Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Those Weren't The Days

One of the most memorable musical weeks of my life happened at the end of October in 1986. Elvis Costello took over Broadway for a 5 night run that included shows with The Attractions and The Confederates, as well as one of the first ever shows with the Spinning Songbook. I was there all five nights and to this day, these shows stand as some of the best I have ever seen.

But something else happened that week. I discovered a few songs that have since become all-time favorites. Costello played many covers during the two shows with the Confederates, a band that included the legendary James Burton, Jerry Scheff and Jim Keltner. Prior to these shows, I had never heard of "It Tears Me Up." I knew Percy Sledge, but I couldn't name anything more than "When A Man Loves A Woman." Another was "That's How You Got Killed Before," a tune by the New Orleans master Dave Bartholomew. Sure, I knew plenty of Fats Domino, but somehow, the great riches of New Orleans music hadn't quite yet found me.

And then there was "Runnin' Out Of Fools," a song that Costello nailed. It took me awhile, as this was before iMacs, but I eventually found Aretha Franklin's version.

Miss Franklin has a whole lotta hits. Each better than the one before it. But I don't mind saying, "Runnin' Out Of Fools" falls in to my Top 5.

Before Aretha made history with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, she had something resembling a career. I was too young to see it, but I'll take an educated guess and say, no one cared and many probably hadn't heard of Aretha Franklin until those first hits on Atlantic. But those early records on Columbia are quite good. Not quite the soul we've come to love, but some very convincing pop, jazz and rhythm and blues.

This got me thinking.

Is there an artist you love with a solid selection of material that came before the material that put them on the map for good?

Another artist that comes to mind is Shelby Lynne. Long before Bill Bottrell gave Lynne a makeover and helped create the lush acoustic pop and soul of "I Am Shelby Lynne," Lynne was making cheesy country records.

David Bowie's unlistenable Anthony Newley pop of his pre-"Space Oddity" material comes to mind, as well.

Of course, there was The Beatles with Tony Sheridan, but this is not what I am looking for.

The early material by these artists is better left unheard, at least to my ears.

Is there one song by a band or group that you would rank as high as I rank Aretha's "Runnin' Out Of Fools" that comes from a part of their career that has been neglected?


buzzbabyjesus said...

I'll probably think of a better example, but my favorite Richard Thompson album is his first, "Henry The Human Fly" (1972).

Does Lou Reed count? Before "Walk On The Wild Side" there was The Velvet Underground, and before that the Pickwick years.

Lou Reed (as The Roughnecks) "You're Driving Me Insane"


Sal Nunziato said...

Can't say RT or Lou would qualify. Fairport and VU were too important. Now if both RT and Lou had 6 records prior to the success of their first true claims to fane, like Aretha, we'd have ourselves a ballgame.

Anonymous said...

Hello all..no, please remain seated,

Interesting topic. It may not fall exactly into the category you described, but Fleetwood Mac had multiple albums and incarnations before they hit the jackpot. How many folks-not-on-this-blog have ever heard the original version of Black Magic Woman? More people listened to the band in the Bob Welch days (love the song Hypnotized). But I would assert that many fans in 1975 could be forgiven for thinking that Fleetwood Mac was a new band. And, I suppose, it was.


wardo said...

I still like the first Wallflowers album more than anything else they did (and sold).

William Repsher said...

You could say Electric Light Orchestra. It's never clear to me as to just how popular they were in the early 70's. I remember picking up No Answer long after the fact and being shocked as to how primitive it sounded compared to their glossier pop hits of the time (mid-70's glory days). They had a minor hit with "Roll Over Beethoven" from the second album. Ditto, "Showdown" from On the Third Day. Eldorado was where they broke through with "Can't Get It Out of My Head" and Face the Music was where they became bona fide superstars.

Queen had a similar trajectory. Those first two albums are good (particularly the second), but I gather they were running on fumes financially by the time they recorded Sheer Heart Attack, which had a major hit with "Killer Queen" and then everything changed forever on Night at the Opera.

