Volume I: Tracks 5-7 (New York City, NY)

New York City, NY

5. Cab Calloway – The Man From Harlem (1932)
6. The Ronettes – Be My Baby (1963)
7. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects (2011)

First published November 2016.
We are sorry to report that Sharon Jones passed away shortly after publication. 

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Summaries in a tweet

5. Local party starter crashes into Mike’s speakeasy bar. Fun and raucous tone disguises sad nature of racist US.

6. Unhinged lunatic makes lots of $ via music, inadvertently turning it into art. Violent nature ruins/ends lives

7. Child’s Xmas question asked through funk/sass. Good point re: Santa’s chosen method of entry for low income flats

Why are they worthy?

Of the many tickboxes one can find on the metaphorical US100 standardised admission form, the combination of these three tracks manages to cover almost all of them. As we reach the midway point of our Big Apple entries, the close involvement of New Yorkers on each record ensures we have met the geographical criteria, while musically we have dramatically different sounds that are nonetheless connected through a loose thread, with a relationship to rhythym and blues ranging from flirtation to full on intercourse. In addition, the wonderfully talented artists involved offer a level of insight into the vast contributions made to New York’s musical output by its African American community.

The boxes marked ‘cultural significance’ and ‘potential for story telling’ are emphatically ticked by Tracks 5 and 6 at least – Man From Harlem alone gives us an excuse to examine a myriad of cultural factors: the role played by New York City’s enormous jazz scene in the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural and artistic consequence of the Great Migration of African-Americans from South to North; the historical quirk of prohibition; and the experiences of African American musicians in the context of the detestable racial attitudes that have sullied (and continue to sully) US society. Meanwhile Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects, providing a much needed injection of 21st century modernity into Volume I, is just a damn good song; and, more to the point, reflecting the fact that my original US trip started in NYC in December, it is a damn good Christmas song, its orginal and clever lyrical theme hinting at America’s great curse of inequality in a charming, witty and sweet way, ensuring its permanent presence in my annual ‘alternative Xmas playlist’ efforts.

But it is Track 6, The Ronettes’ once ubiquitous Be My Baby, that commands the spotlight here, as one eccentric from the Bronx, with the help of some Manhattan sisters, changed the face of music forever. Not only one of the most well known and recognisable records to come out of an absurdly prolific musical era, it is also the signature example of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, quite probably the most important development in recorded popular music since (audio) records began. Spector’s story is quite simply one that must be told: one artistic visionary transforming the way in which music is produced and consumed ultimately falling foul of his own ego-driven violent tendencies – to the extent where he is possibly the only member of the US100 club with a murder conviction.

What's the story?

Cab Calloway and the Cotton Clubcab_calloway-1930-1932_-_the_man_from_harlem

The earliest recorded track we will hear in Volume I, and the only from prohibition era USA, Cab Calloway’s story of the Man From Harlem may or may not be self-referential – although Calloway was originally from Rochester further up New York State, his main haunt was the Cotton Club in Harlem, Manhattan, his orchestra having succeeded Duke Ellington’s as its house band in the early 1930s. Behind the song lies a fascinating period of US and New York history, in which establishments such as the Cotton Club – owned by a gang leader from Leeds known simply as The Killer – were at the forefront of anti-prohibition rebellion, racist societal attitudes, and the emergence of the ‘Harlem Reinaissance’.

So named due to the central role played by Harlem due to it containing the largest concentration of African-American communities, this was a movement which saw a heightened level of cultural, social, and artistic expression from black Americans, having settled in Northern and Midwestern urban areas in huge numbers as part of the Great Migration from the South, motivated as they were by economic opportunity and escape from racially segregated communities. While the detestable Jim Crow laws which de jure legalised segregation in Southern states did not apply to the likes of New York City, Calloway and his fellow muscians nonetheless found de facto segregation alive and well – at the Cotton Club, they were discouraged from fratenising with entirely white audiences, instead implored to play ‘jungle music’ (not that kind) for elitist crowds, with the relationship between audience and performer described by some as being more akin to a zoo than a music venue. The segregated nature of the club dictated that black performers often found themselves in a nextdoor basement knocking back liquor and smoking marijuana, as hinted by the Man From Harlem’s final act of giving some low looking ladies something to cheer them up towards the end of the number: Come on, sisters, light up on these weeds and get high and forget about everything. If it were possible to ignore the regrettable attitudes and behaviours of its ownership and patronage, then you would at least have to give the Cotton Club its credit for hosting many of the great Harlem Renaissance jazz legends of the time: as well as Calloway and Ellington, regular performers included Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Count Basie.

