The Wonder of Wonder

stevie_wonder_piano_std  Stevie+Wonder+00314863_lgstevie20wonder   Stevie+Wonder+00314867_lg   Today I decided to look at tracks written by Stevie Wonder and performed by an array of artists in various genres.  It goes without saying that Wonder has one of the best discographies in history.  He’s been entertaining the world since the age of eleven when he performed as “Little Stevie Wonder”.  Back then he was covering some of the classics and truly making them his own.  He has that knack for writing catchy melodies, infectious grooves and lyrics that just stick with you.  “Tears of a Clown” performed by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and “It’s a Shame” performed by The Spinners were just two early tracks written by Wonder that give a glimpse at his hit song writing ability.  Wonder also wrote and produced tracks for numerous artist such as his ex-wife and writing partner Syreeta and Minnie Riperton.  He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983 and the magic of his songwriting skills is highlighted in the amazing compilation by DJ Spinna called “Wonder Wrote It’ which can be found on Soundcloud.  There were initially just two volumes, but I think there’s a version 2.5 now and it’s worth checking out.  My selections will hopefully not overlap DJ Spinna’s but regardless, you’ll hopefully be left in awe at the breadth of content that Stevie has produced in his life.

Released in 1973 off the album “Innervisions“, Stevie Wonder showed amazing storytelling ability with the hit “Living for the City“. When I moved to NYC in 1998, I had many moments where the dialogue “New York City, just like I pictured it.  Skyscrapers and everything” popped into my head.  The story of a a young man from Mississippi escaping hard times and racism and heading to NY only to be hit with ten years in prison for false drug charges confronted the modern North East racism that many people failed to acknowledge.  As Wonder always does, he infused the track with so much funk and groove that the listener was not left feeling preached at but rather enlightened.  He takes us all to task for being indifferent and helps us see that the problems he addresses aren’t just one mans problem, they belong to all of us.

Billboard lists it as song #105 on the Best 500 Tracks of All-Time and it’s impossible for me to imagine anyone doing this track better than Wonder, so I won’t.  It doesn’t mean there aren’t some great versions of the song and hopefully you’ll agree that each artist cover retained some of the “wonder” that makes this song such a classic.

patrhodenI love me some reggae, so it’s not too surprising that I’d feature a reggae cover of this track.  Pat Rhoden started out as a ska reggae artist making Rock Steady tracks and in 1974 Trojan Records released his cover of “Living For the City”.

Wonder’s eighteenth studio release, “Songs In the Key of Life” featured “Village Ghetto Land“.  It was certainly not a “hit”, but it is a beautifully orchestrated song that continued with the singers socially conscious writing style.ladsub40UB40 is often thought of as “Pop” act far more than they are considered a “Reggae” act, but if you put aside their mainstream pop hits and look back at their early releases such as their debut “Signing Off“, you’ll find that they hold to the traditions of many Jamaican reggae acts that proceeded them.  They often covered reggae classics and their lyrics were meant to act as a battle cry to impoverished working class people in Birmingham England and beyond.  I have a soft spot for lead singer Ali Campbell‘s voice and the beautiful harmonies the group was able to achieve.  Here is Ali Campbell of UB40 along with his brothers performing “Village Ghetto Land“.

donnyhathIf there was ever a singer that could do a Stevie Wonder track better than Wonder himself, it would have to be Donny Hathaway.  I think even Stevie would agree that Donny had a way of understanding a lyric and a melody and delivering it in a way that would strike any listener dead in their tracks.  Donny destroyed many a covers.  From The BeatlesYesterday“,  Leon Russel’sA Song For You“, Marvin Gaye‘s “What’s Going On” to John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy“.  Donny delivered epic moments in music each time he opened his mouth.  When you listen to him and realize that he died at 33, so he was barely 30 when he was performing many of these song, you can feel nothing short of amazement.  Back to Stevie’s track.  Wonder wrote “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You) about his failing marriage to singer Syreeta.  He released the track in 1972.  Donny’s version was recorded sometime between 1972 and 1973 and released on his posthumous album “In Performance” in 1980.

