I have no idea whether Berry Gordy did it on purpose, but it was one more bit of genius—plus perfect and form following perfect function, thank you American automotive industry — to build Motown’s studio band around a great bass player, maybe the best bassist in popular musical history.
That bass player was James Jamerson, who played the bass on more No. 1 pop hits than Elvis, the Beatles, the Rollin’ Stones and The Beach Boys combined.
Of course, other primo ingredients went into this Cadillac of all session bands — a great couple of drummers, three guitarists who took an orchestral approach to their recorded efforts, great songwriters and producers, and Gordy’s quality standard, discipline and persistence, to name a few.
But underneath it all was Jamerson and his mastery of his instrument, the one virtuoso in the mix (and I firmly believe there were others) allowed to go where he wanted. Just as long as he showed up for work every damn day, just like the rest of the Motown session men (and women, a few), and executed.
Which he and his comrades, known fondly as the Funk Brothers, did. And, in true Motor City fashion, the approach worked in cranking out more high-quality pop-song vehicles than any other single entity during a golden age the ‘60s and ‘70s).
I learned of this bit of music history from this week’s episode of Let It Roll, the podcast that continually reminds me of the grace provided in massive helpings to us Baby Boomers, who have spent the decades since the ‘60s and ‘70s (me included) patting ourselves on our increasingly aging backs taking credit for simply being born and existing at a certain time, akin to a “foodie” taking credit for the food his favorite restaurant serves.
God bless Motown and those Mighty Brothers of FUNK!!!!!
I had plenty of warning of the most compelling kind: Classy and attractive women of a year or two older, no longer content with simply rockin’, recruiting my best buddy to accompany them to Atlanta’s hippest late-‘70s dance complex, which preferred its patrons male but allowed women accompanied by a male.
Would it have hurt me to go along? Let’s see, maybe learn some dance moves with a couple of fine-looking women while broadening one’s vistas and perhaps spotting a great way to make some dollars in the future (DJ)?
Nah, you’re right, too risky, stick to your guns, keep banging your head at the nearby state university where the frat boys are listening to “Beach Music” and the frat girls seem to be ok with that.
This happy reminiscence comes to you courtesy this week’s special Let It Roll installment of Technoroll, the LItR mega-series about the history of the DJ and the book “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life - The History of the Disc Jockey.”
So far I’ve learned a lot from the series about the humble disc jockey and his or her abiding influence upon popular music, its dissemination and consumption.
I’ve also been reminded of the vicissitudes of youth and the lamentable wages of fear and ignorance. If ifs and buts were candies and nuts. . .
Here’s how untouchable the Bee Gees were in the summer of 1978: They starred in a historically terrible rock ‘n’ roll movie that probably would have branded any other rock band for all eternity, that movie being “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
But the Brothers Gibb were no longer a rock band (nor a rock brand) anymore anyway, and I’m inclined to suggest that no one in their orbit gave a shit about Sgt. Pepper’s fate, considering how another movie and its soundtrack, both featuring The Bee Gees’ songs, had fared by then.
“Saturday Night Fever,” the movie and its soundtrack, dominated pop culture that year in a way few musical phenomena ever had, perhaps except for, well, remind me who originally created “Sgt.Pepper’s.”
I was reminded this week of those uncertain days of 1978 while listening to the latest episode of Let It Roll.
Here’s a rub that’s easy to spot now but was not as clear and present then: Rock ‘n’ roll was getting its ass kicked on the dance floor and just about everywhere else, and the rescue party had not yet been fully mustered.
I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the ‘fro I was sporting by summer of ‘78 would never see the inside of a disco, but it would see the view from behind a drum set.
That’s no excuse, though...
I would not suggest Freddie Mercury was ever subdued on stage, but by the time I saw Queen perform in early 1977, rock ‘n’ roll’s over-the-top ship had circumnavigated the globe a few times.
So Freddie’s leotards, while perhaps unsettling to everyone in the audience — men, women and teenage boys and girls, for reasons individual and varied — weren’t that over-the-top.
I was reminded of this while listening to this week’s episode of Let It Roll and recalling my single Queen concert (February 1977), a recollection that led me to another contemplation, of the first four rock concerts I ever attended.
With all that in mind, I present to you “The Freebird Yeller’s Top 5 List of ‘70s Rock ‘n’ Roll Performers or Bands More Over-the-Top Than Queen, 1974-‘75.”
Here they are, Google them if you don’t believe me, and please keep your comments brief:
1. Elton John 11/74: Cape and giant hat shaped like an upside-down lampshade stolen from Liberace’s living room; multi-colored mohair outfit first encore.
2. Kiss 11/74: Gene spews his blood and breathes his fire.
3. Black Oak Arkansas 11/74: James “Dandy“ Mangrum in his white tights, Freddie’s only close competition for the leotard look (quadruple bill with Kiss and two others).
4. Jethro Tull 1/75: Have Codpiece Will Rock.
5. Alice Cooper 4/75, chased by a spider, his and his ex-band’s nightmare
Honorable Mention — Gregg Allman and Cher 5/75, performing a duet in matching costumes, on Cher’s television variety show.
Special Award for Showing All These Amateurs How It’s Done — Mick Jagger, on tour with the Stones 7/75, riding atop a giant inflatable condom that sprung from a trap door in a stage shaped as a lotus flower.
Good night and please drive safely.
Imagine a Queen biopic in which Jack Nicholson plays the part of Freddie Mercury, and the movie’s key scene comes when Freddie defends his decision to wear leotards on Queen’s ‘77 U.S. tour.
