Friday, March 23, 2007

Voices from Chronicles: Volume One - Karen Dalton

Of the Cafe Wha? and the singer/songwriter who ran the daytime show, Dylan writes in Chronicles: Volume One,

"Freddy [Neil] had the flow, dressed conservatively, sullen and brooding, with an enigmatical gaze, peachlike complexion, hair splashed with curls and an angry and powerful baritone voice that struck blue notes and blasted them to the rafters with or without a mike. He was the emperor of the place, even had his own harem, his devotees. You couldn't touch him. Everything revolved around him. Years later, Freddy would write the hit song 'Everybody's Talkin'.' I never played any of my own sets. I just accompanied Neil on all of his and that's where I began playing regular in New York."
In the same section, Dylan reveals his favorite singer at the Cafe Wha? was Karen Dalton.
"A tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky and sultry," Dylan writes. "Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday's and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it."
Close your eyes. Picture a room, empty of furniture except for an unmade bed. A woman lies on it, staring up at the ceiling, watching a fan turn, slowly pulling the smoke from her cigarette into its blades. A half-empty glass of wine is on the floor, by the woman's arm...

That's Karen Dalton, singing "It Hurts Me Too," from her first album, It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You The Best, originally released in 1969 and reissued on CD in 1997.

As Dylan, and nearly everyone else who heard her noted, Karen's voice strongly resembled that of Billie Holiday's, in fact to the point where the Capitol press release for her first album described her as "the folksinger's answer to Billie Holiday."

Dalton's voice is also eerily similar to the modern day smoky voiced singer, Madeleine Peyroux, who herself is often compared to Holiday.

Unlike Peyroux, Dalton never had much popular success. Possibly because she was uncomfortable in the studio and had to be coaxed into recording the two albums she did produce. Or perhaps it was because of her distinctive voice - which, like Dylan's - listeners tended to immediately love or hate. Or perhaps because she rarely wrote her own songs, during a period where it was the singer/songwriter who claimed the most attention. Or perhaps because of the drug and alcohol problems she reportedly struggled with until her death in 1993.

Fred Neil, who had first brought her to the attention of Capitol Records, wrote in his original 1971 liner notes to her second album, In My Own Time:
"She did 'Blues On The Ceiling' (which is my song) with so much feeling that if she told me she had written it herself I would have believed her. Her voice is so unique, to describe it would take a poet. All I can say is she sure can sing the shit out of the blues."
Recorded during 1970-71 at Bearsville NY, 'In My Own Time' was produced by Harvey Brooks, a Renaissance musician who crossed the the rock/jazz line, playing bass on two seminal albums - Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" and Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew".

The country singer Lacy J. Dalton has said that she took her name from Karen, who had greatly influenced her singing style. "Karen was tall, willowy, had straight black hair, was long-waisted and slender, what we all wanted to look like,' Lacy J. Dalton said.

Also known as "Sweet Mother K.D.", it is said that the songs "Katie's Been Gone" by The Band and Nick Cave's "When I First Came To Town" were written for and about Karen Dalton.

A great, haunting talent that never got the audience she deserved, you can buy Karen Dalton's first album on Amazon or as separate tracks (only) through iTunes.

Karen Dalton - It's So Hard to Tell You Who's Going to Love You the Best

There's also a European version of "It's So Hard…" released in July of 2006, that includes a DVD of Dalton performing four songs, which I believe is where the YouTube video originated.

Dalton's second album, "In My Own Time," can also be found through Light in the Attic Records (my recommendation: support the small), or through Amazon or as either an album or separate tracks through iTunes.

Karen Dalton - In My Own Time

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