February 13, 2017
Released In February, 1964
Released By Okeh Records
Making friends in high school seems so paramount. Many kids walk through the halls cracking inside jokes with the same faces they have seen go from kindergarten-level weepy to senior-level cocky, and when that inevitable time comes to graduate, the trepidation and despair rings palpable through the school. Entire movies are made about this, the BFF protagonists going to a graduation party and fighting over some girl before a heartfelt apology coupled with some version of the line “I’m going to miss you, man.” If you rank salutatorian or valedictorian at your school and have to give a speech, the ideas of forging ahead and leaving behind your friends are folded into the strong suggestions given by the administration for speech topics.
What you don’t know is those promises to stay friends, those tearful exchanges of college addresses and seeing what town is between your two future alma maters, those things are lies of the best kind, the lies you don’t realize you’re telling yet. As well-meaning as all those 18-year-olds are, most don’t appreciate the tenuous nature of the abstract yet; though romantic feelings are always cast as fickle, friendships somehow fall outside those lines as if we, the adults they learn from, don’t fully understand that friends will come and go, sometimes with the dramatic force of a lover.
I had a friend like this. Moving to Richmond together years ago felt like an adventure, her metaphorical hand the safety net I needed and that she felt in mine. Joking that she was the best person I had ever lived with, we made breakfast for one another, snuggled down in her bed with hats and sweaters on in that shitty apartment on Grace with a broken heater, bought one another cardigans and tights from the Salvation Army when we found each other’s size. I bought more groceries; she cooked more and would leave out dinner when my job kept me out until 10 PM. When I needed to be silent she let me; when she needed to be loud turned up the volume. One night, driving home from Wonderland, she requested Major Lance. Mishearing her in my drunken state, I put on “Ground Control to Major Tom,” writing another inside joke and spurning a love for Major Lance in me that she’d been carrying for years.
So many nights with her centered around the kitchen and the record player. Dancing around with pots boiling, carrots and peppers half cut on the board, we would scream hum “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um,” her laughing that my dancing happens all in the booty while hers was more up and out her arms. The whistling part of “Mama Didn’t Know” was mine, accompanied by her shrill attempts that never quite hit it right. One summer can only be classified for me as Texas Beach and “Hey Little Girl,” the infectious tune with the big horn opening, the faintingly sweet, drawn-out “Hey” that only Major Lance could breathe. Nothing too fancy, just straightforward Motown always, always sung with a smile.
And then we weren’t. Things changed over a few months, the barometer shifted invisibly but no less perceptively, until an acrimonious, abrupt end that left me with a house half stripped of furniture and not enough silverware to last more than two days.
The thing is, though, the thing you can’t communicate outward to anyone else unless they’ve felt it, is that you take from people what they can give. When lovers leave you cry over pictures and fortune cookie slips and t-shirts until you rip them up, or shove them in the back of your closet, and we’re told to find someone else, so many fish in the sea and all that. When friends leave, you keep what you can, things they didn’t even know they were leaving with you. For me, with a million other lovely memories and habits and turns of phrase, she left Major Lance.
A timely R&B savior breathing new life into both Chicago soul and Okeh Records in the early ’60s.
So this album has a lot of personal value to me. First of all, I’ve sampled two of the songs on this particular album, so to say that I’m familiar with Major Lance’s work would be an understatement. Quick self-promotion: if you want a lesson on what it means to skillfully chop a sample, listen to “You’ll Want Me Back” and then have a listen to my version here. I digress. Second, if you know me even a little bit, then you know my affinity for all things Curtis Mayfield. He’s quite possibly my favorite musician of all time, and I still feel he’s vastly under-appreciated in most circles. So since all of the records on this album are Mayfield creations, it’s kind of like having an extra Curtis album that just so happens to be sung by Major Lance… in the style of Curtis Mayfield. All of the Mayfield hallmarks are there: the smooth falsetto on “Gotta Right To Cry“; the rhythmic guitar plucks of “It’s All Right“; the vocal harmonies of “Little Young Lover.” All classic Mayfield. But let’s not short change Major Lance here either. Major’s vocal ability falls right into place with the soulful “Chicago sound” of the 1960s. Actually, I first became aware of Major Lance’s work because of his song “I Got Over Love (Live)” which was flipped brilliantly by producer Just Blaze for The Diplomats classic “I Really Mean It” in 2003. Lance is a prime example that great music lasts for generations.
