Category Archives: 1960’s

Elmore James – Shake Your Moneymaker: The Best of the Fire Sessions – Classic Music Review

I am temporarily suspending my boycott of American music for one day, for two very good reasons:

  • I wanted to acknowledge the ray of hope ignited by Nancy Pelosi. My former congresswoman finally got off her bony little ass and kick-started the painfully long-overdue impeachment process of he-who-shall-not-be-named.
  • But just like he-who-shall-not-be-named . . . I was BAITED BY A TWEET!

My response was succinct and immediate (accounting for the time difference):

Though I clearly and unashamedly state on the blog’s front page that my top priorities in life are sex and music (with baseball now a distant third), the wording gives the impression that I view sex and music as separate and distinct experiences. It’s more accurate to describe the relationship as partially symbiotic: I can enjoy music that doesn’t ignite my libido, but I can’t imagine fucking without music. While the origins of this inter-dependency probably lie in not wanting my parents to hear the grunts, groans and cries of delight emanating from my bedroom when I was fucking boys and girls in my teens (not that they would have given a shit), I eventually learned that certain kinds of music can add tension, drama and color to the sexual experience. This is particularly true in BDSM, where lengthy scenes integrating foreplay and various forms of orgasmic stimulation are the norm. I love to make my entrance to music, to pose suggestively to music and get my rocks off while the music is throbbing in the background, mirroring the throbbing of the bodies engaged in the act.

Most of the music I use in a scene is kick-ass rock, jazz, samba, R&B, soul and Chicago blues—music that makes your hips grind, music with attitude. And no single artist appears more often on my fuck playlists than Elmore James, a man who had attitude down pat.

It’s stunning that we still lack a full-blown biography of the man who influenced a generation of rock and blues guitarists, but from the bits and pieces in encyclopedia entries, we can conclude Elmore James was an introvert, rather bashful type who only emerged from his shell when he had a guitar in hand and a microphone close to his lips. Introversion is one of those good things/bad things, for while introverts tend to have an exceptional ability to concentrate that allows them to explore a given field in depth, they also tend to keep many thoughts and feelings to themselves, building up a huge amount of pressure in the inner boiler that often manifests itself in physical breakdowns. Elmore James was diagnosed with heart disease in 1957 at the age of thirty-nine; six years later he was dead at the age of forty-five, having ignored the doctor’s advice to cut down on his drinking and chill out.

You might say, “Gee, if only Elmore had taken care of himself, he could have lived to a ripe old age.” To which I respond, “Yeah, but he wouldn’t have been Elmore James.” The introverted intensity that defined his life and manifested itself with crystal clarity through his music may have killed him, but had he become a frightened middle-aged musician trying to hang on for dear life, we’d remember Elmore James as someone who lived way past his prime rather than a guy who left it all on the playing field.

The thought process that led Elmore James to attach a pickup to a Kay dreadnought guitar with high action and then opt to fingerpick in order to achieve the fat, raunchy sound he wanted is not available to us, but it clearly marks him as a man who refused to be stopped in the pursuit of the sound he wanted to achieve. Slide players back in Elmore’s day couldn’t go to Sweetwater.com, read the online guide “How to Choose the Right Guitar Slide for You” and then select from a wide range of state-of-the-art slides in glass, brass and porcelain. Well, when you ain’t got nothin’ you look around the house for something that will do (like those plastic bread clips you can use as an emergency guitar pick). According to Hal Leonard’s tabs-and-techniques manual, Elmore James – Master of the Electric Slide Guitar, “Elmore’s slide was the metal slip that fits over a tube in old radios and record players. These tube covers were made of light metal, often aluminum, and if one was too small for his finger, Elmore sawed it open with a hacksaw.” This sounds like a setup that most people today would associate with a desperate busker trying to earn a few pennies from the charitably-minded, but in the hands of Elmore James, it sounds like the guitar equivalent of a Stradivarius. The Kay wasn’t his only ax, but it’s the one he probably used for “most of his slide playing, both performing and recording,” and is now part of the treasure trove in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

