An Old-School Story (Four Great Songs)

How many good musical recordings have been made over the years? Man, coming up with an answer to that one is a tall, tall order. First of all, there are the millions upon millions of records you’d have to listen to. And then there’s this sticky point: Who’s to say what good is?

Still, I’m undeterred! I’ve placed the query on my TBDBIDBPL (To Be Determined Before I Die, But Probably Later) list, which now has 46,786 entries on it. I’ll take that list with me to my grave, where I intend to continue working on it. What, like I’ll have anything better to do?

Getting back to my questions: You know, some days you just plain luck out when it comes to hearing music that rings your bell just right, even within a really compact amount of time. That’s precisely what happened to me on a recent Saturday afternoon as I backed my car out of the driveway. The Hyundai, feeling parched, was pleading with me to inject some refined liquid down its maw. It was going on and on, making a big deal out of nothing. Hell, cars, like humans, sure as shit can be emotionally needy. “Yeah, yeah,” I said not so soothingly, “where do you think we’re headed?” And continued on my way to my favorite gas station.

The gas station is a measly 0.9 miles from my house. If I lived in a rural part of Pennsylvania, the trip to the station, by car, might take two minutes. But I live in suburban Philadelphia, which isn’t any better traffic-wise than living in just about any part of The City Of Brotherly Love itself. In my little town, traffic lights and stop signs abound. What’s more, a few blocks from my house are railroad tracks upon which passenger trains do their thing throughout much of the day. It’s not easy to avoid meeting railroad track gates in the down position. They seem to be down a whole, whole lot.

The point that I’m making, and it’s not exactly a genius observation, is that in our day and age it can take longer to get from Point A to Point B than you’d like. Normally I wouldn’t have been thrilled that my mini-trip to the gas station used up 10 minutes of my life, crawling along as I was on the first leg of the expedition, then coming to a total standstill at horizontal railroad track gates, then crawling along some more before pulling into the gas station.

But I wasn’t mad at all. In fact I was cheerful and loose as a goose, because I spent those 10 minutes bopping to four mighty fine songs. They came to me consecutively on Soul Town, a great station on SiriusXM satellite radio. It’s a good day when I Thank You (by Sam & Dave), First I Look At The Purse (The Contours), Bernadette (The Four Tops), and James Brown’s Hot Pants Part 1 enter your life. A very good day.

Now, I’ve decided not to devote much wordage to the beauty of these songs or to their artists. I figure that nearly everyone who reads my stories has heard these recordings any number of times and knows of their majesty. And if that’s not true for you, then you’ve got yourself some livin’ and learnin’ to do! The numbers are old-school classics (they came out between 1964 and 1971) and are guaranteed to get you reeling and rocking, which, generally speaking, are excellent ways to behave.

I listen to music of all different sorts from all different eras, but I never stray too far from the kind of fare that Soul Town broadcasts: soul, rhythm and blues, and funk. Funny thing is that I’ve gotten much deeper into these genres over the last eight or so years than ever before. I always liked them aplenty, but I’m a real nut about them now. Superb singing; fabulous arrangements; beats that’ll send you to the sky (and maybe to the chiropractor) if the tune is a heavy workout, or make your heart melt if it’s a ballad; and strong melodies. What more could you want? And yeah, I know that Hot Pants Part 1 isn’t blessed in the melody department, but that’s not what that tune’s all about. As James Brown says: One two, one two three, uh!!

So, get down while the getting down’s good, girls and boys. The four songs here are anything but of the ballad variety. Yeah, baby, I can see you, now you’ve got it, keep on going, c’mon, c’mon, oh yes you’re smokin’!

I’m seconds away from saying over and out, as this here is a piece whose main purpose, I suppose, is simple and clear: to set cyberspace a-tingling a bit with songs that have what it takes. You bet we’re lucky to live in a time when it’s oh so easy to bathe luxuriously in terrific music. Terrific music is all around us, only a click or a tap away.

Over and out.

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Ruthie Foster, Soulful Singer: Frigid Weather Couldn’t Keep Us Away

It was a dark and stormy night . . . hold on, that line sounds familiar. I think I may have lifted it from someone inadvertently. Wouldn’t want to do that. I’m going to put it into Google and see what gives. I’ll be right back.

Yes, indeed. The sentence was penned about 185 years ago by an English novelist whom nobody alive today ever heard of. In that sense he’s just like me. Let’s start over.

