Sam Frazier’s return from the ghost town
Green Fender electric slung over his shoulder, guitar mentor Sam Frazier, a burly 46 year old whose pocked skin and wary eyes attest to more years of self abuse than he’d like to admit, appraises the group of sidemen he’s assembled for rehearsal inside the loading dock of the Sound Lab recording studio.
The mood is edgy and he’s anxious to get these songs right, most of which are culled from his debut solo release, Half A Million Years. The band is playing a CD release party at the Blind Tiger two weeks from now. They might get to rehearse one more time, or they might not. The show will be a return of sorts for Frazier, who has been down with illness for two years. The bandleader and musicians will agree that these are hard songs to learn, but there’s a lot riding on this one.
Squeezed in amongst stacks of CD jewel cases and Formica furniture are the players: Chris Carroll, one of the most visible journeymen bass players in town, who has backed the likes of Tim Betts and Cyril Lance; Dave McCracken, a Hammond B-3 player who took guitar lessons from Frazier as a young man; and drummer Cliff Greeson, Frazier’s old bandmate from the Tornados going back 25 years.
Frazier suggests they try out one of his songs, ‘“Ghost Town,’” a wicked, funky number about elusive realities and shattered trust. The chords are F-C-G, he explains, and then a B flat thrown into the transition.
Carroll is looking under the weather and seems uncertain about the song.
‘“I wish y’all luck,’” Frazier says, ‘“and me too.’”
The song eases in with a slow burn, Frazier’s vocals stabbing at the counterpoint with a sweet ravaged soulfulness.
‘“Which agenda rules?’” he sings, leaning in close to the mic. ‘“I’ll show you mine.’” And he smiles mysteriously.
Somewhere in the middle, the players fall out of synch.
Frazier shrugs his shoulders with resignation.
‘“We’re probably not gonna be able to do this one,’” he concedes.
Before the rehearsal is over, they sketch ‘“Feelin’ Alright,’” a song with a skeletal funky rhythm and nasty declarative guitar phrasings that McCracken answers with trills from his B-3; a joyous rendition of the Jackson Five classic, ‘“I Want You Back’”; and the measured, cresting title track, ‘“Half A Million Years.’”
Frazier has played a handful of acoustic gigs with local bass player and soundman Shane Lee and violinist Rebecca Stevens, who perform as the Frazier Lee Stevens Trio. But for many of his fans, the May 22 gig will mark his return after battling a double cross of heart attacks and cancer over the past two years.
‘“There’s droves of fans in Greensboro who are looking forward to seeing Sam live again,’” says his friend Bob Thornley, who’s doing sound for the guitar player these days. ‘“He’s a great songwriter. I rank him up there with Lowell George.’”
Later, after the rehearsal, Carroll puts away his bass and goes out to sleep in McCracken’s van. Frazier, the drummer, the organ player and Sound Lab co-owner Thomas Rowan relax in the plush front room of the studio, a room appointed with tasteful modernist furniture and painted in warm colors. The conversation meanders from the onerous effect of the NC Department of Revenue on the local music business to Durham’s high crime reputation before settling into the particulars of Frazier’s comeback.
‘“After I had heart surgery I didn’t have all the feeling in my hand,’” Frazier says. ‘“When they crack your chest open it messes with your nerves. After taking the year off from playing guitar I still feel like I’m coming from behind.’”
The CD has been a long time coming. Frazier was ready to put the finishing touches on it when two heart attacks took him down in May 2003. The heart trouble had the positive effect of forcing him to clean up his act after years of substance abuse. But like a contemporary version of the cosmic injustice that befell the suffering Job, Frazier was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma six months later, before he could reap the benefits of his newfound sobriety.
It took 10 years to record the CD, and the songs were written over an even longer span of time.
‘“I wasn’t the most focused person you’ve ever met,’” he says.
Rowan, who mixed the CD, interjects: ‘“When you have to choose between getting a gig and going into the studio, you take the gig because you need the money.’”
Frazier doesn’t need anyone to cover for him.
‘“No,’” he says, ‘“I was a pretty f*cked up individual.’”
Being high was the fuel for his songwriting at that time, he says, as well as the ‘“canvas’” for his compositions. There isn’t much doubt about what the first song on the CD alludes to when he sings: ‘“When the times get tough/ And they start to search and seize/ And you’re face down on the floor/ And I need a place to hide/ Is your shadow long enough?’”
But Frazier’s art also contains a paranoid literary brilliance that comes from being a voracious reader, in particular of British science fiction writer JG Ballard. His particular genius is his ability to couch trenchant lyrics in the delicious soul music of his teenage passions ‘— late ’60s musical acts like, well, the Jackson Five.
‘“I’m a big Van Morrison fan, that blue eyed soul kind of thing,’” he says. ‘“Little Feat has always been a huge influence ‘— there’s no point in denying it. I’ve always liked things that are kind of funky in a certain way.’”
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