Pearl Cleage

Pearl Makes A List: 5 Songs That Opened My Ears to What Great Music Can Do, No Matter Who Makes It

I was watching an interview recently with Ricky Skaggs, country music singer, composer and mandolin player extraordinaire. He was explaining how he came to see the connections between all forms of American music by listening to what was playing at his house when he was growing up. Standing in the hallway, he could hear his parent’s country music coming from one room and his sister’s Motown favorites from another. He loved them both. It made me start thinking abut the music I heard in our house growing up, which produced this week’s list.

5 Songs That Opened My Ears to What Great Music Can Do, No Matter Who Makes It 

Take a listen to what was playing at our house…

  1. “Didn’t It Rain,” Mahalia Jackson at Newport, 1958. My father was a minister and in among his Ray Charles albums were some great selections from The Clara Ward Singers and Mahalia Jackson. Mahalia was my favorite and I remember singing along to "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” and picturing that terrified woman running away from Jesus after he told her “everything she’d done.” But my absolute favorite was "Didn’t It Rain." This version from her first appearance at Newport in 1958 still makes me sing loud, clap hands and wish my dad could have convinced our choir director to include a little more gospel music on Sunday morning. 


  2. “Honky Tonk Part 1,” Bill Doggett, 1956. When my parents divorced, my mother moved us to a two family flat close enough to my dad’s house that my sister and I still walked there for lunch every day. Living downstairs from us was the Bowles family, which included two boys around our age, a very high-strung mother and a baritone sax playing father who went by the nickname Beans. Mr. Bowles was an early member of Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers and well-known in Detroit’s many night clubs. Sometimes he sat in with Bill Doggett’s band and they would rehearse in our shared basement space. There was only a saloon type swinging door to separate our side, where my mom was doing laundry, and their side where good-looking men in two tone shoes gathered to make music. Sometimes one would try to talk to my mom who just pursed her lips and fed another big wet sheet into the wringer. I always wondered if she would have been more receptive if one of them had offered to help.


  3. "Un be di, vedremo," Leontyne Price, 1960. While cigarette smoking musicians didn’t move her, Leontyne Price singing Puccini was known to bring my mother to tears. When it was summer and everybody’s windows were open, a handball game in our driveway was as likely to get a blast of Madama Butterfly as it was of The Supremes. Un bel di, Butterfly’s beautiful aria about her faithless lover’s longed for return was one of my mom’s favorites and if it played more than twice, it was probably wise to take our game elsewhere.


  4. Celia Cruz w/The Fania All Stars, “Quimbara,” Zaire, 1974. I didn’t hear this growing up, but when Fidel Castro marched into Havana in 1959, my older sister was a great admirer of the Cuban Revolution. The short-wave radio in her room often carried the new president’s public speeches, sometimes running four or five hours long. I don’t remember the specific music that came through on that little radio, but my guess is, if it came from Cuba, some of it was being made by Celia Cruz, singer, songwriter and the Queen of Salsa. Her performance in Zaire shows you why.


  5. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Shop Around,” 1960. The very first record I every bought with my own money was a single by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I was 12 years old. My sister and I walked up to the record store, scanned the wall of new releases behind the counter and made our selections. I loved Smokey’s voice and the song was perfect. But after a couple of weeks, when it wasn’t moving up the charts as fast as Barry Gordy was hoping it would, he woke Smokey at 3 a.m. and told him he knew how to make it better. Smokey agreed to meet him at the studio. Gordy played piano on the session and a month later, Motown released a second version of the same song that was a hit. I bought that one, too.


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