1968 was a year of flux in the pop music scene. Soul music failed to extend its influence on the music as a whole, country music contributed some new ideas, but did not achieve acceptance as a form in itself, and English blues bands were again very popular. As the year closed, no one style dominated the scene.
1967 ended with the death of Otis Redding. In 1968, some of his finest records were released. "Sitting On the Dock of the Bay" was probably the best selling soul record of the year, and, in my view, the best artistically as well. The album of the same name was a top seller and included some of Redding's most brilliant performances, such "Don't Mess With Cupid" and "Open the Door." All through the year Atco continued to release new tapes. Of special interest were The Immortal Otis Redding and In Person at the Whiskey A Go Go.
Aretha Franklin began the year with her best album to date, Lady Soul, but had trouble coming up to that high point during the rest of the year. In some ways her career is indicative of soul music's development this this year: having already created an extremely high standard for herself, she is now having trouble either living up to it or finding new directions in which to grow. News of her forthcoming jazz-oriented album bodes well for her in this respect, because it shows that she is aware of the problem.
Prior to 1968, Atlantic records had distributed Stax records and had contributed to formulating its policies. In 1968, Stax separated from Atlantic and was bought by Gulf and Western. Jim Stewart remains the president of Stax and is now on his own. The initial efforts of Stax as an independent have been superb: the label's very first release, Booker T. and the MGs "Soul Limbo," was a big hit. Musically, it was noteworthy primarily because of Al Jackson's excellent percussion work. Eddie Floyd had several great records this year, particularly "Bring It On Home" and the little known "Get On Up Big Bird." There was also William Bell's moving "Tribute To a King" which used the traditional folk ballad form to pay homage to Otis Redding.
Probably the best Stax record of the year, and the one that proved Stax will make it on its own, was Johnny Taylor's "Who's Making Love." Taylor, a blues singer in his early thirties, had been floating around Stax for years, going from one producer (and style) to another. He has now found Don Davis who has given him a perfect sound, and with "Who's Making Love," both Taylor and Stax won their first gold record.
Motown has gone through a year of troubles. The magnificent song writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label permanently and various suits and counter suits, involving enormous sums of money, are now pending. For a while it looked like the Supremes wouldn't ever have a hit again. "Love Child" proved that notion wrong and has gone on to be one of their best selling records ever.
David Ruffin left the Temptations during the year, and the new Tempts suffer badly for it. Ruffin was one of Motown's finest singers and it is widely believed that he left the company because they were abusing him financially. In fact, most of Motown's problems seem to be based on their unwillingness to remunerate their artists properly for the millions of dollars they bring into the company.
Ruffin mentioned in his statement about leaving the Temptations that he would like to do a soul act, the implication being that singing "Hello Young Lovers" at the Copa was not his idea of a career. Unfortunately, it remains Motown's idea. In 1968 they made a few concessions to their record-buying audience — Marvin Gaye's "Heard It Through the Grapevine" is superb — but on the albums and-live they specialize in strictly whiteface night club acts. I wonder how long the Supremes are going to keep the public interested in how many wigs Diana Ross can put on in the space of a one hour television program.
Motown, which entered the year looking like it was on its last leg, ended the year holding down the top three positions on the singles charts, all at once. And Atlantic Records had its biggest year in history, ending up only second to Columbia Records in total sales. Soul music will continue to exert a major influence on all music in 1969 because of the talent and energy of its performers. The best of it will continue to be among the best pop music being made. But one must face the fact that most soul musicians and producers do not have enough imagination to expand soul music beyond what it already is and help it continue to grow.
British rock and roll this year was dominated by blues bands. For the most part, these are the dullest and most cerebral groups working today. Ten Years After managed to kick up a lot of dust with their sloppy, 1950's styled renditions of blues numbers everyone has heard a thousand times before. Did we really need another version of "Spoonful"!
Jeff Beck was another who attracted considerable attention. I find Beck and singer Rod Stewart more than interesting when they play rock and' roll — "Shapes of Things Come" — and dull as the Monkees when they play the blues. The group has the potential to develop an original style and they enjoy performing which puts them a cut above the competition.
The Who did not have a good year and on tour, at least when I saw them, they gave the impression that they were dragged by what they are doing. Procol Harum continued to grow into its style and came up with a fine album, Shine on Brightly.
The big news from England for most of the year was Hendrix and the Cream. The latter achieved enormous success both in live engagements and on records. They carried the British blues band thing about as far as it can go but got lost in the maze of pure pop which dominated so much of their recorded work.
For all their instrumental expertise, they never approached the excitement and energy of Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix's Electric Ladyland was the only two record set of the year that made it in my book. He is the authoritative lead guitarist, the coolest showman, an excellent songwriter, and a constantly improving vocalist. He has one of the finest drummers in pop music working with him and an imagination that keeps him from descending into the banalities of "White Room" and "In Days of Old." Of touring performers on the scene today, Hendrix is tops and 1968 was his year.