You know when you have a musical discovery that just brings you incredible, unbridled joy? It is the best feeling to be unable to stop smiling. About 15 years ago, I went to a music store in a mall that was closing and bought a tape because I thought the girl on the cover was adorable. That cassette was the Very Best Of Betty Wright. I loved it so much that when I listened to it on my Walkman, I would flip it over each time a side ended, over and over again, singing along, “he’s bad, bad, bad, and I’m the ooooooooone who knooooooows it”. I never became tired of it. I mention this story because I had the same reaction when I listened to Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um for the first time this week. I put the record on my iPod, listened to it from beginning to end while running errands, and immediately replayed it. It made me feel again like there was a potential for good in the world, like things would be OK again. I hope I never tire of Major Lance either. The team of Lance, songwriter Curtis Mayfield, and producer Carl Davis created so many magical, joyful moments that are all slammed together on this short, buoyant collection. At first I wondered why Mayfield would not use all of these songs for The Impressions instead, but they actually don’t fit the group — the sound is crisper and the instrumentation simpler than Impressions records of the same time period. Everything seems like it’s in the exact right place, from backing vocals (many from The Impressions) to well-placed horns to Lance’s coos. Some may put down greatest hits compilations, but especially for older artists, it’s a great place for discovery, and I am so pleased to have Major Lance as my newest discovery.
I actually can’t stop listening to this album — there just never feels like a good time to hit stop. This is an album full of classic songs that I must have encountered, right? I mean, of course I’ve heard “It’s All Right,”, but I don’t think it was this version. A little bit of research suggests that the version I’ve heard is a Curtis Mayfield song that he performed with The Impressions. Lance went to Wells High School with Mayfield and it looks like they were relatively close. In fact, most of the other songs on this album were written by Mayfield. I think only one or two were written by someone else. “I’m The One” was written by Jerry Butler… who also went to Wells High School. Major Lance had connections. Anyways. This album. I love everything about it. Lance’s vocals, the horns, the organ, the drums, the Impressions singing background vocals. It all feels so classic. Which brings me back to the question: How is this just now coming into my life?!? It was truly off my radar. And not just in a “Oh, I don’t really listen to that kind of music” sort of way or a “Oh, I had been meaning to check this out” sort of way. In an alternate universe, I’ve been loving this for 25 years and it’s high time I make up for that lost time in this universe. So I think I’ll give it another spin before bed. As a bonus, I know what I’m getting my mom for her birthday. She raised me on some pretty great music and I can finally repay the favor!
Lance’s subtle, yet stirring voice combined with Curtis Mayfield’s robust songwriting helped solidify Chicago’s rising scene.
When I was much younger and first heard about the UK “Northern Soul” scene, I thought it referred to bands from Manchester or Sheffield that were doing Motown imitations in the late ’60s. I was simultaneously bummed and stoked when I was eventually hipped to the fact that no, Northern Soul was really just kids from the north of England dancing to old American soul records — and the more obscure, the better. That sounded a lot more promising on a musical basis, as I love American soul records from the ’60s. But beyond the original version of “Tainted Love,” I never really dug into the specific records that had blown up in Northern Soul circles back in those days. I’m glad my proper introduction to Northern Soul is coming through Major Lance, a Chicago-based singer who had a close songwriting partnership with the legendary Curtis Mayfield. This 1964 compilation of his early singles for Okeh records mixes the Latin-American influences coming from Chicago’s South side with Mayfield’s smooth twist on the Motown/Stax R&B sounds of the day. There are moments on this record where Major Lance performs songs made more famous by other Mayfield-associated acts (most notably “It’s All Right“), and he sounds good doing it. But the songs that really stand out are the big ’60s hits that ended up establishing him in the UK half a decade later — “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” especially. The title track features Cuban-sounding horns and percussion and a vibe that initially made me think of recent hipster soul-revival types, from King Khan to Jens Lekman. It would be unfair to call it “ahead of its time,” as this single made a dramatic impression on listeners at the time (#1 on the US R&B charts in 1964), but it continues to sound fresh and of-the-moment over 50 years later, so that’s got to command some notice. “The Monkey Time” and “Hey Little Girl” are two other highlights that bear a striking resemblance to one another, but end up distinguishing themselves through incredibly catchy choruses — an item this album has in abundance. By the end of the record, I just find myself wondering why I didn’t grow up hearing this guy on oldies radio alongside people like Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding. If you dig singers like that (and who doesn’t, really?), Major Lance is someone you need to have in your life. This compilation of high-powered singles is a great place to start.
