Not too many years ago, when I first heard her, I thought Judee Sill could not sing. I even thought, oh God, another hack. That plain tone, Ohio accent, the focus on the bridge of the nose… (Can you imagine me doing this as a younger man? I’m sure you can.)
But I listened again, almost in contradictory fashion to my own will, having heard something very close inside of me. And then her voice opened within me. Or should I say, I opened to her voice.
I had forbidden, for some reason, myself to be touched at the level she reached in the way she chose to reach it. I learned to listen differently, beyond the notes and the words, if I might say, without resistance.
That’s what I learned from Judee Sill. I am sure, from what I’ve read about her, that she would never have entertained the possibility that decades after her death anyone would remember her existence on this planet, or that someone might be improved by what she’d recorded so many years before.
No one that I know is saying this, but I will. I listen to perhaps 100 songs every week in order to pull a few into my repertoire. It’s not that I don’t listen to the current crop of singer-songwriters, but I find very little there in comparison to the older material, which is generally speaking, humble, strong, artfully crafted, short and to the point, and delivered persuasively by real singing voices.
There are exceptions. But the newer material, especially the young men, generally sing in a whining breathy nasal about me, me, me, primarily complaints about what they need, and who must give it to them. They write in unpoetic everyday language best suited to an email message. Rudimentary beats, little depth, lots of repetition, machine-like. And there is absolutely no joy.
I won’t be drawn in to commiserate with you in your misery. You have to move me by making your idea bigger than you.
I want to hear a real man’s voice. This weak, feminine approximation appalls me. If any of these guys want to attract a mate, I can’t understand how they do it singing this way.
Yes, George Jones was a plaintive voice and we hear his tortured experience, but there is a strength and an artfulness in it and in the songs he sang. I don’t hear that from the singer-songwriter today. That is why very little of my material is drawn from the current catalog.
I have this past year gone back to writing ballads, making new discoveries in language and melody I’d not known to be possible before. Whoever said life begins at 40, hadn’t yet gotten to 50.
Just today, I went back to the song “Age.” I’d written a first draft in 2012 and rewrote that several times over the past few years. Something wasn’t right and I could never put a finger on it until today, when like manna in the wilderness, it arrived. I hope to record it next year with bass, keys and strings.
Green, Green Grass of Home (Porter Wagoner and many others)
Careless Love (Snooks Eaglin)
Call Me Insane (Dale Watson)
Nobody But a Fool (Would Love You) (Connie Smith)
One of my favorite stanzas from Nobody But a Fool (writer: Bill Anderson):
Well people tried to tell me how you’d hurt me, I suppose
But I was blind as any bat and deaf as any post
You caught me like a tiger I loved you like a lamb
And knowing I still do just shows me up for what I am
In 1947, Jimmy Giuffre, working as an arranger for Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, wrote “Four Brothers” for Woody’s sax section of three tenor horns (Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn) and one bari (Serge Chaloff).
The “brothers” play the head together and then each player solos. But since Jimmy Giuffre was a stellar clarinetist, we thought we’d do it like it’s never been done before: with a clarinet!
Some singers, like Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughn and the Manhattan Transfer have done their own versions in which they scat, but here we feature Ernesto’s solo, while Richie plays the rhythm section. (And a great solo it is, too!) 18 players usually make up a big band. Talk about economy!
The Texas connection: Jimmy Giuffre was born and raised in Dallas and attended North Texas State Univ., which is still providing music instruction to jazz musicians. We recorded this at SugarHill Studios in Houston. Our recording engineer was Cody Franz; our videographer, David Gaona.
In 2009, I played an engagement at Lyric Hall in New Haven, CT with my brother-from-another-mother, Joshua Payneand Lacey Brown, both wonderful singers and performers. That was the weekend of Hurricane Ida. Musically, at least, it was a real success.
I’d forgotten I had footage of the date and serendipitously rediscovered it today while prepping another video. Facebook quality video, but good enough I think, for you to enjoy it. I’m singing Bill Fox’s song, You Can Tell Me All Night Long, which Bill’s graciously given me permission to record.
(Click the two arrows in the upper right-hand corner to eliminate the black areas to either side of this cellphone video.]
The musical wealth of this country is as inspiring as the high desert I traveled to last week. I keep mining gem after gem in the back catalog. Songs that, collectively, we may have forgotten.
But they are there, and these musical diamonds form the centerpiece of my solo performance, when I do my best to display them as on a plush green jeweler’s velvet for their beauty in form and richness of content for all to enjoy.
I visited the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. A world-class collection of the highest order! I’ll have many images to share.
Here, for example, is page 1 of Ella’s vocal chart for Skylark, in large print to accomodate her eyesight. Very likely the chart she read from in the 1964 recording with the Nelson Riddle for Verve. Looks like a big band part. What a marvelous copyist! (A lost skill, really.)
And the entire vocal chart for Route 66, with a key change after the bridge. Early to mid-60s as well? Maybe a rush job, a more impromptu setting for fewer instruments? But still clear and easy to read, don’t you think? Funny, but I don’t recall ever listening to an Ella recording of this tune and the discography doesn’t list one. Maybe somewhere still in the can??