Tuesday, January 8, 2019

JD's History/Music Corner: The Coasters, Eazy-E, Johnny Cash at Sun Records, Sophie Tucker

Yet even more musical/historical posts from g+

Let's talk about the Coasters!

The Coasters were formed in October 1955 as a spin-off group from the Robins, a LA R&B group. Although they came to the doo-wop revolution late, their incredible "storytelling" songs became standards and their influence over doo-wop was tremendous. Their first hit was "Down in Mexico" (recently revived on a Tarantino soundtrack, of course), though you will remember them best for "Yackety Yack", "Charlie Brown", "Poison Ivy", "Along Came Jones" (revived by the unspeakable Ray Stevens in the 1970s), and many others. Although we may see some of these as novelty songs, they were developed both as branding and as a way to distinguish them from the other doo-wop groups of the era, who focused mostly on songs about relationships and personal struggles.

The Coasters benefited from a partnership with the incredibly talented songwriters and producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who also wrote for Elvis Presley and Ben E. King.

The membership of the Coasters changed over the years; a version of the band still exists. However, tragedy seems to haunt the band. Saxophonist King Curtis (heard on "Yackety Yack") was stabbed to death in 1971. Cornell Gunter (he went by "Cornelius' at the time) was shot to death in a parking garage in 1990. The most gruesome murder associated with the Coasters was that of Nate Wilson, a later member of Gunter's spinoff Coasters group. Wilson confronted Coasters manager Patrick Cavanaugh about Cavanaugh's plan to buy furniture with stolen checks. Cavanaugh shot and dismembered Wilson in 1980. He was given the death penalty, though the sentence was later reduced. Cavanaugh died in prison in 2006.

The Coasters' influence was extremely widespread. The Beatles regularly performed their work, Sly & The Family Stone routinely paid tribute to them, and everyone from Commando Cody to the Beach Boys felt the influence of the Coasters' sound and the Leiber/Stoller lyrics.

You can buy two Coasters albums for $4 on Amazon Music. http://a.co/bwrdH2K


Let's talk about Eazy-E

Eric Wright, better known as Eazy-E, was born in 1964 in Compton, California. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade, but later received a GED. After dealing marijuana, an occupation introduced to him by his cousin, Wright began recording songs in his garage in the mid-1980s, seeing the Los Angeles hip hop scene as a means to more wealth and stability. He partnered with Jerry Heller to create Ruthless Records in 1987.

In 1988, Ruthless Records released two groundbreaking (one might even say earth-shattering) albums in the same year, both intimately involving Wright: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton and Wright's Eazy-Duz-It. Eazy-Duz-It sounds unequivocally like a test run for what N.W.A. would eventually become, partnering Eazy with Dr. Dre and DJ Yella. Unlike many of the more elaborate efforts of N.W.A., Eazy-Duz-It relies primarily on the undeniable charisma and over-the-top, exaggerated antics of Eazy to shock, amuse, titillate and provoke. Eazy-E has been called the "Godfather of Gangsta Rap" and Eazy-Duz-It may be the most pure shot of the genre you can find, especially including the humor that many other performers never quite got the hang of. The production incorporated many of Eazy's most important influences - you can hear P-Funk and Def Jam style beats throughout the album.

Although the culture war over Eazy-Duz-It never reached the heights of the N.W.A. controversies of the late 1980s, in part because the humor in the album caused many to not take it seriously, it was decried by many for misogynistic and violent content, though, championed by the LA underground scene, it eventually went gold.

Heller described the Eazy persona as a role Wright had learned to play to survive: "No one survived on the streets without a protective mask. No one survived naked. You had to have a role. You had to be "thug," "playa," "athlete," "gangsta," or "dope man." Otherwise, there was only one role left to you: "victim."" Gangsta rap claimed this "mask" and spoke through it as a means of musical, personal and often political expression; how effective (or real) this layer of irony was is still debated. Eazy's lyrics include alternately ruthless and hapless violence against women, rivals and innocent bystanders, murderous and punctuated with gunfire samples, and didn't leaven the violence with "cleaner" material like previous artists often did when they recorded murder ballads or other violent material.

Regardless of your view of their albums, Ruthless Records shaped the West Coast hip hop sound and Eazy-E's influence on modern artists is overwhelming. After N.W.A.'s acrimonious breakup (allegedly including a kidnapping threat) in the early 1990s, feuds between the various members broke out. These feuds, especially those with Dr. Dre, came to dominate Eazy's output.