georgemichaeI don’t really care what anyone has to say about George Michael‘s person life, all I care about is how he sounds.  I happen to think the man is white soul!  He has such a beautiful tone and perfect pitch.  In 1990 he released “Listen Without Prejudice” which featured “Freedom 90” and was accompanied by the famous supermodel lip syncing filled music video.  I happened to love the album, but it marked a turning point for Michael and his discontent with his record label and their lack of support for an album that was not as commercial as his previous hit “Faith“.  The tracks were more emotional and meaningful to Michael but there certainly weren’t the radio friendly hits from his days in Wham! or Faith.  “They Won’t Go When I Go” was the third track on the album and it really showcases George Michael’s vocal range as well as his deep emotional connection to the track.  Stevie Wonder wrote the track after living through a car accident and some say it was the profound experience of living through it while others may have passes on that brought about the track.  Wonder released the song on the 1974 “Fullfillingness’ First Finale” and wrote the song with his ex-wife’s sister Yvonne Lowrene Wright.

syreeta-frontI may as well end this post with a Syreeta cover since I’ve mentioned her so many times in this Stevie Wonder cover post.  Unlike all of the other covers featured, this one still has a taste of Stevie since he produced and played on the track.  “I Love Everything About You” was released on the 1972 album “Music of My Mind“.  Stevie was only 21 when he wrote the album (unreal).  Wonder’s album containing the track was released in March and Syreeta’s self titled album featuring the track was released in June of the same year.  Syreeta finds a way to make the track her own even with the heavy Stevie production value.  She delivers the lyrics with a carefree pixie-like quality that helps embody the spirit of the affectionate track.

Support Your Local DJ’s!

DJ-A-Dog-photo-creditOn Thursday my buddy Andy Williams, better known to Burlington VT locals as DJ A-Dog lost his year long battle with leukemia.  I know lots of people say great stuff after someone has passed, but in life, everyone always said great things about Andy because he was such a humble, sweet, talented and warm person.

Andy was a career dj.  I’m not sure you realize how difficult it is to do, but he solely made his living moving crowds and remixing tunes.  Sure, there are push button club dj’s who are WAY overpaid and not remotely talented, but for most career dj’s, it’s a hustle, but well worth it because you’re doing something you love.  A-dog had unbelievable skills, but didn’t have to show off by scratching every two seconds.  He wanted people to catch a groove and have fun.   He was amazing at reading his audience.  He along with his buddies Niceness and John Demus would dj parties in my basement at 69 Grant Street in exchange for a case of beers in the mid 90′s.  They were always the best parties and town.  Eventually A-Dog made his way to opening for the likes of KRS 1, Method Man & Redman and countless others.  He showed the same energy and enthusiasm playing a massive show for thousands as he did playing a local show at Red Square in Burlington for 50 people.  He really was a dj’s dj.

I’ll leave you with an Andy remix so you can check out his magic for yourself, but one last thing must be said.  Next time you feel the need to run up to the dj booth and ask the dj to “play my jam” or tell them how to do their job, stop for a second and think about their overwhelming task of making EVERYONE in the club feel good.  It really is a daunting task and if you’re lucky enough to be listening to a selector who is connecting to the audience and sporting an infectious smile, maybe instead of telling them what it is you want, you can thank them for what they bring to table night in and night out.  If they’re a great dj, they might even ask you what you’d like to hear next.  Just a thought…

Lots of love goes out to B-town crew, Andy’s partner Josie and all of those who maybe lost someone in 2013.  We get today if we’re lucky, so try your best to make the most of it and bring smiles and not suffering to all you encounter.  You never know what someone might be going through and random acts of kindness and a generous spirit will benefit everyone.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Springtime!

christmas3633cfe35As we quickly approach Christmas, all signs of a winter wonderland are slowly melting away on the east coast as an amazing warm front has moved in making it feel like spring is right around the corner (that couldn’t be global warming could it?).

One thing I look forward to around Christmas is the little known holiday jams that you won’t hear in the mall or really on the radio.  You’d think that programmers would want to diversify and add some new tunes to the bland list of predictable Christmas songs, but no, they would prefer to have you listen to The Boss belt out “Santa Claus is coming to town” for the thousandth time.

Here’s my list of alternatives that will hopefully be a breath of fresh air and become new additions to your holiday playlist.  It may feel like spring, but these songs have me wishing for a last minute storm front to move in so we can have a super white Christmas after all!