James learned at the feet of Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson II during his youth on the Mississippi Delta, and though you can certainly hear their influence in his music (especially in the early 50’s recordings), his expression of the blues at this later stage of his career is all his own. This is particularly noticeable in his vocals, which are marked by an unusual intensity and unbridled confidence. In many of his vocals, there is an undeniable urgency in his timbre, perhaps a manifestation of all that internal pressure, or perhaps fueled by the knowledge that he was living on borrowed time. Whatever the cause, listening to Elmore James sing gives you the impression that this is a man who needs to impart a message that is essential to his very existence. As he wrote most of his material—material that strictly adheres to blues norms—the result was a fresh take on the art that demonstrated the enduring vitality of the blues.

The Best of the Fire Sessions features most of his signature songs, some in the form of remakes of earlier releases. As these are from multiple recording sessions, the album features a variety of backing musicians depending on who happened to be in town on the recording date. No matter—Elmore James was an accomplished bandleader who worked with some of the best blues musicians of the time, and when you work for a leader with a clear artistic vision, it’s a lot easier to figure out where you fit in and what you can add to the mix.

So without further ado . . .

“Shake Your Moneymaker”: The collection is bookended by two classics, but though one could argue that “Dust My Broom” should have come first due to its status as Elmore’s first hit, the album version is a remake, so the timeline hardly matters. My review of “Shake Your Moneymaker” in the Dad’s 45’s series wasn’t as much a review as an emotional-sexual reaction to both the orgasmic experience of finding the record in his collection and the orgasmic experience of the song itself. “I had been planning to do a full review of Elmore James’ The Best of the Fire Sessions, but every time I started to write it, it sounded more like porn than a music review,” I wrote, and my commentary on the song suffered from trying to write in bitch-in-heat mode.

What is unique about Elmore’s vocal approach to this song is his restraint, eschewing the gravelly belt-out approach featured in many of his classics. He sounds cool and collected, like a man sitting in a tall, upholstered leather chair with cognac and cigar, savoring the merchandise. Although some women may find it offensive to refer to a woman’s nether regions as a “moneymaker,” the lyrics clearly indicate that Elmore was unsuccessful in fulfilling his desire to plunge his member into the honeypots and back ends of two different women. This tells me he was attempting to maintain his self-esteem by writing the whole thing off to the cynical motivation of unliberated women to trade pussy for a payoff. So while Elmore may pride himself on having the biggest dick in town, he knows he can’t compete in the financial arena, so he’s shit out of luck and headed for the (cold) showers.

The music is subtly inviting, and before long you’ll be shaking your moneymaker with abandon. Elmore uses his go-to tuning (open D); his 12th fret call-and-response bending slides are sweet and expressive. Johnny “Big Moose” Walker defies his nickname and gives us a smooth, rolling boogie on the piano, syncing perfectly with King Mose on the skins. While Jeremy Spencer’s tribute performance on Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac rocks harder, it doesn’t come close to capturing the sheer sexuality of the original.

“Look on Yonder Wall”: James modified the lyrics to this Memphis Jimmy tale of a wounded veteran returning home from WWII who shacks up with another veteran’s squeeze only to learn that hubby is on his way back to the States to reclaim his property. Not to worry: Elmore’s already made other arrangements and will gladly step aside for a fellow vet:

Your husband went to the war, and you know it was tough
I don’t know how many men he killed but I know he killed enough
Look on yonder wall and hand me down my walking came
I got me another woman, now baby, yon come your man

War does tend to throw all the usual norms out the window for a while. I hope there wasn’t a sequel featuring the hubby hunting down Elmore to “thank” him for services rendered to the missus in his absence.

James’ version is slightly more upbeat than the original, and the comparatively rare appearance of an accompanying harmonica (courtesy of Sammy Myers) gives this piece a front porch feel. I absolutely love the nimble display of Elmore’s fretboard skills in the introduction.

