So I’ve been jamming out in the car recently to a mix CD of some late 60s-early 70s classics I burned a while back—songs I loved as a kid, but had been sorta neglecting of late. And suddenly the responsibility—nay, the solemn, sacred duty—to share some of this good stuff with y’all weighed heavily upon me.
The above, of course, would be the legendary Buddy Miles, just doin’ his legendary Buddy Miles thang. In the unlikely event you don’t know of him, please allow Wikipedia to hip ya some.
George Allen “Buddy” Miles Jr. (September 5, 1947 – February 26, 2008), was an American rock drummer, vocalist, composer, and producer. He was a founding member of the Electric Flag (1967), a member of Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys (1969–1970), founder and leader of the Buddy Miles Express and later, the Buddy Miles Band. Miles also played and recorded with Carlos Santana and others. Additionally, he sang lead vocals on the critically and commercially acclaimed “California Raisins” claymation TV commercials and recorded two California Raisins R&B albums.
Yes, THOSE California Raisins. Of course, most people who DO know of Buddy will surely know of his stint as drummer for Hendrix’ Band Of Gypsies. Yes, THAT Band Of Gypsies. But then, who from that wondrous, magical era DIDN’T Buddy play with, anyway? That would probably make for a shorter list, one a hell of a lot less burdensome to tot up.
Miles played with a variety of rhythm and blues and soul acts as a teenager, including Ruby & the Romantics, the Delfonics, and Wilson Pickett. In 1964, at the age of 16, Miles met Jimi Hendrix at a show in Montreal, where both were performing as sidemen for other artists.
In 1967, Miles joined Hendrix in a jam session at the Malibu home of Stephen Stills. They also went on to play together again in 1968 in both Los Angeles and New York. In the same year, Miles moved to Chicago where he teamed with guitarist Mike Bloomfield and vocalist Nick Gravenites to form the Electric Flag, a blues/soul/rock band. In addition to playing drums, Miles sometimes sang lead vocals for the band, which made its live debut at the Monterey Pop Festival in mid-1967.
In early 1968, the band released A Long Time Comin’, its first album for Columbia. The Electric Flag’s second album, An American Music Band, followed late the same year. Shortly after that release, though, the group disbanded. In the same year, Hendrix used several guest artists, including Miles, during the recording of the album, Electric Ladyland. Miles played drums on one long jam that was eventually split into two album cuts, “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming”, with a different song, “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”, edited in between.
At age 21, after the breakup of the Electric Flag, Miles put together a new band with Jim McCarty, who later became the guitarist for Cactus. This new group performed and recorded as the Buddy Miles Express. In 1969, Hendrix wrote a short poem as a liner note for Expressway To Your Skull, the first studio album recorded by the Buddy Miles Express. Hendrix went on to produce four of the tracks on the group’s follow-up album, Electric Church. The title of the latter LP was taken from Hendrix’s poem on the first.
In 1969 he appeared on British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin’s album Devotion.
Exressway To Your Skull might just be the greatest album title in all of history, I’m thinking.
And while we’re groovin’ to the classics here and all, allow me to bring forth another true great: Lee Michaels. Yes, THAT Lee Michaels.
Michaels, who I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned here before at least once, is another fascinating study. A generally-acknowledged keyboard virtuoso, he did most of his live shows accompanied only by a drummer—covering that complex, fluid bass line his own self via the pedals on the Hammond B3 he ran like a boss. This, whilst also ravaging the keyboards, and crooning his little heart out to boot.
For me, it’s that distinctive, passionate singing voice of his that really sets the hook in deep. Occasionally raspy and whiskey-raw, then a croon smooth as smoothest velvet; a banshee’s wail with a desperate, out-of-breath sob hot on its heels. He gulps and gasps along just behind the beat, like every good bluesman should.
The real bones and sinew of the singer’s art, though, is phrasing. Proper phrasing can cover a multitude of other sins, while clumsy phrasing can rubbish an otherwise skilled performance entirely. Michaels’ phrasing may sound somewhat haphazard, even confused and/or anarchic, to the uninitiated. But it’s actually note-perfect, rivaling that of even Sinatra in the way he makes the attentive listener WAAAAIIIIIT until he’s about to fall over anticipating that next crucial syllable.
