Les McCann

Versions/Live Recordings: 'Sunny' Bobby Hebb (Sunny, Philips, 1966)

Live performance from 1972, with Ron Carter

Written in the 48 hours after a ‘double tragedy’ in 1963 - the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the murder of Hebb’s older brother, Harold who was stabbed to death outside a Nashville nightclub’ (source, Wik), ‘Sunny’ is one of those key touchstone tracks whose success has eclipsed all the other work by songwriter, Bobby Hebb.

Hebb claimed that he wrote the song as an expression of a preference for a 'sunny' disposition over a 'lousy' disposition following the murder of his brother and that his goal with the ‘optimistic’ lyrics was to express the idea that one should always ‘look at the bright side’.

All my intentions were to think of happier times and pay tribute to my brother – basically looking for a brighter day – because times were at a low. After I wrote it, I thought ‘Sunny’ just might be a different approach to what Johnny Bragg – from the Prisonaires -was talking about in ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain.’ 

Though if you listen to the Prisonaires’ track there is little obvious point of connection between the two: ‘Sunny’ appears to be a straight-up love song, while ‘Just Walkin’ is an expression of hopelessness. It was released on Sun Records in 1953, while the group was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville – here is some info on the group that included one member on a 99-year prison sentence. They were given day release to perform across the state and became famous during their time. 

The dark inspiration for the song’s composition – the two murders – and the reference to the imprisoned singers fascinates me, as it disrupts what would arguably be the most common associations with the song, as a ‘simple’ expression of love and feel-good, light-hearted entertainment, aka Boney M groovin' & movin' in sequins. 

Without wanting to over-state this too much, I like to think that this song holds this complexity and depth – as code – within it; you can feel it in the live version above, with Ron Carter, where there is an element of threat, or menace in the way Hebb enunciates and the music builds. You can sense it in the lyrics too that strike me as surprisingly non-specific for a straightforward love song:

‘Sunny
Thank you for the truth you let me see
Sunny
Thank you for the facts from A to Z
My life was torn like wind-blown sand
And a rock was formed when you held my hand (oh, sunny)
Sunny one so true, I love you.

Sunny
Thank you for the smile upon your face
Hmm, sunny
Thank you, thank you for the gleam that shows its grace
You're my spark of nature's fire
You're my sweet complete desire
Sunny one so true, yes, I love you

‘Thank you for the gleam that shows its grace/You're my spark of nature's fire ..’ aside from being wonderfully poetic it sounds far from human, is Hebb encouraging us to think that he is, in fact, referring to something more abstract, without spelling it out in fixed terms. This notion bewitches me a little; pop transcendence, hidden in plain view.    

The raw intensity of the live acoustic performance is missing in the original recorded version that has a sweet self-exposure and vulnerability, in the way it starts and falls away from time to time. Hebb’s 1966 album is really consistent, with some equally impressive songs; see, for example, I am your man and You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until You Lose It

Within the year and soon after, well-known artists were releasing their takes, most notably, Marvin Gaye and this superb version from the Stevie Wonder Live record – bassline paradise forming ...

'Sunny baby yeah ...'

Here’s Ella Fitzgerald/Tom Jones with the Welsh crooner tapping out the beat on a rocking chair, and even more surprisingly the film noir icon Robert Mitchum in 1967 offering his rendition as well. Jazz musicians also got involved in the celebration: notably, this classy and restrained Stanley Turrentine 1966 interpretation, but here is my preferred, as always, the passionate Les McCann exorcising spirits: 

Though the two versions that really strike me come from two non-Anglo women, first the Italian Luisa Casali – again from 1966  and this stunning rendition from Mieko "Miko" Hirota who has been called the "Connie Francis of Japan". Really love what she does here, encapsulating the erotics of the unhinged, while sounding completely committed.  

Invitation to Openness, Les McCann (Atlantic Records, 1972)

Personnel: Les McCann- piano, electric piano, Moog synth; Corky Hale- harp; Yusef Lateef- flute, oboe, sax, percussion; David Spinozza, Cornell Dupree- guitars; Jimmy Rowser, Bill Salter- bass; Buck Clarke, William Clarke, Donald Dean, Alphonze Mouzon, Bernard Purdie- percussion, drums

That moment before; in that time of anticipation, the thinking that comes before a turn in your life, or some change. This music, or to be more precise the beginning of the first track, ‘The Lovers’ is a perfect representation of this feeling, or experience.

If you listen to these first five minutes or so, before Yusuf Lateef lets it rip with his unexpected Eastern-mystic sounds, the music offers a wonderful sensation of space and air – a mood of something, a kind of portent, meandering about: waiting/anticipating. (‘The secret weapon on 'The Lovers' is the plaintive, moaning oboe of Yusef Lateef: his snake-charmer lines and breathy, woody tones give the piece much of its sense of vulnerability and exotic surrender’ - to quote another). 'The Lovers' - 26 minutes long: filling the entire ‘A’ side of a long-playing record.