“The Sky Is Crying”: This is a James classic that was played at Duane Allman’s funeral, and has been covered by other luminaries such as The Yardbirds, Albert King, Little Walter, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Etta James. The debate about Elmore’s slide setup rages on, with Homesick James claiming studio accident, others claiming a different amp and Ry Cooder insisting that Elmore had abandoned the Kay setup for this recording. I think all three views have validity: it certainly isn’t his Kay guitar; James certainly could have plugged into a different amp; and the omnipresence of reverb could indicate an acoustic interaction with open space, intensifying any reverb coming through the amp. Whatever it is, it sounds fucking great—a distant, terribly lonely expression of loss. James’ lyrical imagery—“The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street”—was inspired by one of those tremendous downpours that often accompany thunderstorms in Chicago and the greater Midwest, a powerful symbol of the destructive power of loss and the consequent helplessness. Elmore’s vocal balances command and heartfelt emotion, his phrasing emphatic without crossing the line into histrionics. Here he is backed by his usual guys, The Broomdusters, and the synergy inherent in a trusting relationship shines throughout the song. The boys knew their man and his tendencies, and provide just enough backing for you to know that if they weren’t there they would be sorely missed . . . and no more. That support gives Elmore plenty of room to rip, and “The Sky Is Crying” is full of fills that absolutely knock me out. Kudos to The Broomdusters: J. T. Brown on saxophone, Johnny Jones on piano, Odie Payne on drums, and Homesick James on bass.

“Rollin’ and Tumblin'”: A blues classic recorded by a slew of artists, the Muddy Watters and Cream versions are probably the most familiar to the listening audience. James’ version is certainly more intense than Muddy’s but not over-the-top like Cream’s. The Johnny Winter version is . . . well, meh . . . and the latest rendition featuring Jeff Beck on guitar and Imogen Heap on vocals is like . . . what the fuck? Personally, I’ll take the 1925 original “Roll and Tumble Blues” by Hambone Willie Newbern for its authenticity and continue to wonder why this particular song has generated so many cover versions. Not my favorite Elmore James contribution.

“Held My Baby Last Night”: Goddamn—this is one seriously sexy breakup song. Elmore is in fine voice as he belts out this lament for a relationship on the skids, and once again The Broomdusters provide a suitable background for the emotional dynamic expressed through his vocal pleas for freedom and the heartfelt riffs delivered between lines. The drone of J. T. Brown’s saxophone establishes a mournful mood of a love gone wrong while Odie Payne’s more active drumming reinforces the stutter-stop communication that invariably accompanies separation. I like to put this one at the end of fuck playlists when my lover and I are finishing off the booze and enjoying our post-fuck cigarettes while stroking each other with messages of reassurance.

“I’m Worried”: This track from the posthumous release The Sky Is Crying is a tightly played number featuring Elmore laying out some classic blues figures and a few clever variations from the norm toward the end of the song. I think the song could have been a stronger track with The Broomdusters; alas and alack, Homesick James is pretty much on his own, surrounded by unknown studio musicians who do their bit, pick up their checks and move on. This so-so support places Elmore in the position of having to save the song, which he does with aplomb because he’s Elmore Fucking James, people!

“Done Somebody Wrong”: Powerful stuff here. A black man trying to reconcile the teachings of Christ with the cruelty-laden apartheid of Jim Crow faces a task equivalent to Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill for all eternity. The downside of having a sense of moral responsibility is that the morally responsible person develops a tendency to feel responsible for every misfortune that comes their way, particularly when frightened. Here Elmore is blaming himself for the loss of his baby, but the story is easily translatable to the African-American experience. “Man, what did I do wrong?” is a sadly pathetic question for which there is no answer because no, you didn’t do anything wrong. The syncopated two-beat-rest pattern certainly draws the listener’s interest, but Elmore’s vocal is the main attraction—a pleading, anxiety-ridden expression of the search for meaning and forgiveness.

“Fine Little Mama”: The flip side to “Done Somebody Wrong” features a nice easy mid-tempo beat, outstanding guitar work and two renditions of Elmore’s delightful groans of satisfaction: “Hmmmm-hmm.” I love to hear that sound from any man I fuck, as it’s a foreplay cue that tells me I’ve found his sweet spot with either hand or mouth. Apparently his Fine Little Mama knows exactly what to do, as confirmed in the closing verse when Elmore admits, “Well, when she start the lovin’/My love come tumblin’ down.”

