Hello! Welcome to this tour through Phil Ochs’ debut album! It’s nice to see you all looking so chipper this morning!
Because I’ll be serving as your trusty tour guide, I should tell you a teensy weensy bit about my qualifications! I have had the privilege of leading tours through three Phil Ochs albums: I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Pleasures of the Harbor and Rehearsals for Retirement. I was scheduled to lead tours for one or two of his other albums, but I hadn’t planned on including All the News that’s Fit to Sing in the tour schedule.
But here I am! How about that? Gosh and golly, is life full of surprises or what?
Well, this little detour happened because of something I came across in my research of another Phil Ochs album called Tape from California. You see, I hadn’t done a Phil Ochs tour in over a year, so I thought it would be a good idea to review his biography so I could put this particular work in the proper context. You wouldn’t want a tour guide who had no idea what she was talking about, would you? And thanks to the wonders of the Information Age, all I had to do was type “Phil Ochs” in the address bar on my web browser and I was whisked away to the Phil Ochs Wikipedia page lickety-split!
Gee whiz, isn’t the Internet one of the swellest things ever?
I’m sorry, could you repeat the question? No, I don’t know about queue-anon. Is that some kind of group that helps people who don’t like to stand in line? That sounds like a very worthy cause! Boy, that Internet really is something, isn’t it?
Where was I? Oh yes—well, down at the bottom of the Phil Ochs page there were links to all his albums. Wasn’t that thoughtful? And All the News that’s Fit to Sing was right on top! Right where it should have been! Doncha just hate it when the thing you’re looking for isn’t where it’s supposed to be? Well, that’s one problem I didn’t have that day, thank my lucky stars!
Now, there wasn’t a whole bunch of information about the album on that page, I’m sorry to say, but there was a link to a review by a man named Mark Deming who writes reviews for a website called AllMusic. He even gets paid to listen to music and write about it! Wow! Imagine that! Well, folks, I’d like to share part of that review with you—don’t worry, it won’t take up too much of our time. The review was very, very teensy-weensy and I’m only going to share a teeny-tiny-itty-bitty sliver so we can stay right on schedule. How does that sound? Great! Here goes:
“Early on in his career, someone described Phil Ochs as a ‘singing journalist,’ and his first album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, represented the state of the art in topical songs in 1964. That presents a bit of a problem when listening to it today; Ochs’s debut is so much a product of its time and place that it just sounds perplexing a few decades on. Remember Lou Marsh? Or William Worthy? Well, if you don’t, the songs about them on this album may not mean much to you, and while the facts behind the Vietnam War, the Cuban missile crisis, and the civil rights movement are doubtless clearer in your mind, that only gives them a perversely nostalgic quality that hardly becomes them.”
Well, that made me very, very angry, especially the part about “this album may not mean much to you.” And it made me even angrier because I don’t like to lose my temper. It’s very unladylike. I’ll be honest with you and tell you it took every fiber of my being to prevent me from cussing! Yes, sirree, I was pretty hot under the collar for a minute there!
But I took a deep breath and right after I exhaled, I heard a fragment of a Phil Ochs song playing in my head! Isn’t that amazing? You’ve probably heard it—it goes “And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody . . . outside of a small circle of friends.”
You see, I believe that the study of history is an important and worthwhile endeavor. You remember that phrase, “History repeats itself?” Well, guess what? It does! Take Lou Marsh, for example. Do you know what he did? He tried to stop a fight and was killed for it. Do you know of anyone recently who tried to stop a fight and was killed for it? Yes, that’s right—the policemen at the Capitol Riots. It takes a lot of courage to try to stop a fight, and I think we should remember people who gave their lives trying to protect others. And do you know who William Worthy was? He was a journalist whose stories made the government very, very mad—so mad that they took his passport away and tried to throw him in jail. Can you think of someone in the government who said that journalists should go to jail for doing their jobs and trying to find out the truth? That’s right, ex-President Trump. So, you see, history does indeed repeat itself, and if we learn more about history and the people who made it, there’s a chance—just a chance—that when we realize we’re living through another historical rerun, we can fix the problem instead of making the same old mistakes over and over again. Wouldn’t that be ducky?
Okay! I’ll bet you’re ready for that tour through All the News that’s Fit to Sing! What’s that? How do I really feel about Mr. Deming? Well, it’s not something I’d say in polite company, so let’s play fill-in-the-blanks! Ready? It’s a common two-word phrase and the first word has seven letters, beginning with an F and ending with a G. No, it’s not fog—good guess, though! Tell you what—it rhymes with what we do with geese to make our pillows nice and fluffy. That’s right—we pluck them! Now, the second word starts with an I and ends with a T—it’s a little word with three whole syllables in just five letters!
Isn’t language just the most amazing thing ever?
Phil Ochs was born to an American father and Scottish mother in El Paso, Texas, about a year before Pearl Harbor. His father was a doctor who was drafted by the army and sent overseas near the end of the war, where he had the great misfortune of treating hundreds of American soldiers wounded in the very bloody Battle of the Bulge. The experience triggered depression and eventually bipolar disorder, conditions that made it impossible for him to establish a stable medical practice. He became what is referred to as a locums tenens, working in temp jobs all over the country. The family finally wound up in Columbus, Ohio, where Phil became a promising clarinetist, then (believe it or not) spent two years at a military academy in Virginia.
I’d categorize his study of classical music and military education as the “good boy” side of Phil Ochs. Like most middle-class kids who grew up in a heavily-conformist era, he was programmed to live up to parental expectations and follow socially-acceptable paths, but as was true of many of his peers, there was a not-so-good-boy side of Phil that dug Elvis, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. Like a good Columbus boy, he went to Ohio State, but something didn’t sit right, so his not-so-good-boy persona blew off college and headed to Miami, where he was jailed for sleeping on a park bench. Sometimes weird experiences lead to what seem to be moments of clarification, and Phil decided to return to Ohio State, become a writer and major in journalism.
Phil called that moment a “flash,” but the college degree path proved to be something of a flash in the pan, for though he may have still held lingering hopes for a conventional existence, Phil Ochs simply wasn’t wired to be a conventional guy. While the universities of the late ’50s weren’t the delightfully radicalized dens of iniquity that emerged in the mid-to-late ’60s, many did harbor non-conformist cliques that gravitated towards Beat Generation philosophy, left-wing politics and the emerging folk revival. A friend named Jim Glover turned Phil onto folk music, especially the works of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and taught Phil how to find his way around a guitar. Fascinated by the Cuban Revolution, Phil began submitting semi-radical pieces to the school paper which were consistently rejected. In response, he started his own underground paper and began to write politically-oriented folk music. After the powers-that-be refused to make him editor-in-chief of the official student organ, he dropped out of college with only a quarter to go, finally leaving the “good boy” behind to seek his fortunes in Greenwich Village. Immersing himself in songwriting and live performance, he would soon advertise himself as a “singing journalist” who drew inspiration from Newsweek, drawing enough attention to earn a spot at the Newport Folk Festival, which in turn led to a contract with Elektra Records.
