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The Push and Pull of Lydia Pense
A few thoughts on Cold Blood's 1969 debut
When I am at a record store, the conversations I have when my purchases are being rung up are rare. Maybe it’s the often grab bag collection of vinyl I present to buy. Perhaps it’s my demeanour that suggests serious business is being transacted.
Record Store Day in 2017 at Kops Records in Oshawa, Ontario was a bit different. Among the LPs I had picked up was one by Cold Blood, First Taste of Sin. I was vaguely aware of them as a band that used horns, and I was really intrigued when I checked the back cover and saw the album’s producer was none other than Donny Hathaway.
I noticed as the gentleman at the counter—a rather burly fellow—examined each album I had selected to buy to get the price. He stopped at the Cold Blood record, inspected the back cover, and dramatically paused. My cue to speak up. I pointed out how amazed I was to see Hathaway listed as producer. He looked at me, flipped to the front cover, pointed at the lone female pictured on it, and proceeded to reveal the Word: “Lydia Pense,” and continued to cash me out.
I took the album home to try to decipher the wisdom that had been imparted to me. I began to understand: Pense was the group’s lead singer and my Gosh, could she sing. But, it’s only been in the past week or so that I really understand what he was driving at.
About a month ago, I visited Kops for my first crate-digging visit to a record store in ten months. Among the LPs I picked up was Cold Blood’s debut release from 1969, the eponymously named Cold Blood.
The front and back covers of the album make it clear when you think about Cold Blood, you are to think of Lydia Pense. On the front, a picture of her surrounds stylized, oh-so-San-Francisco (from where the band hailed) renderings of the words Cold and Blood. The back cover has Pense sitting on the ground while the rest of the band (eight men strong, including a four-man horn section) stands deferentially in the background. A Queen surrounded by her Court—an association made even more clear by the 18th-century-like costume of two of the band members. All that’s missing is the powdered wigs.
Cold Blood was formed in San Francisco in 1968. The following year, they came to the attention of legendary impresario Bill Graham by way of Janis Joplin (a little more about Joplin later) who began booking them into the Fillmore West and signed them to the record label he co-owned with producer David Rubinson, San Francisco Records. Their music was part of the late-60s trend of horn-rock—think Blood, Sweat & Tears, or Chicago. Where they differ is their emphasis on soul and R&B—think Stax, Tower of Power or even Earth, Wind & Fire.
Place the needle down on the first side of Cold Blood’s debut and you are greeted by the voice of Lydia Pense and only the voice of Lydia Pense singing the first verse of the Civil Rights anthem ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free.’ The rest of the band joins Pense gradually—first just piano, bass and guitar, then organ, then reeds and finally, brass. This feeling of building through sound is echoed in Pense’s approach to the song. She initially begins in a solemn vein and gradually brings things to a gospel boil, her approach and phrasing become more elastic—adding a dramatic pause here, stretching a phrase there or roughening up her voice into a fervour. No two verses are sung exactly the same by Pense here. ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free’ ends as it began: just Pense and only Pense improving a closing cadenza to add a nice touch of symmetry to the album opener.
‘If You Will,’ the sole original on the album and written by keyboardist Raul Matute sees Cold Blood slip from gospel to late night R&B. Everything about this song suggests Aretha Franklin—especially in the stop-and-start approach used when Pense sings the song title in the chorus.
The first side closes with ‘You Got Me Hummin’,’ written by David Porter and Isaac Hayes, and originally recorded by Sam & Dave. Cold Blood uses their recording as the basis for theirs, but they make a few subtle adjustments: the tempo is just a bit faster and more crucially, when Pense sings “You Got Me Hummin’” at the end of each verse, there is an extra note added to the end of the horn line that continues to reverberate as she begins again to sing “You Got Me Hummin’.”
This slight addition makes all the difference. It adds a weight to the sound that Sam & Dave’s recording simply does not have. It elevates Cold Blood’s cover into a classic.
‘You Got Me Hummin’ begins with a deeply funky groove which Pense digs into when she starts to sing, her phrasing punctuated by stabs at the organ. When she sings the song’s refrain and the horns respond, we achieve lift-off, swept away, ready for whatever may come next, whether an organ solo or a bass solo or another verse or another playing of the horn line or Pense beginning to improvise her vocal or the horns responding in kind with repeated amen’s or Pense proclaiming she feels “so good” or right at the end, unleashing just a hint of Janis Joplin.
Comparisons between Lydia Pense and Joplin are inevitable. She set a template for the strong female lead singer fronting an all-male band in late-1960s San Francisco. Her ferocity, technique and dedication to wrenching every emotion out of almost every syllable she sang can leave us all like Cass Elliot at the Monterey Pop Festival: jaw-dropped, nodding in amazement and absolute astonishment.
But, where Joplin was always on the offensive, Pense chooses her moments. She pushes and pulls, sometimes hanging back on the beat, other times attacking it, her voice alternates between soft and rough, her sense of timing and time impeccable.
It’s on full display after flipping over the album to put on side two. It starts with Willie Dixon’s ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ and the immediate emphasis is on the band building a groove for the first minute and 42 seconds before Pense begins to sing. Her voice immediately locks into the proceedings, laying back a bit in the first verse and then getting more in front of the beat in the second. Listen especially to her syncopated phrasing in the section that starts “I can tell by the way that you walk that walk.” By the time we get to the third verse, she roughens up her voice and once we get to the extended ending, all bets are off. A clinic in singing.