Phil Spector and the Ronettes, 1963
Phil Spector and the Ronettes, 1963

The Wall of Sound: little symphonies for the kids

And so we leap forward to a form of music that can directly trace its roots to such jazz performers, the rhythm and blues sound that defined so much of the early 1960s, an era of seminal hits, musical legends, and interconnected tales. Be My Baby is one of the most seminal and influential of all, both an encapsulation of the pre-Beatlesmania zeitgeist and a domineering voice of the airwaves at the time. It is also the defining number of one of American music’s most revolutionary – and surreal – individuals, for the story of Be My Baby is not so much that of the two Manhattan sisters and their cousin whose stage name, the Ronettes, accompanies the record, but rather the flawed genius behind the scenes who made it all happen, producer and semi-New Yorker, Phil Spector (born in the Bronx but moved to Los Angeles aged 13). The song is the stand out example out of the ‘Wall of Sound’ formula that Spector perfected, the result of a visionary realisation – that the recording studio need not just be a means of conveying what musical instruments can do, but that it could also be a musical instrument in itself. Spector was the first producer to take control of everything, from the selection of the artists to the writing of the material and the supervision of its arrangements, and he was famed for his excruciating level of attention to detail. This ‘Wagnerian’ approach to creating, in his words, ‘little symphonies for the kids’, was almost exclusively delivered by his enormously talented group of personal go-to session musicians, The Wrecking Crew, who we have already heard performing on California Dreamin’ and whom we will hear from more than a few times again.

“Most producers don’t create, they interpret. When I went into the studio I created a sound … I always compared it to what da Vinci did when he went to a blank canvas … I always considered it art.”
Phil Spector

The end result (See How do they sound?) is undeniably distinctive and overwhelmingly influential. Its influence on the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in particular seems something of a double edged sword. On the one hand, Be My Baby may well have affected his mental health in a way that never quite recovered. Spector genuinely claims to have sent him crazy – he describes himself as Moriarty to Wilson’s Holmes – and it is true the record had such a pronounced affect upon Wilson on first listen that he had to pull over his car while he ‘balls-out totally freaked out’. He subsequently instructed his sound engineer to create a tape loop of the chorus which he listened to for hours in a trance, his daughter Carnie claims that she woke up to its distinctive drum introduction every morning for months, and Wilson himself claims to have listened to the song over 1000 times. But without this total obsession with Spector’s record, then Wilson would not have employed the Wrecking Crew to create his own era-defining ‘wall of sound’ record, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds coming three years after Be My Baby. Paul McCartney was inspired by Wilson’s work and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band immediately followed, the concept album became underwritten into mainstream musical consciousness, and the evolution of the record producer’s role from technician to artistic director of a creative process – and thus the ascent of popular music as art – was complete.

Sharon Jones performs in 2011

And so today’s musical landscape is vastly different, with a clear distinction to be drawn between commercially motivated superficial ‘pop’ records and those produced by credible ‘artists’, Spector’s aptitude at the former somewhat ironically leading to the latter. Nonetheless throwbacks to the early 1960s ‘hit factory’ era can still be found – not least through the wonderful R&B sound of Brooklyn’s Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, the leading light in something of a modern soul revival led by Daptone Records that also includes the likes of Charles Bradley. Striking a fine balance between charm and sass, one could make a reasonable argument that Sharon and her group are the modern day successors to the Ronettes.

How do they sound?

