The Beatles & Bowie agree: The Merseybeats are Fab!

British Beat – Some Other Guys:

The Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9th 1964, viewed by some 73 million people (!) was an epochal moment in the history of popular music and indeed of global popular culture. The world would never be quite the same again. Additionally, their Sullivan show debut red letter marked a new, wholly unanticipated, chapter in the, ‘Special relationship’ between the peoples of Britain and The United States Of America.

Following in the wake of The Beatles overwhelming chart triumphs and virtual colonisation of the hearts and imaginations of an entire generation of American youth battalions of British Beat groups began packing their bags and stared dreamily at their atlases as they wondered what the fabled cities of New York City, Chicago and San Francisco were really like. Could it true that they were on their way there and that when they arrived they would be screamed at by hordes of gorgeous young women, celebrated for their ‘cute’ accents and garlanded as members of a wholly welcomed invasion?

For some like the Rolling Stones and The Who, Field Marshalls of the Invasion, this was indeed the case and they would go on over the following half century to pursue storied careers now commemorated in DVDs, Box Sets and epic myth making tours. But while the Generals and Staff Officers of any army always grab the lion’s share of the glory and the headlines, others in the ranks – the regulars, the foot sore infantry, sometimes have their fleeting moment(s) in the sun too.

The, ‘Some Other Guys’ series will feature posts on the lesser lights of the British Beat era who nevertheless made some great records that endure as fine music as well as being emblematic of the times.

So, today I showcase The Merseybeats/Merseys – a group who played hundreds of times at Liverpool’s legendary Cavern club in the early 1960s, alternating as headliners with the Beatles. In many respects they were like younger brothers of The Beatles – sharing their enthusiasms if not the overwhelming charisma and depth of talent of the Fab Four (but then who did!).

They did however produce a classic record in 1966, ‘Sorrow’. Both The Beatles and David Bowie were fond of the group and, ‘Sorrow’ in particular. The Beatles directly quoted from the song in their, ‘It’s All Too Much’ and former fan club member Bowie had a substantial hit with his sometimes camp, sometimes impassioned, wholly Bowiesque, version of the song which appeared on his early 70s covers album, ‘Pin Ups’.

The Merseys version, below, intimates that that the unreachable beauty, the longed for lover with the long blonde hair and the eyes of blue, may well turn out to be not an angel but the Devil’s daughter and the cause of long lasting sorrow as well as momentary joy. Or so it so often seems in the overheated imaginations of hormonally ravaged, emotionally immature, teenage boys! Later, spurned, the young man may come to realise that thinking about his fate might well be an illicit pleasure in its own right and cue up, ‘Sorrow’ time and again until the next love of his life appears.

The charmingly morose vocals are by the key duo of the Merseybeats/Merseys – Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley who also respectively played rhythm and lead guitar. The record label assures us that the track was produced by Kit Lambert (then manager of The Who) though I am inclined to hear more profoundly the influence of John Paul Jones (later of Led Zeppelin fame) who played the opening bowed bass figure and surely arranged the horns which feature so effectively.

The great Clemente Anselmo Arturo ‘Clem’ Cattini, the doyenne of UK session drummers, plays with the professional expertise he brought to over 40 British number 1 singles. ‘Sorrow’ will take up permanent residence in your musical memory. I’d like to feature two more songs to illustrate the worth of the Band. First, the Merseybeats 1964 million selling ballad, ‘I Think Of You’ which in addition to the aforementioned Crane and Kinsley has Aaron Williams on guitar and the late John Banks behind the drum kit.

This swooner with its attractive guitar figure was surely meant to play as the mirror ball scattered its indiscriminate temporary glamour over local dance floors. Perhaps many of the dancers as this song played thought of, ‘the one who got away’ even as they held close the one they were dancing with that night. The record is contained and contentedly wraps us up in satisfying angst. Finally a more dramatic and weighty performance from 1965, their version of Tony Colton and Ray Smith’s magnificent cri de couer, ‘I Stand Accused’ (later to be given a thrilling, amphetamine rush version by Elvis Costello). Tony Colton, as secret hero of the UK Music scene, will feature later in this series.

The above performance reveals an altogether grittier, sweatier, side to The Merseybeats. This, surely, is how they would have sounded in stygian gloom of The Cavern as the crowd, packed way beyond capacity, urged them on for chorus upon chorus before they all needed to groggily come up for air.

Few glossily illustrated, footnoted tomes will be written about the Merseybeats yet they surely left their mark on the 60s musical landscape and with, ‘Sorrow’ that mark is likely to prove indelible.

Notes: The original version of, ‘Sorrow’ was written and produced in 1965 in a hazy folk-rock style by the New York City wise guy team of Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer for The McCoys which featured guitar wunderkind Rick Derringer. Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer issued records under the name The Strangeloves including the garage rock staple, ‘I Want Candy’.

Richard Gottehrer is very likely to feature here on The Jukebox later as he went on to be an important figure in the New York New Wave scene (producing records for Richard Hell and Blondie) and co-found Sire Records.

‘Some Other Guy’ a raucous 1962 R&B by Richard Berry (written by Leiber & Stoller) has, as the the more astute among you will have already figured out, provided the inspiration for the, ‘Some Other Guys’ series. It was frequently played live by The Beatles in their Cavern days.

Van Morrison : Carrickfergus (Elegy for Vincent)

The Unfinished conversation:

‘There you are …… ‘

‘Grand, Grand ….’

‘Isn’t there a fine stretch in the evenings now’

Aye – there’s a fair dazzle of daffodils over the old road’

‘Did you hear that McCoy’s retiring! And didn’t he drive in a 14/1 winner, at the front every step of the way, at his last Cheltenham.’

‘Sure, many a time I’ve seen him near lift an animal over the line to get a winner’ – we will not see his like again.’

‘If you had to guess who, in their seventies, would record an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra and pull it off who would you pick?’

‘Not Bob! But after the Christmas record who could ever be surprised again!’ We will not see his like again’

‘You’d hardly recognise the lad now – he’s up to my shoulder’

‘God bless him – isn’t it natural. Before too long it’s you that will be looking up at him’

‘Well I can see you need to be on your way. I’ll see you further on up the road’

‘Aye, but take your time, take your time – there’s plenty of road.’

In memory of my friend, Vincent Roche (RIP) who was one of nature’s gentlemen. A craftsman, a scholar of music and horseflesh and a man of wry humour and quiet dignity. Vincent was a proud Irishman from Foxford in the County of Mayo.

We often traded lines from the great ballads of the Irish tradition as opening salvos or payoff lines in our conversations:

‘… And we made a football of his rowdy-dow-dow’

‘… He never tried to go railing from Ennis as far as Kilkee’

‘… One star awake as the swan in the evening moved over the lake’

‘… Down by the sally gardens my love and I did meet’

‘… The pale moon was rising above the green mountain’

‘… And I said let grief be a falling leaf at the dawning of the day’

Today, in his honour, I feature a luminous performance of, ‘Carrickfergus’ by the greatest singer Ireland has ever produced, Van Morrison, accompanied by the legendary Chieftains who provide the sympathetic melodic and rhythmic ground against which Van weaves his profound magic.

Van makes emotionally real the knowledge we have in our bones that our relations and dearest friends are all bound to pass on like the melting snow. Treasure them while you share the same stretch of road.

Wherever we wander most of us keep an image in our hearts of the home place and all of us are mesmerised by the waves of the salty sea ebbing and flowing as they have done for millennia before we were born and as they will do long after we are gone.

P.S. Those of you interested in my more literary efforts and Ireland might like to look up the, ‘Once In A Blue Moon A Poem’ post below.

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’.