The Immortal Jukebox A9 : Tom T Hall – It Sure Gets Cold In Des Moines


‘ I was much too far out all my life – And not waving but drowning’
(Stevie Smith)

‘Looking at the moon all col and wite and oansome. Lorna said to me, ‘You know Riddley there’s something in us it don’t have no name …. It’s looking out thru our eye hoals .. It’s all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and loan and oansome, Tremmering it is and feart.’ (Russell Hoban – ‘Riddley Walker’).

‘Life is just like that sometimes’. (Tom T Hall)

Armoured and fast in our self-absorption it is remarkably easy to walk through our lives in this world not seeing, not hearing, not feeling almost everything that’s happening all around us. We all have our own particular set of philosophical, cultural and emotional blinkers that help keep out or shield us from those elements of life we would rather not have to confront.

I would contend that none of us is immune from the struggle to recognise, accept and face our primal aloneness as we pass through our fears, our pains and our sorrows. Each life is like an iceberg with only a fraction of its totality visible to ourselves and any outsider. And the iceberg floats above the waterline of a consciousness which descends to fathomless deeps.

One of the reasons we tell and read stories, why we write, listen to and sing songs is to experience a sense of fellow feeling – as you read, as you listen you think to yourself: ‘That’s happened to me’, ‘That rings so true’, ‘I believe that one’.

The subject of this post the great songwriter Tom T Hall has brought those expressions to my lips more that any other artist I can think of. Tom T may just be the best observer of life and shaper of the stories it reveals that American songwriting has ever produced.

Throughout his life – in his small town youth, in his army service, in college and as a working musician he seems always to have sat quietly in a corner somewhere with a sharp pencil and a notebook ever alert for the next glimpse of life he can translate into a song. I think glimpse is the key word here – Tom T is an observer with wonderfully acute peripheral vision noticing the small details that give colour, vitality and veracity to the expression of a tale.

Tom T does not place himself at the centre of the stories he records even when he is their subject. One of his greatest gifts and the mark of a rare artist is to present these vignettes of life without intrusive commentary or direction. Instead, using artfully chosen spare colloquial language he opens a door to his life and other lives. He has the courage and talent as a songwriter and performer to let the stories stand alone – in his best songs like the magnificently bleak, ‘It Sure Gets Cold In Des Moines’ above there are no easy resolutions to the situations it describes – no chorus that ties everything together and tells you what to think about the subject of the song.

The great virtue of this open ended approach is that as you listen to a song like this you become a kind of co-composer with Tom T – fleshing out the many stories spinning off from this single story; continuing and adding to the tale from your own unique experience and imagination.

In, ‘It Sure Gets Cold In Des Moines’ Tom T paints a word picture that brings before us a chilling snapshot of life and loneliness in the air conditioned bubble of a hotel. Sheltering from the bone deep cold of the city Tom T reveals in six short verses that the emotional temperature inside the hotel may be even colder than that the radio recounts for the streets outside (14 below).

Tom T descends the old elevator with the notion to get something to eat though his head and his eyes said, ‘You should have slept more’. As so often for the weary traveller the restaurant was closed when most needed so Tom T takes refuge in the lounge with the balm of, ‘Two double gins’ and looks round the room, ‘As a tourist would do’. And, there in the signature, ‘Smoky half-dark’ of a late night lounge he sees the girl in the booth. We never learn what she looks like or how old she is or where she comes from (like all of us she’s a traveller) but all of us would recognise, ‘the silent type crying that tears out your heart’ and most of us have had a suitcase that has seen better days.

In a room full of islanded strangers, ‘Nobody asked her what caused her such pain yet no-one complained’. The anonymous woman is left to her tears as each of the patrons of the lounge is presumably left to contemplate their own times of tears before they drain their drinks and ascend the old elevator to their rooms heated to keep out the cold outside.

We never know what happens next or the story behind the girl’s silent sobs. Tom T doesn’t pretend to know but he does sit down in his room and write down the song so that we can share the scenario and become in our own ways part of the ongoing story. Whether we have been to Des Moines or not by the time the record has finished I’m certain that we would all agree that, ‘It Sure Gets Cold In Des Moines’.

Tom T writes and sings this song like so many of his finest works in the matter of fact tone of a well read and well travelled man who has seen many marvels and wonders and learned not to be too surprised at how well and how badly men and women can behave towards each other and themselves.

He doesn’t imply that his stories will initiate you into the meaning of life. No, Tom T is much more ambitious than that. He gives you songs, kaleidoscope reflections, from his observations and imagination which illuminate the essential mystery of life.