Track 5 sees us take a turn for the mischievous, as The Man From Harlem crashes into proceedings, brass bopping, hopping and swinging his way through the saloon doors of the US100 underground bar, leaping onto our tables, and commanding us all to listen to his tale. This particular metaphor does not just hint at the tone of this utterly fabulous rambunctious piece of music, but also its lyrical content: the Man from Harlem seemingly being a legendary party-starter within the local vicinity, appearing at a bar known as Mike’s. A product of its time, this whole number screams ‘speakeasy’, the fun and raucous nature of the swinging brass almost making you fondly hark back to the 1930s America – until you remember all the racism and the fact you had to deal with violent criminals just to get a pint.

As a song, Be My Baby is simply pop dynamite: an endlessly catchy chorus, told through the most basic yet relatable love song lyrics: I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see / For every kiss you give me I’ll give you three / Oh, since the day I saw you / I have been waiting for you / You know I will adore you / ’til eternity. Backed by an exemplary use of backing vocals, no further sophistication is required. Similarly, the entire notion of the Wall of Sound also may seem on the face of it distinctly unsophisticated, essentially the upshot of Spector cramming the studio with instruments doubling and tripling in unison in the kind of ensemble that no one had considered before, described by one of his colleagues as ‘deliberately blending everything into a kind of mulch’. ‘Musically terribly simple’ is the take of Wrecking Crew guitarist Barney Kessel, yet absolutely no one would deny the power of the end product, and as a recording Be My Baby personifies the hugely dense and layered sound that Spector obsessively sought.

A wonderfully down to earth and gritty take on the festive period, Ain’t No Chimneys meanwhile takes the cynicism of Fairytale of New York and presents it through the prism of socio-economic inequality, underpinned by a tremendous level of James Brown inspired sass, funk and effortless coolness. Speaking through the voice of an innocent child growing up in the New York ‘projects’ – urban public housing developments for low-income families, often characterised by their high levels of crime and poverty – Sharon Jones questions Santa Claus’ ability to deliver presents to their abode when such properties lack the necessary infrastructure for his traditional method of entry: ‘When I was child I used to wonder / how Santa put my toys under the tree / momma can you tell me / how this can be? / When there ain’t no chimneys in the projects’. Ultimately Sharon gets an answer to her query through a sweet realisation, noting: ‘It wasn’t Santa who got the magic done / Momma now I know / you were the one / There ain’t no chimneys in the projects’.

Where are they now?

A troubled genius

It might be something of an understatement to state that this group of individuals experienced their fair share of personal turbulence following the release of their respective US100 records. First, the fortunes of the Ronettes who, as a direct result of Be My Baby‘s popularity, became sex symbols of the era, associated as they were with their trademark beehive hair, heavy mascara, and slit skirts. Phil Spector’s professional involvement with the group was from the start conflated with a romantic relationship with the lead vocalist from which they took their name, Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett; she became Ronnie Spector when the pair married in 1968. As per rock n roll tradition, it was sadly not a partnership of stability and rude health, characterised as it was by Phil’s obsessive and controlling behaviour. In the early years this manifested itself through mere favouritism – their only studio album, released in 1964, was entitled Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica and Spector insisted on the ‘Featuring Veronica’ caveat from hereon in.

Ronnie Spector in 2016
Ronnie Spector in 2016

But this dynamic soon became defined by mistreatment and abuse – when the Ronettes teamed up with the Beatles on a 14 day tour in 1966 (they remain the only girl group to have done so), Spector refused to let Ronnie join, at a time when he was witholding entire catalogues of Ronettes material due to jealous insecurities over Ronnie and the group outgrowing him (see Further learning), allowing Motown and the Supremes to steap into the breach. Following marriage, Ronnie claims she was kept a “virtual prisoner” by her increasingly reclusive husband, and divorce came just six years later – followed by a 15 year court battle in which Spector was ordered by a New York state court to return $3,000,000 to the Ronettes for loss of royalties, a decision overturned on appeal. The bitterness didn’t stop there – Spector unsuccessfully attempted to use his influence to deny the Ronettes a place in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, the group eventually being inducted in 2007 (as an aside, Keith Richards, who led the induction and is still good friends with Ronnie Spector, once described sleeping with her as ‘the first time I went to heaven’). Today, now re-married, Ronnie maintains a solo career, releasing her first studio album for a decade this year; cousin Nedra Talley left showbusiness behind and currently works in real estate in Virginia; while Ronnie’s sister, Estelle, died in 2009 of colon cancer, following a tragic period of her life defined by anorexia, schitzophrenia, and homelessness.

