Elise LeGrow’s ‘Playing Chess’ Honors Blues And R&B Greats

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Elise LeGrow remakes blues and soul classics for her full-length debut, Playing Chess.

Shervin Lainez/Courtesy of the artist

 

Chess Records is an American institution. Founded in Chicago by Phil and Leonard Chess in the 1950s, it became the label that launched Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Watersand Bo Diddley. Now, Canadian singer Elise LeGrow is taking on the label’s catalog on her debut album: Playing Chess features covers of songs made famous by Chuck Berry, Etta James, Sugar Pie DeSanto, The Moonglows and more.

“Etta James has been one of my favorite singers for a very long time and, of course, I was aware of Chuck Berry’s hits. But I didn’t realize that the common thread there was Chess,” LeGrow tells NPR’s Scott Simon.

The album features guest appearances from the Dap-Kings and, on the track “Long, Lonely Nights,” Questlove and Captain Kirk Douglas from The Roots. Questlove’s father, Lee Andrews, co-wrote that ballad back in 1965.

As she put together the track list, LeGrow says, old memories collided with some new surprises. Now 30, she’d heard Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” for the first time as a child, playing behind Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction‘s iconic dance sequence. When she put the song on her covers shortlist, her producer revealed he had written an original melody for the lyrics 40 years ago. Their combined efforts resulted in something all LeGrow’s own: “I’ve had some people say it’s completely unrecognizable until they hear the line, ‘C’est la vie,’ ” she says.

LeGrow is already looking ahead to her next release, but she says she’ll still want her sound to stay in the tradition of the greats she emulates on Playing Chess: “a live band and a girl in a room.”

Playing Chess is available now from S-Curve Records. Listen to the full interview at the audio link.

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Legendary Trumpeter Hugh Masekela Dies At 78

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Hugh Masekela burst on the world pop scene in the 1960s, playing alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix. The legendary jazz musician died on Tuesday at age 78.

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Hugh Masekela, the legendary South African jazz musician who scored an unlikely No. 1 hit on the Billboard chart with his song “Grazing in the Grass” and who collaborated with artists ranging from Harry Belafonte to Paul Simon, has died at 78 after a protracted battle with prostate cancer, his family announced Tuesday.

“[Our] hearts beat with profound loss,” the Masekela family said in a statement. “Hugh’s global and activist contribution to and participation in the areas of music, theatre, and the arts in general is contained in the minds and memory of millions across 6 continents.”

Over his career, Masekela collaborated with an astonishing array of musicians, including Harry Belafonte, Herb Alpert, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Paul Simon — and his ex-wife, Miriam Makeba. For almost 30 years, “Bra Hugh,” as he was fondly known, was exiled from his native country. And almost despite himself — as he struggled for decades with copious drug and alcohol abuse — Masekela became a leading international voice against apartheid.

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The trumpeter, composer, flugelhorn player, bandleader, singer and political activist was born in the mining town of Witbank, South Africa, on April 4, 1939. Growing up, he lived largely with his grandmother, who ran a shebeen — an illicit bar for black and colored South Africans — in her house. (Until 1961, it was illegal for nonwhites in South Africa to consume alcohol.)

Masekela heard township bands and the music of the migrant laborers who would gather to dance and sing in the shebeen on weekends. One of his uncles shared 78s of jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller. Those two forces, the music and the booze, did much to shape Masekela’s life. He began drinking at age 13.

He was given his first trumpet at age 14 by an anti-apartheid crusader, the Rev. Trevor Huddleston, who was also the superintendent of a boarding school that Masekela attended.

“I was always in trouble with the authorities in school,” Masekela told NPR in 2004.

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The Story Of How Otis Redding’s ‘Dock Of The Bay’ Got Released

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Otis Redding’s posthumous hit “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was released 50 years ago today. But it almost never got out of the recording studio.

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This year marks 50 years since Otis Redding died. He’d ignited the crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967; later that year, he and his band were en route to a show in Madison, Wisc., when their plane hit rough weather and crashed in an icy lake. Redding was 26 years old.

Half a century later, Redding’s influence as a singer and spirit of soul music remains. Author Jonathan Gould, who’s written a new biography called Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, joined NPR’s Scott Simon to discuss the singer’s relatively short, yet profoundly impactful career. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

 

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Forebears: Bessie Smith, The Empress Of The Blues

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In her music, Bessie Smith — known as the “Empress Of The Blues” — communicated the kind of outward urgency and inner stillness that often signals the telling of an absolute truth.

Carl Van Vechten Photograph Collection/Library of Congress

This essay is one in a series celebrating women whose major contributions in recording occurred before the time frame of NPR Music’s list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.

