A Family Affair : Rufus & Carla Thomas

All families contains the history of multitudes through the cultures they are heir to and which they live within. At the same time each family can be an agent for cultural change and development through their actions and works. We stand on the shoulders of giants but we can see a destination ahead they could never reach.

This is particularly the case in families whose work lies within the popular arts. If you grow up with music and talk about music is all around; if you watch shows from the side of the stage and know the drudgery as well as the glamour of, ‘show business’ you will either run a mile and seek, sensibly, to become a lawyer or farmer or you will think there is no other life worth living than that of writing, singing and performing songs and bathing in the approval of an audience.

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The careers of Rufus and Carla Thomas, father and daughter, take us on a fascinating journey through twentieth century American popular culture. We will encounter: travelling minstrel shows, the development of Afro-American radio and the birth and growth of two of the nations fountainhead records companies (Sun and Stax) which produced many of the greatest rock n roll, soul and rhythm and blues records ever made.

We will also meet music icons of the stature of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, B B King and Otis Redding and realise why the city of Memphis can justifiably lay claim to have been the capital city of American music.

Rufus Thomas was a magnetic figure with personality and character to burn. He had that most attractive and winning of human qualities – vitality. There were no downcast faces when Rufus was around! He was a one man party who lit up every room he ever entered with his ebullience and appetite for creating and sharing enjoyment.

He was born in rural Mississippi in1917 moving to Memphis as a toddler. It was in that bustling metropolis that he grew up and learned to become an entertainer who combined the talents of a dancer/hoofer, comedian, singer, talent show host and radio disc jockey. I think that’s what you call an all rounder!

Leaving Booker T Washington High School in 1936 with the depression suffocating the nation he took his talents on the road throughout the South with the legendary F S Walcott Rabbit Foot Minstrels (commemorated in a lovely rowdy song by The Band). ‘The Foots’ were a glorious travelling tent show troupe which operated between 1900 and the late 1950s bringing comedy sketches and salty song and dance routines to any town, large or small, where the tent could be pitched and an audience drummed up.

Arriving in town the brass band would parade with comedians like Rufus announcing the wonders of the show to come. The stage, boards on a folding frame, would be set up with gasoline lamps acting as footlights. While the liquored up audience waited for Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey or Louis Jordan to come on Rufus would whip up the crowd with comic dancing and jive jokes tailored to the local audience and introduce the dancing girls who invariably managed to increase the show’s temperature by several degrees centigrade.

After the War Rufus was back in Memphis working for a textile company and married with three children; Carla, Marvell and Vaneese. He hooked up again with his high school mentor, Nat D Williams, who was a key figure in Memphis Afro-American culture as teacher, journalist, talent spotter and pioneering radio host. Nat D recognised that Rufus’ energy, affability and show business smarts gave him all the necessary qualities to be a successful talent show host. So, Rufus began to regularly host the shows at the Palace Theatre on Beale Street once announcing the youthful Riley (B. B.) King as the winner in the late 40s. Rufus was still hoping to make it as a singer though singles on labels like Star, Chess and Meteor shifted few units.

The next stage in Rufus career was again given impetus in 1951 through the good offices of Nat D who brought him on to be a disc jockey for WDIA – a Memphis radio station which, uniquely at the time, used black DJs to broadcast to the considerable black audience in Memphis and anywhere else 50,000 watts of power could reach!

Radio was king in the first post war decade reaching into almost every home in the country and providing the soundtrack to millions of lives through immensely popular shows that gathered whole families round the set.

Rufus, with his easy charm was a radio natural and his, ‘Hoot and Holler’ show became essential listening not just for his own community but also for young white hipsters like Elvis Presley or Steve Cropper who just knew that they could play those rhythm and blues too if they were only given the chance.

As it happened in Memphis there was a man, one of the true heroes of American music, Sam Phillips who was able to make those dreams come true. Rufus, in the early 1950s was often at Sun studios at 706 Union Avenue working with Phillips as he recorded brilliant blues sides by artists like Howling Wolf. It was Rufus who provided Sun with its first breakout single in 1953 with, ‘Bear Cat’ an answer record to Mama Thornton’s,’Hound Dog’ which reached No 3 in the R&B chart (this launched a series of legal actions but that’s another story).

Rufus let rip with the full force of his personality matching Big Mama all the way while adding a sly spin of his own to the story of mismatched lovers. The featured stinging guitar is by Joe Hill Louis.

Turn this one up as loud as you can!

Rufus, like all the other black artists at Sun then faded into the background as Sam Phillips realised that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow could only be found by recording white artists, preferably young handsome guys, who could combine blues, rhythm and blues and country influences to create a new sound on the face of the earth – rock ‘n’ roll. Enter Elvis Presley! Elvis was aware of Rufus through listening to WDIA and he always retained a fondness for ‘Tiger Man’ which Rufus had recorded at Sun.

Rufus continued to combine full time work at the textile plant with his entertainment career throughout the 1950s. Meanwhile, Carla who had been born in 1942 was soon displaying the family relish for singing and performing. At the tender age of 10 she joined the WDIA sponsored Teen Town Singers and was combining her school duties with twice weekly rehearsals and a radio show every Saturday. Rufus could hear that his daughter had an attractive voice and unusual poise for such a young artist.

So, in 1959 Rufus decided to approach a new Memphis recording outfit, Satellite Records, headed up by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton and persuaded them that they needed to move beyond the country and pop markets R&B to thrive in their home town and the rest of the nation. Rufus and Carla recorded the duet, ‘Cause I Love You’ at Satellite’s studio and operational headquarters which was located in a former cinema/theatre on McLemore Avenue. And, voila! Satellite had its first hit (helped by the distribution deal agreed with sharp eared Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records). Soon after Jim and Estelle would use the first two letters of their surnames and create Stax Records.

