Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bobbie Gentry: Seasons Come, Seasons Go; Number 12 With a Bullet: The Death of Vocalist Walter Scott

By Michael Mooney & Jim Webb

Seasons Come, Seasons Go

Bobbie Gentry’s “Touch ’Em With Love” reached the lofty peak of 164 on Billboard’s album chart in 1969. Typical of her solo, post-Billie Joe output, it tanked in America. On the strength of Bobbie’s chart-topping version of “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” (predating Dionne Warwick’s more playful American hit rendition by three months) however, the album was a UK hit. It’s a tremendous LP, possibly Gentry’s finest (there is no such thing as a bad Bobbie Gentry record.) The production is just right, and Bobbie nails every song. My only reservation is the lack of original material—just two of the 10 songs are self-penned. That they’re far superior to the covers (by the likes of Jimmy Webb, Bacharach-David, and Hurly-Wilkins) says much about Bobbie Gentry’s staggering talent. She is one of America’s great, underappreciated songwriters. Of the two, “Glory Hallelujah, How They’ll Sing” is a rousing and incredibly descriptive Countrypolitan Sunday Revival anthem (The Guardian includes it in their “1,000 Songs Everyone Must Hear” list. Here’s the entry: “Although it’s just ambiguous enough not to antagonize Bobbie Gentry’s large, hipster audience, Glory Hallelujah sees the Mississippi belle come, not to mock southern baptism, but to praise it. It isn’t in itself religious, but a celebration of the role faith plays in binding a community, from sing-songs at a country picnic to the barndance and church. The lyrics are fantastically detailed, and when the ecstatic gospel chorus breaks in, it would take a heart of stone not to feel the rapture.”) It’s that inspiring—almost enough to make me turn off the Fovea Hex this Sunday morning and get myself to church.

“Seasons Come, Seasons Go” is the other original track. At first spin, it sounds almost like a throwaway: predictable song structure, basic arrangement, no chorus, tacky harmonica, and the dreaded third (and fourth!) verse modulation. Six months ago, when Jim and I were researching numbers to feature at our (misnamed) 1969 Summer of Love dj session, this one very nearly made the first-round reject pile. But I listened again. Slowly, it began to reveal its melancholic beauty. One long crescendo, it’s a textbook lesson in how to layer instruments with subtlety, and Gentry’s casual phrasing reminds us that she would have made a terrific jazz singer. Heaven in two minutes, 50 seconds, and it’s all over much too quickly.

For me, after a bleak, nearly catastrophic winter, here was an encouraging song of renewed hope, the perfect balm for an unsettled spirit. Songs are funny that way. The good ones can sometimes be read like a map or guidebook. “Seasons Come, Seasons Go” defined my summer this year. Things happen for a reason, but the results are always for the better. “Don’t look back, good days ahead,” as Johnny once said. Except today, on a bright November morning, as I listen yet again, the future doesn’t appear to hold much promise. And while the sun is still shining, the air has turned cold. I realize now that I missed this song’s true meaning entirely. It isn’t about hope at all; it’s about loss. Songs are funny that way.

Now winter’s coming.

Dogwood blossoms float against
The ice encrusted creek bank
A tender blade of new green grass
Is bravely pushing upward through the melting snow
The Spring breathes ruffles through my hair
And whispers softly everywhere
Telling secrets in my eyes
Search the countryside for your hello
The seasons come, the seasons go

Lightning darts among the pines
Caught in a summer rainstorm
Soaking wet I look upon the new plowed earth
With rivulets between each row
I almost feel you next to me
And it stirs a memory
That hangs suspended with a sigh
And gently weaves its way through my bedroom window
The seasons come, the seasons go

See the grain lay scattered
In a trail that leads to nowhere
The rustling leaves beneath my feet
Swirl in a colorful kaleidoscope
A thousand spans of outstretched wings
Circle briefly, hovering
And they swiftly fly away
Leaving me to stay and face December snow
The seasons come, the seasons go