Phil Spector's mug shot in 2014
Phil Spector’s mug shot in 2014

Meanwhile, somewhere between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, a California State Prison is home to one of the greatest contributors to the popular music canon, where he is set to remain for at least another 12 years. In 2009 Phil Spector was found guilty of the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson who was found dead in his mansion, and he was sentenced to 19 years, with numerous unsuccessful appeals following the conviction. Now aged 76, he is alleged to have lost the ability to speak due to a rare infection of the throat, and this year he filed for his third divorce, this time from Rachelle Short whom he married in 2006 while awaiting trial.

“David Bowie was such a good guy, why did he have to go? And why is my ex still alive?”
Ronnie Spector

It is a depressing destiny for an individual who if assessed on artistic terms only would be nothing but a hero – following the success of the Ronettes, he signed and made stars of Ike and Tina Turner, while You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, as recorded by The Righteous Brothers a year later, became the most played record in 20th Century America and an ultimate expression of the Wall of Sound. Between 1970 and 1971 Spector produced The Beatles’ Let It Be (even if Paul McCartney was not a fan of the production values), George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and John Lennon’s Imagine, while his 1963 compilation A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector is a Wall of Sound festive masterpiece. But seemingly with each record comes a disturbing allegation or anecdote, whether it is using the occassion of Ike Turner’s funeral to attack Tina Turner and Oprah Winfey, his apparent obsession with bringing, brandishing, and at times firing firearms in the recording studio, or the dark and twisted acts he is accused of committing by his son, Donte, somewhat eerily echoing the equally troubling and unproven allegations buried within the John Phillips story (see footnote of Where are they now?). Still, his impact can never be taken away – the disposability of performers as mere vehicles for record companies is now mostly confined to the X Factor brand of musical entertainment, whilst today’s equivalents of the Beach Boys, the Byrds, and the Monkees would – unlike in the mid 1960s – be expected to write and record their own music should they wish to be taken seriously as performers, a distinct byproduct of Spectorism.

Cab Calloway with the Sesame Street gang
Cab Calloway with the Sesame Street gang

It is pleasing to note that, in comparison, Cab Calloway led a relatively full, healthy and crime free life, although like Spector he was no stranger to violence sullying the performance area: an alleged on-stage incident with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in 1941 led to Cab suffering stab wounds in the thigh. But his career took off in the 1930s, his jazz classic Minnie the Moocher earning him a level of celebrity as the ‘the Hi De Ho Man’ that led to appearences in all sorts of curious places, including but not restricted to The Blues Brothers, Sesame Street, and 1986’s Wrestlemania 2 (judging a boxing match between Mr T and Rowdy Roddy Piper), as well of course spawning approximately 8,742 electroswing remixes and covers to be played in trendy East London establishments some 80 years later. His final years were spent in northern Delaware where he passed away in 1994, aged 86 – a year after the Cab Calloway School of the Arts in the state was named in his honour (students sing Minnie the Moocher as the school song – in the words of Wikipedia: ‘not a conventional choice for a school song due to several alleged references to drugs and prostitution’).

The Harlem Renaissance is said to have died with the Great Depression – but not before it had presented black musicians, authors, artists, and entertainers with a level of opportunity hitherto unavailable, and redefined how large parts of America and the world viewed African Americans, with stereotypes shifting away from rural peasantry. Meanwhile prohibition and racial segregation have mostly fallen by the wayside from mainstream American society, outlawed in 1933 and and 1964 respectively – but smatterings of them can still be found in one form or another.

miss-sharon-jonesThe unrelentingly awesome Sharon Jones has fought her own battles against pancreatic cancer since 2013, chemotherapy seemingly putting no brakes on her as she continues to tour, record, and release with the Dap-Kings. Ain’t No Chimneys In The Projects, originally released as part of the 2011 Soul Time! (UK only album of non-album tracks), made a re-appearance on 2015’s festive It’s A Holiday Soul Party, their seventh studio album since 2002. The US100 wishes her the best with her ongoing treatment.

