Revinylization #19: More Cowbell (Blood, Sweat & Tears)

Blood, Sweat & Tears began as Al Kooper's dream of a rock band with horns. By the time he realized the concept—on the band's 1968 debut, Child Is Father to the Man—it had become much more: an engaging hybrid of New York soul, Greenwich Village folk, and innovative jazz arrangements. With producer John Simon at the helm, Child was a virtual definition of the possibilities inherent in the heady musical experimentation of the late 1960s. Kooper's writing and arranging for that record (including the monumental "I'll Love You More Than You'll Ever Know," later a hit for Donny Hathaway) is one of the high points of his storied career.

The record was justifiably praised as the conceptual breakthrough it was, and work had already begun on a follow-up when the band decided it needed a lead singer with more polish. Kooper left the group along with a couple of other key members.

Undaunted, BS&T went on to make the biggest-selling record of the band's lengthy career, with David Clayton-Thomas, a barrel-chested, Tom Jones–style shouter, as the new frontman. The revised lineup went into the studio with producer James Guercio, who used an Ampex MM-1000 recorder, making Blood, Sweat & Tears one of the first 16-track LPs.

I was looking forward to this release as a way of revisiting an experience I had more than half a century ago, when I heard this album for the first time. It was early 1969, I had been to the Fillmore East, and after the show, I went up to a friend's apartment in the East Village. A few of us were sitting around in the candlelight, listening to various albums. BS&T had just come out. My friend put it on the turntable, and the mood in the room was transformed.

Blood, Sweat & Tears will always remind me of that moment. I was not surprised when the album did so well commercially, riding three hits to chart-topping status and a Grammy as Record of the Year. But soon I grew to hate it, especially the massive hit, "Spinning Wheel." I exorcised my BS&T demons in my review for the Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide.

As I unpacked this gorgeous 2-disc, 45rpm One Step pressing from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, I realized why my thoughts about the album were so conflicted. What I remember hearing in that East Village apartment was Side 1, a beautiful side of music from start to finish. Back in the LP era, sides of music were often designed to work together as a creative whole. Many of the best LPs did not hold up as well when you flipped the disc to Side 2—a distinction that was lost starting with CDs.

Side 2 on the original release sounded thrown together, two hits and an overlong blues piece with a tag that felt gratuitous. Which was right: My first reaction that night in the Village, or my subsequent negative review? Both, I concluded, were justified.

All these years later, could this new, exquisite pressing renew those initial feelings about the record? Yes, it could.

This version is something of a revelation. When the needle drops for Dick Halligan's beautiful interpretation of two movements from Erik Satie's Trois Gymnópedies, a tranquil, slate-cleaning stillness sets the scene. Bobby Columby's drums have a three-dimensional, elastic grace.

No pop band had ever sounded like this; this was closer to something you might hear on a Stan Kenton album. In service to the great Traffic composition "Smiling Phases," this approach is revelatory. Clayton-Thomas and the powerful massed brass trade punches in an exhilarating exchange. Halligan's organ washes fill out the deep spaces, while Fred Lipsius's piano crepitates across the speakers.

Side 2 of the Mobile Fidelity release—the second half of the original Side 1—begins with the beautiful folk song "Sometimes in Winter," sung by Steve Katz. The nuances of Katz's vocal are more apparent in this pressing, and Halligan's flute has more depth. The brash, exhilarating "More and More" follows, with a brute-force exchange between Clayton-Thomas and the brass. Then comes the album's highlight: a unique reading of Laura Nyro's pop-gospel "And When I Die." This version is cinematic—it's a Western, in fact, from Katz's sagebrush harmonica opening to the clip-clop sound effects of the hero riding away on his horse at the end. The song is arranged in sections, like scenes from a film, and the definition in this pressing emphasizes the movement from one sequence to the next.

The side ends with a beautiful rendition of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" that wisely doesn't challenge Holiday's vocal but expands the harmonic possibilities of the song with a terrific arrangement that peaks with a salsa breakdown.

Then, on Side 3, we come to "Spinning Wheel." All I can say is, this may well be the true, ultimate source of the SNL "more cowbell!" joke. On the other big hit, "You Make Me So Very Happy," Clayton-Thomas is at his best, framed by sharp-angled parries from the horns.

Side 4 is obvious filler: "Blues Part II," a potpourri of clever riffs and changes that goes nowhere and, astonishingly, after 11:44 fades out not on a promise of things to come but more like a surrender to tedium. The final Satie track sounds empty after this.

dc_bruce's picture

when I graduated college. It was one of my room mate's records, so I couldn't take it with me. When I say "wore out" I mean in the metaphorical as well as, perhaps, the physical sense. The one thing I remember the record had going for it was that it seemed to have been exquisitely recorded. From that perspective, it always was a pleasure to listen to. I'm ambivalent now about springing for a re-issue for fear it might still be "worn out" for me. But, I can't say I'm not tempted.

otaku's picture

This is my first One-Step. Here is my feedback:

The Good:
1. The packaging is wonderful. The record sleeves are elegant and the Clarity disks and labels are so beautiful that it hurts.
2. The sound, needless to say, is perfect, as far as I can tell on my system. It is very quiet, just a very few clicks and pops, nothing really objectionable.

The Bad:
1. Disk 2 is perfectly flat, but Disk 1 is not quite.
2. The included photos are nice, but at this price some liner notes would have been appreciated.

Overall, I would say it was worth the price.

DH's picture

Spinning Wheel is a fine song. There's a reason it was a hit. Maybe if it hadn't of been a hit you'd like it better.
The Jam on side two isn't THAT bad. Not great music, but certainly pleasant to listen to.
Overall a really good album.

Lazer's picture

But this is why negative reviews suck. I grew up in that era without ever really listening to this album….I love every syllable. There is a reason it was overplayed for some but for others like me, it makes me realize all the incredible music I missed.