All the News that’s Fit to Sing was released in April 1964. The Civil Rights Movement was at its peak and a small but growing number of Americans were starting to question American involvement in Vietnam, thanks to the work of journalists like David Halberstam. The American folk music revival was entering its final stage when “singer-songwriters” began nudging the genre away from traditional folk songs to original works of subjective poetry and protest. Outside of the politically-neutral Kingston Trio and the politically-correct Peter, Paul and Mary, folk music had never done much on popular charts, and at this moment in history, the vast majority of Americans seemed to lose all interest in folk music. A peep at the Billboard Top 20 on April 4, 1964 reveals that Americans were longing for happiness, fun and forget-about-ism in a desperate attempt to leave the trauma and grief of the Kennedy assassination behind them:
1-5: The Beatles (“Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Please, Please Me”)
6. Terry Stafford, “Suspicion”
7. Louis Armstrong, “Hello, Dolly”
8. Betty Everett, “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)”
9. Bobby Vinton, “My Heart Belongs to You”
10. The Dave Clark Five, “Glad All Over”
11. The Four Seasons, “Dawn”
12. The Temptations, “The Way You Do the Things You Do”
13. The Beach Boys, “Fun, Fun, Fun”
14. The Serendipity Singers, “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down”
15. The Searchers, “Needles and Pins”
16. The Four Seasons, “Stay”
17. Elvis Presley, “Kissin’ Cousins”
18. Marvin Gaye, “You’re the Wonderful One”
19. Al Hirt, “Java”
20. Tommy Tucker, “High Heel Sneakers”
Not exactly the music designed to motivate the masses to storm the battlements, and certainly not a promising environment for a “singing journalist.” Only one folk song made that Top 100 list, the traditional “Tell It on the Mountain” by Peter, Paul & Mary. The Beatles filled eight additional slots, and you could stretch that number to ten if you include the Beatle tribute song “We Love You Beatles” by The Carefrees and a Beatle parody number by the Four Preps, “A Letter to the Beatles.” At this early stage in their careers, The Beatles were seen as harmless good fun (though parents wished they would do something about their hair) and not the harbingers of massive cultural change they would turn out to be.
One thing The Beatles accomplished that they don’t get enough credit for is the resurrection of guitar-based rock, which had pretty much been relegated to the surfers in the early ’60s. As noted in Teach Rock’s self-guided course on “The Rise of the Electric Guitar,” the rebirth owed as much to the visuals as it did to the sound: “The disparity in the popularity between the piano and the electric guitar became more pronounced still after the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Their instrumentation, consisting of two electric guitars, electric bass, and drums, became the archetype for the next generation of popular musicians” (they forgot to mention that their guitars were also seriously cool-looking). Thousands of Baby Boomer boys, fortunate enough to hit puberty during an unprecedented economic boom, now started bugging their parents to buy them an electric guitar instead of a shiny new Schwinn.
Significant change always brings out the Luddites, and the anti-change agents in this case were the traditional folkies who blew a gasket when Bob Dylan went electric. What they didn’t realize when they booed him at the Newport Folk Festival is that Bob Dylan was actually saving folk music from a trip to oblivion. The emergence of folk-rock brought the social consciousness of folk music into rock, encouraging the more talented songwriters (Lennon, McCartney, Ray Davies, Jagger-Richards, etc.) to search for topical matter beyond teenage romance and the not-so talented songwriters to cover songs written by folk musicians in order to retain their relevance. Dylan covers were obviously the most prevalent, but the charts from 1965 and 1966 had room for covers of other folk songsmiths like Pete Seeger, Tim Hardin and yes, even Phil Ochs. Those covers in turn led curious listeners to explore folk music in more depth, resulting in the ultimate win-win for all concerned.
So though it may appear that Phil Ochs’ maiden release couldn’t have come at a less propitious moment, it’s always better to be ahead of the curve than behind it. Phil Ochs was an unconventional guy who emerged on the scene at a time when people started questioning fundamental conventions of American life. Though he would never come close to approaching the popularity of Bob Dylan, his music and passionate activism would earn him enough of a following to satisfy the record labels and sufficiently pique the curiosity of J. Edgar’s boys at the FBI, who managed to fill his file with five hundred pages of alleged subversive activities.
All the News that’s Fit to Sing captures an artist at the very early stages of his career, and if you’ve only heard Phil’s later works you might find yourself disappointed. The lyrics only hint at the exceptional insight and wit he would eventually bring to the table; his vocals feel a bit uncertain; the arrangements aren’t particularly interesting (though Danny Kalb’s service as co-guitarist compensates nicely for Phil’s still-developing skills on that instrument). The stories behind the songs are not any more “dated” than Titanic or The King’s Speech or the recent flood of screen takes on British royalty are “dated,” though there are a few instances where Phil failed to make a solid case for timelessness. What comes through loud and clear is his empathy for the disadvantaged and his frustration with a country that was consistently failing to act in accordance with its most sacred values.
Phil teamed up with Bob Gibson to write the opening track, “One More Parade,” a song that questions the American love affair with the military. No, this Bob Gibson is not the St. Louis Cardinals great AND MY FAVORITE PITCHER EVER but the Bob Gibson who co-wrote the George Hamilton IV hit “Abilene” and whose style and compositions had a major influence on Phil’s development as a songwriter. It’s interesting that mentor and acolyte chose the military parade as the operating metaphor because military parades have never been common in the United States, usually limited to presidential inaugurals and celebrations of victory in declared wars. Metaphorical quibble aside, what Ochs and Gibson called into question was the taken-for-granted belief in the emerging American role as the “World’s Policeman” and the consequent romanticization of permanent war:
Cold hard stares on faces so proud
Kisses from the girls and cheers from the crowd
And the widows from the last war cry into their shrouds
Here comes the big parade
Don’t be afraid, price is paid
Don’t be ashamed, war’s a game
World in flames
So start the parade!!
