the streets of Siem Reap, where I was running a bookshop at the time. We stayed in touch over the years, he grew up, and he is now working a construction job in the Bangkok area. Being nearby, we are able to meet for meals at least a couple of times each month. Normally we go to a Thai place on Sukhumvit Soi 49, but for his birthday I decided it was an occasion to splurge and treat him to something really special, that being the dinner buffet at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit Hotel.


The one good thing about Chiet, besides being an all around nice and cheerful guy, is that he appreciates a good meal and can keep up with me when it comes to putting away some food. Thus, I figured he could put a good dent in the buffet spread at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit … and I was right. I jokingly told him that I’d be angry if he only ate two plates of food, so he did me proud my polishing off five plates. And, at the ripe age of 26, he also had his first taste of lobster, which he liked it quite a bit.



About two months ago I had my own birthday celebration while I was in Mandalay. The dinner spread wasn’t nearly as extravagant as the one I had with Chiet in Bangkok, but it was still pretty tasty and very memorable. I invited 15 friends from the 90th Street neighborhood that I frequent, including the teashop owner U Tin Chit, to have dinner with me that night at Aye Myit Tar restaurant. I reserved a big table for the crew and we were given very attentive service by Ko Ko Oo, Kyaw Myo Tun, and the other waiters. Ye Man Oo and his brother Ye Thu Lwin gave me a traditional Burmese shirt along with a gorgeous longyi. They insisted that I wear the new outfit to dinner, which I was more than happy to do. Two of the other kids, Baw Ga and Khang Khant Kyaw, ordered a big birthday cake.



Ye Thu Lwin explained the procedure for “distributing” the cake. I had to cut small pieces of cake and then feed each guest one of the pieces. Luckily, I manage to perform this feat without cutting anyone or dropping cake on the floor. But then came the part they hadn’t told me about: the food fight! Well, it wasn’t as wild as people throwing food around the room, but the kids — and the adults — soon started grabbing bits of the cake icing and smearing it on one another. Ah, good messy fun! I have to say, it was one of the more enjoyable birthday parties I’ve ever had. More Mandalay magic!






Sorrow in the Music World

After the recent deaths of David Bowie and Glen Frey, I was going to write something about this disturbing surge in grim reaper visits that has occurred in the music world in the past couple of months. But just when I start to compose my thoughts and write something, yet another noted musician passes away and I have to revise what I’ve written.

A few months ago we lost Wilton Felder from the Crusaders (a band I like quite a lot), and then Lemmy from Motorhead (never was a fan, but I loved reading about the guy — what a character!), the great soul singer Otis Clay, the “unforgettable” Natalie Cole, P. F. Sloan (the underrated singer-songwriter who was perhaps better known for the song written about him than the actual songs he wrote!), and another fabulous singer-songwriter, Billy Joe Royal. Even one of Gladys Knight’s backup singers in the Pips passed away last month. In the past two weeks we’ve lost a couple of more notable musicians: Paul Kantner from Jefferson Airplane (and yes, Jefferson Starship too) and Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire. White and his group were one of the most popular acts in the business from the mid 1970s until the mid 1980s. Earth, Wind and Fire were also one of the few acts that could appeal to such a wide range of listeners: Black and White to Hispanic and Asian, they were a true crossover act.


I haven’t resorted to wearing black or gone into mourning as a result of all these deaths, and yet I feel a deep sense of sadness and sorrow lately. These are all singers and bands that I grew up with and listened to for many years. They’ve been a big part of my life. For some reason Bowie’s death really unsettled me, and I’m not even one of his diehard fans. Nevertheless, I do enjoy his music and own nearly ten of his albums, so maybe I’m a mid-range fan. Besides his considerable talents as a recording artist and performer, Bowie was one of those guys who aged so gracefully, almost as if he’d been sipping from that proverbial fountain of youth, that I could never fathom him getting old and dying. Hell, so much for that fantasy.


Of all the recent deaths, though, the one that hit my hardest was the passing of Allen Toussaint back in December. Toussaint was one of my musical heroes, a man that accomplished so much as a singer, songwriter, musician, and producer, but one who never received the mainstream recognition that he so justly deserved. I won’t rehash all his accomplishments on this page — if you are really curious, do an online search and read all about this amazing gentleman — but suffice to say that the words “genius” and “legend” both apply to Allen Toussaint.


Another death last month that didn’t receive a lot of headlines was that of Clarence Reid. Reid was a recording artist who recorded a few songs for Miami’s Deep City label in the 1960s, but he was mostly a very prolific songwriter for several decades. He wrote songs — some them actual hits — for the likes of Betty Wright, Sam and Dave, Irma Thomas, Dusty Springfield, Gwen McCrae, and even KC and the Sunshine Band. If you want to hear the evidence of what a talented singer and songwriter that Reid was, check out the Eccentric Soul: Outskirts of Deep City compilation that the Numero Group released a few years ago. It includes two songs by Reid, plus twelve other tunes that he wrote or co-wrote. Clarence Reid’s music qualifies as classic soul indeed. But Reid’s biggest claim to fame, if you want to call it that, was his musical alter-ego, Blowfly. To call Blowfly “outrageous” or even “nasty” would be an understatement. Not only was Blowfly a sight for sore eyes — dressed as some sort of wacked-out caped crusader — he was a shock to the ears as well thanks to his bawdy songs. As Blowfly, Reid recorded dozens of “party” albums, starting with The Weird World of Blowfly in 1971 and ending with Black in the Sack in 2014. These records, highlighted by sexually suggestive lyrics and plenty of profanity, punctuated by funky beats, escaped the attention — and wrath — of mainstream music listeners (no, he never made Casey’s Top 40), but among the black community in the United States, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, Blowfly was an enormously popular recording artist.



And earlier this week I was stunned to hear about another sudden passing, that of Colin Vearncombe, the singer better known as Black. If that name still doesn’t ring bell, Black was the guy who sang “Wonderful Life,” one of the most glorious and captivating songs of the late 1980s. I have the 1987 album that includes that song, as well as his self-titled album from 1981. They are both excellent recordings, full of melodic songs with sharp hooks, all transported by Black’s effervescent vocals. It’s a shame that he wasn’t a bigger name.


Damn, the passing of all these musicians is making me feel very old, not to mention very much mortal all of a sudden.

Traditional Doctor in Mandalay


I could spin you a long, tall tale about how I got sick when I was in Mandalay and resorted to visiting a local practitioner to get healed, but that wasn’t exactly the case. I was invited by Ye Win Zaw, one of the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay, to visit this particular traditional doctor, who just so happened to be his grandfather!



As often happens in these cases, I’ll meet a local and speak of bit of Burmese with them, which only makes them think that I am more fluent than I actually am, and encourages them to speak non-stop for the next thirty minutes, convinced that I understand what they are saying. If I’m lucky I can comprehend fragments of the discourse and perhaps understand the gist of what they are saying. Just don’t ask me for details!



This particular doctor is also a Buddhist monk and he uses traditional herbs and remedies to heal patients with various ailments. He has a whole wall — make that four walls —plastered with photos of many of his patients, presumably ones that were successfully treated.


I asked Ye Win Zaw and some of the other kids who accompanied us (there is always a throng that comes along on these impromptu outings!) if the doctor’s remedies did the trick and made these sick folks better again, and they answered in the affirmative. It appears that the old doctor must be doing something right!



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