In many situations seeing only a fragment of the whole picture, all you can say, all you should say is: Life is just like that sometimes.


Tom T Hall has written scores of superb songs. I would like to point out 5 favourites of mine you might care to seek out if you are not already familiar with them.

‘The Homecoming’ – maybe the best song ever written about the life of travelling musicians and how success in the business can warp the relationships they have with their families and former neighbours. It’s a song about nearness and distance, about loss and longing and about finding and forgetting. The title, ‘Homecoming’ is never used in the body of the song and the last word of the song as the narrator leaves again is, ‘Hello’.

‘Salute To A Switchblade’ – an everyday story of army life overseas including the perils of; striking up conversations with married women not wearing their wedding rings and drinking ten quarts of beer. Good advice is given about the need to always avoid the Military Police and to reflect that death is always closer to you than you think. Also that a near death experience at the hands of a jealous husband shouldn’t blind you to the fact that the country you were based in was full of good soldiers and good people. Oh, and of course not to tell your mother about such an incident.

‘Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On!’ – A wholly credible story of the killing of seven souls on the homefront by a man tormented at being accused of cowardice in the final years of World War Two. Told with grim humour and no condemnation of any of the parties involved. Tom T carefully recounts the relish with which the killer eats his last meal, ‘Fried Chicken, cold beans and baby squash’ and his gleeful last words as the electric chair is about to be started up, ‘Turn it on, Turn it on , Turn it on ‘.

‘Trip To Hayden’ – A virtuoso description of a run down mining town in the aftermath of a disaster:

‘Temporary looking’ houses with bashful kids … Another country hillside with some mud holes and some junk … The mines were deadly silent like a rat hole in the wall.’

Thirty nine out of forty miners perished in an explosion that was like, ‘Being right inside of a shotgun’.

The narrator meets an undertaker who, despite his line of work, ‘seemed refreshed’ and finds his new heavy jacket can’t keep out the cold in the dead town.

An old woman opines that, ‘They worth more now than when they’s living’

Tom T, being Tom T, decides that, ”I’ll leave it there ’cause I suppose she told it pretty well’

Finally, ‘Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken) – A war veteran returns home no longer needing to spend money on shoes with a bottle underneath his blanket to make his time and his loss of the love of his girl more easy to bear.

He observes that a GI gets a lot of laughs and that some people now say the war was just a waste of time. Still he’s coming home at 11.35 on Wednesday night so Mama better bake a pie and Daddy should kill a chicken.

Stevie Smith – the author of, ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ quoted in the introduction above is always referred to as a ‘Minor Poet’ in the august encyclopaedias of literature. That’s as maybe but all I know is that she was a distinctive writer who wrote some very powerful true poems which is always a rare feat. Her Selected Poems will give you a lifetime’s pleasure.

‘The novel, ‘Riddley Walker’ written by Russell Hoban is a work of genius. It relates the story of Riddley’s life in a post nuclear holocaust world where language like the material world has been degraded and mutated. It is also about the legend of St Eustace, Punch and Judy shows and the rediscovery of gunpowder. It is a work of tremendous philosophical and spiritual power as well as being a rollicking good thriller.

Do not be put off by the seeming difficulty of the language – you will soon fall into its cadences and be seduced by the linguistic brilliance displayed by Russell Hoban. If you buy one book for yourself this Christmas make it, ‘Riddley Walker’ – it will leave its imaginative fingerprint on your mind for ever.

Wreckless Eric : Rugged, Rowdy and Right!


‘Be a clown, be a clown, All the world loves a clown,
Act the fool, play the calf, And you’ll always have the last laugh.’ (Cole Porter)

The subject of this post, Wreckless Eric (or as his mother knows him, Eric Goulden) has held a prominent place in my musical affections since I first heard his glorious, signature debut single (I’d Go The) Whole Wide World on the John Peel radio show in early 1977. The song exploded from my transistor radio speakers announcing the arrival of a plain speaking blue collar visionary – the antithesis of the ‘woe is me in forty verses’ singer-songwriter school of the early 1970s.

Whole Wide World benefiting from the instrumental and production chops of the ubiquitous Nick Lowe and drummer Steve Goulding is an irresistible anthem of adolescent male romantic fantasy and lust (which are inevitably yoked together in all males up to the age of 90 or so). Some of my favourite lines in all songwriting are in this song:

‘ There’s only one girl in the world for you and she probably lives in Tahiti(!)’

‘And then in a year or or maybe not quite We’ll be sharing the same next of kin’

The song though devastating simple in construction builds and builds through thrilling crescendo choruses until all but the dead must be up and dancing while singing along at the top of their voices. Eric’s vocal manages to be both deadpan and crazed – a trick he pulls off regularly in his career.

