Love, Love, ‘Love Is Strange’

‘Love’s not Time’s fool, through rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom’.

(William Shakespeare)

‘In Spain, the best upper sets do it
Lithuanians and Letts do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love’

(Cole Porter)

‘And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love you make’

(Lennon/MacCartney)

Love, despite the wisdom enshrined in The Beatles, ‘All You Need Is Love’ is not ALL you need – shelter, good health and enough food to feed your family are also necessary components of the life we would all wish to lead. That said nothing is more necessary for life to flourish than the experience of love which acts as a kind of spiritual and emotional battery affording you the resilience to face the daily vicissitudes of life.

The song I have chosen to feature on the Jukebox today is the pop/rhythm and blues classic, ‘Love is Strange’. It was in November 1956 that Mickey (Baker) and Sylvia (Vanderpool) had their incandescent take on the song issued as a 45 on Bob Rolontz’s Groove label. It made an immediate mark on its time ascending to Number 1 in the R&B charts and just missing the national top 10 of the pop charts. The song has been included in the Grammy Hall Of Fame and has featured in numerous films – most famously in, ‘Dirty Dancing’.

What a record! As soon as the stylus hits the vinyl this is a guaranteed massive hit as Mickey Baker’s brilliant guitar intro explodes from the radio or Jukebox speakers brooking no inattention (guitar players all over the globe were instantly sent reeling and bound to a course of finger busting hours attempting to match Mickey here).

Love Is Strange prominently features Mickey’s razor sharp, irresistibly insistent, shining silver blues licks which continue to flash and gleam throughout the duration of the record. Mickey was a technically accomplished player who had no problem melding bolero and calypso rhythms here to make the song glide and flow so beautifully.

The duet vocal is charming and unabashedly erotic with Sylvia’s imploring youthful female tones being matched with Mickey’s masculine forcefulness. Perhaps, as so often happens in life, it is the hunter who gets captured by the game! Neither Mickey nor Sylvia were great singers but that only adds to the allure of their performance. It’s clear that they are in the grip of a force stronger and stranger than themselves.

Love, as they embody in their performance here, is something you never want to lose once you’ve had it. You never want to quit though time may toll that you may have just put yourself in the way of an awful fix. You are in this fix once you realise that love is indeed more important than money in the hand and though it can give you the thrills of a roller-coaster it is far too important to classed merely as a game.

Apart from Mickey’s stellar guitar work the most memorable passage in the record is the flirtatious conversation between Mickey and Sylvia about how you should most effectively call your lover to your side. Sylvia’s vocal here with its witty mixture of urgent command and come-hither mellifluousness would surely have any errant swain frantically scrambling towards her at top speed! As Mickey takes the record on home with his final guitar flourishes you sense that the couple will now deliriously continue their mating dance long into the night.

Mickey and Sylvia’s record has inspired scores of cover version in many musical genres in the decades since it was issued. Today here on the Jukebox I want to draw your attention to a characteristically gorgeous version from 1992 by the English duo of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn known collectively as, ‘Everything But The Girl’.

The flawless marriage of guitar, strings and voices on this track provides the listener with seamless pleasure. I hear this version evoking a drowsy, warm English summer meadow atmosphere. As the trees bend in the light breeze you can almost hear the distant call of the Thrush, the Blackbird and the Nightingale. Somewhere, off to the side, the mayflies harmonise as they too seek to engage in the strange mysteries of love.

Everything But The Girl are distinguished as writers and performers by a rare combination of musical and emotional intelligence. With their take on, ‘Love Is Strange’ they simultaneously suggest an edenic innocence and a reflective, almost rueful, over-the-shoulder look back at that former paradise from the vantage point of a later maturity.

Tracey Thorn has a heart-winning voice that convinces by its modesty of expression. As she sings you feel you have been privileged to eavesdrop as she spins out silken threads of song. She is adept at gently inviting the listener to ponder the stories and range of emotions contained in her songs so that you may be surprised at how deeply they have entered your consciousness. Ben Watt quiet excellence as a musician, songwriter and harmonist gives their work together a longevity and depth of field that will repay close attention.

Poets, Princes, Paupers and regular folks like you and me will always dream about, sing about and gaze wonderingly into the night sky pondering the eternal mystery of love. All I can do in conclusion is to echo Bob Dylan and say:

‘Love is all there is, it makes the world go around
Love and only love it can’t be denied
No matter what you think about it
You just won’t be able to do without it …’

Notes:

Who wrote, ‘Love Is Strange’?

As the saying goes, ‘Where there’s a hit there’s a writ!’ Most authorities agree that the glistening guitar riff threaded through the song owes a lot to the work of the flamboyantly talented blues guitarist Jody Williams especially on the record, ‘Billy’s Blues’ by Billy Stewart. Jody was a protege of the great Bo Diddley who is generally credited with authorship of, ‘Love Is Strange’ (though under the name of his wife Ethel Smith for tangled business reasons!). Bo did in fact record the song first – some 5 months before Mickey&Sylvia though they claim to be responsible for the lyrics! Also Bo’s version was not released until the 21st century. So record label students may see everybody (except poor Jody) credited at one time or another. Since the record has sold millions of copies this matters!

