Song Of The Day 6/28/2014: Jimmy Ruffin - "Our Favorite Melody"

Black Music Month/Motown Week: When I was a boy we lived at 573 Westwood Court in Vacaville, California for just a couple of years. My memory might be a bit over-romanticized, but I swear I have a clear remembrance of walking around Westwood Court in the summer, and every third house or so had their AM radio stations turned up loud enough to hear from the street. It was Top 40 radio: KFRC in San Francisco, KNDE and KROY in Sacramento. Years removed I can't imagine how that would have been possible: How could everybody on Westwood Court be listening to the same AM station, and where am I getting this notion that Westwood Court was filled with music just as a matter of public teenage policy? Isn't this just how I wish the movie started? An excitable, emotion-driven kid (like my son Hank) wandering around, plucking remnants of joy from whatever was within earshot (like my son John)?

But that's what I remember. AM radio sound quality being what it was, most of the songs I recognized that summer had inescapable hooks, most often the trebly, sibilant kind. So the song I have the clearest memory about from that time was "Everybody Plays The Fool" by the Main Ingredient, with its high-pitched flute line and Cuba Gooding Sr. singing lead. He was so empathetic, so good-natured in that song. I had no idea what he was talking about. But I trusted that he did. I got it eventually. Another of my favorites was "Will It Go Round In Circles" by Billy Preston. I loved that song as a boy. I got teased about how much I liked it. It had shapes right there in the chorus.

My sisters bought all the records in the house at that time; I wouldn't be driven to possess as much music as I could until a couple years later. But again, I remember them bringing home the Stylistics. They brought home Gilbert O'Sullivan and somebody named The Sopwith Camel, too, but it's the Stylistics I remember the most. They also brought home albums: Innervisions by Stevie Wonder, That's The Way Of The World by Earth, Wind & Fire, a Ronco quick-hits anthology that had Billy Paul's "Me And Mrs. Jones" on it.

They, my sisters, got mad at me once because I'd left Innervisions on my bedroom turntable near the window (by now we were in suburban Sacramento), and the record got warped by the sun, more destructive in its pane-refracted form. They were furious. I can't blame them. In the future I'd buy Innervisions probably at least five more times in various configurations as the technology updated. It's my favorite R&B album ever, and one of my top five overall albums of all-time. It shifts every once in awhile depending on my temperament, but at the moment it's #4, behind 69 Love Songs and ahead of London Calling, albums so iconic I need not mention the artists responsible.

Oh! One more Stevie story: Once I was at a café with Millie -- I think it was the Tarzana Café in the San Fernando Valley -- and we got lunch a little before 3pm on a Saturday. They closed after lunch. Not long before closing time, Stevie Wonder walked in with an entourage of three people. Besides us six, there was only one other guy in the restaurant. He walked up to Stevie and gave him a demo CD, I think. Stevie dealt with him graciously. I wanted to walk up and thank him for -- well, a whole hell of a lot of things, but I was terribly nervous (and in a cranky mood as I recall). I was self-conscious. I knew he could see me looking at him, acting flustered, not knowing what to do, and I certainly wasn't going to walk up to him after he'd been seeing me getting so worked up about it.

Yes, really: I couldn't introduce myself to Stevie Wonder, pretty much the best overall musician to live during my lifetime, when I had a more or less perfect chance to do so because I thought he could see how awkward I was being. That's the kind of logic I had exclusive possession of, once. Sixteen years later I named my son after him. (John's middle name is Stevland, which is Stevie Wonder's birth name. Not sure if we spelled it right.)

I've already talked about the Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Anthology, the box set I bought on cassette in 1986. My dad wasn't happy that I'd blown $80 on a single music release. I considered it necessary for the completion of my personal household, the way some people used to treat the Encyclopedia Britannica or The Joy of Cooking. After he finally heard some of it, Dad agreed it was probably a wiser investment than he first thought.

Actually the CD age saw lots of box sets filling up my bunker. Al Green's Anthology. The Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and the Story of Brotherly Love. James Brown's Star Time. The Chess Box, by anyone. Rhino's Didn't It Blow Your Mind '70s soul pop series, 20 discs sold individually. I got every one, hunting and pecking through all the indie stores in Los Angeles (Penny Lane, Moby Disc, Aron's) who might have had installments of the series in stock. I might have bought a couple out of sequence -- there's a chance I obtained Vol. 17 before I got Vol. 16. But not that much before.

