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Gordon Lightfoot and the Wherefore and Why of 'Did She Mention My Name?'
Plus 'A Love Supreme Live in Seattle', remembering drummer Ronnie Tutt and a short reflection on 'Summer of Soul'
It begins almost out of nowhere, a single guitar idly strumming and then a declaration, the protagonist telling the listener he most definitely woke up on the right side of the bed and is ready to seize the day. So starts Gordon Lightfoot’s third album, Did She Mention My Name?, released in April 1968.
‘Wherefore and Why,’ the album’s lead track, offers the promise of a quest. Going out into the world to search for the answers to the big questions. The song itself states that the wherefore is actually right in front of you—nature, family—and the why—well, we may finally only know that in the By and By, as the old spiritual goes. However, the use of a fade-out on ‘Wherefore and Why’ seemingly mid-song indicates though that while answers have been offered, the search still goes on. The first verse features what had become at that point the signature Lightfoot sound: two guitars, a bass and some light1 percussion. The second verse introduces strings, arranged by producer John Simon.
Did She Mention My Name? catches Simon in the middle of helming a seminal series of albums. It comes just after Leonard Cohen’s debut as well as that of Blood, Sweat & Tears (the only one with Al Kooper as guiding force) and just before two of the defining records of 1968: the Band’s Music from Big Pink and Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills. Lightfoot, Orillia-born and Yorkville-seasoned, was quickly establishing himself as one of a number of Canadian singer-songwriters who, along with Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, had something to say and a voice with which to say it. Signed to United Artists Records and represented by impresario Albert Grossman, Lightfoot had honed his sound with his intimate debut release, titled simply Lightfoot, and his more expansive follow-up, The Way I Feel.
It was Grossman who connected Lightfoot with Simon, who agreed to produce the singer’s next release after watching him perform in Philadelphia. It’s Simon who crafts the ambitious soundscapes that define Did She Mention My Name?, giving it its distinctive flavour and providing a deeply effective foil for the often-outstanding songs that Lightfoot wrote for the album.
The aforementioned strings that greet the second verse of ‘Wherefore and Why’ underscore the soaring nature of Lightfoot’s words and voice, and add a touch of grace to a song that wrestles with the big questions of life. They also play a key role on the album’s next song, ‘The Last Time I Saw Her,’ as sorrowful as ‘Wherefore and Why’ is hopeful.
Steeped in heartbreak, deeply and often-profoundly melancholic, and describing a sorrow at the end of a love affair that is almost debilitating, ‘The Last Time I Saw Her’ is a stunning testament to Lightfoot’s gift for long-form composition. The words often tumble out in a Dylanesque stream of consciousness, if far more literal than Dylan’s dazzling flights of fancy. Simon’s strings emphasize the immensity of the loss, dialoging with Lightfoot and offering a shoulder on which to cry in the immediate aftermath of a break-up in which it feels as if the hurt is something from which recovery is impossible and inconceivable.
Loss and anguish are feelings that recur throughout the album. Even a song that is as hopeful on the surface as ‘The Mountains and Maryann’ in which the excitement of travelling is baked into its every second with the promise of “hot-blooded mountain love,” the song’s final ambiguous chord throws into question whether our traveler will actually get what he is hoping for.
‘Something Very Special,’ one of the Lightfoot’s least-known songs, is a hazy evocation of a dream girl who disappears seemingly as mysteriously as she initially appeared and whose memory haunts the song’s narrator. Simon’s touches here result in one of the few songs that Lightfoot recorded that dabbled with psychedelia, especially through the use of the ping-ponging guitar and the slightly Indian sonority of the strings.
Simon’s willingness to push Lightfoot into new directions has its pluses but also its minuses. The musique concrète interlude on ‘Boss Man’ is a strange intrusion into what is an excellent ode to the strife of the working class, though I do like it. The odd meter shifts of ‘May I’ as well as the out-of-the-blue bluegrass coda make for a mostly awkward listen and the pure pop of ‘I Want to Hear It From You’ in the mold of the brassy sounds of the Buckinghams or Gary Puckett and the Union Gap never really connects.