Other Versions:

I listened to too many versions of this song before writing this post! Only two would enter my personal pantheon of greatness. The first is the magnificently sung version by the Everly Brothers which shows them yet again to be untouchably the greatest duet singers of all time. The second is a an unutterably poignant, fragmentary solo version lasting less than two minutes, sung by Buddy Holly in his New York City apartment in the last months before his untimely death in early 1959. It would take a stony heart not to be moved to tears by this performance.

Mickey Baker (McHouston Baker):

Mickey was certainly one of the most gifted and adaptable guitarists of his era. To take just two examples of his enduring musical impact consider his timeless work on the Coasters, ‘I’m A Hog For You Baby’ and Big Joe Turner’s, ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’. Mickey spent many years in France where his fluent musicianship was much appreciated. In addition to his impressive track record as a guitarist for hire, often with the Atlantic and Savoy labels, he also produced intriguing LP’s with fellow European residents Champion Jack Dupree and Memphis Slim. Mickey Baker was a class act.

Sylvia Robinson (nee Vanderpool)

Sylvia (1936-2011) was a very sharp woman who had success as a writer, performer, producer and label boss in over half a century of involvement in the music business. In addition to fostering the careers of The Moments (Sexy Mama, Look At Me I’m In Love’) and Shirley and Company (the wondrous dance floor filler, ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’) she had a great fat hit of her own with, ‘Pillow Talk’ which won worldwide sales in 1972/73. As if that was not enough she founded and was the early driving force behind the Sugar Hill label which can fairly claim to have introduced the rap genre to the world with the records of The Sugar Hill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and Grandmaster Flash with the still potent, ‘The Message’.

Everything But The Girl:

EBTG functioned as a band between 1982 and the end of the century after which both Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn have pursued intriguing solo projects (though remaining together as a couple in their private life) The EBGT catalogue, reissued by Demon/Edsel in the UK, contains many treasures I urge you to explore. Equally their solo work has yielded impressive results. I am especially taken with Tracey’s CDs, the deeply felt, ‘Love and It’s Opposite’ and her idiosyncratic Christmas record, ‘Tinsel and Lights’. Ben’s solo record, ‘Hendra’ the first he has issued for three decades has a corpus of affecting and beautifully crafted songs which linger long in the mind.

Both Ben and Tracey are accomplished writers of memoir. Tracey’s, ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ is wonderfully alive, witty and keenly intelligent. Ben’s, ‘Patient’ is a clear eyed, thoughtful and moving examinations of his own period of serious ill-health (which he is now happily recovered from). His latest book, ‘Romany and Tom’ is a moving,emotionally searching, history of the lives of his parents which does them great honour.

RIP Dave Mackay: The noblest Hotspur of them all!

‘To each his day is given. Beyond recall man’s little time runs by: but to prolong life’s glory by great deeds is virtue’s power’. (Virgil, The Aeneid)

‘Nor have I seen a mightier man at arms on this earth .. He is truly noble. This is no mere hanger-on in a hero’s armour’. (Beowulf)

‘If he had served in a war he would have been the first man into action – he would have won the Victoria Cross’. (Bill Nicholson)

Dave Mackay who has died at the age of 80 was by acclamation the finest player ever to play for Spurs, the finest player ever to play for his first club, Hearts and he would be certain to be selected as a member of Scotland’s best ever team. He was an inaugural inductee to the English and Scottish Football Halls of Fame, a Footballer of the Year and he rightfully graces one of her Majesty’s postage stamps! Yet no recitation of the many honours he won can serve to capture what made him such an admirable player and man. For that you have to consider his granite character.

I have reached the age when the heroes of my youth are becoming fixtures on the Obituary pages and all too often I reluctantly realise that perhaps those heroes, for all their accomplishments, had, like most of us, feet of clay. Yet, with Dave Mackay it is clear that the term hero is entirely justified. He really did fill every unforgiving minute with sixty seconds of distance run and anyone examining his career and wider life will have to agree that here indeed was a man in full. Dave Mackay’s qualities of bravery, modesty, loyalty and honesty applied under the glare of public pressure show manhood at its best.

Dave Mackay as a player combined complete physical and mental commitment with extravagant skill. With Hearts his pre-match party piece was to run out into the centre circle and then to back-heel the ball into the net on the half volley. At Spurs he would volley ball high into the stratosphere as he came out and then nonchalantly perfectly trap it as it came back to earth. Once the game started it was a very foolish opponent who imagined that they could intimidate Dave who could tackle with the force of a JCB. Once the ball was won with his head up and barrel chest out he could see the pass that would open up the opposition and then deliver it with casual aplomb.

As a captain he led by example – Dave Mackay never left the pitch without having given every ounce of effort possible and he demanded nothing less from his team mates. But, his leadership was not merely a matter of fist shaking exhortation: his greatest attribute as a captain was that all the players he played with wanted his good opinion. To have Dave Mackay pat you on the back and for him to say well done as he lifted a glass with you after the game was treasure far beyond the roar of the crowd.