Further learning

Be My Baby is the first known recording of a 17 year old Cher: she was drafted in when some of the original backing singers failed to show. Sonny Bono, who served as one of Spector’s runners at the time, also appeared on backing vocals, along with Darlene Love of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) fame.


The Ronettes perform Be My Baby and a cover of The Isley Brothers’ Shout on the Big TNT Show, a special one-off concert in Los Angeles in 1966 for which Phil Spector produced the theme tune. The most striking element of this clip is the absolute absence of musicians on stage, highlighting how ‘performers’ trumped ‘artists’ at this stage, with the Wrecking Crew and their Wall of Sound nowhere to be seen. Warning: lots of screaming.

Betty Boop:
Minnie the Moocher
Snow White (1933)  
The Old Man of the Mountain (1933)
A long time before Jessica Rabbit was confusing adolescent males through animated sex appeal, Betty Boop was doing likewise to their 1930 equivalents, attracting controversy, censorship, and lawsuits along the way. One individual drawn into Betty’s compelling orbit was Cab Calloway, who for the three above titles directly lent his voice and, more impressively, his moves, as animator Max Fleischer, in this ‘golden era’ of American animation, pioneered the technique of ‘rotoscoping’ (essentially tracing) to translate Cab’s unique human dance moves into the world of cartoon – including his early incarnation of the moonwalk, known as ‘the buzz’ back then. In the first of the three, Betty – an archetypal ‘jazz flapper’ of the era – runs away from home and is confronted by Cab in walrus skeleton form, a genuinely surreal and disturbing sight that only gets weirder as the animation goes on and various other ghouls and demons join the party. Watch for cultural intrigue, as it’s hard to imagine a modern day take that could draw together surrealistic sexualised animation with a popular musical movement of the time. UK Garage Teletubbies?

One can also find a surreal episode of Porky the Pig in which the animated swine adopts black face in order to impersonate Cab.

Hi-De-Ho (1947)
More Classic Cab here, as his loose jawed floppy haired round faced eccentricity sees him take centre stage in this veritable treat for the jazz historian. One half am-dram gangster production, one half Cab Calloway’s Variety Hour (tap dancing and all) that concludes with a curious onstage musical wedding, this is bizarre but somewhat brilliant. Highlight is Cab’s powerful yet ludicrous rendition of St. James Infirmary Blues; lowlight being some oddly brazen ‘of-the-times’ domestic violence.

Mean Streets (1973)
“With all due respect to Scorcese, without Be My Baby there was no Mean Streets. If I stopped the film, Scorcese’s literally out of business. That day I literally held Scorcese and De Niro’s career.”

Can Phil Spector legitimately claim to have made the careers of these two great Hollywood Italian-Americans by failing to legally pursue the unconsented use of Be My Baby as the opening number in Scorcese’s break through success mob movie? Perhaps it is a typically egotistical exaggeration of his own significance, but nonetheless it is entertaining to consider the alternative history in which Phil Spector’s career simultaneously defined music as art whilst preventing Goodfellas from ever happening.

The Blues Brothers (1980)
This film is of course a piece of US musical history in itself, not just the cinematic denoument of John Beluschi and Dan Aykroyd’s amusing fictional blues players who first emerged on Saturday Night Live, but also the setting of legendary cameos from the likes of Ray Charles, Artetha Franklin, and John Lee Hooker. The icing on this jazz cake is the wonderful Cab Calloway, providing an injection of not just his vibrant musical talent but also his big faced smiley stage dominating charm. The film itself, meanwhile, is of course a beautifully silly piece of nonsense, surely worthy of a couple of hours of your time if you haven’t yet inducted yourself.

The Cotton Club (1984)
Whilst I can’t vouch for its historical accuracy, I can vouch for a stellar support cast in this look at Harlemese history: backing up a young version of main man Richard Gere are young versions of Nicholas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, and Anthony Hoskins who – ironically as an Englishman playing an English born man – has to adopt an American accent for the role of Cotton Club owner Owney Madden, born in Leeds but raised in NYC from a young age. Francis Ford Coppola reluctantly oversees this 6/10 effort, in which Cab Calloway’s enigmatic frontmanism is portrayed towards the film’s conclusion. 