Uh oh. Sounds like premature ejaculation or a guy that can’t hold back long enough to give me some deep thrust pleasure. THAT IS NOT MY IMAGE OF ELMORE JAMES. Well, she is a “red hot mama,” and hot women do have a tendency to overwhelm even the best of men, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Shit, this is turning into a porn review, but goddamnit, that’s how I respond to Elmore James.

“Anna Lee”: The b-side of the final single Elmore released in his lifetime features erotic, groaning baritone sax from Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams and smoky jazz-tinged trumpet from Danny Moore, who would go on to play with Yusef Lateef, Les McCann and Wes Montgomery. Elmore more than holds his own in the presence of these jazz musicians and the timbre of his strong and confident vocal tells us that he loved working with a larger combo and was thrilled to the expand the blues with greater sonic variation. I can’t leave the song without extending appreciation to drummer Johnny Williams, who kills the finish with an emphatic run that truly seals the deal. I have no doubt that had Elmore James lived a bit longer he would have steered his core blues arrangements towards jazz sensibilities.

“Stranger Blues”: Tampa Red had to find a way into this collection, and this modified version of one of his lesser-known songs pays suitable tribute to one of the earliest (single-string) slide players (and one of the first to use the National steel guitar). Red did a lot of what were called “hokum” songs—bawdy tunes filled with double entendres like “Tight Like That” by Ma Rainey. This song takes on a darker cast as it deals with the mass migration of African-Americans to the northern states in search of jobs during the WWII manufacturing boom. Elmore’s version opens with a riff that sounds very close to the main riff of “What’d I Say?” and soon settles into an aggressive samba-like beat enhanced by the jazz trumpet offerings of Danny Moore. The baseline story is that the narrator feels like an outcast in northern climes and decides to return to the Deep South “if I wear out 99 pairs of shoes.” You may wonder any African-American would want to return to the land of Jim Crow and the KKK, but though they didn’t have to worry too much about white terrorism up north, they experienced the more subtle and insidious forms of racism, particularly when it came to choosing a neighborhood. And for many people, there is an inexorable pull towards home, no matter how shitty a place it might have been. That paradox would give anyone the blues, and choosing to record this song at the dawn of the activist phase of the Civil Rights Movement formed a coded but clear message that Elmore James felt the sting of second-class citizenship and wanted to say something about that intolerable condition.

“Something Inside of Me”: I don’t mean to engage in a weird form of schadenfreude, but this “my baby left me” slow blues is one sexy bitch of a song. Elmore gives it everything he’s got and then some—a full-throated passionate vocal married to a cascading variety of riffs from nearly every spot on the fretboard. Some of the riffs sound like a man trying to hold it together; others go deep down the bottom strings to capture the darker thoughts of bitterness and despair; still others try to rise to the heavens but are held back by hints of dissonance. At brief moments Elmore gives the rhythm a push, indicating he is totally immersed in the overall flow of the song. An absolutely hypnotic grinder that makes you want to get oh so close to your baby.

Cigarette!

“Early One Morning”: A nice little pick-me-up (assuming you and your baby have exhausted every drop of passion) in the form of mid-tempo blues . . . until you get tired of the saxophone repeating the same fucking figure ad infinitum. Still, Elmore gives a powerful vocal performance, making the short trip more than worthwhile.

“Sunnyland”: Robert Johnson’s influence is obvious in this straight-up, don’t mess with me rollicking blues number. This was another posthumous release featuring King Mose and Big Moose Walker, a remake of a 1954 b-side (originally titled “Sunny Land”). Sunnyland, by the way, was the name of the train that Elmore’s baby used to hightail it out of town. The delightful twist in the story comes when baby writes to Elmore to say she’s coming home . . . under one condition: “Cool down papa, you better change your ways.” Like the aforementioned Mr. Johnson (who admitted he wanted to beat his woman till he got satisfied), Elmore took the first step towards toxic male recovery by admitting he’d been a fucking asshole.

