Thursday, March 24, 2011

You Send Me

Aretha was shaken. The fervent applause of the Apollo audience did nothing to convince her that she’d done well, that her nervousness wasn’t on display for all to see. Oh, she could sing, she knew that alright, but moving around the stage, that was beyond her. Standing alone, off-stage, Aretha put her head down, a picture of low self-esteem and fear. She was 18.

“What’s the matter with you girl? You did fine.”

Aretha looked up to see Sam Cooke, her co-star, family friend, idol and love. She adored Sam from the first time she’d met him, when she was seven years old and Sam visited her family’s home. He was beautiful back then; still was. His soft eyes made her melt; his close cut natural framed his handsome face. And that smile, so warm, so inviting. Man, he just wore her out!

And who was she? A preacher’s daughter. A short, teenage ugly duckling who loved to cook and eat. Food was her constant friend, her constant foe. Aretha’s face was a round, chubby juxtaposition of baby fat and sadness, her deep-set dark eyes mournful.

“Oh Sam, I didn’t know what I was doing out there. How’d you learn to move like you do? I felt like I was falling over logs.” It was true enough. Her voice carried the crowd, but her awkwardness was apparent. The gawkier her moves, the more self-conscious she got and stiffened up.

She knew Sam could help her. He’d gone through the same thing when he gave up gospel singing for pop and learned how much to give an audience, how to stand, how to phrase, how to sell a song. Aretha had studied his show but could never figure it out.

“How’d you do it Sam? How’d you get so smooth?” she begged.

“Simple, baby, you gotta make that crowd feel good. Don’t fight it, feel it.”

Aretha knew she couldn’t do that. She reached into her purse for a cigarette.

“When did you start smoking Kents?” laughed Sam. “Let me have one of those.”

She handed one over and gave him a light. She’d given up her Kools for Kents. After all, that’s what Sam smoked, wasn’t it? Ever since she’d heard Sam’s “Nearer to Thee,” she’d fallen head over heels for the man, worshipped the ground he walked on, would do whatever he asked of her. Sam stood out, he was special. From that point on, Aretha kept scrapbooks of Sam and even saved a crushed cigarette package of his that he’d left behind.

“Girl, do you remember the first time I met you?” Sam smiled as he spoke.

“Oh yes. You sang with the Highway QCs in Detroit and came over to my daddy’s house after the show.” Aretha’s eyes twinkled as she thought back on her little girl self, staring moony-eyed at the fine 18-year-old lead singer right there in the living room of her mind. “What did that QC stand for?”

Sam laughed. “We never did get that figured. Nobody knows. We planned to come up with some words but once we started singing we forgot about it.”

“That was when my daddy first heard you. I remember he went on and on, ‘Sam Cooke this, Sam Cooke that.’”

“C.L. is something. I never met a man like that, so strong-willed, so powerful.” Sam wondered if C.L. Franklin had done right by his daughter. C.L. had gone from a young Baptist preacher to a money raising powerhouse, his New Bethel Church a gospel mecca. But now, in early 1961, he had big plans for his daughter. C.L. was a hustler, a real sharpie, always on the lookout for a buck. His influence on his daughter was too much, too strong.

Aretha toured with her daddy starting in 1957, hitting the gospel road as the “World’s Youngest National Gospel Singer.” On the road, 14-year-old Aretha searched for news of Sam Cooke and, when “Lovable” was released, and Sam became a pop star, she had her heart set on joining him. Sam had the same idea, and tried to talk her into doing duets, but C.L. laid down the law. It was strictly gospel for his girl until she turned 18. Then she could become a hit maker, but only to make records for a major label. She was her father’s plaything; not flesh and blood.

But Aretha was crazy for Sam and wanted to sign up with his SAR label. Daddy wouldn’t have it, especially when Motown, RCA and Columbia came calling. Aretha signed with Columbia, just like C.L. wanted, right after her birthday. Now she was on the road, not sure what to do, how to act, how to sing. She missed the church, the old time spirituals that had uplifted her heart. Singing "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” had no meaning for her, held no place in her soul. Had she made a mistake? Was the pop world right for her? She was already a mother of two. The road was no place to be.