The Great Debaters (2007)
Sharon Jones supposedly features on both the soundtrack and in person in this film, in a brief role as a juke joint singer. I’ll be honest, when I watched this I completely forgot I was supposed to be looking out for her, so swept up as I was in the enthralling true tale of the Wiley College debate team and their battles against other schools and racial prejudice, as depicted by Denzel Washington and a sterling support cast. So basically this is just a random film recommendation.

Phil Spector: The Agony and the Ecstasy (2008) 
“I would tell all the groups we’re doing something very important. They didn’t know they were producing art that would change the world. I knew.”
“I would change music to art. Like Galileo proving the Earth is round.”
“[Da Doo Ron Ron, a 1963 hit for The Crystals] was so dirty it was like committing incest.”

A selection of Phil Spector quotes from this wonderfully enthralling documentary, first aired on BBC2 in 2008, just before the jury of his retrial were to deliver a verdict of guilty of second degree murder. Featuring testimony from the man himself and those who know him well, his story is presented in a unique and slightly eery format, with the biographic details of his life, career and artistic achievements interspersed with footage from his initial trial, leading to bizarre juxtapositions such as the story of Chapel of Love (co-written by Spector in 1964) appearing over footage of his gun collection being presented to the courtroom. Although Spector can often be engaging and charming to listen to, he nonetheless betrays his instability and bitterness at various points, the targets of his ire ranging from the Beatles to the establishment, judge Larry Paul Fidler who presided over his initial trial, all the way to bemoaning the fortunes of an old hypothetical religious lady who he jealously admonishes for watching television in ignorant bliss. Conclusion: the man is nuts.

Miss Sharon Jones! (2015)
Released a year prior to her death and documenting Sharon grappling with returning to the stage for the first time since her cancer diagnosis, Barbara Kopple’s documentary is a powerful reminder of her strength, charm and resolve. A particularly poignant moment sees Sharon pick out her Dr James Leonardo, her oncologist, from the crowd in her comeback gig.

Be My Baby (Stage Show) 
It’s 1964. Nineteen year old Mary Adams is sent away to a mother and baby convent to give birth to her illegitimate child shame free, with only a record player for company. Set against the backdrop of iconic girl groups and vocalists like The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las and Dusty Springfield, we have unfortunately just missed on the latest tour of this (starring Coronation Street’s Brooke Vincent) but let’s keep our eyes peeled for another run.

A Night-club Map of Harlem (1932)
E. Simms Campbell, considered the first commercially successful African-American illustrator, produced this map for a short-lived NYC magazine named Manhattan. Beyond just the likes of the Cotton Club, which is illustrated with a towering Cab Calloway figure calling ‘ho-de-hi-de ho’, the map brilliantly depicts the vibrancy of 1930s Harlem, with other highlights including Club Hot-Cha (“Nothing happens before 2. am. ask for Clarence”) and th’ Reefer Man (“Marahuana Cigarettes 2 for $25”).

Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive (1939) 
Worth printing, just in case you find yourself stuck in 1930s Harlem with no comprehension of the venacular spoken in your new geographic and chronological context. Following the pattern of new opportunities for African Americans presented through the Harlem Reinaissance, this is supposedly the first dictionary ever authored by an African-American, Cab translating 200 examples of ‘Harlemese’ jive, whether explaining that a ‘fine dinner’ is a good looking girl, or that ‘busting your conk’ is applying yourself dilligently. It is interesting to note that many of its terms remain with us today (square = uncool; have a ball = enjoy yourself; high = intoxicated), while its title comes from ‘hep cat’ – someone ahead of the curve and familiar with jive, the latest derivative of this term being the pejorative ‘hipster’ of today who, like Cab’s generation, have also helped to culturally transform Harlem but in a very different way.
[PDF link]

‘How we made the Ronettes’ Be My Baby’ The Guardian, November 2015
Ronnie Spector and Hal Blaine, Wrecking Crew drummer, reflect on the production of this groundbreaking single. Includes the admission that its distinctive drum introduction was in fact an accident, as well as the slight understatement that it’s a ‘shame’ that Spector’s music has been overshadowed by a murder conviction.

