I’m visiting LA this week, and while in town I had a chance to stop by the Echoplex and catch a rarity: seventies soul singer/guitarist Shuggie Otis was making an appearance. Otis is a masterful musician, but show was a bit of a hot mess. Backed by a band of old-time pros (including the great Smitty Smith), Shuggie battled equipment problems and surly sound engineers, at one point stopping to declare the show a failure, but then continuing with a serious blues jam that escalated to experimental levels — especially with the bonus feedback. Some people stood silent, just glad to see such a local legend in such a small space. Some people shouted encouragement. Some left.
In the many long lulls, my native Angeleno companions and I debated whether there is an “LA soul” sound, or a sound that captures the soul of the city itself. So many hopefuls flock to LA to get famous, but the handful of influential artists born and bred here is an eclectic bunch; whether pop or experimental, soul or silly, LA musicians are a distinct breed if only in their ability to represent LA in such different ways.
Here are a few of my personal choices for quintessential soul-of-LA artists. Feel free to leave yours in the comments.
An LA native and resident for most of her life, the great Miss Etta James started her career working with Shuggie’s dad, Johnny Otis. From her early gospel-tinged efforts to her megahit “At Last” (and her diss of Beyonce’s rendition of the song), James’ put-it-all-on-the-table vocals, her surfer-girl bleached blonde hair, and her inability to be anyone other than entirely herself are perfect examples of West Coast attitude. One of my earlier faves: party anthem “In the Basement.”
At a time when disco ruled the airwaves, Waits was smoking cigarettes in seedy Los Angeles diners with strippers and playing piano instead of electric guitar. Particularly in his early recordings, Waits had a throwback style that sounded instantly familiar yet worldly; he managed to tap into the way it feels when you’re living in a sunny city full of angels, but you just want to have a drink with the devil inside. Next time you’re in LA, take the Tom Waits tour to get in the mood.
There was little “soul” styling from Arthur Lee and Love; the band was 100% rock and roll, and its tragically up-and-down career (complete with constantly rotating band roster, drug addiction, and jail time for Lee) only made its contributions more valuable. “Alone Again Or" is perhaps the most famous cut, but put “A House Is Not A Motel” on a car stereo and cruise down Venice from La Brea to the beach and tell me this band wasn’t onto something distinctly SoCal.
When Perry Ferrell, Dave Navarro, and friends first dropped their hard but minimal rock sound on an unsuspecting Hollywoodland, they became ambassadors of the less than glamorous side of the city — and invented “alternative rock” in the process. “Three Days” is the one my drug-addled high school boyfriend and I used to make out to, but “Jane Says” is probably one of the best songs of the late twentieth century.
Black Eyed Peas
Of course, the most totally LA thing a band could possibly do is begin as a middling hip-hop outfit, add a "hook girl," and then intentionally tailor itself into a hyper-manufactured, possibly robotic, infinitely marketable, sell-out pop phenom. Black Eyed Peas owns the algorithm for perfectly bland party pop; I hate them, I know all the words to their songs, and I can’t help but move my lovely lady lumps when they come on the radio.