Sunday, November 20, 2016

Soundbreaking, Episode 5: “Four on the Floor” (Higher Ground, Show of Force, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Alan Cumming special KPBS ran the fifth episode of Soundbreaking, “Four on the Floor,” which wasn’t about songs about cars (as the title would have suggested, though there’ve been enough great rock songs about cars, from Ike Turner’s pioneering 1951 record “Rocket 88” to the efforts of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean in the early 1960’s to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” they could have sustained an entire episode about car songs) but was about rhythm and its importance in pop music. The show emphasized one particular sort of rhythm and even got its origins right: from gospel music in general and in particular the “ring shouts,” the fast hand-clapping done in Black churches when the choir did fast songs. (One of the quirkier stories in the George Gershwin biographies is about the trip he took to Charleston, South Carolina in 1934 to research the background for his opera Porgy and Bess, based on DuBose Heyward’s novel and play Porgy: Heyward, a Charleston native, took Gershwin to one of these church services, where Gershwin quickly “read” the ring-shout clapping rhythm well enough to duplicate it, something Heyward thought no other white man in the U.S. at the time could have done.) There’s some footage from Black churches showing the “ring shout” and the music it was performed to — and damned if it doesn’t sound like proto-rock ’n’ roll, yet more evidence that all the syncopated musics that have dominated the world’s pop charts since the turn of the last century (ragtime, jazz, blues, R&B, rock, soul, hip-hop) ultimately derive from the African-American church and its musical traditions. (Even hip-hop, as disgusting as most of its lyrical content may be, clearly began in the cadences of Black ministers delivering their sermons and shading over from simple speaking to syncopated declamation over musical beats, and sometimes into outright singing; there are records of Black preachers from the 1920’s that compress this into three minutes, and there’s a re-creation of it in Daniel Haynes’ sermon in the 1929 film Hallelujah!)

The film abruptly cuts from the gospel footage to Little Richard, of all people — when I saw Little Richard in 1971 and reviewed him for my junior-college paper I called his stage persona “a bizarre mixture of the preacher and the Queer,” and I stand by that — and features an interview with Charles Connor, who played drums for Richard’s touring band but got to record very little with him for reasons that shall be explained later. Connor said the gospel rhythms came from boogie-woogie piano playing (it was really the other way around, of course) and recalled Richard taking him to a train yard, telling him to listen to the sounds the train made as it was getting enough steam pressure to pull out of the yard, and saying that that was the sort of rhythm Richard wanted Connor to emulate in drumming for him. (One recalls that George Gershwin said he got the rhythm for Rhapsody in Blue by listening to the sounds made by the train taking him to the 1923 out-of-town tryouts for his musical Sweet Little Devil, and also that one of the genre-defining records of boogie woogie was Meade Lux Lewis’s 1927 “Honky Tonk Train Blues.”) The Documents label reissue of the 1920’s recordings of church pianist, singer and choir leader Arizona Dranes quotes Little Richard as saying her records influenced him (which they likely did; certainly Dranes played those hammering piano triplets that became one of Richard’s particular trademarks and were emulated by many rock pianists), but she wasn’t mentioned here and neither was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who did more than any other person to bring gospel sounds to the secular music marketplace, both Black and (later) white. The show traced the influence of rhythm from gospel ring-shouts through Little Richard — one of the interviewees was New Orleans studio owner Cosimo Matassa, whom they introduced just as an “engineer” but who in fact not only owned a New Orleans recording studio but put together one of the most fantastic studio bands of all time (on a par with the fabled Wrecking Crew from L.A. and Motown’s Funk Brothers from Detroit) and recorded just about everybody, including Fats Domino and Little Richard. Domino was a New Orleanian and so it made sense for him to insist that his records be made at Matassa’s studio, but it does seem odd that Little Richard, a native of Macon, Georgia recording for a label (Specialty) based in L.A., would insist on making his records in New Orleans. He did it because Cosimo’s band was so damned good — and Arnold Shaw in his book Honkers and Shouters pays tribute to Cosimo’s musicians by noting how perfectly they matched their styles both to Domino’s slow, rolling, boogie-like piano and rich, mellow vocals and Richard’s pounding and screaming. (This also explains why Charles Connor made only one record with Richard — “Keep A-Knockin’,” a 57-second tape Richard recorded on the road and gave to Specialty when he decided in 1958 to drop out of secular music and go back to the church. It was played on this show and Connor’s drumming is incredible.)