She looked straight into Sam’s doe eyes. “Tell me, am I doing the right thing?”

“Have mercy, child, you’re a star! You’re doin’ fine, but you gotta remember this. If it don’t make you feel good, don’t do it.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Sam realized Aretha didn’t feel good about it at all, that this wasn’t the life for her. He knew Aretha admired him and as she sighed, he knew what to say.

Sam reached out for Aretha’s hands. “Honey, don’t do it. This life isn’t for you.”

“But Sam, daddy would be so angry.”

Forget C.L. Unlike her own daddy, Sam had always treated Aretha with consideration and respect.

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sam spoke strongly.

“Money is my God now. You should stay with the Lord.” As he spoke, Sam realized how much he’d changed since he left the gospel world. “Baby, I’m lost. I can’t find my way back. I won’t let that happen to you.”

Aretha smiled, for the first time in a long while.

“Really, Sam, do you think I should?”

Sam nodded. “I’m sure. Don’t you believe me baby?”

“I do Sam, I do. You’ve always done right by me.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, get ready for the star of our show,” shouted the MC from on stage. “Please welcome 'Mr. Soul' himself! How ‘bout it for Sam Cooke!”

Sam gave Aretha a peck on the cheek and strolled out.

“How you doin’ out there?” Sam squinted through the white hot spotlight and looked out to the crowd, a writhing, shrieking mass. “I said, how you doin’ out there? Is everyone doin’ all right?”

From off stage, Aretha Franklin smiled. She was doing just fine.
Aretha Franklin first met Sam Cooke in February 1949 after a gospel program in Detroit. Her father C.L. Franklin was a young Baptist preacher at the New Bethel Church. C.L. had big dreams and became a skilled fund-raiser and self-promoter, making several spoken word records before turning his attention and ambition to his talented daughter. Aretha signed a pop contract with Columbia and legendary producer John Hammond in the spring of 1960. Her career drifted aimlessly until her 1967 move to Atlantic records and her breakout album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You.

Sam Cooke was shot to death by the manager of the Hacienda Motel on December 11, 1964. Cooke, drunk and distressed, wearing only a jacket and shoes, had checked in with a woman (later picked up for prostitution) who may have robbed him. Cooke stormed into the manager’s office in a rage and was killed, a casualty of the rock and roll lifestyle.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Heading Back to Old Familiar Places

“It’s D-minor, E, A-minor. Christ!” Jimmy was furious. “Medicine Jar” was his, the one track Mr. McCartney allowed him on the new Wings album and, as usual, Macca’s wife was cocking it up. As usual, Jimmy flew into a rage.

“I’m sorry, luv, but I am trying,” Linda responded, lips quivering a bit as she tried to hold it together.

“You are trying, that’s for sure. Let’s have another bash, luv, and try to get the fucking chords right,” McCulloch replied venomously, mocking the oh-so-proper British accent that ex-New Yorker sported upon marrying Paul.

Linda struggled mightily to hold her own with her band mates, but the pressure was constant, relentless. It turned out that marrying a Beatle wasn’t so easy.
“Lay off, Jimmy.” Denny, not Paul, rose to Linda’s defense.

“Piss off. Why don’t you mind your own tuning instead of helping the boss’s wife? You sound horrible.” A 22 year old guitar prodigy with a massive ego and a bigger heroin problem, Jimmy was strung out, abusive.

“Fine. It’s your song. Do it your way.” Denny put down his double necked Ibanez and stormed out of the studio.

“Jimmy, can we please get on with it?”

Finally, Paul spoke up and when Mr. McCartney chimed in it was time to get back to work. Paul tried his best to make Wings a real band, letting any member record, mix, and even write songs. There was great freedom there, but it didn’t seem to be working out.

Jimmy relaxed a bit.

“Sure, Paul, just give me a minute. I’ll be right back.” Jimmy headed out of Sea-Saint studio for his midday fix.