The next time Carla’s name appeared on a record it was on the Atlantic label with a song she had written as a 16 year old, ‘Gee Whizz (Look At His Eyes). Gee Whizz is a heart and soul on the sleeve love ballad that could only have been written by a teenager in the delirious throes of adolescent love/infatuation. Do you remember that oh so sweet feeling as you gazed at your love object? While no one could or should maintain that obsessive attachment to the dream of love its a poor soul that does not cherish a small remembrance of those heady days. And, nothing can swoosh you back to those days with more efficiency than Carla’s utterly beguiling vocal here. Lean back, close your eyes and swoon!

The song became an immediate radio favourite and once Atlantic was behind it and Carla appeared on the nations premier pop TV show, ‘American Bandstand’ there was no stopping, ‘Gee’ from ascending to the top 10 of the national charts and a permanent place in the memories of a generation.

Carla then issued a string of singles on Atlantic and then Stax demonstrating that the attractively naive young girl was growing into a smart and sassy young woman who could convincingly embody a full range of adult emotions with engaging vocal style. Listen to her here in 1963 with a song especially beloved by her European fans, ‘I’ll Never Stop Loving You’. You’d have to have a stony heart and leaden feet not to be up and practicing your finest twists and twirls to this one!

In that same year of 1963 Rufus showed that there was still life in the old trouper as he released a series of driving singles calling us with unflagging energy and wit to get up off our butts and out onto the dance floor. The most potent and memorable of these, ‘ Walking The Dog’ has become something of a Soul/R&B standard (even receiving the accolade of a cover by The Rolling Stones). The video clip shows Rufus in full flow.

The mid 60s saw Carla and Stax records really hit their stride utilising teams of brilliant in house writers and the incomparable Booker T and The MGs as the house band. A perfect example of the power of such collaborations is a Carla classic from 1966: B -A – B – Y. This pearl was authored by the great partnership of Isaac Hayes (a Teen Town alumni like Carla) and David Porter. There’s gospel testifying here as well as soul enticement in Carla’s seductive vocal backed by a steam heat rhythm section topped off with a straight into your skull chorus – a big hit guaranteed!

The canny bosses at Stax observing the success of Motown duet partnerships like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell had the inspired idea of teaming Carla with the top man at Stax and in fact the top man in soul of his era – Otis Redding. Dubbed the King and Queen of Soul they recorded some excellent sides together including the big international hit, ‘Tramp’. However, the track I’ve chosen to spotlight the duo is a wonderful reverie, ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby ..’. Carla wisely never tries to match the inferno intensity of Otis, rather her caressing coolness offsets him perfectly making for a seriously sexy record. I like to listen to this one with a large Gin and Tonic at hand.

Rufus and Carla were stars of the triumphant Stax/Volt tour of Europe in 1967 which has become legendary for the intensity of the artists performances and the fervour of the audience responses.

Back in Memphis Rufus continued to produce some excellent sides including, ‘Memphis Train’ and, ‘Sophisticated Sissy’ before striking gold again with a novelty dance song, ”The Funky Chicken’ which proved he had learned a lesson or two about pleasing an audience back in the Rabbit Foot days! When it comes to selling a song Rufus has few competitors. I have never managed to play this song only once so be prepared.

The end of the 60s closed out the glory days for both Rufus and Carla though both would record some valuable material later. But, given the history above it is clear that singly and together they were a significant element of the magnificence of Memphis music in that golden era. In an age of fluff and flummery it’s good to be reminded that some things and some people lived lives and made music that will always endure because it was grounded in everyday experience turned through talent and heightened expression into true art. Now, Baby that is real!

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The Immortal Jukebox : Where It All Began

Recently I have had some readers ask me where the title for my blog comes from and what the theme or mission of The Immortal Jukebox is. The simple answer is that the Jukebox is a hopefully entertaining vehicle for my musical enthusiasms across all the genres of popular music and popular culture that have obsessed me for the past half century or so.

I want to celebrate the great, discover and promote the neglected and tip my hat to the artists who have given me so much pleasure and enlightenment. When I started I started I had no idea if anyone beyond my family and faithful friends would be interested in reading my musings.

I am delighted to have found such a significant community of intelligent, lively minded readers!

Below is the original post on the Jukebox which might set my later ramblings in context!

Red and green and yellow – buzzing and glowing with the neon primary colour promise of dangerous thrills and illicit pleasures.

A sensual blow to the solar plexus when in wonderfully mechanical operation.  The chosen 45 is lifted from the racks and placed with a hugely satisfying clunk onto the turntable and then the arm housing the magic needle descends and …..   Two or three minutes of temporal and eternal bliss.  Play that one again!

Maybe the jukebox is in a roadhouse just outside of Memphis where a truck driver who loves ‘all kinds’ of music gets to hear the singers who can wrap up heartache and joy and project them through the vinyl into the hearts and souls of the dancers and drinkers and the quiet girls in the corner.

Maybe it’s in a dancehall in Hibbing where the iron ground vibrates with magnetic energy and the bitterly cold wind hits heavy on the borderline.  Here a tousle headed kid with a teeming head full of ideas and an unassailable sense of destiny has an epiphany when the lonesome whistle blows and he has no need to ask for a translation of Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom!

Maybe it’s in a coffee bar in Liverpool where two teenagers levitating with energy and talent and the desire to make the world anew can go when they are sagging off school and dreaming impossible dreams of songs with their names in brackets after the title.

Maybe it’s in Detroit where an ex boxer and jazz buff with enough entrepreneurial ambition to found an empire has figured out that the empire could be built on the talents of the hometown teenagers of his own race – once he had organised them.  He understood that the white world was waiting, unknowingly, for a vision of a young America that he could manufacture and supply in the form of a production line of vibrant, electrifying   45’s … Are you ready for a brand new beat?

More likely it’s in a thousand towns all over the globe where men and women meet to drink and laugh and cry.  Where they go to find love, laughter and sex and temporary forgetting.