Supertramp. Those first two album ... I didn't hear them until the 90's! Although I was always fascinated by the cover of Indelibly Stamped, the anonymous, heavily-tatooed bare-chested woman. (What a bad album when I finally heard it!) Crime of the Century, they took off and grew exponentially through Breakfast in America.

Sal Nunziato said...

Okay, I'm going to say no, no and no. And here's why--

Before Fleetwood Mac, there were the Bluesbreakers, so both Fleetwood and Mac had something of a career. The first incarnation of F.Mac may not have had the success as the Buckingham/Nicks era, but they played, had a history and were covered from Aerosmith to Santana. Who ever talks about Aretha's pre-Atlantic stuff? No one.

As for ELO, there was the Idle Race and The Move. Big enough in England, with singles and hits both major and minor.

The Wallflowers started and ended as The Wallflowers.

Same with Queen. Same label, same producer. There was no reinvention, until much later when Freddie cut his hair and grew the mosutache and then the music changed drastically.

Aretha was sold as a Dinah Washington type on Columbia and had 7 records that went nowhere. Seven records before she became ARETHA!

I think the Aretha example is much more of an extreme than the examples cited so far.

Troy said...

The one that comes to mind is pre-Silk Degrees Boz Scaggs. Some quality albums that may be a bit overlooked before he hit it big.

William Repsher said...

With Queen there wasn't so much re-invention as refining. Queen II was the first album Brian May tapped into his signature guitar tone that added so much to their sound. And a song like "March of the Black Queen" points in the direction of "Bohemian Rhapsody" but wasn't quite as tight and well produced.

In terms of America, The Move and The Idle Race were relatively unknown. You had to be a real anglophile to be into The Move (some people were, but not a lot ... Rick Nielson knew who they were!). Nobody knew who The Idle Race was! I'm willing to bet their U.S. album sales were in the four-digit territory. I didn't even know they existed until the 90's, and you'd have figured some savvy record company would have pumped them up at the height of ELO's popularity ... not that I recall.

You're going to make people dig really deep to find bands that put out an album or two that were completely unknown before they broke big!

William Repsher said...

Mott the Hoople? They had four albums with no hits before All the Young Dudes and a sound that changed noticeably on that album. Again, they didn't re-invent the wheel, but they took a sound and production style that wasn't quite there and with the help of Bowie tweaked it into something else entirely.

Sal Nunziato said...

Okay maybe I'm seeing this differently than you guys.

It didn't take long for The Wallflowers to have a hit. Now, if there was a band called The Daisies featuring the same members as The Wallflowers and they recorded 5 albums for a major label that no one cared about and you thought 3 of the 5 were amazing, THAT would work.

But choosing a band that basically remained the same, but needed two records to take off? That is not what I'm looking for.

Sal Nunziato said...

Mott and Boz are much closer to the example, though Boz had been playing with the Steve Miller Band who made a bit of noise. Also, many think Boz's debut on Atlantic is his best. That man has had 4 successful careers.

Shriner said...

I thought about the Alice Cooper Group, but I find those first two albums unlistenable for the most part. No gems until "Love It To Death".

But I'll suggest two songs/artists:

1) "The Real World" from the Bangles initial EP. A dynamite song that got extremely brief radio play for about a day (which is where I accidentally heard it once...)

2) early Bob Seger songs (which were only "regional" hits -- "2+2" and "East Side Story" come to mind...) All of his *really* early stuff has been neglected because of his manager.

The Bob Seger stuff probably meets your criteria more than the Bangles stuff...

Dr Wu said...

Nate Ruess with the Format - a couple albums, the best one 'Dog Problems' being self-released, and very few people heard them. Move forward a couple years to fun., whose second album 'Some Nights' blows up the charts and multiple songs on radio. Plus cameos on other artists' albums.

Shriner said...

"It didn't take long for The Wallflowers to have a hit. Now, if there was a band called The Daisies featuring the same members as The Wallflowers and they recorded 5 albums for a major label that no one cared about and you thought 3 of the 5 were amazing, THAT would work."

