Friday, November 25, 2011

Memphis In The Meantime

About five years ago, I was killing part of an evening in the Columbus, Ohio airport. Typical business trip. Suit and tie, brief case, bad airport food -- the whole deal. I'd just finished taking the deposition of a hydrogeologist, who had spent the better part of eight hours trying to duck and dodge my questions. My brain was fried, and I was looking forward to napping on the plane ride home.

Just before boarding, I got a phone call from Mark Morse. Mark is one of my youngest brother's buddies, and (like me) he's a music geek and a hack guitar player. He was calling to tell me that he was heading down to Memphis the following week to produce a record by Rockin' Billy & The Wild Coyotes, a top-shelf Chicago rockabilly band.

Mark had already blocked out studio time at the historic Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, and he now wanted to know whether I'd be interested in coming down there with a couple of my friends to check out the session. He knew that geeks like us consider Sam Phillips Recording Service to be sacred ground. He also asked whether I could coax my old Missouri-based horn section, The St. Louis Horns, into making the trip south down I-55, so that Rockin' Billy could put some horns on a couple of his tunes.

The Yardbirds, John Prine, Charlie Rich, and Sam the Sham all cut here.

Mark didn't need to ask twice. The next week we were all there.

We hung out at the studio by day and had a ball. Since a few of the guys had never before been to Memphis, we also made it a point to hit some of the city's hotspots: Sun Studio, the Stax Museum, Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, etc.

I learned a lot about recording by watching Rockin' Billy and his boys cut a whole slew of great sides. And at some point, when their band was taking a break, my friends and I got behind the microphones and did our own quick take on an Eddie Cochran classic, which, thanks to the YouTube link below, is finally seeing the light of day. Rockin' Billy was even a good enough sport to play electric guitar on the track for us.

Did I mention that the man behind the glass working the faders while we recorded was none other than Roland Janes?

I sit in awe of the great Roland Janes.

Mr. Janes is a rock-n-roll legend, having played guitar on most of the 100+ sides that Jerry Lee Lewis cut for Sun Records. It was a real treat to meet him and to talk with him about music.

But he wasn't the only heavy-hitter at the studio that week. We also got to spend some quality time with the late Dale Hawkins (whose "Susie-Q" has been a radio staple for fifty years).

Mark Morse, Dale Hawkins, and I mug for TMZ.

In addition, we got to listen to and learn from Hayden Thompson, another of the original Sun rockabilly cats.

Hangin' with Hayden Thompson.

It was one of those strange, unplanned adventures that keeps life interesting.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In Way Over My Head (Once Again)

A few weeks ago, I walked out of my downtown law office at noon and saw that the company that manages my building was throwing a lunchtime party for its many tenants.

The complimentary warm lemonade and cold nachos on the building's south plaza weren't, by themselves, going to be enough to keep me around. But the party planners did see fit to hire one hell of a guitarist to play for the event, and that sealed the deal for me.

So I skipped lunch, grabbed some free nachos, planted my rear end in a plastic chair and listened to the music.

Even though it was a frigid fall day, the building's hired gun was burning it up on his Gibson ES-335. But while he was busy conjuring up Freddie King, Wes Montgomery, the boys from Steely Dan, and a host of other greats, a largely oblivious work force was going about its mid-day routine. For the life of me, I'll never understand how folks can walk past a guy playing so beautifully and not stop to listen.

In any event, during a break I asked the guitarist his name. It rang a bell, though I couldn't quite figure out why. Turns out he's a longtime member of the faculty at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where I occasionally hang out.

After his set, he and I talked for a few minutes. Seemed like a real nice guy. One thing led to another, and I swooped in for the kill.

"I work in this building as a lawyer, but from time to time I play music in local bars. If you'd ever consider playing a gig with me . . . ."

