“Get Away Jordan”
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about.
I really have enjoyed the response to the recent Andy Griffith series, but before I find myself doing an in-depth analysis of George Lindsay’s post-Goober acting roles, I’ll burn up some more of your cash on one of those artists you might have heard of, but haven’t gotten around to checking out.
In 1964, James Brown was scheduled to close a concert featuring the most diverse lineup of teen talent ever presented at the time.
The Teenage Awards Music International (TAMI) Show was filmed at The Santa Monica Auditorium and featured many of the top stars of the day. Everyone from Chuck Berry to Leslie Gore, from an adolescent Smokey Robinson to the now forgotten Barbarians, performed in the first “rock concert” brought to the screen.
The scheduled closing act was one that the promoters themselves had never actually seen, only heard about.
The star was billed as a “Negro Orchestra Leader.”
White America was about to about to meet James Brown and The Famous Flames.
As usual, Mr. Brown had been scheduled to end the concert, but…
Around three hours before show-time, James was informed there had been a last-minute change. He would not be closing the show, a new group from England was now scheduled for that slot and he would go on next to last.
Mr. Brown informed the promoters that would not be a wise choice.
Too bad, Mr. Brown.
He informed them that no one followed James Brown.
He threatened to walk out.
Know your place.
An enraged James Brown cornered Mick Jagger in the bathroom and with a finger to the chest informed him that The Rolling Stones were about to wish they had never seen the United States.
A half-century later, Keith Richards describes it as “The worst career decision we ever made.”
Legend has it that a tearful Mick Jagger was indeed begging the promoters to not make them follow what James Brown would later claim was “the hardest I’ve ever danced.” Even his staff were taken aback at his fury. “My manager was crying and praying that I wouldn’t permanently injure myself.”
If you’ve never seen it, stop reading this, go to Youtube and type in “James Brown + TAMI Show.” Make sure and watch the whole show, including the Jan and Dean introduction
Elvis used to rent out movie theatres and watch James’ performance over and over. Prince is reputed to have it on a continuous loop on his office. Peter Guralnick describes it in the introduction to one of his books, I’ve shown it to literally a hundred friends and every single one of them sits there in stunned silence by the end. Ask Mark Bumgardner, he insisted on watching it four times in a row.
It may be the most intense twenty minutes of soul music, or any music, on film.
It’s certainly the most riveting version of “Please, Please, Please” ever recorded. What sets apart from other performances are the close-ups of Brown as they try to get him off the stage.
The sweat pours off of him, his gleaming conk stands nearly a foot off his head, they drape him in robes worthy of Gorgeous George (whom he claimed to have taken the idea from), but there’s something more.
He’s shaking his head and talking to himself, or worse, talking to something we can’t see.
I remember seeing this at twelve years old and wondering if I was witnessing a schizophrenic or a madman of sorts.
What myself and White America were witnessing was the first example of what gospel singers call “The Annointing.”
“The Annointing” is that state where “The Holy Ghost” takes over and the words coming out of the singer’s mouth no longer belong to world of the finite but are of divine origin.
Some call it “talking in tongues,” others call it “being moved by the spirit.”
Although Brown freely admits to borrowing the cape routine from the aforementioned Human Orchid, gospel folks will tell you that he incorporated the routine ( not only speaking in tongues but needing assistance in getting back on stage) from gospel singers, actually, one in particular.
Dorothy Love Coates
The one major difference: Ms. Coates’ “anointing” was not an act.
Dorothy Love Coates
Singing in what she all-too-humbly described as her “raggedy old voice,” the young woman from Birmingham, Alabama, sang in a style that was to gospel what Elmore James was to the blues. Rough, uncompromising, from-the-gut, every-song-like-it’s-the -last, “world-stand-still,” musical Armegedon with each phrase.
Much like Mr. James (and Patsy Cline), she employed certain vocal mannerisms to take the song up a level. In her case, however, instead of the “growl” she used a technique that actually sounds like she’s on the edge of hysteria, before suddenly regaining control and thundering into the next line.
