Posts Tagged ‘Keith Johnson’

The Caledonia Soul Orchestra was the band created by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison in 1973. The band was named after an eighteen-minute instrumental outtake on the His Band and the Street Choir album. Actually, Morrison could have released two more albums in 1973, because I’ve already posted an album he did of country standards recorded from 1971 to 1973, After the success of ”Astral Weeks” and  “Moondance”, Van Morrison initially wanted his third album for Warner Bros, “His Band And The Street Choir”, to be a vocal album. “It was originally a concept to do an a cappella album. Street Choir was to be an a cappella group and I wanted these certain guys to form a group so I could cut a lot of a cappella with just maybe one guitar,” Morrison later told biographer Ritchie Yorke. “But it didn’t turn out; it all got weird.”

In the end, His Band And The Street Choir, released on 15th November 1970, contained plenty of sizzling brass sounds – with Morrison himself playing tenor saxophone on the tracks Crazy Face and Call Me Up in Dreamland – in an album full of funky, radio-friendly singles. Guitarist John Platania said that when they finally got down to recording the album at A&R Recording Studios, in New York City, in the spring and summer of 1970, Morrison “had designs on getting stuff played on radio”.

The album’s biggest hit single was the opening track, “Domino”, a potent mix of R&B and funk that is, in part, a tribute to Fats Domino. “Hey Mr DJ/I just want to hear some rhythm and blues music/On the radio” sings Morrison on a song that gained plenty of airplay, and which earned the Belfast-born musician a Top 10 hit in the US. The bass, drums and horns meld brilliantly on Domino and it quickly became a song Morrison would regularly perform live. On the single, he even starts one chorus by shouting words “Dig it!”

One of the key musicians on the album was drummer Dahaud Elias Shaar, who went on to become an essential member of Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra backing band. Shaar, who also sang backing vocals and played bass clarinet on  His Band And The Street Choir, remembered “a positive vibe around that whole record”.

Few songs in Morrison’s career are as upbeat as Virgo Clowns, with its encouragement to “let your laughter fill the room”. The song was inspired by the memory of Morrison playing with his young daughter Shana. “We’ve become so serious, we get too heavy about what everything means,” Morrison told Melody Maker. “I was sitting one day feeling very heavy, and my daughter came up to me and started cracking up. And then I started cracking up when I realised it. I’m sitting here thinking that it’s all too serious and it’s not.”

Though “Give Me A Kiss” was a rather formulaic love song, the inventive “I’ll Be Your Lover Too” was sung with soulful intensity. You can hear Morrison ask “How’s that?” at the end of the tender love song. Crazy Face is about a man who pulls out a gun and announces, “I got it from Jesse James” – an appropriate song for Morrison, given that he had recently been nicknamed The Belfast Cowboy by The Band’s Robbie Robertson.

The splendidly infectious rocker I’ve Been Working was an out-take from Moondance, while Morrison sings some splendid falsetto on Gypsy Queen. When Jon Landau reviewed the album for Rolling Stone in February 1971 he was particularly impressed by “the powerful “Call Me Up in Dreamland”, which he described as “the singalong of the year”.

Landau also hailed the closing track, Street Choir, as one of the singer’s “two or three finest songs”. The plaintive chorus (“Why did you leave America?/Why did you let me down?”) was sung by The Street Choir, who comprised Shaar, Andy Robinson, Larry Goldsmith, Ellen Schroer (wife of the album’s saxophonist, Jack Schroer), Martha Velez (wife of trumpeter Keith Johnson) and Morrison’s then wife, Janet Planet.

Planet, who divorced Morrison a couple of years later, was living in Woodstock with the singer at the time the album was made, and she is the subject of the love song Sweet Jannie. Planet designed the His Band And The Street Choir album cover and wrote the original sleeve notes, on which she gushed: “This is the album that you must sing with, dance to, you must find a place for the songs somewhere in your life. They belong to you now, dear listener, especially for you.”

Morrison has sometimes expressed dissatisfaction over an album that he said he “cranked out”, but His Band And The Street Choir retains a real charm and features several Morrison classics, especially Domino and I’ve Been Working. One of the overlooked gems is the religious If I Ever Needed Someone, which features a stunning trio of backing singers. Morrison specially hired gospel stars Judy Clay and Jackie Verdell along with Emily “Cissy” Houston – the mother of Whitney Houston who, in her own right, won Grammys as a solo artist after having worked with Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin – and they provided superb support for his heartfelt singing.

As for this album, the highlight has to be song from the session which was excluded on the album is this wonderful track “Caledonia Soul Music.” It’s seventeen minutes long and mostly instrumental. 

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Van’s third solo album, November 1970’s His Band and the Street Choir, will never be considered one of Van’s grand statements, but it holds its place as a necessary piece of the Van Morrison puzzle. And is cherished by many Van the Man fans, who should enjoy this remastered and expanded near gem.

The songs on Street Choir are relatively compact and seemingly quite well-adjusted. Any allusions to being a “stranger in this world” appear to have been quelled by the band who achieve a perfect groove. “Domino” so immediately announces its ease of execution that Van can’t help but glide over the backing band with a sense of freedom so contagious that every listener floats on its merry wave. This sense of camaraderie among the players – enforced by the album’s photos taken at a birthday party for Peter, the son of Van Morrison’s then-wife Janet Planet – enabled Van to nail down several songs that had previously eluded him, including “Domino,” that hailed from the Astral Weeks-era of November 1968, according to Cory Frye’s informative liner notes.