Soul Singer Sharon Jones on Battling Cancer and Her New Documentary – Vogue, August 2016
Late bloomer with a stunning voice matched by charm, sass, and stage presence, learn more about Sharon’s story in her own words through this Vogue feature piece – at times inspiring and at other times heartbreaking, particularly in the context of her death only four months later. See The Guardian’s obituary for a third person overview.

The Teddy Bears – Don’t You Worry My Little Pet (1957)
Allegedly the first Wall of Sound production, achieved through taking the song’s demo tape and playing it back over the studio’s speaker system. Self-penned by Spector and performed with his group of the time, the Teddy Bears, the end result is perhaps not exactly the sound that would later bring so much success when performed by others, but Don’t You Worry My Little Pet represents the origins of his elevation to musical revolutionary that would occur in the next half decade.

A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector (1963)
My first instance of being swept away by the Wall of Sound was upon my realisation that the bells that introduce Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – via the medium of an Argos advert if I recall correctly – herald a festive masterpiece. This song alone heightens my festivity each year by around 12%, something about its tone in my ears tangibly invoking pleasurable experiences of mince pies, chestnuts, Christmas pudding, and eggnog, despite the fact that I have no real pleasurable memories of such things. The compilation as a whole, featuring The Ronettes and The Crystals alongside Darlene (and the creepy voice of Phil himself in Silent Night at the album’s conclusion), is genuinely the best collection of Christmas songs you are likely to hear, its classy but accessible charm the perfect middle ground between the Mariah Carey option and the quaint if not altogether enticing sounds of traditional Christmas carols. Meanwhile, if wanting to seek an example of the Wall of Sound influencing future Christmas numbers, look no further than Wizzard.

The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
“[Brian Wilson] is a little coo coo over it. I’d like to have a nickel for every joint he smoked trying to figure out how I got the Be My Baby sound – he’s demented about it. I love him, but I was his Dr Moriarty … Good Vibrations is not a great record, it’s an edit record. It’s like Pyscho – without edits, it’s not a great film, with edits it’s a great film. But it’s not a beautiful story, it’s an edit.”

You may well hear more detailed thoughts from me on this album later on in the US100, but for now have a listen for yourself as to Wilson employed the Wrecking Crew to provide his own answer to Spector’s output.

Ike & Tina Turner – River Deep – Mountain High (1966)
Phil Spector himself is of the belief that this is his own wall of sound masterpiece. However, critics and the general public disagreed, the album bombing and Spector removing himself from the recording studio for the next two years supposedly from disillusionment. Its title track certainly represents a departure from neatly packaged pop records towards something more grand entirely – perhaps the American public needed to hear the not-yet-recorded Sgt. Pepper first to modify their palette. Album art by Dennis Hopper.

Let It Be (1970)
Let It Be… Naked (2003)
[Note: Let It Be… Naked is not available on Spotify or YouTube, so you’ll just have to go and buy the physical CD like the old days] Pick your side in the Spector v McCartney dust up – Paul was so dissastisfied with Spector’s treatment of the songs, he released his own version a few decades later. John Lennon’s take on Spector’s effort? “He was given the shittiest load of badly-recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it.” If you prefer the original, then feel free to write to the California State Prison in Stocktown offering your support. If you prefer the latter, then resist the urge to write to Paul – his smugness is already at capacity.

Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (2006)
Neatly tying our tracks 6 and 7 together on a threefold basis: 1) Amy Winehouse’s dress, appearance, and overall inspiration were directly influenced by the Ronettes; 2) Ronnie Spector returned the admiration, performing Back to Black’s title track in live performances, with her mother continuing to attend her every UK performance; 3) Sharon Jones’ Dap-Kings backed Amy up in the recording of Back to Black and on tour.