“Standing at the Crossroads”: This (remake) was the A-side of the “Sunny Land” single back in its 1954 form, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it was the first concept single. Both songs deal with the uniquely masculine choice: do I beat the crap out of my unsatisfactory baby or do I move on to a hotter, more compliant babe? Elmore’s tale omits the Johnsonian pleas for assistance from a higher being, preferring to work things out for himself. I love how he leaves us hanging right there on the crossroads, clueless as to what he’s going to do next. Despite his dismissal of the lord’s assistance, Elmore sounds remarkably like a hell-fire preacher (and just as horny).

“My Bleeding Heart”: I find it unbelievable that one of Elmore James’ greatest songs wasn’t rushed into the stores as soon as the master was finished but had to wait four long years to see daylight as a posthumous release. It’s no wonder that Jimi Hendrix made several attempts to duplicate its intensity while fashioning his unique interpretation of the original, finally getting it right in the live versions. Elmore’s original is intensity squared, opening with a disarming, understated set of riffs, gradually raising the heat through a no-holds-barred vocal performance that builds to a hard-picked bending crescendo as the horns of Danny Moore and Johnny Williams cry out in parallel agony. The blues rarely gets better than this.

“Dust My Broom”: This remake of Elmore’s first big hit is a radical departure from the original, which landed somewhere between the Delta and Chi-town. The Fire remake is 100% Chicago with horns blaring, percussion thumping, and Elmore ripping it like there’s no tomorrow. The difference between the two vocals couldn’t be greater, as young Elmore was terrified of recording, and his comparatively thin voice was further hampered by a common early-fifties recording technique: direct-to-disc with everyone on the same microphone. What is special about the original is the slide guitar on overdrive with that famous repeating triplet figure simmering in vibrato and delivered machine-gun style. The remake features Elmore with his fully-matured voice, laying out the vocal with complete command. While I appreciate the inventiveness of the original, I’m forever attracted to hot-and-steamy as well as a man in total command of all his faculties, whether real or in my imagination.

The Best of the Fire Sessions is a fully engaging listening experience, whether you’re libidinially oriented, emotionally centered or a music aficionado searching for excellence. The tragic aspect of his short existence comes through clearly in his stylistic development and the late-stage jazz leanings that reveal tremendous potential, but the sheer joy of listening to a man expressing heart, soul and fire through his music moves the discussion from what could have been to oh, my fucking god, listen to what this man is laying down.

And now, back to the Brits.

Cream – Fresh Cream – Classic Music Review

The standard narrative concerning Cream focuses almost entirely on four themes:

  • Their status as a “supergroup”
  • The oil-and-water relationship of Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker
  • The integration of “psychedelic” and “traditional blues”
  • The instrumental prowess of the band members

The first is a marketing tactic. The second provides gossip fodder and one cause of the band’s early demise. The third is valid, but they certainly weren’t unique in that respect (see Hendrix, Jimi and Bloomfield, Michael). And yes, they were all great musicians, but putting together a team loaded with stars doesn’t guarantee success, as many a former baseball GM has learned after pissing away millions on overrated prima donnas. “Bands consisting solely of John Lennons miss the point: every group needs a Ringo,” opined The Guardian.

The Baker-Bruce feud and Clapton’s inability to stay in any one place for very long put Cream in self-destruct mode from the very beginning, so we should be very happy that during their brief time together they managed to produce three fabulous albums and neither Jack Bruce nor Ginger Baker were arraigned on murder charges. To get three great albums and no jail time from a group consisting entirely of John Lennons was a worthy achievement.

My problem with the standard narrative is that it doesn’t explain what separated Cream from their contemporaries and why they sound different from the rest. When I listen to Cream, I’m knocked out by Ginger Baker’s octopus attack, by Jack Bruce’s often scintillating bass runs and Clapton’s complete command of his instrument, but I’ve been conditioned to expect all that. For me, what really stands out and makes their sound unique has nothing to do with instrumental virtuosity.

It’s the vocals.