Dave was a footballer’s footballer the canniest judges of a players worth, his fellow professionals, all knew that he was a very special player. All time great players such as George Best, Eusabio and Spurs own Jimmy Greaves all spoke with head-shaking wonder about Dave’s range of football talents and the physical presence and impact he brought to the game. To be on his team made you feel inches taller while to see him leading your opponents out was a sure signal that today your mettle was really going to be tested!

Dave Mackay was a winner. With Hearts in the 1950s he won the League title, the Cup and the League Cup. With Spurs he was a member of the immortal 60/61 double winning side which set a standard for thrilling excellence that has rarely, if ever, been matched in English football. A team which included the sublime skills of John White, the canny, pulling the strings of the game intelligence of Danny Blanchflower, the blistering pace of Cliff Jones and the battering ram belligerence of Bobby Smith made for an irresistible attacking force.

What Dave Mackay added was tempered steel as well as silky skill. Any team with Dave Mackay in it would never lack for heart and there could be no such thing as a lost cause while the final whistle was yet to be blown. With the addition of the genius of Jimmy Greaves Spurs became a team of all talents. FA Cups and the first European trophy for a British side filled the White Hart Lane Trophy cabinet and the memories of the glory of that side will never tarnish.

Though Mackay faced broken legs and the frailties of increasing age as the 60s ended he took the opportunity offered by Brian Clough with Derby County to show that his football brain and charisma made him the perfect mentor for a team filled with youthful burgeoning talent. Roy McFarland and his colleagues were treated to master classes in what it meant to be a footballer in every training session and in every game they learned under Dave’s watchful eye how to apply those lessons in the heat of battle.

Dave later won a league title as a manger with Derby and that team reflected his continuing belief that football was a Man’s game to be played skilfully with whole-hearted commitment .

Dave Mackay through his talent, his character and his achievements gave dignity and honour to the profession of football. He knew that he was blessed to play the game he loved at the very highest levels and he repayed those blessings in the fullest measure. We shall not see his like again.

The Immortal Jukebox A11: Gene Chandler – Duke of Earl

‘As I walk through this world, Nothing can stop The Duke Of Earl’

There are days when all is right with the world. Days when the sun shines clear in an azure sky that bathes you in balmy glory. Days when the gods are indulgent so that your long shot romps home at 100-1 and the girl you’ve nearly asked out a thousand times suddenly smiles at you and asks what you’re doing later. The poet Robert Browning expressed this feeling of elated contentment very well in his verse drama, ‘Pippa Passes':

‘The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-sides dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his heaven –
All’s right with the world!’

Being an educated sort of chap these lines often spring to mind when I find myself enjoying one of those blessed days when nothing seems impossible – when all the gears of the universe seem to mesh perfectly to deliver pleasure, promise and delight.

Probably 10% of my memory is indexed to recall the deathless thoughts of the great poets when these occasion presents themselves. However, I would estimate that at least 30% of my memory neurones are tasked with filing, indexing and processing the melodies, lyrics and performances of the canon of popular music created in the recording era between the 1920s and 1980s.

So while I will sometimes find myself quoting Browning, Byron or Wendell Berry as I give thanks for the gift of life – much more often I find myself singing at the top of my voice the lyric from one of my all-time favourite songs (it will be one of my 8 Desert Island Discs list when the BBC finally get round to asking me to appear on that iconic radio programme), ‘Duke Of Earl’ by Gene Chandler.

Scanning my memory for this post I recall chanting out, ‘Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl’ on the red letter days of my life. The day I learned that I had won a scholarship to Cambridge, the day I got married and the day my son was born were all celebrated with repeated choruses of Gene Chandler’s immortal classic from 1962.

‘Duke of Earl’ is one of those songs that works every time – always lifting the heart and spirit with its simply stated belief that there is indeed a paradise to be shared and that a Duke can find and cherish his Duchess as they walk together through the Dukedom. Since first hearing this song I have never been able to use the technically correct term, ‘Duchy’ for the territory ruled over by a Duke – such is the power of music!

Apparently the song evolved from the vocal warm up exercises used by the Doo-Wop group The Dukays which formed in late 1950s Chicago. Gene (then known by his original name of Eugene Dixon) practiced his vocal craft with James Lowe, Shirley Jones, Ben Broyles and Earl Edwards. It was while running through the pre-show, ‘Do do do do’ routine that one night Gene mixed things up by singing instead, ‘Du, du, du … Duke of Earl’ and thus with some help from manager Bernice Williams a million selling No 1 pop and R&B record was born!

The Dukays record company (Nat Records) preferred the song, ‘Nite Owl’ to ‘Duke of Earl’ so Gene went to Vee-Jay records as a solo artist to find fame and hopefully some fortune. To promote the record Gene gamely appeared dressed in Hollywood History’s version of ducal attire – Top Hat, Monocle, Walking Cane, Opera Cape and White Gloves! I have to say he carried it off very well, as many a video clip shows, and the, ‘Duke Of Earl’ look has in consequence become my default fancy dress party attire!

