Tuesday, August 21, 2012

An Adopted Daughter Of The Shoals-Late July, 2012

Muscle Shoals has a hold on me. I've often said it, and always feel it. It tugs at my heart and my mind. Its rhythm is in my hips and my head...and my blood. There is something so special and deeply affecting for me about the particular brand of soul music recorded there at FAME, Muscle Shoals Sound, and 3614 Jackson Highway. It speaks to me like no other body of recordings. I've been asked to return to the WC Handy Festival, having appeared in 2011 with The Decoys. My soul brothers, The Decoys are the reigning kings of the Muscle Shoals scene, the current "Swampers", and they GROOVE, all day and night. It's a joy and an honor to be on stage with Kelvin Holly, Scott Boyer, NC Thurman, Mike Dillon and David Hood--any time, anywhere. We're booked into the Marriott Conference Center ballroom for a Thursday night show to benefit the Muscle Shoals Music Association. This year, wonderfully, I've also been asked to be the special guest of The Blind Boys of Alabama. And as if wonders will never cease, the internationally-distributed "Muscle Shoals To Music Row" (www.ms2mr) has decided to make my Marriott show THE broadcast of this year's festival. Rising at 4 am (3 am Shoals time) on a Tuesday, I head out, freshly beehived, to the airport. Tuesday evening's festival concert will be by the super-fine songwriter Donnie Fritts at Spring Park in Tuscumbia, a sweet town with a main street full of interesting shops that is the fourth "corner" to the classic tri-city area of Muscle Shoals, Florence and Sheffield. The Decoys are Donnie's backing band, so I know the groove will be on. Donnie (a/k/a "Funky Donnie Fritts" a/k/a "The Leaning Man From Alabam") has become a friend and compatriot. I drive up from Birmingham and meet my soul sister Kim Stovall (Kim was the instigator of my first-ever visit to the Shoals in 2009 and has been my music partner-in-crime ever since). We head out in the 100-degree haze. At the park, I start to soak up the music from the first note, and by the time I take the stage to sing Eddie Hinton's "Cover Me" with Donnie (who co-wrote Dusty Springfield's "Breakfast in Bed" with Eddie--but more on that later), I'm home. My concert is attracting some attention, it turns out: there's a snowball rolling with The Beehive Queen's name on it. On Wednesday I'm booked for not one but two radio appearances at Jerry Phillips' (of the Sun Records Phillips family) 100,000-watt radio statio Q107. Jerry has been SO supportive, a true friend, and since the first day of The Deep End's release, Q107 has been cranking out "Love Make You Do Stupid Things", turning it into a Shoals anthem. My thanks to all the staff there: Jeff Thomas, Chris Michaels, Sabrina Eaton, Leisa Johnson, Nick Martin, Greg Pace, Jimmy Oliver (Jimmy O's morning show has been taken over by Jeff because he's running for City Council...go, Jimmy!!!!). I've also got a date with the NBC TV affiliate, so I run back over to the Marriott for that. Meanwhile, my brothers-in-arms, The Decoys, have been busy rehearsing over at Tonya Holly's Cypress Moon Studios, formerly Muscle Shoals Sound (the outline of that original sign is still on the front door) and I join them in this studio formerly owned by David Hood and the members of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section (the ORIGINAL "Swampers") that is steeped in so much history. I'm moved just to be there, in one of the cradles of American popular music. Donnie is there, too, and we hatch a scheme to perform "Breakfast In Bed" together. He's never performed it live, it turns out, and I know Thursday night's audience will love and appreciate it. Too, I've recently had lunch with my friend Vicki Wickham, long Dusty Springfield's partner, in NYC. I want to be able to tell her that I've taken up the torch, and I want Donnie to be a part of that. It's his song. Thursday night is something I'll remember always. God bless The Decoys, who back me on a bunch of Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez songs, including a heartrending version of "Empty" off the Strip CD. It's a hip-shakin' thing all night long, as we pay tribute to the Shoals with classics like "You Better Move On," "Cover Me," "Slip Away," and "I'm Your Puppet" (Spooner Oldham is on his way home from the West Coast and has to miss this one. Next time, Spooner!). We do Jerry Lee's "Night Train To Memphis" to bring it all back home (Sun Records, after all, is playing a part in a way in sponsoring the broadcast). And of course, "Breakfast In Bed." Donnie takes the stage and it's a gorgeous moment, the two of us holding hands by the time it's through. If there's a sexier song than "Breakfast in Bed," show it to me! The ballroom is packed to the rafters and the broadcast goes off without a hitch. The audience, The Decoys and I all find ourselves within that great, deep, wide circle of American popular song, together, and it's a beautiful, beautiful thing. I want to thank M. Fletcher Brown for being our Muscle Shoals To Music Row emcee. The evening ends with friends gathered on the top floor of the Marriott in the Sam Phillips Suite...as fine a night as I've ever had. Friday is a day for fun. I visit Jimmy and Angi Nutt at their fab studio The Nutthouse. It's the new kid on the block of Shoals studios, and it's a knockout. Beautifully decorated with a mixture of kitsch and Beatle memorabilia, it's Jimmy and Angi's labor of love. Jimmy, David Hood, Terry Pace, and Suzanne Bolton all serve on the board of the Muscle Shoals Music Association, and I must also take a minute to thank Bart Black and Johnny Belew of the Handy Festival Board. All provided me with their outstanding support. Friday night, it's Travis Wammack time!!! I met Travis in 2010 when I made an autumn visit to sit in with the Decoys (source of my first Shoals blog here, back then...) and Travis, to my delight, showed up. He is an American treasure: a triple-threat singer/songwriter/guitarist, peerless at all three. He and his crackerjack band play a succession of killer cuts including "Tell You About My Girl" a soul-drenched classic which just missed being covered by Otis Redding and, of course, "Scratchy." I'm honored to be asked to sit in. Kim, her mom Brenda and stepfather Ronnie and I all have a sweet time, just hangin' in that Wammack groove! On Saturday evening I have the supreme, unsurpassed pleasure of joining the Blind Boys of Alabama--Jimmy Carter, Ricky McKinney and Benjamin Moore--to sing on Danny Flowers' Nashville gospel gem "I Was A Burden." Their guitarist/MD Joey Williams and I have prepared everything in advance, so there is nothing to do but enjoy the moment, and enjoy it I do, gowning myself in my most colorful vintage piece, a dress I call "The Butterfly", and floating onto the stage. What a gift, the chance to sing that song with those great men! Later, I reunite with Spooner Oldham and his wife Karen, just returned, and that is another joyful moment. Sunday is the icing on the Festival cake. Dear, dear Dick Cooper, muse to and photographer of everyone connected with the Shoals scene, from Jerry Wexler, Duane Allman and Jason Isbell right on down, throws me a party. With music!! A bunch of the Decoys are there with their beautiful wives, and guitarist Will McFarlane and Donnie and Kim and so many others... We all get up and play and sing and have a time. Jerry Henry of the Alabama Music Office is there to conduct video interviews for the Office's archives, and I participate: http://www.musicalabamablog.alabamamusicoffice.com/2012/08/christine-ohlman-interview-at-dick.html?spref=fb . Writer James Carson created a video of the day which can be seen at: http://youtu.be/VRMy2R2O1Yc . The party is just superb in every way, causing me to become homesick even before I've left which, the next morning, I must do. Yet....The Shoals is in the blood of this beehived adopted daughter, now and forever.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Remembering Levon Helm

