For Once in My Life — An Appreciation of Michael Henderson

I think I own everything that Stevie Wonder has recorded and released, going back to the early 1960s.  On a recent plane ride to Omaha with my iPhone in shuffle mode I stumbled across a live recording of “For Once In My Life” that Stevie made at a London nightclub in 1970.

The first thing I noticed was that the tempo was brighter than on the studio recording.  The second thing I observed was the absolutely killer bass line that I was ready to attribute to James Jamerson.

It turns out the line was not by Jamerson but by Michael Henderson, a then 18-year old phenomenon who who soon catch the eye of Miles Davis.  Here’s a snippet from the live show.

I’m not the only one that’s been taken by how good this line is.  There are at least two YouTube videos that pay homage to Henderson’s bass playing, including this one.


Highlights from The Cutting Room — May 2014

We had a great show on May 17 and have some video highlights to share. With

Russ Velazquez, Vocals
Edlene Hart, Vocals
Angela Clemmons, Vocals
Jon Cobert, Keyboard / Vocals
Peter Calo, Guitar
Gene Lewin, Drums
Norberto Goldberg, Percussion
Joe Giorgianni, Trumpet
Chris Pasin, Trumpet
Joe Meo, Tenor Saxophone
Jon Saxon, Alto and Baritone Saxophones
Alessandra Levy, Background Vocals
Carly Cantor, Background Vocals
Rosharra Francis, Background Vocals
Steve Wexler, Bass

(Videography by Larry Blumenstein; video editing by Ralph Scaglione, Flymusicman Project)


“Higher Ground”, “Love The One You’re With”, “The Letter”, and “Happy”, featuring Russ Velazquez, Edlene Hart, Jon Cobert, and Angela Clemmons.


The Letter

Jon Cobert on vocals and solos from Joe Meo and Chris Pasin.


Higher Ground

Russ Velazquez and Angela Clemmons on vocals.



Russ Velazquez on vocals.

New Bottles for Old Wine — Van Morrison and Moondance

I’m always impressed with artists that take a tune for which they are famous and change it in a way that is faithful to the original yet fresh.

In the mid 1990s Van Morrison started performing a “big band” version of Moondance, his hit from 25 years earlier.  Here’s one performance from 1995 that features Georgie Fame on organ.

I’ve always enjoyed this song and we will be adding it to the Top Shelf repertoire (with horns of course.)

Sounds from The Cutting Room — January 31, 2014

What a great show!  Full house and terrific performances from

Russ Velazquez, Vocals
Andricka Hall, Vocals
Lon Hoyt, Keyboard
Andrew Zinsmeister, Guitar
Mark Dodge, Drums
Norberto Goldberg, Percussion
Greg Ruvolo, Trumpet
John Trombetta, Trumpet
Joe Meo, Saxophone / Piccolo
Jon Saxon, Saxophone
Alessandra Levy, Vocals
Sarah Anne Sillers, Vocals
Carly Cantor, Vocals
Steve Wexler, Bass

Special Guests:

Angela Clemmons
Gene Lewin
Tom “Blues Buddha” Dudley

Here are some highlights:

Tail Feather / Proud Mary

Andricka Hall and the Shelfettes channel Tina Turner

25 Miles

Russ Velazquez performs the Edwin Starr classic

Higher Ground

Russ Velazquez and Andricka Hall get us higher and guest drummer Gene Lewin drives the band

Inside Out

Sarah Anne Sillers shines on this Imelda May song

Knock On Wood

A fresh take on this Motown staple featuring Russ Velazquez on lead vocals

An Appreciation of Quincy Jones’ Early Work

“Hey, you should perform One Mint Julep” suggested a friend after hearing The Top Shelf perform at a show in New York City last year.

I finally decided to follow up on this and went on a YouTube listening spree.  I found several great renditions, including one by Sarah Vaughn and, of course, the 1961 monster hit version by Ray Charles.

It turns out both versions were arranged by Quincy Jones.

The recordings also remind me of Soul Bossa Nova, Jones’ own composition released a year later.

You may know that tune as the theme to the Austin Powers movies.

Will we do these songs at our upcoming show at the Cutting Room on January 31, 2014? No promises… but…

In the meantime, here are some YouTube clips for your enjoyment.

Soul Bossa Nova (1962)

The “laughing” instrument is a Cuíca.  I also love the two piccolos playing the melody in harmony.

Soul Bossa Nova (The Late Show with David Letterman)

Not sure of the date, but probably 2002.  Check out the great flugelhorn and “mumbles” solo from Clark Terry.

One Mint Julep (1961)

Ray Charles’ instrumental hit.  The band just kills.

Why do Wedding Bands Massacre “Mustang Sally”?

Even though I like playing “Mustang Sally” I try to avoid performing it with The Top Shelf because EVERY bar band, wedding band, and R&B band in the US performs this song.  Indeed, this particular ditty, a wedding-band staple that’s as common as “In The Mood” has become a source of amusement and derision for working musicians all over the country (see to get an idea of what I’m talking about.)

So, given that so many bands perform the song, why is it that so many mangle it?

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s start with the version by Wilson Pickett, which I think remains the gold standard for this song.

Wilson Picket’s version of “Mustang Sally”

In addition to the groove being absolutely perfect, listen to the “turnaround” at 0:52 (the turnaround is what you use to get from the end of one verse into the beginning of the next verse.)  Notice that the band stays on the “I” here.