On the jukebox there’s always that song … The one that makes the hairs rise on the back of your neck … The one that makes your heart pump faster and faster … The one that makes you ask the first time you hear it ‘Who’s that!’ … The one you’ll never forget as long as you live, the one that will always embody youth and hope and the promise of a better, bigger life.  The one to play again and again, learning every word , every riff and lick, the one you saved up to buy to play at home as loud as your neighbours would allow.

The Immortal Jukebox will celebrate 100 of those records.  Not the 100 best records of all time or my hundred favourite records.  These will be a 100 records that would turn your head when you hear them come blasting out of those jukebox speakers.  A 100 records that sound great whether you are drunk or sober.  A 100 records that pull you in whether you are in the giddy throes of new love or bemoaning the love you have just lost.  A 100 records to give you hope or consolation.  A 100 records that would have you reaching in your pocket for the money to play that song again.

Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow!

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Somewhere in my memory and imagination there’s always a train. Maybe it’s the evening train soothing me to sleep or perhaps it’s the night train letting loose its eerie lonesome whistle as it heads off into the darkness in search of the dawn.

Trains heading from shore to shore, north and south, east and west, over the mountains, through the valleys and the deserts, across the endless plains. Travellers, clutching their ticket to ride, look out the window at the passing show wondering anxiously or excitedly about the welcome waiting for them at their destination.

We get on trains for all kinds of reasons. Because we got in trouble and had to roam, because we need to make a new home, a new life, in a new place where nobody knows our name. Because we are starting a new adventure or running back to safety after a failed adventure. Because we need a hand to hold or because we are wrenching away the hands that want to hold us down and hold us back.

We wait on station platforms to wave our children away as they move inevitably, happily, heart-wrenchingly into adult life. We wave the boys away as they go off to war and stand sombrely as some of them come home again to rest in the ground; never to leave the home place again.

Trains are alive. They scream and shout. They roar and they rumble. They keep up a constant conversation with the world as they clank and click, click and clank, over the shining steel rails. They echo as they rush through the tunnels pushing the very air out of their way.

Above all trains have, are, Rhythm! As soon as you get on a train you can’t help but listen to and fall under the spell of that rhythm. It’s no wonder that songwriters and singers love to write train songs. Trains – their rhythm, their sounds, their names and the stories that train journeys reveal about love and life and history are manna for the songwriter in every genre of popular music.

Thinking about this post I easily drew up a list of about 100,’Favourite’ train songs I thought I would like to write about (Warning! There’s a series coming). I’ve managed after much internal debate to limit myself to just four songs today. So take a stroll to the dining car, order your refreshment of choice, settle back in your seat and listen up!

First, from 1965 with fellow Impressions Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, a marvel from the gentle genius of soul – Curtis Mayfield.

Whenever I feel the night closing in and it’s starting to feel like November in my soul I find that turning to the songs of Curtis Mayfield is a sure-fire way to see the light of dawn rising and feel the promise of the month of May approaching.

Curtis’ work and vision of life was grounded in his faith. The very strong faith of a man who was both strong and gentle. A man and a musician who spoke with authority and wisdom about life and love, war and peace, justice and injustice. Curtis was a warrior for a better world, a champion of civil rights and for people standing up proudly for their human dignity whatever their race or station in life. He always had one eye fixed on the shore across the Jordan while keeping the other focussed on the need to build the Kingdom right here, right now. Curtis’ warrior’s weapons were melody, rhythm and folk poetry which he deployed with consummate skill.

Listen to the way his falsetto vocal and the arrangement of the sing beckon you lean in, to listen closely and to get on board. Curtis Mayfield had the very rare and extraoridinary gift of being able to speak of faith, love and justice not as pious platitudes but as living fires expressed and incarnated in his songs, his guitar playing and his vocals. His unutterably lovely guitar style feels like the strings in Chekhov’s heaven being softly plucked to wake and warn us as we journey through life as individuals and neighbours. He reminds us of our duties in both roles. That’s what prophets are sent to us to do.

Next, from his 1991 live album, ‘Deep Neon’ John Stewart with the compressed epic, ‘Runaway Train’.

John Stewart as a songwriter and performer with The Cumberland Three, The Kingston Trio and as a solo artist made the term Americana a living, breathing, up and walking reality long before it became a term beloved of over eager genre defining journalists. John Stewart looms in my mind like a figure out of one of the great Westerns directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks – think of someone who’s two parts Henry Fonda and one part James Stewart with a singing voice like the wind crossing the Painted Desert and a guitar style that can summon up the runaway train of American History.

This version of a song originally recorded in 1987 has something of the lion in winer about it which makes it all the more poignant as it describes the dangers of the curves around midnight and the flashing red warnings unseen in the rain. Stewart knows that steel rails and hard lives are always in twos and that too easily we light the fuses on our relationships without thinking about the cost for those who remain. And he does it with a hell of a guitar riff!

In the late 1960s and through the following decade in particular John Stewart created a series of mythopoetic records that speak of an America and an American people that’s filled with a continental grandeur and generosity as well as fabled characters with shoulders broad enough to carry the past while facing unafraid the challenges of the future.

Coming into the depot now from Jamaica are The Wailers with a live in the studio 1973 version of the irresistible, ‘Stop That Train I’m Leaving’.

Commonly at this time The Rolling Stones were described as the best live band in the World and there’s no doubt that they had a strong claim to that title. But, for my money the real holders of the crown were The Wailers. In Bob Marley and Peter Tosh they had two winning songwriters who were also entrancing vocalists and deeply charismatic performers. The rhythm sections of brothers, Aston, ‘Family Man’ and Carlton, ‘Carly’ Barrett (base and drums respectively) are only rivalled in my estimation by Duck Dunn and Al Jackson from Booker T and The MGs for the ability to establish and maintain a groove that never lets go. Earl Lindo adds the swelling colourful keyboard textures and the legendary Joe Higgs adds vocal seasonings and percussion fills in support of the band he had mentored from their boyhoods.

