Just for the record: Bobbie on the beat, Dread at the controls
A bi-weekly vinyl review
This week the criminally underappreciated Bobbie Gentry gets the (belated) full bells and whistles treatment with the release of The Girl from Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters, a lavish, career-spanning box set from Universal Music that includes remastered copies of all seven of Gentry’s studio albums, supplemented by scores of previously unreleased recordings including a “lost” jazz album, outtakes, demos, rarities and an eighth disc of live performances taped by the BBC.
It is a completist’s dream but, alas, only available on CD or download. Happily, though, Gentry’s Capitol albums have all recently been reissued on vinyl and some of these are worthy of attention.
Gentry was one of the first female country-soul artists to write and produce her own material, an idiosyncratic sound that echoed her rural Mississippi roots. Her parents divorced shortly after her birth in 1944, and Gentry was raised in poverty on her grandparents’ farm. It is said that they traded in one of their cows for a neighbour’s piano when her musical talent began to emerge. After high school Gentry briefly worked as a dancer in a Las Vegas nightclub revue before moving to California where she studied philosophy at UCLA before transferring to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music.
In early 1967 she signed to Capitol, which issued her debut single, Mississippi Delta. However, it was the flip-side, the sparse, mysterious narrative of a youth who kills himself by jumping off a bridge over the Tallahatchie River, Ode to Billie Joe, that radio DJs played and, with little or no advance promotion, it swiftly topped both the country and pop charts in the US.
Her critically acclaimed debut album, 1967’s Ode to Billie Joe, was another massive crossover success, and Gentry picked up three Grammy awards as a result, including Best New Artist and Best Female Vocal. She was also named the Academy of Country Music's Best New Female Vocalist.
The cover art also revealed Gentry’s striking beauty; the big hair made even bigger by her three-quarter-sized guitar. Some critics would argue that her image would ultimately count against her, as it overshadowed her considerable musical talent. Indeed, the Southern Belle schtick hit some kind of apogee with the pulp novel artwork for her 1970 album, Fancy, which was a great pity for, like most of her records, it was a good release with exceptional highlights, like the rags-to-riches title track, and the steamy raunch of He Made a Woman Out of Me.
But Gentry struggled to release anything with as much impact as her debut, and audiences began to regard her as a one-hit wonder, ignoring some wonderful releases in the process, including 1968’s Local Gentry and the following year’s Touch ’Em With Love. The latter is considered by many to be the creative high point of her career, which broadened her musical horizons beyond Nashville to include the soulful funkiness of Memphis, featuring as it does a take on Son of a Preacher Man that gives the Dusty Springfield version a run for its money.
With the hits drying out, Gentry would return to Billie Joe once more. In 1976, she was listed as a screenwriter for Max Baer jnr’s film version of the song, Ode to Billy Joe. The spelling was now changed, Gentry revealed, as the original title had been a typo.
She rerecorded the song for the soundtrack album, which was released by Warner Bros, who put it out as a single. Not to be outdone, Capitol re-released the original Ode to Billie Joe as well. For a time, the two versions of the same song by the same artist vied with one another in the lower reaches of the Top 100 charts – not a smart career move – before disappearing altogether.
By 1979 Gantry had retired from performing and disappeared from the public eye, settling in Los Angeles. Earlier this year, Capitol released Live at the BBC, which featured recordings made in 1968 and 1969. A strictly limited edition, only 1,200 copies were issued worldwide.
KEEPING IT COUNTRY
Gentry, it’s said, provided the template for such future smouldering country lookers as Shania Twain and Faith Hill. But, in terms of sheer talent, perhaps a more worthy contemporary successor would be Dawn Landes, a singer-songwriter who has explored indie rock, alt-country, roots and nu-folk since her 2005 debut, Dawn’s Music. She’s worked with such diverse collaborators as Norah Jones, Sufjan Stevens and the New York City Ballet. As an in-demand recording engineer (her other job), she’s helped produce albums by Ryan Adams, Jolie Holland and Hem, to name a few.
With her latest, Meet Me At The River (Yep Roc Records), Landes goes full-blown countrypolitan – which is perhaps not surprising considering that she was born a Kentucky coal miner’s daughter and reared on Loretta Lynn. Moving to Nashville, she coaxed the legendary Fred Foster (veteran producer of Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson as well as the cowriter of Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee) out of retirement to helm this ageless classic country set.
THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION
First released in 1979 in Jamaica as Evolutionary Rockers, Mikey Dread’s debut was then promptly issued in the UK as Dread at the Controls by Trojan Records, which gave it the wider audience it deserved. A crucial release and one of the finest roots reggae debuts of all time, backed as it was by a veritable Who’s Who of Jamaica’s powerhouse producers and legendary session musicians: Robbie Shakespeare, Earl “Bagga” Walker, Ranchie McLean, Sly Dunbar, Carlton “Santa” Davis, Augustus Pablo, Prince Jammy, Errol Brown, Earl “Chinna” Smith ... the list goes on an on.
It could so easily have been an overindulgent mess, but like it says on the box, Dread – aka the late Michael George Campbell, DJ, producer, broadcaster and vocalist – was firmly in charge, driving a mesmeric and hypnotic set, toasting over throbbing rhythms, pounding basslines and atmospheric dub. It seldom gets better than this.
Dread’s music brought him to the attention of The Clash, who brought him over to England to tour with them in 1980, and he went on to produce some of their music, including their Bankrobber single. Dread would also go on to perform with Santana, Bob Dylan and UB40, among others. He passed away in 2008 after suffering a brain tumour. Dread at the Controls has been reissued as part of Trojan Records’ 50th anniversary celebrations.
Next week Ignition Records release Joe Strummer 001, a sprawling mass of home recordings, demos, film soundtrack work and other rare songs by the late Clash front man over four vinyl LPs. According to reports, some of the unreleased Clash material dates from the time of guitarist Mick Jones’s dismissal from the group and were discovered in a vast trove of unfixed tapes, lyrics, stage clothes and other ephemera that Strummer had left when he unexpectedly died in December 2002.
The set also includes material from Strummer’s pre-Clash days with pub rockers The 101’ers, as well as his later work with the Pogues, Latino Rockabilly War and the Mescaleros. Uncut, which declared Joe Strummer 001 its reissue of the month for October, giving it a nine out of 10 rating, hinted that there would still be more to come out of the Strummer archive. His widow, Lucinda Tait, told the magazine: “We do have a lot more music, yes.”
The Supremes (Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson) were one group that could be said to rival the Beatles when it came to hits. Between 1964, when they scored their first number one with Where Did Our Love Go, and the autumn of 1969, the trio topped the US charts an astonishing 12 times; in one 11-month stretch, they had five singles hitting number one in a row.
They were primarily a singles act, which is why any of the many compilation albums churned out by Motown, particularly 1974’s Anthology, should do the trick. But it is 1967’s out-of-print double set, Diana Ross and the Supremes Greatest Hits, that is worth seeking out. Although every one of the 20 tracks here was individually released by the Supremes, this was the first appearance of Ross, by far the best female singer on the Motown roster, in the billing, marking her as leader of the group. The release also served as an introduction to Cindy Birdsong, who replaced Ballard in 1967.
That year Motown’s principal songwriters and the team who’d penned and produced all the Supremes’ hits, Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, also left the label. As a result the quality of the group’s releases began to wane, as did Motown’s fortunes. They would still enjoy chart success, but Ross’s solo ambitions were now becoming clear, and by 1969 she’d left the group. The Supremes limped along without her, finally calling it a day in 1977.