A Black Music Month Exclusive – By A. Scott Galloway
All my life I’ve been obsessed with records starting as a kid with 45s spinning around on the family turntable like “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb – Granny’s favorite with the turquoise blue Philips label. Very swiftly I became captivated by albums and album jackets, two of the earliest being on Motown: Marvin Gaye’s first Greatest Hits album on Tamla and Diana Ross & The Supremes’ double-LP Greatest Hits Volume 2 which had a deluxe fold out cover with a breathtaking painting of them on the front. Then there was Up With Donald Byrd on Verve by the recently departed Jazz trumpet and band leading legend. All of these albums had some form of liner notes on them. And even before I could read them, I was hungry to know more about the music I was hearing, the artist whose picture I was staring at, and the people behind the songs that were rocking my little world. Little did I know that I would be transferring that fascination into a profession that has been infinitely and personally rewarding. I thank David Mitchell for providing me space in Amalgamation this Black Music Month to stroll down memory lane and point out a few highlights.
The mere words “Memory Lane” immediately conjure Ms. Minnie Riperton (or “Ms. Minnie RIPPLETON as Richard Pryor joshingly bungled her name in his classic comedy sketch “Black Hollywood”). It was in her honor that I was able to not only write a liner note essay but produce the now out of print and collectible Petals: The Minnie Riperton Collection – thus far the crown jewel of all the projects I‘ve ever done. It began life as a simple mix tape that I made to listen to while driving to San Diego. My friend Joe Grant was rollin’ with me and casually mentioned that there should be something like it for sale for true fans. A light bulb went off and a few years later I was able to realize that dream…with the help of her family, her widower Dick Rudolph, Tom Cartwright at The Right Stuff/Capitol, and some very cool Capitol Tower personnel that selflessly lent their expertise. I was able to pursue it as a loving and thorough 35-song double-disc, covering her first 45s for Chess Records, her foray into the psychedelic Soul-Rock band Rotary Connection, choice selections from all six of her solo LPs plus unreleased demos and concert material. Every music fan should get the chance to do that just once. What a natural high…
The very first liner note essay I ever wrote was a deep research project called Rap Declares WAR, a various artist compilation highlighting Rap groups that had sampled songs by the band WAR. It required knowledge of the Rap artists, the stories behind their songs as well as knowledge of WAR and the back stories of their catalog classics. Avenue Records originally came to my then-editor at Urban Network Bill Speed to do the job but he graciously deferred it to me understanding just how profoundly WAR had impacted me in my personal life… I poured my heart into the research and turned in a detailed piece that the company was not expecting. It set a precedent for me to always go the extra mile, giving those that hire me more bang for their buck. This resulted in a lot of repeat business.
The company that retained my services most frequently early on was Rhino Records, a Westwood-based company that gleefully specialized in golden oldies of the past. British Ambassador of Soul David Nathan – then a brand new friend – had just begun working extensively with Rhino when the company purchased the Atlantic Records catalog. David was focused on female R&B artists like Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack. I casually mentioned that if they ever did something on the Average White Band I would love to cover it. Not only was this an act that was out of my new friend’s realm of interest and expertise – thus not a threat – it was totally up mine as, being a drummer/musician, I loved bands. Within a week, I got a surprise call from the company’s James Austin saying that David had told them I was their man for AWB resulting in me doing their Pick Up the Pieces: Best of Average White Band compilation, followed by all seven of their Atlantic albums. Diving in, this assignment gave me the “excuse” to go bug all six living members of the band – 4 in New York, 1 in Spain and 1 here in L.A. I extensively interviewed every last one of them plus producer Arif Mardin…even roadie Granny Grange for the double live CD Person to Person! I was hooked.
Rhino started hiring me for several multi-album projects, most notably the Donny Hathaway catalog (an honor), The Spinners’ first four Atlantic classics, the soundtrack to Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” Slave’s and Steve Arrington’s first albums, then Jazz projects such as the Billy Cobham anthology Rudiments (which I named) and The George Benson Anthology (which I produced) then still later seven albums by the Rock band Chicago. I’d tentatively just asked to do an oddball one titled Hot Streets. They also offered me X, XI, 16, 17, Love Songs AND an essay in their sprawling 5-CD box set! I got along so well with the band that when sax man Walt Parazadier started short-lived Chicago Records, he hired me to write a bio on reclusive Jazz saxophonist John Klemmer – a coup.
