Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A look back at "Strange Fruit" on the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth

“People have tried to explain in words what the power of music is—and usually failed. All we know is that sometimes, a short song, taking just a few minutes, can have as much impression on a listener as a whole novel can….You can bounce experiences of your life against it, and it bounces back new meanings.”

-Pete Seeger, musician/activist, on “Strange Fruit”

On August 7, 1930, a heavily-armed white mob broke into the Grant County Courthouse in Marion, Indiana. Inside were three black men (Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, and James Cameron) who were being held as suspects in the murder of a white man and the alleged rape of his girlfriend.

As police officers looked on, Shipp, Smith, and Cameron were dragged from the courthouse and severely beaten. Shipp and Smith were then lynched in front of a crowd of thousands. No charges were filed in their murders.

Seven years later, Abel Meeropol—a public high school teacher and political activist in the Bronx—came into contact with a photo of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith hanging from a tree. Horrified by the image, Meeropol wrote an anti-lynching poem entitled “Bitter Fruit,”
The photo that drove Meeropol
to pen "Strange Fruit"
which he later changed to “Strange Fruit” and set it to music.

The route that Meeropol’s 12-line song traveled from New York political events to Billie Holiday’s famous recording is murky. 

In one account, Meeropol presented the song to Holiday while she was performing at the Café Society—an integrated night club in Greenwich Village—through the café’s owner, Barney Josephson. Others credit Robert Gordon (a Café Society producer who’d been exposed to the song at a Madison Square Garden anti-fascism rally) with introducing the number to Holiday.

The identity of the composer(s) is also a mystery. In her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday claimed that she, Meeropol, and her pianist banged the arrangement out “in three weeks,” but Arthur Herzog, who wrote for Holiday, said “Strange Fruit” was written 
by blues/jazz arranger Danny Mendelsohn. 

Holiday's label, Columbia, refused to be associated with the song, so she recorded it at the Commodore label's 52nd Street studio on April 20, 1939. With the backing of the Café Society’s house band, "Strange Fruit" was cut in just four hours.

Though the song has forever been associated with Billie Holiday, she doesn’t appear until 71 seconds into the recording. Considering the original arrangement too short (since Commodore charged more than their label competitors for single releases), producer Neil Gabler padded the beginning with two instrumental sections.

A soft horn chorus opens the song, laying the way for the muted trumpet melody of Frankie Newton. Eddie Dougherty’s cymbals fill out the background.

Just when you think the song can’t get any sadder, the trumpet introduction gives on to Lenny White’s improvised piano line. With the other instruments silenced, the isolated piano sounds far away, like a pianist tickling the ivories late at night in an empty piano bar. Fittingly, the song is in B flat minor, a key which often conjures melancholy.

The arrangement maintains its simplicity after Billie Holiday comes in, creating space for the vocal line. Scattered piano and the trumpet continue quietly behind the voice—sometimes
doubling the vocal melody along with the brass accompaniment.

In line with the bare bones arrangement, Holiday’s delivery is understated, heightening the prominence of the lyrics, which are as stark as the arrangement is simple. 

The first couplet contrasts commonly held images of Dixie’s natural serenity with the ugly side of human nature revealed in the South:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

The second couplet fills this contradiction out and makes the point of the lyrics grimly clear:

Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees

Once the thrust of the lyrics has been established, the solitary piano makes a brief re-appearance before the third and fourth couplets, which bring the human suffering inflicted even more clearly into focus:

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh

Holiday’s voice generally keeps a plaintive tone until it rises in pitch at the end of the fifth couplet, letting out bottled up emotion:

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

Rather than returning to the root note of B flat minor at the end like most pop songs, “Strange Fruit” ends on an F chord—an off-note or “unresolved” chord which could be seen to symbolize the incomprehensibility of lynching itself—as Holiday elongates the last word with a flourish.

For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop


“Strange Fruit” was a bold political statement, particularly for a black artist in segregated

America. As Samuel Grafton of the New York Post put it, “[Holiday] reversed the usual relationship between a black entertainer and her white audience: ‘I have been entertaining you,’ she seemed to say, ‘now you can just listen to me.’”

Despite the subject matter and the unwillingness of most radio stations to play “Strange Fruit,” it climbed to #16 on the national charts in July of 1939 and ended up selling a million copies.

In the years since, “Strange Fruit” hasn’t had the staying power with the general public that some of Holiday’s more hummable numbers have had, but it has received the imprimatur of the music community.

The song has been covered by a large variety of artists both in the jazz world (Nina Simone, Cassandra Wilson, Herbie Hancock) and out (Jeff Buckley, Sting, Annie Lennox, Siouxsie and the Banshees). 

It has been listed in the Recording Industry of America’s Songs of the Century and deemed one of “ten songs that actually changed the world” by Q magazine, a British rock publication.

When "Strange Fruit" was originally reviewed under the title “Strange Record” in 1939, a Time critic referred to Holiday as “a roly-poly young colored woman with a hump in her voice” who “does not care enough about her figure to watch her diet, but loves to sing.” The song itself was described as “a prime piece of musical propaganda” for the NAACP. Sixty years later, in 1999, Time named “Strange Fruit” the record of the century, reflecting both its greatness as a work of art and the song's role 
as a barometer for social progress in America.

