music


Solomon Burke and Me in 1983

The legendary soul singer,  Solomon Burke, died on October 10, 2010. The King was on his way to a gig in Amsterdam.

I had the blessed fortune of working with King Solomon in 1983, remixing a live album of his for Rounder Records, called “Soul Alive.” Of all the unique characters I got to work with in my years in the music biz, Mr. Burke was one of my favorite. Solomon told me that he had a Cadillac, a girl friend, a child, and a church in every city of America. He would land at the airport in, let’s say, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and his car and woman would be waiting for him.

Solomon’s gigs were made up of endless medleys interspersed with his personal brand of sermon. The King’s philosophy, at its heart, could be summed up in one word. He told us that the word love was overused these days, as he purred in his rich baritone, “I love you. I love you. I LOVE you.” You could feel the women in the audience sweat. But though the King truly walked his talk by siring at least 21 children, he was something of a feminist.

“And if he doesn’t love the child you had with another man, don’t give him none!” he would shout to the hot squeals of the women in the audience. “You don’t need a man to sign your welfare check for you!”

The big guy and I had lots of fun together in the studio. He had a great sense of humor. But I learned later on that it was not a good idea to mess with the King.

In the late 1980’s I worked with Paul Shaffer of David Letterman fame on a song called, “What is Soul.” The song was co-written and produced by Shaffer, the god-like Steve Cropper, original guitar-playing member of the Memphis Stax rhythm section sometimes known as Booker-T and the MG’s and writer of such timeless classics as Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay,

and Don Covay, another immortal soul-cat who wrote Aretha Franklin’s super-funky hit, “Chain of Fools.”

Covay would come into the studio each and every time and grab me by the shoulders, look me in th eyes and say, “Glenn? Are we goin to make history today?”

I would say yes, and then he’d say, “Then I’m ready. Let’s make a hit record.”

Shaffer’s idea for the record, which would be a part of his album, “Coast to Coast,” was to reassemble the “Soul Clan.” In the early 1960’s, Atlantic Records, headed by the R and B loving Turk, Ahmet Ertegun, were making the hottest soul records in the nation. A group of the extraordinary singing and writing talents from that label came together in 1968 and cut one single. Circumstances led to the almost immediate dissolution of this holy grail of supergroups and aficionados of soul tried for decades to reunite these players. Shaffer, Cropper, and Covay had almost managed to do it. On this one record appeared the original surviving members Covay and Ben E. King of “Stand By Me” fame (check out the beautiful and departed River Phoenix in this clip),

along with Wilson Pickett who performed such hits as the seminal “In the Midnight Hour,”co-wrote with Cropper.

All that was missing was the King himself. (Otis Redding, who sang “Dock of the Bay,” and Joe Tex, of “Skinny Legs and All,” fame, were dead.)

Shaffer got Burke on the phone. We were psyched. But the reunion second only to the Beatles was not to be. Burke told Paul that not only would he not sing on the song, “What is Soul,” but that he had written it, (He hadn’t. Shaffer, Cropper and Covay had.) and if Shaffer insisted on putting it out, he would sue! Alas. You gotta love it.

The moral of the story is, you can’t go back. In Cropper’s day, you’d write a song in a few hours at night, cut the A side from 10 in the morning till lunch, take a break, do a little blues jam for a B side, that might turn into “Green Onions,” press the record, stick a $20 dollar bill in the sleeve, bring it over to the local radio station, and in 24 hours you’d know if you had a hit. (Notice on this clip that this hit-machine of a combo was all the more extraordinary in the Memphis of the mid-60’s for having white and black guys in the same band.)

Shaffer’s record was ruined by the taste-deaf record company execs who kept demanding changes to make it marketable. Over-produced, we worked on it for months. At one point, in rageful frustration, Wilson Pickett screamed, “You pluckin’! You chicken pluckin’ now!”

You can’t go back. Isn’t that what the sweet pain in art is all about? The King is dead and the soul clan will never be reunited. This moment in American musical history is no more. But I get to hold onto these memories. And Solomon Burke, with songs like, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” (and in Solomon’s case, it should have had the sub-title, “And I’m Available”) and his 21 children, 90 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, truly leaves behind a legacy that will long endure.

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I’ve been reading the book The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre, published by Crown Publishing. This wonderful book, which is truly ‘fair and balanced,’ explores the question of why boys are falling behind girls in academic achievement. This book has led me to think about my own experience in school and beyond. I remember my first day of kindergarten. No kid wanted to go to school more than me. Unfortunately, by the time I left 4th grade I was turned off to school. I got by on talent and little work. I was so disenchanted by high school, where I majored in hitching to the ‘record store,’ that I could see no purpose for college. Today, 40 years later, I am writing at 6 AM on Sunday morning and I have my doctorate. What happened? Where did this discipline and passion come from?

Fortunately for me, instead of going to college fresh out of high school, I became an apprentice at one of the world’s premier recording studios, A and R Studios in New York.