The vocals on ‘Duke Of Earl’ display a top flight Doo-Wop group creating a wonderfully full sound from basso profundo bass to ascending to the heavens falsetto tones. Every, ‘nonsense’ syllable is entirely translatable by our human hearts as glimpses of momentary happiness. Gene Chandler sings with the affecting gliding ease that would carry him to some 40 hit records. Gene sang the hell out of every song that came his way whether it was badged, ‘Doo-Wop’, ‘R&B’, ‘Soul’ or ‘Disco’. Whatever the genre Gene delivered a welcoming humanity through his vocals that engages the listener on a visceral level – locking in our attention and winning our affection.

I look forward to many more, ‘Duke Of Earl’ days in my life and wish the same for you.

Notes:

‘Duke Of Earl’ has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was selected as one of the, ‘500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll’.

Gene Chandler has had a fabulously successful and diverse career as a singer, songwriter and producer. Look out for several versions of the scintillating, ‘Rainbow’ which is frequently quoted in concert by Van Morrison who knows a great song when he hears one! I prefer the atmosphere drenched 1965 version recorded in Gene’s hometown Regal Theatre.

Gene had a series of wonderful collaborations with the king of tender soul balladry – Curtis Mayfield. Even the stoniest hearts will crack listening to, ‘Just Be True’ and if you’re aren’t out on the floor dancing to, ‘Nothing Can Stop Me’ from the first notes you need to get your reflexes tested!

A few hours listening to the above along with, ‘Think Nothing About It’, ‘A Man’s Temptation’, ‘You Can’t Hurt Me No More’, ‘Groovy Situation’ and, ‘Get Down’ among others will more than repay your time.

As a producer Gene won the NATRA Producer of the Year Award for the unreservedly recommended, ‘Backfield In Motion’ by Mel and Tim (look it up now!)

I was delighted to find that Gene’s website is called The Dukedom! You can find it at genedukeofearl.com

Moonshine And Molasses: Black Rockabilly

‘Sometimes, just sometimes, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits.’ (Bob Dylan 2015 MusiCares speech’)

Rockabilly might be described as the deliriously exciting sound of a supercharged truck with no lights on hauling moonshine through the hills and hollers to outrun the dreaded excise men. Rockabilly is not a reflective music – its a full pelt, foot to the floor and damn the tyres assault on the senses. A shot of over proof booze that might well take the top of your head off and leave you stone blind but once you’ve opened that unlabelled bottle you are likely to develop the taste and keep coming back for more.

Rockabilly owes a lot to hillbilly boogie and something to the blues and rhythm and blues. It certainly was an essential ingredient of what at Sun Studios, with a little judicious tweaking, came to be known as rock ‘n’ roll. Generally Rockabilly was the preserve of electrically energetic white boys who had grown up on the Grand Ol’ Opry but who then found themselves wanting to apply the lessons they had learned from Hank Williams, ‘Move It On Over’ to play at a more hopped up speed while cutting loose with their vocals and instrumental breaks. If you want pure excitement from music (and sometimes we all do) it’s sure hard to beat Rockabilly.

While it is undoubtedly true that Rockabilly was largely made by white southerners there were black musicians who were hep to the moonshine beat. Of course, even in the darkest days of the segregated south there was one thing the powers that be could not cordon off – the airwaves! So whether you were white or black you could tune into stations like WLAC blasting out of Nashville and find yourself ready to rock.

Today I’m featuring two black musicians who, oblivious to all racial stereotyping, made classic Rockabilly records that stand up with the very finest of the genre. To jump start your heart and nervous system we begin with Big Al Downing’s ‘Down On The Farm’ first issued on the White Rock label out of Dallas in March 1958. Strap yourself in – this is going to be a thrill filled 91 second ride!

Careful scrutiny of the label on the White Rock 45 (palindromically numbered 1111) shows the record credited to Al Downing (with the Poe Kats). The Poe Kats were a white trio led by Oklahoman Bobby Poe featuring the incendiary guitar of Vernon Sandusky. The thoughtful Bobby, hearing the pounding piano prowess and powerful Fats Domino influenced vocal style of Big Al at a Coffeyville Kansas radio station figured that a quartet that could handle both Little Richard and Elvis material would prove a big hit in the sweat drenched beer joints and VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) halls throughout Kansas and Oklahoma. As, ‘Down On The Farm’ shows he was completely correct in his assumption!

Al’s vocal drives smoothly at speed throughout the song while he and the band threaten to burn out their engines as they wildly take the turns with savage guitar and piano breaks. Somehow, they manage to survive the trip in one piece and as they look back at the scorched earth smoking in their wake there’s only one thing to say -‘Whoo – Wee!’ The song leaves you in no doubt that barns all over the turning world would soon be taken over by the quicksilver power of this addictive music. At least that’s what this crazy fool will always believe.

Our second example of black Rockabilly, ‘Look Out Mabel’ also from 1958 comes courtesy of the mysterious G. L. Crockett. G.L. or George as his mother may have called him was born in Carrollton, Mississippi in 1928 or 1929 depending on source you believe most reliable. In a recording career spanning eight years from 1957 to 1965 he only had four singles issued which collectively take up little more than ten minutes of your precious time. Yet two of those singles, ‘Mabel’ and the 1965 Jimmy Reed style R&B steamer, ‘It’s A Man Down There’ once heard will take up permanent residence in your musical memory bank.