So much for the Founding Fathers’ rejection of standing armies and Washington’s warning about foreign entanglements. By the time Phil Ochs released “One More Parade,” the United States had a huge standing military of 2.7 million personnel and an arsenal of 29,463 nuclear weapons. Most Americans accepted those numbers as a fact of life, just as they accepted the playing of the militaristic national anthem before sporting events (which began near the end of WWI but became a ritual during and after WWII). Phil would raise the alarm bells with greater intensity in “Cops of the World” on Phil Ochs in Concert, anticipating what would become the prevalent belief of those who live outside the United States that America wasn’t the world’s policeman but the world’s bully. With American involvement in Afghanistan approaching its twentieth anniversary, one can only speculate on how things might have turned out had Americans have taken President Eisenhower’s words a bit more seriously:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
As we shall see, this inability on the part of the American people to accept both truth and consequences frustrated Phil Ochs to the very core of his being.
“The Thresher” relates the story of the USS Thresher, a nuclear-powered, armed-to-the-teeth submarine that sank during deep-dive trials on April 10, 1963, resulting in the deaths of all 129 persons aboard. Phil’s attempt at irony (“She was a death ship all along/Died before she had a chance to kill”) falls short of hitting home and his commentary on the smugness of the shipbuilders never makes it past the stage of vague implication without evidence to back it up. In this case, his “reporting” lacks proper fact-checking and falls seriously short of quality journalism.
As was true for Phil Ochs and his contemporaries, the music of Woody Guthrie was a defining influence, and the Guthrie “talking song” proved to be an excellent format for Phil’s vocal style and innate gift of satirical expression, as demonstrated in “Talking Vietnam Blues.” As much as I admire JFK’s wit, intelligence and irrepressible libido, his doublespeak regarding Vietnam and his attempt to get David Halberstam kicked off the Vietnam beat qualified as acts entirely unworthy of the man:
Sailing over to Vietnam
Southeast Asian Birmingham
Well training is the word we use
Nice word to have in case we lose
Training a million Vietnamese
To fight for the wrong government and the American Way
Phil was already under FBI surveillance at this time and I’m sure that expressing the blasphemous belief that America could actually lose a war didn’t improve his reputation at FBI headquarters. The refusal to accept defeat served as the primary motivating factor driving American involvement in Vietnam long after it was obvious that the war was unwinnable, an intervention that wound up lasting for twenty long years.
Twenty years . . . twenty years . . . where have I heard that number before?
The most powerful passages involve more detailed exposure of the “we’re just there to train the Vietnamese” bullshit and the repeated violations of stated American values that marked American foreign policy during the Cold War and beyond:
Well the sergeant said it’s time to train
So I climbed aboard my helicopter plane
We flew above the battleground
A sniper tried to shoot us down
He must have forgotten, we’re only trainees
Them Commies never fight fair
Friends the very next day we trained some more
We burned some villages down to the floor
Yes we burned out the jungles far and wide
Made sure those red apes had no place left to hide
Threw all the people in relocation camps
Under lock and key, made damn sure they’re free
The remaining verses deal with the hypocrisy involving America’s public relations gambit of promoting democracy and freedom while installing and supporting brutal, anti-democratic regimes. Phil mentions Diem and his psychotic wife, Syngman Rhee and Chiang Kai-shek, choosing to focus on how the policy manifested itself in eastern Asia. He could have easily expanded that list to include American-supported dictatorships in pre-Castro Cuba, Guatemala, Iran, Spain and Laos. The release of All the News that’s Fit to Sing coincided with the American-backed coup to overthrow democracy in Brazil; the U. S. would invest serious resources in Latin America during the 70s and 80s to unseat democracies and prop up dictatorships under the banner of anti-communism. Capitalist-friendly regime change facilitated by military and CIA involvement remains one of the options on the table in the conduct of American foreign policy to this day, continuing to damage the country’s credibility as a neutral power broker.
Unfortunately, Americans have pretty much tuned the whole thing out, and there isn’t a Phil Ochs around to remind them of what America is supposed to stand for.
“Lou Marsh” honors the memory of the social worker who attempted to intervene in a Spanish Harlem gang brawl and paid for that choice with his life:
He felt their blinding hatred
And he tried to save their lives
And the answer that they gave him
Was their fists and feet and knives
You have to have your head up your ass (like a certain music critic whose name escapes me at the moment) not to perceive the lasting relevance of this song. Lou Marsh was one of those rare people who find their life-purpose early on, as noted in a UPI article written immediately following his murder:
“Greater love hath no man than this. That he lay down his life for his friends.” Lou Marsh read those words of Jesus when he was a boy attending a Baptist Sunday school. He took them as most Christians do as a yardstick of ultimate devotion. He had no way of knowing, then, that he would one day be measured against that yardstick. In hindsight, it seems rather a miracle that Lou Marsh should have had any love at all in him-let alone the supreme kind of love. He was a quiet, serious-minded Negro boy, more sensitive than most to the humiliations and deprivations which were visited upon him while he was growing up in one of Philadelphia’s black ghettoes. Somehow he survived all of the hurts without learning to hate.”
As Phil relates in the song, Marsh would eventually conclude that the church was not up to the task of tackling the poverty and violence of ghetto life:
He left behind the chambers
Of the church he served so long
For he learned the prayers of distant men
Will never right the wrongs
Prayers . . . prayers . . . “thoughts and prayers” . . . the standard response from the distant Second Amendment wackos after every mass murder . . . the same wackos who believe that African-Americans bring poverty upon themselves and are not to be trusted with the vote . . . the ghouls who take pride in the falling poverty rate that has left “only” 45 million people under the poverty line. As the French proved so emphatically in the late 18th century, there is no greater threat to social stability than an impoverished populace, and Phil emphasizes this truth in a moving epitaph:
Will Lou Marsh lie forgotten
In his cold and silent grave?
Will his memory still linger on
In those he tried to save?
And all of us who knew him
Will now and then recall
And shed a tear on poverty,
Tombstone of us all.
Fuck . . . oh, what was that guy’s name? Oh yeah. Fuck Mark Deming.