The album itself was meant to capitalize on Van’s current hot streak withMoondance, whose single “Come Running” peaked at #39. His manager, Mary Martin, convinced him to return to New York’s A&R Studios, only a month after that album’s release. Working with the stellar core group of guitarist John Plantania, saxophonist Jack Schroer, bassist John Klingberg and the addition of keyboardist Alan Hand, trumpeter/organist Keith Johnson, and tour drummer Dahaud Elias Shaar (aka Daoud Shaw and David Shaw). Van rehearsed in an old church in Woodstock, NY, before laying down the official tracks in the studio. Martin’s instincts proved correct, as the album’s first single, “Domino,” went to No#9, Van’s highest charting pop hit in the U.S., passing “Brown Eyed Girl” (#10) by a notch.

His Band and the Street Choir is another beautiful phase in the continuing development of one of the few originals left in rock. In his own mysterious way. Van Morrison continues to shake his head, strum his guitar and to sing his songs. He knows it’s too late to stop now and he quit trying to a long, long time ago. Meanwhile, the song he is singing keeps getting better and better.”- John Landau,

The Album also called “Street Choir”  was the fourth solo album by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison. It was released on 15th November 1970 by Warner Bros. Records. Originally titled “Virgo’s Fool”  but was renamed by Warner Bros. without Morrison’s consent. Recording began in early 1970 with a demo session in a small church in Woodstock, New York. Morrison booked the A&R Studios on 46th Street in New York City in the second quarter of 1970 to produce two sessions of songs that were released on His Band and the Street Choir. Reviewers praised the music of both sessions for its free, relaxed sound, but the lyrics were considered to be simple compared with those of his previous work. Morrison had intended to record the album a cappella with only vocal backing by a vocal group he called the Street Choir, but the songs released on the album that included the choir also featured a backing band. Morrison was dissatisfied with additional vocalists to the original quintet that made up the choir,

Compared to the meditative beast that is Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972), with its twin 10-minute-plus epics, “Listen to the Lion” and “Almost Independence Day,” or the complete return-to-Ireland masterpiece that is Veedon Fleece (1974), Street Choir feels less ambitious. However, one should never discount Van’s handling of more succinct material. The Fats Domino homages are obvious (“Domino,” “Blue Money”) and slightly under the radar (“Give Me a Kiss”) and occasionally come across as workmanlike. But considering the Belfast fireplug’s impulsive phrasings and his behind-the-beat inclinations are always just an Irish Heartbeat away from creating an alternative Ulster R&B universe, it’s worth giving him his genre exercises. Besides, pianist Alan Hand works double-time to ensure everything rolls as it should.

Anyone versed in Van’s career knows he doesn’t stay in one place for long and no amount of Fats Domino love is going to contain him. Street Choir’s best moments –besides the ease of “Domino,” the Curtis Mayfield sweetness of “Gypsy Queen,” and the meditative acoustic revelry of “I’ll Be Your Lover, Too” – come from the full-band blast-off of “Call Me Up in Dreamland,” where all is pure locomotion with Van on tenor sax, “Virgo Clowns,” where loosely doubled vocals create a rare-but-effective moment of joy from the legendary crank, and the closing duo of “If I Ever Needed Someone” and “Street Choir,” where Van teases out a George Harrison sentiment to the breaking point and Keith Johnson’s organ takes the title track to the next astral plane.

Essentially, it’s A-minus Van Morrison, which is still light years beyond all but ‘A’ list artists like the Stones, Kinks, Dylan, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Sonics and Stooges. The original album packed 12 songs with no room for the improvisational sidetracking that makes his A-plus discs impossible to beat. At the same time, the album came just eight months after its predecessor and 11 months before its followup, Tupelo Honey. It wasn’t like Springsteen or Paul Simon who took lifetimes between releases. Despite Van’s masterful reach, he’s never treated any of his work as so precious that it had to be shined a thousand ways before final release. If something isn’t working, he moves on to something else and saves the idea for another day. Van’s genius is rarely in the writing. As a lyricist, he’s often lazy and as a songwriter he rarely ventures beyond the usual chords. Though he’s done more with two chords than most musicians do with a full arsenal. Van’s genius is in the execution.

The bonus tracks – alternate takes of “Call Me Up in Dreamland,” “Give Me a Kiss” and “Gypsy Queen” and alternate ‘versions’ of “I’ve Been Working” and “I’ll Be Your Lover, Too” (distinctions between ’takes’ and ‘versions’ not apparent) – mostly offer unvarnished, simpler takes that since not chosen were not subjected to overdubs.

Regarding these bonuses, all are welcomed, though none shock the system. (Inexplicably, the seventeen-minute instrumental “Caledonia Soul Music” was eliminated from the final product.) The alternate version of “I’ve Been Working” is mildly quicker and looser with an extended sax solo in its mid-section. “I’ll Be Your Lover, Too,” the album’s most meditative and heartfelt cut, puts Van’s vocal right in your ear, without the mild studio reverb of the official track and with yet another superlative performance. “Gypsy Queen,” the first cousin to Moondance’s “Crazy Love,” begins with several false starts before aiming for – and landing in – the heavens. It’s another fine alternate take that illustrates how Van had these songs where he wanted them at this point and could at any moment out-sing just about anyone not named Stevie Wonder or Al Green.