It was a crisp fall day in late 2008 when we gathered at Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock to partake of his generosity in agreeing to sit in on two tracks for my CD The Deep End. Andy York of John Mellencamp's band, my longtime friend and co-producer was there with Paul Ossola (at that time the bassman in Levon's band, but also a compadre of many years going back to The Scratch Band, Paul's and my band with GE Smith. Paul was the catalyst for the session, having pitched the idea to Levon, for which I am eternally grateful). Also with us were Jeff Kazee (keys in the NYC Hit Squad and Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, and a fabulously soulful vocalist himself) and the great Marshall Crenshaw on second guitar and baritone guitar.  Levon had graciously lent not only studio space but himself as drummer on Marshall's and my duet, "What's The Matter With You Baby," a Motown chestnut originally recorded by Marvin Gaye & Mary Wells (Marshall is a Detroit boy, born and raised, so I thought the song a good choice!).

The studio in Woodstock is clean, beautiful space, almost devoid of the usual baffles and glass. Even the control room is just a balcony, completely open to the rest of the studio, which sits below it. Upon entering the room, Levon had greeted me so warmly, taking my hand in both of his and saying his name, "Leh-VOHN", with that Arkansas lilt. I was captivated and charmed immediately by this lovely man, known as "Lee" to his friends.

The session moved quickly, and we soon had what we thought was a pretty good take. Lee seemed frail; he'd recently resumed playing after his first bout with the cancer, and I didn't want to overtax him. We gathered in the control room, listened, and all eyes turned to Lee.  "You're singing your ass off on every take," he said, fixing me in his sights with a chuckle, "but personally, I don't think I did myself any favors with what I just played.  Would you mind if we took it again?"  

Of course we were all for it, and re-entered the studio. Levon sat down at the drums and indicated a new intro he wanted to add, giving us just a taste of a new groove he'd envisioned while we listened back to that previous take.  The genius of the man (and the musician) became apparent then, as he sure-footedly turned the groove around from what we'd had, and led us through a one-time romp that swung so hard with a snaky little backbeat, we just knew it had to be the one. And it was.

I'd also brought in a lilting little countrified thing called "Girl Growing Up" that had been inspired by my then-13-year-old niece. The plan was to have Lee play mandolin, but when he heard the song, he asked, "Do I hear a minor chord in there?"  We confirmed that, yes, the minor-6 chord was heard throughout (think Ben E King's "Stand By Me" if you don't know what this means; that song's iconic bass line feeds off the minor-6 alternating with the main chord). "Then you'd better get someone who can really play," he said with a twinkle.  "You don't want me! I'll play tambourine!"  There was laughter all around, Levon picked up the tambourine, and in the end, there's no mandolin on the track at all, just a brilliant baritone guitar line played by Marshall Crenshaw.

Afterward, Levon and I walked down to the lake with a few of his dogs and talked about fishing for catfish. Another wonderful, memorable moment.

My thanks also to James Smith, the assistant engineer who photographed us that day, and to chief engineer Justin Guip, who made it all sound easy and great. I cannot imagine the level of sadness that everyone at Levon Helm Studios (the home of his Midnight Ramble) must today be experiencing.  Truly, truly, truly we have lost one of the greats.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spring 2012: Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction and Carnegie Hall

