Saturday, December 09, 2006

but it's alright: a fitful labor

[digital composite: j.j. jackson; j.j. jackson album cover; bronx scene; flags of britian, barbados, botswana, guyana, lesotho. 2006]

the skillet simmered in 1966. barbados, botswana, guyana, and lesotho—granted independence that year from britain—were just the most recent of the carousel. transitions—whether in international equations, human relations, or artistic panoramas—continued their unimaginable course. a hurricane continued to blow away the status quo: what would remain in its wake?

could one glean a hint from that year’s prescient and compelling dance jackhammer? bronx-born songwriter and arranger j.j. jackson belted out “but it’s alright,” a virulently danceable song he’d penned with pierre tubbs—and which ricocheted to the billboard top five. recorded in london, jackson—who’d worked with performers ranging from mary wells to the shangri-las—was backed up by guitarist terry smith, tenor saxophonist dick morrissey, and drummer john marshall. in “but it’s alright” these accomplished british jazz-rock pioneers could match—note for note—the “soulfulness” of stax or muscle shoals. morrissey went on to work with such acts as georgie fame, peter gabriel, and gary numan, while john marshall accompanied “soft works,” “electric phoenix,” and “nucleus.” smith and morrissey later formed “if,” a jazz-rock fusion that was a british equivalent of “chicago” and “blood sweat & tears.”

in a microcosm, this soul-stopper—by an african-american singer with british instrumentalists—hinted at the various re-alignments and unorthodox collaborations on the horizon. “colonizers” and the “colonized” could indeed make great music together.
“but it’s alright” was not the first interracial chart success, by any means. the del-vikings, an integrated group of air force buddies, hit the top 5 of both the pop and r&b charts in 1957 with “come go with me.” then there was 1962’s “green onions” by booker t & the mgs. neither of those could match the vocal and instrumental intensity or technical competence of “but it’s alright.” fuller impacts by the chambers brothers and sly & the family stone (not to mention even more prolific behind-the-scenes collaborations in the studio) were yet to come.

“but it’s alright” exudes empowerment and the day’s ethics of aspiration and riddance with a fluency of otis redding—though coarser and more immediate. listening to the robust riffs of this release offer a glimpse into the primordial soup of raised expectations and fitful empowerment before seventies stagflation, misplaced priorities, and eighties reaganism shriveled them into a gray expanse of cynicism.

baby, you gotta gotta reap what you sow
but it's all right, all right girl
you are payin' now, but it's all right

metaphors of colonialism’s consequences aside, “but it’s alright” proved a major boost to the independent calla label (also graced by the likes of the orlons and great lady of soul bettye lavette). had it not been played occasionally by oldies stations and prized by aficionados of england’s northern soul scene, “but it’s alright” would have faded long ago into a much deeper obscurity. forty years later it still rates a good listen.

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