Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Two Nights in the Life of a Soul Man

All of us--two female, four male, six Caucasians--caught the A train at 14th Street, reaching 125th at about eleven-fifty. Then we walked the two blocks to the Apollo, where the traditional midnight show was scheduled to begin at twelve-thirty. As always, I was a bit uneasy. Any white man who feels entirely at ease on the night streets of Harlem has more faith-hope-and-charity than I do. And almost any white man who thinks he fully comprehends the Apollo is deluding himself. Does he really get all that silly choreographic showmanship? Can he distinguish a clean shing-a-ling from a phony without a cue from the audience? Does he get all the jokes? Does he leave the theater cleansed and purified by his own adrenalin? Does he ever feel "welcome"? The guy next to us--35 perhaps, green pullover shirt, no tie--made as if to pass out over one of our seats, but his wife, who was watching the movie, kept him upright. The family of six behind us was watching the movie, too. The only function of the movies at the Apollo is to give the performers a rest, but the audience watches. No matter what 1954 western is on the screen, no matter how loud the babble, there is always a cheer when the bad guy (parboiled by the decomposing Technicolor emulsion) finally gets his. This was a not-so-bad circa-1962 English B starring Oliver Reed as the spiritual leader of a gang of bohemians that included the obligatory snake-hipped Jamaican, who was good for a few laughs. Then there was an atrocious Secret Agent James Hound cartoon, and as the audience tittered lazily a few red lights showed behind the screen. Pickett's band was setting up.

The Apollo runs with vaudeville precision. This befits its variety-house history, but the reason is that its patrons won't stand for anything else. So there is none of the endless tuning up that goes on at longhair concerts and white teenybopper extravaganzas. The curtain rose as Pickett's band did one sharp instrumental, and then King Coleman came on, costumed in an iridescent canary yellow sport jacket, matching Bermudas, calf-length boots, and a ruffled psychedelic-Hawaiian shirt. Coleman, a hefty fellow with a shaved head and goatee and a faintly effeminate manner (like his clothes, an affectation of comic elegance), is one of the regular emcees, a barely passable but imperturbable shout singer who can contort his body like a pipe cleaner while continuing to dance with his feet--a spastic with rhythm, a caricature of the soul man. Coleman sang "Knock on Wood," got some jocular applause for the intricate hula maneuver, and then, having kicked off the show at zero level, introduced the Artistics.

At its most ideal, the soul show is a gradual softening-up to the inevitable catharsis. The audience demands each time to be shown the way, to be born and born again, and while they're willing to believe, they're not promiscuous about it. At the end of a long Saturday, with the whole front of the orchestra already having seen a show or two, the lead-off group isn't likely to do much more than instill a sense of guilt in the unresponsive. The Artistics did just a little more than that. And Judy Clay, who followed, really got things going early.

Judy Clay is the most significant example of an important trend. The deep-soul sound of Stax-Volt in Memphis had always included some white musicians, most notably guitarist Steve Cropper, but not until Jay and the Techniques hit with "Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie" and the American Breed with "Step Out of Your Mind" were there integrated groups whose primary appeal was in the teenybop market. "Storybook Children," which King Coleman announced to warm applause as Judy Clay's big, big record, went one better. "Storybook Children" was not really such a big, big record--it hit in New York and made top sixty nationally, top twenty r&b. Also, it was not really by Judy Clay. It was by Billy Vera and Judy Clay. Billy Vera is white, which makes him one half of the first interracial romantic duo, Sonny and Cher crossed with Peaches and Herb--maintaining the surnames, one assumes, makes it seem more formal. It is hard to imagine where they can perform before they become big enough to warrant concerts. Considering the Old South sexual situation they embody (although Judy rejects Billy in the song), they are more likely to do the Biloxi Kiwanis Club than the Apollo. Integration has a way to go. Judy sang alone.

She came on in a floor-length white gown which did a good job of concealing her girth. Judging from her biceps, her girth is considerable, but it can't be much bigger than her voice, which is up there with Fontella Bass and Big Maybelle. She began uptempo on "Satisfied Heart," with thirty seconds of successful scatting at the end, then brought it down into a solo "Storybook Children" that had many of the men crying out whenever she punctuated with an "ohyeh-oyeh." She went off to very big applause. The Esquires could not have been too happy about following her.

