Wednesday, February 22, 2012

There's Something That I've Just Got To Say: Why In Bed With Amy Wilson

When I was 20 years old, I took a Spring Break road trip to Memphis with four of my closest friends in the world. This was a formative experience both analytically and personally, and as such will probably come up again on this blog.

On our last day in Memphis, we decided on the spur of the moment to visit this "Stax Records Museum" we saw on a brochure at the hotel. As you can see on the Wikipedia page, it looks like exactly nothing from the outside. But on the inside it is actually, you know, pretty much the Platonic ideal of What A Museum Should Be -- totally immersive, immensely interesting, and unforgettable. Also, there is an entire room devoted to Isaac Hayes, including both the car Shaft drove AND his chain-mail vest.

One of the many things I learned from the Stax Records Museum was that the pioneering soul producers at the time loved to use big, brassy horn lines because they sounded interestingly similar to the human voice. (I also learned that the label was, wonderfully, known for valuing musical collaboration between members of different races--sadly rare at the time apparently, despite what a good idea it obviously is.)

The first, cosmically less-important, topic is what this post is about, and it's surprisingly wide. I expect to cover only the smallest slice of it today.


The song: Ollie and the Nightingales, "I Got A Sure Thing"; 1968
The moment: N/A; see below

This song is a pretty typical example of an inoffensive pop-soul song in 1968. Notice the horns. They're present and accounted for, sure, but they're not the only thing going on there in the background. You've got the soaring violins, a pop music staple that everybody throughout time seems to love and admire. The doo-woppy, Motown-y backing vocals. The adorable, occasional glockenspiel hit.

Now another song from the same year. (Turn the volume up.)

The song: Aretha Franklin, "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone"; 1968
The moment: 0:44

Okay, let's be fair: whoever this "Ollie" of Ollie and the Nightingales was, he was no Aretha Franklin. (Very few people are.)

And admittedly, some of the striking differences between this song and "I Know I Got A Sure Thing" can be accounted for with the simple fact that Aretha Franklin is A Soul Goddess For the Ages and Ollie was just Some Dude. But let's also be fair about the fact that the horn line in this song is AWESOME, and when it punches in after "I've just been so blue" and before "since you've been gone!" that is a moment that I would describe as downright stirring.
There is so much I'd like to say about this song that I can't figure out how to say, and that's a feeling that drives me insane. It's also what has kept me coming back to this song since I was 20 and went to Memphis with four of (at the time) my greatest friends in the world. Everything changes and so has that, and so those memories are less than completely positive. 
But, for today: The way the horns jump and play and slide around Aretha's vocal line is brilliantly playful and rich--the ideal showcase.


Why pop music? Why In Bed With Amy Wilson?

I don't want to get too mystical about it--oh, who am I kidding, I want nothing BUT to get too mystical about it--but it seems to me that the art of pop music lies in creating a perfect setting in which to hear all the many things the human voice is capable of.

Soul music uses horn to create this setting. Bluegrass music uses fiddle. Electronic music uses electronics. Guns N' Roses used Jack Daniels.

(I'll get to them soon enough.)

I called this blog In Bed With Amy Wilson because I love, just like people have loved this since the dawn of Pop Music Time, to listen to pop music and lie in my bed and think.

It's a perfect setting in which to hear all the many things the human (voice) is capable of.