Now, contrast this with a typical “wedding band” version of the song.

Danny D and The Decades’ version of “Mustang Sally”

In addition to the tempo being way too fast, listen to what the band does starting around 0:46 into the tune — they go to the “V” and perform a collection of Lawrence Welk-inspired rhythmic accents.

This is about as “Pat Boone” as it gets.

Sadly, A LOT of wedding bands perform the song this way, which made me wonder who was the first to introduce this turnaround, and why did it catch on?

Needless to say, I was shocked to discover that the band most likely responsible for this approach to “Mustang Sally” was — The Rascals!

Yes, the same band that gave us “Groovin'”, “How Can I Be Sure”, “People Got To Be Free” and countless other hits started as a phenomenally good “blue-eyed” soul cover band. Indeed, their first big hit, “Good Lovin'”, was a cover of a song originally recorded by the Olympics.

So, how does The Rascals’ version stack up?  It’s terrific.

The Rascals’ version of “Mustang Sally”

Just listen to how slow and greasy this version is, how much empty space there is, and how they handle, the “V” turnaround at 1:04.  I still don’t like the “V” with the accents, but at this tempo, and in their hands, it works.

As for the thousands of bands that perform this tune, here’s my advice: You’re not the Rascals; don’t play the “V” turnaround (known as “that wedding band s%^t”) and please slow … the… tune … down.

Note: Mark Prentice, bass player and assis­tant music producer for the The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream, points out that the original version of this song was released in 1965 by its composer, Sir Mack Rice, and contains the infamous “V” turnaround.  Mark also notes that the Rascals’ recording predates Wilson Pickett’s but was released after.  See

An Appreciation of Imelda May

Almost a year ago after performing with The Top Shelf at a wedding in Waltham, Massachusetts, I checked into my hotel room, tired, but not ready to go to sleep.

Rather than read my dog-eared edition of Ulysses I decided to do some channel surfing and stumbled across a great PBS special called Jeff Beck’s Rock ‘n Roll Party honoring Les Paul.

This may have been the best post-gig channel surf ever as the band was smokin’ and every song was a gem.

One of the standout performers was Imelda May, a killer singer from Ireland best known for her rockabilly recordings but who on that night performed a bevy of Les Paul / May Ford masterpieces.

I recently came across Imelda May again when I was looking for some new material for our July performance at The Cutting Room.  There’s a lot of great stuff in her book, but the song that best suited the band was “Inside Out.”

Here’s Imelda’s performance from the Graham Norton show.

Sights and Sounds from The Cutting Room — July 19, 2013

It was HOT, HOT, HOT outside and the band was smokin’ inside.

Here are some of the sounds…

Love The One You’re With
Edlene Hart channels Aretha

Higher Ground
Russ Velazquez channels both Stevie Wonder *and* Sammy Davis Jr., with Gene Lewin driving the band

Unchain My Heart
Tim Ouimette’s inspired trumpet solo

Oh, Darling
Russ Velazquez takes on this Beatles classic with Jon Cobert on keys

Edlene Hart gives it her all on this original arrangement of the Hoagy Carmichael Classic

Green Onions and James Bond
R&B Meets the movies

…And here are some of he sights from Amy Kerwin of Dragonfly Photography.

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Macarena, Mambo #5, Hey Ya, and This Summer…

Every few years a song comes out — usually in the summer — that burns white hot.  Most of the time these songs flame out and are rarely heard again.

But every once in a while…

We’re going to look at four songs — two that flamed out, one that survived, and one that has only just come out but will be a staple of every wedding band for the next three months.

Flameout number 1 — The Macarena

The monster hit of 1996 was recorded by middle-aged lounge act Los Del Rio.

How on earth did this song and this dance become so big?

I don’t miss this one.

Flameout number 2 — Mambo Number 5

Lou Bega’s 1999 summer confection, liberally sampling Perez Prado’s original from the 1950s.

This one had its run, too.

Survivor number 1 — Hey Ya

OutKast’s late summer 2003 release has held up with bands performing the song ten years after Andre 3000 played all eight parts in the video.

Bands are still playing this one, and the video holds up.

THE song of Summer, 2013 — Blurred Lines (Robin Thicke and Pharrell)

You can take your pick of a dozen live performances of this globe-topping fluff that has dominated the Billboard Top 100 for the past 10 weeks.  Here’s one from the Graham Norton show.

This really is infectious, but will it make it past September?  I don’t know, but if you attend a wedding this summer, you’ll hear it.

Trying to Explain the Difference between Soul and Rock


I’ve been working with a lot of college-aged musicians and singers who are not well-versed in Motown and Soul music.  So far, not one of them has asked me “what is soul music” and I’m relieved as I wouldn’t have a clue as to how to answer it without stammering and stating that soul music has, well, “soul”…

This hasn’t stopped me from thinking about just what is is that makes Soul music Soul music and how it differs from Rock and Pop.  I think I’ve found a song that does a good job of illustrating the differences.

Let’s listen to Just One Look and hear how it differs in the hands of a pop group and a soul artist

The Hollies’ Version

Here’s a version of the song that was a monster hit for The Hollies in the UK in 1964.

Great song and great performance.

Doris Troy’s Version

Here’s the original version performed by its composer, Doris Troy.  It reached number 10 on the US Singles chart.  This version just oozes soul.


Which version do I prefer?  I really enjoy both (and enjoy watching the baby-faced Graham Nash in the video) but the Doris Troy version really does it for me.