Monday, October 17, 2022

Rediscovery: Hubert Laws - “Crying Song”

Over the years, I've fielded many questions about the late, great Creed Taylor's CTI Records. But, much to my surprise, no single CTI album has generated more questions others asked of me than Hubert Laws' CTI debut Crying Song. As a result, I've spent a considerable amount of time listening to, asking, thinking and writing about this one record. It seemed time to put it all together and do a genuinely deep dive into the well of Crying Song. I have had to do more than a bit of speculation here, so it's likely going to stir up some debate. Many of these debates have already happened and, well, here we are. Readers who care enough to read on are welcome to post comments of their own at the end. Now, let's all have a good cry...

I. More Whys Than Wows

Perhaps more talked about than listened to – a folly to which even this writer must concede - Crying Song is the first of flautist Hubert Laws’ seven CTI records. It is also the first album producer Creed Taylor recorded for his newly-independent CTI label. (The first numerical CTI record, singer-songwriter Kathy McCord’s eponymous album, was recorded several months later.)

Crying Song is also the very first album in CTI’s history to get reissued – and almost immediately upon its initial release: the original single-sleeve album with the red-tinted Price Givens photo of Hubert Laws (cat. no. 1002 with a list price of $4.98) was upgraded only several months later to a lavish gatefold sleeve bearing Pete Turner’s dream-like “Blue Horse“ photo (cat. no. 6000 with a list price of $5.98).

Taylor seemed to invest much of himself in the making and releasing of this album. Indeed, there is more “production” present on Crying Song than the unusually sparse early CTI albums on the new independent by, say, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine and George Benson. He likewise seemed to believe in its potential, pairing the flautist, as Taylor liked to say, with “Elvis’ rhythm section,” and even nabbing a Beatles tune that had not yet been released.

Recorded over two days in Memphis in July 1969 and two days at Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio two months later, Crying Song ultimately seems like little more than a footnote in the CTI legacy. But the record is best heard neither as a typical CTI album nor as a representative Hubert Laws album. As a whole, it’s not really much of a jazz album either. I think this was the point. Taylor and Laws were likely going for something else – something, perhaps, a bit more experimental.

Sure, Taylor’s 6000-series reissue of the album means to peg it as “jazz” or maybe what was then still evolving as “fusion.” But any hearing of the record suggests a fusion of an altogether different sort: a blend of psych-rock and, well, to be honest, easy-listening.

Call it “psych jazz,” a prefiguration that wends in such later efforts in this mold as Frank Wess’ Wess to Memphis (1971), Yusef Lateef’s The Gentle Giant (1972), Charles Lloyd’s Geeta (1973), Herbie Mann’s London Underground (1974) and Paul Horn’s Visions (1974) – all, like Crying Song, intoxicatingly good and terribly underrated.

Yet while Crying Song ultimately proved to be a miss, the record looms large as the stuff of myth. It spins more with unanswered questions than listeners or fans.

I have spent much time over the last few years going through the vale of tears that makes what we have in Crying Song - to surprisingly little avail. The main participants are either not able to recall much or simply would not say. But in commiserating with a number of CTI sleuths, including Creed Taylor Produced’s Mark Cathcart, there are a number of paths this journey suggests.

The true story of Crying Song may never be known. Half a century later, few may care. But at the risk of doing for Crying Song what film critic Pauline Kael did to Citizen Kane in 1971 – or placing myself or my subject here at such equal footing – there are some things we can reasonably surmise or speculate upon. Here’s my shot at deciphering an unusual, though unusually compelling album.

II. Why Memphis?

In my conversations with Creed Taylor, we talked less about his “hits” (Red Clay, “2001”) than his “misses” (Larry Coryell, Ted Rosenthal). Two reasons for this: (1) Taylor had unusually enormous success in jazz over three decades with such great artists and over many landmark recordings. I was always curious what such a “hands on” producer thought when he came up with a dud. (2) These admittedly unfairly-dubbed duds – Soul Flutes, Pacific Fire, etc. – number among my own favorite CTI records.

Crying Song stands out as one of Taylor’s, well, misses. It is for that reason that one of my earliest questions to the producer specifically regarded Crying Song: “Why Memphis?” I remember Taylor’s genuine enthusiasm when he responded, “Who wouldn’t want to record with Elvis’ rhythm section?”

