By 1969, the writing could very well have been on the wall, career-wise, for Lee Michaels, aged 23. The Angelino keyboard-man had released two albums to date on A&M, and at this point, neither had really done much. So perhaps he didn’t have a tremendous lot on his mind when he and drummer Bartholomew Smith-Frost (“Frosty”) walked into the cavernous L.A. studio at 5 PM. What resulted was/is rare: an album so uncoupled from artifice and production as to seem almost spontaneous.
Part of the spontaneity here has to do with the room: Michaels and Frosty essentially played to an empty theater (compare this to the spontaneity of an album like Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, which, while recorded at similar pace, finds its spontaneity less in sound and more in the free-flowing structure). The sound on record here is not produced so much as consumed. Michaels and Frosty wheel through an opening medley of three songs in about five minutes, then a lengthy (and unnecessary) drum solo, another song to cap the medley/solo, and then four more tracks in just over forty-two minutes.
Right from the get-go, the tone for the album is set, and that tone is virtuosity. Nobody can deny Michael’s talents at the keys or his vocal chops. The opening ten seconds of the Ray Charles song “Tell Me How Would You Feel” confirm his talent: efficient organ bursts punctuate the song’s opening lines, followed by a scream that would make David Lee Roth proud. This gives way to Michael’s organ working through the first chorus, and it becomes clear that Michaels has abilities.
These abilities come through most strongly on the album’s keystone track: the standard “Stormy Monday.” This is nothing less than a five-and-1/4 minute festival of showing off. To some, it will seem nothing more than wankery; to others, it is unhinged soul. The organ starts things off, and as on the record’s first side, it is brilliant in its excessiveness. Thus it comes as no surprise that, after the track’s first verse, Michaels goes off on the Hammond. He makes full use of the instrument’s dynamic range (which is to say, mostly loud) and shimmering vibrato in what’s to follow. By the end of this instrumental foray, one wouldn’t think he had much left in the tank, but he lets loose with a truly magnificent wail in the very upper registers of possible masculine vocality*. When Michaels says (again) “Lord, you got to have mercy”, it’s not so much a plea, as it is the words of a man almost amazed at what he’s just done, i.e., it’s braggery.
After “Stormy Monday”, the album descends into much more standard territory, which isn’t to say that it’s not effective. Michaels turns to the piano for the remaining tracks, an instrument that he approaches in the same loose-yet-tight way that he does the organ. The riff he slaps for “Who Could Want More” was sampled to fine effect by Young MC for “Principal’s Office” some twenty years later, and the closer drug anthem “Heighty Hi” was covered by nobody less than Sam Moore a year later for his long-unheard Plenty Good Lovin’ on Atlantic.
All in all, Lee Michaels is an album that is thoroughly enjoyable as an exercise in sheer skill, as a collection of fine late-60s California Soul, and as a record of two guys pretty much playing their minds out. One could do without the drum solo, but the rest of the album is exhilarating, still high on the late 60s. Michaels would eventually score a surprise hit with “D’You Know What I Mean” in 1971, but as of 69, he’s playing as if he won’t get to play ever again.
*Please forgive the excessive prose here, as it only seems fitting when describing this album.