“Sound the Trumpet (Christmas Time)”  – The Wailers

“That Was the Worst Christmas Ever”  – Sufjan Stevens *long intro but song starts at 4:57, great live version

“Santa”  – Lightning Hopkins

“Christmas in New Orleans”  – Louis Armstrong

“Santa Claus Dub”  The Aggrovators

“Fairytale of New York”  – The Pogues *this does get some airplay, just not enough in my opinion

“Get Down Santa” -The Jive Turkey’s

“Oh Holy Night”  – Aretha Franklin & Billy Preston (live) *my personal favorite Christmas song

 

It’s a Jazz thing

backdrop_DE-016-Harlem-Jazz-1-Cotton-ClubI’ve been listening to a lot of jazz lately.  When I go a week or so without listening to some form of jazz, it’s probably a sign that I’m moving too fast and not taking enough time for myself.  Jazz allows me to clear my mind, and in doing so, it allows me to shift from thinking with my head, to thinking with my heart.  Lately I’ve been obsessed discovering jazz tracks and artists I’m unfamiliar with.  For a long while now I was so content with the fact that most of my favorite tracks have so much re-playability, that I had forgotten how fun it was to discover new gems.  There’s a lot of truth in jazz.  If you’re listening to it correctly, you’re not trying to understand it, you’re simply wrapped up in feeling it.

To me, jazz is the greatest manifestation of self expression and struggle.  Not to knock literature, visual art or even other forms of music but there’s a truth and imperfection about jazz that really speaks to me and is very liberating.  Allowing mostly wordless music to be your voice is a brave thing.  It’s not always going to be understood, but that doesn’t mean it has no value.  Since jazz musicians did more playing than speaking, I decided to seek out quotes and sayings that might give some insight to who they were and what they were about.  While one quote should not define a man, it definitely sheds some light on what makes them tick.  A lot of their words about jazz can be applied to every day life.  Here are some great jazz tracks along with some of my favorite quotes from jazz musicians.

If you’re a jazz or history fan, or maybe want to learn a bit more about jazz, be sure to check out one of the greatest educational pieces about the origins and musicians by Ken Burn’s & PBS entitled JAZZ.  The ten part series is chalk full of information, footage and interviews and does a great job highlighting many lesser known musicians who were an integral part of building the foundation of this great American art form.  It’s available on Netflix instant streaming.

“I never even thought about whether or not they understand what I’m doing . . . the emotional reaction is all that matters as long as there’s some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it be understood.”John Coltrane

“I would like to be a scholar in whatever I do, a scholar is never finished, he is always seeking and I am always seeking.”Ahmad Jamal

“[Music]…if you don’t make mistakes you aren’t really trying.”Coleman Hawkins

“The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.”Thelonious Monk

“I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason why it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.”Charles Mingus

“I always try to teach by example and not force my ideas on a young musician. One of the reasons we’re here is to be a part of this process of exchange.”Dizzy Gillespie

“The real innovators did their innovating just by being themselves.”Count Basie

“We in the Western world suffer from too many categories and classes; we’ve forgotten that we all still have diapers on. We’ve separated music from life.”Ornette Coleman

“Sometime you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”Miles Davis

“Jazz is music made by and for people who have chosen to feel good in spite of conditions.”Johnny Griffin

“Jazz washes away the dust of every day life.”Art Blakey

“I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know”.Billie Holliday

“Damn it, when I’m bombastic, I have my reasons. I want to be bombastic-take it or leave it.”Dave Brubeck

“By and large, jazz has always been the kind of many you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”Duke Ellington

On the sunny side of the street

Young Mandela Africa FightingI don’t know about you, but I’ve made my fair share of lemonade out of the countless lemons life has thrown me.  I like to think I’ve actually excelled at the art of taking something sour and negative and turning it into a positive thing.  I do have my shortcomings and at times, I will admit, I want to hurl lemons back at my aggressors and adversaries, but I strive to walk in the footsteps of those who took the higher road.  I cannot think of a man or woman in recent history who has made better lemonade out of lemons than Nelson Mandela.  If you Google “Nelson Mandela Quotes”, you are sure to find a slew of inspiring, courageous and thoughtful words like THESE that will hopefully enlighten you.  One of my favorites is this:

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Perspective is an important thing to have in life.  We’re all just passing through this world trying to make the best lemonade we can. Tonight, I toast one of my heroes who walked the road less traveled and never stopped fighting for the mental and physical liberation of all men.
LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO “No More Sorrow”

Winter Warmth

sweatersWell the squirrels are getting fatter and fatter in my neck of the woods which can only mean one thing, winter is set to make its grand appearance any day now.  There’s nothing I enjoy more on a cold day than grabbing a hot cup of tea, starting a fire (in a fireplace of course), putting on a cozy sweater and curling up on the couch to listen to some mellow tunes.  Keeping mind, body and soul warm and fuzzy is the best way to prevent the winter blues and hopefully this playlist does the trick!