‘Look Out Mabel’ was produced in Chicago by the talented Mel London who worked with such blues luminaries as Elmore James and Otis Rush. London made sure that the record was drenched in drama so that Crockett’s, ‘If I’m gonna go down, I’m going’ down fighting’ vocal rides atop relentless piano from Henry Gray and a well nigh demented guitar solo from Louis Myers. If I was choreographing a fight scene set in a 1950s southside Chicago club I would definitely have, ‘Look Out Mabel’ playing at full volume while the bottles broke and the knives flashed.

Assuming the script allowed I’d have the hero leaving the club later with Mabel on his arm and wisecracking as they start up the midnight blue Buick ‘Oh, come on Mabel let’s go on down the line’.

Notes:

Big Al Downing was one of fifteen children born in blink and you’ve missed it rural Lenapah Oklahoma in 1940. In addition to the wonder that is, ‘Down On The Farm’ he produced eminently listenable music in the country, soul and R&B genres during his forty year plus recording career. The standouts for me are his piano contributions to Wanda Jacksons epochal, ‘Let’s Have A Party’ and his pile drivingly excellent version of Jimmy McCracklin’s, ‘Georgia Slop’ which is guaranteed to have everybody at the party lunatically lurching in unison.

Ry, Ray, Bobby, Hank, 5000 Country Music Songs (And Thank You 50,000 times!)

‘I wake up in the morning and I wonder,
Why everything’s the same as it was,
I can’t understand, No I can’t understand,
How life goes on the way it does’.

(Arthur Kent/Sylvia Dee ‘The End Of The World’)

‘Life has its little ups and downs
Like ponies on a merry-go-round.
And no one plants the green grass every time’

(Charlie Rich)

There will be no end to the making of country music songs. For the blood and guts themes real country songs deal with will remain central to our human experience until the sun’s light is finally dimmed some six billion years from now.

The winning, holding onto and losing of love – along with lust and the demands and urges of loyalty and longing are the currency of a genre which speaks to the hard grind of our daily existence and the dreams that carry us through the inevitable peaks and troughs of our passage through life. No one plants the green grass every time.

The protagonist of our anchor song today, ‘5000 Country Music Songs’ by Ry Cooder, believes in the power of the country song to connect with the truths of life and that one day Ray Price or Bobby Bare might just record one of his stack of returned to sender songs : ‘You’re bound to get you one just wait and see’ says the concerned rural route mailman.

Still he always had the support of the bride he married in 1963, ‘Honey I’m feelin’ something there’ and together they kept their dreams warmly alive in their old house trailer out in the countryside. In the country you can live free and as you sit in your rusty old Cadillac ideas for country songs will surely materialise just like they did to the greatest country songwriter of all – Hank Williams.

So week by week, month by month, year after year, the envelopes were mailed off to Nashvile town where country songs were sorted to separate the hit wheat from the unrecordable chaff. Despite his wife’s steadfast support he couldn’t quite work up the courage to approach the great Ray Price when he came through town. Sometimes we just can’t fill the shoes of our ambitions.

Now a song taken on by Bobby Bare would surely lead you somewhere but it seems Bobby never got to hear any of the 5000 songs – though not for want of trying. But, at home in the trailer love flourished so that his wife in a death bed scene worthy of a John Ford movie can make a last request – ‘Sing me something in your real old style, the one I like to hear Bobby Bare passed by, I’ll just close my eyes and rest a while’. And so, in the trailer in the shade of the big old tree amid the scent of the honeysuckle vine with tender harmony provided by the mockingbird he sings his heart out as her heart beats its last.

Now he wakes up in the morning to a world outside the window that looks the same but is now filtered with tears in the monochrome of grief. As the flies buzz around the rusty Cadillacs he knows that what made their home sweet home was not a building or classic cars but the love they shared throughout the years when 4999 country songs were sent back from Nashville town to gather dust. Now, it’s time to pack up those song words and the old guitar and throw away the key.

Of course, it turns out, as we hear above, that song number 5000 would be one that Ray Price would break your heart with. And, surely good old Bobby Bare, a man with a reputation for spotting songs that promise to be jukebox classics would have picked this one out of the pile and said, ‘This one’s a keeper!’

Ry Cooder gives the song a beautifully understated reading that allows all the emotion contained within the story to naturally present itself to the listener. Ry Cooder’s career has encompassed virtually every aspect of roots music, movie soundtracks and international collaborations. The connecting thread is a wonderfully sympathetic musicianship alert to and respectful of the demands of the song at hand.

Ry Cooder records tell truthful human stories brought to life most thrillingly through his eloquent rhythm and slide guitar playing, which though capable of grandstanding, usually operates in a ruminative conversational tone which draws the audience in to savour all the song has to offer. Recently, he has added startling songwriting prowess to his instrumental virtuosity to round out an already very considerable talent.