She was big and brown and built high off the ground — “a hell of a woman,” men called her, but most women said she was “rough.” And while there were other blues singers in the first half of the 20th century — some who shared her surname — none could be mistaken for Bessie Smith. Not Mamie Smith or Clara or Trixie or Ruby or Laura.

None of the others could sing with her combination of field holler and Jazz Age sophistication. None could throw her voice from the stage — without a microphone — and make a balcony seat feel like the front row. None made such an artistic impression on her contemporaries in jazz, or her disciples in rock ‘n’ roll. That’s because she was the “Empress of the Blues”and empress is, by definition, a solo gig.

What came out of Smith onstage grabbed people by the lapels and shook them up — not because she was new and different, but rather because she was so powerfully familiar. She sang about the kind of trouble that most people knew well, and her shouts and lamentations identified a depth of feeling that nearly everyone experiences, but would be hard-pressed to describe.

“She just upset you,” says the New Orleans musician and jazz ranconteur Danny Barker in a landmark 1956 jazz history. Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It devotes an entire chapter to Smith as a musical influence — the only woman afforded such consideration. Barker saw her perform in the 1910s and ’20s before he moved to New York. “If you have a church background,” he writes, “like people who came from the South as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people … Bessie did the same thing on stage.”

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Music Producer And Songwriter Rick Hall Dies At 85 ~ NPR

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Rick Hall, a songwriter and record producer known as the “Father of Muscle Shoals Music,” died today at his home in Muscle Shoals, Ala. after a protracted illness. The news was first reported by the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and later confirmed by Judy Hood, chairperson for the Muscle Shoals Music Association and wife of David Hood, a bassist who had worked alongside Hall for decades. He was 85.

Through FAME, his publishing company and studio, Hall made Muscle Shoals synonymous with a sound of soul, R&B and country that often featured sparkling, ultra-live percussive sounds and vocal performances that seem simultaneously removed and intimate.

Hall was born in Mississippi and raised in Franklin County, Ala., just adjacent to Colbert County, where Muscle Shoals is located.. Hall cited a tough upbringing as focusing him and leading to his eventual success. As he told No Depression:

“My father was a sawmiller; he made 35 cents an hour, which was 10 cents more than anybody else did, because he was so good at what he did and a hard worker. My mother left my father when I was five and my sister was four, and she went to live with my aunt and became a matron in a brothel. My father wound up raising my sister and me. That was all shameful to me. We had no shoes to wear to school, and my father cut my hair, which meant he pulled out chunks of it with rough scissors. I carried that shame throughout my life; it turned me into a rascal of sorts, and I became very hardened and determined. My determination made me a tough businessman and I was very hard to say no to. All of this helped me become a great record producer. I’m the guy who started the Muscle Shoals music industry; everybody in Muscle Shoals is a spinoff of Rick Hall.”

Hall cited Sun Records’ co-founder Sam Phillips — responsible for first recording Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Roy Orbison and many others — as an early mentor. “[Philips] was a terribly big influence on me,” he told the Country Music Hall of Fame. “All the things that Sam did, I wanted to be like him.” The pair, two white record producers from the south, would each have a deep impact on the history of African-American music of the twentieth century.

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Remembering A Legendary Hawaiian Musician

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The great Hawaiian guitarist, singer and patriarch Gabby Pahinui died in 1980 but his influence is still felt. His music was featured in the George Clooney movie “,The Descendents and several Ry Cooder albums.  His sons have been carrying on the tradition, but Martin Pahinui just died and his brothers Cyril and Bla are getting old.

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Hank Williams

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Hank Williams died on January 1st, 1953. Here are five of his most haunting vocal performances. Getty Images

Hank Williams died 65 years ago, on January 1st, 1953, in the backseat of a Cadillac while on the way to a gig in West Virginia. He was only 29.

In Memory of Otis Redding and His Revolution By Jonathan Gould, The New Yorker

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Otis Redding is pictured performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, 1967. Later that year, the multitalented singer, songwriter, and producer died at the age of twenty-six.

Photograph by Bruce Fleming / AP

Fifty years ago, on December 10, 1967, a private plane carrying Otis Redding and the members of his touring band stalled on its final approach to the municipal airport in Madison, Wisconsin, and crashed into the waters of Lake Monona, killing all but one of the eight people onboard. Though Redding was only twenty-six years old at the time of his death, he was regarded by growing numbers of black and white listeners in the United States and Europe as the most charismatic and beloved soul singer of his generation, the male counterpart to Aretha Franklin, whom he had recently endowed with the hit song “Respect.” In the preceding year, on the strength of his triumphant tours of Britain, France, and Scandinavia, his appearances at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, and his domineering performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, Redding had pushed beyond the commercial constraints of the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” of ghetto theatres and Southern night clubs. He was determined to become the first African-American artist to connect with the burgeoning audience for album rock that had transformed the world of popular music since the arrival of the Beatles in America, in 1964.