The final three songs on the second side form a trilogy on the relationship dynamic. ‘I’m a Good Woman,’ written by blues singer-songwriter Barbara Lynn, has Pense telling her skunk of a man to “don’t treat me like dirt” and that if things don’t change, she’s going to “move away from here.” It’s an urgent excoriation of a mean male mistreater set to a hard-driving beat and featuring a very good solo by guitarist Larry Field. It segues directly into ‘Let Me Down Easy,’ a slow plea for mercy as a romance has met its inevitable end.
The concluding track, ‘Watch Your Step,’ written by bluesman Bobby Parker, is more in the spirit of ‘I’m a Good Woman.’ Over a deeply danceable beat, this is a delicious song of revenge and karma being a, well, you know what. Pense again displays her sense of time every time she sings—actually more like declares—“Watch your step,” locking in tight with the irrepressibly funky, chug-a-chug-chug groove laid down by the band. After just over five minutes of it, there is a final blast from the band and the album concludes.
Cold Blood’s debut is straightforward, down-the-middle, meat-and-potatoes horn soul-rock. The playing here is extremely tight—both the rhythm section and the horns—and form a unshakable foundation on which Lydia Pense can work her magic.
Upon its release in 1969, the album hit #23 on the Billboard charts, and a single of ‘You Got Me Hummin’’ was a minor hit. Yet today, the group is largely forgotten, though Pense continues to perform with a version of the group to this day.
Those in the know, including that fellow at Kops in 2017, are wise to Cold Blood and Lydia Pense. I am too. How about you?
Tina Brooks’ The Waiting Game: Recently, I filled two holes in my Blue Note collection through the label’s analogue Tone Poet reissue series. One was trumpeter Donald Byrd’s Chant (notable for being Herbie Hancock’s debut session) and the other was tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks’ The Waiting Game recorded on March 2, 1961 at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Brooks’ recording career was brief yet memorable. Among his notable appearances as a sideman are Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon and Freddie Hubbard’s debut, Open Sesame. His sole leadership session released during his lifetime, True Blue, is a hard-bop classic. He led three other sessions that were only released after his passing in 1974. The Waiting Game is the final of these three and first saw the light of day in 1985 as part of a Mosaic box set highlighting his work as a leader on Blue Note. It was also released on CD on 1999.
Brooks had a distinctive and personal voice on the tenor: a full, declaratory tone with just the slightest edge. On The Waiting Game, he is joined by Johnny Coles on trumpet, Kenny Drew on piano, Wilbur Ware on bass and “Philly” Joe Jones on the drums.
The opener, ‘Talkin’ About,’ has a nice, relaxed shuffle groove that results in solos from Coles, Brooks and Drew that fit snuggly with the beat that Jones creates on the drums. Ware’s solo has him memorably using a walking tempo and creating interest during his solo through the notes he selects.
Coles provides a good contrast to Brooks, his soft, warm tone—reminiscent of Kenny Dorham—and lyrical style—more than a little influenced by Miles Davis—blend well with Brooks’ more extroverted style. Drew, in his solos, frequently interjects funky stabs at the piano (his turn on ‘David the King’ is a good example) to build on his single-run lines. Jones is typically brash at the kit. Ware provides a rock solid bottom.
The date features five originals by Brooks plus a nice mid-tempo version of ‘Stranger in Paradise’ from the musical Kismet first made famous by Tony Bennett.
Overall, The Waiting Game is a solid Blue Note date that, while it may not ever truly catch fire exemplifies the label’s signature approach to hard bop. It is good to see it back in circulation.
Cocaine & Rhinestones: It was a number of years ago that I had an epiphany: that I was born and raised on country music. The sounds I heard when I was very young were often Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Brenda Lee, Don Gibson and what have you, but it was only when I really started to explore country around 2011 and 2012 that I realized how much that music was a foundational part of my musical education. Naturally then, I am engrossed in Tyler Mahan Coe’s ‘Cocaine and Rhinestones,’ a music podcast unlike anything I have ever heard. To learn more about Coe, I heartily recommend this profile from GQ.
I often bemoan the lack of research that characterizes many podcasts on music. No such worries here. Coe does his research and then some. He is currently deep into Season 2 of ‘Cocaine and Rhinestones,’ an examination of the life, music and world of George Jones. There have been dissertations on pinball, ice cream, bull fighting, Starday Records (where Jones got his start), producer Owen Bradley, the Nashville Sound, the Nashville A-Team (the incredible group of studio musicians that are the hallmark of the sound of pop and country in the 1950s, 1960s and beyond), Gene Pitney, more bull fighting (Coe talks a lot about it!) and moonshine—and that’s just the first seven episodes (most topping the two-hour mark) with new ones to be released every two weeks until the end of the year.
‘Cocaine and Rhinestones’ is important and inspiring storytelling. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s available anywhere you like to catch your podcasts.
A quick update on two upcoming box sets previously highlighted here: Early in June, I enthused about two sets that were scheduled to come out at the end of this month: the Beach Boys’ Feel Flows and Lee Morgan’s Complete Live at the Lighthouse. The release dates for both have now been pushed back with Feel Flows slated to come out on August 27 and the Morgan set coming a week earlier on August 20. I have both on pre-order and hope to have thoughts on them once I have a chance to give them a good listen.