You can picture the musicians. Even if the sounds that they are creating are so ethereal and otherworldly, it’s hard to imagine the act of creation in itself: each instrument has its place, takes its turn, descending and falling, trickling about with such gentle reserve.

Here’s a description of that scene:

McCann then assembled a 13-member group to improvise for producer Joel Dorn around a few loose themes, very much in the style of Miles Davis’ contemporaneous recordings, and with a similarly talented all-star cast. The lineup of five percussionists on Invitation to Openness included Ralph McDonald and Bernard Purdie. Guitarist Cornell Dupree could be found tangling with multi-talented David Spinozza — just as the latter was rising to fame for his work with Paul McCartney on Ram. Yusef Lateef, Alphonse Mouzon and regular McCann contributors Jimmy Rowser and Donald Dean were also on hand.

There was nothing more to it, really. No charts, no complex instructions beyond a wink or a nod. They gathered inside Atlantic’s studios at 60th and Broadway, and began to build a masterpiece around Les McCann’s main voice. With no rules, everything was on the table. “The Lovers” even includes shimmering harp work by Corky Hale, adding another exotic element to this indescribably unique triumph.

Around three minutes, it’s more intense certainly, speeding up and then, with some repetition you sense the change of what is going to come; the single drum-beat, as the keyboards return. The drums again, the echo starts. And then, and then it begins.

The AllMusic review states that ‘the 26-minute 'The Lovers' is more illustrative, freer in its essence and translation of the predominant free love theme of the '60s and '70s.’ It’s hard to say how this music can represent a theme of any kind, let alone ‘free love’ but it certainly represents a kind of pure musical freedom, and artistry.

Another writer said: ‘it takes the listener who accepts the invitation in the right spirit to many places, never substituting the pretty for the true.’

What I like about ‘The Lovers’ - or one of the things I like best about it, is the way the different parts appear to remain so boxed-in – three, or perhaps steps forward, three, four steps back – and yet together transform into a still-cool riotous momentum (forever becoming muted, at times). No showy solos here, the musicians are a unit, working together, relying on their instincts to produce music that is completely improvised. And that over the top woo-woo ghosty sound is so nice that comes from nowhere – to disappear again - about half-way in, to come back later in another form, more manic.  

The rest of the album is just as impressive, showing off Les McCann’s contributions more, as the music offers a more conventional pattern; moving away from the intensity of enmeshment to a classic groove. Information gleaned from another source: there’s a ‘13-minute electronic revisit to 'Beaux J. Poo Boo' which McCann had recorded acoustically in 1965 and a 12-minute take of 'Poo Pye McGoochie.’  

Les McCann is perhaps best known for ‘Compared to what’ – here live at Montreux in 1969.

Drenched in anger and indignation, a song that remains current:

I love to lie and lie to love
A-Hangin' on, we push and shove
Possession is the motivation
that is hangin' up the God-damn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut (everybody now!)
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what? C'mon baby!

Slaughterhouse is killin' hogs
Twisted children killin' frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin' logs
Tired old lady kissin' dogs
I hate the human love of that stinking mutt (I can't use it!)
Try to make it real — compared to what? C'mon baby now!

The President, he's got his war
Folks don't know just what it's for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Half of one doubt, they call it treason
We're chicken-feathers, all without one gut. God damn it!
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what? (Sock it to me)

Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin' to duck the wrath of God
Preacher's fillin' us with fright
They all tryin' to teach us what they think is right
They really got to be some kind of nut (I can't use it!)
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what?

***

Another reason to like this record is the way it has been written about. Reading jazz reviews is often an experience all of its own, as writers stretch to find words that might come to close to expressing what is so affecting them. Aware that they remain in a minority, like readers of poetry perhaps, it might be for that reason that they need to justify their fascination (all rather ironic when you consider that of all forms of music, Jazz in its purest form operates on the level of the gut - or soul if you want to be lofty, depending on your perspective).

See, for example, this writing 

It is a simple matter of acid-base stoichiometry like that learned in any quantitative chemical analysis or medicinal chemistry course. If one treats the acid element of Parliament Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain (Westbound, 1971) with the sweet bass of Leroy Vinnegar, then infuse as with juniper with gin, with honey and morphine: Les McCann’s monumental Invitation to Openness would result. Ornette Coleman may have detonated a nuclear music device with Free Jazz; A Collective Improvisation (Atlantic, 1961), but it was McCann that brought that same spirit to funk, with much better results.