Other civil rights writing by Dan Benbow:

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Road to the Mountaintop (about the speech King gave on the last night of his life)

Honest Abe Makes Sausage (a review of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln")

                                 Brown v. Board and Three Dog Night's "Black and White"

                         Actions, Not Words (a life review of Ollie Matson, an Olympic medal 

                         winner, NFL Hall-of-Famer, civil rights trailblazer, and good citizen) 

                                                       Follow Dan Benbow on Twitter                                                           

Saturday, April 4, 2015

"The Wrecking Crew"

"The Wrecking Crew" is an insider account of a dozen-odd Los Angeles studio musicians who put their stamp on some of the biggest pop hits of the 1960s. 

Like the session players profiled in "Muscle Shoals," "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," and "Twenty Feet from Stardom," most members of the Wrecking Crew are unknown to the general public: you've heard their handiwork countless times but would not recognize their names.   

In the mid-to-late '50s and '60s a clean division of labor was common in pop music production. Professional songwriters wrote arrangements, a name act (Elvis Presley, Connie Francis) laid down the lead vocal, and studio musicians did the rest. While the media coverage and public focus was exclusively on the pop star, a good deal of the creative work was done by musicians who received no songwriting credit and no financial compensation other than union scale wages. 

The Brill Building in mid-town Manhattan exemplified this compartmentalized production model. Staffed with professional songwriters who worked with New York studio
Brian Wilson and Hal Blaine
musicians, the Brill Building generated a string of hits in the first decade of rock 'n' roll, including "Yakety-Yak," "Do Wah Diddy," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Hound Dog,"

and "Leader of the Pack."

By the mid-'60s the pop world's center of gravity had shifted to Los Angeles. The California session players were looser than their New York counterparts. They preferred casual dress to the suit-and-tie attire customary in Manhattan. Where the New York session players tended to be faithful to the charts, the L.A. musicians were known to develop arrangements in the studio. The old guard said that the Los Angeles upstarts would "wreck" the music industry. 

The movie begins with footage from the "Pet Sounds" sessions in 1965, which were typical of the time. Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys' genius composer, was in the studio with the Wrecking Crew—while the other Beach Boys were on vacation. Other than Wilson's lead voice and the background vocals, all the tracks were filled by studio musicians. The same held true for many other Beach Boys releases of the era, including "Good Vibrations," a song crafted piece-by-piece in 25-30 sessions over three months. 

Wilson tended to work detailed arrangements out in advance, but some of the bands who used the Wrecking Crew allowed more experimentation. The Mamas & the Papas, a group of four vocalists, encouraged input from their backing musicians on the breakthrough hits "Monday, Monday" and "California Dreamin.'" 

Phil Spector, the '60s wunderkind producer of a slew of girl group hits, had another method of collaboration. Working with a small orchestra (four guitars, four pianos, two bass players) famously known as The Wall of Sound, Spector made the bands do so many takes that individual voices eventually merged into a cohesive whole. 

Other acts left most of the work to the Wrecking Crew. Roger McGuinn recounts that he was the sole member of the Byrds who was allowed to play an instrument on "Mr. Tambourine Man," to the resentment of his bandmates. Peter Tork showed up at the first Monkees recording session with his guitar, only to discover that his services weren't needed. Like the Monkees, the Association ("Windy," "Never My Love") contributed just vocals to their recordings.  

Woven through the movie are interviews with Wrecking Crew alumni, band members who recorded with them, and Dick Clark, who provides insight into the place of the Crew within the larger pop music industry. Some of the interviews give a human face to the creative process. Carole Kaye, the lone female in the Wrecking Crew, plays the bass line from the "Mission Impossible" theme song. Plas Johnson, a jazz musician who found his way to L.A. by way of New Orleans, blows the saxophone theme to "The Pink Panther" and the playful flute introduction to "Rockin' Robin." Chuck Berghofer demonstrates his signature opening bass line to "These Boots Are Made for Walking."  

It was a rewarding professional life that demanded versatility and a strong work ethic. As one interviewee put it, to continue to get called by the studios one had to "never say no until you're too busy to say yes." Often this required "dovetailing": bouncing from one session to another and backing acts as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, Harry Nilsson, Herb Alpert, or the 5th Dimension. 

One trade-off was family time. Tommy Tedesco, whose son Denny made "The Wrecking Crew," frequently didn't get home until 10 or 11 at night. Plas Johnson said, "I'm a better 
grandfather than I was a father." 

Though there were exceptions, such as Steely Dan, reliance on studio musicians fell off in the late '60s and early '70s when most of the bands coming up featured skilled musicians who wrote their own songs. Work slowed down for the Wrecking Crew, other than Leon Russell and Glen Campbell,
Tommy Tedesco, once called
"the most recorded guitarist in history"
who pursued successful solo careers. Hal Blaine, the Wrecking Crew drummer who had played on six straight Grammy Award songs of the year (1966-1971), was working as a security guard by the early '80s. 

The contributions of these talented artists to the American pop canon would be lost to time were it not for the dogged efforts of DennyTedesco, who wrote, directed, and produced "The Wrecking Crew." 

Tedesco's labor of love began with interviews in 1996, just before his father passed away, and continued up through the dozens of individual screenings/fundraisers he held in recent years to purchase licensing rights to the songs, photos, and footage used. 

With all the bills paid, "The Wrecking Crew" is finally seeing the light of day. The little movie that could is garnering rave reviews as it brings the story of these undersold musicians to 120 screens nationwide. And not a moment too soon.

                                                         Follow Dan Benbow on Twitter  

Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")

"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")