Indeed, Taylor – in what must have been the first of his very few forays outside of New York or the Van Gelder studio – had recorded part of singer Tamiko Jones’ I’ll Be Anything for You in Memphis the previous year. Despite that record’s lack of success, Taylor still seemed eager to get back to Memphis again.

But, in retrospect, “Elvis’ rhythm section” seems like a bit of legend-building. Memphis truly was a bubbling cauldron of pop music magic at the time. Such hits as the Box Tops’ “The Letter” (1967), B.J. Thomas’ “Hooked on a Feeling” (1968), Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” (1969), Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” (1969) and Elvis Presley’s “comeback” hits “In the Ghetto” (released in April 1969) and “Suspicious Minds” (released one month after Crying Song’s Memphis sessions) – to name only a few – all came out of Memphis during this time.

”Elvis’ rhythm section” was, in reality, not the King's rhythm section at all but rather a group of studio musicians based at Memphis' American Sound Studios’ now known as the Memphis Boys: Reggie Young on guitar, Bobby Wood on piano, Bobby Emmons on organ, Mike Leech on bass, Gene Chrisman on drums and Glen Spreen doing arrangements.

Creed Taylor was well aware that the Memphis Boys were behind so many of the pop hits of the day. The producer’s attraction to Tennessee’s second musical capital was more likely than not for Memphis’ seeming capacity for hit-making pop magic. And Taylor needed a hit.

Unfortunately, neither the Tamiko Jones record nor Crying Song turned out to be hits (more on that later). Coincidentally, both these Memphis-recorded discs are among Taylor’s least distinguished recordings and seem to lack much of anything that marks the producer’s aural signature.

Curiously, another huge hit that came out of Memphis in 1969 was Herbie Mann’s “Memphis Underground” – a song that Creed Taylor himself actually passed on during the recording of flautist’s 1967 album Glory of Love on A&M/CTI. “Memphis Underground” hit number 44 on the pop charts, earning both the song and Mann’s Atlantic album of the same name Grammy Award nominations. In what must have really rankled Taylor, Mann’s album also ranks as one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.

III. Why Hubert Laws?

As Grover Washington Jr.’s solo debut on the CTI subsidiary Kudu, Inner City Blues (1971), is said to be originally intended for the “unavailable” Hank Crawford, Crying Song, is likewise said to have been originally intended for someone other than Hubert Laws.

Legend has it that Creed Taylor called Hubert Laws from Memphis to fill in for tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, apparently a no-show for an already-scheduled session.

Laws had already had three albums of his own released by Atlantic and dozens of sessions – on flute and tenor sax – under his belt. He had first worked with Taylor on Kai Winding’s marvelous and underrated Penny Lane and Time (Verve – 1967 – one of Taylor’s last productions for the label), a number of A&M/CTI sessions and, recently – and most notably – Quincy Jones’ Walking in Space, recorded several months earlier.

Why call Hubert Laws – who was seemingly under contract to another label at the time – and not one of the musicians already contracted with A&M? Why not, for example, George Benson? Or, what about one of the Verve artists Taylor produced between 1961 and 1967?

One reason is surely that the producer was looking for a player who could tackle a pop program and potentially make chart waves. While Laws had no particular expertise in this area, Taylor – who was very likely swayed by the flautist’s notable performance on Walking in Space - astutely discerned Hubert’s potential – and a soloist who would follow his lead.

Their successful union would reap dividends only after Crying Song.

The Stanley Turrentine legend was first widely reported by Didier C. Deutsch in his notes to the 1988 CBS Associated CD release of Crying Song. It all seems, well, a bit unlikely. But we’ll get to that. The flautist happily obliged, abruptly leaving a steady-paying gig on The David Frost Show - an assertion Laws proudly confirmed in a 2009 Wax Poetics interview.

(It has been suggested that before leaving the Frost show, Laws recorded and is pictured on the cover of the 1970 album From David Frost and Billy Taylor – Merry Christmas [Bell]. Rather than Laws, however, it is Frank Wess playing on the record and who is pictured on the cover.)

It’s a bit unclear where the Turrentine claim originated, but it doesn’t hold up well to much scrutiny. During this period, Turrentine was wrapping up a long string of Blue Note records and working in Los Angeles on the 1970 Canyon album Flipped. Those sessions yielded Turrentine’s own cover of “Let It Be,” an appropriately gospel reading, arranged by Monk Higgins, that easily bests Laws’ version heard here.