You can feel the heat and languor of the Jamaican sun in this recording of Peter Tosh’s song and understand how the train in question might have been a swelteringly slow ride. Country boys would have looked up from the fields as the train went by and thought that it wouldn’t be too hard to hop aboard (if they could avoid the conductor) and see whether the delights of Kingston town were all they were promised to be in story and song. Jamaica was and is a deeply unequal society which offers few opportunities for advancement for the poor beyond music and sport. Reggae music in particular became the vehicle whereby those seemingly born to live small found a way to get up, stand up and walk tall in the world.

Finally, I turn to the song that gives this post it’s title – the peerless Hank Williams with, ‘I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow’.

Hank Williams. Hank Williams. Hank Williams.

When I think of Hank I think of a figure straight out of myth. A figure from Homer, Virgil or Dante. In a typically artful song Leonard Cohen speaks of Hank never answering the question of quite how lonely life does get but instead coughing all night long 100 floors above him in the Tower of Song. Cohen is deeply versed in literature and American song so I have no doubt there is no irony in his ranking of himself and Hank.

Hank Williams consistently had the power in his work to command your attention by imposing and projecting his wounded spirit and will into a song with such intensity that listening to him is almost always as troubling as it is inspiring and rewarding. I doubt that anyone has from such seemingly slender musical resources ever had such a gigantic impact on popular music.

Listening to Hank I feel as if I am sitting with my tribe round some ancient campfire when out of the snowy mist an unknown, unknowable, wandering bard appears. Without hesitation he offers his songs of loss and loneliness: the loss or loneliness we all know or fear. As he sings the listeners, the fire and the night are stilled until, his song sung, Hank, the eternal stranger, without adieu vanishes into the darkness he came from.

Notes: Thanks to Glen for pointing me to the best video to illustrate People Get Ready

If you are new to the Jukebox do take a few minutes to check out the archive! Especially the first post which sets out some of the aims of the blog. I am really pleased when my readers take the time to comment – it’s enormously encouraging. Tell me what you think, send in suggestions – set the Jukebox spinning!

Centre Stage – Doris Troy!

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If like me you’re an assiduous reader of the indexes of reference works and biographies concerning gospel, soul and pop music in the 1960s the name of Doris Troy will certainly be familiar as she features in the histories of some of the most famous and successful acts of the era.

And, I do mean famous and successful for Doris a gifted songwriter and singer in her own right worked as a backup vocalist with; The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Dusty Springfield, George Harrison, Carly Simon, The Drifters, Solomon Burke and Chuck Jackson and that’s by no means an exhaustive list. Consciously or not you will have listened to Doris’ rich and vibrant tones as the radio played such classics as ‘My Sweet Lord’, ‘You’re So Vain’, ‘In The Middle of Nowhere’, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ or ‘Tell Him I’m Not Home’ all of which were all the better for her contributions. The latter song, one of the powerhouse singer Chuck Jackson’s finest, shows the uncredited Doris making a major contribution to a considerable hit through the clarity and charm of her answer/commentary vocal.

As an excellent recent music documentary directed by Morgan Neville, ‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’ has shown there is an enormous wealth of talent and fascinating life stories to be discovered within the ranks of the backup singers who ensure that the spotlit stars’ vocals are carefully framed and supported to emphasise their strengths and minimise their weaknesses.

Doris, along with colleagues such as sisters Dionne and Dee Warwick and Cissie Houston (mother of Whitney) in America and Madeline Bell in Britain used their grounding in the disciplines of singing in gospel choirs to know when to swell the sound and when to lay back to feature the lead vocalist to best effect. From a record producers point of view such talents are invaluable as their versatility, modesty and ability to work accurately and quickly in the studio saved time and money and left the studio crew free to concentrate (if necessary) on encouraging or handhiolding the sometimes fractious stars whose names would grace the resultant record and hopefully the charts.

Doris was the New York city born child of a Baptist preacher who loved to sing from her toddling days. Though her family wanted her to use her obvious talents solely in the service of the church Doris could not help but to also want to sing the kind of rhythm and blues and soul songs she heard on the radio as she grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, when Doris was only 16 she got a job as an usherette at the high temple of black music in New York, the Apollo Theatre, where luminaries like Ray Charles and James Brown gave masterclasses in singing and the art of winning and holding an audience.

Doris was an avid listener and a quick learner. Soon she was singing with a jazz tinged group, ‘The Halos’ and trying out her hand as a songwriter. In 1960 Dee Clark provided Doris with her first vinyl credit and top 40 hit when he sang the breezy,’ How About That’ on the Vee Jay label. Hooking up with the Warwicks and Cissy Houston she became a regular in the New York recording studios working with the cream of the instrumental and vocal talents of the time. She helped to create the sophisticated yet passionate sound mixing the gospel and soul traditions with added latino and broadway seasonings which distinguished early 60s records created in the Big Apple.

All the while Doris was writing her own songs seeking to find her own artistic voice and bag a hit of her own. In 1963 she gloriously achieved this ambition when she wrote and recorded the song most people will always associate with her, ‘Just One Look’.

Doris had taken the song demo (produced by Halo colleague Gregory Carroll) to Atlantic Records where the ever canny Jerry Wexler immediately issued the demo unaltered recognising a sure fire hit when he heard one! The song was a top 10 hit in America and a top 40 hit in the UK (the springy beat group cover by The Hollies made it to the dizzying heights of Number 2).

‘Just One Look’ is one of those soul/pop songs that just fizzes with life. Doris’ vocal and the ebullient production are irresistible to these ears. Doris deliriously summons up the the fast heart beating, head swirling, I want to shout it from the rooftops! sensation of having fallen irrevocably in love. That’s a story that can never grow old and Doris’ song will always tell a lovely truth reminding us anew of the joys of life and love.