Like the Artistics, the Esquires are from Chicago. They were riding a two-stage one-shot: "Get on Up," which went to eleven in Billboard, followed by "And Get Away," which reached number 22. This was the most transparent back-to-the-'50s soundalike follow-up of the decade, capitalizing almost entirely on a strangely neglected '50s trick--the bass man. I hope they are putting their royalties in the bank. Dressed in orange suits and white shoes, they set up a three-and-one, the presumed lead at one mike with his Posner special slicked down over his forehead while the rest imitated Rockettes at the other. I noticed the bass man, the cause of all their success--older, with a receding hairline, he looked out of place doing his kicks. He danced while the lead did his falsetto number, stuck in the "andgetaway" or "getonup"--same three catchy notes for both--where it was needed, and performed like a yeoman. But the group was received with restraint. Then the Coasters did twenty minutes of well-polished comedy, sang old hits in which the greatest bass parts ever written easily outshone the Esquires's, and resisted calls for an encore. It was star time.

Excluding Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Wilson Pickett is the most consistent hitmaker of all the soul men, but he is not a real giant on the circuit. He is merely a clean stud. Tall and dark, long-legged, a superb dancer who uses his loud, husky voice with uncanny rhythmic anticipation, he depends in the end on his arrogance. He can exhort only from above. Pickett had just returned from a week's tour with Mitch Ryder, who does the soul thing for the benefit of white teenyboppers, and found himself going over with Mitch's audiences in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, West Virginia, and Massachusetts. The little girls actually stormed him some, not as energetically as they did Ryder, but after all, Pickett was black, and he wasn't even putting out the way he had already put out three times that Saturday at the Apollo. It must have been getting him down.

There was something strange about the show from the start. Pickett, in a broad-checked gray suit and a dark shirt open at the neck, opened fast with "You Can't Stand Alone," improvised for a few minutes at the end and then, without even pausing, moved into "I'm in Love," improvising there for a few minutes as well, and then lowered his voice for a recitative.

Already? But there it was, guitar an drums holding the beat.

"I'd like to say at this particular time that I'm lookin' out in the audience tonight, and I know I see lots of soul sisters and soul brothers. And I know that means one thing--that y'all came out here to have yourselves a good time. I been out here since noon this morning, but I don't want to go home until everybody has a good time."

I sensed a slight tensing in the balcony. Going home? Damn right you're not going home. Guitar and drums continued the same riff.

Pickett edged for the stairs stage left. Two henchmen appeared, one carrying a cloak. But they didn't follow him down the stairs. What was he doing down there? Show's just startin' . . .

Pickett looked out over the audience. Same beat.

"I got a good friend out there in the audience tonight--Miss Betty Harris. And I want Betty to come out here and help me help you have a good time. Betty, where are you at? You come on up here and help me out tonight."

A very foxy chick in a white mini and yellow stockings appeared from the wings and joined Pickett on the apron. She got a few whistles, but people were uneasy. This downstairs business was jive, and so was Miss Betty Harris. Where was the wicked Wilson Pickett?

He was beginning to sing again--"Got to have a love, got to find a love, got to . . ." But somewhere in there the mike went to Miss Betty Harris and she took up the call, prancing up and down the aisles and encouraging folks to clap hands, one by one. None of them kept it up. What the hell was Wilson doing? Wasn't he there to sing?

Apparently not, for after Betty finally went off Pickett called for Mitch Ryder's bodyguard to come up and take a bow. Mitch Ryder's bodyguard? Impossible. But there he was, a black guy named Romeo. Pickett called him Hercules and asked the audience to applaud his shoulders. About four people clapped. But Pickett wasn't through.

"I saw Mitch Ryder's trombone player out there. Let's get Mitch's trombone player down here."

Somewhat sheepishly , a redheaded white kid with a mustache got up and walked down the aisle. He appeared unhappy. And still the band held the beat. But after the redheaded kid had been up front for about ten seconds the booing began. Pickett seemed . . . not quite oblivious.

"You know, I love performers and we performers got to stick together. All the performers are going to be down here this week. We gonna have Chuck Jackson"--that got barely a ripple--"and Sam and Dave gonna be here, and do y'know who else gonna be here the end of this week?" He waited a second, then enunciated the name lovingly. "James Brown." He waited for the applause, got none, kept going. "He's gonna get up on that stage there with me, Wilson Pickett, and he gonna say `Good God,' like that, `Good god.'"

By now the booing was more general. There were catcalls from a dozen spots in the auditorium. We looked around and checked the exits. The trombone player was still up there, frozen; the noise let up a little when he escaped to his seat. Then Romeo sat down. Finally Pickett climbed back on the stage. The band had stopped. There was plenty of booing.

"Sing a song, man!"

"Shut up," Pickett said.

The booing continued.

"Shut up!"

More.

"Y'know, I've never seen a roomful of colored people talk so much. Now shut up!"

They kept griping and yelling and I think it was then that Pickett realized he had lost control. The boos kept spreading. Desperately, he looked for a scapegoat, and found him, a little Spanish-looking guy who was heckling from the first row.

"Come on up here!" Pickett demanded.

The little guy stayed in his seat.

"Come on up here, you talk so much."