Ice encases blades of grass
Encouraging the wind to pass
And in the frosty morning sun
A field of diamonds beckon, waving to and fro
I stare into the fire a while
Think of you, my love, and smile
Wishing you were here with me
Sharing the security I know
The seasons come, the seasons go

-Bobbie Gentry

Michael Mooney

Number 12 With a Bullet: The Death of Vocalist Walter Scott

Bob Kuban and the In-Men were a rock band from St. Louis, Mo., who in 1966 had a top 40 hit called “The Cheater,” written by their bass guitarist Mike Krenski. Kuban was the drummer for the group and handled the business side of things like promoting the band and booking gigs. “The Cheater” is one of those tunes that, when you hear it on an oldies radio station, you can’t remember who did it, but you immediately start singing along.

Haven’t you heard about the guy known as the cheater
He’ll take your girl and then he’ll lie and mistreat her
It seems every day now
You hear people say now
Look out for the cheater
Make way for the fool hearted clown
Look out for the cheater

The lead singer for the In-Men was Walter Scott, a good looking young man who continued to front bands like The Kommotions after leaving Bob Kuban in the late ’60s. Walter divorced his first wife, largely due to his affair with another woman; he wound up marrying “the other woman,” JoAnn Calcaterra, in December of 1969. Walter Scott and The Cheaters was the band name that he settled on in the early ’70s, and he proceeded to lead a musician’s life of endless weeks spent touring before periodically returning home to the St. Louis area. By 1980 his marriage to JoAnn was in trouble due to his constantly being away from home, coupled with her fears that he was having an affair with one of his backing singers. In December of 1983 Walter mysteriously disappeared, his car found abandoned at the St. Louis airport. It turns out JoAnn was involved with a local contractor named Jim Williams who had recently done some renovations to the Scott’s home. In October of that same year, Jim Williams’ wife Sharon died in a very strange car accident. She was found alone and unconscious in her vehicle. An autopsy wasn’t performed until 1987, when it was revealed that a savage blow to the back of her head had killed her, not the car wreck which was assumed to be the cause of her death. Shortly after Walter’s disappearance in late ’83, JoAnn and Jim Williams started living together; they finally got married in 1986. In 1987, the police questioned Jim Williams’s estranged son—who was then serving time in Florida on an unrelated matter—if he knew anything about Walter’s disappearance. He told them it was just a guess, but to check the cistern located behind his father’s home. Walter Scott’s body was later found inside the cistern and, eventually, Jim Williams was arrested. The twists and turns of these two murders are detailed in Scottie Priesmeyer’s book “The Cheaters—The Walter Scott Murder.”

Bob Kuban and the In-Men watched in 1966 as their hit song “ The Cheater” raced up the charts. The music trade papers designate any song rapidly climbing the top hundred singles chart with a bullet next to the entry, to show that it’s moving fast. Even though “The Cheater” was number one in St. Louis, the highest it ever reached on the national chart was number 12. Walter Scott sang the words—“Look out for the cheater,” every night he performed live for the last 17 years of his life. Ironically, Walter was killed by a bullet from a gun at close range, the circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly pointing to the involvement of his wife’s lover Jim Williams. After a lengthy trial, conviction and appeal, Jim Williams was finally sentenced in 1992 for the capital murders of Sharon Williams and Walter Scott. JoAnn wound up serving 18 months on a five year felony charge—for making false statements and hindering the prosecution—before being released in 1994. Jim Williams is currently serving a life sentence with no chance of parole at the Potosi Correctional Institution in Missouri.