This was a rough place to grow up. New York in the 1970’s was an edgy place and the culture of the studio followed that midtown style, where people went to the Carnegie Deli for a pastrami sandwich and paid extra to be abused by the waiters.

The guys at A and R played hard and loud. It wasn’t uncommon to find these grown men screaming and throwing things at one another. A and R’s leader was one of the era’s truly great engineer/producers, the legendary Phil Ramone. Ramone was notorious for being brutally rough on his apprentices, and as each apprentice became a master, they trained the next generation in the same fashion. If the new kid screwed up, and they always did, they would get yelled at, cursed, thrown around. Not many could take it, but if you did, you became a member of the club. I went through it, took it, and gave it back. When I walked in at 16 I was a mess of a kid. 4 years later I was a master engineer working with the most demanding clients in the world, artists like Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.

I always wondered if the training had to be so rough. Couldn’t I have learned the same lessons in a gentler way? But now that I have read The Trouble with Boys, I’ve been thinking about what was right with the kind of apprenticeship I had at A and R.

The reason I gave up on school was because I was disillusioned. What I longed for was a noble ideal to aspire towards, a reason to work hard. School did not provide this, but Ramone and his minions did. We were there to do the best. We were creating great art. Though we didn’t have the best equipment, we provided the greatest service to the musical geniuses we worked with. Our goal was to provide the ultimate environment where they could create at their peak. And it worked. For example, Billy Joel, until that time a floundering artist with a minor hit, created “The Stranger” and then an endless list of hits in the A and R milieu. We had pride in what we did. We could be arrogant jerks, but we earned it.

In this very male environment, we were all bonded by this common mission and approach. It was no joke that everyone there did whatever was necessary to make a great record. When I started out working in the tape library and got a call on Saturday morning to come in and find a tape for Burt Bacharach, Milton Brooks, the studio manager, had already been there for an hour. We were all in it together. The mores and rules were passed down with each new generation and shared by everyone. And the first rule was you did whatever it took to get the job done right.

Though the training often hurt, there was an amazing amount of loyalty that we felt toward each other. It might be hard to imagine in today’s world where we all want to try out a new restaurant every time we go out, but at that time clients stuck with you through it all. Arnold Brown, a “Mad Men” era music producer for the advertising agency, Dancer, Fitzgerald and Sample, would run me around in circles just for the purpose of driving me nuts, but he was willing to make an investment in the new guy, because he wanted someone there who he knew would do it his way and give him the quality product he demanded. The amazing group of top engineers on staff, guys like Don Hahn, Dixon Van Winkle, and Steve Friedman, stuck by their assistants while kicking their ass because that was how they had gotten the gift of their careers from Ramone, and they wanted to give back. There was enough work for everyone, and when Elliot Scheiner started working with Steely Dan he might not have time to work on a jingle, so he’d throw that gig my way.

So why did that experience change me so fundamentally? These qualities of a tradition, ritual behavior, a willingness to suffer pain in order to achieve an ideal, group bondedness and loyalty are all characteristics of an experience of initiation. This was a group of men who ushered young men who were willing to pay the price into manhood. It was the army, but instead of killing, we made great recordings.

Maybe this tells us what boys need to thrive. If initiation rituals that have existed since the dawn of time have anything to tell us, boys need to suffer to become men. But they need to suffer for a good reason, do it with a group of men bonded by this common goal, who have been through it and are invested in them becoming good, strong men. And it certainly is possible to do this for a better reason than war.

Young men crave this experience and hold it with them as something sacred for their entire lives. A few years ago I went to a party for Blue Jay Recording Studio in Carlisle, Massachusetts that I had helped start in 1980. Several men came up to me to meet the ‘legendary’ Glenn Berger. They had been trained by people who had been trained by someone who had been trained by me. I had trained those first guys in the way that I had been trained, to the exacting standards of Phil and A and R. I passed the legacy on. I had no idea that I had influenced any of these guys, and I was stunned to see the impact that this had had on them. They all had that fire and pride, that passion and discipline that was the true gift that I had gotten from the men who had initiated me. That might be a big part of the answer of what our boys need and what we men need to give to our sons.

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Recently Charles Blow of the New York Times cited some studies suggesting that people between the ages of 18 and 29 are “moving away from organized religion while simultaneously trying desperately to connect with their spirituality.” I believe this is true for vast numbers of people of all ages. We find ourselves in a time when untold numbers are searching for a deeper sense of fulfillment in their lives. People everywhere are looking for answers.  From the spiritual cognoscenti, to those who regularly tune into Oprah and are committed to personal growth and change, to seekers looking for a way to solve a problem in their lives through the many forms of psychotherapy, to the many millions who fuel the self-help industry, lifelong learners everywhere are seeking something deeper and more fundamental than motivational tips and familiar nostrums.

Evidence that the quest for spiritual development outside of conventional religion has gone mainstream is all around us:  in the upswing of interest in the healing arts such as yoga, meditation, and holistic health practices; in the fascination with forms of mysticism such as Kabbalah; in the study of the traditions of the East like Buddhism and Taoism; in the openness to the melding of the most advanced science and the most ancient wisdom traditions as illustrated by Deepak Chopra’s huge following; in the renewed sense of personal responsibility brought on by the changes in our political and economic landscape; and in the nostalgia for the less materialistic values of the ‘60s.