In February 1995, Wright was admitted to the hospital for what he believed was asthma. It was determined that he had AIDS, and it was extremely advanced. He spent the last month of his life trying to mend fences with his former partners. In March 1995 he died - he was buried in a gold casket, wearing a flannel shirt, a Compton hat, and jeans. He was 30 years old.

At the time of his death, Wright was estimated to be worth fifty million dollars, though his debts were also serious. His children, their mothers. and business partners launched one of the most elaborate set of probate court cases in American legal history. As Wright once said, "I had seven children by six different women. Maybe success was too good to me." (He got married and had two more children after he said that.)

Let's Talk About....Johnny Cash at Sun Records

The complete collection of Johnny Cash's Sun Records singles, recorded between 1955 and 1959, is available for four bucks on Amazon. This includes huge hits and classics like "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Ballad of a Teenage Queen".

Sun Records, founded in 1952 in Memphis, was instrumental in the development of rock and roll as well as country music. In the 1950s, the two genres were intimately linked by white artists; black rock and rollers often saw their roots in big-production boogie woogie bands of the post-war era instead. Sun Records recorded Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty (recording under his real name of Harold Jenkins) and Roy Orbison as well.

The label struggled when it tried to sell black R&B artists like Rosco Gordon, Howlin' Wolf and (in my mind) the criminally under-recognized Little Milton to white audiences. It wasn't a strictly progressive motive, since crossover sales of "Negro label" records had completely transformed music in the 1920s and Sun believed that it could find success with black artists among white audiences again. The experiment wasn't as successful in the late 1950s, perhaps because of the development of television in music promotion. Presley, Cash, and Orbison were white guys that didn't upset our American apartheid when they were invited into someone's living room via the Philco. Eventually Sun lost so much money they had to sell Presley's contract to RCA. Lacking their flagship performer, they dwindled.

Cash transformed both country music and pop music for both white and black performers. His unique voice and sound changed the landscape of American music forever. These singles are the seeds of that change and well worth the four bucks!



Let's Talk about Sophie Tucker!

Sophie Tucker was born Sophie Kalish on the way to America from Tulchyn, which is now part of the Ukraine but was part of the Russian Empire at the time - 1887. In 1903 she eloped with Louis Tuck, who was driving a beer cart. She had a son with him before they separated. Now "Tucker", she sang in her parents restaurant, beer gardens and cafes for food and money, which she mostly sent back to her family to help care for her son.

She was married twice more, to a pianist and to her manager, but both ended in divorce, with no children. She said "Once you start carrying your own suitcase, paying your own bills, running your own show, you've done something to yourself that makes you one of those women men like to call a 'pal' and a 'good sport'."

In 1907 she went on the burlesque stage, wearing blackface at first since promoters thought the crowds would be hostile to her for being "so big and ugly" (as you can see from these pictures, this is fucking insane) so why not make her a comic figure? She was ashamed to tell her family she was wearing blackface and doing Southern-accented songs, so they never attended. In 1908, her makeup was lost by the railroad, so she had to go on without it. She said:

"You all can see I'm a white girl. Well, I'll tell you something more. I'm not Southern. I'm a Jewish girl and I just learned the Southern accent doing a blackface act for two years. Now Mr. Leader, please play my song."

Tucker began incorporating "fat girl" humor into her act - you can hear a little of it in this 1927 recording of "Some of These Days" - other comic songs included "I Don't Want To Get Thin" and "Nobody Loves A Fat Girl, But Oh How A Fat Girl Can Love."

In 1909, she was 22 and performed with the Ziegfeld Follies, one of the biggest gateways to superstardom for women performers at the time. Though the audience loved her, the other Follies girls would not go on with her, likely because of her appearance. William Morris scooped her up when Ziegfeld let her go and partnered her with Ted Shapiro, who would be her accompanist and fellow wisecracker for the rest of her career.

Shapiro also wrote Tucker's most famous song, "My Yiddishe Momme". Tucker was careful to perform it in large cities where a sizeable Jewish audience could be expected, though as she said, "You don't have to be a Jew to be moved by 'My Yiddishe Momme'." The Hitler regime would eventually ban all performances of the song, for Obvious Reasons.

Tucker, who had a sensational European tour at which she performed for King George V, was hit hard by the decline of vaudeville. Although she became a screen performer and even was president of the short-lived American Federation of Actors for a time, she never fully entered the world of film or television, instead continuing to perform in theatrical and musical settings, through to her death in 1966. She was often billed as "The Last Of The Red-Hot Mamas", as a hearty sexual appetite was a frequent subject of her songs, very unusual for female performers after the decline of vaudeville. The Beatles once referred to her as "our favorite American group, Sophie Tucker."