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Analogue Underground

Liner Notes

I make no claims of being that “deep” into Oakland’s rich cultural heritage, etc., after living 30+ years 3000 miles away, and only being here for about 7 years (2001-2003; 2005-2009); my choice in songs to perform/include makes no claim to any authority but a personal one. Each song has many stories, but there is a largely erased, or simply “hard to find” cultural tradition of “Oakland soul” (and other genres) made by many musicians who are still alive today whom I am very curious about. Two factors, in particular, seem to account for this somewhat erased history. 1) the increased monopoly stranglehold of mass cultural productions almost always trumping local recorded music in the past 30 years. 2) the cultural segregation, especially between black and white. I am hoping my little gesture in this direction will spur others who know more about, and/or were active participants in, the creation of the original songs, to come forward with their “oral histories” etc.

If I had had time and money, I would have much rather put together a definitive Oakland soul, r&b, (circa 1963-1973) compilation. I am still hoping this can happen.

1.Rodger Collins
Around 2004, the Berkeley local college station (KALX) put “Foxy Girls In Oakland,” into heavy rotation. A driving funk song, with amazing guitar playing and “Wilson Pickett-esque” soul vocals, this song became a local smash among the largely white hipster crowd DJ Kitty (later the proprieter of Emeryville’s Kitty’s) would cater to at Radio Bar and many of the underground warehouse spaces which helped fill the void for live entertainment imposed by Oakland’s strict curfew and zoning laws.

The relatively large white hipster scene in Oakland (I use that term non-pejoratively, but descriptively in the spirit of Stephen Elliot’s essay--though frankly I prefer the word “mod,” which could include Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions as much as The Jam) has many live DJS who play a heavy dose of highly danceable soul oldies; often they pride themselves on their obscurity. “Foxy Girls In Oakland,” has the added benefit of being written about Oakland by Oakland soul singer, Rodger Collins. The song appeared on a number of Oakland-based compilations from the Fantasy Records Galaxy Subsidiary, and had been a local R&B smash circa 1970. I immediately rushed out looking for any in-print collections of Oakland soul. The only ones available were imports!! So much for “buy local;” it’s not even “buy American.” Do Rodger Collins and the others get any royalty kick-back from sales? Doubtful, at best. Not only did I have to buy and import, turns out the compilation Bad Bad Whiskey and other Galaxy repackagings, were only about 50% Oakland-based (or even East Bay based) musicians (furthermore, there were many other labels that released some soul sides, not included). So that was a disappointment. It is, however, a starting place for any one new to Oakland curious about the time when the San Pablo Avenue/Grove Street area hosted several fine small labels that mostly put out 45s of Oakland r&b, blues and soul.

In addition to the classic “Foxy Girls In Oakland,” Bad Bad Whiskey also included two other sides by Rodger Collins. The first was “She’s Lookin’ Good,” a single from 1966/67, that established Collins as a local star. I choose to cover this, in part because it seemed the less obvious choice, as it is generally less-known among the 20-30-40-something mostly white hipster crowd, even if the 60-70-80 something black folks tend to know it as much as “Foxy Girls.” Even though “She’s Lookin Good,” became a top 20 (top 15) national pop “crossover” hit for Wilson Pickett in the summer of 1968, it doesn’t get played much even on the oldies stations these days.

Rodger Collins himself re-recorded “She’s Lookin’ Good,” on his first album in 30 years, just released last year (www.rodgercollins.com). Researching “She’s Lookin’ Good,” on the web, I discovered this email from two of Rodger Collins’ drummers in the late 1960s.

2. Tower Of Power
Another local band that is still very active, with some lineup changes, is Tower of Power (www.towerofpower.com).

I will leave it for others (or for another time) to debate whether there is a distinctive “Oakland soul” sound; certainly it hasn’t got the national play that other cities have (New Orleans, Detroit, Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia, for instance). It could be a great documentary. It of course would have to include Tower of Power. I choose to include the first Tower Of Power song I ever heard as a kid; their biggest national pop crossover hit, “So Very Hard To Go” (1973). I always thought this was an absolute pop classic, even if I felt the chorus was a little melodically anti-climactic considering how melodically beautiful the verse and build-up is. What I call “melodically anti-climactic,” though, may simply be that the chorus is more based on jazz chords, charts and arrangements while the verse is more pop/soul. At their height Tower Of Power was a ten-piece, highly orchestrated band, with a beautiful Aaron Neville (meets Cuba Gooding, Sr.)-esque vocalist in Lenny Williams, and the horn section featuring the two songwriters of “So Very Hard To Go,” original founding members tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo and baritone saxophonist Stephen "Doc" Kupka.

