Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

RAMSEY LEWIS - MOTHER NATURE'S SON

In his brilliant book 'How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll', Elijah Wald suggests that the Beatles changed the way that popular music was appreciated by Americans by introducing the concept that bands had to be original and unique. Prior to the arrival of the Beatles, Weld says, musicians had to be able to play in a number of styles and to know the hits of the day. When they played live the main purpose of the music was for people to dance to. They wanted to hear music that they knew, that was familiar and which enabled them to dance.
The Beatles changed all that, according to Weld, by showing that popular music could be original, exploratory and have a unique sound. Suddenly it was no long enough for bands to sound like the popular hits of the day, they had to have their own sounds. This was particularly so for recorded music. Why buy a record by a band if it sounded just like someone else?
Of course, this process took a long time and even Weld is forced to acknowledge that, unlike the exclamatory title of the book, the Beatles didn't destroy rock and roll but changed it instead.
Its a fascinating theory.
However, what doesn't quite fit into his theory is the enormous proliferation of Beatles covers records that were produced during the lifetime of the band and well after. If the Beatles created a desire for original music why did people continue to cover their songs (and indeed those of the Stones, Donovan, Dylan etc.)? If you could buy a Beatles record why buy someone else having a go at their songs - much less someone filling a whole album with them?
There were jazz cover versions, Moog cover versions, folk, easy listening (especially easy listening!), gospel, funk and there have been disco and house cover versions.
Even Sinatra ended up singing Yesterday!
The Beatles changed the way that young people thought about popular music but they also changed the way that older people thought about popular music. Many forms of music had relied on popular songs to form the core of their repertoires. Folk singers, jazz bands (of all sizes and types), instrumental groups, pop singers, had all drawn from popular songs - often the same tune was performed by radically different types of musicians. Rather than the Beatles killing off this tradition, their music was absorbed into it.
Whether you wanted safe sanitized versions, jazzed up versions, or lounge versions, the songs themselves were so good that they could be adapted to almost every style. Which isn't something you could say about Gerry and the Pacemakers.
For the rock cognoscenti, original sounds, new forms, boundary stretching became the norm. But that had always been the case with musical forms that considered themselves avant garde.
However, what the majority of people wanted was something a little less challenging, and more palatable.
Currently, cover versions of popular songs are uncommon unless the songs are 'classics'. As Weld suggests that's partly down to the ubiquity of music so people tend to want the original rather than the cover and partly down to the way that we hear music. If you're dancing it probably doesn't matter who is making the music as long as you are having a good time. If you are listening at home or on your headphones you may want to go for the most unique sounds.
Which brings us round to Ramsey.
Throughout his career he made conscious efforts to be on the pop side of jazz. Perhaps his most enduring 'hit' was his version of Wade in the Water which only a cloth eared poltroon would say wasn't fantastic and it is justly a Northern Soul/Mod classic.
But not all of his output was so successful and one could look at his discography as a long attempt to find the best outlet for his undoubted musical skills. He did a folk record, a Bossa Nova record, two Christmas records, a few 'standards' records and had even put out a few singles of Beatles' covers before this record.
In a way very similar to the way that Weld describes popular dance bands, Lewis rode the waves of popular music, producing records which featured his typical tight, percussive playing but on music that his audience would have recognised from elsewhere.
The result is that there are a lot of Ramsey Lewis records out there and most have only one or at best two decent tracks. And don't even think of delving into this late seventies electric output!
So Lewis was a musician with form when it came to popular covers.
And that is what you get here. But luckily someone at Chess records had the foresight to get Charles Stepney to produce.
Stepney had enjoyed huge success with the Dells and in 1972 produced one of my favourite records of all time - Terry Callier's What Colour is Love. He had written many R&B chart entries and later worked closely with Earth Wind and Fire. Maurice White who formed Earth Wind and Fire was Ramsey Lewis's drummer for many years and plays drums here.
So what did Stepney do? Two things. He brought in a Moog, which for a jazz Beatles covers record must have seemed pretty weird. Although the strange sounds of this strange instrument are relegated to intro and outros they do give give the listener warning to expect something different. The Moog parts, which must have been added to the music at a different time to the sessions given the problems with actually playing the Moog, do seem slightly gimmicky. But they also form a bridge between rock and jazz and in those terms work well.

I love this record. Its got just the right amount of unexpectedness and strangeness, just the right amount of funky as you like drumming, just the right amount of interesting piano playing and some songs written by some blokes from Liverpool. On top of that its got a cover that's so bad it's good. And according to the reverse you can find Mr Lewis's clothes at  P.J. Boutiques!




2 comments:

  1. A favourite of mine, too. Great record.

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