One Writer’s Perspective

by

Published: June 5,2000

Crackle. Crackle. Crackle. Guitar, bass and harmonica in an anguished, three-part harmony. Bass begins jaunty, bouncing line, picked up by drums. Then a voice, dripping of Delta pain and utilizing a self-styled phonetic system.

Big boss man, can’t you hear me when I call?

Well, you ain’t so big, you just tall — that’s all.

The song is “Big Boss Man,” a 1961 tongue-in-cheek ditty (later covered by blues-rockers The Animals and others) about a hard-driving supervisor performed by the inimitable Jimmy Reed from Dunleith, Mississippi. The great Mr. Reed is just one piece of gold in a treasure chest that fell into my lap.

One weekend my wife and I made a trip to Scott County to help clean out the shop of my late father-in-law. From dark, spiderweb-choked nooks and crannies, we uncovered great old tools, books, furniture, dinnerware and a sundry other things, including hundreds of records — 45s and LPs. I brought them home, cleaned them, and pored over the covers and labels. Did I mention I had no turntable at the time?

Fortunately, my enterprising wife with a spare fiver made a garage sale steal and brought home a complete working stereo system a few months back. I haven’t been the same since.

The records and albums are primarily from the mid-1950s through the early-1960s. (Two 45s, languid, beautiful gospel records, go back to 1947 — by hard-living Hank Williams Sr.) That was just slightly before MTV, and the ears know it. They’re special. And they represent some of the greatest performances and performers in popular music.

Have you ever heard of Lefty Frizzell? Lefty (a huge influence on Merle Haggard) was a ‘60s honky tonker with one of the most unique, lilting voices in the industry’s history. While covered by many artists, his version of the macabre “The Long Black Veil”, told from the perspective of a man who hangs to protect the honor of his best friend’s wife, just sends me.

But sometimes late at night, when the cold wind blows,

In a long black veil, she cries o’er my bones.

She walks these hills in a long black veil.

She visits my grave when the night-winds wail.

Nobody knows.

Nobody sees.

Nobody knows — but me.

If that’s a little too heavy, try some Roger Miller. One of the great singer/musician/songwriters of all time, the King of the Road’s masterpieces are primarily side-splitters such as “Kansas City Star,” a romp about a guy getting a job offer from Nebraska but having to turn it down because he’s a huge hit in Kansas City — as a kiddie-show cowboy.

Kansas City star, that’s what I are.

Yodel-e-de-lay-de, you ought to see my car.

Drive a big ol’ cadillac with wire wheels, rhinestones on the spokes.

I got credit down at the grocery store and my barber tells me jokes.

I’m the number one attraction at every supermarket parking lot.

I’m the king of Kansas City, no thanks Omaha, thanks a lot.

Stay tuned, we’re going to have a Popeye cartoon in a minute.

Or maybe just a simple love song, like “I’m Wanderin’.’” There’s nothing particularly outstanding about the lyrics, typical ‘50s angst-ridden lost-love song stuff, but there’s nothing ordinary at all about Jackie Wilson’s performance. Displaying his incredible power, range and control, “I’m Wanderin’” to me ranks as one of the greatest male vocal performances ever laid on vinyl. Nothing was left in the studio. He didn’t just sing the notes, he became them. Know what I mean? Jackie became the song, and the song became Jackie.

There’s a simple noun for that phenomenon — artistry.

That’s what all of the greats had in common — they were artists. Their sole objective was to write it, play it and sing it from the heart, staying true to the art.

Thus, another common denominator is that the works are simple, basic, honest. That’s the genius of them. There were no cheap tricks to fall back on, no knobs to turn in the studio to “adjust” the sound (most aren’t even in stereo). And, once again, there were no videos. The creation of art took precedence over the creation of wealth.

That’s not to say that many of these greats didn’t pursue and obtain wealth. And unfortunately too many died either directly or indirectly due to mismanaging fame and fortune. But when it came time to get down to business, the business was making music.

Yet, I believe something can be gleaned from these old records, these enduring musicians, and applied to business today. Keep it simple. Be passionate about what you do. Be earnest and honest. Don’t rely on gimmicks. Concentrate more on producing the best quality product possible and less on the money, which will come if you produce the best quality product possible. Avoid losing your balance and allowing work to wreck your personal life.

Maybe Jimmy Reed said it best:

Gonna find me a new boss man, one who treats me right.

Work hard in the daytime. Rest easy at night.

Big boss man, can’t you hear me when I call?

Well, you ain’t so big, you just tall — that’s all.

Wally Northway is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is northway@msbusiness.com.

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