Album of the Week: Jackson C. Frank’s S/T (AKA Blues Run the Game) (1965)

When times are tough, you can be thankful that you’re not Jackson C. Frank. I think I found out about the late folk-singer’s story in a RYM thread titled something like “Which musician had the worst life?”

Here’s a rundown: As a child in suburban Buffalo, NY, the young Frank survived a school explosion in which his friends and girlfriend died and he himself suffered severe burns that would cause lifelong injuries. After modest success from his debut, his mental health began to unravel. He married and his young son died of cystic fibrosis. He later became destitute and sick, occasionally sleeping on the streets of New York City. Sitting on a bench in Queens, he was shot in the eye by kids with a pellet gun and blinded. In 1999, he died of pneumonia in Massachusetts at the age of 56, poor, alone and unknown.

Fortunately for us, Frank’s only studio album is not quite as depressing as his life story. The blues are present, sure, but from the opener “Blues Run the Game” you can hear a sweetness in his voice, melodies and strumming. The talent is palpable. Apparently Frank was quite shy about singing around anyone, including his producer Paul Simon (yes, that Paul Simon). It’s not difficult to assume he was traumatized by his childhood. Which is a shame, not just for obvious psychological reasons, but because he had a great range and was more than able to carry a tune. “Here Come the Blues” is as righteous a blues song as one written by the great masters of the American south.

The second half of Frank’s album is even stronger than the A-side. The fingerpicking of “Milk and Honey” was atmospheric enough to be sampled on rapper Nas’s appropriately depressing “Undying Love”. This ballad was also covered by such folk luminaries as Bonnie Dobson, Sandy Denny (who dated Frank for a time) and Nick Drake (who recorded several Frank songs before his own death). “My Name is Carnival” has the mystical folk vibe of a group like Pentangle. “You Never Wanted Me” is a bittersweet closer, perhaps more upbeat than you might expect from the title.

On the reissue/streaming version we get some interesting bonus tracks. “Marlene”, a tribute to his childhood girlfriend who died in their school fire, is achingly beautiful and personal. One need only listen to the lyrics to get an idea of the singer’s pain. Some of the other songs are poorly recorded or preserved, as you can hear the tape messing up in “The Visit” and “Prima Donna of Swans”, but for me this is an endearing quality. It is unclear to me when the songs were recorded, but what is clear is that Jackson C. Frank could have made another great album with the proper variables permitting.

A French documentary film, Blues Run the Game – The Strange Tale of Jackson C. Frank, is currently in post-production. You can see an excerpt of it on Youtube here (it is quite sad).

Listen to Jackson C. Frank here.

Album of the Week: Nancy Priddy’s You’ve Come This Way Before (1968)

“Feelin’ strange sensations / Familiar old vibrations” – so begins the trippy odyssey of renaissance woman Nancy Priddy’s You’ve Come This Way Before, released on the relatively unknown Dot Records label. Priddy was involved in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 60s and sang back-up vocals on Leonard Cohen’s classic debut (you can hear her on the timeless songs “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne”). She also dated Stephen Stills, and eventually turned to acting, often starring alongside her daughter Christina Applegate. You’ve Come This Way Before, then, works as something of a successful one-time experiment for the talented Priddy.

At its best, Priddy’s music achieves a blend of Margo Guryan’s comfy psych-pop and Nico’s more doom-and-gloom baroque songs. “Ebony Glass” employs some eerie harpsichord and strings as well as a child singing “This is the way the world ends”. The rhythm section is tight (courtesy of jazz veteran Bernard Purdie), and the vibe is pure lava-lamp psychedelia. The album peaks early with the frankly incredible “Mystic Lady”, which is everything great about the album and the genres it includes in one track. A shifting opus not unlike “A Day in the Life”, it is in one section an orchestral ballad, another a festive merry-go-round, and finally a jaunty soul show-stopper in the vein of Laura Nyro.

Part of the album’s classic sound is attributable to co-producer and arranger John Simon, who worked with Leonard Cohen, The Band, Janis Joplin and Margo Guryan among others. “We Could Have It All” could be a Mamas & The Papas song. “Christina’s World” is apparently inspired by the painting of the same name, though it works doubly as a tribute to Applegate, who was curiously not yet born when the song was made.

My biggest complaint with this album is that it’s too short. There are 10 mostly brief songs and it barely clocks in at half an hour, with the longest track displaying the most brilliance. It ends on a curious note with the weird “Epitaph”, which leaves me wanting more. I will be seeking out more of Priddy’s music, but she didn’t release another album for decades, and I’m currently listening to 2007’s “Y2k Drinking Song”, which sounds like Jimmy Buffett (read: terrible). However, You’ve Come This Way Before is nothing less than a true hidden gem.