In his book Friends Along the Way, the writer, editor and critic Gene Lees – a longtime friend and associate of Creed Taylor’s – indicates that the saxophonist’s association with Creed Taylor began around the time of the dissolution of his marriage to Shirley Scott. This puts the producer and musician’s first dealings with each other (apart from a 1964 Donald Byrd session) around the fall of 1970, shortly before the November Sugar sessions – a full year later.

Is it possible that Creed Taylor called Stanley Turrentine to come to Memphis to do the session? Yes, of course. But it’s also just as likely that Turrentine, at that point, could not accept the offer.

While Laws says he doesn’t remember who he stepped in for, it’s quite possible and even more probable that the Memphis sessions were scheduled not for Stanley Turrentine…but rather flautist Herbie Mann.

Both flautists recorded primarily for the Atlantic label and both were featured on Mann’s A&M/CTI album Glory of Love (1967). Both were also scheduled to do their own albums for Creed Taylor at A&M in 1969, yet only Laws’ Crying Song, emerged – albeit on Taylor’s newly independent CTI imprint (more on that later).

At the time, Laws was riding Mann’s coattails – to little avail. Atlantic Records was also doing much more for Mann than Laws: between 1964 and 1969, Atlantic issued some 19 (!) albums by Mann yet only three by Laws. Laws was busy racking up studio credits but little else. Little wonder why he accepted Creed Taylor’s offer.

But this wasn’t the first time Hubert Laws came to Creed Taylor’s rescue when things went south with Herbie Mann. It is likely that “The Fluteman” credited on the anonymous Soul Flutes’ A&M/CTI album Trust in Me (1968) is both Mann – who fell out of the project at some point – and Laws, to a large degree. But that’s another story for another day.

Creed Taylor and Herbie Mann go back to the beginning of both their careers – on Bethlehem in the fifties. But things started falling apart during their reunion on Glory of Love. The success of “Memphis Underground” (on Atlantic) also allowed Mann to set up his own production company and label, Embryo, shortly thereafter, a label which lasted from 1970 to 1977.

It’s therefore easy to imagine that two such individual jazz empresarios as Taylor and Mann, both hit-makers in their own right, would clash over musical ideas, making any further collaboration untenable.

Curiously enough, though, in 1971, a Herbie Mann album appeared on Atlantic titled Memphis Two-Step. The album’s title song was written by CTI’s house arranger, Don Sebesky (who, oddly, was not at all involved in Laws’ finally-issued Crying Song) and recorded in Memphis – though neither Sebesky nor Memphis factored in any of the Mann album’s other tracks.

Atlantic discographies indicate the song was recorded in November 1970 at A&R Recording Studios in New York City. But it’s highly unlikely that the Memphis Boys would have traveled to New York to record. Even the album itself indicates Memphis was the recording location of the song.

It’s possible, even likely, that “Memphis Two-Step” is the sole surviving outtake of a 1969 Taylor/Mann session recorded in Memphis. The 1970 date probably designates when any overdubs or edits occurred.

IV. Why all the AM-radio fare?

Because it worked for Wes Montgomery. But that was then. This approach was no longer selling Taylor-produced albums by the Soul Flutes, George Benson and Kai Winding nor was it working elsewhere for Bud Shank, Gabor Szabo, Cal Tjader, Gary McFarland or any of the other “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” jazzers trolling the AM-radio hit parade of the day.

The rising popularity of rock surely made jazz takes of pop music sound, well, old-fashioned, quaint and totally uncool: music for your parents. In Memphis, Taylor wasn’t yet aware of this perception. Indeed, Crying Song’s Memphis sessions may be the last time he tinkered with this sort of fare in this way. By the time of Johnny Hammond’s “It’s Too Late,” George Benson’s “White Rabbit” and Hubert Laws’ own “Fire and Rain” (all 1971) – the covers were longer, more thoughtful, more loosely arranged and much more interesting as jazz.

Only part of Crying Song was recorded in Memphis – indeed, not enough to fill an album. This suggests that either more tracks were recorded and, for whatever reason, discarded. Or, there wasn’t time enough to record more.

Considering the radio-friendly brevity of the Memphis tracks – between two and half to three minutes apiece – it’s a bit of a surprise more didn’t come out of Memphis (six of the album’s nine tracks were recorded there).

The Memphis tracks on Crying Song consist mostly of AM hits of the day and include The Dells’ Charles Stepney-arranged “I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love is Blue” – listed here, for some reason, as “Love is Blue/Sing a Rainbow” – The Monkees’ “Listen to the Band,” and the Bee Gees’ first US Top Ten hit, “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You.”