Eric got his break in the music business curtesy of Stiff Records which functioned from the late 70s through to the early 80s as a kind of guerilla operation mocking the bloated moribund goliaths of the existing recording industry. Formed by the hyperactive, loquacious Irishman Dave Robinson and the manically ambitious Jake Rivera it was launched through a £500 loan from Dr Feelgood lead singer Lee Brilleaux.

Based in Londons scruffy Bayswater Stiff Records became a big tent filled with a picaresque gallery of rogues, vagabonds and chancers who also happened in some cases to be electric and eccentric talents. Stiff was a mad party always dancing on the cliff of chaos and collapse yet for a few wonderful years somehow always staggering on through pulling another unexpected talent out of the hat.

The roster of artists on Stiff included Ian Dury with his patented Chaucerian wit and vulgarity, Elvis Costello exuding beligerant songwriting brilliance, Nick Lowe – the prince of impure pop for savvy listeners and Madness the custodians of cultural memories for their generation, who between them issued a magical series of instantly memorable hit singles.

Amongst the milling crowd Wreckless Eric stood out as the house clown. Yet as many an observer has noted the clown is the real heart of every circus. They are the ones, falling down and getting back up again and again, who form the deepest relationships with the audience. We may ooh and aah at the daring of trapeze artists and admire the skill of the jugglers but often it is the jack of all trades clown who we remember with most affection when the big top is rolled up at the end of the night.

So while I unreservedly admire the ‘big names’ from Stiff’s glory days it was always Wreckless Eric for me!

Listen to him here on another song no-one else could have written, ‘Reconnez Cherie’ – a deliriously enjoyable plebeian beat ballad which also functions as an an acute sociological survey of working class romantic encounters ‘neath the sodium glare of the city street lights. Also, of course, including some properly woozy saxophone and accordion in honour of the bohemian subject matter!

Though Eric was held in great affection at Stiff no-one saw him as a future star and moneyspinner. He was, ‘encouraged’ to play up his hapless drinking and to collaborate with other more conventional writers. Naturally, this did not go down well with the Wreckless one! His second record for Stiff contains two classics for my money – the beautifully crafted black humoured , ‘Final Taxi’ and the one I present to you below, ‘Take The Cash’ a song beloved by the late Lou Reed (something of a connoisseur of demotic songwriting).

The start of the 80s saw Eric on a downward spiral that threatened his talent and indeed his life. In the following decades I have followed his erratic progress and wished him well through his saga of alcoholism, bankruptcy, nervous breakdown, European exile, slow recovery, a blessed happy marriage to a fellow musician and many, many, musical incarnations. Eric records came out under a bewildering series of sobriquets: The Len Bright Combo, The Captains Of Industry, Le Beat Group Electrique and The Hitsvile House Band.

Yet, throughout all these vicissitudes he has written and recorded highly distinctive songs demonstrating that behind the shambolic appearance lay a sharply intelligent working man writing truthfully about everyday lives as they are lived on the mean streets and wrong side of the tracks in towns and cities all over the whole wide world.

As a maverick talent himself Eric was drawn to the story of the legendary producer Joe Meek who in the pre Beatles era recorded monster hits like, ‘Telstar’ in a ramshackle studio run out of his tiny second floor London flat. Here’s Eric’s heartfelt tribute, ‘Joe Meek’

It was in the wilds of rural France, during the 1990s that Eric got his life back together and began to connect with the world again. He was later fortunate to meet, fall in love with and marry Amy Rigby who shared his astringent and sinewy songwriting ability as shown in her own catalogue of highly recommended records.

If you are lucky you can see them in concert these days performing a very satisfying banquet of their combined oeuvres and some judiciously chosen covers. The clip below is a backstage snapshot complete with swearing and shaggy dog anecdote featuring Eric and Amy’s take on Johnny Cash’s, ‘I Still Miss Someone’.

There’s no sheen or sophistication here but what I see and hear is a togetherness, a truth and a tenderness that is rarely found. It seems that after all his trials and winding trails Wreckless Eric has found the safe harbour we all need if we are to travel bravely to the world beyond.

Long may he run!


Eric’s first two records are unreservedly recommended. After that until the joint records with Amy Rigby (which are wonderful) I would urge you to investigate his catalogue through the streaming sites and the video channels to discover which songs appeal.

Eric has written a typically forthright and unforgettable autobiography, ‘ A Dysfunctional Success – The Wreckless Eric Manual’.

Christmas, A Clarinet And Acker Bilk (RIP)


Christmas is coming.

