Saturday, March 17, 2007

Smiles All Around

Labi Siffre, Remember
My Song, EMI [1975]
it’s entertainment.
that means we the audience
shouldn’t have to make an effort. you artists should
do everything for us.
you’re the whores and
we’re paying for you to suck our dicks and lick
our clits so cut the crap about challenging our
purseptions [sic] and get on with it.
-- Labi Siffre, "the contempt is mutual" (2006)


Several weeks ago, I sang the praises of Bill Withers,
circa 1971-75. On these shores, British singer/songwriter
Labi Siffre (born 1945) isn't as well known, but his sixth
full-length, Remember My Song, would probably appeal to
many of the same people who appreciate the American artist.

It isn't that Siffre sounds like Withers, but that he launched his career around the same time and draws from many of the same stylistic sources, like blues and soul. Both men also share a relaxed singing style. Siffre's voice is higher and more vibrato-laden, but it isn't a world away, despite his Anglo origins and a greater interest in dance music, specifically disco strings.

Note, for instance, the cover photo. The image Siffre projects is the opposite of his African-American counterpart. This is a sophisticated, sharp-dressed gent who's seen the world. Withers, a former country boy, projects a "regular guy" look with jeans, T-shirts, and outdoor settings. Musically, Siffre also incorporates international touches, like reggae and calypso (he's of Barbadian, Nigerian, and Belgian descent). Like Withers, though, he has a way with the funk jam. Both "I Got the" and "The Vulture" could light up a dance floor just as much now as they did in the 1970s.

If you're familiar with Eminem, you've already heard "I Got the,” even if you didn't know you had, since Dr. Dre famously sampled it for "My Name Is" (1999's Slim Shady LP). Siffre, an openly gay man, has a lot to say about this. As he states in the liner notes:

I've read several inaccurate reports about that song so I will clarify.
1) I wrote it (including the bass riff)
2) When asked to give permission for the sample to be

used, I requested changes because I thought some of
the lyric was lazy writing. Attacking two of the usual
scapegoats, women and gays, is lazy writing.

Had it been original work, I would have noted it as the

common currency of badly written rap (bitches, hoes 'n'
fags) and got on with my stuff. But I don't want my work
to be used that way. They made the changes. I gave my permission. It was a success. Smiles all around. End of story.

These comments are edited from a longer statement. In the
notes, Siffre also provides an abbreviated autobiography. It's fascinating—he's fascinating. That said, I'm not sure how much bearing any of it has on Remember My Song. In 1999, Siffre traded his 30-year recording career for a full-time calling as poet, author, and civil rights activist. The more you read about the man,
the more tempting it is to retroactively apply these facts to his music, but all I have to go by is this album, and I don't hear any
of those things—which doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Of course, I can't speak for Siffre's other records, because I haven't heard them (there are at least nine others). Nor am I suggesting that Remember My Song doesn't come from the heart. It sounds like it does, but this isn't a protest album. There's nothing obviously angry about it. It's commercial—but in the best
sense of the word. It's well sung, well played, well produced.

Along with Withers, Siffre recalls '70s icons Harry Nilsson and Cat Stevens (see "Another Year"). Would he mind being compared to such pasty chaps? For the most part, he cites black influences, but there are a few exceptions, like Tony Bennett's "One for My Baby (and One For the Road)." In the notes, Siffre says he was "ambushed" by the song at 12 and spun the single "repeatedly for days." Also, in an interview with Argotist Online, he name checks John Lennon, Randy Newman, and, yes, Nilsson [above left], so I suspect he'd be okay with it.

Here's a list of the artists he discovered between 13 and 17:

Monk, Miles, Mingus, Mel Tormé, Cannonball Adderly, Little Richard, Roland Kirk, the MJQ, Chico Hamilton, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Gabor Szabo, Wes Montgomery, Ahmad Jamal, Coltrane, Ella, Jim Hall, Bo Diddley, Art Farmer, Fats Domino, Archie Shepp, Sidney Bechet, Getz 'n' Sauter, Cecil Tayor, Joe Pass and T-Bone Walker, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Muddy Waters, Sonny Rollins, Lightnin' Hopkins, Hawk, the Duke, the Count, the Earl, Rabbit, Bird, Dizzy, Lady Day, Betty Carter, Eric Dolphy, Satchmo, Jimmy Reed, Ben Webster, Stuff Smith 'n' more 'n' more 'n' more 'n' more...

Suffice to say, Siffre is one tasteful motherfucker. And he's fierce. I wouldn't mess with this cat. As he mentions in his autobiography, he was beat up a lot while growing up: by teachers, students—even his own father. He learned early on to hit back. He also says he knew he was gay from the age of four. As he puts it, "Looking up from the rug in the front room he sees a guy ten years older than he and falls helplessly in hope. The ache in the belly that means you're either in love, in trouble, or both." In other words, Labi Siffre was Labi Siffre from the word go.

His music may have echoes of other artists, but the
more you learn about Siffre, the more you realize he’s a
complete, unapologetic individual. A one-of-a-kind—a
lover and a fighter, an aesthete and a badass. His song
deserves to be remembered indeed. And cherished.


When i want adult entertainment -
serious, intelligent, incisive drama
addressing the depth and breadth of
the human condition
i watch “South Park”, “The Simpsons”

or “Family Guy”.

For comedy, i watch the news;
‘specially items on

“The War On Drugs” or “The War On Terror”.
These be funniest of all.
-- Labi Siffre, "Ratings" (2006)

Endnote: Click here for Labi Siffre's blog, Into the Light,
from whence these poems and the final image originate. Other pics from The Good News, Amazon, and the archives. Fun facts: Siffre has been with his partner, Peter Lloyd, since 1964 (their union was legally recognized in 2004) and Kenny Rogers has covered his Ivor Novello Award-winning song "So Strong (Something Inside)." Also, according to Wikipedia, Siffre has toured with Ike & Tina Turner, the Hollies, Chicago, the Carpenters, the Supremes,
and Olivia Newton John. Like I said: one of a kind.

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