I call this vast group Seekers. These are people who in addition to personal healing are also concerned about the environment and the fate of the earth.  They are parents who are feeding their children organic foods and working earnestly to give their kids the best start by applying attachment parenting techniques. They are couples who are devoted to having sacred marriages through using the dialogical techniques of teachers like Harville Hendrix.  They are baby-boomers going back to school after the kids graduate college, and thirty-somethings who have gotten off the fast track to become social entrepreneurs, using their business savvy to make a better world. They are open-minded and tolerant.  They are receptive to all traditions, philosophies, and wisdoms, whatever the source.  They read Eckhart Tolle and admire the Dalai Lama. They are connecting with old friends through Facebook, following politics on the Huffington Post and are interested in all types of social networking.  They follow the big thinkers on sites like TED.com. Every day they make an effort to become better people.

Where is this spiritual thirst coming from, and why are people looking in places other than organized religion? (more…)

newjoeI read in the New York Times today that Joe Maneri, an experimental musician, died on Monday at the age of 82. Though I only met Joe a few times, he taught me a wonderful, enduring life lesson.

In 1979, at 24 years of age, I decided to retire for the first time. I had been working 20 hour days at A and R Recording Studios  since I was 16. I was finishing up a year-long stint working on the film, “All That Jazz.” As anybody who has worked with director/choreographer Bob Fosse would tell you, after one of his projects you needed an extended break. Besides, I wanted to take some time to “woodshed.” That is a phrase musicians use that means to return to learning. I had never studied theory in depth, and as I wanted to be a producer, I thought it best if I got my chops together. I asked Emile Charlap, a lovely man who was the premier contractor in those days – he knew everybody in town – if he could recommend a teacher. He turned me on to this cat, Alan Grigg.

Grigg was a devotee of the Arnold Schoenberg school of harmony. Though Schoenberg was notorious for having destroyed western music through his innovations in atonality and the invention of 12-tone music, he was profoundly grounded in conventional harmony. Not only was he the world’s greatest modern composer but he was also a genius theoretician and teacher. Grigg was a direct descendent of the Schoenberg didactic line. Schoenberg taught Berg, Berg taught Schmidt, Schmidt taught Maneri, and Maneri taught Grigg. Grigg taught me technique, but he told me that fundamentally the Schoenberg tradition was about love. I didn’t quite get it. When I looked at the severe pictures of that fin de siècle Viennese composer and followed his strict rules of chord progression, love was not the first word to come to mind.

When I told Grigg that I wanted to get out of town and leave the biz to study, he recommended that I visit his teacher, Joe Maneri, in Boston. I called up Joe and he generously invited me to come and sit in a class of his. He was teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music. I took the bus up to Boston. In spite of the fact that I had supped with Mick Jagger and assisted Dylan when he recorded “Blood on the Tracks,” I felt somewhat intimidated walking through the Beaux Arts hallways of the Music Conservatory. Here were the hallowed halls of serious music! And I was going to get to hang out with Maneri, who had virtually hung with the genius, Schoenberg! I walked into his class and took a seat in the back. I looked at my watch. He was late.

Finally, Maneri, this short round guy with a classic Sicilian vibe, plunges into the room. Before he’s even inside, he dives into his spiel. His voice sounds like someone chewing rocks. I sit up attentively waiting to hear what he has to say about the secrets of remote modulations. Instead, he says,

“Every one of you in this class is here because you think you’re going to get into the Boston Symphony. Well, let me tell you something. Not one of you is going to make it. And that’s not what it’s about anyway. Me, I play nursing homes. One day I’m playing this nursing home and I walk up to this guy sitting in a chair, and I realize he’s deaf. Now I’m a musician. What can I do for a deaf guy? So I look up to God and pray. And I get it. I take my clarinet out of my case, that’s what I’m playing, the clarinet, and I put it together and I wet the reed, and I look into this guy’s eyes, and I open my heart, and I start to blow. And I look in the guy’s eyes and suddenly tears start to flow. He’s crying.”

Maneri stops talking for the first time since he walked in the room.

He looks at us, points, and says, “Now that is what it is all about.”

The bell rings, and the theory class is over.

Years later, back in New York, I was producing an act that featured three girl singers, all under the age of 12. Early on in the project, I got them a gig in Atlantic City that turned out to be less than what was promised. It ended up that they would be playing for no money for a small audience of mostly handicapped kids. Backstage, before we went on, I could see their disappointment at the unglamorous nature of what they were about to do. I didn’t know what to do. I looked up at the sky, and prayed. And then I remembered the love thing. We stood in a circle and I told them the story of Joe Maneri and the deaf guy. They looked at me with understanding and nodded their heads and smiled. One of those little divas said, “Let’s go, girls!” And they ran out on stage and sang their asses off.

Now that is what it’s all about.            Thanks, Joe.

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