Jon Batiste and Celeste

Jon Batiste, who many of us know as musical director and band leader of Stay Human on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, just won and Oscar. Collaborating with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Batiste won Best Original Score for his work on Pixar’s Soul. In addition to writing original jazz pieces for the movie, Batiste arranged a number of covers. One of those covers, that plays during the end credits, was chosen for an additional rendition released as a single. “It’s Alright” features Batiste and singer/songwriter Celeste.

The song was originally written by Curtis Mayfield in 1963, when he was with The Impressions prior to launching his solo career. Here is Mayfield performing the song in 1989 with an all-star backing band that includes David Sanborn on saxophone, Omar Hakim on drums, George Duke on piano and more. If you want to skip past the interview by Sanborn jump to 2:25.

Celeste was in the running for her own Oscar, having co-written and performed Best Original Song nominee “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7. Here she is performing it on Academy Awards broadcast.

Merry Clayton Now and Then

Merry Clayton, she of the iconic backing vocals on the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”, released an album of her own, Beautiful Scars, this past Friday. Thanks for the tip, Helga! In the 50 years since she sang on the Stone’s track, Merry not only sang backup for many famous artists and on other famous songs (including improbably Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”), but released albums of her own, acted on TV and on stage, and was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom.

The title track for the new album was written especially for her and for this project by uber-songwriter Diane Warren. The final track is a medley that includes pieces of 1969’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” and 1970’s “O-o-h Child”.

While Tina Turner performed the role of the Acid Queen in the 1975 film of the Who’s Tommy, Merry preceded Turner, singing the role on a 1972 album by the London Symphony Orchestra that also featured vocal tracks by Rod Stewart, Richie Havens, Steve Winwood and Ringo Starr.

And here’s Merry and Mick telling the story of “Gimme Shelter” from “20 Feet from Stardom”. Merry had already spent a couple of years as one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes, and was the kind of person you dragged out of bed in the middle of the night when you needed a crack vocalist.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away on Monday at the age of 101. He was a central figure in the cultural life of San Francisco for decades, as an acclaimed poet and as owner of the City Lights bookstore and publishing company of Beat Generation fame. Many fascinating obituaries have been written in the past couple of days, wonderful reading for fans – like myself – and for folks not that familiar with his place in American letters. I’ve especially enjoyed Emma Brown’s in today’s Washington Post (hope you can read it behind the paywall).

In 1958 Ferlinghetti published his best selling volume of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, now over a million copies in print. Seven of the poems in the volume were “conceived specifically for jazz accompaniment and as such should be considered as spontaneously spoken ‘oral messages’ rather that as poems written for the printed page.” And indeed, in 1957 he’d recorded two of the seven on “Poetry Readings in the Cellar”, joined by Kenneth Rexroth, a senior figure in San Francisco poetry.

The first 20 minutes of the record feature Rexroth reading “Thou Shalt Not Kill (In Memory of Dylan Thomas)”. Jump past that to hear Ferlinghetti recite “Autobiography” (at 21:00) and “Junkman’s Obbligato” (at 33:45), separated by a shorter poem about a statue of St. Francis (at 31:30). If you try to read along, you’ll find that “Junkman’s Obbligato” is not precisely the version in print.

American Epic Sessions

Among the things that somehow escaped me over the past few years is the 2017 documentary film The American Epic Sessions. The film surrounds the restoration of a 1920’s recording system, apparently the first to use an electronic microphone to record a room full of performers. The system cut a wax disc directly from the performance, and the cutting lathe was driven by a descending 100 lb. weight that provided about 3-1/2 minutes of recording time.

Once the restored system was operational, an A-list group of musicians showed up to take turns cutting tracks for the movie and for an expanded set of records.

Jack White created this gem, “Matrimonial Inclinations”. One take perfection.

Here’s Elton John with Jack providing a bit of backing.

And finally, here is Willie Nelson and the late Merle Haggard, who passed away before the film’s release.

Sir Elton’s Jewel Box

On November 13th Elton John will release Jewel Box, a 148-song collection of curated selections and previously unreleased material. Jewel Box includes favorite album tracks of Elton’s that were not hits, dozens of demos and unreleased tracks, B-sides of singles that never made it to albums, and a set of songs mentioned in Me, John’s 2019 autobiography. You can find all the details at www.eltonjohn.com.

Two tracks from Jewel Box have been pre-released to whet our appetites. “Sing Me No Sad Songs” is a 1969 demo that never appeared on an album or single, but represents an early Elton John/Bernie Taupin collaboration.

“Regimental Sgt. Zippo” was recorded in 1968 and was to be the title track of Elton’s debut album, but that project was never released. I can’t seem to find who’s responsible for this newly created, but very retro, video.

Elton’s debut album was, rather, 1969’s Empty Sky. It was not released in the U.S., and I’d always thought of his 1970 eponymous album featuring “Your Song” and “On the Border” as his debut – but not so! Jewel Box contains a demo version of “Skyline Pidgeon” from Empty Sky. The song was rearranged years later and appeared on the B-side of the hit “Daniel”. Here is the original version, which was was chosen to play through the closing credits of the 2018 Academy Award winning film The Favourite.