Redding’s success with this new, ostensibly hip, predominantly white audience had brought him to a turning point in his career. Thrilled with the results of a throat surgery that left his voice stronger and suppler than ever before, he resolved to scale back his relentless schedule of live performances in order to place a greater emphasis on recording, songwriting, and production. In the weeks before his death, he had written and recorded a spate of ambitious new songs. One of these, the contemplative ballad “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” became his self-written epitaph when it was released as a single, in January of 1968. A sombre overture to the year of the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon as President, the song went on to become the first posthumous No. 1 record in the history of the Billboard charts, selling more than two million copies and earning Redding the unequivocal “crossover” hit he had sought since his début on the Memphis-based label Stax, in 1962. To this day, according to the performance-rights organization BMI, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” remains one of the most frequently played (and streamed) recordings in the annals of American music.

In an age of pop culture replete with African-American superstars like Michael Jackson, Prince, Usher, Bruno Mars, Kanye West, and Jay-Z, it is hard for modern audiences to appreciate how revolutionary the self-presentations of soul singers like Otis Redding were when they first came on the scene. Prior to the mid-fifties, it had simply been taboo for a black man to perform in an overtly sexualized manner in front of a white audience in America. (Female black entertainers, by contrast, had been all but required to do so.) In the South, especially, the social psychology of the Jim Crow regime was founded on a paranoid fantasy of interracial rape that was institutionalized by the press and popular culture in the malignant stereotype of the “black brute,” which explicitly sexualized the threat posed by black men to white women and white supremacy. Born in Georgia in 1941, the same year as Emmett Till, Otis Redding grew up in a world where any “suggestive” behavior by a black male in the presence of whites was potentially suicidal.

This dire imperative began to change with the proliferation of black-oriented radio stations, in the nineteen-fifties, which enabled rhythm-and-blues singers like Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Ray Charles to sell large numbers of their records, sight unseen, to white teen-agers. Yet it was significant that these early black crossover stars were piano players, who performed behind keyboards, and whose sexuality was further qualified, in Domino’s case, by his corpulence; in Charles’s case, by his blindness; and, in Richard’s case, by the effeminacy that he deliberately played up as a way of neutering the threat of his outlandish stage presence. It was no accident that the one black crossover star of the nineteen-fifties who made no effort to qualify his sexuality, the guitarist Chuck Berry, was also the one black star to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned, in 1960, on a trumped-up morals charge. By that time, a new contingent of black singers led by Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson was making its mark on white listeners with a more polished style of self-presentation that became the model for Berry Gordy’s carefully choreographed Motown groups.

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RollingStone Interview: Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen

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It is not true, in spite of the stories you hear on the street in Ann Arbor, that George “Commander Cody” Frayne burned down his fraternity house. True, the brothers had just thrown him out, but there was always the treehouse next door.

It was quite a treehouse, with several floors which looked down on some of the finest campus scenery at the University of Michigan. “It was really chic to have a beer with me in my treehouse and throw the beer cans down at the sorority house,” the Commander remembers. “It became the social center of campus. That was one nice treehouse. It was my major undergraduate achievement.” But somebody was jealous, and one day George found that the treehouse had been condemned and the tree was coming down. It looked suspiciously like the work of the fraternity, and soon after the demise of the treehouse came the total leveling of the frat house.

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But for every story that gets debunked, a few more takes its place. Like the one that has the Commander working as a bodyguard for Louis Armstrong. It’s all hero worship, because Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen are most definitely culture-heroes in Ann Arbor. Take the word “Ozone,” for instance. It’s been a Commander Cody word for a long time coming from one of Billy C’s songs that goes: “One drink of wine/Two drinks of gin/And I’m lost in the Ozone again.” Nowadays the word is everywhere. There is an Ann Arbor comic book called Tales From the Ozone, the word appears on the Commander Cody t-shirt some eight times and it’s an essential part of Ann Arbor vocabulary.

But it was not always thus. Like any good band, the Lost Planet Airmen have had their hard times and paid some dues. The band story is at least as strange as some of the stories making the rounds, and even a bit stranger in places. What follows is the true story of the making of one of the very best unknown rock and roll bands in America today, so hold on, here we go — into the Ozone.

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