Monday, March 31, 2008

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962)

Today, having written some songs myself, I see that Baker knew what all songwriters know, what singers like Judy Garland and Patsy Cline and Karen Carpenter knew most profoundly, that all songs are sad songs, borne as they are on the insubstantial substance of our fleeting breath.

-Dave Hickey on Chet Baker, 1997

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Dark Star (or) Song of Sam

The Beatles’ barnstorming of America in February of 1964 is widely considered to be the beginning of the ‘British Invasion,’ an era marked by the domination of American popular music charts and concert venues by groups from the UK such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks. In the wake of this musical flood, American groups scrambled to regain ground and chart position, and in the spring of 1965 a rallying cry burst forth from Memphis, Tennessee, courtesy of Texas R&B band Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs. “Wooly Bully,” their pulsing, frantic, decidedly Southern call-to-arms remained on the charts for 18 weeks and went on to sell over three million copies worldwide, winning Billboard’s “Record of the Year” award and earning the group a Grammy nomination.

This reclaiming of American musical territory in the wake of the ‘British Invasion’ is rendered even more significant upon closer examination of The Pharaohs themselves, a mixed race group led by Mexican American musician Domingo ‘Sam’ Samudio. Sam was born in Dallas in 1933 to Santiago Samudio and Aurora Sanchez, and spent six years in the Navy before being discharged in 1962. While attending the University of Texas at Arlington, he formed an early version of The Pharaohs before accepting a position as a lead singer and organist with a group called Andy and The Nightriders in Louisiana. By the time The Nightriders arrived in Memphis for an extended engagement at The Diplomat Club, Sam had assumed full control of the band, rechristening them “Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs.” Under Sam’s leadership, the band was signed to the Memphis-based Pen record label, and recorded “Wooly Bully” soon thereafter.

I provide this brief history to demonstrate ways in which Domingo ‘Sam’ Samudio asserted and affirmed his Mexican American identity over 40 years ago. At a time when Latino identity and culture, as well as border politics, are of such national concern, it’s crucial that we think deeply about the work of Latino musical pioneers like Sam in an attempt to identify past sites of cultural negotiation and enactment. It would be wise to heed Sam’s incantory introduction to “Wooly Bully” as a powerful proclamation of our heterogeneous cultural mix as a nation. In 1965, the distinctly American response to the ‘British Invasion’ heard around the world went something like this: “UNO, DOS, ONE, TWO, TRES, QUATRO!”

Although the triumph of “Wooly Bully” went a long way towards returning the nexus of popular musical power back to the United States, Sam’s subsequent tenure with The Pharaohs was a series of diminishing returns. Largely perceived as a novelty act, the group recorded several fairytale-inspired records (including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Pied Piper,” and “The Hair On My Chinny Chin Chin”) before Sam disbanded the group, frustrated that his work was not being taken seriously. In 1972, Sam released “Hard and Heavy,” a solo album that found him in collaboration with Jerry Wexler’s Miami-based house band The Dixie Flyers (which at this time included Duane Allman, Jim Dickinson, Mike Utley, Tommy McClure, and the Memphis Horns). “Hard and Heavy” earned Sam a Grammy for his self-penned liner notes, which read as a treatise on issues of class, race, and family. However, despite Sam’s work towards establishing a new American musical identity through the late 1960s and early 1970s, “Hard and Heavy” would be the last time (aside from a short-lived collaboration with Ry Cooder in 1980) that the wider public would hear from Sam the Sham.

The story of Domingo ‘Sam’ Samudio raises several questions that warrant serious consideration: How did Sam negotiate and reconcile his status as a Mexican American with his status as a Southerner through the 1960s and 70s? As a Latino musical celebrity performing throughout the South, which cultural roads was he forced to walk (by record companies, audiences, concert promoters), and which did he choose to walk? How does he construct his identity now? And importantly, in what ways does Sam’s story dovetail with narratives of other Latino musicians from the South such as Freddy Fender (born Baldemar Huerta) and Augie Meyers? An oft told story reveals how early promotional photographs of the Sir Douglas Quintet (for whom Meyers played organ) were taken in silhouette, in effect disguising the ethnicity of the predominantly Mexican American band. Sam’s bilingual countdown at the beginning of “Wooly Bully,” and his outspoken address of his identity as a Mexican American in the liner notes to “Hard and Heavy” propose a counter-narrative, one that finds him in a complex cultural discussion about the South as home.

Somehow, Sam has been strangely forgotten. “Wooly Bully” is certainly remembered (and often played) as a party favorite, but the bilingual shout that brought popular music back to America is rarely thought of in the context of Southern race relations in the 1960s. Sam has continued to live in the South; he worked throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s servicing oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and later traveled as an itinerant preacher. I recently tracked Sam down at his home in Memphis, and he told me, in no uncertain terms, that his life’s work “hasn’t even begun.”

