CORNERS OF SOUL
Well after a holiday break I am back with what I hope will be a continuous run of The Soundtrack Of A Photograph in 2014. I would like to thank everyone who has taken a few moments to read my previous entries. I have aspirations of taking this blog to bigger and better places in the year to come and the number of people who have commented and liked it thus far has made that job much easier. So thank you for the encouragement!
“I learned the hard way”
When I finished the first installment of this blog and saw the positive reaction I started jotting down ideas for further editions. Some of them came immediately, and I knew exactly what photographs I wanted to pair with particular songs, though getting them to a completed blog is the hard part. Others are more difficult as concepts and I have only a rough idea of where I want to go, be it musically or in the photographic sense. But I have a confession to make. As I mentioned in Part 1, I took up photography sometime around 2001 or so, and that was all on film up until about 2 years ago when I began shooting in both film and digital. Though I have a portion of my film photos copied to CD, I also literally have thousands more 4 x 6 photographs printed, and kept in those nice little storage boxes. Going through those now is an interesting exercise to see the development of my photography. There are a lot of close but not quite photographs in terms of subject matter, or some that are good to keep as mementos of a time or a place mixed in among the good ones. BUT, and here is the confession, even though I could go through those thousands of photographs looking for source material here, it is time consuming, and I am fortunate that I live in a place, New York City, where I can go out with my camera right now and take a fresh new set of photos if needed. Having so many landmarks around, I can use the old photos as a guide and literally stand in the same spot with the same camera angle as I did 10 years ago, but apply better techniques that I have learned. So sometimes the photographs I may use here in the blog may be brand new, but are based on ones I have taken previously.
“But now I’m standing on this corner, I know right from wrong”
Regardless of the source, I have noticed definite themes in my photography taking shape over the years, and they seem to happen organically. In my previous entries I have mentioned how trees, urban scenes in New York City, and the great old ship Peking have been some of my favorite subjects through the years. Another theme I have noticed is what could best be described as corners. They are everywhere in New York, and are unavoidable both in travelling around, or even in daily conversation. “Meet me on the corner of 49th and 9th,” there is a bodega on the corner of Broadway and 103rd Street,” “the subway entrance is on the corner of West 4th Street.” We say the word every day in some context it seems. It can mean a street corner of course, but as a photographer it can mean the edge of almost any finite object you care to mention. There is something about the angles; the way corners come together in one sharp point that makes for engaging photographs. I love how even on the largest objects like a ship or a skyscraper for example; there is a point where all sides converge into one razor thin edge. Often because of sheer inability to take photographs in exactly the way I would like because of typical city obstructions, the only way I can get a photograph of a building for example is to take it at an angle, rather than as a head on shot. Physically that means I need to back up from the object in a trajectory that usually leads me to a street corner until I get a result I am happy with, calculating that I can now in most cases get a more interesting photograph by showing two sides of a building, rather than a head on and rather static one, as in the picture below. Using words like trajectory here will make me sound like a mathematician, which anyone who knows my academic standing historically on that subject through the years would know is laughable.
Thinking about this concept while looking at the pictures I have accumulated of “corners” I began thinking about a quote from Roddy Doyle’s (no relation) novel The Commitments, which was also made into a popular film in 1991 directed by Alan Parker. Both the novel and the film are about the origins and demise of a modern day soul band amongst working class Dublin kids, and it worked so well because it was honest about the music. The rough edges shown at the start of the bands formation from kids who barely knew who Wilson Pickett was morphs into a polished and professional sounding band towards the end. So professional in fact that the seasoned trumpet player of the band Joey “The Lips” Fagan, who claimed to have played with all the greats, chastises the younger saxophone player for taking liberties with the music and tells him,
“Soul solos are part of the song, they have corners. You were spiraling, that’s jazz.”
To understand the meaning of that, I had to explore the music itself and the Commitments opened my ears to the world of classic soul music. Like the music of Jimmy Castor I mentioned in Part 2, soul music was not on my radar when that movie came out, apart from maybe little bits of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, and having watched the Blues Brothers when I was younger. I enjoyed the music in the Blues Brothers, but because it was more of a silly comedy for some reason I never wanted to explore the music any further. But I really enjoyed the music in The Commitments so I started with the two soundtracks that were released and gradually moved on from there. As I found out, the label ‘soul music’ has always had a bit of a problem in describing its parameters. A quick look at offshoots reveals Memphis (or Stax), Detroit (or Motown), Philadelphia and Chicago Soul. Then there is Neo-Soul, Deep Soul, Blue Eyed Soul and many more. To me it is that classic sound as developed in the late 1960’s that I think of as the true SOUL MUSIC. Not R&B, not disco or pop, but SOUL.