Now the key to this deal is to let a musician know up front that you're gonna get him paid a decent wage. I've got a lot of friends who are professional musicians, and I know it's a brutal way to make a living. I assured him that if ever I called him for a gig, he'd get paid in U.S. dollars that same evening.

He graciously told me to call him anytime.

Two weeks later, while I was down in Atlanta taking a deposition, I did just that.

And that's why, come Wednesday, November 23, I'll once again be plugging in with a musician with whom I have absolutely no business sharing a stage. A Berklee-educated guitarist who toured the United States with soul great Otis Clay. A guy who's played with Percy Sledge, The Coasters, and The Platters. A guy who's jammed with Otis Rush and performed with the Wrecking Crew's Hal Blaine (the world's most recorded musician).

A guy who has assured me that he knows each of the three chords that I know.

This year, I'm excited to have Chris Winters joining me for my annual after-work, pre-Thanksgiving show at McKellin's Pub (2800 W. Touhy Avenue) in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood.

Chris and I will play from 6-9 p.m., and there's no cover charge. Stop by and request a song or two. Just make sure those songs contain the three chords that I know.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Why the Record Business Is a Mess: Reason #467

The year is 1974. You're a hotshot executive with Chrysalis Records, and somebody's just handed you the finished mixes for "High Life," the upcoming second release by the soulful Scottish singer Frankie Miller. The singer's first album didn't make much of a splash, but this time around your label agreed to let New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint serve as Miller's producer. The new record features several of Toussaint's tunes, and the master's signature piano playing also graces the grooves.

You close your door, kick back in your office, and give the tapes a listen. You quickly decide the music lacks a certain sheen. You then make an executive decision to ship the tapes to a couple of guys in another part of the country and ask them to remix Toussaint's production.

And since you're a self-important record exec (who may or may not be able to carry a tune, write a lyric, or build a diminished chord), you don't bother to tell Toussaint or Miller that you're having their record remixed. In fact, the two of them don't find out about your decision until the album is in the stores.

Is it any wonder the record business self-destructed?

Sure, Miller was still a young gun in 1974 without a hit record to his name, but Toussaint was already a legend. He’d been writing, producing, and playing on hit songs for fifteen years. His credits included tunes like "A Certain Girl," "Mother-in-Law," "Working In The Coalmine," "Fortune Teller," "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)," and "Ruler of My Heart."

Even though he’d penned most of those tunes ten years earlier, Toussaint was hardly an oldies act in 1974. Just a few years earlier, The Band had asked him to arrange the horns for their live album, "Rock of Ages." And only a year before going into the studio with Miller, Toussaint had produced Dr. John’s album "In the Right Place," which featured the smash hit "Right Place, Wrong Time."

But that record exec knew better than the hit-making musical genius, so he ordered up a slicker remix of Miller’s "High Life," hoping to put a radio-friendly gloss on what was a gritty, soulful record.

The remixed "High Life" didn’t sell many copies, and Miller disowned the record after its release. Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, and the whereabouts of the record executive are unknown.

In any event, thirty-seven years after the fact, you can finally hear the original mix of "High Life." It’s been released as part of "Frankie Miller . . . That's Who!" It's a bargain-priced, four-disc Frankie Miller anthology, and it’s well worth checking out.

Here's one of the original mixes from the "High Life" record, and it's a stone-cold version of a Toussaint classic.

Post-script: Ten years after Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I made what will always be considered my greatest contribution to popular music. I was seated about fifteen feet from Toussaint and his piano at the second of his February 2008 concerts at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. Toward the end of the show, with the band still playing, Toussaint got up from the piano and walked across the stage, handing Mardi Gras trinkets to the fans in front. As he headed back to the piano, Toussaint lost his footing and fell off the stage. I jumped from my seat and caught him over my right shoulder in a make-shift fireman’s carry.

The band kept playing. I asked Toussaint if he was okay. He thanked me and said he was fine. The master then walked up the side stairs and headed back to his piano to finish the concert. After the show, he stopped by my table to thank me again. He gave me a kitschy Mardi Gras trinket, which I've kept to this day.

