Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Clarence And Jackson - Best Buddies In Song

Over the last half a century or so of popular music history, there have been numerous and sundry unions in song of superstar identities under the banner of ‘duet’. I’ll make the distinction here between ‘duet’ and ‘duo’, with the latter taking on a more established and long term nature, say Simon & Garfunkel, or Hall & Oates for example. The former is more often the meshing of two establishing talents for a one off sharing of performance royalties, though on occasion the once can become twice, can become thrice. No doubt on occasion the motivation behind such collaborations has been cross promotion, or perhaps a pooling of collective talents for a singular purpose - to sell records. Though other duets have evolved out of pure artistic synergy between two gifted and driven entities.

One of the earliest examples of a hit duet was the 1964 US#5 ‘Let It Be Me’, recorded by Jerry Butler and Betty Everett, both of whom were established hit makers in their own right. But the trend of established superstars collaborating on record really surged in popularity during the latter half of the 70s. Think Suzi Quatro and Smokie’s ‘Chris Norman on the 1978 OZ#2 ‘Stumblin’ In’; Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway on 1978’s US#2 ‘The Closer I Get To You’; or the queen of disco Donna Summer and the queen of drama Barbra Streisand on the 1979 US#1 ‘No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)’. The pop/rock duet reached its peak of popularity during the 1980s, with a plethora of performers joining forces in song. And the decade produced some of the biggest superstar combos you would ever want to see - or hear at least. Paul McCartney scored top ten hits with both Michael Jackson (‘Say Say Say’ and ‘The Girl Is Mine’) and Stevie Wonder (‘Ebony And Ivory’); Aretha Franklin and George Michael scorched to #1 with ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’ (though they recorded their respective parts separately); David Bowie and Mick Jagger took ‘Dancing To The Streetsto a whole new level; Jennifer Warne notched up two chart toppers as one half of a duet (‘Up Where We Belong’ with Joe Cocker and ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’ with Bill Medley); Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton swam up river to #1 with ‘Islands In The Stream’; and a couple of Phils, of the Collins and Bailey variety, combined talents on ‘Easy Lover’ (though a label dispute stymied that song’s chart progress here in Australia).

In 1985, solo superstar singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, and E Street Band saxophonist extraordinaire Clarence Clemons, teamed up to record one of the feel good pop/rock songs of the decade with ‘You’re A Friend Of Mine’. Both artists brought impeccable pop/rock credentials to the table, and were regarded universally as musicians of rare distinction, though their respective paths towards a mutual musical friendship were markedly different.

Mokshagun Clarence Clemons was born and raised in Norfolk, Virginia. From age nine he began a lifelong love affair with the saxophone, in its various guises. Stints in school bands, combined with a diet of music from King Curtis, Junior Walker and the like, prepared Clemons for a career in professional music. An imposing physique, and natural athleticism, led Clemons to the brink of a career as a professional footballer with the N.F.L. A serious knee injury (sustained in a car accident) brought a premature end to Clemons’ football aspirations, but pro-football’s loss was the music world’s gain. Sax in hand, Clemons then embarked in earnest on his professional career as a musician, spending much of the 60s as a session player, and performing with the band, The Vibratones.

Despite having a regular gig with The Vibratones for several years, it’s fair to say that Clemons hadn’t yet found a permanent music address. In the stuff of rock folklore, during September of ‘71, Clemons made a dramatic entrance into the ranks of Bruce Springsteen’s backing band. At the time, Clemons was also resident sax player with Norman Seldin & the Joyful Noyze, but following his work with Springsteen on The Boss’ classic 1972 album, ‘Greetings From Ashbury Park, N.J.’, Clemons found a long term home as a fulltime member of the soon to be famed E Street Band. For the next 17 years, Clemons remained a constant with Springsteen, both on the road and in studio, featuring on such Springsteen masterpieces as ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Badlands’. When he wasn’t captivating audiences with his soulful sax playing, Clemons indulged his interest in acting with a number of cameo roles, on the small and big screens (including a most excellent cameo in the film ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’).

In the early 80s, Clarence Clemons purchased a nightclub in Red Band, New Jersey, called Big Man’s West (in reference to Clemons’ affectionate nickname). In 1983, ‘The Big Man’ released his first solo album, ‘Rescue’ (US#174), backed by the Red Bank Rockers, but neither album, nor the single, a cover of ‘Resurrection Shuffle’, received sufficient assistance to make the charts. Following the conclusion of the marathon ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ world tour from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Clemons opted to return to the studio and record his second album, this time solely under his own name. Clemons was attached to the same label as Springsteen, CBS/Columbia, and during the second half of 1985, he worked with gun producer Narada Michael Walden. Walden was enjoying a golden phase of his production career, having also helmed production on Whitney Houston’s mega-selling self titled debut album, and Aretha Franklin’s stellar comeback set, ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’. The multi-talented Walden regularly performed on the albums he produced, most often in the role of drummer and percussionist. Both he and Clemons played on (and appeared in the promo clip) to Aretha Franklin’s top five smash ‘Freeway Of Love’.

In studio guest players for Clemon’s sophomore album included Booker T. Jones, Darlene Love, and Maurice Starr, whilst Clemons was aided in the song writing stakes by Jeffrey Cohen, and Walden. Cohen and Walden co-wrote the track ‘You’re A Friend Of Mine’, an up tempo, feel good jolt of pop-rock, and the song lent itself perfectly to a duet - both lyrically and musically. Enter one Jackson Browne.