Usually when I choose to record covers, I choose them because I can sing them better than my own songs. I can’t say that is the case with these songs. I’ve never really tried the “soul scream” before, and have a long way to go should I chose to pursue it (I need a place where I can make noise uninhibitedly; the church?) One of the reasons I chose to record this song was to imagine what it feels like from within, and to see if working with my recording partners Greg Ashley and Matt Montgomery, we could in some small way, deliver a somewhat soulful approximation, and/or translation of the feeling of the original; perhaps it’s a failed experiment, but I’m glad we had the excuse to try it. Vocally, I’m aware that people might find my voice flat, nasal and abrasive (think Leonard Cohen or Neil Diamond; but if I can’t be Lenny Williams, you know, I’d still rather be me than the allegedly more soulful Michael McDonald or Justin Timberlake). The trivial buffs might appreciate that the bassist on the original hit version of this song (Victor Conte) later founded Balco, which apparently helped Barry Bonds become his own “tower of power.”

The core of Tower of Power is still together, touring around the globe. Recently (August 2009), I was channel surfing the AM Walkman and heard co-founder Emilio Castillo talking about their new album (turns out it was a boxing show on the sports station; boxing remains Castillo's favorite professional sport). The new album, The Great American Soulbook, features such soul classics as "You Met Your Match," "I Thank You (with Tom Jones)," "Loveland," "It Takes Two (with Joss Stone)," "Me and Mrs. Jones," "Mr. Pitiful," "Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel," "Since You've Been Gone," and Bill Withers' "Who Is He And What Is He To You"--done as only a veteran band can. Castillo spoke about the virtues of self-releasing an album (especially one the majors helped you with the big hit that allows you to make the most of your money touring). So, if you haven't heard of this album yet, it's not because it isn't better than most new stuff pushed on the commercial station. So, I just wanted to let you know; they're not just an "oldies act"!

There’s also this DEEP OAKLAND aspect to doing these songs. Neither of these songs has particularly “intellectual” lyrics; this is not a pre-requisite for (and may even get in the way of) a soul classic; there is a substance and depth to lines like “I got to make it right for everyone concerned/ even if it’s me, if it means that it’s me/ what’s getting burned,” for instance, as well as the lines about “mojo” and “gun” (“she make me talk right”) in Collins’ song. As a “double-sided single,” they would represent the two sides of Oakland personal/romantic soul; the beloved taking the place of God in Gospel Music; a civil gracefulness, a tight, well-crafted, tribute to a woman, in love and/or loss. As someone who has always been too intellectual and/or supped the bitter poison of dark gender wars (again Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Dylan, et al), these songs contain a ‘deceptive simplicity’ that contemporary pop could use more of (as well as indie, hip hop, so-called ‘r&b,’ actually contemporary country probably comes closest at its rare best to the passion and precision of these songs). They also may teach me to finally be able to write a love song my girlfriend will find convincing!

3. Sly and The Family Stone
By contrast, both “Ride The Fence,” and “Stand,” are much more political, or at least public, songs, and represent the somewhat submerged tradition of songs about public ethical stances without reference to heterosexual or homosexual love. “Stand” probably needs no introduction, as it’s perhaps even more well known than the Tower Of Power song, if only because the band who wrote and recorded the original is. Originally I resisted trying to cover Sly And The Family Stone for this project--both because of the obviousness (it seemed a cop out) and also because only about half the band lived in Oakland for an extended period of time. Yet the murder of a friend, and a San Francisco friend’s comment about Oakland, kicked in my Oakland pride, and learning how to play “Stand” seemed like a way to deal with this cathartically.

Sly Stone’s a Pisces, and this song feels very much the song of an introvert/piano player trying to force himself, lovingly, to make a relatively brief, but intensely present, pact with the public world. It could also be a “black power song,” though the Panthers thought he was never political enough (activist, etc); but I see Sly talking to himself as well. Sly went further in so man ways than most musicians even come close to, in his musical/social vision. Sure, it “fell apart,” but that fact it held together as long as it did is still a source of inspiration for many.