In all likelihood, it was Taylor who chose the majority of the program here (Laws may well have chosen the more soulful Dells piece – which may also explain why the titling of it was bungled), hedging his bets with Laws in an effort to cross him over, something Atlantic failed to do, much the way the producer did earlier with Wes Montgomery.

But these tunes were hardly among the most notable or memorable pop pieces of 1969 – and not much memorable happens in Laws and company’s handling of the songs. Additionally, these tracks aren’t helped by Taylor’s fish-out-of-water recording. A strong arranging partner, like Don Sebesky, is sorely missed here.

As with the Tamiko Jones record, there’s little if any of a “Memphis feel” to much of this music. Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin were a much more natural – and successful – fit for wringing the soul out of Memphis.

Four of the Memphis tracks here feature brass parts written by Memphis Boys Glenn Spreen and Mike Leech but, oddly, overdubbed later by New York session players – suggesting that either Taylor re-recorded the parts for some reason or there wasn’t time to draft brass players in Memphis (Bob James also added string arrangements to two of the Memphis pieces).

V. Why “La Jean”?

Several of the Memphis tracks, however, are indeed remarkable in ways that deserve a bit more thought and consideration. One of Crying Song’s more significant originals is the altogether unfairly unknown “La Jean.”

The song was written by Memphis studio guitarist Johnny Christopher, who was also later known as Jhon Christopher. Christopher was a prolific writer of mostly country hits and a co-writer of Willie Nelson’s Grammy-Award winning hit “Always on My Mind,” originally written in 1972 for Elvis Presley.

Christopher grew up in Atlanta, eventually becoming part of Ronnie Milsap’s group. When Milsap went to Memphis in 1967, so did Christopher. Memphis was just entering its golden phase of hit recordings and Christopher stayed on as a studio musician there through 1972, before moving on to Nashville.

“La Jean,” named for Christopher’s then wife, seems to have originated on the 1969 album Instant Groove by Aretha Franklin saxophonist King Curtis as “La Jeanne.” King Curtis’s version was recorded circa February 1969 and it too was recorded in Memphis (also seemingly without Christopher).

The song was also covered by the British studio group Sounds Nice as “Sleepless Night” on the 1970 psyche-rock easy-listening monument Love at First Sight - produced by Gus Dudgeon and arranged by Paul Buckmaster, both of whom would soon help Elton John to become a superstar. It’s another sleeper that unfortunately got lost in the sands of time.

This haunting and lovely song seems as though it should have had a greater provenance than it has. Laws, of course, is flawless here, treading the edges of jazz and classical as he so often has. Bob James’ overdubbed strings and the subtle Beatlesesque horn flourishes work wonders in collaboration with the flautist’s commanding lead. That said, “La Jean” is an altogether too underwhelming set opener that portends a sort of hippy haze that hangs over far too much of Crying Song.

VI. Why “Feelin’ Alright?”

Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright” originated in 1968 with the band Traffic but found its initial success – as “Feeling Alright” – on Joe Cocker’s 1969 debut With a Little Help from My Friends. It’s worth noting that the song’s original Essex Music publisher somehow changed to Herb Alpert’s Almo Music Corp. when Cocker performed it on the A&M label.

This suggests that Alpert might have been pulling Taylor’s strings a little more than is widely known. As Taylor himself conveyed in a 2009 Wax Poetics interview, “Herb [Alpert] started making suggestions. I told myself, ‘You gotta get out of this situation.’” He did (again, more on that later).

Whether or not the song – here as “Feelin’ Alright?” – was forced on the session, Hubert Laws brings home the bacon, offering a performance that deserves accolades he didn’t get until much later. Laws would equally slay Gary McFarland’s adroit cover of The Beatles’ “Get Back” the following month on McFarland’s similarly easy-styled album Today.

Among the other later overdubs, (then) New York City studio drummer Ed Shaughnessy was brought in to add tabla and “sand blocks” to “Feelin’ Alright?” for some reason. It’s hardly noticed anyway.

Interestingly, Artie Butler – who recorded the Taylor-produced Have You Met Miss Jones? (more easy-listening than jazz) the year before – plays the memorable piano part on Joe Cocker’s version of the song. Butler also recorded a terrific instrumental version of the song for a 45-rpm release in 1971 on Taylor’s former label, Verve.