Listen to You’ve Come This Way Before on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Willie Nelson’s …And Then I Wrote (1962)

Willie Nelson has been around the block. By the time he finished writing and recording his 1962 debut album …And Then I Wrote, he was almost 30. It boggles the mind today that Nelson had been making music for years without success or interest from labels. With a reflective lens, we can easily say that Nelson’s smoky-voice and knack for writing made him a talent that was overlooked for a long time. But back then, things didn’t work the way they did today. A 2020 New Yorker profile notes that “Before he moved to Nashville, in 1960, he worked as a radio d.j., pumped gas, did heavy stitching at a saddle factory, worked at a grain elevator, and had a brief gig as a laborer for a carpet-removal service.” The young Texan Willie Nelson spent years doing just about everything besides being the country superstar he is today.

According to one of his autobiographies, Nelson wrote many songs while still living in Texas. Among these is “Crazy”, which became a big hit for superstar Patsy Cline, helping to jumpstart Willie’s career. I knew the Cline version before I knew that Nelson wrote it, and there are marked differences in delivery between the two recordings. Patsy Cline’s is melodic and whimsical, while Nelson’s near-spoken-word vocal in his version reveals more personal pain. He actually sounds kind of crazy, or at least hurt and lost. It’s incredible.

…And Then I Wrote‘s title reflects the fact that Nelson was a hit songwriter long before he was a solo star. And as a showcase of songwriting talent, the album is both an unheralded country classic and an excellent precursor to more expansive and well-known Nelson releases like Red-Headed Stranger. These songs are stark expressions of heartbreak. “If you can’t say you love me, say you hate me,” Nelson sings on “Undo the Right”, desperate to feel something. “Three Days” is darkly comic: “Three days I dread to be alive: today, yesterday and tomorrow.” “The Part Where I Cry” and “Where My House Lives” are brilliantly coded expressions of grief. In the former, Nelson describes his life as a movie (or “picture”) and sells it to the listener-turned-viewer (“I was great in the part where she found someone new”). “Where My House Lives” is a heartbreaking closer: “Here’s where my house lives… I never go there / ‘Cause it holds too many memories” Nelson tells the listener, removing himself from the picture of domestic happiness and accepting the role of lonesome cowboy-drifter that would come to define his future.

Musically, …And Then I Wrote is Willie Nelson at his simplest, but don’t let that fool you. This seemingly effortless collection of hits (it’s one of those studio albums that plays like a best-of compilation) was borne from years of toil, failure and heartbreak. It wasn’t a huge success upon its release and still seems relatively unknown today, but thankfully, we know ol’ Willie got his due. If you’ve any interest in hearing how it started, I highly recommend a listen to this album.

Listen to …And Then I Wrote on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Irma Thomas’s Wish Someone Would Care (1964)

Have you ever felt so lonely you could die? This is that feeling as an album. It’s filled with more lovelorn despair than any of my favorite sad-sack slowcore albums, all while being ten times as soulful and only half as long.

Dubbed the “Soul Queen of New Orleans”, Irma Thomas spent several years recording singles for New Orleans-based Ron Records and Minit Records while raising three children. The late, great Allen Toussaint found success as an arranger and producer on Minit (soon to be bought by Imperial Records), writing Thomas’s 1961 single “Girl Meets Boy”. The song is beautiful, but it does not foreshadow the hopelessness of this record, Wish Someone Would Care. Released at 23, her debut is lyrically pleading, but vocally it exudes the confidence and maturity of someone beyond her years.

The title track, composed by Thomas, opens the album perfectly. Every instrument is bursting with life, and Thomas’s first vocal is a great moan, filled with as much pain as melody. You can’t get a more perfect mission statement for a record filled with lonely yearning than “Wish Someone Would Care”. The next few tracks continue the theme, including the stand-out “Time on My Side”. This song was also released as a single three months later by the young British band known as The Rolling Stones, who had just released their first album and met Thomas in the UK.

Irma Thomas never had an album as commercially successful as this one since, but she is still around. In February, she said, “Survival is the thing I know how to do very well. Today or tomorrow, I get to the point where I can’t make a living singing. I know how to sew. I do a mean pot of red beans and rice.”

Listen to Wish Someone Would Care on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Gary Burton’s Country Roads & Other Places (1969)

At the cross-section of jazz and blues you’ll find Country Roads & Other Places, an excellent record from veteran vibraphonist Gary Burton, guitarist Jerry Hahn (Primordial Lovers, Paul Simon), bassist Steve Swallow (Basra, The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra), and drummer Roy Haynes (Misterioso, Out There). This album alternates between smoky grooves and relaxing Sunday morning music.

