My Aretha… We Each Had Our Own, Didn’t We?

For a little white girl growing up in the cornfields and cow pastures of the deeply homogenized environs of Richmond, Illinois, a tiny northern Illinois farm town biking distance from the Wisconsin border, it may seem anomalous that Aretha Franklin would be one of my greatest influences and inspirations… but she was.

Maybe it was the Chicago in me; born in that great and diverse city, I spent the first three years of my life there, and maybe the indigenous “blues brothers” vibe rubbed off on me. Maybe it was the Greek roots of my father’s parents, whose attachment to music that got one moving (“opa!”) was an integral part of their heritage. Maybe it was that, even while reveling in my early years as a fledgling folksinger, there was just something about Motown that made dancing in the streets a rite-of-passage even for small-towners in flip-flops and shaggy cutoffs.

Maybe it was just Aretha. Yeah. Probably just Aretha.

Both my parents, born and raised in Chicago, were lovers of music and “swing,” (and by that I mean the FEEL of music, not just the style), and any song that provided the right beat, the right rhythm, the right groove factor would set them jitterbugging across the living room floor as we kids watched in delight. It didn’t escape us that “Rock Steady” and “Chain of Fools” were as high on their playlist as any Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller song. My dad, in fact, was a particular fan of “Chain of Fools”; always told me that beat, that bass line, were impossible to resist. He was right. That song (amongst other Aretha favorites) has been on my permanent playlist since that time, transitioning from my stack of LPs, to my cassettes, to the inimitable Walkman, right up to top position on my iPhone playlist.

So when I started singing in bands in the 70s, it really wasn’t so anomalous that her soulful, heartfelt, skin-tingling delivery would be what inspired and influenced me. I wanted to emulate her, be her. Fear of “cultural appropriation” wasn’t a trending deterrent back then—my adoration was seen simply as homage—but despite my respect and desire, it quickly became clear that—given her mastery plus my own vocal limitations —I would have to settle for a version of vocal-heart-and-soul that worked for my voice, my style. And so I did. It wasn’t Aretha—damn, surely it wasn’t Aretha!—but it was mine and it not only informed every recording and performance I’ve done since, but I’ve almost never had a band set list that didn’t include at least one Aretha song:

“Oh Me Oh My,” “Rock Steady,” and “Respect” were fixtures in the early days; then followed “Day Dreaming,” “Natural Woman,” and “Chain of Fools” (and, oh, did we do some odd 80s versions of that one!). When the blues/rock band of the 00s came about, we added “Evil Gal Blues” and “Since You’ve Been Gone.” Every one was an honor for me to sing.

Or play… when my son was a baby, “Rock Steady” was the single most relied upon “lullaby” to rock his screaming little self to sleep!

I knew Aretha had been struggling with ill-health for some time now, so hearing that her death was upon us did not surprise me. Certainly it saddened me. It is the conclusion of a great, grand life filled with music and love and passion and creativity that inspired people of every race, creed and color to feel, to dance, to embrace love; to get sassy, or roil in the blues. She was a purveyor of so much SOUL I must capitalize, bold, and italicize the word. That she will not be making more music is surely an existential tragedy; that she’s left so much behind is an enduring gift.

I wanted to use the above photograph because that shot—the very young, just-finding-the-spotlight Aretha—is how she looked when I first became aware of her. When my sister Mary and I bopped around our basement bedroom grooving to her rhythms, certain we were as soulful and funky as the kids on Shindig or Hullabaloo (we weren’t), thrilled by her electric voice and thumping rhythms. It reminds me that we all get to be young and gifted, that we all get our own life story, our own chance to create, impact, influence, and inspire; leave a legacy. Aretha fulfilled that mandate so very, very well. We—I—will miss her greatly.

(Quiet now… “I Say a Little Prayer for You” is coming up… ).

Photo credits; Billboard

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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Singing with Sixth & Third

It’s been an interesting summer since The Geeze and Me closed.

After four months of intense involvement, a month of back and forth to San Diego to complete recordings and tidy up post-production bits, I was back home to my writing space, with a summer wrapped around family trips and events, and a calendar alarmingly bereft of scheduled activity. Lovely, and though I appreciated the overall ease of each day, I couldn’t help but feel a bit adrift.