In this alt-biopic, based in part on my one time seeing Queen live in early 1977 and inspired by this week’s episode of Let It Roll, opening act Thin Lizzy have complained about being upstaged by Freddie’s provocative attire, and he’s decided to settle this issue once and for all.
(The third leg in this stool is Nicholson’s role in the ‘90s movie “A Few Good Men, with apologies to whoever wrote the screenplay for that movie).
It goes something like this:
Freddie: Son, we live in a world that has leotards, and those leotards have to be worn by men with my physique and artistic sensibility. Who's gonna do it? You? You don't want that, because deep down in places you don't talk about at after-show parties, you want me in those leotards. You need me in those leotards.
We use words like rock, roll, Bohemian and rhapsody. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent rocking and rolling. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rocks and rolls on the same bill as my band, in front of audiences here to see us entertain, and then questions the manner in which we provide it! I would rather you just said ‘thank you’ and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a microphone, put on some leotards and get up on that stage.
Phil (Thin Lizzy bassist and singer): Are you still gonna wear the leotards?
Freddie: I will wear the outfit--
Phil (interrupts, louder): Are you wearing the leotards?
Freddie: YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT I’M WEARING THE LEOTARDS!
This one was a struggle...that is, trying to get my head around a phenomenon — boy bands — that never can be fully explained or understood but is elemental to popular music, a phenomenon abounding with paradoxes but also truisms, a phenomenon that routinely elicits the most extreme reactions, both positive and negative.
That I could get through that previous paragraph, well, I’m relieved because this blog is now a third of the way done. And it’s about this week’s episode of Let It Roll.
I made a list of all the important women in my life who liked, listened to or witnessed in concert a boy band or boy bands, and I realized it included all of them . . . starting with my mom, whose response to the boy band taking America by storm in 1964 emerged as me, dressed as one of those boys in the band, for the first Halloween I can remember. (Think: Tiny sullen Beatle, not real excited about mom’s clever idea to dress me like one.)
This experience served to illustrate one of those boy band truisms — that is, if you’re male, someday you’re going to be annoyed by a boy band.
In spite of their Saturday morning cartoon, which became my first real exposure to those lovable mop tops, I would continue to distrust those Beatles and anyone resembling them for the next two years, until the first Monday of January, 1967. That night at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, after one more daily slog through first grade, I lit up a Pall Mall red and turned on my family’s television set.
What came next rocked my 6-year-old world, both literally and figuratively.
There was a new boy band in town, its name was the Monkees, and for the next 10 years to the month, I would attempt to grow my hair longer, millimeter by millimeter, in a land war with my dad (guess who was annoyed with a boy band then!)...and that was just the beginning.
To be continued. . .
When he brought Robert Plant and John Bonham on board to complete the formation of Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page had himself as potent a live force as had existed in rock ‘n’ roll by then, and that includes the Beatles.
That he and John Paul Jones joined two cats who would become archetypes of the form (Page as Rock’s Golden God lead singer, Bonham as God of Thunder on drums) was not only “checkmate,” as Nate so aptly put it in this week’s episode of Let It Roll, but game, set, match, championship, and let’s retire the bleeping trophy (and on the redesign, put a little Zeppelin on top and cast it in lead).
In other words, rock ‘n’ roll had a new brand standard, and its name was Led Zeppelin.
No wonder, then, that by 1975 when they both were preparing to take their bands on tour into that Brave New (Rock) World fully dominated by Led Zep (see: “Physical Graffiti”), Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney would allude to Mr. Page in song (and ultimately in concert) — Jagger in a new verse he wrote for “Star Star,” Macca in “Rock Show.”
No wonder, too, that Jeff Beck moved on to jazz-rock fusion, and Rod Stewart, well, I’m not even going there . . . God bless the Faces.
When Led Zeppelin kicked off their infamous 1973 North American tour with a highly anticipated concert at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, I was ensconced in a musty pup tent with three of my best Boy Scout buds, at a campground 50 miles away.
Though my posse and I were about to spend the next two days engaged in various Scouting activities amongst hundreds of fellow Scouts from around the Atlanta area — this was a yearly spring gathering at a Scout camp east of the metropolis — I cannot remember much of that weekend beyond that Friday night in the tent with my pals Freddy, Harry and Spencer, as we anticipated the arrival of Page, Plant, JPJ and Bonzo — the men of Led Zeppelin, by then the biggest and baddest band on Earth.
We had a radio tuned to an Atlanta rock station as we huddled in the tent, and when our heroes took the stage, the DJ reported that the Zeppelin had landed.
My Scouting days were numbered by then, but my immersion in rock ‘n’ roll as it was presented, sold and experienced by me and my buds during the first half of the 1970s was just beginning.
How much of that experience was shaped by Jimmy Page and his fellows did not occur to me until this week when I listened to this week’s episode of Let It Roll.
The table from which I would feast on all of rock ‘n’ roll’s delights — absurdly and sublimely, I’d argue — was set by one Mr. Page, whose artistry and influence oftimes got obscured by the bombast and hype that accompanied his band.
Case in point was Zep’s kickoff concert that early-May night in Atlanta, an event hyped beyond anything I’d ever seen at the ripe old age of 12. On the other hand, when I did finally join a band less than three years later — with Fred on guitar and Harry and Spencer working security and tour support—guess whose song we learned first?
—Ed Legge, aka The Freebird Yeller
Ed Legge (@freebirdyeller) is a life-long musician, long-time journalist and sometime corporate dweeb who’s writing a book about originating rock ‘n’ roll’s most absurd tradition.