Haven’t you heard about the guy known as the cheater
He’ll take your girl and then he’ll lie and mistreat her
It seems every day now
You hear people say now
Look out for the cheater

Tough luck for the cheater
Too bad for the fool hearted clown
Tough break for the cheater
Who used to build you up just to let you down

“The Cheater”—words and music Mike Krenski

Jim Webb

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Issa Bagayogo: The Techno Griot of Mali

By Jim Webb

In the Wassalou region of Southern Mali is situated the small farming village of Korin. For many generations the people of this land locked region of West Africa have raised cattle and worked the soil. The constant cycles of drought have made their lives susceptible to famine, and food is never far from their thoughts. Issa Bagayogo was born in 1961 to a father that had four wives, and eventually was surrounded by fourteen brothers and sisters. All of the children at a young age were expected to work in the fields; it was the only way to stay alive. As a teenager Issa started to learn how to play the kamele n’goni, a traditional Malian six stringed instrument similar to a guitar. He was slowly getting a local reputation as a singer and performer when at the age of thirty Issa felt he had finally paid his family dues of working the land and headed for Mali’s capital city Bamako. He needed more out of life than the endless plowing of fields; it was time to try surviving as a musician.

In 1991 he wound up working briefly on a recording session at a new studio in Bamako that needed a n’goni player. In the evenings the studios engineer helped him make a cassette of his traditional sounding tunes, but still his music never reached a wider audience. He shuffled back and forth between his village and the big city for the next several years before finally becoming a mini bus driver in the capital. His lack of musical success led to excessive drinking and drug use that caused his life to spiral downward. His wife left him and some people thought he had gone crazy due to his many obsessions. He was uneducated by Western standards, but the one thing he had going for him was a determination and work ethic that can’t be taught in any book. He returned to the studio in 1998 with a clean lifestyle and a renewed purpose to achieve something with his music. The head engineer at Bogolan Studio was Frenchmen Yves Wernet, who talked to Issa about transforming his raw sound into something more modern. Yves wanted to use drum machines, keyboards, and female background singers to help give his songs a fresh contemporary edge. Issa was originally surprised at the results when he heard his voice for the first time wrapped around the layers of sound that had been added to his music. His vocals were still sung in traditional Bambara, his native language, but the additional instruments and electronic beats now helped make his traditional songs stand out in a marketplace full of aspiring musicians. Bamako was hungry for something new and his music started selling immediately; then the major label Six Degrees Records signed him to a contract and soon Issa’s music was available through out much of the world.

The hypnotic electro beat grooves of Yves Wernet and his crack studio musicians worked perfectly next to Bagayogo’s gritty vocals and the organic sound of his six string kamele n’goni. “Techno Issa” is now what everyone started to call him; 1999 was the year it all came together as he was voted Mali’s Brightest New Hope. In 2002, world music fans saw Issa on tour playing the influential WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance) Festival circuit drawing rave reviews. Tassoumakan was the title of his third cd in 2004 and means “Voice of Fire”, these songs speak about the evils of drugs, and the need for people to work together. For a long time now Issa had been carrying on the African Griot tradition in his music. The griot is not only a singer or storyteller, but someone who takes pride in teaching the history of its tribe to others. A personal highlight for him was performing in 2005 at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Who could ever imagine back home in Korin that Issa’s ancient kamele n’goni would be heard in one of the most prestigious venues in America? He has continued to record and tour globally through the years and with his countrymen Salif Keita and Toumani Diabate is another link between traditional and modern music in West Africa.

The only thing dirt poor farmers in Wassalou can count on these days is that the setting sun still ends their day in the fields. When darkness comes, a few will later look into the night sky and ponder their future plans and dreams. Issa worked some of these same fields for over twenty five years, and has reminded them that with enough determination even difficult goals in Mali can be reached. I enjoy listening to Issa’s music, but his past as an illiterate farmer from Korin who refused to give up and ultimately triumphed makes me appreciate the man even more. Issa Bagayogo has reminded us all that through the inspirational power of music, anything is possible.

Issa Bagayogo Discography:
Sya (1999)
Timbuktu (2002)
Tassoumakan (2004)
Mali Koura (2008)
Issa Remixed (2009)

-Jim Webb

Editor’s Note: Jim Webb and Michael Mooney, shared a childhood back in the old neighborhood in Philadelphia. Tides waxed and waned, stars swirled through Van Gogh’s night sky in such a way that Jim found himself living in Santa Fe and Michael living in Taos. Both, truly die hard music fans, write about music appreciation and music history in such a unique way that any university would be proud to have this pair in their curriculum. Stay tuned and enjoy.
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