Perfect Sound Forever

JESSE FREDERICK


For Leon Russell Fans Only?: Frederick in 1971
By Kurt Wildermuth


For most people, playing Alice Cooper's roadie would be the pop-culture pinnacle of a lifetime. This portrayal happens in the 1980 movie Roadie, which stars Meat Loaf and includes appearances by Alice Cooper, Blondie, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams Jr., and Peter Frampton (uncredited). One character is literally identified in the credits as Alice Cooper Roadie.

However, the person who played Alice Cooper Roadie, Jesse Frederick, is best known for his work as a film and television composer and singer. Frederick's memorable achievements include the opening themes of the 1980's-'90's TV shows Perfect Strangers, Full House, Family Matters and Step by Step. For Full House, for example, Frederick cowrote and performed the theme; so if you've seen the show, you may know his raspy singing (in the show's continuation, Fuller House, the same song is performed by Carly Rae Jepsen). At YouTube's videos of the original track, comments include:

"His voice sounds like Rod Stewart's"

"He did family matters to I loveeeeeee his voiceeeee"

"This men vocals are amazing. Family matters, full house, step by step. Are there more?"

There are indeed more and different. At Frederick's Wikipedia page, you have to read far down to find out that in 1971, he released a self-titled singer-songwriter album. With its creator's subsequent connections layered over it, that album has become a pop-cultural historical curiosity, with obscure origins.

Frederick was born Jesse Frederick James Conaway in Delaware, MD, in 1948; released some singles in the Philadelphia area in his late teens; recorded demos for Columbia Records during college; and signed to Bearsville Records in 1971. Bearsville had been founded the year before by Albert Grossman, who managed Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary in the mid-'60's. Whatever the merits of Bearsville's artists, nearly all of the label's best-known releases are by the pop-rocker Todd Rundgren, as a solo artist and with his band Utopia.

Rundgren was involved in the mixing of Jesse Frederick's album, but that minor association didn't help push many units. Two years later, Bearsville released a promo single for a second Frederick album, but the album never appeared. Frederick reportedly recorded another unreleased album for a different label, and with a band called the Kinetix, he recorded a single for Columbia. The rest of his career is movie and TV history, covered by IMDb.

Meanwhile, as of this writing, Jesse Frederick is for sale online as either vintage vinyl or a Japanese CD, both of which command higher than thrift-shop prices. Your best budget-listening option is the online MP3's. Should you take any of these routes? Let's explore.

Frederick, who played bass and sang on the album, stayed true to his roots. His backup band consisted of three members of a short-lived '60's Delaware garage band, Friends of the Family: Wayne Watson on guitar, Jim Crawford on drums, and Lindsay Lee on piano. Friends of the Family, like its now legendary predecessor the Enfields, was led by one Ted Munda. Garage-rock enthusiasts have celebrated both bands' small output, which seems to have almost led somewhere: According to Wikipedia, "On July 24, 1968, the Friends of the Family shared the bill with The Who, The Troggs, and Pink Floyd at JFK Stadium, but due to inclement weather the show had to be halted." Talk about a pop-culture pinnacle.

Three years later, on Jesse Frederick, the Friends of the Family musicians don't sound like a garage band. The years and this material have recontextualized them.

The album was produced by Michael Friedman, who at that point worked for Grossman Management. He'd produced albums by Rundgren's '60's band Nazz, but you won't find their kind of propulsion here. Instead, the album feels very much like the work of the singer-songwriter Leon Russell, if Russell had recorded his early albums with semiprofessionals.

Originally from Oklahoma, Russell had been in the music business for about a decade, wearing all sorts of hats on all sorts of pop-rock recordings. Then, in 1969, Russell's public profile rose when he arranged and produced pop-soul-rocker Joe Cocker's self-titled second album. The next year, he led the band on Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, which yielded the classic live album of the same title. Russell's own debut, self-titled (1970), was followed by Leon Russell and the Shelter People (1971).