“I don’t wanna lose this good thing that I got, ‘cos if I do, I would surely, surely lose a lot”
As I listened more I began understanding the fictional Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan’s admonishment of his band mate. Soul in that era was very tight, and very structured but not in a bad way. It put the focus on the singer, with little ornamentation. No screeching guitar solos, wailing saxophones or pounding drums. In most cases, only the bare minimum was used so it could focus on the song and the singer. The solos in fact were nothing like what was developing at the same time with rock music. When a solo was called for it was exactly as long as it needed to be and not a second more. Joey The Lips was right, soul solos really did have corners that did not spiral out of control.
“I’m gonna wait till the stars come out”
Most people are aware of the Motown sound, and the great roster of artists it fostered early on-Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye. Great stuff and Motown deserved its moniker of Hitsville, USA. There was also Al Green, Jackie Wilson, and of course, James Brown. After seeing The Commitments I began accumulating music by all those artists. But as I began learning more, it became the Memphis soul sound that came out of Stax Records that I came to love especially. Not surprisingly, the sign in front of the Stax studio in its heyday read, Soulsville, USA. Like the great Motown house band, the Stax house band (which was really Booker T & The MG’s, aided sometimes by the horn section known as the Mar-Keys) played on countless recordings in the 60’s and early 70’s like Eddie Floyd, Johnny Taylor, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Sam And Dave, and Otis Redding. Their sound was more southern of course, but it really stuck to the notion of, just the basics, and with talented guys like Booker T Jones, Steve Cropper, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, and Al Jackson Jr playing the music the Stax sound was grittier and edgier for me as a result. But all good things end and gradually a shift moved away from that type of sound, Motown moved to California, Stax closed shop and in terms of a house band working with outside artists the torch passed to the great Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in Alabama. It is hard to definitively pinpoint when soul came to mean a different sort of sound and became known by different labels such as Neo-Soul, but it is safe to say that the classic sound pioneered by Stax and Motown effectively disappeared in the 1970’s. Or so it would seem until a little label in Brooklyn, New York did something surprising not long ago.
“Its not just sentimental”
That label is of course the wonderful operation that is Daptone Records, a collective of sorts of like minded musicians. I have to admit that though I was familiar with the great Afrobeat band Antibalas on Daptone Records as well as the work the Dap-Kings did on Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black album the vibe of what Daptone was all about passed me by. That included when a wonderful singer named Sharon Jones joined, thus becoming Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings that something really special happened. Music allows you to catch up though, even years later, and so I discovered that the music they play has an incredible feel for the classic soul sound pioneered in the 60’s. What the fictional Commitments were tantalizingly close to achieving, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings have accomplished, and then some. There is much to admire in the operation of Daptone. For starters Daptone records in analog rather than digital, a rarity in this day and age with good quality home recording equipment. The artwork on the CD’s look retro, right down to the fonts and colors chosen as well as the vintage outfits worn for the album covers. No recording year is listed anywhere on the sleeve, leading you to believe it is a long lost reissue of a classic soul band you never heard of. In short it is a carefully created package, with an obvious respect for the music and the look of those great artists from the past. But to paraphrase the verse from Otis Redding above, it really isn’t only sentimental. Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings have made a sound that fits right in amongst all the other music out there today, it just does so with a very healthy respect for the past, and that includes the lyrics which have a simple and direct approach to them. The quotes I am using here from some classic soul songs are all deliberately short, which proves the point of another line from The Commitments, as told to the band by the manager-
“Soul is a music that people understand. Sure it’s basic and its simple, but its something else, something special….cos it’s honest, there’s no fucking bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. There’s lots of music you can get off on, but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else.”
In any case, all that nuance was lost on me until last year though when it all clicked, and I was getting prepared to see Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival Festival when it was announced that Sharon Jones was diagnosed with bile duct cancer and had to postpone concerts for the foreseeable future. But one look at this woman would tell you she is a fighter and one hearing of her voice would convince you that the cancer doesn’t have a chance! In fact as I write this, they have just released a brand new album called Give The People What They Want, which had been recorded before the diagnosis but delayed until now. Tour dates have been announced and the album has been getting wonderful reviews, so I urge you to check out anything by this band, as well as the Daptone label. I think one of the reasons I have enjoyed doing this entry so much is because what they are doing is like photography in some ways. Sure with digital photography you can make it all nice, change the sky color, crop out things that get in the way, soften the lighting. I plead guilty to that at times myself. Or you could simplify, and make it so the photograph you take is the image you show, with no alteration whatsoever. To me, that type of thinking, of refusing to follow what everyone else seems to be doing is why vinyl records are popular again, why film photography will never completely disappear, and why soul music…..real soul music is in good hands with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, the corners of soul, and this edition’s Soundtrack Of A Photograph.
I Learned The Hard Way-by Bosco Mann
Saved-by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Knock On Wood-by Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd
In The Midnight Hour-by Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett
Try A Little Tenderness-by Harry Woods, Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly
The Commitments-by Roddy Doyle, screenplay by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Roddy Doyle
All photographs by Robert P Doyle
All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org for details.