A larger Latino population than ever before currently calls the American South home; with this changing demographic comes conversation- sometimes volatile, always vital- about what it means to be American and Southern. In participating in these conversations, we would do well to consider the work of Sam the Sham as a potential lens through which to look towards our future.

Easter Sunday; 2008

(Over the meadow, through the woods; this photo was taken in the summer. It's now nearly spring.)

Today is Easter Sunday, and we woke to a bright sky, pale blue. A wondrous thing to have birds singing in the trees, on the rise overhead, hawks and crows patrolling our green patch on this holiest of holy days. I'm not a believer- not in the way the hegemony would have us worship- but I do recognize the sanctity of Easter for the ways that it draws family and community inwards; in this I see spirit, a net encompassing long dead and not yet born.

So I snuck downstairs quietly, so as not to wake Abby- which of course I did- and made some coffee, stacking into a queue many records with which I would call down the Easter spirits; they're all Christian in orientation, but they didn't have to be. I could also have played Terry Riley's "Descending Moonshine Dervishes."

On this Easter morn, 2008, we heard: Shirley Caesar. Washington Phillips. The Jackson Southernaires. Charlie Jackson.

The world's in a terrible fix.
Men in darkness.
Men on their way to destruction.
Save, Lord. Save, Lord.
O Jesus.
O God: Let us know that you're here
in this proud meeting.
-Reverend Louis Overstreet

This jam session was followed by brunch at Crook's Corner, surrounded by church folks, recently sent forth from Easter service like a flock of birds, in all their finery: clip-on ties, penny loafers, navy jackets with brass buttons. I had the shrimp and grits (continuing my pursuit of low country cuisine). It was very, very good.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

White Overalls

Oh yes, I've been meaning to put this up here for weeks. I grabbed it off of Arthur Magazine's blog site.

Just when you thought YouTube couldn't get any crazier, that they'd found the every last clip of waterskiing squirrels and Argentinian gnomes, someone shows up to the party with a clip of NEU! playing "Hero" in 1974. Wow. I'd give something special for five more minutes of this performance.

Michael Rother is playing it cool as a cucumber there in the back, controlling that reel-to-reel tape machine delay. Klaus Dinger on the guitar and Thomas Dinger on the drums. I'm guessing that might be Hans Lampe on the other kit. Is this some kind of NEU!/La Dusseldorf hybrid?*

Speaking of Rother, I hear that the Water Record reissues of his solo records are officially out. I wrote the liner notes for "Sterntaler," and I'm pretty excited to see them in print.

*Note Klaus Dinger's demonstration of white overalls, La Dusseldorf's uniform of choice. Now don't you wish there was a picture of Klaus Dinger and Lowell George together?

Nativity '61

Whoa. That took a minute. I'm back.

I was sitting in the dark house yesterday afternoon listening to "Bitches Brew" while lightning flashed and thunder roared outside. It reminded me of what a mystical guru Teo Macero was, and that I hadn't yet sent him my spiritual thanks after his late February passing. Teo, nice work. I hope they've given you a solid gold razor and diamond splicing block over on the other side.

And then I thought about how Miles does thunder and lightning so well.

And then I started thinking about thunder. Why does it sound so ominous? Is there something minor in the harmonic makeup of thunder? Or is it because, historically, it has been a portent of tragedy to come?

So I was thinking all this stuff and a particularly loud clap of thunder snuck up and blew out my microphone.

Also on the Miles Davis tip: I spent some time the other night perusing Abdul Mati Klarwein's hallucinogenic little corner of the universe. He was on to something. Feeling free in 1961:

Thursday, March 6, 2008

::DGT/MCT Convocation of Trousers::

This episode is an important one in traditional Taylor family lore, often invoked during communal gatherings. Little did I think there was a photograph of said event. So long ago, in a land so far away.

Monday, March 3, 2008

We dream of the banish of bare trees and the return of green to our fair woods (seen above thru front windowpane). The daffodils are lately spearing up through the earth. Some are lemon yellow, and some are the color of butter. The gnomes watch over them. We plant our garden soon.

How cool the green hay
smells, carried in
through the farm gate
at sunrise!


Addendum: I've been digging mightily a record by Daddy Longlegs called "Oakdown Farm." It was originally released by the Vertigo label in 1971. The cover art is some Castle Dracula shit, and highly reminiscent of the photograph on the first Sabbath record. (Possible Hipgnosis connexion?) However, the music inside is far more good times than Sabbath, an American country boogie group relocated to the British countryside. They remind me in more ways than one of Eggs Over Easy, another American group playing Dr. Goodvibes boogie rock in England in the early 1970s.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


If you're looking for a place to rest,
Cold Mountain is good for a long stay.
The breeze blowing through the dark pines
Sounds better the closer you come.
And under the trees a white-haired man
Mumbles over his Taoist texts.
Ten years now he hasn't gone home;
He's even forgotten the road he came by.