Paul looked to the vacant black padded stool behind the bass drum. Once again, Wings was going through a change in personnel. Geoff Britton hadn’t worked out. Another firing, but it was clear Geoff couldn’t get along with Jimmy and Denny (who could?) and that he was dreading the trip to New Orleans. Paul caught wind of Joe English, dug his playing and asked him to give it a try, but Joe was about to go out on tour with Bonnie Bramlett and needed some time to find his replacement before he set out for the Venus and Mars sessions in New Orleans.

Softly strumming the melody to a new tune, Paul looked to his wife.

“Alright then?”

Linda wiped a quick tear. “Fine, fine. God, I despise these guys sometimes. Who do they think they are? It’s not like it was back in the day, you know?”

It was as if she’d read his mind. As he watched Denny Laine and Jimmy McCulloch argue and carry on, Paul couldn’t help but wonder why he was working with a band of lightweights, struggling with a group of mediocrities he hardly knew and with whom he had no history. All they did was give him trouble. At least with John and George, there was always love there, you could feel it, even in the worst of arguments.

“I was thinking the same thing. Even when John takes the piss out of me I’m still sure he loves me. Does that make me barmy?”

“No, no, I think you’re right. Watching you two play together last year was great, really great. And he enjoyed it, I know he did.”

“Yeah, seemed that way, didn’t it?” Paul’s thoughts turned to last March, when he and Linda popped into the Burbank studio where John was starting to produce Nilsson’s newest album. Paul took his place behind the kit and sang along with John, who, though clearly coked to the gills, gladly jammed with him for the first times in years. It was wonderful. Now that John had a number one hit, he was feeling confident and publicly sentimental for The Beatles. He even told a reporter he’d love to record with them again. Typical John. Now that he was at the top of the charts he felt like mending fences. On his terms, of course.

“I think May is good for him, don’t you?” Linda broke Paul’s reverie. “He seemed like old John, having a bash with his mates.”

“You’re right. Wasn’t it a blast with them in Santa Monica?” Paul and the girls had dropped in on John and May’s beach house on the Pacific Coast Highway. Since Yoko pushed John out of their Dakota apartment and into the hands of her assistant, Ms. Pang, John was more available than ever. Paul and Linda even popped in to their apartment in New York. They were getting along well enough that Paul nervously asked John if he wanted to come down to New Orleans for a bit. So why was Paul secretly pleading Yoko’s case to John? It was confusing, as life with Lennon was apt to be.

“I do miss him, I can’t pretend I don’t,” Paul said sadly. He returned to his guitar and, head down focusing on his fingers, sang softly.

I Can See the Places That
We Used To Go To Now
Happiness in the Homeland

Deep in song, Paul didn’t notice Linda snap her head and leave the room. He didn’t hear her as she made her way to the studio door and said, “Hi, duckie.” And he didn’t notice the company until the visitor spoke.

“Valiant Paul McCartney, I presume?” Ah, his old name from Beatles’ Christmas shows long past.

Paul looked up and smiled away.

“Sir Jasper Lennon, I presume?”

By the summer of ’73, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were in the midst of severe marital problems. Yoko banished John from their New York apartment and delivered him into the arms of their assistant, May Pang. With Yoko out of the picture, John Lennon and Paul McCartney saw each other often. On March 28, 1974, the two ex-Beatles jammed with Stevie Wonder, Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson in rehearsals for Nilsson’s Lennon-produced LP, Pussy Cats. Paul pled Yoko’s case to John during this time.

By the end of 1974, with John’s "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" at #1, Paul invited John to New Orleans as part of what would become the Venus and Mars album. Lennon told May he wanted to go and thought it would be fun to watch Paul record. Lennon’s enthusiasm for the trip led Pang to believe John was ready to write and record with Paul again.

Lennon and Pang were set to fly to New Orleans in February of 1975, but, on Friday January 31, Lennon headed to Ono’s Dakota apartment, where she had arranged for a hypnotist to help John quit smoking. He would never return to Pang or McCartney.