On record, the Stones and Beatles again proved their power in the rock hierarchy. The Stones have now released 12 albums, the Beatles considerably more. How many groups on the scene today will still be interesting when they get to their sixth release?
In the United States there were literally no discernible patterns. The year started out with what may well have been the finest album of the year, Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding. Midway through the year some tapes of Dylan's were uncovered which were equally brilliant. Several of the songs on them came out on an album by the band, Music From Big Pink. The best things on their album were not the Dylan songs, most of which sounded forced and strained, and by no means as good as Dylan's own version of them on the tape. Rather, the highlights were the songs written by lead guitarist Robbie Robertson. "The Weight" was typical of the group's low-down, country-soul, rock and roll performing and was one of the finest recordings of the year.
The Byrds continued to go through personnel changes at least four times a year but in between times came up with two of the year's great albums: The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The latter was a fine, straight country album with gorgeous, free harmonizing and excellent material. The former was perhaps their best album to date, and surely one of the five or so best of the year. David Crosby made some brilliant song-writing contributions, but the album was mainly Roger McGuinn's and neither he nor anyone else in rock has often equalled such cuts as "Get To You" and "Artificial Energy."
The Buffalo Springfield were one of the year's tragic fatalities but they left behind Last Time Around which was almost in a class with The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Steve Stills in particular came on as one of the great white rock singers as well as a masterful song writer. Note particularly "Four Days Gone" and "Special Care."
In 1968, San Francisco lost what glamor it had left. Groups like the Airplane continued to sell well but the excitement and innocence was gone and the professionalization of the scene seemed inimical to San Francisco's role as an oasis removed from the pressures of the two music business capitals of the country: Los Angeles and New York. The Dead bored a lot of people with their much awaited second release, Anthem of the Sun and the Grape disappointed those who know that they are (or at least were) one of the finest live bands in the country with a very mediocre second album, Wow.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the failure of Big Brother and the Holding Company to make it either aesthetically or as a group. Their only release dragged even the strongest fans, although it sold heavily, and most people seemed glad that Janis Joplin was leaving them in order to develop her own identity and style. She has it in her to be one of the great rock and roll singers.
The established American groups didn't set the world on fire this year. The Doors seem to be dying of a lack of imagination and are becoming an increasingly teeny-bopper oriented group. By the end of 1969 they may find them selves playing for the audiences the Cow-sills are playing to now.
On the other hand, the Rascals, long thought of as a teeny bopper group, continue to mature and develop and had at least one fine single this year: "People Got To Be Free." Perhaps in 1969 they will break away completely from the adolescent pose they have maintained and make the kind of contribution they are obviously capable of.
The big talk in New York continues to be centered around Blood, Sweat, and Tears, whose first album was superb. (I have not heard the new one yet.) The Electric Flag, with whom they were often compared, didn't fare so well, live or on records, and broke up after the release of their first album. The remnants of the group have been carrying on under the name of The Buddy Miles Express which is an awful black imitation of a white imitation soul band. Nothing to write home about.
Among individual artists, Laura Nyro began to receive the recognition she deserves, and many idolize her Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. Johnny Winter, a recently discovered white Texas blues singer has already created a large following on the basis of a few guest appearances in New York. Judy Collins reached the pop charts and her latest album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, is a good attempt to mix rock, country, and folk.
Al Kooper got the idea of jamming off to a start with the much over rated Super Sessions. The singing was poor, the improvisations mostly on the tired side and without much imagination, and the material was weak. But it got the thing going and we are apt to see more of it soon. (Actually, Hendrix has a lot of jamming on Electric Ladyland and that does give one real optimism about the possibilties of the concept.)
There were two important comebacks this year. Fats Domino was signed and recorded by Warner Brothers, where producer Richard Perry came up with the brilliant programming for Fats Is Back. The record hasn't sold that well but is one of the finest in 1968 and proves that a) Domino still has it and, b) a producer can do a great deal to bring out the best qualities of an artist.
Little Richard did a lot of touring this year and Specialty released his 17 Greatest Hits, one of the greatest rock albums ever.
While not quite a comeback, B. B. King finally got the attention he deserves and was booked at all the major rock houses across the country. B.B. is riding high now and has been receiving fantastic amounts of publicity which he is surely entitled to. One hopes that his large scale acceptance by the white audience will not influence his style too much. His modesty sometimes borders on cornpone. Nonetheless he is the finest bluesman on the road right now.
In 1969 I think there are going to be some large upheavals on the pop scene. Elvis Presley will make a comeback. The rock audience will accept to an increasing degree musicians outside the rock framework. In the country area, both Johnny Cash and Buck Owens will attract wide-scale attention. In blues, the artists associated with the Duke label in Texas will be heard from. That would include Bobby Bland in particular.
As for the big areas, who knows what will happen except to say that there will be change. The lack of definition and direction intrinsic in 1968 has to be resolved if the music is going to grow. And one way or another a direction will be found in 1969.