The following week, he headlined during half-time of the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans.

Long live Allen Toussaint.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Summer Camp, Dead Parents, and Elmo

Never underestimate the healing power of Elmo.

This afternoon I spent my lunch hour in a Roosevelt University classroom talking with 45 kids who, on the surface, seemed to have little in common with me.  Few of them looked anything like me.  Most came from neighborhoods far more rugged than the North Side bungalow belt in which I live. And the vast majority of them would have been hard-pressed to name even two of the four Beatles. 

But as I told the kids, who ranged in age from 10 to 14, we did share one important bond. We belonged to a “club” that, for better or worse, will continue to play a big role in shaping each of our lives.  It’s a “club” that no kid wants to join, but its members don’t have a choice. 

We were initiated into that “club” when, as kids, we each experienced the death of at least one of our parents.  For my money, I told the kids, that meant we had something in common that was far more important than, say, a shared love of the Chicago Bulls. 

The kids and I met because they are taking part in a two-week day camp called “Hands Together, Hearts on Art.” The camp, now in its seventh year, uses the arts to help kids deal (at many different levels) with the loss of a parent. I had not heard of the camp until a few weeks ago, when one of my cousins, who happens to work at Roosevelt, suggested that I share my own story with the kids.

I’m a pushover, so I signed on.

I had thirty minutes to fill. I explained to the kids not only how I gained admission to the “club” – my 39-year-old dad dropped dead from a heart attack at work in 1978 – but also how I spent the next ten years living an aimless, day-to-day existence, all because I saw no point in planning for a future that could be so easily snatched away.  When I asked the kids whether any of them had had similar feelings, a lot of hands shot up.

We then talked about how to recognize and hopefully move beyond such a highly negative world view. I didn’t profess to have a lot of answers, but I did tell the kids this much. At some point in my early twenties, I acknowledged that the life expectancy tables might be right, and there was a good chance that I might actually live to be an old man.

Having made that leap, I then decided to start living life with an eye to the future -- trying to set longer-term goals while still taking some pleasure in the moment. The kids then asked me a lot of great questions, and I answered them honestly. I know some of what they’re going through right now, and I’m rooting for all of them to enjoy what’s left of their childhoods.

Which brings me back to Elmo.

Since the camp is an arts-themed camp, I brought my acoustic guitar with me. I told the kids that my dad had sparked my love of music by spinning his old records for me when I was little, and then telling me tales about folks like Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, and Little Richard when I was a bit older. To this day, a large number of the songs I perform in taverns are tunes I learned from my dad.

And I was all set to play one of those songs for the campers until I noticed two kids -- one boy and one girl -- on opposite sides of the room wearing Sesame Street t-shirts. The boy was sporting a blue Cookie Monster shirt; the girl had opted for a resplendent red offering from the Elmo collection.

So I called an audible: “Elmo . . . Cookie Monster. Come up here with me.” The kids grudgingly wandered up to the front of the room. I then channeled my inner Elmo and kicked into a rousing version of “Elmo’s Song.”

Ten seconds into the tune, every teen and pre-teen voice in that room was singing every word of “Elmo’s Song” along with me. Not something I’d normally expect from kids that age, but these kids appeared to have gotten comfortable enough with each other over two weeks that they weren’t afraid to get a little silly.

I then blasted through a quick version of “C Is For Cookie” for my buddy in the blue t-shirt, but he was less than impressed.

With the Sesame Street songbook out of the way, I moved back to my dad’s record collection. Before launching into the next tune (a #2 smash for both Bobby Day in 1958 and Michael Jackson in 1972), I told the kids that I’d be happy to have them as background singers and dancers if the spirit moved them.