When describing “Power and Glory,” Phil Ochs told his sister that he was writing “the greatest song I’ll ever write.” Youthful enthusiasm aside, it’s a promising piece with two weaknesses: one, the tempo approaches amphetamine overdose levels; and two, it borrows too much from Woody Guthrie (the first two verses are very reminiscent of “This Land is Your Land”) to make the grade as Phil’s best song ever. The lyrics improve significantly after he finishes with the Guthrie-like travelogue and gets to the point, which turns out to be the main theme of the album: America’s failure to live up to her promise of greatness:
Here is a land full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall
Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom
Her glory shall rest on us all (on us all)
Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of her poor
Only as free as the padlocked prison door
Only as strong as our love for this land
Only as tall as we stand
His strongest argument is missing from the version on this album, but you can access the full take with the extra verse on YouTube:
But our land is still troubled by men who have to hate
They twist away our freedom and they twist away our fate
Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry
We can stop them if we try
Though Ochs was probably referring to the extreme anti-commie crowd and the racist southerners who controlled Congress, you will never find a more accurate description of the Republican Party of Donald Trump. That should tell you something very important: the sickness that led to Trump’s ascension is part-and-parcel of the American psyche. That sickness did not weaken and die after Phil wrote this song, nor in the fifty-plus years of its aftermath, nor will it die out in the foreseeable future.
Tell me again how Phil Ochs has lost his relevance?
“Celia” finds Phil supporting a worldwide effort to secure the release of Filipina feminist and activist Celia Mariano Pomeroy, who was jailed for ten years (along with her American husband, William Pomeroy) for her role in a rebellion rooted in the anti-poverty movement. Both were released at about the same time; Mr. Pomeroy was immediately exiled to the USA but Celia’s entry was denied by the U. S. government. The effort to secure her release was spearheaded by her husband, and the situation was resolved by the time this song was released (the couple took residence in the U. K.). Phil adopts the role of Mr. Pomeroy in this first-person narrative, and though his sentiments are well-meaning, the song itself is rather pedestrian and lacks the emotional punch of his better stuff. Still, it’s a damn sight better than Phil’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s horribly tedious poetic effort, “The Bells,” a piece that should be retitled “Death by Onomatopoeia.”
With “Automation” we finally get around to a good old Phil Ochs working man song, and though this first foray into the celebration of labor isn’t as memorable as some of his later efforts, the theme he establishes is solid and definitely reminiscent of Woody Guthrie’s belief (best captured in “Pastures of Plenty”) that when you do the work, you develop an emotional attachment to your labor and to the fruits of that labor that wages do not adequately cover. Capitalism’s greatest blind spot is its obliviousness to the sense of ownership and pride that lay workers feel in their work and the consequent absence of loyalty to the workers when times are bad:
For the wages were low and the hours were long
And the labor was all I could bear
Now you’ve got new machines for to take my place
And you tell me it’s not mine to share
Though I laid down your factories and laid down your fields
With my feet on the ground and my back to your wheels
And now the smoke is rising, the steel is all aglow
I’m walking down a jobless road and where am I to go?
Tell me, where am I to go?
The answer is “nowhere.” You got paid, didn’t ya? Look up “employee” in the dictionary, bud—it means “one who is used.” Well, now you’re useless. Sorry!
Much to Mr. Deming’s eternal discredit, the song that best reveals Phil’s exceptional talent for spotting the Orwellian features of American democracy is one of the songs Deming felt wouldn’t mean that much to you, “Ballad of William Worthy.” Wannabe journalist Ochs only mentions Worthy’s occupation in passing, painting him largely as just another traveler (though he does slip in the pun, “fellow traveler”) who happened to visit a country to which travel was frowned upon by the leaders of the Land of the Free:
Well, it’s of a bold reporter’s story I will tell
He went down to the Cuban land, the nearest place to hell
He’d been there many times before, but now the law does say
The only way to Cuba is with the CIA
William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door
Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore
But somehow, it is strange to hear the State Department say
“You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay”
Orwellian indeed! Travel to Cuba had not been banned at the time Worthy paid Fidel a visit; his passport was revoked after he returned from “Red China” earlier that year. When he made it back to the USA, he made it through customs just fine with a birth certificate and vaccination record. It was six months after his return that the government heaved a collective “Oops!” and charged him with the fake crime of returning without a passport. Sentenced to the hoosegow by a judge friendly to the Kennedy Administration, his conviction was overturned on appeal. I know the Kennedys had bugs up their butts about Castro, but this vendetta was far more irrational than their hangup with Fidel or Bobby’s obsession with Hoffa. If Cuba was so bad, why on earth wouldn’t you want Americans to go there, if only to better appreciate how good it is back home? If America is truly the greatest country in the world, what the hell could you possibly be afraid of? The hypocrisy here is stunning, as Americans faced no obstacles whatsoever if they wanted to piss away their vacation time visiting a country run by a sadistic dictator:
Five thousand dollars or a five year sentence may well be
For a man who had the nerve to think that travelin’ is free
Oh, why’d he waste his time to see a dictator’s reign
When he could have seen democracy by travelin’ on to Spain?
“Ballad of William Worthy” also features one of Phil’s best vocals on the album, displaying both his excellent articulation (critical for a singing journalist) and his patented audible smirk that comes to the fore when he sings about the absurd actions of those in power.
“Knock on the Door” deals with that sinister sound that accompanies a visit by the Praetorian Guard, Gestapo or the KGB. While Phil covers Rome, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the song makes no connection to the American experience, explicitly or implicitly, making one wonder what Phil was trying to warn us about. That lapse in coherence is forgiven by the second talking song on the album, “Talking Cuban Crisis.” The first verse seems to describe Phil’s reaction to the media’s reaction to Pierre Salinger’s announcement that the President would address the nation that night “on a matter of the highest national urgency.” I could find no evidence to support Phil’s reporting in the second verse, but I get his point:
Well, I didn’t know if I was for or agin’ it
He was yellin’ and screamin’ a mile a minute
Well, he said “Here comes the President
But first this word from Pepsodent
Have whiter teeth
Have cleaner breath
When you’re facin’ nuclear death”
The verse breaks off in the middle to allow Danny Kalb to whip through the melody Pepsodent jingle: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went/When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.” I was crushed to learn that my trusty TeeVee Toons: The Commercials CD didn’t have a Pepsodent commercial, but I found one on YouTube for you Baby Boomers who want to take a trip down memory lane.
Gee whiz, isn’t the Internet one of the swellest things ever?
Phil’s “reporting” is remarkably balanced, given his admiration for JFK. He generally supports the President on the blockade but tweaks him for his use of that very scary phrase, “full retaliatory response.”
From Turkey and Greece, Formosa and Spain
The peaceful West European Plain
From Alaska and Greenland we’ll use our means
And twenty thousand submarines
We’re gonna teach the Russians a lesson
For trying to upset the balance of power
What I love most about the song is his honest reaction to impending doom (especially because it’s exactly how I would have reacted):
But me, I stood behind a bar
Dreamin’ of a spaceship getaway car
Head for Mars
Any other planet that has bars
I would have stocked my fallout shelter with enough booze and cigarettes to last a century.
