Bewitched, bothered, bewildered

What to make of Erykah Badu's latest album

There's no lack of props for hometown-girl-done-good Erykah Badu, who sang, danced, and rapped around town for years before heading to New York and making it big at the tender age of 26. There's nothing green or tender about her mixture of old-school R&B and New Jack riddims, however, or the way she updates the soul-diva model, artfully blending girl-next-door accessibility and street smarts with the imperious self-assurance of Eartha Kitt.

While it's basically a mistake to make too big a deal about album art--you never really know who chose it or why--comparing the back covers of her smash debut Baduizm and her newest release (November 18), Live, is instructive. On the back of Baduizm she crouches, extending a hand; her eyes are pointed, as if keeping a close watch on the gift she offers. On the back of Live, she's upright, staring self-assuredly at you over the convex swell of her pregnant belly. It's not the look of someone lacking in self- confidence.

That fits, because Live isn't the release of someone plagued by doubt. Far from it. In fact--with six songs repeated from Baduizm (one of which appears twice), a new song (the popular sista-solidarity number "Tyrone") reprised with an extended mix, and three covers--you might be moved to observe that Live is a bit too confident. Although Badu is more relaxed, freer than on Baduizm--more inclined to swoop and veer toward scatty jazz--Live's not even "live" in the standard sense, but rather recorded in a NYC studio in front of a select group of admirers.

Why the retread, especially in light of all the stories circulating about the work under way on a second (now third) album's worth of new material? Perhaps the most trenchant observation in this case is that the Christmas plum is particularly sweet for the music biz, and that Live is a way of getting the seasonal attention of fans: some covers (a "Boogie Nights/All Night" medley, Chaka Khan's "Stay," and Roy Ayers' "Searching"), slightly different versions of favorites from Baduizm ("Rimshot," her monster hit "On & On," "Apple Tree," "Other Side of the Game," "Next Lifetime," and "Certainly") and three new songs. Given Badu's quickly flowering popularity--Baduizm debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200, and "On & On" dominated the singles charts for weeks--Christmas sales are probably a lead-pipe cinch, but there's another savvy hook: the inclusion of "Tyrone," a song about a woman waking up to the fact that she doesn't need an unsatisfying relationship--an attention-getter this summer whenever Badu performed it as a headliner with the Smokin' Grooves tour. "Tyrone" is already infiltrating radio--with plenty of time for a pre-Christmas build--but it won't be released as a single; the only way to get a copy for home play will be to buy Live.

Perhaps we grouse too much. All of the Badu-isms of Baduizm--the homegirl sass, the educated self-determination, the Afro-centrism, and the amazing vocal blend (Lady Day's world-weariness, Sarah Vaughan's smooth flow, Chaka Khan's fire, Eartha Kitt's growl, and just a hint of Dionne Warwick's sweetness) are present. It's just that by overlapping so much material so soon (Baduizm was only released in February), the disc assumes a bit too much; this is a move that usually plays better after several years and albums of established diva-dom, and true divas never make their moves too soon.

But Badu is probably accomplished and popular enough to avoid taking much of a hit on this, and she's too young to have some stone of shame (or shamelessness) chained to her ankle for her audacity. Expectations for her third--her new--album will be that much higher, and she'll have to do that much better, but confidence is one thing that Erykah Badu has never run short on.

Millard Lampell, 1919-1997
Millard Lampell died last month. If you've never heard the name, that news might not seem so shocking. Lampell--a protest singer, novelist, and screenwriter who, for most of his last three years, lived with his wife, Ramona, in the unlikely hamlet of Lewisville--was 78 years old when he succumbed to lung cancer on October 3. But for those who knew his work, or knew the man himself, Lampell seemed ageless. He never acted old; he possessed to the last of a certain youthful vigor and wry wit. He never wrote old; at the time of his death, he had completed several chapters of compelling, unsentimental memoirs ("memory is a cunning con-man," went the first line), and one of his final short pieces was an article for D magazine that, among other things, mocked Plano suburbia and examined the boredom-cum-rebellion of Deep Ellum youths. And he certainly never looked old; clad in a beige sport coat and his omnipresent square spectacles last year at an SMU seminar on the blacklist (of which Lampell was a noted victim), he acted a good 25 years younger than his age. Indeed, it might almost have been less surprising had Lampell lived another 78 years.

Though he would have blanched at such an aphorism, Lampell was among the last of a vanishing breed: the artist whose social conscience successfully informed his work. It was so from the start. After attending the University of West Virginia on an abortive football scholarship, Lampell moved to New York City with Lee Hays, an Arkansas preacher's son he'd recently befriended. The pair soon connected with an aspiring folk singer named Pete Seeger, who shared both men's left-leaning political sentiments and compassion for the repressed. In 1940, the three formed the Almanac Singers, a group that eventually grew to include Sis Cunningham and dust-bowl legend Woody Guthrie. The band criss-crossed America, singing at union meetings and hootenannies; as its members began joining the war effort in 1942, the Almanacs disbanded--but not before they had released four albums, recently reissued on CD by MCA.

