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Eight Forty-Eight

Music Thursdays with Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele: Collaborations

Tony Sarabia:

Where would we be without musical collaborations? Well I guess it depends on who’s doing the collaborating. Think of all those catchy Broadway tunes we’d never whistle if George and Ira Gershwin were distant brothers with nothing in common or if cornet legend Joe "King" Oliver didn’t bring Louis Armstrong up from New Orleans. 

Then again, did we really need Bob Dylan rapping on a Curtis Blow record?

This week for Music Thursday, the topic is collaborations and we have live music to illustrate what happens when it works. Idan Raichel is considered an Israeli superstar whose popularity extends around the globe. He mixes some electronic music with Ethiopian sounds and uses Hebrew texts in his songwriting and now he can add Malian music to his repertoire.

The Malian connection originated in a German airport; that’s where he first encountered Vieux Farka Toure, the guitarist son of the late legendary musician Ali Farka Toure. Raichel had always been a fan of Vieux’s blues tinged Malian music and not long ago the two sat in an Israeli recording studio for a jam session. Raichel recently told NPR Music, by coincidence the three hour jam session was recorded. The result he says, was mix of Malian rhythms mixed with Israeli melodies — all originals, but very influenced from both cultures.

The result of that collaboration is an album called the Tel Aviv Sessions under the project name The Toure-Raichel Collective. We’ll hear them perform songs off the album in our Jim and Kay Mabie Performance Studio.

Also sprinkled in will be a couple of picks from Richard Steele and me showcasing various musical collaborations. Here are a few I’ve picked:

The British duo The KLF released this dance song in 1991 but its origins date back to 1987. "Justified and Ancient" refers to the bands earlier pseudonym Justified and Ancients of Mu Mu (The JAMS). But it also is the name of a song on their 1991 release The White Room. They remixed the tune, giving it more of an upbeat feel, a sly hint of steel pedal guitar and added the vocals of Tammy Wynette, who KLF member Bill Drummond referred to as The First Lady of Country. And the titled became ‘Stand by JAMS’, which was a nod to Wynette’s ‘Stand by Your Man’. 

Wynette once told the British national morning newspaper The Independent that she didn’t know why The KLF chose her to sing the song. She said she was apprehensive at first, but that she was really excited with the way the song turned out. She also told the newspaper, “Mu Mu Land looks a lot more interesting than Tennessee, but I wouldn't want to live there."

And Bill Drummond once said he chose Wynette because he’s a fan of American country music. Well, not a bad choice Mr. Drummond.

Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal's Chamber Music was perhaps the most beautiful release of 2009. The music doesn’t strive to be a hip collaboration between a trip hop cellist and a rising star of the kora, a Malian lute like instrument; it’s just two friends creating gentle but intricate music -- just listen to Ballake work the strings of his kora in "Ma Ma FC".

As mentioned, Segal’s main work over the years has been with his band Bumcello, an electronic, avant trip hop ensemble. But he doesn’t sound out of his element in this more subdued environment. Bumcello’s work isn’t a jarring listen, as evidenced in the song "Transpapye" from the album Karma, which features vocals by Nathlie Natiembe, a singer from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Chamber Music is one of those rare albums that’s worth a listen from beginning to end without pause.

This is a collaboration that should have gone further but we should be glad it existed to this extent. The Queen of Soul recorded This Girl's in Love with You in 1969 at the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals Alabama, and Duane Allman was a session player there at the time of the recording (lucky for Atlantic Records).

Allman brings a swamp blues sound to a song originally recorded by The Band. "The Weight" was The Band’s biggest hit, but as a result of Aretha’s solid soul and Allman’s slide guitar, her version of "The Weight" was the highest charting recording in both the U.S. and Canada. 

It’s too bad Duane couldn’t talk Aretha into joining the Allman Brothers Band or at least recording an album with the band. Oh well, at least we’ve got this tune.

Richard Steele:

This was one of the most surprising “unlikely collaborations” that has been seen or heard in many years. Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to sing “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammy Awards, but he became ill when it was close to time to perform. With about 50 minutes to go before Pavarotti was up, his friend Aretha Franklin was asked to fill in. She had performed “Nessun Dorma” at a private event a few days earlier. When she stepped up to the microphone to sing, Franklin had never rehearsed with the Grammy orchestra., but she amazed everybody by doing a spectacular job. Some of the more prickly classical music critics were not so generous, but everybody else seemed to appreciate the uniqueness of the situation -- and the enormous measure of Aretha’s talent.                  

Recently, in an NPR interview, Franklin talked about putting out a call for new unsigned classically trained talent. She plans to mentor new talent and perhaps put them on her label called “Aretha’s Records.” You might have already heard comments from some classical music critics who question her ability to judge classical talent.     


Just about everyone knows who Nat King Cole is. He’s one of the most popular male vocalists of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and a very fine jazz pianist. But who is Stubby Kaye? He started out as a vaudeville comedian in the 1940s. Then he hit it big on Broadway in 1950 when he created the role of Nicely Nicely Johnson in the the musical Guys and Dolls. He teamed up with Cole to record the title song from the movie Cat Ballou, which starred Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. The pair also appeared throughout the movie as strolling musicians telling the story.          

Nat Cole was suffering from the effects of lung cancer during the filming and died just a months after it was completed. He didn’t live to see its release.            

It doesn’t get more unlikely than “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. This pairing did not occur without some difficulty along the way. This performance took place in a 1977 Bing Crosby TV special  called Merrie Olde Christmas. The producers had a “brainstorm” to put this 30-year-old  glam-rock counterculture music star on with this conservative, cardigan-sweater-wearing, pipe-smoking 70-year-old music icon from “old  Hollywood.” It almost didn’t happen because Bowie thought the “Little Drummer Boy” song just wouldn’t work for him. So he said no! 

A few hours before they were scheduled to shoot the scene, some writers and composers did a remake job -- no more rum-pa-pum-pum. Bowie changed his mind and agreed to do it and people loved it. It’s become a fan favorite over the Christmas holidays. 

The special was taped in September 1977. Crosby died a month later, and it was broadcast after his death.        

Well, what do you think? Do These collaborations work for you?      

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