“Feelin’ Alright" was also superbly covered by Laws’ former boss Mongo Santamaria in 1970 and Laws was featured on a 1971 album by the great arranger Wade Marcus that spotlights the flautist on several tracks other than that album’s righteously funky take on “Feelin’ Alright.”

VII. Why “Let it Be”?

”Let it Be” seems, in retrospect, to be no big deal; one of hundreds of covers of the Lennon-(mostly) McCartney song that have come out over the years. But Laws’ version was surprisingly issued a little more than a week before The Beatles’ original made its initial appearance. While Laws’ version, which never really caught on, was the first jazz cover of “Let it Be” (West Coast saxophonist Bud Shank’s might be the second) – it was not the first cover of the song.

The Fab Four recorded the master take of “Let it Be” in January 1969 (with later overdubs), but the song itself wasn’t issued as a single until March of the following year. During this thirteen-month gap, McCartney apparently shopped the song around to others – through the lawyer-brothers Lee Eastman, McCartney’s father in-law and business manager, and John Eastman, who also represented Taylor.

Among those who covered “Let it Be,” I believe gospel singer Marion Williams may be the first. She recorded the song for Atlantic Records in May 1969, but that recording was never issued.

Laws’ recording of the song came a few months later and is likely the second or third cover recording. Singer Joe Cocker recorded a version of “Let it Be” around the same time as Laws’ for his second album, Joe Cocker!, issued in November 1969, but for whatever reason, Cocker’s cover of “Let it Be” went unissued until 1981.

Aretha Franklin recorded the song around October 1969 for an album, This Girl’s in Love with You, that was issued in January 1970, making her version the first actual release of “Let It Be.” Producer Jerry Wexler even claimed that McCartney wrote the song specifically for the Queen of Soul. But that is likely just another legend. Franklin is said to have been reluctant to record “Let it Be” – for reasons that are probably similar to why Marion Williams’ version never saw the light of day.

It has also been said – not by McCartney – that the songwriter wanted Creed Taylor to have “Let it Be” in appreciation of the producer’s recording of Wes Montgomery’s 1967 cover of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” While the late guitarist’s take on that seemingly un-jazzable song is magnificent, this sounds an awful lot like hyperbole to me.

If that legend was so, why wasn’t Don Sebesky, who provided the pitch-perfect arrangement on Montgomery’s “A Day in the Life,” brought in to spin his tapestry on “Let it Be”? It would have rewarded McCartney’s appreciation and certainly helped Laws’ cause. Curiously, though, Sebesky, who arranged many Beatles covers over the years, never took a swipe that I know of at “Let it Be.”

More strangely, Sebesky is absent from the whole of Crying Song.

A final thought on “Let it Be” before, well, letting it be: In November 1969, the American singer and pianist Buddy Greco recorded a version of “Let it Be” in Memphis with the same Memphis Boys of Laws’ version, for a single that was issued by Scepter in April 1970.

A striking thing about this recording is an anecdote that comes from Roben Jones’s book Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios. Jones reports that Greco was the first to bring “Let it Be” to Memphis’ American Sound Studios: “The musicians had not heard the song before and Mike Leech remembered the band listening to it for the first time and running it down.”

Had they forgotten the version they recorded with Hubert Laws only four months before?

VIII. Why the long delay between the Memphis and Englewood Cliffs sessions?

Once back at the Van Gelder studio, Creed Taylor was in his element. He was working again with Rudy Van Gelder, his preferred partner in sound, and crafting his aural signature with his new signee, Hubert Laws.

But while the two-month lapse between Crying Song’s Memphis sessions and its Englewood Cliffs sessions allowed Taylor to put the finishing touches on Paul Desmond’s From the Hot Afternoon, it also suggests that the producer may well have considered abandoning the initial Hubert Laws sessions altogether.

With a few exceptions, the Memphis sessions have a suspicious anonymity that is not apparent on many of Taylor’s other productions – notably those, like the Paul Desmond record, with Don Sebesky – or even other producers’ Memphis recordings. Despite whatever misgivings Taylor may have had with the Memphis sessions, however, it was during this time he solidified the idea of leaving the auspices of A&M to take CTI to independence.

The thought seems to energize the Englewood Cliffs sessions. If there is a sense that the producer – plotting to become a mogul – was looking backward in the Memphis tracks, he’s clearly looking ahead in the album’s Englewood Cliffs tracks. Only three tracks emerged from these sessions, but each is meatier – and longer – than any of the Memphis tracks.