The great thing was my work became my calling card which led to Harry Weinger of Polygram/Motown calling me to do a number of projects, the biggest being the Commodores Anthology, another double-disc doozy for which I interviewed every member…including solo star Lionel Richie (thanks to the late Skip Miller).
Another type of project I frequently wrote for was various artist projects which pose a special challenge in that you write about 12 songs or more, each by a different artist, and try to make a cohesive piece out of it all. Having a large record collection, research books and vintage magazines helped me tremendously with these projects which included Volumes 5-9 of Rhino’s “Smooth Grooves” love song collections. These could sometimes be frustrating because – not being the person who compiled them – I would often bristle at the haphazard manner in which many of these things were put together. I had to learn to stifle my opinions of other people’s A&R approaches and focus squarely on making lemonade out of lemons with my writing to tie them all together. I got to do some fun ones, though, including Funkgasm, the black soundtrack compilation Super Bad On Celluloid even a set dedicated to Jazz-inflected Hip Hop titled Psychefunkajazzadelic 2!
I was having so much fun working on these projects that I wanted to bring some of my good friends into the picture. It was a blast co-producing with Tony Gaspard and Tim Glover on The Jesse Johnson Ultimate Collection on which Tony chiseled the song selections to perfection. I did the sequence and oversaw the segue magic in the mastering studio, then we handed Tim his dream gig of interviewing his hero Jesse in person to write his liner note essay. Ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none and those were some great days…
Back in the day I was moonlighting on liner notes as a side gig to my day job as Music Editor at Urban Network magazine. I was living the best of both worlds and didn’t fully realize it – covering all of the latest music for the magazine while reveling in the classics of yesteryear with my liner notes. These days, I am hustling hard as an independently contracted music journalist writing liner note essays as well as bios, press releases and anything else I’m called to do – gotta make that money! But liner notes remain my passion and even though it’s far from lucrative, I take great cultural pride in documenting history. I take my work very seriously and even get territorial about projects for which I know no one else will go that extra mile. Why?
We are losing so many of the lesser known of our legendary artists – week by week, month by month – and their stories need to be documented. Writing a liner note essay on artists’ albums provides an opportunity to get them to talk about aspects they wouldn’t go into depth about for a magazine article or, for the bigger artists, autobiographies. For liner note essays, I delve very specifically into an album, hits and album tracks alike, what was going on in their life that year and curry perspectives from various craftspeople involved in its creation. I consider it highly specialized writing.This month, my reputation has dictated that I scribe in yet another special line of liner note essays: for brand new CDs by Bob Baldwin (Twenty), Global Noize (Sly Reimagined), Swing
Out Sister (Private View – Deluxe CD/DVD Edition) and Sheree Brown (Messages from the Heart…An Extension of Love). For new CDs, liner note essays are about the style in which you share just a little about the artist and the music but leave the rest to the listener to discover themselves. Since the music has no history yet, the purpose of the writing is more of a colorful introduction than an all-out reveal.
To date, I have written over 300 liner note essays. Of late, I have been getting knee deep with a plethora of artists ranging from Rockers The Tubes and old acquaintances from Clarence Avant’s Tabu Records stable Alexander O’Neal, Cherrelle and the delicious Rhonda Clark to Jazz great Tony Williams and Bill Withers (Reel Music Records), Soul-Pop genius Ray Parker Jr. (Purpose Records) and Soul-Jazz fence straddlers The Blackbyrds, Pleasure, Michael Henderson and Jon Lucien (Decision Records).
My now longtime friend David Nathan has his own SoulMusic Records company and I’ve been working away for him on projects by George Duke, Teena Marie, Caldera, Phyllis Hyman and Nancy Wilson, the latter of whom was the very first artist I ever interviewed in person back when I was Music Librarian at radio station KUTE-FM “The Quiet Storm” (Glendale/Los Angeles). It’s a sweet full circle that afforded me the chance to surprise everybody by landing a coveted 2013 interview with “The Lady With A Song” for a 2-CD pairing of her classic LPs Kaleidoscope / I Know I Love Him that will be available this month – Black Music Month.
And come July, I have a sprawling historical essay inside a limited edition collectors’ reissue of one of the greatest `70s Soul albums of all-time thanks to my old friend Paul Williams – now at Traffic Entertainment…but that one’s a secret.
“Prepare to wave your flag high / This hot fun 4th of July!”