It’s been a while since our last Fantastic Foursome, so I’ll remind everybody how it works. I pick a classic song and tell you a little about it, and I usually include the definitive version of the song. Then I present four alternative performances and give you the opportunity to vote for your favorite.
Today’s song is one that has actually had a couple of different lives. Originally showing up in the early 1930s, “Try a Little Tenderness” was a song meant for sweet bands and crooners. In fact, it was first recorded in 1932 by Ray Noble and his orchestra, with vocal by Val Rosing. Just about everybody got around to making a record of it in subsequent years, including singers like Sinatra, Mel Tormé, and Perry Como. (But apparently not Steve Lawrence, who I was going to include below in honor of his long-time wife Edie Gorme’s recent death.)
But a very different take on the song arrived in the 1960s when R&B legend Otis Redding turned it into a soul classic. His style inspired countless others in later years, including Percy Sledge, Three Dog Night, and the amazing 16 year-old Andrew Strong in the 1991 film, The Commitments. Even country blues singer Charlie Rich took a shot at it, and a pretty good one at that.
Take a listen, then vote at the bottom — entirely optional.
Charlie Rich - Commitments - Perry Como - Ray Noble Orchestra
In an earlier post about the Bonnie Sisters, I mentioned that they’d been helped along by Mickey Baker, a talented guitarist who would later be part of the R&B duo Mickey & Sylvia. But even though he and his performing partner struck gold in 1957 with “Love Is Strange,” Mickey Baker might have been a bigger star if he hadn’t spent the last several decades of his life bouncing around Europe.
Born MacHouston Baker in Louisville, he had a troubled childhood that included an unknown father and a very young mother who was unable to care for her son and eventually gave him up to an orphanage. While still in his early teens he ran away and was on his own, eventually living on the streets in New York all through the war years while surviving on odd jobs and pool hustling.
As a young adult in the post-war years Baker was ready to try something else, so he turned to music. While continuing to pay the bills with any kind of work he could find, he managed to get himself a guitar and learned to play from a variety of sources. It was an inspired choice, because within a few years he’d turned himself into an amazingly skilled guitarist who was at home with everything from jazz to calypso.
During the 1950s Baker seemed to be everywhere, working with stars like the Drifters, Joe Turner, and others, but also making his own breakout when he matched up musically when a lady he had taught to play guitar. MacHouston Baker and Sylvia Robinson became famous as Mickey and Sylvia, but even though they made several good records then and later, “Love Is Strange” would be their only big hit.
But Baker had a lot of other irons in the fire, including working with Tina Turner and other stars, and he also made a number of outstanding guitar solo records, both before and after his move to France in the early 1960s. He never really said why he stayed in Europe for the many years he had left, but he did become a part of the the French jazz scene and played with many that country’s established stars before finally slowing down. It was there that he died at age 87 in 2012.
There have been countless female blues singers through the years, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one who could match the abilities of the legendary Memphis Minnie, who first rose to fame in the 1930s. In addition to writing most of her own songs, she was as good a vocalist as any of her contemporaries and also a fine guitarist, which she demonstrated in many of her performances.
Of course, her real name wasn’t Minnie — it was Lizzie Douglas — and she wasn’t born in Memphis, but she did spend much of her life there. She was actually born in the New Orleans area and was still a young girl when her large family moved to a small town in Mississippi, right across the river from Memphis. It was there that she received her first guitar as a Christmas present, and learned to play it so well that while still a preteen she was able to entertain in area night spots, billing herself as Kid Douglas.
She grew up fast, and was only 13 when she ran away from home and began to support herself by performing on Beale Street in Memphis. During her teens she occasionally returned home when times were really bad, and even spent some time touring with a circus band, but for the most part she grew to adulthood as part of the Memphis blues scene. By the 1920s she was making a good living with her music, but also turning the occasional trick — not that uncommon in those circles — for what was said to be a premium price.
In the 1930s Memphis Minnie began to become nationally recognized as a blues star. She’d started making records by then, and was also beginning to match up musically with some outstanding male blues guitarists. In fact, she ended up working her way through marriages with three of them — Casey Bill Weldon, Joe McCoy, and Ernest Lawlars. Her career flourished and she sold a ton of records, remaining popular through the 1950s before finally slowing down. She was 76 when she died in 1973.
*12/6/13 - Formatting errors temporarily make for wacky look.*9/25/13 - Dick Stabile's grandson checks in. Read comment HERE.*9/14/13 - New special feature: Diamonds In The Rough*9/9/13 - Thanks to Mikelj3, who inspired the Billy & Lillie post.*8/23/13 - Jimmy Clanton visits GMC! -- see his comment HERE
Anatomy of a Song Country Catalyst Diamonds In Rough
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