Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Didn’t it rain (1947)
This is one of my favorite music images of all time (click to enlarge). It was taken in Manchester, UK, during the American Folk Blues Festival in 1964. Rosetta Tharpe (born in 1915) must be the ultimate R’n’r auntie: perm, white coat, a Gibson SG (which she played with finesse) and the Vox VC30 amp. You can hear (and see) Sister Rosetta cover Didn’t it rain♾ (a Gospel standard, also performed by Mahalia Jackson♾, and later even recorded by actor Hugh Laurie , aka Dr House) in Manchester – in a hard-to-believe railway station turned set, complete with extras and props. However, her studio version (Decca, 1947) is the best: the vocal interactions (with Marie Knight) are hard to believe, and the beat swings so hard it doesn’t need any drums. This is the joyous side of Gospel, the one that makes you want to move your feet (but you don’t, because you shoudn’t dance to Gospel. You’re allowed to shuffle them, thou). When I was a kid, sunday mass bored me to death. And I remember thinking: “If they sung Gospel in here, I’d be much more religious”. Here’s your chance to see the light.
David Crosby: Traction In The Rain (1969)
If I could only remember my name is a hell of a title for an album, and quite a statement for someone known to have a taste for drugs. Yet it features great tunes, and it’s one of the most interesting musical relics of a whole scene – the late 60s Laurel Canyon crowd. Virtually everyone who was there is on this album – in different combinations, and various states of alteration. The music is pretty amazing. Take Traction in the rain, for example: although the guitar part is very unconventional (a David Crosby trademark), it works great with the melody. The singing is pitch perfect, so much so that this rather complex tune sounds almost simple. The autoharp adds an eerie feeling to the mix. And then of course the vocal arrangement. Bob Dylan described Crosby as an “architect of harmony”. It’s very obvious in this song, as in most of Crosby’s material (like Guinnevere, 1969, from the CSN album. You can hear it along with four more songs, including Traction in the rain, in a live Crosby & Nash BBC 1971 special♾: it’s a very amazing performance, if you like this music, and also a great window in an era, a style, a way to be onstage). Upon publication, the album had limited distribution and mixed reviews, but it gained cult following in later years. Traction in the rain is not the catchiest song of the album (that must be Music is Love☊, with the guitar open-tuned to E modal) but neither the oddest: the title goes to the vocally impossible I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here☊- another phrase that suggests some kind of high. (btw: I remixed Traction in the rain♾ a couple of years ago, using both live and studio versions.)
Missy Elliott: The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) (1997)
This is Missy Elliott’s first hit, from her Supa Dupa Fly debut album. It’s one of the tracks that established Elliott as one of the great rappers of the decade, and launched Timbaland as a hitmaker. But there is more: the video is a fantastic example of a certain surrealistic, humorous visual language that you can find in some 90s hip hop productions: Digital Underground♾, Busta Rhymes♾, Missy and precious few more.
The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) (and its beat) revolve around a sample from Ann Peebles‘ 1973 hit I can’t stand the rain☊, whose percussive intro (played on electric timbales, says the song’s Wikipedia entry) becomes the skeleton of the new beat, and runs throughout the song. And then, of course, there’s the magnificent chorus vocal sample. In my opinion this is one of the best appropriations in the history of Hip hop, and the result is 100% Missy & Timbaland – at their best. The Rain has that demo tape, bedroom feel that later Elliott music doesn’t have anymore. It sounds like a first album should: brave, innovative and antarctically cool.