While there is plenty of facts and official historiographies on Southern Soul records (Stax, Hi, Muscle Shoals), Northern Soul records, be it Detroit (the Motown/Tamla and their subsidiaries fame), or even partly New York City (with Atlantic Records and their subsidiary ATCO): the fruitful (from a cultural perspective, not an economic one, definitely) Vee-Jay Records label has been left aside for decades.
However, it played a major role in helping develop what stood as a unique avenue in Chicago, South Michigan Avenue, nicknamed “Record Row”.
Vee-Jay was a venture launched by an Afro-American couple named Vivian Carter (herself a performer and a disc jockey) and James Bracken (himself a writer and composer) in 1953. But they did not start from zero, as the label was intended to be a branch of the existing record label and store founded several years before in Gary, Indiana.
In 2007, Daily Herald music critic Mark Guarino expressed his regrets to realize that Vee-Jay Records, as far as influencing was concerned, didn’t get the credit it deserved. The main difference outlined is that of the stylistic association between one label and its productions: Motown was clearly a pop/rhythm and blues venture, while Stax Records was fostering a Southern rough-sounding approach. Vee-Jay was none of them: starting with doo-wop-like bands (their first pressing was a band called The Spaniels, but they also recorded Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs Stay, which found success again 27 years later, thanks to the Dirty Dancing movie soundtrack in 1987), they embraced rhythm and blues (recording the first Curtis Mayfield’s The Impressions records), jazz (Paul Chambers and Wayne Shorter were amongst them).
Sadly, entrepreneur Ewart Abner was expecting considerable growth for Vee-Jay as he came on board back in 1955. Though his work propelled the Venture into the high spheres, hazardous investments and a missed Capitol Licensing contract got them into debt.
A documentary explored recently the story of Record Row, entitled Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues, was broadcasted initially in February 1997.
The music industry is ruthless. Even when it comes to veteran tuba player Aaron Dodd, who passed away twelve years ago in his hometown Chicago.
For the record, he played the boucing bass line, dubbing in unison Louis Satterfield’s Fender Bass line on Donny Hathaway’s cover of the classic track originally written and performed by Ray Charles, I Believe to My Soul.
It is noteworthy that Hathaway turned the sorrowful soul tune, composed in a minor mode, into a catchy and hopeful major mode song. In so doing, he transfigured a painful downtempo lament into a blustering plea.
And yet, the big and whopping horn is still seen as boring and ungrateful, and not that much highlighted, left apart symphonic orchestras and marching bands (the tuba was the very first Jazz bass component, before the “string bass”).
Aaron Dodd died broken and ill. Still, even in aching pain, he would not withdraw and kept playing under a pouring rain or in a freezing cold.
Let’s briefly retrace his history.
His sister Linda tried briefly to learn the cornet in highschool, then she let the instrument gathering dust.
Instantly, Aaron took it and learn to play it naturally, proving a remarkable ability. In the highschool band, Aaron Dodd played multiple horn instruments, to the point that his sister Linda told “he could play any instrument”. The tuba winned his favors, eventually: luckily he met Chicago Symphony’s tuba player Arnold Jacobs, who taught him free courses.
Moreover, Jacobs got him a scholarshop at the Roosevelt University in Chicago.
Though, his favorite genre was Jazz. In 1968, he joined the Philip Cohran & the Artistic Heritage Ensemble. Together they recorded Malcolm X Memorial (A Tribute In Music).
In 1970, as he just cut tracks for Everything is Everything with Donny Hathaway, Chicago tuba player Richard Armandi praised his way of giving the instrument a new role in a musical genre rather that seemed unsual for such a big horn instrument, making its singularity necessary to the whole musical ensemble.
He then joined The Pharaohs, a R&B band. Together they recorded two albums, The Awakening (1971), and In the Basement (1972).
The band’s lineup was comprised of Charles Handy (trumpet), Louis Satterfield (trombone), Don Myrick (alto saxophone), Big Willie Woods (trombone), Oye Bisi et Shango Njoko Adefumi (African drums), Yehudah Ben Israel (guitar and vocals), Maurice White (drums), Alious Watkins (drums), Derf Reklaw-Raheem (percussions and flute), and of course Aaron Dodd on tuba. The short-lived group disbanded in 1973.