“Country Roads” gets things off to a rollicking start, and I must say this is my favorite track on the album. Hahn’s guitar playing is particularly sublime, with a very tight rhythm accompanied provided by the rest of the band. At the time of the recording all band members were in their 20s, with the notable exception of Roy Haynes, who was in his mid-40s and had easily the most credible CV of the group. Having played drums on legendary sessions with (among others) John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Bud Powell, all of whom had died by this point, one might say Haynes acts as the kind of old-school foundation that keeps the band together. Still, the brief third track “True or False”, essentially a two-minute Haynes solo, comes out of left-field and probably won’t be a favorite among jazz purists.

There are other surprises to be found here. I like when jazz artists tackle classical, and Burton’s solo take on Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin is a nice end to the first side. Things open back up softly with “And On the Third Day”, before the jumpy “A Singing Song”, on which both Hahn and Haynes shine. “My Foolish Heart” is the album’s only standard. It’s lovely, but you’ve got to admire Burton’s decision to otherwise steer clear of the jazz standard. In 2011, he said of the late 60s jazz scene, “Everyone was playing the same standard songs a lot… My goal was to bring in country, rock, classical, Latin, tango. Anything that I could relate to.” As a young, closeted white guy from Indiana, Burton wasn’t your typical jazz cat. And his music is better for it.

Despite its title, Country Roads isn’t country music, however it is atypical for jazz releases of its time. As I’ve mentioned, its players were relatively young, in a quartet with no horns and led by a vibraphonist, and their sound was neither classic jazz nor textbook fusion (a la Zawinul). All these elements (not to mention its quality) make the album worth seeking out for the curious listener. After Country Roads, Burton recorded several acclaimed albums for the ECM label and continued playing until his retirement in 2017. As of this writing, all four players on Country Roads are still alive. Roy Haynes celebrated his 95th birthday in March, nine days before I celebrated my 25th, and to my knowledge he is still an active drummer.

Listen to Country Roads & Other Places on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Yusef Lateef’s Eastern Sounds (1962)

So I was thinking, I bought this 1200 year-old Chinese clay flute and I’ve been learning to play it. It only has a scale of five notes, and it is like blowing over a Coke bottle, but I’ve written this piece called ‘The Plum Blossom”, and I think I can make it work.

The accomplished Dr. Yusef Lateef passed away 7 years ago in 2013, at the age of 93. He was 40 when he recorded Eastern Sounds in 1961. All this to say, the man was from a different era. “The idea of the album, as he tells it, was to have an oriental feel,” wrote Joe Goldberg in the liner notes. To quote The Big Lebowski, that’s not the preferred nomenclature, at least not today. The term “oriental” is about as dated as “negro”, but I think it’s important when approaching this album to consider the context of the time in which it was recorded and the artist’s intentions. Granted, I am a white person of no Asian descent, but to me Lateef’s exploration of Eastern Sounds are genuinely informed by his practice of Ahmadiyya Islam (a movement based in India) and, as the quote above shows, an interest in experimenting with instruments uncommon in the Western hemisphere.

This context in mind, it’s not hard to see why Eastern Sounds is Lateef’s most popular recording today. We begin with the aforementioned “Plum Blossom”, and indeed the Chinese flute, or xun, sounds a bit like a Coke bottle or jug instrument. It’s a bit funky, but it has legs. In particular it reminds me of Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet on “Bitches Brew”: deep and ominous, but wonderful all the same.

The next couple tracks were penned by Lateef as well and continue the album’s theme, but after that we get just as many American standards. It breaks up the sound a bit, but these songs are lovely and mellow. This is also, with “Love Theme from Spartacus“, the only jazz album I can think of that incorporates a theme from a Kubrick movie, and to great effect.

A later highlight is “Purple Flower”, which has all the space and beauty of a 60s Miles ballad, albeit with no trumpet. The album rounds out with “The Three Faces of Balal”, on which bassist Ernie Farrow makes great use of the plucked rabab instrument.

This month, Lateef would have turned 100, and UMass Amherst has launched an online celebration of his life featuring music, writing, photos and more focusing on the late jazz legend. One thing I love in particular is this short NPR tribute by John Rogers on his friendship with Lateef. Yusef Lateef has a large discography, but Eastern Sounds is a great place to start. May his life and music be celebrated for centuries to come!

Listen to Eastern Sounds on Spotify.