I defend Sly by the way against those who criticize his “dropping out” or call him a drug casualty. But, after “If You Want Me To Stay,” Sly indeed became one who had done all the things he set out to do (as he predicted in “Stand”); Jerry Rice retires before age 45, everybody accepts it as the normal course of things. But in music there’s a voice tugging at the “prematurely successful,” or early retiree, goading him to release “Heard Ya Missed Me, Well, I’m Back...” Sly’s famous therefore his financial mismanagement is; the Rodger Collins story is less well known, but he didn’t release many records in from 1973--1987, and then released a “getting off Welfare song.” Musicians mismanage money, and accounts can’t carry a tune, or at least have tin ears. Let’s move beyond this stalemate, and STAND. Uh, huh, “you’ve been sitting much too long, there’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong.”

The drummer on this version of the song, Jon Weiss, shares Sly Stone’s birthday (March 15). Jon is another Oakland veteran, having played with local legends Jello Biafra and Polkacide. In fact, the original idea behind this song was that we would sample much of Jello Biafra’s spoken word pieces (from No More Coccoons, etc) and play them while the band went into a weird swirly grooving psychedelic jam. According to Jon, Biafra never wanted to mix music with his “spoken word” (stand-up political comedy), which I think’s a shame, and I was hoping we could create a piece that we would send to him to make him reconsider the possibility of combining those two forms. At the very least it would be useful for this project. Unfortunately, illness aborted this collaboration before we could add that. Jon did however play a mean Benny Benjamin (Motown’s classic drummer); joined by Rachel Thoele (Flipper, Fright Wig, etc) on bass. This piece remains an unfinished mix.

4. The Coup
I moved to Oakland from NYC about a month before 9/11/2001; this date was the scheduled release date for Party Music, an album by Oakland-based “conscious hip-hop” band The Coup. However, due to the tragic events of that day, the album had to be recalled because its cover artwork now seemed particularly offensive to many people who, a week earlier, would have appreciated it. The cover depicted The World Trade Center being blown up, and on fire. Given the emotional climate in the months following 9/11, when Clearchannel found reasons to stop playing songs as benign as Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner,” or Leonard Skynnyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone,” it’s not hard to imagine the response The Coup received for Party Music. Yet, it was precisely because of the adverse publicity the album received that I became aware of the brilliant and articulate wordsmith Boots Riley, mostly through his interviews, but also through his lyrics.

A few years later, after the success of my New Orleans Benefit CD, I began writing more political songs. But in most cases, the audiences that had responded well to my previous bands (to say nothing of my books of poetry), found many of these songs to be too didactic (even if they agreed with the sentiments). “It’s not 1965 anymore,” as one reviewer put it. Frustrated with the hostility to overtly political lyrics in the so-called “indie rock” (or alt-country, freak-folky) scenes, I found myself searching for different aesthetic solutions. As an experiment, I took one of my folk-punk barrelhouse piano melodies (half Tom Waits and half Violent Femmes), and found that it rhythmically fit the lyrics to a song from The Coup’s Party Music album, “Ride The Fence.”

I began performing this version at the few “singer/songwriter” based venues in the Bay Area that still have acoustic pianos, and I was astounded how well it went over. I think many in the white hipster scene appreciated the juxtaposition of lyrics in the “hip hop idiom” being done to in a different style. My hunch is that the political nature of the lyrics were almost incidental; had I taken a less-political E-40 song I probably would’ve had a similar reaction. Still, at least the revolutionary lyrics of “Ride The Fence” didn’t detract from the usually apolitical audience’s appreciation of the song.

When I recorded it, I was anxious as to whether Boots would appreciate it as the tribute, and even “popularization,” I intended it to be, rather than a rip off or an insult. I was honored when he wrote back to sanction it by forwarding a link to my version to his mailing list. Of course, some people in his audience didn’t appreciate my version, and frankly I didn’t expect them to. If they already are hip-hop fans, as well as appreciators of Boots’ words, of course my version is going to be a novelty at best (that may be true of my other covers included here as well) Nonetheless, the mere fact that Boots tried to overcome the cultural segregation in this incident is one of the things that makes him so special as an activist, and top on many people’s list for Oakland poet-laureate.

5. Brian Glaze
To round out my selection of 5 songs, I include a piece by Brian Glaze. Brian Glaze used to be the drummer for The Brian Jonestown Massacre, but I like his solo stuff better (and not just because of wanting to pull for the underdog). “Black Rabbit,” is from his just released (July 2009), third solo album, Hoops & Leather Boots (no reference to Boots Riley). I play piano on it.

- Chris Stroffolino, Oakland, July 2009

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Stand by Sly and the Family Stone
So Very Hard To Go by Tower of Power
She's Lookin' Good by Rodger Collins
Ride the Fence by The Coup
Black Rabbit by Brian Glaze