“Bound for Glory” is Phil’s heartfelt tribute to Woody Guthrie and his legacy. The lyrics paint a vivid and accurate picture of Guthrie’s travels and his music, but the verse that resonates most with me comes at the end:
Now they sing out his praises on every distant shore,
But so few remember what he was fightin’ for.
Oh why sing the songs and forget about the aim,
He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same?
I think Phil found the answer to that question a few years down the road when he wrote “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” and like all people with progressive leanings, I find the endless inaction on matters of critical importance deeply frustrating. For a more complete analysis of “Bound for Glory,” I’m going to send you to an excellent blog devoted to exploring Phil’s music, Shadows That Shine. Enjoy!
Phil teams up with Bob Gibson again for “Too Many Martyrs,” a brief but moving poem about the life and death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. The verse that describes the murder is chilling, even more so when you remember it occurred that day after President Kennedy’s famous civil rights speech:
The killer waited by his home hidden by the night
As Evers stepped out from his car into the rifle sight
He slowly squeezed the trigger, the bullet left his side
It struck the heart of every man when Evers fell and died.
The closing line from the chorus, “Oh, let it never be again,” is repeated twice at the end of the song in what would prove to be a hopeless exhortation indeed.
Speaking of failed exhortations, Phil attempts to reignite a sense of hope in the closing song, “What’s That I Hear,” where he exhorts listeners to try to hear the sound of freedom calling. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to feel it himself, delivering the vocal in a rather flat, tired voice that betrays a deeper sense that the journey ahead will be long and hard and that success is anything but certain.
As a woman who was born five years after Phil’s too-early death, I don’t have the emotional attachment to his music that I might have experienced had I lived through the 1960s. My emotional attachment to Phil Ochs arises from a different source—the undeniable quality of his music. I always learn something from listening to Phil Ochs, even when I’ve heard the song a hundred times before. There are few musical artists I’ve listened to whose work is as compelling as that of Phil Ochs, and even when he’s not on his game, his genuine concern for people and for his country makes me want to travel back into the past and tell him, “Don’t worry, kid—we’ll get ’em next time.” Though All the News that’s Fit to Sing falls short of perfection, his potential is obvious, and knowing that there are better works to follow makes me appreciate the start of his amazing trajectory all the more.
After pussyfooting around for way too long (probably a blonde thing), I have now decided to review the Phil Ochs albums I’ve missed: Phil Ochs in Concert, Tape from California, Greatest Hits and Gunfight at Carnegie Hall. You can expect an Ochs review every four weeks. This is partly self-indulgence—I love exploring Phil Ochs—but my overriding motivation is to pay homage to an artist whose work deserves far more respect and attention than it has received. I hope to make the case that his songs are indeed timeless and extraordinarily relevant to life in the 21st Century.
Wish me luck!
Look. I’m a shitty guitar player and I know it. I have two guitars: one acoustic and one electric. I suck at both.
You may wonder why I have two instruments that serve to remind me of my incompetence every time I pick them up. I bought an electric guitar so I could make noise. All you need to create soul-satisfying noise with even the shittiest electric guitar is a distortion pedal, a crummy little amp and a knowledge of power chords (find the root, find the fifth and rock the fuck out). I have an acoustic guitar because a.) it’s easier to use a guitar to figure out the chords to rock songs since most are written on guitar and b.) with an acoustic, I don’t have to plug into an amp to identify various chord voicings (which are clearer on an acoustic guitar anyway).
I know exactly why I suck at guitar, and no, it isn’t because I’m a girl and girls simply must have long, manicured fingernails to complete whatever fashion statement they’re trying to make. I’ve never had long fingernails because they interfere with piano playing—when my fingernails are too long, it sounds like I’ve hired a castanets player to provide accompaniment. Long fingernails also screw up my flute playing because they make me think my fingers are longer than they really are and I wind up failing to press the keys with the necessary accuracy and pressure.
No, I suck at guitar for two reasons. First, I think standard guitar tuning is stupid and confusing. Violins, cellos and mandolins are all tuned to fifths so it’s easy to figure out where you are on the neck. Guitars are tuned to fourths with one interval tuned to a major third (the G-B transition). When I’m trying to identify the notes in a simple lead solo, that major third short-circuits my brain every time. Those little dots on top of the neck don’t help at all.
The second reason probably involves a recessive gene thing: I have a terrible time with guitar picks. I have trouble holding on to a pick when I’m trying to pluck individual strings, as in an arpeggio. It’s really a drag on the acoustic guitar because I usually drop a dozen or so down the soundhole in between string changes; I’ve tried all kinds of picks and they all wind up inside the body of my guitar. Playing on a solid-body Strat negates that problem, but even when the picks aren’t tumbling to the floor I can’t play anything beyond a two-note arpeggio on a power chord to save my life. It’s frustrating because I can play beautiful arpeggios on the piano and flute, but on a guitar all those damned strings get in my way. I suck on the downstroke, I suck on the upstroke. For years I believed I was doomed to remain a chords-only strummer, banished permanently from the realm of guitar heroes.
Recently I sought help for my disability. A friend in the States sent me a guest pass to Master Class, an online video training site with loads of courses on everything from self-help to cooking to music. I immediately honed in on two guitar classes, one with Carlos Santana and the other with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave fame. I should have known that Carlos would take a New Age approach to the topic, so his advice on how to locate my “feel” and get in touch with my inner spirit didn’t really scratch my particular itch. Tom was infinitely more helpful in terms of providing useful techniques and I’ve been using his ideas from the module on increasing speed to improve my arpeggio picking. I can now pick the legendary intro to “Supersonic” with an accuracy rate of 50% if I play it at half-speed and don’t breathe.
That’s an improvement over my usual accuracy rate of 20% at no speed peppered with lots of “fuck!s.”
A couple of weeks after my last lesson with Tom, I took another look at my review plan for 2021. Nothing really grabbed me, so I started scrolling through my music library and found King of the Blues Guitar. My first reaction was, “Haven’t I already done this one?” but a quick check of my posts told me I’d missed it. “Yay!” I said to no one in particular. “I love that album!” I loved it even more after I began my research and learned more about Albert King’s bizarre approach to the guitar:
- Because he was left-handed, he played right-handed guitars upside-down—but rather than restringing the guitar, he left it as is, with the high E string on top.
- He used a variety of dropped open tunings to allow for more emphatic bends and to get around the limitations of standard tuning: C#-G#-B-E-G#-C#, open E-minor, F major and (when he moved to Stax) a C-B-E-F#-B-E pattern.
