The Second Disc

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Real Gone’s Duos, Reviewed: Tom Jans and Mimi Fariña, Chet Atkins and Les Paul, Barbara and Ernie

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Tom JansReal Gone Music has recently released three very different albums from three duo acts, and we’re looking at each one of them!

Tom Jans is perhaps best known today as the songwriter of “Loving Arms,” so memorably recorded by Elvis Presley in 1973 and also cut by everyone from Etta James to Kenny Rogers.  But in his tragically short lifetime – he died in 1984, aged 35 or 36 depending on the source – Jans also recorded five albums as a singer-songwriter.  His first two, including an album of duets with Mimi Fariña, have been reissued on one CD by Real Gone (RGM-0132).

Jeffrey Shurtleff introduced Jans to Joan Baez, who in turn introduced Jans to her younger sister Fariña.  Mimi was seeking a return to music after her second failed marriage; her first, to Richard Fariña with whom she had recorded a series of folk LPs, ended when he perished in a motorcycle accident.  Jans was an ideal collaborator, and their harmonious blend earned them a following in and around the Bay Area.  They toured with Cat Stevens and James Taylor before signing to A&M for 1971’s Take Heart, the first of the two albums on Real Gone’s new CD.

For their album debut, Jans and Fariña enlisted three-fourths of the famed Section of L.A. musicians: Craig Doerge on piano, Leland Sklar on electric bass and Russ Kunkel on drums.  Another session pro, Jim Keltner, filled Kunkel’s chair on some tracks; “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow also contributed pedal steel to one track.  The album crafted by this core band under the aegis of “the other” Michael Jackson as producer is a tender, soft, folk-style affair, anchored by Jans and Fariña’s tight harmonies and acoustic guitars.  Every song was written by Jans, Fariña, or the two artists in tandem, save one.

The album opens with the lyric “Carolina’s on my mind,” except in Jans’ song “Carolina,” the title refers to a woman, not a state (or a state of mind).  It’s just the first of the character studies on Take Heart.  On “Charlotte,” Fariña’s pure, crystalline voice, so reminiscent of her sister Joan Baez’s, is enhanced by Edgar Lustgarten’s cello for a story of a girl who’d “like to see her sister take a fall, up, up on a stage, where the whole world could see.”  If any parallels – intentional or otherwise – bothered Baez, she didn’t let on, and supported her sister by recording the album’s “In the Quiet Morning” for her own A&M album.  Mimi’s song was a eulogy for Janis Joplin (“That poor girl, she cried out her song so loud/It was heard the whole world ‘round…”), but it wasn’t the only tribute to fallen friends.  Mimi also wrote “Reach Out,” subtitled “For Chris Ross,” who was “so lonesome that he died.”  She tempers the song with the encouraging chorus: “Reach out, make a little contact/Reach out, send a little love!/You may think this life is trying, but this is it, so do the best with it/’Cause for now, it’s all you’ve got…”  The country-flecked “Letter to Jesus” shows off the duo’s gorgeous vocal blend at its most lovely, while “After the Sugar Harvest” features just their shimmering acoustic guitars.  Clearly both Jans and Fariña enjoyed the sound of country duos; the album’s lone cover is Buck Owens’ “The Great White Horse,” which Owens sang with Susan Raye.

After the jump: more on Tom Jans, plus reviews of Chet Atkins and Les Paul, and the jazz-pop-R&B team of Barbara (Massey) and Ernie (Calabria)!

Though the elegiac Take Heart should have attracted the ear of fans of Joni Mitchell (whose engineer Henry Lewy worked with Jackson), Judy Collins and indeed, Joan Baez, it didn’t stir up much interest outside of folk fans interested in Mimi’s latest move.  Jans, always a prolific songwriter, split from Fariña and relocated to Nashville to try his hand in that field.  Building on his label affiliation for Take Heart, he signed to A&M’s publishing concern, Irving/Almo.  “Loving Arms” was first recorded by Dobie Gray and later by Elvis Presley, and in 1974, Jans included his own version on his A&M album Tom Jans, produced by Mentor Williams – Paul’s brother and the producer of Gray’s famous “Drift Away.”

Paul Williams actually recorded his own version of the pretty, rueful “Margarita,” the opening track on the self-titled LP.  This time out, the band primarily consisted of “Nashville” David Briggs on piano/electric piano/organ, Lonnie Mack and Troy Seals on guitars, Reggie Young on electric guitar, Mike Leach on bass and Kenny Malone on drums.  Despite having been recorded in Nashville, the album has a laconic singer-songwriter feel similar to the music coming out of Jans’ old base of California at the time.  It also presents a more commercial, overtly melodic adult pop feel than the stripped-down folk of Take Heart, perhaps as a result of the songs likely having been written with other singers in mind.  Jans penned most himself, collaborating with Will Jennings (“My Heart Will Go On,” “Looks Like We Made It”) on three tracks, turning to Jackie DeShannon’s catalogue for one, and to Seals and Eddie Sestor for another.  The theme this time was mainly love.

