The Immortal Jukebox A11 : Nolan Strong – The Wind

‘There was a guy who lived in Detroit and had a group called the Diablos. His name was Nolan Strong. They were my favorite vocalists at that time’ (Smokey Robinson)

‘If I could really sing I’d be Nolan Strong’ (Lou Reed)

Some songs, some voices creep up on you incrementally winning your affection the more you hear them. Others like the song, ‘The Wind’ and the voice of Nolan Strong immediately, inescapably, haunt your imagination.

In this case haunt may be too timid a term – it would be more accurate to say that, ‘The Wind’ in all its mysterious majesty took Possession of my imagination and held sway there for many months from the moment I was first exposed to its eerie brilliance. The only other song that’s had this effect on me was the late Nick Drake’s spectral, ‘Pink Moon’ which seemed a threnody from a drowned soul five fathoms down in an unforgiving sea.

‘I know she is gone but my love lingers on,
In a dream that the wind brings to me’.

Blow Wind!

The Wind reminds me yet again that the musical instrument that has the greatest power to affect my emotions and my spirit is the human voice. A voice like Nolan Strong’s calls out to the soul in a way that admits no explanation that can be understood in technical analysis using terms like pitch, tone and decibels. Nolan Strong’s voice can only be appreciated in terms of stilled heartbeats, stilled breath, cradle memories …..

In the song Nolan’s universe unlocking high tenor lead is supported by his colleagues in The Diablos. They had formed In 1950 at Central High School in Detroit when Nolan met fellow singers Juan Guieterriez (Tenor), Willie Hunter (Baritone), Quentin Eubanks (Bass) and Bob Edwards a guitarist.

They listened in particular to the wonderful and immensely influential recordings of Clyde McPhatter with The Dominoes. Nolan Strong like Elvis Presley and scores of other singers was deeply impressed by the glorious élan of Clyde’s vocals – a song sung by Clyde was given wings and soared thrillingly into stark distant spheres of the sky above us all.

Practicing and practicing and practicing and performing anywhere they were allowed The Diablos honed their sound as 1950 became 1951 then 1952 then1953 and then 1954. Eventually they fetched up at an address that would be part of the legend of the Detroit music scene. Not 2648 West Grand Boulevard where the entrepreneurial genius Berry Gordy would establish the sound of, ‘Young America’ in 1959 but 11629 Linwood the home of Fortune records run by Jack and Devora Brown.

Fortune was a, ‘Mom and Pop’ operation set up in the late 1940s hoping to make hits from Devora Brown’s songs and the talent pool latent in Detroit’s huge African-American population. The Browns were short on cash and the recording facilities at Fortune were primitive even by the standards of the time. Yet Fortune had imagination and in Devora a distinctive songwriter.

The first Diablos recording was a Devora song, ‘Adios, My Desert Love’ which charmed Detroit with its Latin rhumba accents and the intricate interplay of the harmony vocals underpinned by castanet and piano accompaniment.

Their next single was Fortune 511, ‘The Wind’ co-written by Devora and The Diablos. The recording features acoustic bass, vibes and electric guitar in addition to the delicate orchestral blend of vocals surrounding, cushioning, the astounding lead of Nolan Strong which both in its sung parts and the recitation prefigured the soundscapes conjured up later by Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson.

The first fifteen seconds of instrumental introduction establish an otherworldly atmosphere which is retained throughout the duration of the recording. The Diablos when they enter establish an anchor for our ears before Nolan enters taking us to uncharted realms with the heaven rending purity of his vocal. Nolan’s vocal contains both the comfort of the cool summer breeze and the chill of lost love’s memory. His vocal caresses us as once his lover caressed him. What could be more tender than Nolan’s vocal here?

There are some days in our lives we can never forget. Days which become emotional touchstones which as the years go take on a hallucinatory power when recalled – sometimes voluntarily, sometimes emerging unheralded into our startled consciousness. I believe in the collective unconscious and it is clear to me that Nolan Strong and The Diablos dived deep into it when recording, ‘The Wind’.

Listen to the last dying fall of the song and you will know that this is a dream that will always linger on. As long as we have hearts that beat and minds that dream it will linger on. Even until the heavens above can no longer shine. Even until then.

Notes:

Nolan strong died at 43 in 1977. His voice will always be with me and if you listen to any compilation of Nolan Strong and The Diablos I am sure it will stay with you as well.

Songs to particularly look out for include, ‘Daddy Rockin Strong’, ‘The Way You Dog Me Around’ and, ‘Mind Over Matter’.

I also recommend that you listen to Laura Nyro’s cover of The Wind from her essential album, ‘Gonna Take A Miracle’ which she recorded with the vocal group Labelle. Laura, whom I will write about often here, records the song as a tender homage to her days on New York street corners singing songs like The Wind which seemed to hang bright in the evening skies like the moon.

