Mike Greenblatt’s Rant ‘N’ Roll

Bringing Bach to Temple

Israeli singer-songwriter Noa will bring her Letters To Bach to New York City’s Temple Emanu-el on March 18. Quincy Jones produced the album in which she wrote—in a series of well-crafted duets with guitarist Gil Dor—letters to Johann Sebastian Bach. Her lyrics reflect upon technology, euthanasia, parenthood, feminism, and love. Gil’s understated guitar is elegant, sophisticated, and he gets ample room to move as he underscores her sultry vocals.  

The Beatles Versus The Dave Clark Five

The year was 1964. I was 13, preparing for my bar mitzvah in the same Wainwright Street temple in Newark where novelist Phillip Roth had his. I was also just starting Weequahic High School (also like Roth). My divorced mom had to move back in with her parents on Grumman Avenue and I used to go to sleep with a transistor radio under my pillow and listen to AM Radio (FM wouldn’t come to be for another four years). The one song that stood out over and over again was “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” the first American hit by this weird insect-sounding band called The Beatles. It was the jolt of electricity that changed my musical life.

A few months later, another song, by another British band, “Glad All Over,” by The Dave Clark Five, obliterated my fickle love of The Beatles with a much more muscular sound. Arguments ensued over who was the better band and I was squarely in the camp of the DC5. “The Beatles are for girls,” I argued. The DC5’s follow-up hit, “Bits And Pieces,” with its march rhythm, sealed the deal. But it was their third hit that blew my mind. “Do You Love Me,” originally written and produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. for The Temptations was ultimately released by The Contours who enjoyed a hit with it in 1962 when I was 11. But I had never heard the original. So upon discovering how the DC5’s leather-lunged vocalist Mike Smith would snarl it out from behind his keyboards, I forced my mom to buy me the single which I promptly drove my grandparents crazy with.

All during ’64 and ’65, it was those two bands before the Stones would establish superiority over the both of them. They both, as would all the original British Invasion bands, add their own super-cool spin to American soul and blues. The Beatles and DC5 both took from Chuck Berry but while the Beatles favored girl groups like The Marvelettes (“Please Mr. Postman”) and The Shirelles (“Boys” and “Baby It’s You”), the DC5 were much more harder-edged, taking from New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint (“I Like It Like That”), Bobby Day (“Over And Over”) and Marvelous Marv Johnson (“You Got What It Takes”). Plus, they had a wild saxophone player instead of a lead guitarist like all the other bands. And make no mistake about it:  their originals (especially “Can’t You See That She’s Mine” and “Any Way You Want It”) were downright thrilling and still sound unbelievably vibrant today.

Although drummer Dave Clark wrote the songs, produced the records, and managed the band, it was singer Mike Smith who captured the soul of America for hundreds of thousands of teenaged rock ‘n’ roll fans like myself. He sang himself hoarse every time and was just as good—if not better—than the other British lead singers I grew to love like Eric Burdon, Mick Jagger, and John Lennon. When they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, it was actor Tom Hanks who did the honors. He was one of those kids, too, who got swept away with the tide. Sadly, Mike Smith died 11 days before the induction ceremony.

These remembrances have been inspired by the release of All The Hits (BMG) by The Dave Clark Five. Sure, as I got older, I latched on to The Kinks most of all. The string of DC5 hits for me ended when 1967 ended. The band would limp along trying to keep up with the times but never again recaptured those incendiary records that ignited my lifelong love of hard-charging rock ‘n’ roll music.

State of the Art Bluegrass

If Front And Center was the best damn bluegrass album of 2018, then Breaks To The Edge lays claim to the same status in 2020. North Carolina sextet Sideline goes from traditional to progressive in a wink. Add their jam band propensity and fast-faster-fastest aesthetic and you’ve got one dynamite party. The life of the traveling troubadour is the subject of “Return To Windy Mountain.” Laid-back front-porch country living infuses the spirit of the good-timey “Southern Wind” while the tragic stories of “Down In The Willow Garden” and “Amy” are palpably memorable. The Stanley Brothers first did “Your Selfish Heart” in 1959 and it gets a sleek update here. Steve Wariner first did “Crash Course In The Blues” in 1991 and now it’s a jam for the ages. And the old gospel favorite “I’ll Live Again” never sounded better what with their four-part harmony. With dizzying instrumental prowess on guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle, Sideline bridges the gap between hippie stoner jams and Appalachian mountain music.

Dizzy Gillespie For President

Can you imagine a country where Dizzy Gillespie is president? On his second album, Can You Imagine? (Freedom Road Records), New York City trumpeter/composer John Bailey does just that. It was 1964 when Diz announced his candidacy and his cabinet: Secretary of State Duke Ellington, Secretary of Agriculture Louis Armstrong, and CIA Director Miles Davis. Diz was the country’s first official jazz ambassador on a State Department world tour and he was serious about human rights, education, disarmament, and human dignity. So he really did run that year. He may not have got very far, and it may have all been in jest, but, had he won, would the country be better off today? “It’s an open question,” writes Bailey, who played in Buddy Rich’s band while still in college and has put in time since in the bands of Ray Charles and Woody Herman. “Here we are in 2020 and there’s a lack of compassion and basic decency in our leadership and in our culture.”

Bailey also plays flugelhorn here to share this front line with the tenor and soprano saxophones of Stacy Dillard and the trombone of Stafford Hunter, all buoyed by a solid piano/percussion/bass rhythm section and guests on flute, alto flute, bass flute and tuba. It all boils down to the centerpiece: the scintillating 12:14 of the “President Gillespie Suite” which goes through three movements and is, indeed, quite moving. And I love how the press mailing came complete with a “Dizzy Gillespie For President” button.