The warmly romantic, lightly twangy “Old Time Feeling” (also covered by Dobie Gray and Johnny and June Carter Cash) complements the nostalgic air of “Tender Memory,” which utilizes strings to add another dimension.  “Green River” (not the John Fogerty song),  on the other hand, is a look back at sadness and despair in traditional country style (“All my family’s ever known, broken dreams and busted bones…Mother and only child love a man who’s running wild/Many of my promises have died”).  You might detect an early Rod Stewart feel in the song’s guitars.  Jans was equally capable with up-tempo songs, too, though.   “Slippin’ Away,” from the writing team of Troy Seals and Eddie Sestor, finds the band locked into a breezy, sing-a-long groove.  On the very L.A.-sounding soft rock of “Free and Easy,” Norm Rea’s saxophone lends another individual touch to the track.  Jackie DeShannon’s “Meet Me at the Border” is adorned with a pop-ish use of the sitar; think “Hooked on a Feeling.”  Naturally, the attraction for some here will be Jans’ own rendition of “Loving Arms.”  He isn’t the strongest vocalist to have sung the ballad, but like most composers singing their own material, he imbues it with heart and conviction nonetheless.

Richie Unterberger provides copious liner notes on both albums, and the front and back covers of both LPs are replicated within the booklet.  Topping off the package, Vic Anesini has beautifully remastered both albums.  Sadly, neither Jans nor Mimi Fariña are alive to see this reissue, but their legacies have been handled with the utmost care by Real Gone.

Barbara and Ernie - Prelude ToAn album can fall through the cracks for any number of reasons, but revisiting the 1971 Cotillion debut of Barbara (Massey) and Ernie (Calabria), it’s clear that this duo of singer-instrumentalist-songwriters had a bit of an identity crisis.  Prelude To exists at the crossroads of pop, psychedelic soul and jazz, not fully embracing any of the above genres but instead carving out its own distinct sound.  While that may have hampered Barbara and Ernie from achieving mainstream success with the album, it’s exactly the kind of album that deserves reissue today.  And such a reissue – the first legitimate one on CD – has arrived courtesy of the Real Gone Music team (RGM-0134).

Other than a cover of the Great Society/Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” Prelude To… consists entirely of originals penned by Massey and Calabria.  The former handles lead vocals, piano, autoharp and electric piano on the LP, with the latter singing harmony vocals and playing guitars, bass and sitar.  Massey, a session vocalist who had appeared on records by artists such as Quincy Jones and the Looking Glass, proved herself ready for the spotlight on Prelude To…  (One must ask, Prelude To… what?  Alas, a follow-up album never materialized.)  Producer Joel Dorn surrounded Barbara and Ernie with the crème of the New York session crop at the time from both the pop and jazz worlds: Chuck Rainey, Grady Tate, Ralph McDonald, Keith Jarrett, and Richard Tee.  There’s a bit of a CTI Records pop-fusion feel on these tracks; Massey had, in fact, sung on CTI/Kudu albums like Esther Phillips’ From a Whisper to a Scream.  Though Barbara and Ernie arranged the album themselves, orchestrating and conducting duties were taken by the great Eumir Deodato, on the verge of his own solo breakthrough at CTI.

The album’s one bid for a single was “Play with Fire,” issued as a mono/stereo radio promo.  As orchestrally arranged by Deodato, it’s redolent of a funkier 5th Dimension, a pop-soul brew with horns.  The brass section also shines on “My Love and I,” which is also adorned with electric piano courtesy Joe Beck.  (It’s still a mystery why the renowned guitarist was enlisted to play the instrument on the track!)  “My Love and I” boasts an exotic melody and insistent groove, anchored by Massey’s alluring vocal.  “Do You Know,” another of the more radio-friendly tracks, finds Ernie adding a rougher, folk-ish edge with his harmony vocals.  It’s an odd hybrid of A&M-style pop, bossa nova and soul, but it works all the same.