- Since he never used the 6th string, I don’t know why he bothered to tune it, but whatever.
- Most importantly, he rarely used a friggin’ pick! Albert King was a thumb-and-fingers kind of guy.
Lights flashing frantically in my little blonde brain, heart beating madly with hope and anticipation while desperately trying to avoid flagellating myself for not having thought of it sooner, I picked up my acoustic guitar, picks-in-the-hole rattling away, and tried to pluck “Supersonic” with my thumb. I nailed it within five minutes. Searching my memory for another arpeggio, I thought of the recently-departed Hilton Valentine and his guitar on “House of the Rising Sun,” and within fifteen minutes I had it down pat.
Albert King is my man!
Historical contradictions abound in blues biographies, and Albert King’s is no exception. The man we know as Albert King was born Albert Nelson in 1923, and could have been born in any one of three places in Mississippi: Indianola, Arcola or Aberdeen (most likely the latter). His father may have abandoned the family when Albert was five; it’s likely that Albert moved with his mother and two of his sisters to the area surrounding Forrest City, Arkansas when he was eight (I have no idea where the other ten siblings wound up). The only thing we know for sure is that Albert spent his youth on plantations picking cotton and manning a bulldozer in an area of the country where white supremacy was a cherished and strongly-protected institution (and in many ways still is).
Whether it was his father’s influence (unlikely, given his early departure) or an encounter with some itinerant picker on the plantation, Albert developed a fascination with the guitar, progressing from a self-made diddley bow to a self-made cigar box guitar to a real acoustic guitar that he purchased for $1.25. Eventually he was good enough to join a band, and spent several years traversing the Delta, picking up tips from guitarists like Elmore James and Robert Nighthawk.
Throughout the ’40s and early ’50s he was known as Albert Nelson, but once we get to 1953 things get a little weird. He changed his name to Albert King and told people he was the half-brother of the more famous B.B. King, offering B.B.’s father’s name (Albert) as “evidence.” Though he had identified (and misspelled) Aberdeen as his birthplace on his Social Security application, he now claimed he was born in Indianola, shrewdly relocating his roots from the Alabama border to the Mississippi Delta. He even named his guitar “Lucy” in line with B.B.’s christening of “Lucille.” These little white lies apparently increased his drawing power, and though B.B. was rather miffed about it at first, he let go of his irritation after meeting Albert. “He wasn’t my brother in blood, but he sure was my brother in blues.”
To achieve that kind of acknowledgment from B.B. King was remarkable, given that nothing came easy for Albert King. One fundamental difficulty involved his physique: Albert King was a big, strong southpaw, somewhere between 6’4″ and 6’7″ and weighing in at about 250 pounds. With those big hands and fingers, he was unlikely to dazzle an audience with nimble, high-speed picking, so he had no choice but to break the rules and come up with other ways to create an authentic blues sound. All those alternate tunings loosened the strings to enable broader string-bending, but Albert still had to face the challenge of left-handedness in a right-handed universe. He solved that problem by teaching himself to pull the strings from on high instead of the standard bending technique of pushing from below, using his strength to bend multiple strings at the same time. As Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns would later observe, “Albert’s guitar was always out of tune with everything else, but he was such a strong man he would just bend the notes back in!”
For the next decade and a bit longer, Albert toiled in relative obscurity, playing the club circuits in the midwest and south and making a few records that were largely ignored. His career remained in hit-or-miss mode for a few more years, but during that period an Arkansas disk jockey by the name of Al Bell became quite the fan of Albert’s inimitable style. The magical threads of the universe finally came together when Bell became a promotions man at Stax Records in Memphis and sweet-talked Albert into signing with the label. It certainly didn’t hurt Albert’s prospects that his new backing musicians were Booker T. & the M.G.’s and the Memphis Horns, imbuing his music with the signature Stax sound, strengthening his connection to R&B and adding touches of funk and soul to his music. Stax released several singles that eventually formed the bulk of the 1967 album Born Under a Bad Sign, and though the album itself did not chart (R&B albums rarely charted during that period), three of the singles did—and Albert King finally started drawing serious attention within the music world at the age of forty-four. Later that year, Albert King found himself playing at Fillmore West; a year later, Cream covered “Born Under a Bad Sign” on Wheels of Fire; a year after that, Albert King was a featured soloist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
The original version of King of the Blues Guitar was released in 1969 and consisted of eleven tracks. The version I chose to review is the 1989 reissue that contains all eleven tracks from Born Under a Bad Sign and six more Stax recordings released on 45’s, including two instrumentals that showcase Albert’s distinctive guitar stylings. The Born Under a Bad Sign tracks are marked with an asterisk because I’m an anal bitch and I like to keep things straight.
“Laundromat Blues”*: This clever little pun-filled number from Stax songwriter and session musician Sandy Jones Jr. tells the tale of a babe so horny that she can’t wait to compile a full load of laundry before heading down to the laundromat to receive a full load from the guy she keeps on the side. Exactly where these two lovebirds consummate their relationship is unclear, but I hope that the laundromat is just the rendezvous point and that she doesn’t get banged with her head in a clothes dryer while pretending to look for that missing sock. Unlike most men who pride themselves on their obliviousness, Albert is “gettin’ madder every day” and issues two warnings: “I don’t want you to get so clean, baby/You just might wash your life away” and “The laundry’s gonna trap you, darlin,'” a line that indicates that Sandy did some field research and knew his way around a lint trap.
The interplay between Albert’s voice and guitar is fascinating. First, he never plays while he’s singing, making a clear distinction between vocal lines and guitar fills, giving both more prominence. I’ll let Mike Bloomfield explain the more complex levels of interaction:
. . . And he approached lead playing more vocally than any guitar player I ever heard in my life; he plays exactly like a singer. As a matter of fact, his guitar playing has almost more of a vocal range than his voice does—which is unusual, because if you look at B.B. or Freddie King or Buddy Guy, their singing is almost equal to their guitar playing. They sing real high falsetto notes, then drop down into the mid-register. Albert just sings in one sort of very mellifluous but monotonous register, with a crooner’s vibrato, almost like a lounge singer, but his guitar playing is just as vocal as possible . . . He makes the guitar talk.
That “crooner vibrato” melds beautifully with the smooth sound of the Memphis Horns and would serve Albert well as he expanded the range of his song selection to include R&B and soul. Those deep bends on the solo express both his outrage and a firm resolve that his baby’s got to stop this shit right now—a communication much more effective than his linguistic threats.