Doris was especially beloved by the fanatical supporters of soul music in the UK – a group which in the mid to late 1960s often seemed to take on the devout dedication of a religious fraternity obsessively seeking out icons and relics of their faith in the form of black vinyl 7 inch 45rpm records. Enough of these devotees bought another of her self-penned songs, ‘What’ cha Gonna Do About It’ for it to scrape into the top 40 in 1964.

Here, in under two minutes, Doris gives a virtuoso display of pop soul singing sliding through her vocal gears as she cajoles, castigates and charms her surprisingly reluctant lover. Surely no one could resist such an appeal! I also love the rare use of the legal term, ‘Double Jepoardy’ in the lyric.

Doris found London of the swinging sixties very much to her taste finding a well informed musical community which fully appreciated the depth of her talent and her easy charm and affability. Musicians and producers simply loved working with a woman who made performing and recording a delight. She was one of those people who took a genuine interest in the people she came across whether they were superstars or the studio janitor.

She was admiringly referred to as Mama Soul and soon became a fixture in the London clubs and recording studios. She struck up a particularly close friendship with Madeline Bell and together they sang soulfully on many of the great 60s hits of Britain’s finest ever female vocalist, Dusty Springfield. They collaborated with Dusty to sublime effect on, ‘In The Middle Of Nowhere’ and, ‘Little By Little’. Together they produced records that were every bit as soulful as anything coming out of Motown in the same era (something freely acknowledged by Detroit’s finest when they toured Britain).

The final recording of Doris I’ve chosen to showcase here is a particular favourite the wonderfully swinging, stinging and bluesy, ‘He’s Qualified’ from 1967 on Capitol which goes some way to prove the old record collectors adage that it’s on the ‘B’ side of singles that some of the finest 60s gems are to be found.

As the 60s drew to a close Doris found herself in the improbable position of occupying an office in the headquarters of the Beatles Record Company and counter cultural fairground, Apple Records. The Fab Four had always been afficianados of the vocal stylings of black pop and soul singers and like everyone else they were won over by the Doris’ generous and caring personality. George Harrison produced an LP on Apple by Doris and recruited a veritable who’s who of musical movers and shakers including Eric Clapton to play on the album. To my mind the result shows too many head chefs overwhelming the songs but the record still repays a listen – especially the songs co-written with another secret hero of the 60s Klaus Voorman.

Actually Doris was involved in one great record during her period at Apple: Billy Preston’s magisterial, ‘That’s The Way God Planned It’ which for Billy and Doris must have brought back wonderful memories of their gospel roots. I defy anyone not to get out of their chair and testify along to this one!

Doris’ continued to record and perform in the 70s and 80s though now largely limited to an audience of appreciative long time fans. Her life and career took another extraordinary turn in the mid 1980s when her sister Vy and brother in law Ken Whydro wrote a musical based on Doris’ life titled, ‘Mama I Want To Sing’. The show was a celebrated long running triumph for its composers and for Doris who took on the role of her own mother for over a decade raising the roof of theatres all over the globe.

Doris died on February 16 2004. The affection she was held in within the music world was demonstrated by the reminiscences offered by Dionne Warwick, Valerie Simpson and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun at her funeral. I Imagine there cannot have been a dry eye in the church when her companion in the chorus on so many great records, Cissy Houston summed up Doris’ soul and character by singing, ‘If I Can Help Somebody’.

Back in the early 1940s a young girl declared what she wanted to do with her god given gifts – ‘Mama I Want To Sing’. I think we can safely say that Doris Troy kept her promise to herself and did her Mama proud.

Note: The best starting point to appreciate the treasures in Doris’ career is the Kent Records compilation, ”The Doris Troy Anthology 1960 – 1996′.

Promised Land Calling

‘The American lives … for his goals, for the future. Life for him is always becoming .. ‘ (Albert Einstein)

‘ To be an American is to imagine a destiny rather than to inherit one; since we have always been, in so far as we are Americans at all, inhabitants of myth rather than history.’ (Leslie Fielder)

‘Well she was an American Girl raised on promises – she couldn’t help thinking there was a little more to life somewhere else’ (Tom Petty)

Americans are always on the move. The road, the river and the very sky above all offer up territory to be travelled through in search of a new life – a fuller, truer life than the life you just happened to be born in. American lives, at least in the imagination, can always be started again, reborn and remade in a new place in the new world. And, what else but the Promised Land would a bible drenched culture call this fabled home away from home?

Songs about moving on, moving away, moving up and moving forward are a constant theme within the tradition of American song. Many American songwriters like Bruce Springsten and John Fogerty are virtual voyageurs and cartographers of the American spirit sending back enticing reports from the road detailing the wonders and discoveries to be found somewhere beyond the narrow confines of a childhood home’s city limits.

No songwriter in popular music has excelled Chuck Berry in converying a sense of physical and imaginative movement in the very fabric of his compositions. A Chuck Berry song usually leaps into life like a Coupe de Ville accelerating powerfully, smoothly and thrillingly away from a stop light onto a beckoning open road. Chuck will take one glance at his rear view mirror but his heart, his mind and his imagination are engaged with the seemingly unlimited promises of the highway over the hill.

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One aspect of his songwriting genius is the way he rhythmicallly marries his words and his melodies so that the songs glide and flow carrying the listeners attention all the while. A Chuck Berry song always tells a story, often in the great American tradition a tall story, that instantly grabs your attention even as you fasten your seatbelt for the exciting ride ahead. His songs are filed with acute journalistic observations of American life and culture expressed with an artists airy zest and élan. They are almost immediately memorable and musicians know that played with attack they offer guaranteed approval from any audience, anywhere. If you don’t love Chuck Berry’s songs you ain’t no rock ‘n’ roller!