These three tracks – Roger Waters’ “Crying Song” and “Cymbaline” (both from Pink Floyd’s soundtrack to the harrowing 1969 Barbet Schroeder film More) and the sole Laws original “How Long Will It Be?” – are the album’s single-most arresting and engaging moments. Here, the flautist finds his niche, holding his own in all-star accompaniment.

These Englewood Cliffs sessions might well be where Laws comes into his own at CTI. The sessions document the birth of the bond, trust and musical collaboration between artist and producer that would endure directly for at least the next seven years and indirectly over the remainder of both careers. Laws came back to CTI on several occasions thereafter and headlined the CTI All Stars during its final tour forty years later in 2009.

Recorded over the same two days in September 1969 that Taylor recorded J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding’s staggeringly good fusion monster Stonebone - which was not issued on vinyl until 51 years later in 2020 – and using the same rhythm section, the Englewood Cliffs tracks are among the record’s best moments. (Drummer Billy Cobham, notable in his very first CTI recording here, replaced Grady Tate on “Crying Song” for some reason.)

This leads me to propose that if Creed Taylor called the tunes in Memphis, then it is more likely than not that Hubert Laws himself called the tunes waxed at Englewood Cliffs. Yes – even the Pink Floyd numbers.

Consider the aforementioned Stonebone: Taylor’s signature – in both the sensibility and literal senses – is all over the trombone duo’s previous albums for Bethlehem, Impulse and A&M. But Stonebone sounds nothing like any of those previous efforts, as though the producer left it up to the artists to do their thing. Taylor seems to offer Laws the same consideration here.

My sense of Taylor during this period, soon to free himself from A&M, is that he was testing the waters by also freeing his artists to more or less craft their own music. In this sense, Taylor ever-so briefly relegated his role of “producer as director” for one of “producer as collaborator.” Even if he went back to directing very shortly hereafter, it was much more as a collaborator than he had ever been before.

Oddly, this parallels the rise of rock music – largely thanks to the Beatles, but also with the emergence of artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Santana and others – where popular music went from being producer-oriented (think Phil Spector, for example) to (seemingly) artist-oriented: bands doing their own songs their own way.

But it is also likely that Taylor picked up this new attitude to his work during the Walking in Space sessions for Quincy Jones. Jones, himself a renowned hit producer (and known better at the time as a film and television composer), likely helmed as much of the Space sessions as Taylor.

Their collaboration not only yielded a hit album – to which Hubert Laws contributes, notably on a splendid cover of “Oh Happy Day” – but a superb record that was unlike any previous production Taylor had done for A&M, with longer tracks and more jazz-like explorations of less obvious pop covers from the rock and R&B playlists.

Not only does Q’s influence loom large over Crying Song’s New Jersey tracks – consider, for one, how this album, like Walking in Space, also features two songs from a trippy hippy production – but it is surely Jones who brought Bob James in to the CTI universe. James, here in the first of his many recordings with Hubert Laws, pairs perfectly with the flautist. Both seem to immediately sense their spiritual kinship. Together, they surely deliver the album’s most memorable moments.

IX. Why isn’t “How Long Will It Be?” better known?

Probably because it’s buried on an otherwise seemingly indifferent record.

“How Long Will It Be?,” clocking in at about six breezy minutes, is, to these ears, among the album’s brightest moments and one of the best originals in the vast entirety of the CTI canon. Laws is probably a little underrepresented as a composer in his CTI discography, which is a shame. He doesn’t often get the credit he deserves as a composer – possibly because he seems to shy away from originals on his own records.

”How Long Will It Be?” – until, what, one wonders – is the album’s most obviously jazz-oriented piece and, winningly, one that owes considerably less fealty or concession to popularity than the rest of Crying Song.

Here, Bob James, Ron Carter and Grady Tate set up a hypnotically funky groove. Laws purrs a melody line so melodic as to suggest sexy lyrics that don’t even exist (which possibly suggests the what it is that’s being waited for). George Benson offers one of his greatest solos – and, by my count, he’s done many – followed by a great turn by Hubert Laws himself.

Had Crying Song opened with this elegant piece of funky blues, the whole trajectory of the album might have been altogether different. It might have made a good single, too.