Van Morrison – in The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll!

‘Turn it up! Turn up your Rad-io!’ (Van Morrison – ‘Caravan’)

‘We were the War children – born 1945 ….’ (Van Morrison – ‘Wild Children’)

‘I can get your station when I need rejuvenation … Wavelength you never let me down’ (Van Morrison – ‘Wavelength’)

‘… I like Morrison because I know that his work comes from the same level as my own poetry – the level of daydreaming; that he’s out to annihilate ego; that he’s after the same,’nothingness’ as Kavanagh was after ….’ (Paul Durcan)

Van Morrison is an only child. A child alone much of the time by inclination and perhaps vocation. A soul born to dream, to live in dreams and to birth those dreams in songs and singing – dreaming in God.

As a boy growing up in East Belfast he was close to the sea and the countryside. From his house, beyond his bedroom, he could hear voices echoing over the Beechie River and imagine the mist swathed shipyard towers looming out of the night as the foghorns guided ships safely home.

His head, heart and spirit opened up and welcomed dreams and intimations of an immortal world coexisting with the mortal world. Walking down Hyndford Street to leafy Cyprus Avenue he could be transported so that he was both thrillingly outside himself and strangely never so completely himself.

Dreaming those young man’s dreams he found sustenance for his creative imagination in the sights and sounds of his home city, its hinterland, and in sounds closer to home emanating from the radio and the HMV record player. The radio and the record player would become almost sacred objects.

The sounds they produced would enter deep into his consciousness, his soul; sounds he could never forget, sounds he would store as treasure and draw on for decades – fusing them through the mysterious alchemy of art into extraordinarily beautiful and affecting visions of his own.

And these visions have their genesis in the days before Rock ‘n’ Roll. The days of post war austerity. Days which could seem monochrome, mundane and stultifyingly metronomic. Days when a dreaming boy hunched close to the radio and the record player in search of a rainbow for his soul.

Together with fellow Irishman and fellow dreamer, poet Paul Durcan, he would dramatise those dreaming days in a song, ‘In The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll’ – a song which would catalogue some of the signposts of those dreams in a performance which has something of the hyper real, time slipping, giddy character of a waking dream. A performance which has me laughing out loud and punching the air with Joy as he hymns the stations and the musicians that called to him – that called his own unique voice into being.

‘In the Days’ is a dream that’s shot through with good humour, strangeness and charm. A dream that flows like a pure mountain stream strong enough to cut through stone yet gentle enough to dip your hand in. A stream you would surely want to let the goldfish go into!

A dream brought to vivid life over four days in the studio by an intimate quartet – Paul Durcan as the inspired/crazed narrator, Dave Early on drums, Steve Pearce on bass with Van Morrison on animating spirit, piano and vocals.

The sleeve notes tell me the song last 8 minutes and 13 seconds but that only records how long it lasts the first time you hear it – for once you’ve heard it it will be playing in your imagination and in your dreams for the rest of your life. Come aboard!

A Listeners guide:

Paul Durcan:

Paul Durcan is a maverick Irish poet who has been writing poems which fizz with emotional and literary energy for as long as Van has been writing songs which fizz with spiritual and musical energy. Durcan’s poetry speaks in an urgent conversational tone about almost every aspect of life not excluding the political, the sexual and the spiritual.

Reading a Durcan collection is to be taken on a thrilling literary roller coaster ride which will have you laughing and gasping as well as exhilarated and emotionally pummelled. He is a performance poet on the page as well as the stage addressing his audience as friends and fellow campfire sitters as he examines the crazy world we live in. He seems to me to be wholly mad and wholly sane simultaneously – ideal territory for a poet to occupy.

‘Justin':

Who is Justin? Just a name plucked out of the air for its sound, its comparative rarity in a world awash with Jims and Georges and Pauls? Probably we will never know who this, ‘gentler than a man’ man was. Just a thought but it strikes me as not insignificant that an Irish poet from the latter half of the twentieth century would use a name which happens to be the little know second name of the greatest Irish poet of that era: Seamus Justin Heaney!

The Wireless Knobs/Telefunken

Vintage radios such as those made by the Telefunken Company in Berlin were gorgeously tactile objects. Radios, humming with valve power and gleaming with polished wood, bakelite and glass, softly lit, took pride of place in our homes in the days before Televisions took up their imperial dominance in our living rooms. No point and shoot remotes then! Radios were switched on and off and tuned to stations using knobs that clunked satisfyingly into position and dials that you set spinning to call up and capture sounds from distant lands beamed in from the ionosphere.