And wouldn’t you know it -- halfway through the first verse of “Rockin’ Robin,” three of my background singers jumped to their feet, got behind me, and worked out their choreography on the spot. By the time I hit the first chorus, two-thirds of the kids in the room were “on stage” with me, entertaining their friends who were still sitting on the floor.

It was a heck of a way to spend my lunch hour.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Songwriting for Kids

The first wave of students will arrive at my house this afternoon. Today it will be the younger group -- three kids who range in age from about six to nine. A couple Sundays from now, five eighth graders will knock on my door.

Each group is coming over to talk about music. The focus of our meetings will be songwriting. The kids and I plan to meet regularly during the spring and summer, and by the end of the program, each group of kids will have written and recorded an original song.

As part of that process, the kids will have the opportunity to consult -- via Skype -- with my compadre Alan Elliott, a Hollywood composer and arranger (who also makes it a point to work with young musicians in L.A. schools).

Lord knows I don't have Alan's musical talent or training. He scores movies and TV shows; I write and record occasional "odes" to elected officials in the Land of Lincoln. But I'm confident I can still teach these kids something useful.

This whole adventure came about on a lark. Last month, I decided to offer up my services in a silent auction to raise some money for my youngest daughter's public school. To my surprise, a couple of folks were willing to write checks to help out the school (while encouraging the budding Leibers and Stollers in their own homes).

I'm looking forward to working with the kids. I'll do my best to ensure they have a blast. It may be the first time some of them get to hear (and discuss) music by folks like Roger Miller, Smokey Robinson, Cole Porter, Jimmy Webb, and Woody Guthrie.

Who knows? Down the road, they may even allow me to post their finished works on this site. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Too Big To Fail

Chicago was hit by a blizzard this week, and most of us here in the city were snowed in on Wednesday. I spent part of the day shoveling and part of the day cranking out a song.

I know there's minimal demand for middle-aged white rappers with law degrees, but because I'm not hustling clubs for a cover charge, I don't sweat the realities of the marketplace. On the plus side, I've never had to spend quality time on a hotel balcony with Suge Knight.

I'll blame the following two minutes and fifty-two seconds on my having spent too much time (a) studying Chicago politics and (b) spinning Eric B. & Rakim records in the 1980s. (Apologies in advance to the great Rakim.)

Too Big To Fail
(M. Farmer)

I got a call last spring from Good King Rich
He said the time had come for him to make a switch
He said, “Rahm, you’ve always been my boy”
I said, “Rich, you’ve always been my goy”
Then he started talkin’ about his plan
To slip on out and make me the man
He said, “Here’s the teflon; you’re gonna be a great Don --
Do the dance like my very own Black Swan”
Then I said, “I will prevail --
I got Hollywood cash; I’m too big to fail”

Then I let it be known that I was back in Chi-Town
Measuring drapes and getting ready to throw down
And just like that the field cleared
The wannabes all disappeared
I got rock star money; I can buy my own island
My family wants Thai food, I take ‘em to Thailand
Stay off of my court; I’m playing a blood sport
Whaddup, Winnetka? Bye-bye Bridgeport
No need to vote; I will prevail
I got Hollywood cash; I’m too big to fail

Then I hit the streets with my top adviser
The guy in charge of my hand sanitizer
I smile and wish all the people well
Shake some hands and then get my Purell
They say I’m out of touch with the working man
With my thousand dollar suits and my year-round tan
I say spare me the rap about that neighborhood crap
Garfield Park is just a place on a map
You wanna play ball, put a check in the mail
I got Hollywood cash; I’m too big to fail

Public schools, hah, I don’t need ‘em
Parking meters, lord, I don’t feed ‘em
My big-money crew is gonna rock the downtown
And throw a few bones to the black and the brown
Kiss up to all the right preachers
Send dead fish to the union teachers
Bringin’ it non-stop; rockin’ the hip-hop
Did I mention that my uncle was a city cop?
Mess with me and you touch the third rail
With my Hollywood cash; I’m too big to fail