But as life is wont to do, over time I found my LA feet again. Knowing a transition needed to be made, I got back to shopping my latest novel to literary agents (there’s a Sisyphean task!), attempted a few journalistic pieces that weren’t about Donald Trump (uninspired at the moment… no one seems to be reading anything but); leapt into rebuilding my LA actor’s platform, which meant reactivating my SAG-AFTRA card, finally getting my Equity card, and getting out on auditions. I remember now how much fun that is, auditions…

But, seriously, it is fun to be approaching that beast of a medium from a very different age and time of my life. We’ll see what I’m able to make of it.

But the most joyful turn on the “what do I do next?” agenda involves the poster above. The tall, stately man behind me is my brother, Tom Amandes, who is an actor extraordinaire; director, brilliant editor (he edited two of my novels), and a wonderful, passionate pianist. He approached me with the idea of “putting together a set of tunes”—in the right keys, with some semblance of arrangement, and players who’d help flesh out the sound, something we’d never managed to pull off prior—and not only was I touched that he wanted to collaborate on such a project, I was thrilled.

Because there is nothing—I mean nothing—more creatively, emotionally, and viscerally exhilarating to me as an artist than singing. I love writing (love it); acting can be loads of fun; dancing (as long as the bar is low) is always a hoot, and photography is a personal passion, but singing…

From the moment I discovered musical sounds came out of my mouth in some kind of pleasing fashion, singing has been my singlemost cherished gift as a creative person, something to experience whether alone in my car, performing for a houseful of guests, or bounding across stage in a big concert hall. It is pure, channeled, emotive expression, and to once again, starting with The Geeze and Me, have opportunity to pull it into the sphere of my life is this year’s greatest gift.

So… Tom’s and my project: we’ve named it Sixth & Third (birth order… you can figure it out); we’ve got my dear old bandmate, Jeff Brown (from my original band, DEVON… yes, the one from the 80s!), on guitar, as well as Tom’s son, Ben (a talented, intuitive musician), on cello and guitar… for the time he has before heading back to the University of Chicago. I’m trying to convince him school is far less exciting than playing in a band with his aunt and father, but so far, though he smiles, he remains unconvinced. Either way, I’m delighted to have him for the time we do and what happens afterwards will be the next adventure.

For now, we’ve put together a select list of originals (mostly mine, but one of my hubby’s), and a few handpicked covers we love. We’re playing a private show at Tom’s house, a fabulous performing space, soon, and once we sort out where we might want to take it after that, we’ll explore other ideas.

All I know is this: singing is back in my life; I won’t let it go again. I may not have reached the rowdy pinnacles of fame and fabulousness I planned while lying on my floor listening to Janis Joplin—I had planned to be the next Janis Joplin!— but what I do have—the joyful collaboration of people I love, songs that mean something to me, and the opportunity to share both with welcoming audiences—is true elation.

More as we go.

Photos by Nancy Everhard-Amandes

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

FOLLOW-UP: …I Want To Sing With the Funk Brothers!

Like a wish inscribed on a paper, slipped into a bottle and thrown into the sea, my little story about the Funk Brothers was picked up on another shore and taken to heart…I had to share it with you all.

With the Sturm und Drang that punctuates too much in the world today, it’s sometimes hard to focus on the brighter, more uplifting, elements of life; those moments that remind you of good people, the notion that someone’s paying attention, the simple hope that a little dream long held might still, inexplicably and unexpectedly, come true. Given that systemic cynicism that attempts to hijack our time and ponderings, I wanted to post this addendum as a reminder that moments of thrill and surprise can happen from time to time.

If you haven’t already read the original story, please do and then come back to this…it will make much more sense that way: Enough With Politics… I Want To Sing With the Funk Brothers!

Hummm-hum-humm (I’m humming as you get caught up with the story…but it is a Motown song I’m humming.).