But enough of that, let’s get back to the pluses. The baroque setting Simon concocts for ‘Pussywillows, Cat-Tails,’ particularly in the way that the oboe follows Lightfoot’s singing of the song’s main refrain and how he creates a stormy background for the final verse which details the onset of winter, is a perfect match for Lightfoot’s deeply poetic lyrics.
Poetic too is ‘Does Your Mother Know’—in my opinion, the crown jewel of Did She Mention My Name? and easily one of my favourite, if not my absolute favourite, of all the songs Lightfoot has written and recorded. In its way, it’s a more nuanced version of ‘Go-Go Round’ and abounds with Lightfoot’s humanity, empathy and sensitivity in its tale of a women leaving home to pursue her dreams (another quest!) only to have them dashed yet keeping a brave face through the letters she writes home. Simon’s setting for strings heightens the song’s emotional impact as well as its undeniably pretty melody, especially in the rich coda that climaxes with swelling, deep vibrato from the cello. Also notable is bassist John Stockfish here, whose steady bottom brings an element of jazz to the number.
Arguably the most well-known song from Did She Mention My Name? is ‘Black Day in July,’ Lightfoot’s response to the Detroit Riots of 1967 that Simon sensed could be a hit which it may very well have been if not for the short-sightedness of radio stations that instead choose to ban it from the airwaves. Featuring a menacing sound in which the toms of drummer Herb Lovelle echo the racial tensions that continue unresolved to this day, ‘Black Day in July’ still resonates in its recounting of the unrest of the summer of ’67, the efforts to quell it and the inevitability of it reoccurring unless we sincerely deal with and resolve its underlying causes.
After Did She Mention My Name? was released, Lightfoot quickly soon followed it up with Back Here on Earth in which the expansiveness of John Simon’s production would be replaced with a far more intimate sound.
The itch for familiar territory is evident on ‘Magnificent Outpouring’ which features few of Simon’s bells and whistles. In its way, the song is a template for the late-sixties Lightfoot sound: an attractive melody, a great Lightfoot vocal, limber work by the formidable Red Shea on guitar and an emphatic, folky rhythm. Another of Lightfoot’s songs that is puzzlingly unknown.
The album closer, the title track, is another song that anticipates Lightfoot’s return to a simpler sound on Back Here on Earth. After 11 songs that mine feelings of melancholy, loss, unrest and stabs at adopting the current fads in popular rock, ‘Did She Mention My Name’ is back to basics. It’s as if Lightfoot is asking us to remember that, despite all that has preceded it, that he remains unchanged, he’s still Gord from Orillia and hopes you remember him as such. Yet it’s undeniable that the album before we reach its conclusion is of such strong quality and depth that it may very well be simply a song recounting the anxiety of returning home.
Did She Mention My Name? easily includes eight of Lightfoot’s finest songs, ten if you throw in ‘Magnificent Outpouring’ and ‘Something Very Special’ (I would!) and John Simon’s production foreshadows Lightfoot’s work with Lenny Waronker in the seventies, although what Simon does here is often bolder and more satisfying. The album takes a very unique place in Lightfoot’s discography, capturing him in the middle of his emergence as one of Canada’s most important troubadours and working with a deeply creative and adventurous producer in the middle of his own career ascension. In his journey into the world through the album, Lightfoot shines even as he itches for home. Perhaps he is right all along that in our own search, the answer can often be found exactly where we are. But, in order to make that realization, one must first venture forth and quest for some answers.
A new A Love Supreme: On October 21, the day before A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle was released, I joined hundreds for NPR’s sneak-peek listening party to hear the album as well as to take in a short conversation afterwards with tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis and harpist Brandee Younger and moderated by WBGO’s Nate Chinen.
The recording, perhaps the most anticipated and consequential archival release of the year, is only the second-known live recording by John Coltrane of his most revered work. Captured by Joe Brazil (his legacy is vital and worth reading here) during Coltrane’s week-long engagement at the Penthouse in Seattle in the early fall of 1965, the Classic Quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones is joined by tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, altoist Carlos Ward and bassist Donald Rafael Garrett.