X. Why Pink Floyd?

The feature film More opened in New York City one month before Crying Song’s Englewood Cliffs sessions, to surprisingly favorable reviews. New York Times critic Vincent Canby appropriately hailed the film as a “very beautiful, very romantic film of self destruction.”

Pink Floyd’s soundtrack came out at the same time, and while it was never terribly popular – the way, say, Easy Rider, which opened several weeks earlier, or even the later Zabriski Point were – it has its share of notable moments; namely the two pieces featured here.

Some half century later, it remains difficult to figure why these two songs landed here. At the time, Pink Floyd was little known outside of the UK and no one in the states paid much if any attention to the band until their 1973 mega-hit Dark Side of the Moon. Certainly, no one was taking any of the group’s music and making jazz out of it at the time.

But while Creed Taylor productions often skewed toward European-film rather than American-film themes – think Any Number Can Win (Jimmy Smith - 1963), The Moment of Truth (Gary McFarland - 1965), A Man and a Woman (Herbie Mann – 1967) and, most notably, Mondo Cane, whose 1963 Kai Winding hit theme was coincidentally titled “More” – I don’t think it was the producer who brought Pink Floyd to this mix.

It could very well have been Hubert Laws who heard the potential in these two Roger Waters numbers. Or someone he knew who heard this music as fitting for Laws? Possibly even Bob James: he fully immerses himself on these two tracks, even skewing his performances here toward the early avant-garde stylings heard on his 1965 recordings Explosions and the recently-issued Once Upon a Time.

While Laws and James remain surprisingly true to the Floyd originals, they bring out an unusually loungey soundtrack-like feel in the music, straight out of a Bruno Nicolai score. This aspect did not exist in the Floyd originals. In More, the Floyd pieces are often used as source music – heard by the characters on records, radio or as background music in bars and restaurants. Here, they sound – not unpleasantly – like score cues.

“Crying Song” especially stands out – particularly as a Bob James feature. The song boasts an unusual, nearly baroque melody with a curious but affectingly hypnotic air about it. An uncredited electric vibraphone (which Dave Friedman so memorably helmed on Laws’ next CTI album, Afro-Classic) adds to the pleasurable incantation that James builds on both piano and organ.

This “Cymbaline” – perhaps a descendant of Shakespeare’s King Cymbeline? – seems a tailor-made feature for Laws as though crafted by no less than Bob James himself. The alternating major and minor keys of “Cymbaline” – the record Mimsy Farmer’s character plays in More while rolling her erstwhile wannabe boyfriend’s first joint – has much in common with some of James’ most signature tunes, including “Nautilus” and even “The Chicago Theme,” which James wrote for Laws in 1975.

George Benson helms yet another commanding solo here.

XI. Why CTI?

Crying Song was issued in February 1970 on the newly-independent CTI label to strangely little notice. The record-industry weekly Cash Box aptly summarized the record’s appeal and likely hinted as to why it didn’t connect with many listeners:

Flautist Hubert Laws is showcased on contemporary material such as “Love is Blue,” “Sing a Rainbow” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You.” Basically this is a jazz sound, but with pop overtones, largely due to the presence of a lush instrumental section. Rock numbers, “Feelin’ Alright” and “Let it Be” come together nicely and the whole package emerges as a strong outing for Laws and his group. Album could score with MOR listeners and [sic] well as jazz buffs.

One person, however, surely took notice: Herb Alpert. As previously noted, this album was originally intended for A&M Records and scheduled with the catalog number of A&M SP 3026. During the production of the album, however, producer Creed Taylor grew increasingly disenchanted with A&M’s oversight and decided to take his CTI imprint to independence. He also took Crying Song with him.

Taylor has said he “licensed” Crying Song from A&M. But if he did, it’s not entirely clear how he managed to do this. First, neither the CTI 1002 nor CTI 6000 releases note that Laws’ appearance was “courtesy of A&M Records” – as George Benson is listed….at least on CTI 1002.

(Benson, apparently already part of the CTI family, loses this courtesy altogether on CTI 6000, issued several months later. On CTI 6000, only Billy Cobham gets a “courtesy of Columbia Records” credit, not because of his attachment to Miles Davis, with whom he started playing several months after his Crying Song appearance, but, rather, due to his membership in the Columbia-contracted band Dreams – which came nearly a year after anything having to do with Crying Song.)

Second, none of the Crying Song reissues – including the CTI 6000 reissue that happened mere months after the CTI 1002 issue – were ever issued by A&M. Indeed, when Columbia (now Sony) acquired the rights to the CTI catalog in the early eighties, Crying Song became Sony’s property, while A&M was eventually sold to what is now Universal Music.