Spring 2012 arrived with a lovely mid-March night at Carnegie Hall as I took the stage with Ian Hunter (I appear on 4 tracks on Ian's yet-to-be-named upcoming 2012 release...) for a tribute to the Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks LP. Steve Earle, Rosanne Cash, Marianne Faithful, Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal, Ronnie Spector, Rickie Lee Jones and others joined in. Then it was back on the road with Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez for a series of New England dates, and on to the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction, this year back in its home city of Cleveland. I can say nothing less than that the inducation weekend was magical (HBO broadcasts highlights in a special set to air May 5). For a music historian like me, the first-time-ever (beginning what will become a yearly tradition) induction of backup bands--The Crickets, Blue Caps, Famous Flames, Miracles, Midnighters--was so very moving, with Claudette Rogers' elegant acceptance for the Miracles being the highlight. There was Freddie King's induction (in the "Early Influences" category), and the smoldering vintage footage of him that they showed during the speech by Billy Gibbons and Dusty Baker, after which Derek Trucks, Billy, and Joe Bonamassa did the honors. The Faces/Small Faces ruled the night ("All or Nothing" a particularly good choice) with Mick Hucknall of SImply Red standing in on vocals and a heartfelt induction by Little Steven VanZandt. Donovan (inducted by John Mellencamp), Guns and Roses (Green Day inducted), The Beastie Boys, with a poignant acceptance letter by Adam Yauch after Chuck D and LL Cool J's induction speech (The Roots and Kid Rock stood in for a perfectly-manic performance), and The Red-Hot Chili Peppers (Chris Rock inducted) completed the list of performers. Paul Shaffer wrote the most wonderful, Spector-esque arrangement of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" to honor Don Kirshner, who published that song and so many others, and who was inducted under the category named for Ahmet Ertegun .....I was so honored to sing on that with Darlene Love, with my NYC Hit Squad compadre Ricky Byrd (a 2012 nominee himself, with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts) standing alongside in the "Rock and Roll Choir". Finally, three pivotal engineers--Glyn Johns, Tom Dowd, and Cosimo Matassa--were inducated by Robbie Robertson. They brought Cosimo out in a wheelchair and he beamed while his grandson spoke on his behalf. SO moving and wonderful for a devotee of New Orleans music like me. 5,000 fans thronged the sold-out Cleveland Public Hall. Props to HBO, who of course did everything right and ramped it up in terms of how that venerable, historic rock and roll stage (once home to the Beatles) was dressed. The vintage footage and photographs were projected onto a gigantic scrim at the back of the stage..just beautiful. Many, many MANY industry were squeezed into 100 tables on the floor of the hall. Again, up popped my friend Ian's name, being invoked (although he is not yet inducted, nor is Mott the Hoople...the Hall should rectify that) at the very end of Hall President Terry Stewart's opening speech: "In the words of the immortal Ian Hunter, 'Cleveland Rocks!' " We of The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame House Band (Liberty DeVitto, Jeff Carlisi, Jeff Adams, Rob Arthur, Jimmy Hall, Ricky Byrd and me) tore it up the night before at the pre-induction Gala with our very great special guest Felix Cavaliere (he killed). Darlene Love, Cleveland's native son Michael Stanley, and Dave Wakeling also stopped by, and our NYC compadres Will Lee and Felicia Collins got up and did their thing, too. And then morning-of, we got called for a last-minute vocal rundown in the dusty, cement-strewn basement of the Cleveland Hall. The door opened and Carole King came sweeping into the room for an impromptu twirl through "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," as she picked out the string chart single-note (on a beat-up Fender Rhodes), playing along with Paul Shaffer on the song that would be performed later that evening before that sold-out crowd with Darlene Love. What a lovely moment. Ricky and I hoofed it upstairs to watch the Faces camera-block. Again, a lovely, rockin' moment, so filled with history. Byrd knew Marriott well. It was emotional in the best kind of way. The weekend was filled with those, and I counted myself a very lucky little rock and roll Beehive Queen, makin' the scene!

Friday, January 27, 2012

2012 Dawns Happily In The Beehive

As we swing into 2012, I'm so grateful for new friends made in 2011, new places traveled to, and brand-new professional associations. Some highlights: "Down On The Bayou II" during JazzFest in NOLA; not one but two evenings of house-concert evenings of duets with the very wonderful Mac Rebannack, both to benefit the New Orleans Musicians Clinic; my July appearances with the Decoys at the WC Handy Festival that included an evening of sharing the microphone with Bonnie Bramlett (who'd driven herself down from Nashville for the occasion!); the August Wetlands Jam Festival in Brunswick, ME, and more... There was also a full plate of appearances with Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez at fab venues like Blues@Boscobel, The Fairfield Theatre Company, The Mohegan Sun Wolf Den, Rochester's Abilene and Syracuse's Nelson Odeon. 2011 saw the release of our first-ever concert DVD, "LIVE HIVE," and we're happy to support it's sold briskly on Amazon and at live shows.

But perhaps the most historic and--saving the best for last--most fun I had all year came from Big Al Anderson's invitation to join his reunion of the seminal sixties band The Wildweeds for two nights just after Christmas at the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA. I stood in for the late, great Bobby Dudek, the band's killer bassist and high-harmony cat. It was priceless. If you grew up anywhere near Connecticut, you know the WIldweeds by reputation, and if you were lucky enough to see them live, you know lots more than that!! Cheers to them!!!

2012 dawns clear and bright. During this last week of January I've once again collaborated with my old friend Ian Hunter and his producer, Andy York (who also produced "The Deep End") on four cuts for Ian's newest CD, slated for summer release. As always, it was a precious musical experience. Onward to Delray Beach Florida with the Rockers In Recovery Band at the International Tennis Championship on March 3, and to Cleveland to play the gala for the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame Induction on April 3....and again, a full calendar of shows with Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez stretching ahead into autumn already. More news later...in the meantime, Happy New Year from the Beehive Queen!!!!