Unlike Hays and Seeger, who formed the hugely successful Weavers in the late '40s, Lampell did not return to music after the war; he wanted to write. But the social concerns first evident in his songs with the Almanacs would become a thread throughout his later work. The Hero, his 1947 novel (adapted to film as Saturday's Hero in 1951) addressed the corruption of big-time college athletics. The Wall, a 1961 play, told of fear and loathing in the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi invasion. Eagle in a Cage used Napoleon's exile as a modern parable, winning Lampell a 1966 Emmy in the process. He used the podium at the awards ceremony--and a subsequent New York Times article--to decry the injustices of the blacklist. (How ironic that his death came just weeks before the four major Hollywood entertainment guilds issued their historic apology for the practice.) And earlier this decade, he and wife Ramona (a coal miner's daughter from West Virginia) wrote O Appalachia, a lyrical tribute to the unsung folk artists of the region.

Lampell was no pedant, though. He understood well the difference between sympathy and pity, a trait no doubt bolstered by his quick sense of humor. The combination was disarming. Perhaps the most fitting testament to his attributes was heard at a memorial service held last week in Los Angeles, at which a still-vivacious Seeger led a cast of such luminaries as Hume Cronyn, Carl Reiner, Ry Cooder, Norman Lear, and Lampell's widow--along with a small assemblage of other family and friends--in a sing-along rendition of "This Land Is Your Land." Few men could have gathered such a disparate crowd, and even fewer could have had them singing.

If Lampell ultimately never achieved greatness in his public life, it was because he was often bored by the chase; he preferred chopping wood, visiting coal mines in West Virginia, or living near his grandchildren in Texas. But while his career may have suffered from such choices, his personality never did. When I arrived at Lampell's office a few years ago to write an article about him, he silently scanned me up and down. "Well," he finally inquired with a smile, "are you the journalist or the pizza boy?" (I look about 12.) After the story was printed in The Met, Lampell phoned with his summary judgment: "So you were the pizza boy," he said, then extended an invitation for Sunday tea. One of us, at least, was the better for it.

--Keven McAlester

Buttered up:
An artist's fall from grace can loom larger than his good works. Local harmonica fan (he was the motivating force behind the harmonica jam this year at Blue Cat Blues) Tom Ellis didn't like the idea of that happening to Paul Butterfield--the Woodstock generation's primary acolyte of real blues harp--so he set the record straight in a five-part series of articles in Blues Access magazine.

Ellis is a player himself and a seller of vintage microphones whose customers include harp up-and-comers who--to Ellis' surprise--were prone to diss the once-revered Butterfield.

"What's happened in the harmonica world is," Ellis explains, "you've got a lot of guys who're Little Walter clones and think anyone who isn't is not an authentic blues player. But Butterfield always had his own sound, so now it's like he's not 'one of the guys.'"

Butter's legacy is clouded because of his final decade, when he made disappointing albums and was a noted (and noticeable) substance abuser. Pity, though, that the youngbloods that Ellis sells mikes to didn't know Butter in his better days, when he was the dude who opened the blues door to the rest of earth. Few blues people who came of age in the '60s would call his first two Elektra albums (1965's The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and 1966's East-West) anything less than essential.

Ellis' coverage is part critical analysis, part bio. Butter's trail was one some folks might not have wanted light shed on, but Ellis (with a background in journalism from his days in Atlanta and Houston) tackled the task.

He lucked into finding a Los Angeles PI who happened to be a Butter freak. The dick dug up numbers on ex-Butter bandmates Billy Davenport and Bugsy Maugh (but had no luck with big-faced drummer Jerome Arnold, who allegedly lays low to duck ex-wives). Ellis had to convince his quarries he wasn't going to dwell on the sordid, although given the nature of Butter's last decade or so he could hardly claim he'd write that everything had been peachy. When Butterfield's brother Pete got on board, supplying intimate info as well as imprimatur, informants started opening up.

"My greatest success in terms of people to talk to was Sally Grossman," says Ellis (Grossman is the sister of Albert Grossman, controversial manager of Butterfield, Dylan, Joplin, and more.) "As far as I know, I'm the only person she's let interview her. One person who wouldn't talk to me was Nick Gravenites. He said his memories were private and he didn't feel like sharing them."

But gradually an overview of the harpmaster emerged, and in Blues Access #23 (Fall '95) the first of the Ellis articles appeared. The final one is in the present BA (#30). Not all the info Ellis turned up could be squeezed into the series, but much of it is so compelling that a book deal is in the works. It won't just be a Butter bio, but rather will detail the whole milieu. It's a worthy cause, because that's the generation that gave a place to the present blues millennium.

--Tim Schuller

Scene, heard
Darlington (nee Mess) played their first gig last Saturday (November 15) under their new name and with Deep Ellum fixture Spyche (Glasspack) on bass. Look for former Mess member Dylan Silvers around town with his new band the Fitz...The Grand Street Cryers have landed a slot on the new AWARE compilation...Two new alt-country up-and-comers, Seconds Flat and Mount Pilot, will be at the Sons of Hermann Thursday, December 4; Mount Pilot in particular has been getting quite a bit of attention...Popular Japanese punks Lolita 18 will be at the Orbit Room on Saturday, November 29...The Zone (93.3 FM) has announced the opening of a new in-house performance studio at their offices. Behan Johnson, Abra Moore, and Matthew Ryan are among the artists currently being lined up to perform there...The Hellafied Funk Crew just released their new album...Local country artist Rick Stephens will be changing his tune a bit when he sings with the Dallas Opera in their production of Billy Budd...

Street Beat appreciates all your e-mail tips, commentary, assistance, feedback, and information at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.

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