Without delving into music theory and boring the fuck out of my readers, we’ll simplify things by thinking of harmony as falling into two categories: symmetrical and complementary. Symmetrical harmony results from the “pleasing proportion of the parts of a thing.” The best example of symmetrical harmony is Lennon and McCartney; the timbre of their voices blend exceptionally well. Complementary harmony places more value on contrast, allowing each voice to retain its distinct quality in the hope that the contrast itself will produce a pleasing effect. With Cream, Jack Bruce’s superior command of the lead vocal role frequently forced Clapton out of his rather pedestrian natural voice and into various forms of falsetto. The two voices don’t blend per se, but complement each other by heightening the contrast.

The opening track on the American edition demonstrates the value of harmonic contrast in multiple ways. “I Feel Free” is a pretty simple song based on the scale resulting from an E7 chord (the key of E with the seventh note flatted, so you use D instead of the leading tone of Eb). The relative simplicity allows for plenty of vocal play, and in the opening passage we hear three voices, with Clapton and Baker establishing the rhythm (bom-bom-bom-ba-bom-bom and the repetition of “I feel free”) and Jack Bruce foreshadowing the melody through some of the sexiest humming you’ll ever hear on record. After Ginger cues the song proper with a few whacks on the toms, we get the mysteriously alluring vocal combination of Clapton and Bruce with tones softened, launching the melody from the flatted seventh to give the pattern an exotic flavor. The lyrics to this passage (“Feel when I dance with you/We move like the sea/You, you’re all I want to know/I feel free”) demanded harmony with a moderately erotic feel, and the Bruce-Clapton pairing delivered big time.

Alas, love is but an island refuge in a cold society, and to intensify that contrast, Cream clears the decks by abruptly terminating the flowing rhythm with a stop-time passage supported by a piano that mimics the sound and cadence of a news bulletin. When Bruce makes his entrance, he seems suspended from the soundscape, a man alone crying out desperately for evidence of humanity in the mechanical flow of daily life:

I can walk down the street, there’s no one there
Though the pavements are one huge crowd.
I can drive down the road; my eyes don’t see,
Though my mind wants to cry out loud.

The transition back to the base arrangement is absolutely brilliant, with Clapton overlaying his falsetto voice with his “Woman Tone” on lead guitar, adding another pattern on top of the original vocal harmonies. As the song proceeds, Cream continues to layer additional harmonic variations, resulting in an astonishingly rich arrangement that beautifully supports Pete Brown’s poetry.

Because of silly British traditions that effectively banned singles from appearing on albums during the 60’s, “I Feel Free” is not the opening track on the U. K. edition. Instead, we get the rather piecemeal arrangement of “N. S. U.” The title abbreviation of “non-specific urethritis,” a sexually-transmitted disease most frequently acquired by bonking or tonguing a broad whose juices are swimming with chlamydia bacteria. Apparently, Clapton picked it up as part of the usual trials and tribulations of rock stardom and Jack Bruce thought it would make for an interesting song title.

The Sixties. You had to be there.

The lyrics contain nothing about burning sensations when pissing or unhealthy white discharge oozing from the peephole where healthy white discharges often emanate. The song is an expression of the frantic desire to experience all the pleasures life has to offer, which I suppose is how you get N. S. U in the first place. Compared to the tight integration and holistic arrangement of “I Feel Free,” this one fails to blend the individual talents in a satisfying degree, and as an opening track it’s a more-than-questionable choice.

“Sleepy Time Time” is Cream’s contribution to the barely budding sub-sub-sub-genre of “sleep music.” It isn’t nearly as interesting or inventive as The Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping,” but these two 1966 records demonstrate the Dylan-influenced movement to explore subjects other than boy-girl romantic encounters. Written by Jack Bruce and wife Janet Godfrey, the piece is primarily an opportunity for Clapton to demonstrate his blues chops, but Baker and Bruce do provide solid rhythmic support and while Jack wrings every bit of feeling out of the rather uninspiring lyrics.

Our next Bruce number has a more interesting melodic and harmonic structure, but “Dreaming” suffers from the juxtaposition to a sleep song and awkward lyrics that don’t sound easy on the ears. “Minutes just dri-ift by” violate the fundamental truth that the short “i” phoneme (ɪ) is generally incompatible with elongation, a problem that could have easily been solved by any number of synonyms: glide, slide, float, sail . . . shit, even “mosey” would have been a better choice. I do rather like the call-and-response leading to the harmonic melding on the verses, but I think the melodic movement and waltz-time would have been better supported by piano than the guitar-bass-drums mix.