“Overall Junction”: This is a nice little warm-up number credited to the man himself that opens with Steve Cropper supplying the classic three-chord blues riff in the key of E as the horns provide a countering rhythmic response. Albert’s contribution alternates between a single-string solo and a multi-string bend attack that sounds so sharp and clean that you’d swear he was using a pick if you didn’t know any better. I imagine that all those years of picking cotton and guitar must have resulted in some of the thickest callouses known to medical science, which may help to explain his rare mingling of power and ease.
“Oh, Pretty Woman”*: A.C. “Moohah” Williams was a high school biology teacher who made the leap to promotions director at WDIA Memphis when they switched from country to R&B in 1949. A. C. would stay with WDIA for over thirty years, serving as a disk jockey and program director while writing a few songs on the side, including his most famous number, “Oh, Pretty Woman.” This ode to the unattainable natural beauty who “Says all your cheap paint and powder ain’t gonna help you none” is a perfect foil for Albert’s understated, shy-guy vocal style, suitable for pleading but never coarse enough to cross the line into actionable threats. His guitar solo is appropriately understated, expressing sweet anguish in the bends but refusing to extend the emotional range to a point-of-no-return. When comparing and contrasting Albert’s approach to Mick Taylor’s version on the Bluesbreakers’ Crusade album, I have to give the edge to Albert for managing those boundaries—Mick comes across too strong, just what you’d expect from a younger man with excess testosterone and insufficient life experience.
“Funk Shun”: The second King-penned instrumental is an example of false advertising, as there isn’t anything funky about this straight-up slow blues number. Though the track features Albert’s longest solo, I don’t think it’s one of his best efforts as he seems to lose touch with the sense of economy that marks his best guitar work. The one spot where he recovers that discipline is in the stop-time passage about two-thirds of the way through the song. For the most part, I focus most of my attention on Donald Dunn’s always marvelous bass and the horn section.
“Crosscut Saw”*: OUCH! While I usually appreciate the double-entendre featured in dirty blues songs, I ain’t gonna let no man with a crosscut saw anywhere near my delicate privates! And I’m sorry, but “I’m a crosscut saw, just drag me ‘cross your log,” sounds like two guys attempting penis-to-penis sex, which I didn’t know was even a thing. Here I ignore the gruesome lyrics and just enjoy Booker T. and the MG’s as they nail the Afro-Cuban rhythms and Albert’s sprightly guitar work. I’d really like a demographic breakdown of this record’s purchasers, as I’d like to prove my hypothesis that the buyers who drove “Crosscut Saw” to #34 on the R&B charts were all men who like their women dry. DOUBLE OUCH!
“Down Don’t Bother Me”*: Albert is on top of his game in yet another of his own compositions that revives the classic there-ain’t-nothin’-I-can-do-to-please-this-woman-woe-is-me tale. Singing at the top of his narrow range with feeling that approaches the bursting point, he wisely leaves the bursting to his guitar fills, which follow the lines in unusually short order. The solo is a knockout call-and-response between Albert and the horn section that matches the intensity of the verses and anticipates the gloriously strong finish. It may be the shortest song in the collection, but as I’ve always told the insecure men I’ve bedded over the years, “It doesn’t matter how long it is—what matters is what you do with what you’ve got.”
“Born Under a Bad Sign”*: Listed as a songwriting collaboration between Stax R&B singer William Bell and Booker T. Jones, we must also give credit to Lightin’ Slim, whose “Bad Luck Blues” featured the key line, “Lord, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” as well as the astrological portents Bell referenced as a starting point for “his” creation. The song’s crossover potential involved replacing the standard 12-bar blues structure with 10 bars in an I-V-IV pattern and a sinuous minor blues scale rhythmic line that gives the song a rock/R&B tinge. I don’t know exactly why I feel this way, but this song cries “Memphis” more than any other song from the city that claims to be The Birthplace of Rock & Roll and Home of the Blues. It feels like a warm summer night on Beale Street with its moderately slow tempo, slick and sexy horns and plenty of sweet, soulful bends from Mr. King. His single-string solo is the epitome of simplicity and in an unintentional tribute to Peter Green, Albert lets out a little scream of appreciation in response to one bent note. The man is feeling it!
I’ll end any suspense right here and now and endorse the Jack Bruce-Clapton version as a more than credible cover, and while I’m into mini-appendixes, allow me to remind you that if you are lucky enough to be able to select the time, place and circumstances of your demise, there’s only one way to go:
You know, wine and women is all I crave
A big-legged woman is gonna carry me to my grave
Hopefully you will have pulled out before having your coronary.
“Personal Manager”*: The B-side to “Born Under a Bad Sign” was co-written with David Porter, one of music’s greatest, most-honored and least-known contributors. In addition to his prolific songwriting in multiple genres, Porter was the very young man who convinced a little record company in Memphis to start recording soul music and brought his buddy Booker T. into the fold as a recording artist for what would soon become Stax Records. At this point in his career, Porter was a songwriter for Stax and had just begun to work with another young songwriter named Isaac Hayes.
Albert King may have been born under a bad sign, but at this point in his career, he had arrived at the gates to musical heaven.
“Personal Manager” is a slow blues number that opens with Albert clipping off a few two-note chords before settling into his more comfortable one-note-at-a-time style. While the interplay between Albert and the horns isn’t as crisp as it was on the A-side, his solo validates the phrase in his Stax biography: “master of the single-string solo.” The lyrics are pretty much the old “Let me careth for thee, O sweet and fragile creature,” and though I’m intrigued to learn more about what he means by the offer “to be your milkman every morning/Your ice cream man when the days are through,” he loses me with a deal-sweetener that simply won’t cut it with a girl who has now experienced three lockdowns (with a fourth on the way):
I’ll take care of all of your business
So you can stay at home
No! No! Anything but that! Go ahead—whip out that crosscut saw but please let me out of the house!
“Kansas City”*: What the hell, everyone else has recorded this song, so why not Albert King? His voice is perfectly suited to the toned-down Wilbert Harrison approach and he’s got a first-rate rhythm band behind him, so why not? One could argue that Albert gives the horns too much room during his solo, but shit, they’re Stax horns and they sound good anywhere and everywhere. Donald Dunn is coming through nice and clear on my right . . . so yeah, I’m good with it.
“The Very Thought of You“*: What the hell? Well, this is certainly out of the . . . blue(s)! This song was first recorded in 1934 by the Ray Noble Orchestra featuring Al Bowlly on vocals, and proved to be something of a precursor to the British Invasion in that it was one of the few British recordings to become a #1 hit in the USA before all those scruffy guys showed up thirty years later. Ricky Nelson came out with a “rock ‘n’ roll” version (probably due to a suggestion from his cornball father), giving new meaning to the word “dreadful.” Little Willie John made some noise with a doo-wop version that’s probably the best of the lot, but this isn’t much of a lot.