Prelude To… has a chilled-out, low-key vibe throughout despite its genre-bending.  The piano-driven “Prelude” has a soft-rock feel very much of its time (think Godspell).  Though its twisting melody was co-written by Massey, it seems to stretch the limits of her vocal range.  She’s incredibly confident on the sultry version of “Somebody to Love,” which builds in fervor and instrumentation from just bass and vocals to a fever pitch.  “Searching the Circle” has another in-the-pocket funk groove seamlessly blended with sunshine-pop style vocals; in his liner notes, Pat Thomas smartly likens it to the Free Design meeting the Norman Whitfield-era Temptations.  (His comparisons to the Carpenters and Captain and Tennille are sometimes more difficult to hear, but Thomas is spot-on with his statement that the comparison “is the utmost compliment…if you were really paying attention back then, or have revisited that music lately.”)

Massey’s cascading, multi-tracked vocals shine on “Listen to Your Heart,” accented by sitar and eastern instrumentation.  Though it lacks a compelling pop hook, the vocal blend of Barbara and Ernie shimmers.  They also complement each other well on “For You.”  With Deodato’s work on the album among his most subtle, the emphasis is squarely on the jazz-style playing and Massey’s voice.  The versatile singer adopts a soul inflection with a Bobbie Gentry sass in the lean, tough protest-style song “Satisfied.”  It closes out the album with the added gospel flourish of Myrna Summers and the Interdenominational Singers.

Pat Thomas’ notes draw on an interview with the late producer Dorn’s son Adam, and though no remastering engineer is credited, sound quality on Real Gone’s reissue doesn’t disappoint, either.  Intermittently haunting and never uninteresting, Prelude To… is a fine and funky showcase for two unique voices from an era in which anything was musically possible.

Chester and Lester - Guitar MonstersGuitar Monsters, Chet Atkins and Les Paul’s 1978 sequel to their Grammy-winning Chester and Lester (recorded 1975, released 1976) has finally received a stand-alone CD release from Real Gone.  Though sequels frequently fail to measure up, Guitar Monsters (RGM-0126) feels like a natural extension of the earlier album, with close camaraderie and great musicianship in spades.

With Chester and Lester playing an assortment of guitars (Gibson, Gretsch, Hascal Haile and Del Vecchio), Guitar Monsters is drawn, like its predecessor, primarily from the jazz standard songbook.  None of its eleven songs can be deemed true country-and-western, although these oft-covered chestnuts such as Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow” have certainly proven adaptable to the genre.  (That there was very little country on it didn’t keep the original Chester and Lester from winning the Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy!  Guitar Monsters received a nomination, too.)

Though Atkins pioneered the “countrypolitan” sound of Nashville, the tracks here are stripped-down and tight with no strings anywhere in sight.  Randy Goodrum (piano) and Larrie London (drums) returned from Chester, and were joined by Paul Yandell (rhythm guitar), Buddy Harman and Randy Hauser (drums) and Joe Osborn (bass).  As on that first duo album, a loose, informal atmosphere prevailed on Guitar Monsters.  You’ll want to turn your volume up to hear the faint in-studio comments preserved.  Sometimes the gents are calling out chord changes; other times, they’re just laughing or making wry observations.  But of course, the main attraction here is the music.  There’s plenty of breathing room for tasty solos from both men over these eleven tracks, with friendship as well as competition likely keeping Chet and Les at the top of their respective games.

Both men amply demonstrate their versatility.  “Over the Rainbow” is rendered tenderly, with clarity and directness, while Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Meditation” is presented in a C&W-meets-bossa nova style.  Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is loose and sly, and a bit of spoken ribaldry involving Dolly Parton opens a brisk “I Want to Be Happy” from Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar’s musical No, No Nanette.  It’s reharmonized by the two guitar stars to terrific effect.

Chris Morris’ fine liner notes reveal a fascinating bit of history about Hoagy Carmichael’s carefree “Lazy River.”  Paul had played the song as far back as the 1930s with the Les Paul Trio, when it was sung by Jimmy Atkins, older brother of…Chet!  After the laconic (and expected) intro, two guitar stars take turns soloing to fine effect.  Another track previously recorded by Paul, the effervescent “Brazil,” instantly conjures up images of Carmen Miranda.  A couple of goofy vocals add to the freewheeling atmosphere.  Over a rollicking beat, the titans tease one another while deploying their instruments to illustrate jokingly-made musical points (“Les, I didn’t do any of those tunes!”) on “I’m Your Greatest Fan.”  And “Give My Love to Nell” is pure corn.

Mark Wilder has done a wonderful job sprucing up Guitar Monsters with his remastering, and Chris Morris’ liner notes are both informative and entertaining.  This half hour of jazz picking from two old hands is so laid-back and breezy that it seems a bit ephemeral.  But it’s nonetheless a gently rollicking delight.

You can order each of the titles above by clicking on the cover images!

Written by Joe Marchese

May 7, 2013 at 14:46

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