Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Hi Heeled Sneakers" and "Big Boy Pete": the revival that never happened

Two early cover songs from the Grateful Dead repertoire, "Hi Heeled Sneakers" and "Big Boy Pete," were recorded at a rehearsal at the The Omni on 1995-03-28; you can listen on the Internet Archive here.  Unfortunately neither song would be revived in this final year.  "Hi Heeled Sneakers" by Tommy Tucker (Robert Higginbotham) was last played by the Dead on 8-28-69; "Big Boy Pete" by Don and Dewey (Don Harris and Dewey Terry) but played by the Los Angeles based doo-wop group the Olympics was revived in November 1985, the video of the performance is actually up on Youtube, click here.  Note that the Olympics are connected intimately to the Dead because of their song "Good Lovin'," delivered to the Dead via the Rascals.  There were countless covers of "Hi Heeled Sneakers" right after it's 1964 release, but the one by the Rolling Stands out.

As we can glean from this recording, the Grateful Dead would always return to their musical roots, steeped in 1950s and 1960s blues, R&B, country, and early rock and rockabilly.

Yet the question that opened for me as I listened to these precious moments of a rehearsal was:  why did some cover songs, like "Midnight Hour," "Dancin' in the Street," or "Not Fade Away," or "Lovelight," lend themselves to such prodigious improvisations lasting over ten minutes in many instances, while others, like "Hi Heeled Sneakers" and "Big Boy Pete," or "Walkin' the Dog," "I just want to make love to you," etc., were only given basic one or two chorus solos?  I wonder if it's something in the material itself, if some songs just feel like they don't allow this opening?  How conscious of a decision was it on the Dead's part to either: 1) open up a song to a massive improvisational exploration or 2) keep the song in its tight, original format. And yet the improvisations that come out of "Dancin," "Midnight," etc., certainly do not seem necessary, as if they were written into the material--I think quite the contrary, as it were.  We could just as easily imagine a huge section in any of these other songs.  Or not?  "Hi Heeled Sneakers," and "Big Boy Pete" are essentially blues structures, whereas "Midnight Hour" or "Dancin' " have some extra chord changes, however simple they may be.

Much more needs to be investigated here, as it was these early jam vehicles that led to the great original jams of the 1960s, "Dark Star" especially, and in the 1970s in songs like "Eyes" or "Playin' in the Band."

Monday, July 12, 2010

"You Don't Love Me"

Willie Cobbs (b. 1932) recorded his classic and most well-known blues song "You Don't Love Me" in 1961 in Chicago. You can hear the original on Youtube by clicking here. In 1967 John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers released a faster version of it on their album A Hard Road (also available on Youtube), and the Allman Brothers released a version of the tune recorded on 27 June 1971 at the Fillmore East for the deluxe reissue of Eat a Peach, clocking in at over 17 minutes.

Before both of these cover tributes to Cobbs's original, the Grateful Dead performed the tune in concert in 1966. Deadbase X gives 12-01-66 as the first concert, but since the time of that publication (1997) there have been more tapes of 1966 unearthed. Internet Archive has one from late summer 1966 (exact date unknown), where the song is part of a sequence, namely "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl>You Don't Love Me>Good morning." The similarity of the opening heads of the two songs are easily apparent, and this is perhaps why the Grateful Dead hit on putting the two songs together. Musically both songs also share a key, A, the 12-bar blues structure, and the employment of the pentatonic scale for the head and soloing.

As remarked by Sgt. O'Reilly on Internet Archive, the fact that the band put these two songs together speaks to their source: the 1965 album Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells (1934-98). Also on Wells's album is the song by Arthur Crudup, "Look over Yonders Wall," also recorded that year by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and earlier by Elmore James, later by Freddie King (who was, coincidentally, one of Jerry's favorite guitarists, more on this when we analyze King's instrumental "Hideaway").

The Dead's version is rhythmically tight and certainly beholden to Wells. Songs like this show that at this point in their young career the band could be classified as another blues revival outfit. Garcia's voice is not yet quite at the level of Pigpen's, but it is competent, assured, and soulful. They were not, however, destined to be only a blues band, as they started to branch out and really pioneer psychedelic music. The shows from 1967 and 1968 tend more toward the new songs in their early psychedelic style, yet the band could still rip out a hot version of "Smokestack Lightnin' " or "Hurts Me Too." Indeed, tributes to the blues would remain a staple in the Dead's universe, right up to the very end in 1995 with Garcia's take on Muddy Water's "Rollin' and Tumblin'."

But what of the transition of "Good Morning>You Don't>Good Morning"? Is this the first time the band inserted a song in the middle of another song? This technique of song insertion would become a hallmark of their greatest psychedelic pairing, "Cryptical>Other One>Cryptical." And even more important is the idea of the song transition without break, originally symbolized on tapes and now digitally as ">." These types of seamless jams, where for at least one or two bars (sometimes more) it is impossible to determine which song is being referenced, are of course what the Grateful Dead live concert experience was about. The transition into "You Don't" is pretty flawless, and the band keeps the same tempo. Toward the end of "You Don't" (after the five minute mark, around 5:19), the Kreutzman signals that the band is going back into "Good Morning," by emphasizing a straight eighth note pulse.

When they return to "Good Morning," the energy is higher which results in a faster tempo. At 1:58, the band responds to Pigpen's vocal stylizations (listen to how he breaks the line at "Let me come on...home with you") with an increase in tempo and intensity, and Garcia plays little swirling pentatonic riffs under Pigpen's vamping. Pigpen takes the line "You make me feel alright," and goes off on "feel alright" in a way reminiscent of James Brown. As Garcia said in an early interview with Ralph J. Gleason (in the Grateful Dead Reader, p. 32): "We played in a spade show, in fact like a rhythm and blues show. I think we were a shock to them, because the music we were playing was heavy blues, certainly heavier than any of the spade guys were doing." I love this quotation because it encapsulates so much of the feel and energy of the early, primal Grateful dead: a heavy blues band. (As an aside, I wonder about the context of Garcia's use of the word "spade." Is it an racial slur? Or was it a beatnik's term for African Americans in mid-1960s San Francisco? If someone who has firsthand knowledge knows, please enlighten me, I would appreciate it.