Finally, as, ‘5000 Country Music Songs’ plays on the Immortal Jukebox, somewhere in the back seat of a celestial Cadillac the shade of Hank Williams will take his hat off and join in the chorus:

‘You can take what you want after I’m gone,
It’s only just a little place that we call home, sweet home
One old house trailer, two rusty Cadillacs and 5000 country music songs.’

Thank You 50,000 times:

I am amazed and delighted that the Immortal Jukebox has now had some 50,000 views since it began at the end of March last year. A huge thank you to every reader for taking the time to visit here. I hope checking out what’s new on the Jukebox has become a good habit!

There’s many, many more treats in store so as the great Hank said, ‘If the good Lord’s willin’ and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll see you soon’.

Jesse Fuller – The Lone Cat

‘Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.’ (Viktor Frankl)

‘I was leaving the south to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant … To see if it would grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps to bloom.’ (Richard Wright)

‘It took me a whole week one time when I wasn’t doing anything, and I made the thing I call the Fotdella in my back room. I just got the idea lying’ in my bed one night, just like I write songs. I lie down on the bed and write songs at night. I thought about doing’ something like that (the Fotdella) so that I could have something to go along with me and help me out instead of another fellow. I just took some Masonite, heated some wood in hot water and rounded it off around a wheel. I learned that in the barrel factory where I used to work – that the way they do the staves. I tried to use bass fiddle strings, but they don’t sound so good, they stretch out of tune so I use piano strings. My wife named it the Fotdella because I play it with my foot, like, ‘Foot diller’ (Jesse Fuller)

There are very few jobs that I have really and truly coveted in my life. But, I have to say that I deeply envy the Director of the august institution that is the Smithsonian Museum. Obviously the museums comprise one of world’s great scholarly centres and acts as the custodian of millions of scrupulously catalogued treasures illuminating our understanding of human history in innumerable field of endeavour – so heading it up would be a major task.

To fortify myself each morning, before drowning in emails and meetings, I would take a tour of the popular culture exhibits. I would linger over Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from the Wizard of Oz and gaze longingly at the Fonz’s leather jacket and just stop myself from sitting down in Archie Bunker’s chair. But, I would stop and look longest at Jesse Fuller’s Fotdella – his unique foot operated percussion bass that added so much to his signature one man band sound. I would then go back to my office and play very loudly (for who is going to tell the Director to keep it down!) Jesse Fuller’s, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ and know for certain that I would be able to keep smiling all day!

You will probably, if you’re anything like me, want to play the above track several times in a row until you’re word perfect and have figured out how to do the correct buck and wing steps to accompany your own and Jesse’s vocals. It’s now too late to warn you that Jesse Fuller’s music is seriously addictive. Nothing for it but to ask your preferred record dealer to rush you a copy of the CD, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ on the Original Blues Classics label from 1963 which is a beautifully compiled programme of his front rank repertoire.

Jesse didn’t make a record until 1958 when he was all of 62 years old. But from then on he brought to his records, before he died in 1976, songs and performances filled to the brim with dignity, quizzical humour, instrumental virtuosity and sheer effervescent love of life. He also brought the lessons he had learned from a life abundant with such trial, tribulation and adventure that it would take a movie starring a black Charlie Chaplin to do justice to it!

Jesse was born in Jonesboro, Georgia in 1896. Before he settled in Oakland California in 1929 he had worked, rambled and hoboed all around the country working in a bewildering variety of jobs to keep body and soul together. He had left the Jim Crow South as soon as possible in search of safety, independence and the promise of a better future. His early experiences had been very harsh as he had been farmed out to brutal, abusive ‘foster parents’ following the death of his mother before he was 10.

Hitting the road he worked in the circus, on the railroads, in back breaking quarries, turpentine and levee camps and the aforementioned barrel factory. All the while he was learning and performing songs gleaned from vaudeville and medicine shows, camp meetings, store front churches and the army of itinerant bluesmen and songsters who always appeared anyplace where black folks had a spare dollar to spend on booze and entertainment.

Jesse performed as a one man band because it meant he did not have to rely on anyone else to make a show happen. He performed with a 12 string guitar and a neck rack incorporating a kazoo, harmonica and microphone as well as a hi-hat cymbal and his own Fotdella to create a true full band sound coming from a single individual.

Similarly, his repertoire was a virtual compendium of the black musical heritage of the mid twentieth century to which he added his own distinctively intelligent and charming songs. So, Jesse performed Jazz tunes, children’s songs, work songs, spirituals, vaudeville recitations, hillbilly heartbreakers, instrumental party pieces and just about any kind of music that would hold and win an audience long enough for them to realise they should definitely put something substantial in the hat once he had finished.

Listen here to his wonderfully articulated guitar work on, ‘John Henry’ one of the staples of the black tradition and you will understand that though there were novelty act elements to Jesse Fuller that did not mean that he was anything less than a very fine musician and a performer who winningly brought his own thought through style to every number he took on.

Jesse knew how to work an audience. Maybe he had learned a little of that from his improbable time in Hollywood. It seems that in the early 1920s he had operated a shoe shine or hot dog stand outside the film studios and he had been befriended by none other than Douglas Fairbanks Jnr who managed to get Jesse some work as an extra on, ‘The Thief Of Bagdad’ and, ‘East Of Suez’ (honestly I’m not inventing this to spice up a life that’s rich enough already!).