I know that for certain because following much deliberation and discussion my son has composed his 2014 letter to Santa Claus. We sealed the envelope with due ceremony and in his best handwriting addressed it to Santa’s North Pole headquarters. We cycled down to the local postbox/mailbox and very carefully sent the vital message on its way.

What he wants, and what we are all sure he will receive curtesy of the elves and Santa’s crack reindeer delivery team (led by Rudolph) is a clarinet.

Why a clarinet? Because over the last year listening to CDs in the car Tom has become a fanatical fan of British ‘Trad Jazz’ from the 1950s and 1960s. This was led by young men aflame with passion who had discovered in the shiny shellac of imported American Jazz records a doorway to a new world of rhythmic joy and wonder. Many of them then started journeys and careers that would sustain them for the rest of their lives through obscure internecine culture wars, improbable transatlantic popular successes and long periods playing to small audiences in draughty halls and smoky pub back rooms.

Prominent among these was a clarinettist from Somerset named Bernard Stanley Bilk who rejoiced in a schoolboy nickname he would ever after be known by, ‘Acker’. Though Tom has time for the pure vision of the incorruptible Ken Colyer, the urbane style of the aristocratic Humphrey Lyttleton and the gusto of the Chris Barber and Kenny Ball bands his unquestioned favourite is Acker who has just died at the age of 85.

Acker came from England’s West Country where the accents, the cheese, the cider and the characters all have a distinctive flavoursome tang. This distinctiveness is reflected in the instantly recognisable sound and tone of Acker’s clarinet playing. There is an immensely charming open hearted generosity and vibrato vigour in his sound. Once Acker announced his beckoning presence you just naturally relax and lean in confident that you will be moved, entertained and uplifted.

Acker also developed a signature look – bowler hat, waistcoat and goatee beard that amounted to the kind of winning brand that ‘image consultants’ would now charge you a couple of limbs to devise. There was an element of the Edwardian dandy in this but also a sense that a canny countryman was both celebrating and mocking the whole show business cavalcade – a witty wink to the wise.

At the dawn of the 1960s Acker hit his musical stride and issued a string of records that would become hits and and cement his place forever in the national consciousness. Let’s kick off with a top 10 hit from 1961, ‘That’s My Home’ which nicely demonstrates Acker’s relaxed take on traditional jazz.

Later that same year Acker composed a tune he called, ‘Jenny’ after his daughter. Retitled ‘Stranger On The Shore’ when it was used as the theme tune of a BBC TV show it became Acker’s calling card, his old age pension and a world wide hit selling millions of copies. Billed as by, ‘ Mr Acker Bilk And His Paramount Jazz Band’ Stranger took up residence in the UK charts for more than a year and became almost unbelievably a US number one record in May 1962. There was a ritual at Acker concerts whereby he laid his bowler hat on the piano when taking the stage – donning the hat near the end of the concert was the rapturously received signal that he was about to play Stranger: the tune be would always be known by.

Stranger must be one of the most evocative instrumentals ever recorded. Acker’s clarinet seems to drift into our minds like an enveloping sea mist. For the duration of the record we are cast into a reverie where our everyday cares are dissolved and memories of landscapes, seascapes and times past swirl deliciously in our thoughts. Turn down the lights, lie back and prepare to be transported!

In 1964 he cut a particularly charming single which showed that he was open to new influences and that he was a more versatile musician than often supposed. ‘Dream Ska’ is one of those records that sets me grinning wildly and assaying a series of lurching dance moves best executed in private.

In Britain the baby boomer generation grew up with Acker as a fixture on our radios and TV screens. He was one of those rare artists that everybody recognised and who was universally regarded with affection. This embrace extended to some of the titans of the music world who turned to Acker when they wanted a clarinet sound that was poignant and nostalgic. Here’s Acker joining forces with the great Van Morrison to bring before us the shades of Avalon.

Acker is reported to have described Van as a nice guy and expressed some surprise that when Van offered him a lift home to the West Country after the recording it was by private plane rather than by car!

My last musical selection to showcase Acker’s gifts is a wonderfully romantic song by the sadly lost siren of English folk music – the incomparable Sandy Denny. It would be hard to beat this record for an example of distilled English melancholy.

Acker Bilk was a hard working musician who never stopped making records and performing for his loyal audience. He played his heart out every time he lifted his clarinet and he leaves a marvellous legacy of recordings filled with humanity and joy which will always find an audience.

Acker Bilk born on January 28 1929 died on November 2 2014 (Ar dheis De go raibh a anam)

This post dedicated to my son Tom: avid music fan, Acker Bilk devotee and a proper chip off the old block.