Starting on a humorous note, every time I went to type Major Lance into a search engine to check on information about this record and his career, I kept typing out Major Lazer by mistake with no idea why. Anyway, strange errors aside, this “Best Of” album — which I affectionately thought of as “Um to the sixth power” while playing back and writing this — evoked a similar reaction to that of The Roches album from last week. Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um reminds of a time when R&B was less about beats and slang and more about actual rhythm and blues. Major Lance’s voice is at the forefront, supported by vibrant but not overbearing assortments of trumpets, shakers, hand claps, pitch-perfect whistling, syncopated but uncomplicated drum beats, clean electric guitar, and cheerfully sung background vocals across the 12 track compilation. Beyond temporarily reviving R&B’s more pure stylistic form, the experience itself of listening to Um is refreshing on its own. Albums on average nowadays, have anywhere from 11-16 tracks; possibly more if there are deluxe versions with bonus B-sides or live cuts. The standard CD can only hold so many minutes of audio. Nonetheless, bands are stretching to cut as close to that limit as possible over said amount of songs. Major Lance’s dozen clocks in at a fleeting 29:20, which is when most current records are just getting warmed up. The songs here breach a flurry of relationship experiences: flirtation (“Hey Little Girl“), love (“I’m The One“), rejection (“Gotta Right To Cry“), an different degrees in between. This being a compilation project, it’s to be expected the songs are not definitively connected beyond Lance’s preferred thematic focus. Still, as all of Curtis Mayfield’s cuts on this album, which are deemed Lance’s more popular, don’t even crack three minutes, the pop soul singer’s single-oriented specialty is hard to deny. Put it all together and no hesitation is needed to tell you Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um is well fit record for playing back a great snapshot within the golden age of soul/Motown/R&B and carefully curated records.
Here comes Curtis Mayfield again, showing us that he is everywhere. He wrote and produced these early examples of Chicago soul for his high school buddy Major Lance, mostly numbers that he didn’t need for The Impressions, a hit making group founded by Jerry Butler which benefited immeasurably from Mayfield’s expert songwriting, guitar playing, and production. So it was for Major Lance, who took the foundation Mayfield helped him build and established a decades-long career, even mastering disco on 1978s “I Never Thought I’d Be Losing You.” The collection at hand is fun stuff, if a little corny due to the pop-oriented arrangements, full of the bleating of muted trumpets and high-pitched backing vocals. I couldn’t help comparing how he does “It’s All Right” to the version by The Impressions, which swings a little harder. But some of that response could be due to my own prejudices about how soul is supposed to sound. However, this all goes out the window when it comes what is easily the best composition on the record: “Gypsy Woman.” And Lance’s take is unquestionably the greatest of this oft-recorded song. I should know, having just trawled Spotify and listened to recordings by Brian Hyland, Jay & The Americans, Joe Bataan, Slim Smith, and others, even George Clinton. Except for the epic guitar solo by Carlos Santana on the last of these, they all range from forgettable to deeply flawed. But on what should have been the corniest song of all, Lance aimed for immortality and hit the bullseye. He trades his normally super-casual vocal approach for well-considered phrasing that perfectly fits every contour of the song, finding mystery and even passion in the song’s vision of the ideal feminine. Just listen to how he hits the word “forever” when he sings “Oh how I’d like to hold her near / To kiss and forever whisper in her ear.” He leans into “forever” hard, stretching it out like a dark ribbon. This “forever” is akin to the “thousand years” Lou Reed sings about in Heroin and it’s a bit spooky. I worry a little for the gypsy woman when Lance sings “forever.” Hopefully he’ll just stay in the shadows, watching her move in the firelight. But whatever happens is her fault, I guess, for enchanting him in the first place. Either way, it is I who am ultimately charmed into putting the song on repeat… once… twice… three times… maybe forever…
A tensile tenor who’s emotive sound ensured his music would extend far past the humble reach of a regional record label.