Russell's stardom at this time, and his esteem from fellow musicians, can be gauged by his prominence in the Concert for Bangladesh, a charity benefit that took place at Madison Square Garden in August 1971. As documented on the resulting live album, the event's organizer and host, George Harrison, introduced Russell as simply "Leon," and the crowd cheered. Russell--in the company of Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Badfinger--was then given nine and a half minutes to perform his raucous medley of the Coasters' "Youngblood" and the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash."


So in signing Jesse Frederick, was Bearsville looking for the new Leon Russell? Russell certainly became a ghost presence on Frederick's album. One answer to the question of whether Jesse Frederick's album merits your time and money is how much you like Leon Russell. I happen to like Russell's early music very much, especially a work of genius called Carney (1972), so I'm able to enjoy Jesse Frederick.

Why am I bothering? Lately I've been exploring obscure byways of early '70's folk-country-pop-rock. A running theme on those journeys has been lesser-known artists' resemblances to their influences. One performer took strong whiffs of Bob Dylan, another breathed in some Joni Mitchell, yet another took cues from Neil Diamond and Lee Hazlewood. Badfinger, of course, is forever pegged as a Beatlemania-like simulacrum. At the Concert for Bangladesh, George Harrison introduces them as "an Apple band," as if they had no identity apart from recording for the Beatles' label.

But Jesse Frederick takes stylistic indebtedness to the level where you either reject the whole work as too close for comfort or accept it conditionally. Or maybe you take it on faith: faith in the care that went into the music's creation--faith, in this case, that the good people of Bearsville uncynically heard and presented this music as Frederick's own sound.

To write the entire album off would be to miss some special things. And finding specialness in potentially unpromising places is what exploring byways is all about, pilgrim. So hang on, don't stop reading if you don't like Leon Russell, because the album offers a bit more than that resemblance. While I can listen to the whole thing, I downright love some of it.

The gatefold (and therefore expensive to produce) cover of the vintage vinyl could hardly be less promising. While the back bears a flattering enough headshot of Frederick, rendered grainy for artistic effect, the front makes the first Black Sabbath album, the fuzzed-out one with the green-faced witch, look cheery. Frederick walks through a wooded area so empty and devoid of color that it suggests a post-nuclear wasteland. He holds an umbrella over his head and looks not like the nicely groomed teen idol on the back cover but like a gaunt, scraggly-haired wanderer wearing black pants, a black jacket, and a rainbow-tinted sweater. The image was probably meant to seem moody and hip, but it gives no sense of the music and hardly invites you to take a chance on this unknown talent.

Another strange creative choice is that side 1 of the LP opens and closes with brief instrumentals, "Prelude: To a Woman" and "Finale: To a Woman." Side 2 has no instrumentals. Put aside the Spinal Tap implications of the phrase "To a Woman." Wouldn't it have made more sense to conclude side 2 with "Finale"? I suppose we're meant to take side 1 as a suite, but I'm not sure what unites the other songs on that side, or how they differ from the ones on side 2. In any case, the opener and the closer are lovely mood pieces, suggesting the power to evoke that serves a soundtrack composer. The music, picked guitar and orchestration, has the relaxed majesty of "Moonlight Mile," the last track on the Stones' Sticky Fingers (1971). The slight choral interludes call to mind the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," the last track on Let It Bleed (1969). In giving this sense of how "Prelude" and "Finale" sound, by the way, I'm not implying they're copies. I should note, though, that Leon Russell is credited with the arrangement of "Live with Me," on Let It Bleed.

And not to overwhelm you with comparisons, but Jesse Frederick's first full song, "Bless Me Daddy," begins with the same kind of burst that opens Joe Cocker's version of "With a Little Help from My Friends," from the album of the same name (1969). In fact, Frederick's dose of blue-eyed soul, an off-putting yet affecting cry for a father's love, could have come from that album, or maybe from a deeper-, less-raspy-voiced Rod Stewart out of the American South and fronting the Band.