As those who are familiar with the other recordings released during this stint out West, Coltrane is at a pivotal point in transition, soon to fully enter the final, free phase of his career. There is a certain level of tension in the music that results from Coltrane, Sanders, Ward, Garrison and Garrett moving further out while Tyner and Jones never fully repudiate a pulse to the music. What it means for this recording of A Love Supreme is that it is fully realized as a continuous suite of music—an unbroken performance the runs for almost an hour and a quarter that save for three interludes by Garrison and Garrett never wavers in its fervour or hold on the listener. It is also far looser than the famous studio recording of the piece as well as the performance of the suite by the Quartet in Antibes in July 1965. It is far too early to declare where it stands in Coltrane’s discography, though pianist Ethan Iverson’s write-up offers some astute points on this matter (read it here), but what is clear is that is essential, often-bracing, listening.
“And on the drums is Ronnie Tutt”: There is a remarkable sequence in the 1970 documentary, Elvis: That’s The Way It Is. Elvis and band are rehearsing in advance of his August 1970 residency in Las Vegas. At the end of a run-through of the Bee Gees’ ‘Words,’ Elvis, with a motion of his hands, directs how the end of the song should go, a prolonged stretching out of the final two words, “heaaaarrrrtttt aaaawwwwaaaayyyyyyyyy.” As if to emphasize the point, or simply to have a little fun, he continues to make gestures after the song has ended with the band responding in kind to each. Hand motions give way to two karate chops and then as Elvis sits back down, he gives one quick and impish full-body shrug, and the band lets out a final squeak of sound.
Never taking his eye off Elvis is drummer Ronnie Tutt—anticipating each motion, completely in synch, the drummer and singer engaged in a pas de deux. If there was a single driving force of Elvis’ live performances form 1969 until his death, it was Tutt, who passed away at age 83 on October 16. After the orchestral flourish of the opening of Richard Strauss’ ‘Also sprach Zarathustra,’ Tutt would take over on the drum kit, establishing an irresistible rhythm for the rest of the band to join in while awaiting Elvis to make his grand entrance. Over the course of the next hour, Tutt’s drive and often-astonishing intensity punctuated with deeply theatrical fills would power the phenomenon and spectacle of Elvis in Concert. It is no surprise that during the nightly band introductions, the loudest cheers were often heard when Elvis announced, often with a touch of the dramatic, “and on the drums is Ronnie Tutt.” For a sense of how Tutt was the engine of Elvis’ live show, give a listen to the first part of his afternoon show at Madison Square Garden on June 10, 1972. Hear how he powers ‘Proud Mary’ through multiple key changes, how the gong-like cymbal crashes during a show-stopping ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ bring the drama to a fever pitch and how his relentless work on a torrid run-through of ‘Polk Salad Annie’ almost melts the Garden stage.
As luck would have it, I got to see Tutt live backing Neil Diamond in 2017 during his final tour. By then, Ronnie had long become Ron and the pyrotechnics he employed with Elvis had abated to a stone-cold groove. The simpatico between drummer and singer was still there: Tutt locking in a give-and-take with Diamond, giving the music its vital pulse.
Some capsule thoughts on Summer of Soul: After writing more than once about Summer of Soul and somewhat enviously scrolling through timelines of lucky enough to watch it, it was finally my turn.
A chronicle of the six concerts that comprised the Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969, the documentary, expertly directed by Questlove—quickly becoming one of our most important archivists and compilers of Black music—is bursting with riches. There’s priceless concert footage of such acts as the 5th Dimension (click here to read my essay on their first four albums), the Edwin Hawkins Singers, David Ruffin, Herbie Mann, the Chambers Brothers and much, much more. There’s also a crash course in the Civil Rights movement, an immersion into the sights and sounds of Harlem street life in the late sixties and interviews with several individuals who attended the Festival. Much is packed into just under two hours. And if it may feel just a bit like a by-the-numbers doc in that Summer of Soul moves from one musical act to the next and then to next and so on, Questlove never assumes that you automatically bow down to the altar of Mahalia Jackson (through after seeing her perform ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ with Mavis Staples, how can you not) or care about Motown.
The overwhelming feeling of watching the documentary is the glorious realization that it is only tip of the iceberg. Here’s hoping more footage sees the light of day and there’s a physical release of some of the music, special requests put forward from yours truly for the full set by the 5th Dimension as well as Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, and Stevie Wonder’s performance of ‘Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day’ with a jaw-dropping clavinet solo in the middle and that's just for starters.