For many years after his move to Oakland he worked in the ship yards with music a useful side line. It wasn’t until 1950 or so with work drying up that he gave music his full attention. He soon found an enthusiastic audience in the Bay area not least among sharp eared young folk/blues revivalists like Rambling Jack Elliott who would carry songs like, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ to the nations’ clubs and coffee houses where legions of would be Woody Guthries listened and learned.

As the 50s progressed he began to widen his circuit and venues like the Ash Grove in LA resounded to his music. By 1959 he had made his first record and featured at the Monterey Jazz Festival which led through the good offices of England’s Chris Barber to an enthusiastically received tour of the United Kingdom and Europe. He would tour the UK very successfully again in 1966 even playing at the top of the newly opened London landmark the Post Office Tower. Everywhere that Jesse played he took everything in his stride – a lone cat with sharp senses and a true sense of self worth.

Below, with his exuberantly thoughtful and comical song, ‘The Monkey And The Engineer’ you can hear Jesse play with his audience to rousing effect.

Jesse Fuller’s songs with their relaxed yet jaunty authority were manna for the young roots musicians coming up in the early 1960s. It’s clear that the young Bob Dylan’s harmonica style was influenced by Jesse and Dylan faithfully tipped his sailor’s cap by featuring Jesse’s, ‘You’re No Good’ on his 1962 debut album. Eric Clapton, Paul MacCartney, Richie Havens and The Grateful Dead have all doffed their headgear in similar fashion.

I am always planning, in some part of my mind, the cultural, ‘must- sees’ on my next American trip. One flag that’s firmly pinned into that itinerary is Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland where I plan to make my own salute to the late, great Lone Cat – Jesse Fuller thanking him for the joyous life affirming music that was his gift to us all.

I think I would at first hear in my head his lovely version of ‘Where Would I Go But To The Lord’ as heard below which would seem appropriate to the setting.

However, I’m sure before I bid my last farewell I would have to launch into my own ebullient version of, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ with a little soft shoe shuffle thrown in as my own tribute to a wonderful artist.

One more time, ‘Walking with my baby down by the San Francisco Bay ……’

The Immortal Jukebox A10: Petula Clark – Downtown

‘A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose meaning will always remain elusive.’ (E. B. White, ‘Here is New York’)

‘The city as we imagine it, then, soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration and nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.’.
(Jonathan Raban, ‘Soft City’)

‘One belongs in New York instantly. One belongs to it as much in five minutes as five years’. (Thomas Wolfe)

‘Downtown, things will be great when you’re Downtown … Don’t wait a minute more … ‘
(Tony Hatch, ‘Downtown’)

Cities have been the great engines for transforming human lives. In that nowhere where you lived before your life was blocked, locked down and you were as good as locked up. When you looked in the mirror back there you saw the person you were told you were – not the person you knew you could be, the person you really were, if only you could be released into that wondrous life waiting for you just outside the central station of the fabled city.

In the city, above all in New York City, you can forge a new identity and show the world (and yourself) what you are really made of. Welcome to the Big Leagues! In this supreme cultural crucible whatever talent, determination and willpower you possess or can summon up will be tested and proved to acclaim or destruction. What could be more thrilling!

Now when everyone knows your name it won’t be because they knew your dad it will be because of what you have done yourself. Somewhere in the milling crowds among the roaring traffic’s boom illuminated by the brightest lights you’ve ever seen there’s an, ‘In Crowd’ who will recognise you as one of them. Here, there’s a new home for you – the one you dreamed you would find and make for yourself. Somewhere where you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares – Downtown.

Petula Clark’s, ‘Downtown’, written and produced by Tony Hatch, is a gloriously joyful anthem to the promise of the city, an anthem of 1960s optimism when all the frontiers seemed to be opening up to youthful adventurers. It’s one of those records that you can’t deny – a gold plated smash from the moment the percussive piano introduction emerges from the speakers. The song then builds and builds melding pure pop pizazz with a broadway scale orchestration suavely capturing the attention and winning the allegiance of every available audience from those aged from eight to eighty.

Tony Hatch recorded the song with all the musicians playing together, with Petula Clark singing live, to create an intoxicating ambient sound that demands you immerse yourself in it. The huge sound of the record is produced by a string section including 8 violinists, 2 violas and 2 cellos, with a punchy brass section of 4 trumpeters and 4 trombonists. Added to this there are; flutes and oboes, bass, percussion (dig that triangle!), piano, a vocal group (The Breakaways) and the three top session guitarists of the day – Big Jim Sullivan, Vic Flick and Jimmy Page (whatever happened to him?).

I especially love the drum sound – the work of big band veteran Ronnie Verell. Ronnie was a listening drummer. Here on the verses he has a lovely light touch before he kicks in with a socking snare backbeat on the choruses. His drums are powerful but never overpower his fellow musicians. Much of the credit for the organic unity of the record must be due to Tony Hatch in the producer’s chair with crucial assistance from his trusted team of arranger and conductor Bob Leaper and recording engineer, Ray Prickett.