The very air crackled with possibility as you waited for the signal to settle as you settled down to laugh along your favourite comedians, sing along with your favourite singers, gasp at the heroics of your favourite detective or be amazed by a discovery as the spinning dial led you into imaginative territory you had never dreamed existed.

Radios conjured up dreams, created communities of interest and painted pictures that seared into our memories. Radio, despite all the technological developments of the last few decades remains the dreamers ideal companion. Tune in!

‘I am searching for … Luxembourg, Athlone, Budapest, AFN, Hilversum, Helvetia …’

One of the great pleasures of vintage radio was discovering what programmes were made by exotically named radio stations broadcasting from places which often had to be looked up on an atlas to see where they were! Not knowing what you might find and be introduced to was exciting and expanded our cultural horizons.

I’ll take spinning the dial over preset culture any day of the week: only listening to what you already know you like narrows your horizons and precludes the revolutionary discoveries that open up new worlds.

As you scanned the stations on the radio dial even reciting their names became a form of litany – clearly recognised above by Paul Durcan who has a genius for incantatory recitation.

Luxembourg:

Radio Luxembourg had a very powerful signal (on 208 metres Medium Wave) which washed tidally over the British Isles bringing many young people their first regular exposure to those new fangled musics their parents just knew were no good for them. Luxembourg, in contrast to the BBC, was a commercial station which meant it was happy to devote whole programmes to showcasing the new releases from record labels such as Capitol and Phillips.

On Saturdays at 8pm in 1956 (when Van was aged 11) you could listen to, ‘Jamboree’ – described as two hours of non-stop, action packed radio featuring ‘Teenage Jury’ and American disc-jockey Alan Freed with an excerpt from his world changing show, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

Athlone:

Athlone is a historic Irish town on the shores of the River Shannon. From the 1930s to the 1970s the principal transmitter for Irish radio was located in Athlone and the Irish national radio station came to be known on radio dials all over the world as Athlone. The fledgling Irish state was keen to promote native culture with Irish sports and traditional music being prominently featured.

Athlone is also the birthplace of the great Irish tenor Count John McCormack whose golden voice resounded all over the globe in the first half of the twentieth century. Like Van he had a voice that was able to express the normally inexpressible – a voice that could send shivers through the soul.

AFN (American Forces Network)

One of the spin-offs from the presence of GIs in Europe as a result of WW2 and the ensuing cold war was AFN whose broadcasts of American music could be listened to by Europeans hungry for the jazz and blues based music which was so hard to find anywhere else. Being near an American military base was a boon both for the likely strength of the signal and the possibility that personnel from the base might have records never seen in domestic stores.

Lester Piggott:

Lester Piggott (‘The long fellow’) was, as my Dad would have told you, the greatest horse racing jockey who ever lived. He won England’s premier race, The Epsom Derby, an almost unbelievable 9 times from 1954 as a teenager with, ‘Never Say Die’ through to 1983 when he won with, ‘Teenoso’. Lester Piggott became an almost mythical figure not just in the world of the turf but in the folklore of the nation.

Children and grandmothers who never opened a racing page in their lives would go into a bookmakers on the day of a classic race and simply say, ‘I’ll have five shillings on whatever Lester is riding!’ And, very, very often that turned out to be a very smart bet for no one was a better judge of what horse to ride than Lester Piggott and no one more capable of riding a race with ice cool expertise to ensure victory. Lester was a close mouthed man with a very dry sense of humour – he had no time for the hoopla of celebrity. He he lived to win horse races and he spoke horse with a fluency that’s probably never been matched.

Fats, Elvis, Sonny, Lightning, Muddy, John Lee!, Ray Charles:The High Priest! The Killer: Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard.

Van Morrison was extraordinarily fortunate to be the son of a father who had lived in Detroit and who had a fabled collection of blues and Rhythm & Blues records young Van could immerse his thirsty soul in. As he says he heard Muddy Waters and Blind Lemon on the street where he was born. Leadbelly became his guiding spirit. A spirit he has remained true to over five decades and more of music making.

The radio brought to him and millions of others the original Rock ‘n’ Roll creators – the revolutionaries whose legacy will live for ever. The greater the distance we are from those giants of the 1950s the greater their genius is clear. They were the guides and spirits who befriended us – who turned on the coloured lights for whole generations. Their genius is lovingly celebrated in the roll call here to form an honours board of immortality.

There can be no doubt that Van Morrison has joined that company.

As the song fades back into the ether a transported Paul Durcan says:

‘We certainly got a lot of beautiful things in there Van’.

Truer words were never spoken.

Knocking The Beatles Off Number 1 : The Dixie Cups!