When I listen to soul music, I sometimes find myself thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” More than once I’ve called it perfect music. The tight horn arrangements, the surgical guitar, the multi-part background vocals — all of which are in peak form on this collection, thanks in part to the brilliance of Curtis Mayfield — it’s such a sturdy foundation. The great contradiction Major Lance got me thinking about is how, in spite of that solid musical backbone, soul lyrics are often so broken. These songs are full of heartbreak (“Think Nothing About It“), hard luck (“That’s What Mama Say“), and misunderstandings (“Mama Didn’t Know“). But Lance’s voice makes it all sound so sweet. His singing is smooth and unassuming, as he glides up to high notes and eases down to low tones that don’t so much boom as they carve out exactly the space that’s needed for them. If you zoned out and just paid attention to the music, you’d think everything was going great! (I took the album for a run on an unseasonably warm and sunny Sunday and the irony was even more profound.) Blues performs a similar alchemy, but the agony expressed by the blue note makes pain more explicit; the genre’s bittersweet healing happens inside the listener. Here, the healing is baked in. It reminds me of the Jewish tradition of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding. (Mavel tov!) There are many explanations for why this happens, but my favorite is that, by radiating love into the world, you’re doing your part to mend the brokenness of a cruel, chaotic world. Other genres may speak to that brokenness, but nothing comes closer to making it look and sound like the glass was never broken in the first place.
This is going to be a bit of a different entry into the Off Your Radar universe. Major Lance makes music that feels timeless and through knowing Laura, a few thoughts come to mind while I’m listening to this. I can imagine how the music found on Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um could inhabit numerous memories that are kindred and unique in nature. I think of game nights or potlucks where an apartment is full of loved ones and brilliant conversation. I even think of the time my band mate’s son blew over all our minds over the idea of writing a novel entitled Border Collies Don’t Cry. Songs like “The Monkey Time” or “Little Young Lover” could be tracks heard in the distance as the majority of the party has gone outside to the patio to smoke cigarettes and hang out with the feral cat Oscar. Even the title track gives me a small glimpse into what could be a song that Laura has introduced to both of her daughters and slowly started their own personal musical journeys. This collection of songs from Major Lance feels like a beneath the surface artist in that his songs feel familiar, but you can’t quite pinpoint where. And there’s a certain beauty to the way we can free associate memories that way. We know that something belongs to a particular memory. We might not understand why, but that isn’t really what’s important. It’s the sheer fact that we have those memories in the first place and there is a particular effervescence that will never fade.
I’m not one to pine over traditional R&B sounds. The genre has always been about maturation and evolution so it seems misplaced to openly yearn for yesteryear when those artists always pushed to get to a new space. Still, I do miss that classic R&B sound, specifically the sturdy horn arrangements that Curtis Mayfield was so talented at bringing together. I’m not talking about packing horns on top of horns to make an indecipherable wall of sound (looking at you, “Uptown Funk“), instead eyeing the complimentary runs and felicitous trills that really bring life and color to a song. With a Latin flavor and jazzy foundation, Curtis Mayfield really found the best horn formula to compliment Major Lance’s tenor here, one that is comparable to Mayfield’s own voice, yet more forceful and refined. The horns range in subtle to excessive, but even at their boldest (companion pieces “Hey Little Girl” and “The Monkey Time“), they veer away from Wall Of Sound territory by reigning in the trombones and making them a character in the song, instead of another layer. The best horn weapon on the record is the muted trumpet, straight mute I believe, that buzzes through most of the album’s high points, like bees on a beautiful spring day… something this record really feels like throughout its succinct runtime. They’re best used on the title track, “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um,” where they serve the response role to Lance’s call throughout while also providing context for the rich timbre of his lower notes in the chorus. It’s clear that Mayfield knew how to get the best out of Lance, but the reverse is true as well with Lance having this innate ability to really read a Mayfield song and match his arrangements accordingly. Sacrilege to some, his version of “It’s All Right” is a true delight and may be the best interpretation in my opinion, something that again speaks to the similarities between the two’s voice and Lance’s ability to vocally go where Mayfield couldn’t at times. Regardless of how far you want to push the praise though, this is a record full of vibrant soul music that’s really bolstered by the relationship between Lance and Mayfield, one that sadly should have lasted much longer than it did.
Games People Play by Joe South
Chosen By Melissa Koch