OK, done? Great. So anyway, I wrote the story mainly because, as noted, I’m inspired by these guys and the music they’ve made and any chance I get to throw a little attention their way, I’m gonna do it. I mean, just yesterday I was listening to “Standing in the Shadows of Love” as loudly as my Ipod and ears could handle and as I bopped down the street like an aging Lada Edmund Jr. in Nikes and a sweatband, I was again in full thrall of the funk that is the Funk Brothers (and tell me, besides my sister Mary, how many of you can say you remember Lada Edmund, Jr.?:)

I posted the story here on Rock+Paper+Music, as well as my column at the Huffington Post (HuffingtonPost.com/Lorraine-Devon-Wilke/Funk-Brothers) where, regardless of my wish that my own blog garnered such numbers, I clearly get more play. And lo and behold, about three days after it posted there – this story that not only extolled the Brothers but went on to declare my Bucket List wish to sing with them – came this message on the comment board:

Lorraine-my name is David Spero and I have managed the Funk Brothers for years. I promise that the next time they play the west coast you WILL sing with them! 

Meet us at the soundcheck for a trial run, and if you have ‘the goods’ we’ll invite you up at the show as well. 

Pause for a moment of awed silence.

You can imagine my reaction. Message in a bottle.

David Spero is a longtime and highly respected manager and all-around music entrepreneur who has worked with a staggering list of bands and musicians we’ve all listened to over the years. Still very active in the music world, his attachment to the Funk Brothers somehow led him to my article and his unexpected and smile-inducing comment. He later contacted me via my website and we were able to have a more in-depth conversation about my background, his, mutual people we knew, etc., and it was a delightful conversation left with this:

Lorraine…thanks for bringing the Funks to so many people’s attention! That alone gets you a shot on stage…but then when I realized you can really sing, well…let’s fill that bucket. We may be doing (a gig) in April in LA…when it’s finalized I’ll let you know. The gigs are far and few between, the guys all have health issues now, so this would be the best shot. It is so appreciated what you did for them…the guys loved it!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, made my day, week, month, year….knowing “the guys loved it.”  Seriously, it does not get much better than that.

So I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the potential LA gig in April will include my humble and appreciative participation but, for this moment, Mr. Spero’s reaching out made clear that life can still surprise me. That’s really nice to know. Almost as nice as picturing the venerable old Brothers reading my piece and smiling.

More later…(but I tell ya, I’m warming up those vocal cords!).
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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Enough With Politics… I Want To Sing With the Funk Brothers!

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I am politically oversaturated. I’ve written about it, read about it, thrown a sock at it when necessary (that would be TV after a minute or two of GOP debates), and I’m as sick of it as a regretful glutton following a hotdog eating contest (pull any pun out of there you’d like). It’s everywhere, in every conversation, the cover of every magazine, and so deeply embedded in the ethers that we’re never gonna get it out of our clothes. So I’m just not talking about it today, at least not in this article (don’t ask about my Facebook page!). I want to talk about something that actually inspires me:

The Funk Brothers

Don’t know who they are? Yeah…too many people don’t. Let’s see what we can do to remedy that.

I do a fairly vigorous power walk most days of the week and I typically have my Ipod going as a much needed pacer. I’ve put together a playlist for this purpose that is quite impressive; mostly dance, funk, and R&B, all with a wide range of pulsating, bass heavy beats to keep me going when I’d rather sit down and sip Snapple. Much of what comprises this playlist is Motown, glorious Motown; older, newer and all of it expertly and artfully played by the amazing Funk Brothers. Every time I listen to this collection that motivates me no matter how I’m feeling or what dusty thoughts are roiling through my head, I get a rush of appreciation and think to myself: “I love these guys!”…which is immediately followed by, “I want to sing with the Funk Brothers!” As I pound my way up the next incline I ponder all the many ways in which I can make that happen.

I have no clue. Really, none.

But regardless, this meditation keeps me going during the more trying portions of my walk and always leads to the impulse that follows: to shine a little light on these musicians who’ve kept me company since childhood and are still doing their part to move me in all the ways I can be moved, particularly as I dance-walk to their beat in a quest to stave off encroaching decrepitude (talk about longtime companions!).

So shine a little light I will.

