In the movie Almost Famous, one of the characters gives this advice about life on the road: “If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.” To me, that quote encapsulates two of the great things about being a music fan – that music itself is your friend, and that music can connect you to fascinating people all over the world. Serious music fans can be quirky and prickly, but if they recognize a kindred spirit, they can share some incredible discoveries.
I’m currently reading Respect, David Ritz’s new biography of Aretha Franklin. The book is remarkable not only for its blunt portrayal of Franklin’s life, but also for its thorough depiction of the many musical styles that influenced Franklin’s work. And what made me think about the wonderful community among music fans is the book’s description of Franklin’s early career. There are two references in there that would mean nothing to me without my encounters with two other music fans.
Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a spiritual and social leader in Detroit’s black community, and he would often invite touring musicians to his house for impromptu jam sessions. One of the musicians that Franklin and her sisters got to hear performing in their home was vocalist Arthur Prysock – whose work I was introduced to by Bob Switzer at Taz Records in Halifax.
When I lived on Prince Edward Island, Taz was my musical lifeline. It was (and is) the best independent record store in Atlantic Canada, and a trip to Halifax always had to include a visit to Taz. Bob, Taz’s founder and owner, was the gruff presence behind the tiny counter at the front of the store. He had no time for people who only wanted to buy the latest top 40 drivel (kind of like this), but if he could see that you truly loved music, he would strike up a conversation with you and let you browse in the store for as long as you wanted.
During one visit to Taz, I ended up spending the entire morning in the store, looking through the racks and listening to Bob talk to the customers that wandered in and out. At one point during that morning, Bob asked me what jazz musicians I liked. I admitted that jazz isn’t one of my favourite types of music, which made him frown. He asked what I thought of singers like Frank Sinatra. I said I liked some of Sinatra’s big band music, didn’t think much of his more recent music, but regardless of what Sinatra sang I liked his technique and the quality of his voice. Bob gave a half-smile and said, “Then you’ll like this.” He put a CD on the store’s sound system, and I heard a stunningly smoky baritone voice singing “Blue Velvet”.
“Holy sh*t!” I said, “who is this?” And Bob’s face broke into a broad smile. “This”, he said, “is Arthur Prysock.” Of course, I bought the CD, and have found and enjoyed even more of Prysock’s work since then. Bob passed away a few years ago, but Taz Records is still going and is still very much worth a visit.
Most people probably know Aretha Franklin as a soul/r&b vocalist, from songs like “Respect”, but before she hit it big with that song, she released several LPs of jazz, gospel and pop songs. One of the jazz songs she covered – on her 1964 album Unforgettable – is “This Bitter Earth”. A few months ago, I didn’t even know this song existed. But in November, I heard it for the first time when it was performed at the memorial service for Drew Burns, the former owner of Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom.
During my career as a music critic, I got to know Drew very well, because I went to shows at the Commodore at least twice a week. Drew was a kind and gracious host who welcomed regulars like myself and my friend Tom Harrison into his office – its decor aptly described by one speaker at the memorial as “an HR person’s nightmare” – and made us all feel at home. Drew booked every kind of music at the Commodore – and treated every musician professionally and respectfully – so you couldn’t tell his personal tastes in music from what he presented at his venue.
I remembered from one conversation with Drew that he liked blues and big band music, but it wasn’t until the memorial service that I found out he also deeply loved jazz. And “This Bitter Earth” was one of his favorite songs. When I heard it at the memorial, I thought, “This song is dark. And deep. And kind of off-center.” And since then, thanks to YouTube, I’ve found several different versions of the song – and really come to appreciate what a great song it is.
Music creates communities of kindred spirits, and it creates the most unexpected rewards. If you’re not a music fan, I can’t explain to you how this works – I’m not sure that I fully understand it myself – but I am incredibly grateful for the gifts of music that other fans have introduced me to. Support your local record store (especially on Record Store Day, April 18) and your local live music venue, because you know what? Your friends are there. And they might help you discover some incredible things.