Tonawanda News

March 4, 2013

Sending Smokey a thank-you note

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — You get to ruminating as you get older, about how and why you turned out the way you did, which is why an elderly white guy from the suburbs wants to know why soul music has had such a hold on him.

If I listed my 10 favorite love songs, nine would be by black, American artists and recorded in the 1960s. (“Bernadette” by the Four Tops, lyrics of which describe a love so intense it borders on control, would top the list.) This old white guy’s favorite singer is Little Willie John, who recorded fewer than 20 songs and died in a penitentiary at age 30.

Among my childhood memories is sitting by a window in the Buffalo summer night at about age 12, holding an AM radio the size of a cigarette pack and turning the dial to find far-away radio stations, from Chicago, Memphis and elsewhere, and listening to what I was missing. Ads for fried chicken joints and furniture stores, references to “Brother Malcolm X,” James Brown.

At a time when I knew exactly zero African-American people, this stuff sounded both foreign and familiar to me. I wasn’t alone, of course; Motown Records was aimed at the young, of any color. Rock music, my generation’s music, was based on rhythm and blues, and the Beatles and other British acts frankly credited these antecedents for their influence. Soul music overtook the country, then the world, turned into “urban contemporary” or whatever it’s called these days, and guys my age, these days, are still moved by the arrangements, the intensity, of that stuff I should not have appreciated, years ago.

Consider horns, or brass, in music. White-bread arrangements have them flowing in and out of a song, perhaps with an occasional solo. Not soul. Brass punctuates things, honking like car horns, while accompanying instruments rumble through songs. As Joe Tex would sing it, be a do-right woman (blat), and I’ll be a do- (blat blat) right (blat blat), all- (blat blat) night man.

The Rolling Stones copied all of this in the 70s, and turned out just fine.

White acts copied, or covered, plenty of soul material, to the detriment of the black performer, notably Pat Boone’s irresponsible and banal version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” in 1956. He bleached it, so to speak, but he was not alone, and that’s where YouTube comes in.

YouTube, that scourge of a website which allows any kid in a basement or a garage to take Step One to fame, is a treasure of recorded music a millionaire could not afford to collect. Remember “Go Now,” the 1965 hit by the Moody Blues (“If you gotta go, then you, better go now…)? Ever hear the original, by Bessie Banks, available a year before? It’s on YouTube, as is the 1964 Rolling Stones hit “Time is On My Side” by Irma Thomas. Hear where these respected British white boys received their tutelage. 

If you remember these songs before they were oldies, you should know their ancestry.

I was not a gospel churchgoer, I was not a musicologist, I was a skinny and dopey white kid, for goodness sake, and this stuff entered my bloodstream and mind the way medicine does now. It did not turn me hip, or liberal, or even (oh my) funky, but it was a rescue from common adolescence and a lodestar for the rest of my life.

It leavened history for me. Black History Month (which just ended) is my month too, I have concluded, because I’m American and I care about history. It woke me up to elements of society I previously underappreciated, or of which I did not know, which makes things today seem less hostile and easier to understand. I can cook in a wok, enjoy Indian and Middle Eastern food, appreciate the company and opinion of anyone who, one way or another, is Not Like Me, and generally be open to things. I credit that attitude, what schools never taught me, from guys like Rufus Thomas (a celebrated Memphis disc jockey).

Needless to say, I was not alone. Plenty of white kids, who never entered the music business, grew up this way. At Jefferson Avenue record stores, approached through a circuitous route of buses from North Buffalo, I was by no means the only young, white kid trolling the bins of records (the cardboard covers of which typically offered no photographs of the artists, merely their names and those of their songs. It made it easier to sell the records in the South).

I saw Motown acts on the Ed Sullivan Show, a Sunday night variety program on television. The Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, in evening gowns and tuxedos, belting out the hits with style and a certain reserve (they were coached in good manners, Motown having something of a charm school teacher on the payroll). The non-Motown black performers had a little more latitude when it came to abandon -- Ike and Tina Turner, for example -- but their television performances were rare.

Still, I sought, watched and listened.

Saddest song ever? “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted”, by Jimmy Ruffin. Happiest? “Show Me”, by Joe Tex (“Show me a man who’s got a good woman, show me…”).

Most likely to wake me out of a funk when it comes on the car radio? “River Deep Mountain High”, the way Ike and Tina did it. See? You have your own list, of course, but I cannot make a “Best of” list without including examples Mrs. Rosenblatt in the fourth grade would never find acceptable.

I think of it as a facet of America I was privileged to know, whether or not it was aimed at me. The way the concept of a black First Lady is more acceptable if you came to know Mrs. Claire Huxtable in the 1980s, an early immersion in soul music informed my approach to a lot of things as I grew older. 

These hit-makers are dying off now, of course, as are the more obscure ones. I hope it’s not too late to say thank you.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.