So this is all coming back to Todd Rundgren again, isn't it? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hello all...no, please remain seated,

Re: your response on Fleetwood Mac, fair points. Although I would still maintain that the Big Mac meets the criteria in your post ("Is there an artist you love with a solid selection of material that came before the material that put them on the map for good?"), there's no question that their pre-Buckingham Nicks efforts enjoyed more success than Aretha's first albums.

Which brings us to, perhaps, a larger issue with regards to your original post. Maybe you have to hand to to the record companies of old for sticking with certain artists, even when there weren't immediate profits.

Hey...what about Lou Rawls? He put out a bunch of albums before Love Is a Hurtin' Thing. Tobacco Road, anyone?


mauijim said...

Could Willie Nelson fit into your formula? Seems his career stalled in Nashville til he went home to Texas and came out with his outlaw
schtick. probably on a new label much like Aretha.

Sal Nunziato said...

@RichD--fair enough, re: the Mac, at least, as you said, my first point.

Dr. Wu--great example, Format vs. Fun

Shriner---I wouldn't dare.

Robin said...

Aretha. Yep. :) I love my "Queen in Waiting". Columbia thought she'd be sort of a Streisand. The storyline goes that the arrangements didn't always suit her, they didn't "understand" her- she had less depth, less soul. But she's not all about soul, yes she's a daughter of Rev. Franklin, and Sam Cooke (gospel and pop) but also Ella Fitzgerald, and the crooners.

I was listening a long time ago to a "Saturday with Sinatra" with Sid Mark and I think he spoke about her coming and playing Sinatra records with him early in her career on a show. I was so thrilled to hear that! It dawned on me that she was more than the soul and gospel I'd come to know and that like many her age she had at least one foot in what came before her and as with Frank there might be some jewels that came before what made her a master, and that possibly some of the choices at Columbia were hers too.

I decided to dive in and so glad I did. I think you can hear more sweetness in her voice, longer phrasing, and what really separates her tone from her imitators more obviously. And sometimes I just love hearing the "greenness" of someone just starting out (it's why I love John L singing "Anna"). When you are all the way in with an artist (in my case:Aretha, Johnny C, Merle H, Frank, Dylan, Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke), it's always wonderful to hear something different, something that illuminates them in a new way.

Aretha was always much more than a singer with a glorious voice. Like Ray and Frank she's a musical mind (and pretty good piano player) and there always seems to be something of depth worth discovering. Sorry to copycat you!

Anonymous said...


I would suggest John Hiatt. Before the success of "Bring the Family" (1987) and "Slow Turning," (1988,) he was mostly underappreciated and saw more people covering his songs than anything else. He also got dropped by his record company once or twice.

Michael D.

steves said...

I think you can make a pretty good argument for Ray Charles. Ironically, it was also his Atlantic recordings ("Hallelujah I Love Her So" and "I Got a Woman" specifically) that put him on the map. Prior to that, he recorded for a few small labels doing Nat King Cole/Charles Brown impersonations.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't know it except for an article at the Quietus this morning, but Stoney and Meatloaf (that Meatloaf) were putting out records on Motown sub Rare Earth before The Big Break. The link to the article and a track from S&M. http://thequietus.com/articles/17624-funk-rock-bill-brewster

strictly a personal fave, probably, but the world was a better place after Quiver (aka Tim Renwick) and the Sutherland Brothers teamed up to become Sutherland Brothers & Quiver.

Any discussion of Split Enz, or does "I Got You" disqualify them?

There's a palpable difference between Nanci Griffith's Philo albums and her major label work, but I suppose MCA always thought she should have been bigger than she got, even after "From a Distance." She's probably a 3rd, common, category - indie to major to indie.

Anonymous said...

Not exactly what you're talking about, but the recent Experience Hendrix release of Jimi's pre-fame sessions with Curtis Knight is a lot of fun, and there are several truly great cuts.