There was an incredible and very illuminating documentary that came out about ten years ago called Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a film that told the story of the Funk Brothers, that cadre of expert, journeymen musicians who created the iconic and electrifying sound that became known as “the Motown Sound.” This from their website:

With the tumultuous sixties as a backdrop, Motown’s unsung heroes take the viewer on a compelling journey in time as they trace the evolution of The Motown Sound from its origins in Detroit to its demise in Los Angeles during the seventies. Through the eyes of the riveting characters who ruled Hitsville’s studio by day and the club scene of Detroit by night, we enter a world of unparalleled soul and emotion as the Funk Brothers revisit the sites of their musical roots, triumphs, and eventual heartbreak.

The first weekend the movie was out I sat in a huge Hollywood theater with my friend Tina, tapping my foot to the beat of a song that was already playing in my head, and as the lights came down and that pulsating riff from “Standing in the Shadows of Love” filled the room, the rush was overwhelming as we all danced in our seats in communal exhilaration. But beyond incomparable music, the film is a brilliant and touching story about these unsung musicians who made their unforgettable contribution for little money and less recognition, essentially kept in the background until…well, until this film came out. You know that inimitable tambourine heard in most Motown songs? The Funk Brothers. The particular drum beat, the signature bass lines and those guitar riffs you’d know in your sleep? Yep, the Funk Brothers. I want you to read this description of the film on Amazon.com (which I’ve linked here for your convenient ordering!):

Detroit, Michigan, 1959. Berry Gordy gathers the best musicians from the city’s thriving jazz and blues scene for his new record company: Motown. For the next 14 years these players are the heartbeat on “My Girl,” “Baby Love,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “Bernadette,” “I Was Made To Love Her,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Dancing In The Street,” and every other hit from Motown’s Detroit era. By the end of their phenomenal run, the unheralded group of musicians plays on more Number One hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles combined, making them the greatest hit machine in the history of popular music. They call themselves the Funk Brothers. But no one knows their names…this is their story.

And it’s a killer story. Truly. I’ve watched the film countless times, gifted the DVD to friends and family who share a passion for this seminal chapter in music; appreciated all the fine performances of the contemporary artists who appear in the film, but mostly I hold an enduring Standing Ovation for these talented, humble and underappreciated men.

And did I mention I want to sing with them?

The wonderful Joan Osborne performed in the film and did a stellar job as the blue-eyed (brown-eyed?) soul songstress doing proud justice to those kickass R&B classics. I have nothing but fandom for her as an artist and think her version of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” is definitive and chill inducing. But that was a while ago, Joan, and no begrudging your heartfelt and memorable contribution, this really is one of those Bucket Listy things I’ve kept afloat since then and we all know time’s a’flyin’ so forgive the nudge from a sister singer and please clear the stage!

Ack…I don’t mean that, Joan. In fact, let me know when you’re on any stage in my part of the world and I’ll be one of the fans out there mouthing the words to all your songs.

And maybe direct appeal is a better approach anyway.

Um, Funk Brothers…may I call you Funk Brothers? If you’re coming out to the West Coast anytime soon and you’d like to mix it up with a little local talent, my schedule’s pretty open these days so don’t hesitate to get in touch. I’m a quick study – hell, know most of your songs already – and just got my voice all in shape for a gig that fell through so I’m good to go. And say, I’ll even fly out to wherever you are; Virgin America just posted some cheap flights and I’ve got plenty of points to throw around. I’m not famous, I’m not that young (but you appreciate that, right?) and it’s unlikely most of my ’80’s mailing list would overcome their stated geezerdom to get out of the house for a gig. But I’ve still got a few fans who are mobile, I’ve developed some newer, younger ones (which is convenient when you need to fill seats past a 9:30 bedtime), I’m told I’ve still got some hip quotient left, and would social-media this baby right into the….well, I’ll just do what I can, promise.

Until then, know you’ve got a fan and booster out here who’s grateful for the music that has had me dancing my entire life, from childhood right up to the other day when that last mile felt insurmountable until “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” kicked in and you did just that – kept me hangin’ on.

So, thanks, Funk Brothers, seriously. And keep in mind that I’d be happy to bring mixed nuts or something sweet to rehearsal…

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.