Albert was apparently so obsessed with this song that he re-recorded it in 1978 on an album called (ironically) New Orleans Heat. Even the most powerful microwave oven in the universe couldn’t heat this sucker, so I’m not exactly why Albert found the song so appealing . . . though there may be something in Mike Bloomfield’s specific use of the world “crooner” in describing Albert’s vocal style. I will give Albert credit for a sincere and heartfelt performance—but any thoughts he had about becoming the next Billy Eckstine were seriously misplaced.
“The Hunter”*: Y’all know I have an absolute hatred of real guns, but I’m 100% cool with love guns. Etymologically speaking, I wonder which came first—“shoot” as in “shoot your wad” or “shoot” as in “shoot a gun?” Why do we “shoot” photos and golf and drugs and dice? And why is “shoot!” a polite substitute for “shit!?”
Stand by for my new website: altetymologychick.com.
Albert King never quite attained the levels of testosterone expressed in the work of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or Robert Johnson, but he’s definitely “up” for this one. After a somewhat tentative opening featuring Albert plucking a single string over a duet of Booker T. on percussive piano and Steve Cropper on guitar (nice neck slides there), a snare hit cues those marvelous horns so we can get down to the serious business of displaying male bravado. Albert seems to particularly savor the descending notes that end the key line, “I’ve got you in the sights of my love gun,” pausing just a bit before he sings the words “love gun.” He delivers those two words as if he’s looking his babe straight in the eye with his big one forming a noticeable bulge in his trousers, and damn, is he proud of his reliable member or what? He abandons all pretense of gentlemanly behavior when he almost-but-not-quite growls the line, “And when I pull the trigger, there will be no misses.” That’s my man! Leave it all in my playing field and don’t spill a drop on my sheets! He cools off a bit during his guitar solo but finishes strong with even more bravado. “I’m the big bad hunter baby,” he cries. “You ARE the MAN!” I reply, cleverly manipulating the male ego to inspire a second go-round. “How can I miss when I’ve got dead aim?” “You can’t, baby—now aim that thing right at my sweet spot.” The music fades, leaving the rest of my fantasy to your wicked imaginations.
“I Almost Lost My Mind”*: This Ivory Joe Hunter number is a perfect vehicle for Albert’s voice, with a melody comfortably within his vocal range and a narrative that demands a singer who knows what it’s like to feel the pain of loss. Everybody who’s anybody has covered this song—Nat King Cole, Eddy Arnold, Eddie Cochran, Bing Crosby, Fats Domino, Jerry Butler, Willie Nelson—and it speaks volumes about American culture that the most popular version came from Pat Boone, the paragon of white bread entertainment who absconded with many a song of black origins and made them palatable to the sexless masses. Of the versions I’ve listened to, the one that most resembles Albert’s is Solomon Burke’s, but Solomon doesn’t come close to matching Albert’s ability to express difficult emotions. I love the arrangement, especially the surprising inclusion of Joe Arnold’s flute, reinforcing the fleeting nature of romantic love.
“As the Years Go Passing By”*: Another perfect fit for Albert’s vocal talents, this Peppermint Harris minor blues was first recorded by Chicago blues guitarist Fenton Robinson back in 1959. The original featured a rather energetic piano counterpoint, replaced here by a more subtle but still remarkably nimble performance by Booker T, who gets a chance to show off both his R&B and classical training in support of Albert’s suitably lonesome vocal. Albert does some of his finest guitar work on this song, especially in the beautifully fluid solo, which contrasts nicely with the texture of the punctuating horns. My only complaint here involves track placement—surely the compilers could have separated the two of the saddest and best songs in the collection to reinforce the diversity of the album.
“Cold Feet”: Hmm. This sounds more like an advertisement for Stax artists than a real song, but it made the R&B Top 20 in ’68 as an A-side single, so what the hell do I know? If Peter, Paul & Mary could name-drop the Mamas and the Papas, Donovan and The Beatles and make the charts, I’m certainly not going to begrudge Albert King a little low-effort success.
“You Sure Drive a Hard Bargain”: The B-side of “Cold Feet” is a much stronger effort and clearly the better song. Written by Stax songwriter Bettey Crutcher and producer Allen Jones, the thrills in this song are found in the obvious confidence and heightened spirit of the post-Born Under a Bad Sign Albert King. His guitar playing is crisp, his voice strong and the interaction with the band is both tight and seemingly effortless.
“I Love Lucy”: This is a one-time-only joke with a weak punchline that only works if you don’t know that Lucy is Albert’s guitar.
On second thought, it doesn’t work either way.
“You’re Gonna Need Me”: Once again, the B-side trounces the A-side, making us forget all about Lucy. This King composition is a straightforward blues with some interesting chord variations and a far more intricate horn arrangement than you hear in any of the songs on Born Under a Bad Sign. Albert’s solo is loaded with bite and bend, and though you don’t notice it at first, the connection between the fills and his solo phrases feels more fluid—the man is now in full command of his faculties.
While I was working on this piece I remembered that this is Black History Month in the United States. I had to remember it because the French have yet to recognize that particular observance due to their belief in the doctrine of universalism, or “color-blindness.” The French would rather avoid the topic of race entirely and pretend that everything’s hunky-dory. It’s difficult to square that head-up-the-ass attitude with reality or with the historically documented Parisian embrace of African-American musicians, writers and artists, but the French are often a mystery to everyone except themselves.
So let’s place Albert King in the proper historical context, and we do that by admitting that our awareness of Albert King qualifies as pretty damned close to miraculous. Any black person born in the United States goes to bat with an 0-2 count while a hostile crowd screams for the strikeout. Though certain legal protections have been introduced in an attempt to mitigate those profound disadvantages, dealing with racism remains a daily reality for African-Americans to this day. Albert was also born dirt-poor, bereft of high-powered connections and had little in the way of formal education—traditional or musical. Though his demeanor was anything but threatening, nothing can trigger white fragility as effectively as a big, strapping black dude, so he was unlikely to find much in the way of assistance from the white power structure. Despite those enormous obstacles, once he fixated on the impossible dream of escaping the plantation via a musical career, he refused to let anything get in his way.
The essence of Albert King lies in a rare combination of self-assurance, ingenuity and an almost unfathomable optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers. If you’re going to celebrate anyone during Black History Month, Albert King deserves your serious consideration.