It’s ludicrous to think that I could adequately sum up the life and career of one of popular music’s most gifted singer-songwriters, in just a couple of paragraphs - but I’ll attempt to lay a passably potted representation. Born in post-war Germany (as opposed to the U.S.A.), Browne settled into an American lifestyle at an early age, and by the mid 60s that lifestyle involved much listening and playing of music (including briefly with a formative line-up of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band). Rumour has it, in ‘65 he was 17, and soon after he played the Greenwich Village scene, backing the likes of Tim Buckley, and Nico. By ‘69 he was 21, and the song writing itch had became unbearable. Browne soon began churning out the finely crafted, lyrically insightful and introspective songs that would become a trademark of his career. Over the ensuing years his songs were recorded by the likes of Tom Rush, the Byrds, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cocker, and Bonnie Raitt. Browne’s name was soon being mentioned in the same breath as Joni Mitchell and James Taylor as a songwriter of rare distinction (for a time he was a house writer for the Elektra label).

In 1971, Browne was 23, but that’s not a very catchy lyric. It was, however, the age at which he signed his first recording contract, with Asylum Records. An eponymous debut album followed in 1972, and Browne pulled a sharp focus on #8 with the brilliant single ‘Doctor My Eyes’ (which ironically he didn’t pen). Soon after he was knocking on the door of the top ten once more, though this time as the songwriter behind the Eagles’ breakthrough hit, ‘Take It Easy’ (US#12). Whilst low key performers, in terms of realising a hit single, Browne’s next albums, ‘For Everyman’ (US#43-1973) and ‘Late For The Sky’ (US#14-1974), further solidified his reputation as one popular music’s pre-eminent young talents, and attracted an ever growing fan base.

In commercial terms, Browne’s breakthrough came via his 1976 album ‘The Pretender’ (US#5), which featured guest spots from Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, and Graham Nash, among others. Following a terrible period of personal tragedy, Browne found enough fuel in the creative tank to pen and record the pseudo-live set ‘Running On Empty’ in late ‘77. The album’s title track peaked at #11 in the U.S., and was backed up with the double-A release ‘Stay/The Load-Out’ (US#20). 1980’s ‘Hold Out’ bolted to #1 on the American charts first week in, and marked a return to a more deeply personal, emotive fare via tracks such as ‘Of Missing Persons’. He followed this up with the pure-pop brilliance of 1982’s ‘Somebody’s Baby’ (US#7/OZ#26), lifted from the soundtrack to ‘Fast Times At Ridgemont High’. But the 80s would mark a more overtly socio-political tone in Jackson Browne’s song writing. 1983’s album, ‘Lawyers In Love’, pulled no punches in reflecting Browne’s strongly held social conscience. The title track (US#13/OZ#28) remains one of my personal favourites from Browne, its lyrics both playful and acerbic, whilst ‘Tender Is The Night’ (US#25) proved he hadn’t completely forgone the more personal touch.

By 1985, Jackson Browne probably welcomed the opportunity to record a song celebrating friendship and positive human emotion. ‘You’re A Friend Of Mine’ bounced onto the U.S. charts in October of ‘85 for Clarence Clemons and Jackson Browne. It was backed by a suitably light and breezy promo clip, which featured Browne’s then girlfriend Daryl Hannah (minus the mermaid costume), who also provided backing vocals on the song - the “oh, you can depend on me” bit. Producer Narada Michael Walden joined in the celebration of camaraderie, having a wail of a time on the drums. ‘You’re a Friend Of Mine’ found an ally at #18 on the U.S. charts, and became bosom buddies with #9 on the Australian charts soon after. The track featured on Clemons’ sophomore solo set, ‘Hero’ (US#62/OZ#55), though the follow up single, ‘I Wanna Be Your Hero’, failed to produce any heroics on the charts.

Following their amicable association, Clemons returned principally to his duties with the E Street Band, until the band were fired by their boss, or in this instance, The Boss. Though the E Street Band had regularly played with other artists (both individually and collectively) over the previous two decades, the members drifted away from their common address, and for several years E Street remained uninhabited. A temporary reunion occurred in 1995, but a new, long term tenancy agreement was signed with Springsteen in 1999. The Springsteen-E Street Band alliance has remained strong over the last decade, though Clarence Clemons has continued to explore his passion for music beyond the band’s boundaries. In 1995, he released the album ‘Peacemaker’ (US#11 Top Contemporary Jazz Albums), and has most recently worked with his own band. Temple Of Soul also features Narada Michael Walden, and released the 2008 album ‘Brothers In Arms’.

Meanwhile, Jackson Browne hit the studio during 1986 to record his most explicitly political album to date, ‘Lives In The Balance’ (US#23/OZ#37), with a raft of social, cultural, and political issues addressed. That said, in terms of the quality of music, I’m of the opinion that the album ranks as one of Browne’s finest, boasting the surging ‘For America’ (US#30), emotive ‘In The Shape Of A Heart’ (US#70), and passion of ‘Soldiers A Plenty’. Browne closed out the decade by delivering another biting manifesto in music, with 1989’s ‘World In Motion’ (US#45), though it was apparent that he had forsaken a degree of commercial appeal in the process. A preoccupation with political and social activism, combined with the end of his relationship with Daryl Hannah, put a temporary hold on Browne’s studio output for the first half of the 90s. He was none too subtle in reminding people he was still around, with the title for his 1993 comeback album, ‘I’m Alive’. Though the hit singles had dried up, the album was well received by long term Browne devotees, in part because of a return to a more personal and emotionally accessible formula. Only two more albums followed over the next decade, ‘Looking East’ (1996), and ‘The Naked Ride Home’ (2002), but in 2004 Browne received due recognition by being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (by none other than Bruce Springsteen). In more recent years, Jackson Browne has continued to astutely juxtapose his passions for recording, touring, and political activism - his most recent set arrived in September ‘08, titled ‘Time The Conqueror’.

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