That little mannerism was only a small part of a singing arsenal that struck fear into the hearts of her contemporaries.
The stories abound regarding her reputation on the Gospel Highway of the Fifties. Along with the Caravans, Dorothy Love Coates and The Original Gospel Harmonettes were one of the few groups that Sam Cooke and June Cheeks avoided having to follow whenever possible,
(Check out the legendary “Shrine Concert,” Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers perform before Ms. Coates and Co.)
Along with the roof-shaking pipes, there was an attitude to match.
Much like Patsy Cline in country music, Dorothy Love Coates took grief from no one. Not only that, but she spoke out publicly against crooked gospel promoters, risking career and personal safety by naming names. She marched with Dr. King and was an early critic of the Vietnam War.
Dorothy Love Coates’ best years were during the era when gospel singers were being enticed to “jump the fence” and turn to secular music. Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Taylor, Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick, and dozens of other were wearying of touring the country representing Maypop (they may pop and they may not) Tires. Although she admits being tempted, Dot (as she was known) stood her ground, actually retiring for a brief period of time rather than give in to financial and professional pressures.
Checking Amazon and Emusic I am happy to report that along with some other recent reissues, her best work on Art Rupe’s legendary Specialty label is still available at a reasonable price.
Start with The Best Of Vol. I and II and make sure you’re sitting down.
The Best of Dorothy Love Coates & the Original Gospel Harmonettes, Volumes 1 & 2
“He’s Calling Me” – The first and most striking element I notice is the use of drums. Using a rhythm section was still a new and controversial move at the time these recordings were made. Ms. Coates’ lead vocals might not be so awe-inspiring if the Original Harmonettes and Evelyn Starks’ piano work weren’t giving her such a rock-solid foundation to build upon. As noted in previous columns, pitch-perfect harmonies and heart-stopping piano fills are matter of fact in the gospel field.
“One Morning Soon” – I guess she must have needed a track to warm up. Starting at about :44, she begins to turn up the heat and at 1:05 throws the haymaker. Once again at 1:44, there’s that voice on the edge.
Just like Patsy Cline, this is a voice that pushes the song up a notch on sheer emotion and in the course of two lines, breaks time, sings behind the beat, “worries” a word, and throws in a falsetto “Wooo” because…she can.
“You Better Run” – Standard gospel format and then breaks into a rhumba (I think that’s what it is) while she tells the story of Jonah and The Whale. Usual jaw-dropping vocals.
“Get Away Jordan” – This is her big hit. In this case, the River Jordan represents death. Basically, she’s telling God that she’s not quite ready to go home yet. A vocal performance that just plain rocks, literally. If you can hold your body still while listening to this song, you have cause for concern.
“That’ Enough” – Telling the local gossips and backstabbers like it is. Listen to the way she sings the words “the mean things you say.” Goes into a I-VIm part at the end, superb.
“Ninety-Nine And A Half” – Wilson Pickett took the title but not the groove. Drummer knocks a hole in the snare on the downbeat. Stays on the one-chord while she tells the story of John The Baptist. Then she just gets serious, shredding every line in five different directions.
The quality never falters over the next twenty-odd tracks, the only problem being that it’s physically exhausting after about the first dozen tracks.
I have owned a copies of this album for nearly forty years. Much like the Chess Blues collection I reviewed recently, it’s like an old friend you love to visit with.
Until recently, I didn’t know that James Brown had “incorporated” part of her performance, but really it’s not that surprising after all. Listen carefully to “Get Away Jordan” or any of these other classics, and midway through, usually after the “bridge,” you’ll hear her shift into that gear not found in secular music. It’s out of her hands, she’s now merely serving as a conduit for something much deeper and more powerful.
It’s a phenomenon with roots that trace all the way back to Africa.
Even the modified secular version still packs a wallop.
Just ask Keith Richards.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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