What’s more, A&M clearly didn’t see Taylor’s move coming. In their surprise, they also seemed to retaliate. A&M declined to release the Taylor-produced albums by Tamba 4 and J.J. Johnson with Kai Winding – both groups likely not very big sellers anyway. Both records were finally issued on vinyl and digital formats many decades later.

A&M even went as far as removing the CTI logo from the cover of the Taylor-produced Quincy Jones album Gula Matari and both the cover and label of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Tide. I also have a sneaking suspicion that A&M removed Creed Taylor’s production credit – not to mention the CTI logo – from Paul Desmond’s Bridge Over Troubled Water - on which arranger Don Sebesky is credited as producer.

One month after Crying Song’s Englewood Cliffs sessions, Taylor would wax the controversial George Benson album The Other Side of Abbey Road - already in production during Crying Song’s February release (The Other Side was issued in April 1970), making it A&M’s last officially acknowledged A&M/CTI record.

It’s not at all clear how Taylor wrested both Hubert Laws – who had no real history with A&M, the way, say, George Benson had – and Crying Song away from A&M. But, in a sense, the record is as much Taylor’s resignation notice from A&M as it is his calling card for independence. Crying Song is, therefore, likely pretty special to Creed Taylor.

Appearing in the same month as Taylor’s announcement of independence in the music press, Crying Song came out almost at the same time as James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, which yielded the singer-songwriter’s biggest hit, “Fire and Rain” – a song that Laws would immortalize later that year on his breakout album Afro-Classic.

Crying Song’s “La Jean” was issued as CTI’s very first independently-issued single, CT 501. That single, surprisingly backed with “Let it Be,” which The Beatles released as a single several weeks later, failed to chart. Several months later, “Feelin’ Alright?” – strangely backed again with “Let it Be” – was issued as CTI 505. Again, that single failed to find an audience and never charted.

XII. Life of Crying Song

Shortly after issuing Freddie Hubbard’s landmark Red Clay (CTI 6001), the album which Creed Taylor - by his own admission - set the template for CTI Records going forward, Crying Song was retrofitted and reissued as CTI 6000 (one number before Red Clay).

The album was re-pressed several times during the seventies, notably during Motown’s notoriously fraught distribution of CTI between 1974 and 1978 – but, curiously, not as part of CTI’s post-Motown 8000-series reissues.

Crying Song was issued on CD in 1988 by CBS, which ended up acquiring the bulk of CTI’s recordings in the early eighties. The CD offered no extra or extended tracks. While that disc is long out of print, Wounded Bird issued its version of Crying Song in 2013 (with track 2 as simply “Love is Blue” and track 5 as “I’ve Got to Get a Message to You”). Of course, this is now out of print as well.

Surprisingly, the British-based BGO Records, which has issued many CTI compilations, including several of Laws’ CTI albums, has not yet put out any version of Crying Song.

Hubert Laws’ career and renown was ignited later in the year with his landmark CTI album Afro-Classic, followed by yet another of the label’s classics, The Rite of Spring in 1972. He was a key player in the CTI All Stars for the next several years, guesting on other CTI records and putting out his own signature albums that expertly mixed jazz with pop and the classics.

CTI issued Laws’ magnum opus, In the Beginning, in 1974 and scored him his biggest hit to that point with 1975’s The Chicago Theme. The flautist would leave CTI for Columbia in 1976, but Taylor’s label would issue one of Laws’ finest of all his CTI records, The San Francisco Concert, in 1977.

Hubert Laws infrequently returned to the label that launched him into the spotlight, but never more notably than on the exquisite Studio Trieste (1982), which the flautist co-led with former CTI stalwarts Chet Baker and Jim Hall, an occasion reuniting all concerned with arranger Don Sebesky.

Little wonder, then, that Crying Song - and, for that matter, Laws’ 1973 sleeper Morning Star - were all too easily forgotten. Laws delivered many great performances on his and others’ CTI records. But Crying Song has more than its fair share of wonderful, even memorable moments; ones well deserving a of fresh hearing and reconsideration.

1 comment:

Mark Cathcart said...

It's worth noting that Huibert Laws, along with Ron Carter, played briefly during the recent (October 2022) memorial for Creed Taylor at the Van Gelder studio.

Outstanding summary as always.