Cheo Feliciano: El Raton (1974)
Here’s a great musical story: the saga of New York Salsa, the Nuyorican native musical language based on Central American music (mostly puertorican), but with a flavor of its own. This is what happens when folks bring their music to NYC, and allow it to evolve, grow and mix with the local languages. Fania records started in the early 60s as an importer of Salsa for the hispanic crowd. By the 70s it had become a successful label, thanks to some incredible in-house talent: Johnny Pacheco (co-founder of Fania), Ray Barreto, Willy Colòn, Cheo Feliciano, Ruben Blades and many more.
In 1973 the label’s main artists, under the name of Fania All Stars, performed a concert at the Yankee Stadium in New York, before an audience of 50.000. The recording of that performance (that you can watch on Youtube; sit back and relax, it’s over one hour long) made it on the in the List of recordings preserved in the United States National Recording Registry – for cultural and aesthetic significance. It’s a killer show (and somewhat the musical manifesto of Nuyorican culture), also documented in a two Fania LP releases, Live at the Yankee Stadium vol I & vol II.
Cheo Feliciano, puertorican singer and songwriter, moved with his family to Spanish Harlem in 1952, at the age of 17. He has a long a touching personal story (you find it on his Wikipedia page). In the 70s he joined Fania, and recorded 15 solo albums with the label, plus many with Fania All Stars. This is not his major hit, but it was a staple of the All Stars concerts – also for the wrong reason: Jorge Santana liked to solo on this. No surprise: Jorge wanted to be like his older brother Carlos (same moustache, same hair, same instrument, same sound, same scales), and this songs sounds like good Santana material. The problem is that I’ve had enough of Carlos’ guitar ramblings a long time ago, and to hear a low rent version of it (on an otherwise such great groove) makes my heart cry. However, here’s the Yankee Stadium, santanized version:
Personally, I prefer the 1974 studio version: rootsier, more meat and no Santanas. Besides the lyrics about problematic inter-species coexistence, listen to the almost abstract piano solo at 2:24, and the backing vocals at the very end, singing the rhytmically perfect phrase: “Echale semilla a la maraca pa que suenen, cha cucha cuchucu cha cucha”.
James Taylor: Gorilla (1975)
One of the gifts of great Pop artists is the ability to stay true to their style, sometimes to the point of almost redoing the same song over and over again. James Brown is a good example. James Taylor is another, although he has (a few) more matrixes to make songs from. Take Gorilla for example, his 1975 album that takes its name from this song. It opens with Mexico☊, a tune about going far away (usually in the tropics): he’s written a number of songs with the same concept (and somewhat similar music), like the brazilian flavored Only a dream in Rio♾ (1985). Mexico is followed by Music, a classic Taylor tune in the vein of Up On The Roof or You’ve Got a Friend. The third track is a Marvin Gaye cover, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You): Taylor has been having hits with a number of those, jamestaylorizing classics such as Carly Simon’s You’ve Got A Friend, Bobby Womack’s Woman’s Gotta Have It and many more (he’s even made two CDs titled Covers, a sin only second to his Christmas album). Then there’s Wandering (traditional, arranged by JT), that sounds very close to Secret of Life, from his 1977 album JT. Side one of the LP ends with You Make It Easy☊, a classic Adult American Song, (one of the matrixes mentioned above; another example is Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight♾) and a gem in Taylor’s repertoire.
The song itself, however, is a one off. Taylor has a quirky, humorous vein (in songs such as Steamroller Blues, covered by Elvis♾, or Chili Dog, here performed live with just guitar, keyboards and an odd rhythm contraption. In this video you can also hear why Taylor is one of my favorite guitar players of all time), but Gorilla is different. It’s a lovely little swinging country number, politically incorrect as you could be in the 1970s, and musically fun, yet not so simple (and with the prettiest clarinet line). Moreover, as it’s often the case with Taylor, the vocals are perfect, and the rhythm flow is flawless. The songs talks about gorillas as if they were human, mocking their looks and their resemblance to us. Yet, in the last verse, there’s a little empathy (and such sophisticated word rhythm patterns that it makes me think of Hip hop):
Now most of y’all gave seen a gorilla in a cage at the local zoo.
He mostly sits around contemplating all the things that he’d prefer to do.
He dreams about the world outside from behind those bars of steel,
and no one seems to understand about the heartache the man can feel.
The people stop and stare but nobody seems to care.
It don’t seem right somehow, it just don’t seem fair: ‘He’s still a gorilla’.
Muddy Waters: Rollin’ Stone (Catfish Blues) (1950)
The mother of many songs, Catfish Blues is one of the very few tunes that go way back to the beginning of modern music. This version is called Rollin’ Stone, but we shall focus on the Catfish part first. Catfish Blues is one of the oldest Blues melodies that arrived to us almost untouched (read the songs essay on Earlyblues.com, set in glorious Comic Sans). The first known recording is by Jim Jackson, in 1928. Each of the following versions has minor differences, but the concept (and the melody) is the same: “I wish I was a catfish, swimming in the deep blue sea, all you good looking women, fishing after me”. The most popular pre-war version☊ is Robert Petway‘s, recorded in 1941. Then in 1950 Muddy Waters appropriated this song. His version is called Rollin’ Stone (Catfish Blues), and it begins with the usual melody and catfish metaphor, until the third verse, when he says: “Well, my mother told my father, just before I was born, I got a boy child’s comin, He’s gonna be a rollin stone.” This is clearly the birth of something. Hoochie Coochie Man, 1954 Waters hit penned by Willie Dixon, is based on this line, and so is Mannish Boy☊, one of the best known Muddy Waters songs. Mannish Boy, says Wikipedia, “is both an arrangement of and an ‘answer song’ to Bo Diddley’s I’m a Man☊, which was in turn inspired by Waters’ and Willie Dixon’s Hoochie Coochie Man☊.” It’s worth noting that both Bob Dylan’s hit Like a Rolling Stone AND The Rolling Stones take their name from this song.
Then, in 1955, Muddy Waters recorded one of his most poignant tunes ever, Still a Fool☊, with the chilling second verse: “Oooh, oooh, somebody help me with these blues”. The melody for Still A Fool is again Catfish Blues. But there’s no cheeky sexual metaphor: this is THE BLUES. Years ago, on some odd streaming website, I found this arresting Still a Fool performance. It’s a pretty amazing clip (that seems to be nowhere else). The band is tight and respectful, the mood is perfect and Waters seems to be back somewhere: his voice is powerful, the tension is palpable and the final upbeat resolution of the tune is necessary. Very intense.