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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

A few months back when I read that movie star Joaquin Phoenix was quitting acting, I was intrigued. Like Bjorn Borg, I thought, quit at the top of your game, distilled in perfection. But then I actually read the whole news story: He was quitting acting to focus on his music. Egad. (A side note: I had seen his late brother River’s and sister Rain’s band, Aleka’s Attic, a couple of times in a small bar in Woodstock, and prefer to remember River’s acting.)

Here’s another anecdote: Over the holidays I was watching the Survivorman marathon, which is a pretty compelling reality show. On this episode, the survivorman, Les Stroud, had managed to live off the jungle for several days, until a leopard started stalking him and he sought refuge in an indigenous tribal village. Wanting to learn more about this brave and resourceful Canadian, I looked him up and found out that in 1994 he and his wife had lived a “Paleolithic existence” (stone tools, hunter-gatherers) in the Canadian wilderness for a year and made a documentary about it. Pretty incredible. I searched in vain to try to find clips of this film, Snowshoes and Solitude, but all I could come up with was a music video of Les singing a song with roughly the same title. It was the worst kind of sappy, keening, nature- loving folk-rock (like a David Crosby castoff). And even more unfortunately, he seems to be turning his career focus toward his music. (He has a new CD out.)

I think music is very seductive and very immediate for creative types, but the truth is that a shockingly large percentage of the people who ply away at it passionately aren’t very good (and don’t know it). Sure, many play and sing technically well, but something is often missing. Perhaps it’s because most of our culture simply has bad taste in music. That’s a fact, not an opinion: The best-selling album in the history of our country is the Eagles’ greatest hits.

The novelist Cormac McCarthy once said that a writer should have a soul to express, and producer Sam Phillips once allegedly said after hearing Howlin’ Wolf, “This is it. This is where the soul of man never dies.” Few people can do what Howlin’ Wolf did, but I wish more musicians would measure themselves against such a high-water mark—instead of against the Eagles or an indie-rock band du jour.

I was thinking of that as I listened to the soundtrack to Cadillac Records, the movie that tells the story of Chicago label Chess Records, where the Wolf himself—as well as Chuck Berry, Etta James, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters (to name a few)—did their thing so many years ago. The songs themselves are sung mostly by the actors from the film; thus, Jeffery Wright (as Muddy Waters) does a noble version of “I’m a Man,” Mos Def doesn’t quite nail Chuck Berry doing “Maybelline” and Beyoncé Knowles (Etta) does a dynamite “At Last.” English actor Eamonn Walker (Oz) also does about as well as a mortal can on Howlin Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’,” and Q-Tip keeps the circle unbroken with “Evolution of a Man,” a hip-hop approximation of Muddy.

I guess what I want to say is this: See this movie, which marks out a crucial era in musical history. Without Chess Records, you wouldn’t have the Rolling Stones and a whole lot of other groups that absorbed this music, emulated it and then transformed it into their own discrete language. But don’t buy this album. Instead, opt for another new one, The Best of Chess Records. The Chess stuff is like the Moby-Dick or Old Testament of popular music: You can keep going back to it and it yields up new worlds each time. And so much music has sprung from this source. Here’s the real soundtrack—the soundtrack to that soul of humanity that Sam Phillips talked about.

To keep diving into history, I expected the new compilation The Roots of Hip-Hop to yet again offer up all of the usual 1970s tracks from the Bronx. But I was blown away to hear the gospel vocal group Soul Stirrers singing their 1940s tribute to Franklin D. Roosevelt (long, long before Sam Cooke entered their ranks). Of course! The group’s remarkable polyrhythmic vocal grooves certainly seem a distant ancestor to hip-hop. And when early-’60s singer Little Caesar says (in “You Can’t Bring Me Down”), “Girl you can’t do this to me/Talking ’bout suing me for everything you bought me/Girl is you for true?/Let’s see the lawyer,” it doesn’t sound thematically too far afield from today.

Frankly, though, some of this is a stretch, and the collection could have been pulled together without using the term “hip-hop.” But there are some priceless gems, such as criminally unknown Sun Records blues howler Joe Hill Louis on the raw, tough and primitive “Gotta Let You Go” and the early-’50s snappy hillbilly romp “Swamp Root” by white sharecropper Harmonica Frank Floyd. These disparate gems can be appreciated outside of this expanded notion of hip-hop.

Speaking of hip-hop, let me tell you how far out of control this guesting-on-other-people’s-records thing has gotten: Tupac makes a prominent cameo on the new Keyshia Cole album, A Different Me. I know! But here he is, rapping his way through Keyshia’s convincing Quiet Storming on “Playa Cardz Right.” Overall, though, Cole’s third album is a more mature, smooth and cosmopolitan type of effort than previous outings, and a very convincing and soulful album. The lyrics are a bit cringe-worthy at times—but didn’t the great Marvin Gaye once toss aside all heroic coupletting to give us “Let’s Get It On”? And that’s what this is: soul. A strain that ran from Ray Charles to Gaye to Mary J. Blige to Keyshia Cole, who has made a dang good album that sounds to me like a place where the soul of something or other keeps living on.




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