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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: Up Tight

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: UP TIGHT (1969)

1) Johnny, I Love You; 2) Cleveland Now; 3) Children Don't Get Weary; 4) Tank's Lament; 5) Blues In The Gutter; 6) We've Got Johnny Wells; 7) Down At Ralph's Joint; 8) Deadwood Dick; 9) Run Tank Run; 10) Time Is Tight.

Jules Dassin was a great director, but Up Tight! is one of his movies that I have not yet seen; since it was essentially a remake of an earlier John Ford movie, transposed on Afro-American ter­ritory, it usually does not figure among his greatest successes — but one of the important things about it is that he hired Booker T. & The M.G.'s to provide the soundtrack, and that, in turn, led to the band doing something a little bit different from the usual schtick. Even if the soundtrack to Up Tight is not their best album (and what is?), at least it is a major departure from the estab­lished formula, and it helped the boys make the transition into the «artistically responsible» late 1960s and early 1970s much more efficiently than the half-hearted forays into «modern rock» on Soul Limbo the year before.

The ten tracks on the soundtrack are, on the average, a little bit longer than before, and much less oriented at simply providing a groovy soundtrack for your dancing day. The difference is felt immediately, as the opening track ʽJohnny, I Love Youʼ is a piano-led blues ballad with vocals: Booker T. himself performs the duties, and does it quite nicely — a pat on the back from Smokey Robinson would not be out of order, and you even get to wonder why the hell they never tried that earlier. The iron fist of Stax? Humility and shyness? The idea that, as a vocal band, they would be just «one of many», but as an instrumental band, they had their own niche to keep? Fun questions to mull over, even if, apart from the vocals, the song is nothing special.

Another vocal track that is very hard to associate with Booker T., is Frank Williams' gospel an­them ʽChildren Don't Get Wearyʼ, brilliantly done by 30-year old Judy Clay (I suppose getting Mahalia Jackson would have ruined the budget). Of note is the keyboard arrangement — the organ does not enter until midway through the song, then quickly rises to ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ heights, eventually stopping just short of completely overwhelming Clay's vocals right be­fore the fade-out. A strange thing about the track is its decidedly «lo-fi» feel compared to the rest; quite possibly, the band and the production team were aiming for a «retro», quasi-pre-war feel, which is probably not the wisest decision — the Judy Clay/Booker T. duet is so excellently put together that it deserved the grandest and highest in production value.

Other than that track, everything here is self-composed — and more often than not inspired. Plenty of interesting piano work all over the place, with even «minor» pieces like ʽTank's La­mentʼ and ʽRun Tank Runʼ («Tank» is the name of the protagonist in the movie, not a prophetic vision of Tarkus) featuring cute simplistic piano riffs and haunting organ solos. And the second part of the set is like a brief exploration of musical genres — lounge blues (ʽBlues In The Gutterʼ), hard rock (ʽWe've Got Johnny Wellsʼ, which takes the riff of ʽYou Really Got Meʼ as its base and builds up a set of organ variations from there), blues-based pop (the lively ʽDown At Ralph's Jointʼ), country/carnival waltz (ʽDeadwood Dickʼ), and, finally, the band's own — groove-based R&B: ʽTime Is Tightʼ, borrowing the merry theme from Otis Redding's ʽI Can't Turn You Looseʼ, became one of the band's biggest commercial successes since the days of ʽGreen Onionsʼ and ʽHip Hug-Herʼ (note: the album version is seriously extended, compared with the single, mainly because of moody organ intro and outro sections).

All in all, it's not as if there were any particularly breathtaking or cathartic moments on the re­cord, but it is unquestionably a serious attempt at «doing» something rather than just putting out one more album because that's what professional album-outputters put out. Cool-sounding, diverse, and mildly «progressive», it gets a thumbs up from me with no reservations whatsoever. Well, maybe just one: I'd like to hear a little more Steve Cropper — not because I'm a white suprema­cist or anything, but because it almost feels as if he was not being offered a fair chance here. Then again, if it really was Booker T. who wrote all these compositions, I guess it is only natural that he had this sort of advantage. Then again, we'll probably never know for sure. 

1 comment:

  1. This is where Booker's and Steve's ambitions really start to diverge. Booker was branching out as a composer and not just an interpreter. Interestingly, he was a tuba player for Indiana University at the time too. Steve has said he and Duck were into "meat stuff", which I understand to be the basic bluesy soul they'd been doing, whereas Booker was trying to be more "progressive." That may explain Cropper's less obvious presence here. Still, the title track is one of their top 5.