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Joe Williams & Count Basie Have the Blues
Revisiting their landmark 1955 album 'Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings'
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
I remember the first time I heard Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings. It was the winter of 2001. I was beset by anxiety about university (mostly just longing for my final year to end) and pretty ground down by the daily grind. Music, as always, was a help in getting through each day and after putting the first full-length collaboration between Basie and Williams on the stereo, I found something that would help me get to the finish line. The enduring power of the blues!
The album is superb, an iconic recording from the birth of the LP era and I hope the below essay does it justice, particularly in communicating my love of the music of Joe Williams and Basie too!
As part of my process, I keep a running list of topics that I would like to tackle here. The list keeps growing and I hope to get to everything on it eventually. Three that I will be crossing off soon will be looks at the psychedelic-soul era of the Temptations, focusing on their 1970 album Psychedelic Shack (that will come in early June), Night Life, a concept album recorded by country singer Ray Price (maybe the best there has ever been) in 1963 and this summer, a new long-form essay on Elvis Presley. Stay tuned!
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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“Nobody loves me
Nobody seems to care
Nobody loves me
Nobody seems to care
Speaking of bad luck and troubles
Well you know I’ve had my share.”
- from ‘Every Day I Have the Blues,’ written by Aaron “Pinetop” Sparks and Melvin Sparks
The scene is bachelor pad nirvana. A living room full of tuxedoed and gowned guests. A fireplace framed by fine brickwork. To the right, the blinds are drawn. In front are three singers. A piano strikes a familiar pattern—down home and compact, equal parts Red Bank, New Jersey and Kansas City, Kansas. The female chanteuse, framed by a compact, cheekily bald fellow on her right and a street smart hipster cat on her left, reaches into the small crowd with a “c’mon, Joe” to bring a reluctant fourth singer to join in. After pulling him to the front and assuring him that he can “just stand there,” he does just that for a moment. The facade breaks, he says “get in here” and pulls in close the man to his left. The trio—Dave Lambert, Annie Ross and Jon Hendricks, aka Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, aka the high priests and high priestess of “some-cats-say-that-bop-is-dead” vocalese—sing:
“Dig Count Basie
Blow Joe’s blues away
I got blues and don’t care…”
Count Basie needs no introduction. About twenty seconds into the performance, he’s seen playing piano (to Basie’s left is none other than Tony Bennett). Out of camera range is the rhythm section that was the foundation of Basie’s New Testament band: guitarist Freddie Green, bassist Eddie Jones and drummer Sonny Payne. Joe is Joe Williams, the singer who was an integral part of the band’s signature sound and whose prominence in the Basie band launched him to become one of the most gifted and versatile pop singers of the second half of the 20th century.
The song is ‘Every Day (I Have the Blues),’ originally from 1935 by Aaron “Pinetop” Sparks. Williams first recorded it in 1952 in a boogie-woogie version with the King Kolax Orchestra. That performance, particularly in Williams’ phrasing, is the blueprint for the broader, more finely burnished version he recorded with the Basie orchestra three years later in an arrangement by Ernie Wilkins. Hendricks set his chart to words for Sing Along with Basie, an early adventure in overdubbing from 1957 and the world’s introduction to the wonders of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
They and Williams and the Basie rhythm section all gathered to perform it for Playboy Playhouse, a short-lived TV show exemplifying the Playboy lifestyle in which good jazz was never far from the hi-fi. ‘Every Day (I Have the Blues),’ by the time the episode was broadcast around Valentine’s 1960, was Williams’ calling card and perhaps a bit of an albatross in that it created the impression that he was solely a singer of the 12-bar form when in actual fact, the blues was only one of the style in which he was a master (critic Mark Stryker’s essay on Williams from earlier this year absolutely nails this important point).
Indeed, Joe Williams could almost do it all and that he was able to do so was largely the result of ‘Every Day (I Have the Blues)’ and the album on which it appeared: Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings.
By the time Williams joined Basie’s band in 1954, he’d been a singer for almost 20 years. Basie had two years earlier got back in the orchestra game after downsizing to a sextet at the beginning of the fifties as the big band’s most popular and formidable era had been eclipsed by the small groups of bop. His New Testament band was a model of precision and swing through the fusillade of riffs it could fire off with abandon and was laden with talent, and propelled by the indomitable forces of Green on guitar and Payne on drums.
The long-playing, twelve-inch record was also in its ascendancy as the quintessence of recorded formats for jazz as well as popular music. In 1955, the year in which Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings was recorded and released, it was the dawn of that era. The album started with the bang of ‘Every Day (I Have the Blues).’