In 1975, Aaron Dodd records with New Jersey native R&B singer Leroy Hutson. Hutson was a previous member of The Impressions, together with Curtis Mayfield. Aaron Dodd was a respected Jazz musician in Chicago, who travelled all over the world. Mwata Bowden, both a saxophonist and an orchestra conductor in Chicago remembers the man in fond terms: “He was a respected musician… Aaron was really rewriting the book on the capacity of the tuba.”
Afterwards came personal issues, leading him to perform in the streets. Following a tumultous period of time, he kept busking. His last official participation to a recording session was in 1985, when he joined 8 Bold Souls, under the supervision of Edward Wilkinson. The latter was his last contribution to commercial recordings: together they recorded 4 albums, from 1985 to 1999.
In 1998, Dodd is devastated by Arnold Jacobs’ death. He wanders, playing to whoever wants to hear him the opening of Wagner’s Meistersinger before the Chicago Symphony Center.
Not later than 2008, Colleen Mastony, in the columns of The Chicago Tribune, wrote that the Chicago Symphony’s tuba section undertook a charity initiative to help Dodd. Knowing and deploring that Dodd’s tuba was in bad shape, they raised fund to buy him a whole new instrument, with the help of master crafstman Wayne Tanabe.
At that point, one could see him busking in a wheelchair, through the streets of Chicago. Whoever met him testifies that he breathed music and never gave up against the throes of life, be it for his health or to survive.
When Dodd passed away June 17, 2010, his family was saddled with debts: the medical fees and the funeral were a financiel burden. Consequently, the Chicago Symphonic Orchestra played benefit concerts to help the Dodd family through these hard times.
The 1954 song seemingly celebrates grapes and harvests, the wild nature and the warm wind. Actually, none of these. Indeed, this quite naturalist painting, disturbing, denounces racial crimes. A sort of pastiche of the American naturalist poem, Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropol (and not Billie Holiday herself) uses the naturalist allegory, objectifying the obscene, in an attempt to denounce atrocities.
The corpses hanging from the poplar trees and swinging are the fruits. They crowd this sad lullaby, a poem composed in three quatrains, each verse rhyming following a AABB scheme. The verse metric is rather free, in spite of a eneasyllable dominant. Yet the effect is less terrifying than melancholic. And if the suggestion is rather obvious, the message gets through.
Holiday is the voice that exposes the unbearable and customary lynchings of African-Americans. This kind of song was mostly never heard at he time. At least, some of the yiddish repertoire songs offered cristal clear metaphores built as fables, such as the infamous Dona Dona written by Sholom Secunda and Aaron Zeitlin (1941), where a calf is promised to the slaughter – an evocation of death camps where Jews where murdered.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop Here is a strange and bitter crop
Strange Fruit is a perfect a example of a Jewish-African American partnership, drawing from an experience of persecution (Meeropol was a Bronx native, born from Jewish Russian parents who fled USSR, while Eleanora Fagan, aka Billie Holiday, was still suffering segragation).
The suave singing tone contrasts entirely with the cruelty of the scene and turns the dreadful piece into a major anti-racism anthem.
This song is the base on which the evolution of the lexicon and the interpretations of the performers are discussed, in the turn of the Civil Rights, in 1964. Consequently, it can be considered as the first song advocating Civil Rights, whereas Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come (1964) embodies the outcome, the dawn of a new era. Such a masterpiece of grim truth within the American Dream will undoubtedly influence the various branches of Black American music and set the scene for them, from classic rhythm & blues to Soul music and to hip hop.
For the French reader, the song was translated by Michèle Valencia (Allia, 2009), inside the book by David Margolick, Strange Fruit.
(David Margolick (pref. Hilton Als), Strange Fruit : Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, Philadelphie, Running Press, 2000, 160 p. (ISBN0-7624-0677-1)
DES ARBRES DU SUD
Des arbres du Sud portent un fruit étrange, Du sang sur les feuilles et du sang aux racines, Un corps noir oscillant à la brise du Sud, Fruit étrange pendu dans les peupliers.
Scène pastorale du valeureux Sud, Yeux exorbités, bouche tordue, Parfum de magnolia doux et frais, Et une odeur soudaine de chair brûlée !
Ce fruit sera cueilli par les corbeaux, Ramassé par la pluie, aspiré par le vent, Pourri par le soleil, lâché par un arbre, C’est là une étrange et amère récolte.