Promised Land, one of his last great songs, was written during his unfortunate prison experience in the early 1960s. It seems he needed to borrow an atlas from the prison library to plot the, ‘Poor Boy ‘s’ epic journey across a continent in search of freedom and a better life (a life no doubt mirrored in Chuck’s imagination as the doors clanged shut each prison evening). The artful use of the atlas is clearly reflected in the mellifluous use of the place names sprinkled throughout the song. The song gleams with life giving detail; the (Grey)hound stranding them in Birminghmam, the Poor Boy sitting pretty above Alberquerque in his Houston bought silk suit, the thirteen minutes waiting time before the jet would arrive at the terminal gate. We feel we could take over the call back to Tidewater 41009 and tell the folks back home all about Poor Boy’s adventures.

I’ve chosen Johnny Allen’s 1971 deliriously driving Swamp Pop take on the song to play here because it’s a magnificent version and because I love the sound of the accordion (played here by Cajun hero Belton Richard) in overdrive. This is a version of the song that makes me feel three floors drunk even when I’ve been drinking water all day! I also feel sure, at least for the duration of the song, that my dancing would surely burn up the hardwood floor of any South Louisiana Honky Tonk lucky enough to have me visiting.

As a special treat I’ m also sharing a storming live version from The Dave Edmunds Band featuring the cream of British Rock n Roll musicians including Andy Fairweather Low and the magnificent Geraint Watkins on accordion. Geraint, the Celtic Cajun, had been in Johnnie Allen’s band when he toured Britain in the early 1980s and here he brings a wonderful woozy swagger to the song that makes me want to hit replay every time I hear it.

I wonder whether California, the Poor Boy’s Promised Land, really did turn out to be flowing with milk and honey. For wherever you go you travel with the baggage of your own history. You can change your name and your Zipcode with ease but changing yourself? But that’s a story and a song theme for another day on the Jukebox.

Today let’s just turn up the dial and revel in the journey …. ‘Left my home in Norfolk Virginia …

Notes:

Johnnie Allen:

Johnnie was christened John Allen Guillot in Rayne Louisiana in 1938. He was a Cajun farm boy with Spanish and French genes and a distinguished musical heritage in that a great uncle was the great accordionist and pioneer recording artist Joseph Falcon (check out his wonderful, ‘Allons a Lafayette’ to transport yourself back to the late 1920s).

He was gigging from his earliest teenage years and proving himself to be an affecting singer. With his band the Krazy Kats from the late 1950s he proved a master of the delicious musical confection called, Swamp Pop’ which built on the Cajun base with seasonings of rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, country and rhythm and blues music. His, ‘Lonely Days and Lonely Nights’ from 1958 is a staple of South Louisiana culture. Throughout the 1960s he pursued his music career while developing a distinguished career in education.

He combines his love and expertise in music and education as the author of two excellent books on Cajun culture, ‘Memories: A Pictorial History of South Louisiana Music’ and, ‘Born To Be A Loser’ a fascinating portrait of the troubled life of the singer and songwriter Jimmy Donley. Johnnie has proved to be a marvellous advocate for his native culture. There is an excellent compilation of his recording history entitled, ‘Promised Land’ on the British Ace label.

Floyd Soileau:

Floyd Soileau is one of the regional independent producers whose musical and commercial awareness were crucial to the rich development of American musical life in the post second world war period. Operating out of Ville Platte as a DJ and record shop owner he had a keen eye for talent and soon his Swallow and Jin labels were producing outstanding traditional French language Cajun records as well as Swamp Pop sides. Take the time to listen to complications of these labels and you’ll enjoy a hugely enjoyable eduction in Louisiana’s musical culture featuring a roster of legendary talent.

Promised Land – The history of a hit:

Promised Land, Chuck Berry’s song from 1964, was recorded by Johnnie Allen in 1971 and was a regional favourite. In 1974 the ever alert British DJ and author Charlie Gillett issued it in the UK on his Oval label as the lead single on his magnificent compilation of South Louisiana music, ‘Another Saturday Night’ (now available on the Ace label).

Amazingly some 8000 sides were sold enough to approach the outskirts of the singles charts. In 1980 it was reissued through the punk/pub rock label Stiff and again sold well. 1982 saw it issued again as a single and as part of the compilation. Johnnie Allen toured Britain and showed himself to be a winning and dynamic performer. Finally it was included on a catch all Virgin collection called, ‘Country Legends” in 2006. It has now been awarded a gold disc for achieving sales of over a million copies as a single and as part of collections.

Geraint Watkins:

Geraint is a musician I seem to have been watching ever since I discovered the joys of live music in the early 1970s. He is a hugely talented singer, accordionist and keyboard player good enough to play with Paul McCartney, Van Morrison and Nick Lowe. His solo work is filed with deeply felt and beautifully played songs. In particular look out for the incandescent, ‘Only A Rose’ from his superlative CD, ‘In A Bad Mood’.

For all his distinguished service with the music world’s top table artists a part of me will always remember with most affection his time with bar band maestros The Balham Alligators who dispensed crazy Cajun delights week after week in a London music pub I used to frequent, ‘The Hare And Hounds’. Frequently both the band and audience were very well ‘refreshed’ and evenings phased in a blur of delirious delight. I will never forget and always treasure the sight of Geraint, dressed in shorts and unmatched socks with a sleeping dog at his feet, launching into his own brilliant, ‘Marie Marie’ with the audience roaring him along.

This post is dedicated to the memory of the late Charlie Gillett. He was a pioneering popular music historian, a gifted writer and a marvellous radio broadcaster. He was generous in sharing his deep though lightly worn knowledge and he was a ceaseless advocate for the best music whether it was from Tennessee or Timbuktu.

He is the Patron Saint of The Immortal Jukebox and the best teacher and mentor I’ve ever known.

Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories

‘It’s just an ordinary story about the way things go … Round and round nobody knows but the highway goes on forever’ (Rodney Crowell)

‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.’ (Raymond Carver)

I live an ordinary life. So do you. Yet, I guarantee that if we sat down and talked honestly about the lives we have led, the people we have met, the narrative arc of our lives; including the successes, the mis-steps, the fulfilled and broken dreams, the regrets and the wonders, that we would each think the other has led a truly extraordinary life.

All our lives contain experiences we struggle to understand and come to terms with: unresolved longings, fault lines, tender wounds, hidden scars. In a very real sense we will always remain mysteries to ourselves.

I believe that our attraction to art – to stories and songs – is because the best of them resonate with and go some way to help explain the eternal mystery of why we exist and why we have turned out the way we have. A great song can be a pilgrim’s companion and staff as we navigate through life’s slalom ride of fate and happenstance attempting to fashion a connected, meaningful life.

The singer-songwriters featured on the Jukebox today; Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier, share the ability to look compassionately, honestly and unflinchingly at ‘everyday lives’ illuminating them with sharp eyed flinty observations and heart rending detail. These are songs about the dignity and indignities of real lives not adverts for ‘lifestyles’. Popular culture, as these artists demonstrate, can offer far more than mere consumer branding: it can offer us the insights and balm of art we yearn for as we struggle to make it through, or knock off, another ordinary day.

Iris Dement early childhood was spent, as the youngest of fourteen children on a tiny island in rural north eastern Arkansas before her father moved the family to California, as millions had done before, in search of work and a better future. Crucially, she was also raised in the bosom of the Pentecostal Church with a mother who daily sang its sweet consoling hymns as she went about her domestic tasks – a process Iris recreates with tender love in her song, ‘Mama’s Opry’.

The influence of those hymns pervades all of Iris’ songs though her own relationship with faith has been troubled. Her songs seem to me always to be charged with a sense of the sublime, a conviction that every life, however small, burdened and disregarded carries a light that shines through the darkest hours.

Above all, the gospel influence is felt by the listener through her voice: a gloriously cracked country voice that throbs with yearning passion. It’s a voice made to embody intense emotions, a voice that cannot and will not be denied. At the end of an Iris Dement song I always feel both uplifted and exhausted no matter what the subject of the song because her vocals are freighted with a humanity of heart, flesh, blood, bone and spirit that hits you like a punch to the solar plexus. A punch that takes away the breath while reawakening you to the miracle of every breath you take.

‘Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day’ is Iris Dement’s finest song and one of the best songs ever written about the passions, dreads and torments involved in living a seemingly ‘everyday’ life. The song steadily, plainly and without hysteria or pity presents us with a portrait of a mature, self aware woman struggling to come to terms with the sense of strangled entrapment she feels in her marriage, her job and her community.

The beauty and art of the song lies in the dry eyed simplicity with which the weight of accumulating straws on the back of the protagonist are evoked: the rain, the buzzing alarm clock, the marital conversations and lovemaking reduced to mechanical routine. The radio mast lights blink on simultaneously highlighting and mocking her dreams of another life with a different name in another town. She knows she will never make it to Couer d’Alene. And yet, though easy’s getting harder every day she carries on. She carries on.

Mary Gauthier writes songs of bright boned shocking intensity. Before she took up songwriting in her thirties she had lived a life filled with more drama and incident than Dickens himself would have dared invented in a multi volume novel. She has been; an orphaned foundling, a teenage runaway and a street and college student of philosophy. She has known the degredation of addiction and the unremitting daily struggles of recovery. She has been arrested and jailed and also triumphed as a highly successful Cajun ccok and restauranter.

All the while with her her keen intelligence and moral rigour she was storing away these experiences so that when she came to write her own songs she could have no truck with dishonesty or glib sentimentality. There is an almost brutal matter of factness in many of her songs. She is able to honestly describe desperate lives lived the gutter because she has been there. There is respect but no romance in her descriptions of such lives. It is the test of a true artist to be able to present recognisable living characters but not to idly judge them. The reader or listener can do do that if they feel comfortable casting a stone.

‘I Drink’ was played by Bob Dylan on one of his Theme Time Radio Hour radio programmes – an accolade given to very few contemporary songwriters. Bob, the Keeper of American Song, would have recognised the spare elegance of the song and the craft involved in creating a wholly believable genealogy of alcoholism.

This is not the testament of someone who has won through. It is the confession of someone anchored in addiction unblinkingly reporting on the history and daily realities of that condition. The slowly dropping hours and self absorption of the habitual drinker are superbly evoked as the narrator relates the banal deatils of how he cooks his TV dinner and the flatly acknowledged realisation that the face in the mirror is the same as that of the father silhouetted in the lighter flame a generation earlier.

Mary Gauthier words sung carefully with a court reporters calm and measured clarity move beyond prose into the realm of folk poetry especially in the nursery rhyme chorus which hits home with the keening knell of pure truth. As the silence descends at the end of the song you are left bereft and sadly aware of the terrible imprisoning and yet alluring power, for the prisoner, of such cycles of defeat and pain.

Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier with immense skill show us lives that but for fortune any one of us might have led or might be on the way to leading. Their visions are not comfortable to confront but to avoid such visions is to impoverish our humanity and our moral imaginations.

So Pilgrim, as you listen remember that everyone you meet today and tomorrow is almost certainly in the middle of a much harder battle than you can see. I dont know about you but I’m sure that, wherever it comes from, I need a little mercy now.

Further Listening:

You can’t go wrong with these artists. All their CDs will repay your time with compound interest.

With Iris Dement I would start with, ‘My Life’ before moving on to, ‘Infamous Angel’, ‘Lifeline’ (a deeply moving gospel set), ‘The Way I Should’ and her latest the comeback classic, ‘Sings The Delta’.

