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."

5 comments:

ikoiko said...

Great idea for a blog! I will re-read your postings and let things sink in.

My first show was '75 Colt Park, CT and tallied 80 shows.

Sometimes I think this is a secret society, made of only people that "get it".

Looking forward to reading more!

ikoiko said...

Great idea for a blog! I will re-read your postings and let things sink in.

My first show was '75 Colt Park, CT and tallied 80 shows.

Sometimes I think this is a secret society, made of only people that "get it".

Looking forward to reading more!

Light Into Ashes said...

A couple things strike me about the early covers chosen for 'long' improvs...
In Midnight Hour, Dancing in the Streets, Lovelight, and (a later addition) Not Fade Away, the jams seem mainly to be based around two chords. In his book Phil talks about their early rehearsals, where they tried to make long jams out of simple structures with few chord changes. As of 1966, Midnight Hour and Viola Lee were their two prime 'jam' songs, though more were added in '67.
The other aspect is that these are 'message' songs to some extent, where the (few) lyrics take on a larger meaning in the group/audience context. They became almost more like mantras than songs. You can't really say that about Big Boy Pete, Walkin' the Dog, or Hi Heel Sneakers.

And another thing about blues-shuffle type songs - the Dead usually didn't extend their blues songs much past the usual solos format. The Same Thing was an early exception where they really jazzed it up; Schoolgirl went through lengthy passages as well; Smokestack Lightning was drawn-out but with little variation; and Death Don't Have No Mercy was done very conventionally. The other Dead blues I can think of like Pigpen's songs are done short & straight... It seems the blues was not where the Dead found most of their creativity, even though it's where they started out.

Good Lovin' is one song where, rather surprisingly, a freeform jam organically grew from '69-70, in a song where you wouldn't expect it - and this paid off in the long 'rap' versions of '71/72. When they revived it later, it was back down to normal length again...
Which makes me think that Pigpen may indirectly have had a larger influence on the Dead's jams than people think, since so much of it took place in his songs.

David Malvinni said...

Thanks very much for your insightful comments. Being new to the blogging medium, I only just saw them today. But anyway, it is so helpful for me to read comments like yours, I super appreciate it!

I am not trying to claim the Dead were a blues band, quite the contrary, but that there is something unique and special about their relationship to the blue; it’s certainly at the origins as they develop their style, which can only be called a hybrid style, with roots all over the map of American music, both old and new.

The message point is well taken, and this is certainly one of the ways the Dead were able to achieve cult-like status with Deadheads. But I do not think of other cover songs with longish or at least stretched out jams—like “Smokestack,” or “Nobody’s Fault,” “Spoonful,” even “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” “The Same Thing”—as essentially being message songs like “Not Fade Away” or “Midnight Hour” (though I never really thought about the message of this latter song). And much of the soloing in “Truckin’” or “He’s Gone” (both songs often paired with blues songs) surely is blues styles or has a basis in the blues.

Later on in the Dead’s career (the 1970s and so on), as you write, the blues songs tend to be short with only a chorus or two for a solo. They are also more frequently found as “set I” material, where only a jam or two will occur, usually toward the end of the set as a harbinger of what is to come.

But I also think that, generally, the amount of jamming and improvisation at a Dead show certainly declines as the years wore on, especially after 1975 (or maybe 1980). A feeling I’ve had for a while, especially when I listened to “Eyes” through the years, is that their jamming actually becomes less exploratory (on the average, not to say that there are amazing examples) through the later years, and when it does occur is confined to predictable places—before and after Drumz. For example, if you listen to “Eyes” before their 1975 hiatus, you will find interesting chord changes in line with their jazzy explorations in Blues for Allah and a nice riff section that dropped out when they played it again in 1976.

But one thing I would take issue with is your statement that “It seems the blues was not where the Dead found most of their creativity, even though it's where they started out.” I would argue that the blues as a stylistic platform as well as their blues covers are a significant source of their creativity; moreover in the Dead’s own compositions there are countless inspirations drawn from the blues, both lyrically and musically. And that’s not to begin to mention Garcia’s phrasing and soloing style, much of it inspired by blues greats like Freddy King. Even if they play a song only once—“My Babe”—I would argue that it is done at least in part with a sense of paying tribute. A good analogy might be the case of The Rolling Stones, a band that starts as a blues band but when Jaggers-Richards finally go to write music, they choose to avoid the 12-bar blues (the exception would be “Ninteenth Nervous Breakdown,” whose main form (not the bridge) is a 12-bar blues with a 4-bar tag (“hear it comes”)). Lastly, there is also the sheer number of blues, R & B, and other African-American sources in the Dead’s repertoire—by my count, around 90 songs or so. If you add these to the Dead’s own compositions that can count as blues numbers or at least blues inspired, you have nearly a quarter of their total repertoire. That’s a significant source of creativity, in my estimation.

Light Into Ashes said...

It's true that the 'message song' occupied a small place in the Dead's jam-world - Viola Lee Blues, for instance, does not have much of a message, other than creating a dark feeling! (Eyes, on the other hand....)

As one of the first songs they used to stretch out a jam, Viola Lee is actually an interesting example of the Dead's mysterious inspirations - you take a blues song, done by an old jug-band, cross it with an r&b hit (Get Out Of My Life Woman), and come up with....a twenty-minute acid jam?

Later on, of course, the amount of jamming the Dead did in a show dropped precipitously - not just by the '80s, I would say already by 1970 their 'jam material' was occupying a smaller space in their sets to make room for the flood of new songs & covers. By 1973 you could wait for two hours before you heard a jam!
(The post-'76 lack of exploration in the jams is another, more difficult issue - the Dead kind of ebbed & flowed in this regard, being more adventurous in some years than others.)

Definitely the blues is always something they come back to, it keeps popping up - in the '80s, He's Gone would often take a detour through gospel calls, into bluesy guitar/vocal moans, into a blues song. Or in the '70s, a Truckin' jam might abruptly turn into Nobody's Fault.
Of course, the days of a 15-minute Smokestack or Same Thing were over, and they certainly weren't doing a blues every 2 or 3 songs anymore after Pigpen left....that was probably why I had the impression that the blues became something of a "guest slot" in a Dead show, like their country covers, rather than being a jumping-off point as when Pigpen was with them.