Sampha “Beneath The Tree”

Jun Miyake “Lillies of the Valley”

Shrift “Lost In a Moment” 

Junip “Oba, La Vem Ela” 

Donovan “Sunny Goodge Street”

Polica “Warrior Lord”

The Doors “The Crystal Ship”

The White Birch “Atlantis”

Morphine “Let’s Take a Trip Together”

Elizabeth Cotten “Vestopol” (Live)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7b6sdUIG3dc

Beastie Boys “Ricky’s Theme (Live, features the talented Money Mark on keys)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxgVZS5dEN8

The Specials “Blank Expression” (Live)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsD59uKVTxc

Cowboy Junkies “Cheap Is How I Feel” (Live)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDpbmGwr_DM

Joni Mitchell “Barangrill” (Live)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3yFEus0e30

Slowdive “Shine”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbgWjujwvwo

Department of Eagles “Deadly Disclosure”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXWAvsDNh-w

Something old, something new

the-dudeIf you’re read or listened to any of the material in my blog, you know I’m a fan of a electronic music and more importantly, a good remix.  My taste in music has a strong foundation in old school artists, but I do believe that every generation has something to offer music fans, so I try to look forward just as much as backwards.

A lot of electronic artists continue to push the boundaries and give us something we’ve never heard before.  Smart dj’s & producers have found a way to marry the best of the old with a twist that breathes new life into old tracks.  I think sampling and remixing can be a great source of new music discovery for listeners.  From the sample of Steely Dan‘s “Peg” in De La Soul‘s “Eye Know” to Chicago‘s “Street Player” being sampled for The Bucketheads classic House track “The Bomb (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)“, dj’s love for diggin’ in the crates has kept the fire burning for artist that might be under the radar for current generations.

Who Sampled It? has served as one of the greatest resources for acknowledging the roots of the music we listen to today.  I think a lot of young listeners are unaware that most of the “hits” they know and love are not even just based on old tracks, but can sometimes be full backtracks from other artists.  The great debate came up recently with Robin Thicke‘s track “Blurred Lines“, which could be seen as a rip off of Marvin Gaye‘s track “Got To Give It Up” but what most people don’t realize is that this wasn’t the first time he “borrowed” from Marvin. His 2009 track “Million Dolla Baby” is a straight rip off Gaye’s “Troubled Man” (Thicke did credit Marvin Gaye, although I do not know if royalties were paid on this track).  Regardless, many “artist” seem to be crossing their fingers hoping that people will have forgotten the old tracks or maybe that their fans are so unaware of older music, that they can pass melodies off as their own.  Sampling can be a tricky game, which is why a remix or a rework seems like a much safer bet to pay homage to tracks of old.  Remix dj’s aren’t trying to hide the origins/inspiration for the track and generally there’s a  goal to retain the vibe that made the track special to begin with. The Satin Jacket’s brought a new spin on Aaliyah‘s hit “Rock the Boat” with their 2012 release “Aaliyah’s Boat” .  They sliced it and diced it but kept the integrity giving it a minor facelift that worked so well. (track below)

What am I getting at anyway?  Well I recently stumbled on a fantastic newer remix of one of my favorite older tunes which released earlier this year by Ben Pearce entitled “Patticakes“.  Patticakes is a rework/remix of Quincy Jones 1981 track “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me” off the album “THE DUDE” and it features legendary R&B queen Patti Austin.  Now I recall hearing this album as a child because the album contained James Ingrim singing “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways“, which my mom and dad can still not get enough of to this day.  The real jam on the album for me is still Betcha Wouldn’t.  It’s a bit disco soul, and I rarely ever play it out when dj’ing because the tempo is just a wee bit too slow. The hook is dynamite but the verses can be a little much for a club/bar environment. Ben basically took all the best bits (in my opinion) and remixed a track that’s more digestible to a younger audience.

Here’s the original followed by the remix, hope you enjoy both!