I'm also a big fan of the first Jefferson Airplane album, the one without Grace Slick.

People make claims for Brinsley Schwarz and the 101ers (Nick Lowe's and Joe Strummer's pub rock bands), but I've never listened.

Bruce H

buzzbabyjesus said...

Everyone knows them now, but I don't think Lou Reed or the Velvets really sold any records until "Walk On The Wild Side".
I never heard of the Velvet Underground until Bowie produced the Lp and the Spiders covered "White Light/White Heat".
In the early '80's, except for the first one, most of their albums were out of print.

But you call the shots here.

rick said...

I think Gordon Lightfoot's early covers of Handel's Messiah and Mrs. Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter are way better than anything he did after he became famous...

Sal Nunziato said...

"But you call the shots here."


But seriously, BBJ...I see your point.

What is striking to me about Aretha though is that, at least from afar, it didn't seem gradual. So many bands mentioned here had a taste of success in some capacity. Queen may not have hit it big until "Killer Queen" and then even bigger with "Bohemian Rhapsody," but they were still headlining 1200 seat theatres between their 2nd and 3rd records.

Might have taken ELO until record three to find some footing, but the members were established rock stars.

And if we talk about good or bad or what worked and what didn't, the pre-Atlantic Aretha was high quality on a major label. But did anyone say upon hearing "I Never Loved A Man" for the first time, "Oh she's the one who made those really good pop and jazz records on Columbia?" Seems to be there was no reptutation. Lou Reed, by "Transformer" had a rep and a following, lack of sales notwithstanding.

As I said in an earlier comment, maybe I'm seeing it differently because I posed the question. I could be wrong.

William Repsher said...

On one hand, given your criteria, most artists who meet these standards will be far distant past as record companies would let you go for X number of albums before they found an audience. (I think that changed late 90s as exemplified in the Wilco documentary about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.)

Then again, these days, you have so many bands doing their own thing with Bandcamp and such ... but how many of them make it big to the point of being recognizable to even the most casual fans?

cmealha said...

The first person that cam to mind was Peter Frampton. Some really string stuff prior to "Comes Alive" that no one has ever heard of other than the live versions.

Anonymous said...

I thought of Frampton, too, Humble Pie wasn't chopped liver and The Herd were some kind of teenybopper sensation in the UK.

Sal Nunziato said...

ANON you beat me to it. By the time Frampton's first solo record came out, he already had top 40 hits with The Herd and played MSG with Humble Pie, though you're not wrong cmealha, like RichD isn't wrong, for pointing out both PF and F.Mac as bands many people think began in 1975.

Ken D said...

While they might have had niche success in gospel music, singers such as Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke exploded once they moved from Sunday mornings to Saturday nights. And maybe it's my secular bias but I regard their early gospel stuff as mostly a curiosity...

This is such a tough question because, really, how many second chances are there in the music business?

neal t said...

Huey Lewis. Clover not really known but solid and the first News album strong but didn't take off till later.
REO sort of. their best stuff imo on first 2 albums, before they became huge. hall and oates had strong underground presence on strength of early unknown to the masses albums released before they broke big.
Steve Miller had solid body of work before becoming pop star. Robert Palmer? re read your ? before hitting send and i concur Hiatt is perfect example, but really many acts fit the bill; Pink Floyd, Bonnie Riattcome to mind also.

William Repsher said...

Gulliver: "Rose Come Home"


This was Daryl Hall's band before he formed Hall & Oates. Didn't even know the song or band existed until a few years ago.

Sal Nunziato said...

Gulliver, also featuring Tim Moore, the man who wrote "Rock & Roll Love Letter."

jeff said...

I'm quite a bit late to this party, but for the past day I've really been enjoying "Can I Have My Money Back," a terrific album by Gerry Rafferty that preceded "City to City," which I still think is one of the great albums of the '70s.

I'm not sure I could pick out one song, it's all pretty consistent, and I, for one, had no idea of its existence before this weekend.