“O, Death, O, Death
Won't you spare me over til another year
Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands takin' hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
Whoa, death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day”
Those haunting words sung by Ralph Stanley seem to capture the temperature of January 2016.
January has truly been a month of music nobility loss yet only a rare few disappear indefinitely.
Son Jesse and I were having this conversation Monday morning on a short drive back from Mississauga. Facebook never allows anyone have a long sleep these days.
The moment David Bowie ceased, millions shared every connective memory of Bowie and patched him into their lives – the same for Glenn Frey. Music was recycled; jumped from one track to another like one master DJ was spinning discs.
Looking back, you begin to wonder if artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were more than iconic musicians but also modern day visionaries. Nearly every contemporary artist has reels of truly awful footage playing on YouTube – try finding that of Ellington or Armstrong.
Seriously, these men were dressed to the nines and always at the top of their game – smiling and foot tapping from one number to another. Both had the advantage of playing potted plants in several elegant movie scenes, but damn, those scenes were beautifully filmed and remain solid and register dignified with the passing of time.
Every month or so the dancing Nicholas Brothers return to “prime time” Facebook friends commenting and marvelling at every toe tapping, banister sliding, double splits move. These guys never died or ran short of breath and are very much alive and with us. Most recently, pianist Hazel Scott, with all her Nubian beauty and monster piano skills makes a return engagement and everyone asks for a background check – who the hell is this person and where did she come from?
There are DJs and collectors around the planet whose sole purpose is unearthing and excavating the past. I applaud them. We tend to forget that what’s being played on radio or fed to the public is short on nutrition and a very small per cent of the exceptionally filmed and recorded music.
That’s why in many cases a collector will pay thousands of dollars for a pristine copy of an LP or 45’ and claim bragging rights.
I was looking for background on James Fountain, a singer from Atlanta who in 1976 had a minor hit with a track CeeLo Green could have scribbled, “Seven Day Lover,” and found nothing but empty space across the Internet other than William Bell produced for his small independent label, Cream. Frustrated, I dug deeper until I discover Fountain made an impact in Northern England when Northern Soul was rocking nightclubs during the late sixties to mid 70s’- like Blackpool Mecca, Golden Torch, Catacombs, Wigan Casino – up in the English Midlands, Scotland and Wales. Fountain didn’t have a clue this was happening for him. The real buzz for me is how a region locked in on a specific sound and built a fashion industry and happening music scene around obscure artists such as Fountain.
Motown played a small part setting things in action but it was all about one-shot artists and that one-time sound. Most artists had name changes to suit the label masters and most came from small regional operations such as Ric-Tic and Golden World out of Detroit, Mirwood in Los Angeles, Shout and Okeh in New York and Chicago. The beauty in this – you can still find the person in the music as if they have never exited the planet.
During our road conversation I’d point to a house, an expensive sports car, a building with the owner’s name scribbled, a sign advertising the best burrito and said to Jesse, “Once these folks pass on their memory with reside within the families they are most connected. Music is a whole different game. Since most is free today and tracks are passed around like rare trading cards - the names on those tracks and voices in those grooves will continue to speak to us at the age that aspiring singer was the day they looked into a microphone and bared their souls. Someone somewhere will be listening and sharing until the day earth collides with the inevitable.
That’s music to my ears!