20 Years Later

ATCQMidnightMarauders220px-Wu-TangClanEntertheWu-Tangalbumcover

November 9th marked the 20th Anniversary of two epic Hip-Hop albums, Wu-Tang Clan‘s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” and A Tribe Called QuestMidnight Marauders“.  Before rap was mainstream and its rappers were signing million dollar partnership deals with Barney’s (get back to your roots Jay-Z, cause “Brooklyn’s Finest” was bangin’ but I just don’t feel you anymore), two crews from different borough’s of New York delivered two of the best rap albums the world will ever hear.  For Wu-Tang it was their debut album and for Tribe, it was their third and highest charting album.

Kanye may think he’s the second coming of Christ, but I doubt 20 years from now any of his albums will have as profound an impact on the lives of the listeners or the hip hop community in general.  Some may argue that point, but Kanye clearly profited from the groundwork that was HEAVILY laid down by the pioneers of the game. Wu-Tang and Tribe had to constantly swim against the current.  They did it for the love and you can feel that each time you listen to these albums.  They weren’t making the tracks because they believed Access Hollywood was going to call to do a behind the scenes piece on their latest video, they were simply called to give the people what they didn’t know they needed.

I can’t think of two albums that hip-hop heads know start to finish, or better yet, two albums that contain such timeless tracks that fans can “name that tune” in two notes.  The second you hear those notes, you are transported back to the 90′s.   I’ve listened to these albums countless times and for me, they never get old.  What’s even greater is the fact that when you introduced these albums to new audiences, the music remains fresh and relevant.

There were scores of articles marking the 20th Anniversaries (hallelujah, someone cares).  One of my favorites is Phife’s Top 10 Tribe Tracks  from XXL and then my favorite Boston Sportsguy Bill Simmons site Grantland also had a cool article with Wu-Tang’s The RZA.

I don’t know where to begin in trying to pick a favorite track off each album but alas, I’ll try.  “Can It Be All So Simple” may not be the obvious choice off 36 Chambers, but for me, this song epitomizes everything that is amazing about this album.  The Gladys Knight sample from “The Way We Were”, sick production by RZA and rapping by two of my favorite in the Clan, Ghostface and Raekwon. “Everybody’s talking bout the good ole days, well lets talk about the good ole days” say the woman at the start of the record, then the boom + click + bassline = MAGIC.  Gets me every time!

Selecting a favorite of Midnight Marauders is even more difficult.  This album really was the soundtrack of my life…for YEARS!!  “Award Tour” was the first single released and when I hear the first note of this track, I’m already excited to spit every lyric with my classic “no flow, flow”.  My best friend Danielle and I put tracks from this album on every mix, and during our college years, we would drive around on back roads of Vermont in her Isuzu Trooper just jammin’.  “Seven times out of ten we listen to our music at night..”  and “Keep Bouncing” are not even lyrics in any of the songs, but every person who listened to this album knows these intros and outros.  “Clap Your Hands” is definitely a personal favorite, but I gotta go with “Electric Relaxation” cause the video is black and white and all kinds of right and this is just that kind of song that you never skip when it comes on shuffle and makes you feel warm all over!  Long live the 90′s!

Happy Halloween

Betty_Boop_in_Snow_WhiteHalloween is finally upon us and with it comes my final song in the 13 Days of Halloween.  I’ve selected “St James Infirmary” by Cab Calloway.  Now the song isn’t a traditional Halloween song but the subject matter, a man seeing his love dead on the table of St. James Infirmary, seemed to fit right in with the spirit of this holiday.

The song was made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928, but I remember my first introduction being in the 1933 (not that I was alive to hear it) Betty Boop cartoon “Snow White“.  I love the animation and I love the tone of Cab’s voice.

Hope you’ve found more treats than tricks in my 13 Days of Halloween!

Cabbage Night

bushwickbillI’m from the Northeast and around here, we called the night before Halloween “Cabbage Night”.  I had no clue what the origins where, but in high school it was the night of “class wars”.  There would be a massive egg fight, people would go to Costco and get cafeteria size containers of Ketchup, Mustard, Marshmallow and destroy anyone from other grades.  I recall putting sardines in peoples mailboxes and throwing bologna on cars (it will peel/strip paint off cars) and pretty much everyone in the town accepted these horrifying acts as “kids being kids”.  I don’t know what’s wrong with suburban teens, but Cabbage Night was our night to act 100% barbaric.  In honor of this mischievous day, I’m going to select a track that might not be obvious to many, but actually features the one and only Bushwick Bill spitting lines about Halloween.  Be safe tonight and enjoy The Geto Boys, “Mind Playing Tricks On Me”.