How the paths of Ramsey Lewis and Maurice White led to the recording of this quiet storm classic
by Marshall Bowden
Ramsey Lewis was one of the more popular jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s, bridging the gap between gospel, blues, soul, and jazz. The Lewis of this period is best known for his gospel and blues-inflected pop tunes with a heavy backbeat, such as “The ‘In’ Crowd”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, and “Hang On Sloopy”.
Released in the summer of 1967, “Ode to Billie Joe” demonstrates how a good story can become more real than our own lives.
There was plenty going on that summer: the Monterey Pop Festival, Elvis married Priscilla, Richard Speck was executed, race riots raged across the country, the Vietnam War continued. The Doors released their debut album, Hendrix released Are You Experienced. Oh, and the Beatles dropped an album called Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. No one expected “Ode to Billie Joe,” the debut single by newcomer Bobbie Gentry, to make much of a splash.
But for a time, all America became obsessed by the question of what happened on Choctaw Ridge that caused Billie Joe McAllister to commit suicide by jumping off the bridge. Like Who Shot J.R.?, “Ode” became one of those cultural memes that spread like wildfire. Everyone wanted to know what the narrator and Billie Joe tossed off that same bridge: your third period teacher, Dad’s barber Luke, Grandma, the cop directing traffic. Maybe even Bob Dylan.
“Something cool…I’d like to order something cool” says the dame in the smoky, slightly seedy bar that is something out of a Raymond Chandler story. The kind of place where maybe there could be trouble at any moment; where maybe a couple of guys in raincoats with noses as crooked as a gerrymandered voting district come in and start asking questions. And that can’t be anything but trouble for you.
Former John Coltrane producer and Impulse! Records A&R man Bob Thiele founded the Flying Dutchman record label with the express intention of producing a line of jazz-based records that would sell and be played on the radio. He also recorded a lot of favorite jazz artists, including a great many leading avant-garde players (Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp) and others (Oliver Nelson, Bud Freeman) who found themselves without recording contracts. In 1971 the label was acquired by Atco, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records.
3614 Jackson Highway is easily the best and most ambitious recorded work of Cher’s career, and demonstrated early on the potential she had as a performer when separated from the artistic influence of Sonny Bono. The duo hadn’t managed a major hit since 1967’s “The Beat Goes On”, which reached #8 on the Billboard charts. Sonny had been concentrating on his own solo album, Inner Views, and sex, drugs, and rock were in. That meant the hippy-vaudeville cuteness of Sonny and Cher, as well as their pop sound, were pretty much out.
Songwriter: Jimmy Webb Recorded by: Don Ho, Glenn Campbell, Jimmy Webb
In 1969, public sentiment against the Vietnam War had grown strong in the United States. It was a year after the TET offensive and Richard Nixon, who had campaigned on the promise of peace with honor was the fifth US president looking for a way out of the war. As ’69 wore on, there was outrage over the senseless loss of American soldiers at Hamburger Hill, and the NY Times broke the story, exposed through leaks, of the secrete bombing of Cambodia. In addition, two of the largest anti-war protests draw crowds over 250,000 to Washington D.C.