During the absolute worst time of my life, when I was floating around the Los Angeles area in what was essentially an imposed state of homelessness for about three stupid weeks in the summer of '95 when my then-wife ordered me to stay away from our apartment while she was entertaining a visiting male guest, the only thing keeping me somewhat tethered to my identity was listening to KACE on my car stereo. Soul hits of the '60s, '70s and '80s. Sometimes a deep track. "Be Thankful For What You Got," sang Willian DeVaughn. I won a call-in contest and got tickets to see Graham Central Station at the House of Blues. I won them on the nightly slow-jam show. The DJ had a low, reverberant voice, played for obvious effect. "And finally Barry White, with 'I Got So Much To Give'... and right now we gonna give somethin' to PAUL PEARSON...." It felt as if I'd won a Buick. The DJ's name was Easy E, but it wasn't the late rapper from N.W.A.

Anytime Shannon asked me to sub her Soul Kitchen show at KAOS I got giddy. That's when I first heard the O'Jays' song, "Your Body's Here With Me (But Your Mind Is On the Other Side of Town)," when I played it on Soul Kitchen. I thought it was a late '70s track. It was from 1982. We covered this a few days ago.

I went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. It was nice. Two days later I went to the Motown Museum in Detroit, where I stood on the stained, hardwood floors of Motown Studio A. I was shaken. Two days after that was September 11, 2001. I flew back home to Seattle from Chicago nine days later, switching planes in St. Louis. On both flights there were less than ten passengers each.

I bought commemorative coffee mugs from both museums. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame mug cracked in my suitcase on the flight home. I still have the Motown mug.

I've never been to Memphis or New Orleans, and if I never get to either place I will consider it a personal moral failing.

Anybody who's ever loved any kind of popular music at anytime in their lives should read Peter Guralnick's book Sweet Soul Music. I'm pretty sure it will reinforce their love in whatever kind of music they love, the way Sam Dunn's documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey did for me.

I interviewed country singer James Otto twice a few years ago. Once he talked to me about discovering Donny Hathaway, who I'd only ever heard through his duets with Roberta Flack. I had no idea about his early stuff. You could hear James lighting up when he talked about Donny Hathaway. I looked for Donny's records that night when I got home. James Otto was completely right. If I ever get back into the music business again, and I ever happen to run into James, I'm making it a personal point to thank him for uttering the name Donny Hathaway to me.

Donny was from Chicago. One thing that bugs me about the last 20 days is that I limited my options in favor of focusing on certain cities. There are so many people and places I opted out of whose music I love. Bill Withers, Swamp Dogg, Bettye Swann, EWF, the entire city of New Orleans (that's unforgivable), Bobby freaking Womack, James Carr (who was from Memphis -- okay, I just straight-up blew that one).

Whenever I cook for my family on the weekends I listen to the most recent episode of Downtown Soulville with Mr. Fine Wine on WFMU, Jersey City, NJ. Vinyl 45's. I stream the show from WFMU's Recent Archives on my Kindle Fire through a boombox that still works. I think in all the time I've been listening to his show I've recognized one song that he's played. The rest have all been new, crackly surprises, mostly in glorious mono. If for some reason Mr. Fine Wine misses a week, I experience at least thirty seconds of confusion and disorientation trying to figure out what I'm going to play instead.

Maybe the show's theme song - "Downtown Soulville" by Chuck Edwards - will one day be to my daughter Lucie what "Everybody Plays the Fool" is to me. She's heard it enough: once a week, through a smallish speaker from a remote location relative to the inside of our house. When she hears it she knows my weekly ritual's about to begin, the ritual where I mince garlic and just go from there. And come as close to dancing for an hour as I'm likely to get.

This is all a very long way of saying I hope you've enjoyed the last twenty days of Black Music Month (forgive the math) here on the blog, and where it all comes from for me. There's a lot I'm leaving out, I'm sure. Maybe I'll mention it later. Tomorrow I'll try to restart the music magic again; it's just going to be a little trickier to pull off.

573 Westwood Court, Vacaville, CA.
Where that sound was coming from (via Google Maps Street View)

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