Acid-base stoichiometry? Or

The album opens with “The Lovers,” a 26-minute tune that took up the entire first side of the record when it was originally released. It takes me a little time to get into this one, as it opens tentatively, sort of eerily, dreamily. But this is a track that slowly puts its hooks into you, and before you know it, you’re caught up in it, curious and excited to see where it will take you. And it really starts to get interesting around the five-minute mark, when you feel you’re on some sort of Egyptian spaceship. It’s beautiful and fun and groovy and just fucking fantastic. A great jam, which just gets better and better. Check out that wild stuff on guitar around the eleven-minute mark. The song relaxes a bit for a while, but then builds against toward the end with a great groove.

 Egyptian spaceship? (This shared enthusiasm, it’s so unfiltered and natural).

Here’s a brief description of McCann’s trajectory and status as a musician, from another review on AllAboutJazz

'Les McCann is an interesting figure in jazz. After winning a talent contest on the Ed Sullivan Show in '56, McCann turned down an opportunity to join Cannonball Adderley's group, deciding instead to form his own jazz trio in Los Angeles. Playing a popular blend of hard bop and soul jazz, he signed with Pacific Jazz in '60, produced several enjoyable albums, and continued to develop and define the sound he wanted. That sound, a restless brew of jazz, funk, and soul, came to fruition on albums like 1968's Much Les and 1969's Swiss Movement, which produced the platinum-selling single "Compared to What."

As heard on these works, McCann had distinction in sound and style on piano and vocals, communicating with near pop-like fun and flair. McCann was poised to be great, yet something funny happened on the way to jazz stardom. Fusion, with its wild and wooly blend of traditional jazz and electronics, fractured the jazz fan base, leaving musicians like McCann a fractional audience. His '70s albums bathed too often in the waters of electronic wizardry, perhaps withering his acoustic jazz talents, or perhaps the audience for his experiments never caught up to his innovations.'

This extract from an interview with McCann by Bill Kopp, published in 2015 gives a sense of the man’s character and the motivations behind the creation of his music:  

'McCann recalls his reaction at the Invitation to Openness session: “Oh my God: it really worked!” He says, “What you have to do is experiment. I’m creating 24 hours a day, and that’s the message I try to share with people. We came from creation; therefore, we are creation. It drives me crazy when people say [about themselves], ‘Oh, I wish I had a talent; I can’t do nuthin’.’ I say, ‘Shut the hell up. Get quiet, and look deeper into yourself. Not outside; look inside, and you’ll find everything you’re looking for.’”

“A song may live awhile, but as far as style, you can’t keep doing the same thing. That’s another reason I’m so happy about the idea I had for Invitation to Openness. I gave very few – if any – instructions. No rules; just play. Swiss Movement broke the door open for me: don’t lock everything into a set pattern. And that was very enlightening for me.

And his name is closely linked with what is known as soul-jazz. “I’m told that I was one of the first people the record companies put that title to,” McCann says. “The first album I did, on Pacific Jazz [in 1960], was called Plays the Truth. ‘Soul’ is just another word for feeling, and love. It’s all good. Soul is becoming aware of what’s inside of us. When you get passionate about something, you discover yourself.”

In fact, in Leonard Feather’s liner notes for his 1961 LP In San Francisco, McCann is quoted as saying, “I want my music to hit the emotion of human beings.” He goes on to say, “If jazz is played so it can be accepted, it will be accepted.” Since that quote comes from near the beginning of his recording career, I ask him if he’d like to expand on his comment. His terse reply: “No.”

That was then. I don’t go back, no,” he adds. “That’s what I said then; I’m not going to try and go back and figure out what I meant.” I press the subject a bit and ask if he agrees that music should be accessible. Again: “No. Don’t make no rules! Everything is already accessible. People say, ‘This is hard to play. This is hard to listen to.’ They have all these fuckin’ excuses. Shit. Give me a break! Just go do it. Find your heart, your passion. That’s the word. That’s soul, that’s love: everything that is the opposite of fear. We’ve all heard it a thousand, a million times. But we take a long time to heed the message.”

Not surprisingly, McCann has strong opinions regarding the current state of jazz. “Everything must change. And they’re trying to keep it the same. It won’t go nowhere; it died.” He observes, “Once you make a recording, it’s recorded that way: that’s how it is. And that’s the way that people who buy the records want to hear it.” That runs counter to the jazz aesthetic of never-the-same-way-twice. “Musicians understand that, but record companies are sayin’, ‘Fuck that. Make me some money!’”

“Jazz is dead,” McCann repeats. “We have to make it because we like it. I tell all the young people now, ‘If you’re really into it, it’s got to be a matter of life and death. If not, go find your passion."