Of course what sells the record above all is Petula Clark’s utterly charming, quintessentially English vocal, which manages to be beautifully controlled while embodying both mature reflection and dizzying excitement; with every word of the fluent lyric being enunciated perfectly so that you can commit, ‘Downtown’ to memory from the very first time you hear it. Add to that Petula’s wholesome good looks and winning vivacity and you have a package that works everywhere from Paris to Portland to Potsdam!

No wonder it was a No 1 record in the US and a worldwide multi-million selling hit as well as winning a Grammy and an Ivor Novello award. Tony Hatch and Petula recorded many very fine songs, together and separately, but, ‘Downtown’ will always be THE ONE.

Yet the story behind its creation shows that hits frequently owe as much to fate and happenstance as they do calculation. In late 1964 Petula Clark, though she was selling records by the truckload in France, was, with her producer and chief songwriter/producer Tony Hatch, desperate to turn around a two year run of records that had flopped in the UK. Seeking new sure fire material Hatch went to New York, no doubt to the Brill Building, the legendary songwriting factory which was seemingly the fount of early 60s pop smashes and returned with a quiver full of potential hits.

While he was in the city Hatch went for a stroll and at the corner of 48th Street looking towards Times Square a piano melody ran through his head which he heard as perhaps the basis of an R&B Doo-Wop style ballad that he might pitch to the Drifters. The lyric fragment he had was the single word, ‘Downtown’.

Waiting back in London Petula Clark, who was in her early 30s, was hoping Hatch would return with some songs that would kickstart her UK pop career again. Petula had been a fixture on the UK show business scene since she was discovered as a 9 year old radio singing sensation in the early years of World War Two. She was then taken to the hearts of the British people being seen by those in the forces as everyone’s favourite daughter or little sister and by everyone else as that cute girl with the curly blonde hair. Post war she had triumphed on radio, TV, film and the stage seemingly working round the clock to become the proverbial all round entertainer. But, by the early 60s she wanted to spread her wings and prove that she was ready to join the emerging world of modern pop with energy and √©lan – if only she could find songs with more youthful vigour.

The songs Tony Hatch presented to Petula on his return from New York did not pass that test! She pressed him – surely he had one of his own songs that would light up the radio dials? Reluctantly, because he was chary of presenting the barest sketch of a song, he played her the piano melody and hummed along with the word Downtown cropping up as the hook. Immediately, Petula told him that he should concentrate on finishing this song; for with a good lyric and a strong arrangement she was sure this was a fine song that might well be the one they had been looking for for so long. Apparently Tony Hatch didn’t finish the lyric until the last half hour before recording while the mini army of musicians set up in the studio. Yet, on October 16th 1964 everything came together to produce an unstoppable pop classic that surely had No 1 written all over it!

Except the powers that be at UK Pye Records didn’t hear it that way. Instead it was Joe Smith from Warner Bros in the US who had the pop intelligence to spot that with the right promotion this song would definitely appeal to the home audience precisely because it was an outsiders romantic idealisation of the American city delivered by an artist with the right mixture of likeablity, talent and determination to win a loyal fan base. Fifteen consecutive top 40 US hits showed Joe was right in spades!

‘Downtown’ never grows old. The best compliment to the song I’ve come across was provided by Leo Moran of the Irish good time band The Saw Doctors who observed:

‘One night for no particular reason we did Downtown and you could see people loved it. All ages. You could see it brought joy to people’s faces.’

That will do for me as a definition of what great pop songs can do. And, have no doubt about it, Petula Clark’s Downtown is a great pop song. So all together now:

‘… The lights are much brighter there, You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go Downtown ……’

Notes:

Petula Clark en Francais:

Following a tremendously well received concert at the Paris Olympia in 1957 Petula found a new audience and a husband, Claude Wolf. The French were delighted by the way she sang in their language and have supported her ever since. Look out for, ‘Romeo’, ‘Ya Ya Twist’ and ‘Chariot’ among her many successes in France.

Incidentally, Downtown was a massive hit in France under the title, ‘Dans le temps’. In Italy it was, ‘Ciao Ciao’ and in Spain, ‘Chao Chao’. Everywhere it was released, whatever it was called, it was a huge hit!

Vic Flick:

When I mention the great guitarist Vic Flick most people say they have never heard of him. Yet I guarantee that unless you have been living in a cave for the last 50 years or so you have heard Vic! For whenever you watch a James Bond movie and you groove along to the irresistible guitar riff first heard in Dr No its Vic you’re listening to!

Glenn Gould and Downtown:

The great classical pianist Glenn Gould may well be the ultimate example of the eccentric musical genius in modern times. Yet, he produced one of the landmark recordings of the 20th century in his performance of Bach’s, ‘Goldberg Variations’. In addition he had the good sense to be a very enthusiastic fan of Petula Clark and Downtown in particular. You may enjoy seeking out the essays he wrote about the song and singer and there are clips available of him lauding the record on his excellent radio shows for the Canadian Broadcasting Company.