Mutya Buena feat. Amy Winehouse – B Boy Baby (2007)
Amy crops up again as I boldly share with you my ‘guilty pleasure’ cover/sample/adaptation, courtesy of former Sugababe, Mutya Buena, from her debut album, Real Girl. A commercial failure for Mutya and her label, it charted at number 73, and only borrows the chorus from the original – yet I hold up my hands up to oddly loving it.

Sharon Jones – This Land Is Your Land (2009)
Written for the comedy motion picture, Up In The Air, this is our first featured instance of a US100 artist covering a US100 song, typically transforming Guthrie’s humble ditty into something with a bit more uumph.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – It’s A Holiday Soul Party (2015)
For me, one of the most enjoyable Christmas albums you’re likely to encounter, with funk and soul inspired interpretations of

Ronnie Spector – English Heart (2016)
Here’s what Ronnie’s up to these days, and it makes for a slightly unusual listen. Winehouseesque in sound – more so than the Ronettes – it is a collection of new takes on mostly British 60s rock numbers, supposedly influenced by Bob Dylan’s attempts to cover songs made famous by Sinatra. Highlights include a jazzed up cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and an emotional take on Gerry and the Pacemakers’ Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying; what she does let you do is not so clear. More can be learnt from this Rolling Stone interview – her most perplexing assertion being that no one would open the door to her and Keith Richards nowadays (“people don’t even open the door today“), and her most dark essentially being the wishing of death on Phil Spector, who she refuses to refer to by name (“David Bowie was such a good guy, why did he have to go? And why is my ex still alive?“)

The Ronettes – I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine (Unknown first release date)
A poignant example of how Spector’s madness/genius could deny as well as give the world wonderful music, and allowed the Ronettes to slide into relative obscurity as Motown stepped into the breach. A number of such stunning brilliance that it should rank alongside Be My Baby as the trademark signature of the Ronettes, it was instead sadly consigned to the vaults for far too long due to Spector’s jealousy.

US100 cross references:
Track 1

Mentioned in reference to:
– The Wrecking Crew playing on California Dreamin’ as well as being Phil Spector’s go-to session musicians

Track 8 
Mentioned in reference to:
– Jarek pondering whether the activity of the Bronx in the 1970s and 80s that ultimately spawned hip hop culture could be termed a Bronx Renaissance’, equivalent to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s in which Cab Calloway played such a key part.

Track 12
Mentioned in reference to:
– Duke Ellington Orchestra’s preceding Cab Calloway’s as the Cotton Club’s house band
– The conductor of Liza Figueroa Kravinsky’s ‘go-go symphony’ looking as energetic with a baton as Cab Calloway

US100 podcast

US100 podcast Vol01Ep03: Xmas Special

“On a massive sidetrack, was it Pol Pot – didn’t he murder everyone with glasses?”
Chris Kelly

Festive cheer arrives in the form of our two part US100 Christmas party, as our three songs cover almost 80 years of New York City’s musical history. In the first of our two parts, Jarek begins by dedicating the party to Sharon Jones, the third artist covered who sadly passed away a few days prior to recording. BD and Chris are then delighted to receive their Make America Enjoyable Again baseball caps, which arrive courtesy of Bob Dylan in full St Nick spirit.

The boys then pay a visit to 1930s Harlem, Manhattan to frequent the Cotton Club, taking in the performance of band leader Cab Calloway (NB: born on Christmas Day), before learning more about how his music relates to the enforcement of both prohibition and racial segregation within the US at the time. And in Challenge Chris, Chris manages to become the first person to ever link Cab Calloway to Pol Pot.

In Part II, the boys discuss The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, before taking a closer look at producer Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and his legendary A Christmas Gift For You record, with Producer BD also revealing the stunning end result of his and Jarek’s very own ‘Wall of Sound’ experiment. Attention is then turned to the wonderful Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, and the US100’s only Christmas song, Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects. After providing an update on the artists’ lives since their songs, Jarek reveals he has made a few steps of certificate giving progress, before we end with the fine poptastic tones of a former Sugababe.

Play through the embedded player above or on our Podcasts page; download Part 1 for offline listening; download Part 2 for offline listening; find us on iTunes; or find us on all other major podcast platforms by searching ‘US100’.