In a blind listening test, you'd think the next track, "You Can't Hide Away," was Leon Russell, since it displays his piano technique and his vocal mannerisms, particularly the howling growl at the end of a phrase. Once you sink into the resemblance, and the band and backup singers get cooking, the music's pretty cool. That transformation happens repeatedly on the album. When you settle into the setting, the going gets smooth, the music entertaining.

Side 2 of the album cooks up Southern boogie in a Russell-fronting-the-Stonesy style, the sort of thing Lynyrd Skynyrd did when they weren't veering toward hard rock and the New York Dolls did when they weren't veering toward punk. If that style sounds appealing, then "Sweet Bye and Bye" (with exuberant backup singers), "Slave Runner" (with honking sax), and "When She Goes" are worth hearing.

In fact, regardless of your budget, listening to the album as individual digital files may be the way to go here. Pieces taken one at a time have more impact than the whole. With Frederick's songs sandwiched between other people's music, the resemblances might not be so distracting. And resequencing the tracks will enable you to put "Finale" at or near the end of the whole album, as YouTube algorithms sometimes do.

"Finale" sounds perfect, for example, after the slow, spooky funk of "Alley Lady," an odd drama that at first seems to be about a hooker but then develops into possibly a supernatural tale. It's mysterious and seductive, which is not necessarily a description of the title character, who sounds more like that witch on the cover of Black Sabbath. "Fly lady fly," Frederick sings. "Try and escape the woman's watchful eye." Driven by a heavy guitar riff, tension builds until a descending piano figure propels the scenario into space, where it lingers before a fade. The piece is very nicely arranged and is too puzzling to descend into the misogyny you'd expect from something of this nature.

Things get mellower during the album's last song, "No Reunion." No matter how many times I listen, I don't come up with a handy comparison for this one. I just get lost in its contemplative reverie and the texture of strummed acoustic guitars that go straight to the pleasure center.

So side 2 builds up a head of steam that, once released, makes me want to repeat the whole album. In particular, even though I prefer side 2 and am frustrated by side 1, I'm drawn back to the middle of side 1.

There, the album's second full song turns out to be its most original and beautiful offering- the five-minute lament "Victoria Lenore." Is this about the woman to whom the opening and closing of the side are dedicated? The lyrics don't specify and, as throughout the album, are nothing special. Apart from occasionally clever turns of phrase such as "If you would / And I think you should," this album exemplifies how lyrics that don't do much on the page can gain strength within music. Frederick's songs leave compositional room for suggestiveness, which again relates to his later success as a soundtrack and theme-song writer. Here, the singer pays homage to the woman of the title by focusing on time and memory: "Thoughts of dreams I'll never keep / Spending years, lost in life and where it goes / Writing poems that never rhyme." His repeated refrain is her name.

The music begins with solo piano, combines piano and cello, then adds acoustic guitar and gentle percussion. Frederick reaches for and grabs notes without hitting a Russell-like growl. Background singers deliver a countermelody of "Ah's." Strings and horns enter. There's an echo on the vocal when the singer lingers on "Lenore," conveying the shivery feeling of wanting to touch someone you see in memory.

The album's arrangements are credited to David Darling, a cellist long associated with the Paul Winter Consort, and this arrangement turns Frederick's melody into a haunting masterpiece of aural poetry. I like to think Rundgren had a hand in the effects. The totality could be a Prince ballad rendered in the quieter, elegiac style of R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People. Or, since R.E.M. has brought us to Athens, GA, imagine the late Athens singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, a master of loss and pain, covering this one as a seering dirge. Chestnutt might also have worked wonders with "No Reunion."

Thanks to Jesse Frederick's facility with melody, and to the dynamics of the setting, even for just "Victoria Lenore," it's worth keeping my thrift-store vinyl. Reader, if you're downloading MP3's, start here, and put it on repeat! But don't miss "Alley Lady," "No Reunion," and those two instrumentals.


Also see writer Kurt Wildermuth's website



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