The little guy got out of his seat, came around to the apron, and peered up at Pickett.

"I said come up here, man. Come on up."

The little guy appeared to waver for a second, then headed back to his seat. But Pickett kept goading him.

"What's a-matter, man, you 'fraid to come up here? You got something to say, come on up here and say it."

Suddenly, with a burst of courage that was almost visible, the little guy turned around, climbed the stairs and walked center stage to meet Pickett. His skin was yellow next to Pickett's burnt brown. he looked very short. Pickett put a hand on his shoulder.

"Y'know, I don't know you, I never saw you before in my life, but I know one thing--you're not a black American." He said it almost offhand.

The little guy seemed unable to talk for a second, then began to mumble inaudibly. He had an accent. "I consider myself one of your . . . I am a . . . We have been divided in the past . . . people like . . ."

Pickett cut him short: "And I hope we gonna stay divided, you hear?"

"Sing a song, man," yelled someone from the audience.

"Come on, sing."

The little guy got up courage to talk again: "I just want you to sing `If You Need Me,' it's the best record you ever done, man."

"Where you come from? What country you from? You from Jamaica or something? I know you're not an American."

"I am from Central America," the little guy said. "I am from Honduras. Do not judge me because I speak with an accent. Do not judge a book by its cover . . ."

"That's right, baby."

"Sing a song, Pickett."

The little guy was very excited and he kept talking, got a few cheers, fewer catcalls. King Coleman was back onstage.

"Sing a song."

The little guy was still talking when Pickett broke in on him again. "You know what's wrong with you? You talk too damned much. Why you talk so much, anyway? I don't care who you are. I don't care where you come from. But you know I don't come up to you on your job and try to take your job away. I don't come up and take your typewriter"--he thought a second--"or your broom. So why do you have to come up here and do my job?"

"I just wanna hear you sing `If You Need Me.'"

"You know what? I'm gonna give you your two dollars back. Here, here's your two dollars . . ."

"I don't want it. I just want you to sing `If You Need Me.'"

"How do you know what song I'm gonna do? How do you know that wasn't gonna be my very next song? Man, why don't you mind your own business and just sit down?"

"Sing a song."

"Don't just stand there and talk, Pickett."

"Why don't you sit down, man? Who asked you up here anyhow?"

The little guy looked at Pickett and jumped off the stage. Everyone was booing.

"Let's everyone give him a hand, ladies and gentlemen--for sitting down."

More boos.

"Sing a song."

"You blew it, man."

"Sing a song."

The band was silent as Pickett looked out over the audience. Then, a cappella, he began to growl tunelessly into the mike:

"We shall, we shall, we shall overcome . . ."

"Shut up!"

"Boo!"

"You blowed it!"

". . . we shall, we shall . . ."

They kept booing and Pickett told them he didn't feel like doing any more songs, he liked to do a show his way, and walked off stage and King Coleman told everybody it was all over, good night folks. Muttering and shouting, but often joking too, they began to leave. The crush at the office was impossible--everybody wanted refunds--and I was separated from my friends. A dozen angry fans, led by one drunk, had pinned a white cop against the ticket booth, long since closed. Finally he was rescued by a black cop who stalked inside saying everyone should get a refund. A hipster in ascot and hippie shades watched the scene. The second time I glanced at him he told me I better get my ass the hell out of there. Three squad cars appeared. I waited a few stores down until the others came out.

On the way back to the subway a guy asked us how we'd liked the show. He was standing alone in front of a bar. I told him it was terrible, Pickett didn't even do his act.

The guy did not seem surprised.

"Didn't do his act? Huh! `The wicked Wilson Pickett.'"

He put in in quotes, just like that. "Wilson Picket can kiss my ass."

Sunday I went to see B.B. King at the Cafe au Go Go. His fingers stiff from the near-zero cold, he missed a note occasionally, but was cheered wildly, almost indiscriminately, anyway. King told me had never played a white audience before, and he loved it. "The reaction they get," he said, "is better than my own people usually seem to get."

Next night I was back for the late show at the Apollo, alone. I arrived at nine-thirty, the very end of James Hound with the guitars already sounding behind the screen. The orchestra was about half-full, a normal Monday night crowd for such bad weather. Almost nothing else was different. The band opened with "Soul Man," guitar and bass singing the Sam and Dave parts. King Coleman opened in blue Bermudas and no jacket, and changed four times in the course of the show. The Artistics wore off-mauve and did an extra song, the chorus of three doffing their jackets and whipping up some hand-clapping in the aisles while the lead falsettoed interminably on stage. Judy Clay wore the same gown in pink and sang a little longer. Esquires and Coasters were identical down to the last lick and wisecrack. And Pickett was introduced with Saturday's hyperbole.