The extended introduction shows off every nook and cranny of the Basie band and sound, a reflection that while it was the band leader and not the singer whose name who appeared first on the album, he would marshal the full force of its resources in service to Williams. Tenor saxophonist Frank Foster answers Williams on the first two choruses, the reeds and trumpets counter him on the third and so on but the reason why the recording remains iconic is due to Williams. When he hits the third chorus, he begins to eschew an overly straight approach to start pulling some tricks out of his bag. There’s the sly push-and-push of the fourth chorus, the elongated “no”’s to start “nobody loves me” in the fifth and the force of the final four bars of the next chorus leading into the coda in which Williams gets stuck on a final high note, the line never breaking, his breath never faltering. It is a tour de force and even if the shape of Williams’ performance seems thoroughly premeditated, the rightness of his choices renders this suspicion thoroughly and wholly irrelevant.
The blues is one of the primary moods of the album. The extroversion of the opener is relieved by the after-hours ambience of ‘The Comeback,’ written by Memphis Slim and arranged by Foster, one of the cadre of players Basie employed who straddled the line between the Kansas City sound of Basie’s first epochal orchestra and bop and its more blues- and church-oriented offshoot, hard bop. But even as the ‘The Comeback’ starts off in the languid, looping metre identified with Basie to such an extent that one can simply call it the Basie Beat, the temperature soon rises. Williams’ vocal shows off the gregariousness that is one of the album’s signatures. He winds up for a tightly controlled shout, goes way deep at another point and then becomes impossibly suave. Two separate moods—one conjured by a blues shouter like “Big” Joe Turner and the other exemplified by the dapper polish of a Billy Eckstine—merge in Joe Williams. There’s also the example set by Jimmy Rushing, Mr. Five by Five, who manned the microphone in Basie’s first band in the late thirties and forties. A true-blue blues shouter, Rushing could also fit like a glove in the West Coast cool of Dave Brubeck’s quartet as he did on a definitive summit meeting from 1960.
The alchemy that Basie and Williams concocted was sui generis. The shuffle flag-waver ‘Alright, Okay, You Win’ is definitive. Williams’ command of the beat is the kind of thing that is effortless but only in that it is of the deceiving kind—no one sings this well as a fluke. The reeds, led by the incomparable Marshall Royal on alto, sound equally tossed off. Their propulsive, easy swing, so innate, so natural, is a sound or, even more accurately, a vibe, that contains, at least in part, the secret to the good life. It’s no surprise that when Peggy Lee had a hit with the song, her interpretation didn't stray a lot from the perfection realized here.
On Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings, we have musicians at the peak of their powers. They know they’re good and know the listener will feel the same way. ‘Roll ’Em Pete,’ making Williams’ connection with “Big” Joe Turner explicit, is a head arrangement full of the riffs that were the bedrock of Basie. Williams imparts an elegance to what is a pretty low-down blues. “Baby you’re so beautiful, but you got to die one day / baby you’re so beautiful, but you got to die one day / all I wants a little lovin’ before you pass away” gives a taste of what we are dealing with here. His approach may be at odds with the lyrics but the exuberance is on point, especially in the concluding shout chorus with Williams summoning up the fervour of a revival-tent preacher.
There are also moments of quiet on the album. Foster’s use of flutes in his chart for ‘In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)’ brings a new shading to the Basie sound as well as a taste of the intimacy to Williams’ sound that would soon develop and grow. The mid-tempo ‘My Baby Upsets Me’ which begins with a relaxed pas de deux between Williams and Basie suddenly bursts out with soulful punctuations by the whole band that foreshadow their collaborations with Ray Charles. An interpretation of Percy Mayfield’s ‘Please Send Me Someone to Love’ is an after-hours confessional.
That leaves the two ballads on the record: ‘Teach Me Tonight’ and the concluding ‘Ev’ry Day (I Fall in Love).’ They are rich and rhapsodic, lavish and lovey-dovey. Williams’ phrasing is broad and dramatic, choices that he would moderate as his approach to ballads evolved on such albums as the chronicle of saloon sadness A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry and the brighter That Kind of Woman, for two examples.
But, here, in the context of the album on which they appear, they are in sweet accord. Williams’ favouring of emotive phrasing—check out the repeat of the bridge on ‘Teach Me Tonight’—doesn’t exactly let the lyrics speak for themselves but combined with arrangements that lean heavily and happily on Royal’s creamy, arresting alto, it’s clear that what’s important here is a mood: romance in widescreen, the aural equivalent of Grace Kelly’s entrance in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
As if to put an exclamation point on it, after Williams’ final climb on ‘Ev’ry Day (I Fall in Love),’ there’s a concluding, descending phrase by the reeds, led by Royal, that in a few bears sum up the preceding 35 minutes or so of music. It represents much more than a flourish marking the finale of the record. It seems to sum up the optimism of a certain period of time, no matter if it was real or illusionary. There’s the suggestion that the existential despair at the start of the album; the lament, offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that “nobody loves me, nobody seems to care” has been replaced with the hope that “we’ll live the sweetest story told / like honeymooners do.” Even if the blues will one day return, it’s a nice thought to be left with that today, they will kept away from one’s door.
It’s hard not to feel that way when listening to Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings. It sent Williams on his way and perhaps can provide a small push to us all to get a little closer to where we ultimately want to go.