The Immortal Jukebox A8 : Jerry Byrne – Lights Out

Music can create, affect and sustain our moods and emotions with a power no other art form can match. I am sure in all our lives there is the song we associate, willingly or not, with the love of our life, the unrequited love and, of course, the lost love.

The songs in our personal libraries (or should I say Jukeboxes!) will evoke memories and direct experience of joy, pain, hope, loss and faith. It’s why we never tire of cueing up those records we just know will teleport us to that time, those people, those emotions.

Sometimes I wish I could live a life of contemplative seclusion. Maybe in a Carthusian abbey where I would follow the immutable rhythms of the monastic rule in search of true knowledge about myself, God, and perhaps find eventually the peace that passes understanding.

Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline would guide me through the days- calming the whirlwind of my thoughts and emotions. The music would come from the great choral tradition. If I were ever allowed to choose the soundtrack for such a life I would put the needle down on Glenn Gould’s epochal 1955 recording of J S Bach’s Goldberg Variations and The Gothic Voices sublime version of Hildegard of Bingen’s
‘A Feather On The Breath Of God’ from 1985. When listening to such divine performances Heaven does not really seem so very far away.

However, following Polonius’ advice about being true to myself I understand that the monastic life for me can only ever be a matter of a few weeks of retreat at the most. Because, while I am genuinely attracted to the life of stillness another, much bigger, part of me is inexorably drawn to dive headlong into the glorious crashing, clattering whirligig that constitutes everyday life in this crazy old world.

So, the song that is about to take its honoured place on The Immortal Jukebox, ‘Lights Out” by Jerry Byrne is not a song to still the heart and mind. Rather, it is a song to obliterate the mind and get the heart pumping way, way, above the maximum recommended rate for the entire duration of the stupendous 110 seconds or so it lasts.

Sometimes you need to forget about being sensible and about planning for tomorrow. Sometimes, you just need to drink five tequila shots in a row after you have vaulted onto the top of the bar scattering glassware all around you as you launch into a dervish dance that no one who ever witnesses it will ever forget. And, when you do feel like that I know of no song more certain to guarantee the success of your heroic enterprise than Lights Out!

Yes, Yes, Yes: I know that you will be checking into Hangover Hotel the next day and that your knees may never be the same again … But sometimes you just have to pay the price of the ticket if you want to have the experience.

Lights Out is a one off miracle by an artist, Jerry Byrne, who does not much trouble the writers of learned tomes on the history and culture of the rock era. Despite that, with the support of a team of crack New Orleans musicians, on February 8th 1958 he cut a record that will will always endure as the epitome of high octane, white lightning, crazy for the sake of craziness rock ‘n’ roll. And, believe me, crazy for the sake of craziness will never go out of style until the robots finally take over.

The song was written by New Orleans legend Mac Rebennack/Dr John who happened to be Jerry Byrne’s cousin. The ferocious, pyrotechnic piano choruses which will exhaust all but Olympic fitness dancers are provided by a youthful Art Neville later to feature prominently in the hip slinkingly wonderful bands The Neville Brothers and The Meters.

The combination of the surging river boat rhythm laid down by Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams on drums and Frank Fields on bass combined with the driving guitars of Edgar Blanchard and Justin Adams topped off with the saxophone wails of producer Harold Batiste make for an overwhelmingly immersive experience.

I find that if you’re just listening to the record you need to hear it three or four times in a row before your appetite is slaked. As for dancing – anyone who could survive a reprise would need to check in for an ECG virtually immediately.

Jerry Byrne fully earned his place in rock ‘ n’ roll Valhalla through adding an inspired manically wild vocal to the turbo power of the musical backing. I hear a kind of aural strobe effect as the song proceeds which fixes the lyric in the memory and gives the illusion that the song lasts a lot longer than a fraction over two minutes.

On a personal note I should add that a lifetime or two ago in my college days I used to DJ for student parties. The very last record of the evening was always Lights Out which gave me the opportunity to crash onto the dance floor leaving the record decks behind as I attempted my own version of the dervish dance referred to above. There was never any chance that anyone or anything could follow, ‘Lights Out’.

Note: This post dedicated to Ian Renwick (il miglior fabbro) – my friend and confidant of four decades and more. I have lost count of the number of whiskey fuelled nights we have spent discussing the lore and legends of rock ‘n’ roll. I know no one with a deeper or more visceral understanding of the music.

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.


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!


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!


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!

Those of you who have enjoyed the thematic approach of this post may well enjoy two earlier posts:

‘Swinging Summer Sisters … ‘ and ‘Guitar Instruments a Go Go !’ – Check them out!