He was dressed in shiny green, no jacket, and he appeared unchanged, getting to "I'm in Love" at about the same time, but this time he was drawing it out, keeping it moving ooh-ooh-ooh, got-ta have a love, ooh-ooh-ooh, got-ta have a love, and I wanna know one thing now, I wonder how many young ladies out there in the audience tonight can truthfully say they got a good man sitting by their side, just raise your hand now, and a young girl sitting across the aisle from me giggled and raised hers, shyly, one of maybe a dozen, and Pickett shook his head mournfully and asked the same question of the men, and the girl tried to drag up her boyfriend's hand. Then Pickett related a little fable about a man whose woman wanted him to wind it up and . . . sock it to her, not once, not twice, but three times, and illustrated with the proper pelvic gestures. Every time he hesitated on "sock," giving it that water-down-the-faucet sound that Stephen Dedalus used to think about, half the audience socked it back, some out loud, some under their breath. They were his and he hadn't even started.

The band stopped finally and Pickett was alone with the audience and his microphone. He looked like he wanted to just keep going. "Ain't we havin' fun out here tonight? Have mercy." Then he talked about Bobby Womack, who had written "I'm in Love," and about all the performers who were out there in the audience tonight, he wouldn't introduce them but wouldn't the audience give them a nice big hand anyway, and the audience gave them a nice big hand. Then he introduced every member of the band, and got cheers for every man, and without missing a beat went into "Stagger Lee," and, before he had completed four bars, stopped.

He looked over at his bass player.

"Ernest how'd you like to do Jackie Wilson for us?"

Ernest looked bashful and didn't say anything, though he seemed to kind of shake his head.

"Come on, Ernest, do Jackie for the people, help me out a little, doctor says I'm not supposed to do any singing for a week, so . . ."

This time Ernest mumbled a no.

"Ernest, you're ashamed."

Ernest shook his head.

"Yes you are, you 'shamed. Ernest. You 'shamed."

The band was laughing. Ernest hung his head. The audience was laughing too, and Pickett looked out at them.

"You know, Ernest is a fine musician, he's been with me about five years now, and all the time in the hotel room, you know, he's asking me if I won't let him do the Jackie. All the time he's showing me how he can do the Jackie, pestering me to let him do the Jackie. He must be ashamed."

Ernest mumbled something else.

"Well, I'll play bass for you. That's no problem at all."

Everyone cheered as Pickett took the red Fender off Ernest's neck and put it around his own. He played a few notes, grimaced, took it off again. "Maybe I'd better not."

But they egged him a little and of course he put it on again as the band went into "Higher and Higher," picking out a competent bass line as Ernest, hesitantly at first, then with growing confidence, began to sing. "Your love has lifted me higher/ Than I've ever been lifted before," then began the Jackie Wilson jumps, kicking his feet in the air, and finally climaxing on the floor, still singing. Nobody mobbed him, but everybody cheered enthusiastically when he finished.

And still Pickett didn't sing. This time he asked for "Soul Man" ("that Sam and Dave thing"), and when someone told him it had opened the show he still wanted it, and then I thought he was going to lose them after all. Ernest and the guitar player were ready, there was the familiar guitar lick and then the horns, and then King Coleman was out on the stage yelling something, the real soul man, something like that, glancing back in the wings and finally going back and pulling, or pretending to pull . . . Sam Moore, the Sam, yellow suit, no tie, reluctant at first and then warming up like the pro he is, winding it up and really . . . socking it to them, and everybody seemed faintly delirious.

Before that could die down Moore was gone and Pickett was asking for a few girls to help him do the Funky Broadway, it was late and they'd have to go home soon but he wanted everyone to be happy, and someone in the balcony yelled for "Midnight Hour," and Pickett obliged with a good movement toward the doors, folks standing in back for the end of the snow. Judy Clay was back there, dancing out, and it went on and on, Pickett dancing, King Coleman dancing, and then they slipped into "Funky Broadway" without a break, and did that long too. The audience was really filing out now, with Pickett and Coleman talking about the dances they'd be showing the people next night, and the band was still playing "Funky Broadway" as the curtain came down and the rest of the audience filed out, singing and swaying to the lobby, where many Apollo souvenir books and Wilson Pickett programs were sold.

I got onto the downtown D train. Seated across from me was a black man in a leather jacket, rubbers, holding a Daily News in his leather-gloved hands, his receding hair pomaded in a modest pompadour back over his skull. His eyes were bloodshot, and every once in a while they would go blank for a second.

He was the Esquires' bass man. At 59th Street he got off, carrying a brown bag with two cans in it. He appeared confused, read all the signs, then crossed the platform to wait for the Eighth Avenue. He was very tired, and nobody but I knew who he was.

Cheetah, Apr. 1967
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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