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. Well, it was dark, but it wasn’t stormy. In fact the sky was quite clear. But it was a bitterly cold Saturday night, no doubt about that. As in 12° F. My wife Sandy and I had just eaten dinner in a tavern we like in the Philly burbs. As we soldiered through the parking lot to our car, the night air laughed in my ear. “Man, you sure are a nitwit for going out in weather like this,” it mockingly said, keeping its voice low so that Sandy wouldn’t overhear. “Didn’t anyone tell you that it’s cold outside?” It’s surprising the things you learn as you get older — before that frigid evening a couple of weeks ago I never knew that the night air could talk, let alone be a sarcastic jerk. I kept my mouth shut, but next time I’ll be prepared with a snappy retort.

Ten minutes later Sandy and I arrived at our post-dinner destination, Montgomery County Community College. It’s located in the once-bucolic town of Blue Bell. Modest in size and scope, MCCC isn’t where one would expect to find a world-class performing arts series, but such is the case. Many times over the years, Sandy and I have seen top-of-the-line musicians and modern dance troupes in the series’ 400-seat auditorium.

It was good getting out of the cold. We settled into our seats at 7:45 PM and awaited the singer whom I’ve known about for a few years but never had seen in person. Ruthie Foster, she who drinks from the wells of blues, gospel, soul and folk music, and who is one of the prides of musically-rich Texas, USA. Ruthie, in her early 50s, is an in-demand artist. She regularly plays in the States, Canada, Europe and sometimes Australia. Let me mention one important point before I forget: Ruthie is a gifted vocalist with a gracious and likeable stage presence. If she passes through your area, and if you enjoy music of the sorts I mentioned above, you would do well to attend her concert.

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Showtime arrived. Ruthie Foster walked onstage with three musical compadres: Samantha Banks (drums and other percussion), Scottie Miller (piano and organ) and Larry Fulcher (electric bass). Electric guitar was not in the house. Ruthie strummed an amplified acoustic guitar, but she knew her limitations on the instrument and ventured not a solo during the show, leaving most of them to Scottie and a couple to Samantha and Larry. Would the band have gained from having an additional member, to wit a high-flying electric guitarist? No way. His or her absence kept things lean and uncluttered, and placed Ruthie’s vocals at the center of center stage.

The show began with a rendition of Patty Griffin’s When It Don’t Come Easy, a tune about love’s elusiveness. The tight machine that was Ruthie’s band set a perfect rhythm and constructed elastic boundaries over which Ruthie spoke the truth. Bap-bap-bap-bap went Samantha Banks, sure-footed and steady on the drums, as she was all evening long. Larry Fulcher’s bass lines floated here and then there but never lost their way. Scottie Miller pushed and probed on the piano, at the appropriate times sending out blasts of emotions. The band was aware, focused and nimble on this and every song that followed.

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A few words about Ruthie Foster’s singing voice. It is wonderful, as is the way she uses it. She sings cleanly and clearly, unstrained and vibrato-less, always in control. And she can move easily to a hush or to a soulful barrage of notes. The timbre of Ruthie’s voice often reminded me of Bonnie Raitt’s, but Ruthie’s is fuller and better — Bonnie I’m certain would agree. At concert’s end, 90 minutes from the starting gun, I was convinced that Ruthie is one of the big talents in her field. What’s more, she sings songs that contain real meaning. Songs about tolerance, equality and hope. Such as the concert’s hope-centric third tune, a recent Foster original titled Brand New Day. It dripped with gospel fervor. “Love heals and love lives/And time will reveal a brand new day,” Ruthie proclaimed as her three pals, playing their instruments all church-like, vocally urged her along with harmonized “uh-huh, hoo” after “uh-huh, hoo.” Uh-huh, I loved it.

Let me say a few more things before I hit the “publish” button to post this article. Ruthie has written quite a few songs over the years, but kept her set list heavy with compositions penned by others. She chose numbers, for instance, by June Carter Cash (Ring Of Fire) and Lucinda Williams (Fruits Of My Labor). And she closed the show with  Stephen Foster’s Oh! Susanna, an American chestnut from 1848. (Click here to watch her perform Oh! Susanna two years ago). For that final tune she was alone on stage for the only time during the show. She sang slowly, picking comfortable notes on the guitar. As the song progressed her voice soared effortlessly, poignantly. Oh! Susanna took on meanings that I’d never thought about before. She made a great song greater.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)