Then the show worked up to Motown and the famous hesitation beat on their records — they did mention James Jamerson’s name and showed his fingers in action, plucking those bass lines with just one finger (no one else, including Jamerson’s son, has been able to play them without using at least two plucking fingers) — and also paid tribute to the excellent sound quality of Motown’s records even though they were made on three-track equipment in a basement studio. (As I mentioned in connection with an earlier episode of Soundbreaking, Berry Gordy deserves acknowledgment as one of the best record producers of the 1960’s. Not only was he able to make, with equipment far below the state-of-the-art for the early 1960’s, records that still sound great, musically and technically, today, he also managed to create a consistent “Motown Sound” while still allowing his artists to project distinct musical personalities — which is why Phil Spector’s artists were largely forgotten and Gordy’s have remained popular for decades.) It also discussed James Brown and how over time Brown evolved from a pretty standard R&B singer (The Federal Years, containing his recordings from the late 1950’s, show him sounding pretty much like every other Black male singer on the King label and its Federal subsidiary) to what he was in the 1960’s, an almost totally rhythmic figure. Apparently before he recorded “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” he told his band he wanted every instrument to sound like drums — and he did that with his voice as well, spitting out lyrics in precise rhythmic patterns and making them virtually unintelligible in his quest for a tough, staccato delivery. (One name the show did not mention is that of Brown’s drummer during the glory days, Clyde Stubblefield, for whom Brown and his band wrote the song “Funky Drummer.” Stubblefield’s sad story is told in the film Copyright Criminals, a fascinating documentary about “sampling” and the issues of ownership and law it raises, in which it’s shown how he got screwed over first by James Brown, who never gave his band members credits, let alone royalties, for writing songs they in fact worked on with him, then by the hundreds of dance and hip-hop producers who’ve sampled Stubblefield’s beats from Brown’s records.)

The show works up to the disco era — it openly argues not only that classic disco was better than its reputation but suggests that the “Disco Sucks” reaction against it was racist, sexist and homophobic — and makes ridiculous claims that disco, especially when played in its natural home in discos, created an endless “trance” that allowed Blacks and whites, men and women, Gays and straights, to come together in a positive fashion. (Frankly, compared to what’s passed for “dance music” since, disco doesn’t sound so bad now — especially when a strong personality like Donna Summer stood front and center and sang those songs with real power and presence.) Among the artists from the disco era profiled are Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees (I believe he’s the only survivor of the Brothers Gibb) and Nile Rodgers of Chic, who thought of himself as funk rather than disco but got lumped into the disco group, then saw his career tank after just two years (1977 to 1979) because of the “disco sucks” backlash and saved himself only by shifting over from artist to producer and making some great records, including David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. The show sort of crawls through disco to the rave scene and the evolution of so-called Electronic Dance Music (EDM), which is pretty much like disco — the steady, usually machine-generated beat, use of long running times for songs and the intent that they can be blended into each other to create seamless moods (I remember when my then-girlfriend Cat and I read in 1979 an interview with a disco D.J. in which he said he had tried doing D.J. sets with rock songs but he couldn’t because rock songs were too short and sounded too different from each other, we both said, “You see? You see? They admit that all disco sounds the same!”) — but mostly dispenses with vocals as distractions that just get in the way of the beat. Charles came home from work during the later part of the show, just in time to hear an EDM D.J. say that one reason EDM works is that the human heart’s natural beat rate is 120 beats per minute. “No, it isn’t!” Charles said (and he’s right; according to the Mayo Clinic’s Web site,, it’s between 60 and 100 beats per minute, and the more fit you are, the lower it is).