With Mary Gauthier I would start with, ‘Drag Queens in Limousines’ and then move on to, ‘Mercy Now’, ‘The Foundling’, ‘Filth and Fire’ and ‘Trouble and Love’.

They are both well represented on YouTube and other sharing sites.

Footnote 30 September 2014:

Many thanks to Mary Gauthier for describing this post as, “Beautifully written” and for alerting her fans to the Jukebox through Twitter.

The Immortal Jukebox A7: Little Richard – Tutti Frutti

‘My heart nearly burst with excitement – I had heard God’. (David Bowie on first hearing Tutti Frutti)

‘Ambition: To Join Little Richard!’ (Entry in Bob Dylan’s High School Yearbook’)

‘It was as if, in a single instant, the world changed from monochrome to technicolour’ (Keith Richards)

Before any truly catyclismic event in world history there are usually foreshadowings and auguries: precursor events that indicate something immense is on its way. I have identified one such sequence in history and set it out below:

In the summer of 1883 in the Sunday Strait between Java and Sumatra the Island of Krakatoa was the location for a volcanic eruption of staggering power. The explosion which destroyed the island was heard in Perth, Australia some 2000 miles away. It was probably the loudest sound ever heard by humankind as the sky grew dark with rock, ash and pumice. Tsunamis were generated as the shock wave reverberated seven times around the planet. Weather patterns and temperatures were disrupted for years on a global scale. The explosion was the equivalent of 200 megatonnes of TNT. In comparison the Atom Bomb explosion over Hiroshima was a mere firecracker.

If you were looking for the epicentre of the world’s scientific ferment in 1904 it is unlikely anyone would have settled on the Patent Office in sleepy Bern, Switzerland. Yet it was there that the 25 year old Albert Einstein had an intellectual epiphany. He realised that mass and energy were not two separate realms but expressions of each other. He expressed this relationship in a beautiful world changing equation (you know, E = MC squared) This was an epochal, paradigm shifting breakthrough that has resounded through science and culture ever since.

Asteroids are rare visitors to this earth but when they do pay us a home visit the effects can be profound. As June ended in 1908 in Tunguska in remote Siberia it seemed that the sky was split in two and covered with fire as an asteroid travelling at more than 33,000 miles per hour exploded trigerring a shock wave that devestated 800 square miles of forest. Eighty million trees lay on their sides levelled like so much matchwood. For days afterward the skies above Asia and Europe were eerily aglow.

In the 1940s as the Second World War proceeded the significance of Einstein’s work for military purposes was sharply appreciated in Washington, Berlin, London and Moscow as teams of dragooned scientists raced to produce a war winning weapon. The race was won in the deserts of the American South West by an international team ironically including many refugees from Hitler’s Reich. Mankind now had the capacity to destroy itself and the Atomic Age was born.

Energy, energy, energy. Energy contained and the power of energy released is the linking factor in all these events. There is something awesome in the contemplation of the overwhelming impact such displays of energy can have upon us.

Immense outpourings of energy expressed in music, film and literature can lead to revolutions in human consciousness that can profoundly alter the landscape of our thoughts and our very dreams. Following such events the cultural climate is forever changed and aftershocks continue to ripple on through the succeeding ages.

One such moment took place at Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio at Rampart Street New Orleans on September 14th 1955 when Little Richard exploded into a version of an outrageously sexy, raucous and filthy song that had long been a staple of his live performances. The savvy producer of the session, Bumps Blackwell, had heard the song during a time out break the musicians had taken in a local bar, the Dew Drop Inn, and instantly realised that, furnished with cleaned up lyrics suitable for listening to on the radio, this was an unstoppable hit with a drive, attack and energy that was something new under the sun and moon in the Crescent City and for all he knew the whole world.

Richard played the frenzied piano himself with the masterful drummer Earl Palmer for once taken aback and struggling to keep up. Lee Allen plays a scintillating sax solo after being given his cue by the vocalist’s trademark screams and hollers. Little Richard, the Little Richard who occupies a permanent treasured chair at the top table of Rock n Roll pioneers and innovators was born as an artist at the very moment he began to play Tutti Frutti.

His vocals are a delirious fusion of the gospel pulpit, the back alley dive and the tent show after hours party. They lift the song beyond jump blues, beyond rhythm and blues into a new territory that incredulous contemporary listeners and musicians and the generations who followed them would light out for in their millions whooping all the way! But very few of them would be able to combine, like Little Richard could, the rapturous, glossolalial soar and swoop with the low down and dirty guttural rasp. For that you maybe needed to be the twelfth child of a family that included both preachers and bootleggers and grow up listening to testifying choirs in the morning and gut bucket blues men late at night. It would also help if you had lived by the train tracks and woken up repeatedly to the sound of the whistle screaming through your town.

Primary among those attempting to reproduce the Little Richard scream was the teenage Paul McCartney who used it extensively when covering Richard’s songs (his vocal party piece was Long Tall Sally, which was one of the two songs he played atop a desk on his last day at school in Liverpool) and he also incorporated it into his own rockers to give them a wildness that would drive the girls crazy.

I’m sure you know that I’m no physicist or mathematician but according to my calculations the energy released in the first thirty seconds of Tutti Frutti as Little Richard leaves Earth’s orbit for the celestial beyond is exactly equal to and more lasting in impact and influence than the Krakatoa explosion!

Perhaps the incantation, ‘Awop Bop Aloo Bop Alop Bam Boom!’ was the unlocking alchemical phrase the Universe had been waiting to hear for many millennia. Who would have thought that such mystic power would have emerged from an omnisexual, mascara wearing son of Macon Georgia!

You can christen Little Richard the Meteor, the Comet, the Quasar or the Architect of Rock n Roll – he deserves all those accolades and all the honours heaped upon him in his mature years. But it is the dionysiac outpouring of energy in Tutti Frutti that will prove his lasting legacy. The universe shook the day he recorded it and it’s still shaking now.