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Vinyl Review

The Mighty Sparrow – Sparrow Come Back
Label: RCA Victor
Catalog No: LPB 3006
Year: 1962
My Grade: A

I like alot of things about this album, but the aspect that appeals to me most is the breadth of topics covered in the song writing. The A-side opens up with “Federation”, a rebuke to Jamaica for pulling out of a short lived “West Indies Federation” that promised greater prosperity to all nations joining (sort of like a mini-UN of the Carribbean). As the song progresses Sparrow becomes more and more passionate, bawling out “Tell the doctor you’re not in favor, don’t behave like a blasted traitor, how the devil you mean you’re not federating no more!?” Like ska in the mid/late 90s, most people’s perception of original calypso is that of not-a-care-in-the-world style song writing, or that of a predominently slack style of music. The short lived calypso fad amongst the ska scene in the early 2000s didn’t do much to dispell this rumor, and I almost have to remind myself at times that calypso was (is) a serious music used as political commentary, social commentary, folk story telling, and yes; party and slack song. The second tune “Hangman’s Cemetary” is a verbal warning to those who choose to harrass Dr. Slinger Francisco on the street with their drunken, envious behaviour. He definitely boasts his fair share on the track saying “When I pass them in my big time limousine, always polish and shiny…” but admonishes the jealous listener to not start anything with him outside the club or he’ll “send a few to the grave” and end up in the hangman’s cemetary. “Smart Bajan” uses part of the classic “3 Coins in the Fountain” (as made famous by everyone from Dean Martin to Mel Torme) to tell a humorous tale of a Bajan (the only info I could find on Bajan is in reference to the dialect or patois spoken on Barbados, in this song I believe Sparrow is using Bajan to describe the nationality of the person) who preys upon the superstitions of Trinidadians by building a fountain and promising wishes for coins thrown (with the Bajan keeping the money, of course) until he is eventually caught by the FBI. Next on the platter, “Robbery With V” is Sparrow’s response to losing Calypso Monarch 1961 (to Dougla) where he decries and even cuts (deep by 1962 standards) the winner as being “… a man with no originality, stage personality, they’re trying to make me look small!”. And on his material, “all he has is a big crew … this song that song, same melody, no variety … “. Overall another great tune. Last on the front side, “B.G. War” is another politically charged message, this time on the state of affairs in B.G. (British Guiana), currently the country of Guyana. (Oddly enough here’s a story on Sparrow’s first promoter, a Guyanese by the name of Cyril Shaw.) This particular track is another musical scolding, this time to the riots and general disruption leading up to independance from Britains in B.G. in the early 1960s.

After the flip we have “Renegades”, yet another tune reprimanding hooligans and delinquents. While researching this tune, I started to think it might be a song about The Renegade Steel Orchestra but (am pretty sure) it isn’t. Next up “Take Your Bundle and Go” is another humorous story about a cheating wife. I really can’t decipher most of the lyrics on this tune as I’m pretty sure alot of them are in a patois I’m not familiar with. If I ever get around to installing a comment section to this blog I hope someone could let us all what Sparrow’s saying on this tune. There must have been a mislabling on this disc as the following track is clearly “Ten to One is Murder” but is listed as “No. 69″. Here’s a sweet sweet video of the tune featuring live video of Sparrow from the 80s (?) mixed in with staged footage! Anyway, this song should be pretty self explanitory, but here’s a little on the history…

 Sparrow was apparently chased by ten men and the fellow in front was a big, big fellow and Sparrow detected a white handle razor in his hand. After all Sparrow was simply having “a chicken at Club Mirama” which he thought was “his last supper.” Well, as fate would have it, “a Sparrow in flight” was saved by a loud report from some unknown pistol. As Sparrow remembered it, “Ah hear padow pow, and de crowd start to scatter.”
source

Moving on, “Wahbeen and Grog” is Sparrow’s lament for being away from his dear homeland far too long.  He cries “Darling I can’t remain in New York again” and yearns for “Wahbeen and grog and man beating pan, all that is on me mind”. Wahbeen (more commonly spelled Wabine) is a loose woman, grog is correctly presumed to be booze and “man beating pan” refers to the steel pan players. The final track on the album, “Sparrow Comeback Home” won him the 1962 Calypso Monarch crown and is a damn catchy tune. Overall, a great album, especially for a RCA release which usually “orchestrated” the hell out of folk musicians to the point of losing any of what made them “folk”.  Don’t spend alot of money on it, but grab it if you see it.

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The Soul Children – I’ll Be The Other Woman/Come Back Kind Of Love
Label: Stax
Catalog No: STA-0182
Year: November, 1973
My Grade: B

Ok, so now we’re gonna do something different and review a 7″ as it’s such a jam that I need to share it. The A-Side is (obviously) the hit side but it’s the flip that is slammin! How it didn’t make it onto either of their “Best Of” albums; “Hold On I’m Coming” and “Chronicle” is beyond me. Opening with a nice series of syncopated band hits, the organ comes in smooth but confidant setting up the raw sounding vocals. Horns and bass really make this tune stand out.  This joint is an easy easy party starter if I ever heard one. Co-written by John Colbert and Norman West, read up some more on The Soul Children here. Only gets a “B” because the A-side isn’t nearly as stone cold a jam.

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Laura Nyro and Labelle – Gonna Take A Miracle
Label: Columbia
Catalog No: KC-30987
Year: November 17, 1971
My Grade: B+

Well, this record has been pretty well covered so I feel a little sheepish covering it at all, except that I don’t think most reggae fans would be familiar with it. Once I put this record on for the first time (yet another aquisition I foolishly let sit on the shelf for months before playing) it stayed in heavy rotation for about a month (in the medium sized pile of records I keep right next to my turntable). It’s weird… ’cause it is just an album of covers, but there’s something so serious about the versions of these classic tunes that is just… amazing. The songs are presented in an under-produced soulful way that I don’t think many people could have realized.  And I don’t mean under-produced in a bad way, for example there’s only drumset on 1.5 songs on the A-Side. The vocals take front and center on many tunes; accompanied by only piano and/or strings and/or vibes. Recorded at Sigma Studios in it’s hey-day, the album’s production was overseen by the eminent Gamble and Huff and includes musicians such as drummer Jim Helmer, legendary bassist Ronnie Baker, and equally legendary guitarists Norman Harris and Roland Chambers. For my money her version of “Jimmy Mack” is the finest arrangment of the song I’ve ever heard … I know what you’re thinking… “that corny ass oldie?” … trust me though, I don’t know if its the harmonic evolution the band adapts or just the pure enjoyment in the voices but holy crap, the needle gets pulled back at least once everytime this tune comes through my speakerbox.

Despite all these elements of success, there are times that the songs don’t seem to get going until nearing the end of the tune, and it’s hard to find an exact reason why.  Labelle sounds as good as always, the band is obviously thumpin’, the production is top-notch and Nyro is truley giving it her all. After some critical listening, it might be simply that Nyro’s voice is a little too operatic at points and sticks out too much from the rest of the group.  Since the source material is from a very non-operatic origin the two simply clash (which is really no surpise as she attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts).

But of course since it was recorded at Sigma it has that sweet Philly Soul style; tight drums, lush strings and just enough flourishy layers. One final note I’d like to make is on a somewhat ironicly foreboding observation. In her version of “Dancing In The Street”, she repeats the line “Don’t Forget The Motor City” 6 times as where on the original Martha and the Vandellas’ version they only sing once. I dunno … something about that is almost a premontion or warning, as anyone who’s visited Detroit in the last 10 years is aware of how neglected the city is today.