Thursday, January 26, 2012

Boney Eyes McGee (1899-1952)

Boney Eyes McGee (1899-1952) was born in Moscow, Alabama, the fourth of seven children. After his parents died in a mule accident, Boney lived with his father's fourth wife in Lea, Mississippi. It was his stepmother who originally taught him the ukelele, which he would play on Sundays outside of the church where the rest of his family worshipped. Since he worked six days a week (sometimes seven) as a cotton farmer, he never thought of making music his career.

However, after he spent two years in prison for killing his stepsister's lover, Boney came to the attention of Frederick C. Watkins III, an audio historian from the Smithsonian who made the first field recordings of Boney. This resulted in a recording contract with Mortimer Zehnder's Field Sweetheart Records. While Boney recorded several sides for the label, Zehnder never paid him, citing business difficulties, and Boney eventually died penniless in Brooklyn.

While his talents were appreciated in northwest Alabama and among post-doctoral musicologists, he remained unknown to the world at large until Rebecca Black sampled Boney's song "That Woman Can't Cook" as part of Black's comeback single "I Want to Dance All Spring." The resulting royalties were paid to a descendant of Mortimer Zehnder, an unidentified woman who reportedly lives in Mississippi.

Musicologists agree that the early version of "That Woman Can't Cook," recorded by Watkins, is superior to the subsequent commercially released version. The original lyrics went as follows:

Oh that woman, she burned the corn
Oh that woman, she sleeps all morn
When that woman done cooked the hog
It tasted worse than a mossy log
No that woman can't cook at all
But she treats me fine

For some unknown reason, Watkins' recording ended in mid-song.

P.S. Regrettably, this item originated from a private Google+ share, so I cannot point you to the source that inspired this biography. However, I can direct you to a public posting of the "What's Your Blues Name?" calculator. And if you read the biography very closely, you may be able to figure out who let me know about this particular calculator...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Amazing Moments in Recording History - Breaking the Language Barrier

For those who missed the 1970s, you may not know the story of Silver Convention, a German group whose singers managed to master all of the words of this song, despite the fact that all of the lyrics of the song were in a non-German language. Hear for yourself.

Oddly enough, two of the three members of Silver Convention at the time adopted English stage names. Linda Übelherr went by the stage name Linda G. Thompson, and Gertrude Wirschinger went by the name Penny McLean. Ramona Kraft was using the name Ramona Wulf by the time Silver Convention became a band (previously studio singers had been used).

Apparently the song was subsequently covered by the band Static-X. I learned this via an entry at the website.

Yes, the Song Meanings site has an entry for "Get Up and Boogie." Unfortunately, no one speculated about the meaning of the song. There is only one entry.

Sorry to say this but this is probably the worst song ever by Static-X or by any other metal band.

Metal? METAL? Yes.

Of course, Static-X had an unfair advantage. Unlike Linda, Penny, et al, Static-X are native English speakers.

And native English hearers. Presumably one of the reasons why Silver Convention's biggest hits had sparse lyrics was because the songs were intended for release not only in West Germany, but also in France, Spain, and a number of countries that spoke a number of different languages. In such an environment, it helps when the song includes easily-understood phrases such as "Get up and boogie" and "That's right."

Monday, January 9, 2012

(empo-tuulwey) How "Believe" by Cher Became an Auto-Tune Pioneer

I do not believe that tools are bad. I just believe that sometimes tools are badly used.

Take Auto-Tune. There have been some atrocious things done with that. But one of the first uses of Auto-Tune still stands up as one of the best - despite the fact that the tool was used on the voice of a singer who doesn't NEED Auto-Tune.

I am speaking of the Cher song "Believe." The song has an interesting history and took several years and a ton of songwriters to write it. But even after an acceptable version of the song was written, there was still something missing. Cher and her team got tired of struggling with the song, and took a break to listen to some music on a CD. (An explanation to my younger listeners: back in the 20th century, the "stores" at which people bought music were real physical stores, and music was sold on physical media rather than as downloads. Those were the days, my friend.)

On one song the vocals were processed through a vocoder to sound mechanical. Cher remembers suggesting that they add something like that to '"Believe.'"

English songwriter Mark Taylor tried doing something with the then-new Auto-Tune...and then he got cold feet. Anyone who has heard Cher knows that she has a strong, distinctive voice. How would she feel about her voice being altered?

"We high-fived," Cher said. "It was like some stupid 'Rocky' film."

Cher's admiration for the result, however, was not universal. But Cher has been around some forceful people in her life (Phil Spector, Sonny Bono) and knew how to wield power.

Cher said. "I said, 'You can change that part of it, over my dead body!' And that was the end of the discussion. I said to Mark before I left, 'Don't let anyone touch this track, or I'm going to rip your throat out.'"

And no one changed the track. That rough mix became the final version of the song.

And a successful final version it was. Hear it for yourself:

Once Cher's song became a hit, a lot of people began using Auto-Tune for a variety of reasons, so much that it became like the Comic Sans font - another tool that has its place in certain situations, but it not good for universal use.

This guideline from a Hometracked post has merit:

If an effect significantly changes the sound of a track, especially one so important as the lead vocal, be sure that change improves the song before committing it to the mix.

Take a look at this list of ten songs (including "Believe" and Daft Punk's "One More Time") and decide for yourself if Auto-Tune improved the songs listed.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Yes, Fab Morvan has some thoughts on auto-tune

A few days ago, Bruce Bates shared a Milli Vanilli video on Google+. I ended up doing some associated reading, and came across a two-year old interview with Fab Morvan. At the time, twenty years had passed since the revelation that Morvan and partner Rob Pilatus did not sing on the songs attributed to Milli Vanilli. But twenty years is a long time, so PopEater asked Morvan to share his thoughts on auto-tune.

I have to say something and be clear about it. When people say: "Well, you didn't sing on the record"... OK, cool. I didn't. But to be technical, when someone records in a studio and Auto-Tune does your job, it isn't you anymore. It could be anyone, because you're not doing it anymore, the machine is doing it. So, are you doing it? When it comes time to perform it live, you can't replicate it. So when people say 'You should sing on the record, man.' Well, yeah, but now technically a lot of the people who are singing on the record with Auto-Tune aren't doing their job.

I'm not criticizing anyone in particular, I'm just observing what's going on, that's all. I see some comments saying we didn't sing on the record, but I just want to be precise because I've never gotten a chance to say that clearly. It's like, what's the point of singing with Auto-Tune? It's not you! Then you got the video, but that's the way things are now. People don't seem to care. The new generation doesn't seem to care about music now, because a lot of people are stealing it ... but that's whole other thing.

Once your voice has been doctored to a point where we don't even know it's you -- I'm not talking about people who do it as a style or to fit a certain song, because the goal was to make it sound like that and it's a gimmick. I'm talking about singers, pop singers, who without it -- ain't nothing going, baby. I'm trying to have people look at them. I'm just trying to bring up another point for discussion. I'm tired of people always pointing the finger at me and criticizing when in fact, look a little closer at everyone out there and inform yourself more.

Valid point.