The above tune has an interesting little history of its own (bold mine):
Lee Eugene Michaels (born Michael Olsen, November 24, 1945) is an American rock musician who sings and accompanies himself on organ, piano, or guitar. He is best known for his powerful soulful voice and his energetic virtuosity on the Hammond organ, peaking in 1971 with his Top 10 pop hit single, “Do You Know What I Mean”.
Michaels began his career with The Sentinals, a San Luis Obispo, California-based surf group that included drummer Johny Barbata (later of The Turtles, Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship). Michaels joined Barbata in the Joel Scott Hill Trio, a group led by guitarist Joel Scott Hill. Michaels later moved to San Francisco, where he joined an early version of The Family Tree, a band led by Bob Segarini. In 1967, he signed a contract with A&M Records, releasing his debut album, Carnival of Life, later that year with David Potter on drums. As a session musician, he played with Jimi Hendrix, among others.
Michaels’ choice of the Hammond organ as his primary instrument was unusual for the time, as was his bare-bones stage and studio accompaniment: usually just a single drummer, most often a musician known as “Frosty,” real name Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost, who was a member of Sweathog, and whose bare handed technique was an inspiration for John Bonham, or with Joel Larson of The Grass Roots. This unorthodox approach attracted a following in San Francisco, and some critical notice. (Sounds Magazine, for one, reported of Michaels that he had been called “the ultimate power organist.”) But Michaels did not achieve real commercial success until the release of his fifth album.
That album, titled 5th and released in 1971, produced a surprise US Top 10 hit (#6 in the fall of 1971), “Do You Know What I Mean.” It was an autobiographical homage to the loss of a girlfriend. Michaels’s Top 40 follow-up, a cover version of the Motown standard, “Can I Get a Witness,” peaked at #39 on Christmas Day of 1971, eight years to the week after Marvin Gaye’s version peaked at #22. Billboard ranked “Do You Know What I Mean” as the No. 19 song for 1971. Michaels recorded two more albums for A&M before signing a recording contract with Columbia Records in 1973. But his Columbia recordings failed to generate much interest, and Michaels had gone into semi-retirement from the music industry by the end of the decade.
“Do You Know What I Mean” always brings the salt tang of an ocean breeze to mind for me, and there’s a good reason for it. See, back in the day when Myrtle Beach was still a place worth visiting, they had the late, lamented Myrtle Beach Pavilion (now unforgiveably torn down for no good reason at all, damn their eyes) on the beach side of Ocean Blvd, with the Pavilion Amusement Park directly across the street from it. We vacay’ed at MYB every year without fail, whiling away a goodish chunk of my misspent youth in the Pavilion and its Amusement Park both.
And ‘long about 71 or 72, the Amusement Park installed a great ride yclept the Himalaya, which my brother, my cousin, and I loved all to pieces. We’d ride that thing over and over again, round and round and up and down, until we were literally nauseous from it. And one of the things that attracted the Younger Generation to it was the fact that, unlike many of the other, older rides, they played that summer’s rock and roll hits loud as thunder over the installed speakers, to our endless delight.
There are two songs I heard on the Himalaya that really rang my bell but good, and never did forget. One of them was, of course, “Do You Know What I Mean” by Lee Michaels. The other, funnily enough, was a ditty whose origins I strived long and hard to unearth, only years later finding out that it had been Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Sweet Hitch Hiker.”
Now in my defense, I was exclusively a hard-rock kid back then. I was all about Iron Butterfly, D-Purp, Black Sabbath, and such-like in those days, see, and didn’t really give too much of a rip one way or the other about CCR; they weren’t on my radar until much later, I confess. But I did love me some “Sweet Hitch Hiker.” It hit me right in the sweet spot, for whatever reason.
And I had not the vaguest clue who it might be performing it on vinyl. Nor, it seemed, could I find out, not for love nor money.
What’s most curious about the whole saga is that I went around asking absolutely everybody I came into contact with that summer—grown-ups, young ‘uns like me, teenagers, teachers, the mailman, everybody—if they had any idea whose damned song that was…and not ONE of them knew either. Or if they did, they weren’t saying. Hell, I even called the local radio station (Big WAYS, 610 AM on your dial) and asked about it, all to no avail. The vexing conundrum was finally resolved when I stumbled across the song in the track listing on back of the album cover, tucked into the stacks o’ wax for sale down at my uncle Gene’s drug store in Mt Holly a cpl-three years later.
Ahh, them were the days for sure.