“Sweet Wine” resulted from a collaboration between Janet Godfrey and Ginger Baker, which I hope didn’t lead to a punch-up in the studio. This has long been a popular choice of Cream fans, in part due to its assertive opening vocal pattern, and in part due to the extended instrumental section where Clapton lets it rip. Ginger Baker is outstanding here, displaying both touch and power while remaining in full command of the multiple tempos. Still, the fragment that sticks in your memory is the ba-ba/ba-ba-ba-ba/ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba vocal passage, further evidence that much of what made Cream distinctive had to do with their comparatively unusual vocal arrangements.

Though the live version of “Spoonful” that appears on Wheels of Fire provides greater improvisational opportunities due to the additional ten minutes of jam time, the studio version is more than pedestrian, featuring the same hip-thrusting, erotic punctuation you hear in the live version, albeit in smaller doses. I have both versions on my fuck playlists, using the studio version during the foreplay period and the live version for the scratching, biting, slapping, heaving, coming like a waterfall phase. Clapton’s studio solo qualifies as “pretty fucking hot,” and his integration of semi-random low-note sustains with mid-to-high range bursts is the musical equivalent of a lover capable of a multi-pronged erotic attack.

While Cream gets an A+ for that Willie Dixon piece (Howlin’ Wolf’s version earns a C), the results of the four blues covers on that open Side Two yield less impressive results. Cream’s version of “Cat’s Squirrel” sounds like they were just going through the motions; compared to the Tull version, it feels somewhat uptight and lacking in playfulness. As I’ve mentioned oh, about a hundred times over the years, nobody can do Robert Johnson like Robert Johnson, and Clapton’s version of “Four Until Late” barely qualifies as a decent late-night sing along after most of the party-goers have split the scene. Their version of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” is bloody awful, with Jack Bruce adopting a strange patois somewhere between toothless blues guy and Jamaican drunk.

It’s much more difficult to comparatively evaluate the fourth blues cover (“I’m So Glad”) because the differences between the Skip James original and the Cream version can only be measured in light years, and the differences extend far beyond the obvious fact that Skip James was one guy with a guitar recorded through seriously limited recording technology. Skip James’ version is an incredibly moving lament, a dramatic monologue of a man struggling with the ambivalent signals from his love interest and attempting to find refuge in denial of his true emotions; his efforts are doomed to fail and he knows it. Instead of trying to mimic the original, Cream wisely shifts the perspective from personal anguish to the anguish that arises from living in an other-directed society where you have to keep up appearances. While it seems that Skip James was trying to convince himself that everything was all right, Jack Bruce’s repetition of “I’m so glad” sounds like he’s trying to convince others (perhaps the girl, perhaps his friends) that he’s got it handled. The haunting voices of others and their judgments are mirrored in the eerie background vocals that accompany the verses; while Jack mumbles to himself, he “hears” the voices of judgment in the background. Though Cream’s version follows (for the most part) the same chord structure as the original, the vocal arrangement adds an entirely different dimension to the interpretation. Any comparison is meaningless; the two versions might as well be completely different songs.

Fresh Cream ends with Ginger Baker’s signature number, “Toad.” Forget about it and go straight to Wheels of Fire for the real version.

I was hardly surprised to learn that Rolling Stone ranked Fresh Cream #101 on their 500 greatest albums list, since Baby Boomers tend to overrate nearly everything that came out during their formative years. I would label it “a solid début portending great things in the future,” but there’s way too much filler to justify such a lofty ranking. What Fresh Cream tells us is this: that the band members proved they were top-flight musicians who could put their differences aside in the name of professionalism; that they were more successful than most in the melding of traditional forms with modern sounds; and that their approach to vocal arrangements was an unexpected strength that clearly separated them from their contemporaries.

Not a bad start for an experiment doomed to fail . . . but those three albums were worth the strain.

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