‘They were the shyest, sweetest group …. You rooted for them – wanting them to be successful … They exuded innocence, they listened, they performed … What you heard was who they were .. And they just sang from the heart. They deserve recognition and respect.’ (Ellie Greenwich on The Dixie Cups).

By the middle of 1964 The Beatles had virtually annexed the Number One position in the US Hot 100 chart. ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ rested atop the chart for fourteen straight weeks and surely, ‘Love Me Do’ which hit the summit at the end of May would extend their imperial sway even further.

Who could stop them? Well, as no one but Nostradamus could have predicted The Beatles were turfed out of the top spot not by another British Beat group or one of the titans of American Pop but by three shy young girls from New Orleans, collectively known as The Dixie Cups.

The members were sisters Barbara and Rosa Hawkins and their cousin Joan Johnson. Their debut single, the immortal, ‘Chapel of Love’ elbowed John, Paul, George and Ringo aside and selling over a million copies took up glorious residence at Number One for the first three weeks of June 1964.

Unless you’ve wholly surrendered to soul deadening cynicism the sheer romantic charm of, ‘Chapel of Love’ is bound to win you over as it celebrates in a tone of sure hearted happiness the delights of marriage and the dizzy joy of a wedding day.

Doesn’t everybody want, or remember with affection, the day when the sky was blue and the birds sang, as if they knew, that this precious day was the much longed for and now finally here, ‘I Do Day’?

Doesn’t everybody want, once in their life, for the sun to shine brightly and believe, or at least hope, that, ‘I’ll be his and he’ll be mine until the end of time’?

Doesn’t everybody want to believe, hoping against hope, that they will never be lonely any more?

I do. I did on the day I got married all those years ago and I still do now.

And listening to the lovely innocence of The Dixie Cups familial harmonies I believe once again in the power of simple words and simple melodies to illuminate and provide inspiration and comfort throughout the dramatic phases and stages of life in all its simplicity and infinite complexity.

I love; the relaxed tempo of the song, the finger snaps cueing in the bass and drums, the angelic affirmation of the vibes, the haze of the horns seeming to wish the happy couple bon voyage as they set sail for the future and the way the vocals suggest joy being welcomed and embraced as a natural fact.

I love the almost intoxicated wonder of the line, ‘Gee, I really love you and we’re gonna get married, Goin’ to the Chapel of love’. (I think one day I will have to write a whole post dedicated to the use of the word, ‘Gee’ in fifties and sixties pop – you have been warned!)

Listening to the song it sometimes feels like I’m taking time out to swathe my spirit temporarily in a cocoon of bliss. Perhaps I’m also seeking reassurance and fortitude for the day ahead – whatever it may bring. All I really know is that, ‘Chapel of Love’ is a song I never tire of.

Though this was a debut single for The Dixie Cups the team behind the record reveals a gallery of some of the most important figures in the popular music of the 1960s. The girls had been brought to New York by their musical mentor, Joe, ‘You Talk too Much’ Jones. He was involved in selecting songs for them and in producing, ‘Chapel Of Love’.

The song was written by the (then!) husband and wife duo of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich who rank with Lennon & McCartney and Holland, Dozier, Holland as authors of classic hits. Think of, ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, ‘Then He Kissed Me’, ‘River Deep – Mountain High’, ‘Do – Wah – Diddy’, and, ‘Leader Of The Pack’ just for starters!

The record was also a debut for Red Bird Records run by the legendary songwriting/production team, Leiber and Stoller, and a storied figure in the New York City music scene and the vocal group world, George Goldner, who between them had helmed dozens and dozens of hits.

I was once told that there are 8 million stories in the naked city and I’m sure there’s at least that many stories behind every great song

The truth of the above statement is surely proved by the (largely fruitless) attempts that have been made to explain what The Dixie Cups other great hit from March 1965, ‘Iko Iko’ is really all about.

I could (as is my frequent wont) launch into a scholarly disquisition on the role of West African tonal languages and folkloric culture in Haiti, Cuba and New Orleans on the genesis of the song with footnoted excursions into Native American interaction with slave populations and the tangled web of copyright and intellectual property rights (summed up in the music business with the wise saw, ‘Where there’s a hit there’s a writ!).

But, I think, on mature reflection you would rather just hear an unforgettable song which returns us all to the playground of our youth (which many of us think we should not wholly abandon) with memories of rhymes we never knew the meaning of but which just made us happy and strangely empowered when chanting them out in unison.

Some words just sound wonderful when run together – whether they hold the key to the universe or are pure gibberish (I’m using my own anglicised version of the lyrics)

‘Talkin’ ’bout, Hey now! Hey now! I-KO I-KO … Jock-a-mo-fee-na-nay!!’

The legend goes that The Dixie Cups were goofing off in the studio and launched, impromptu, into a song they had learned at their grandmothers’ knee. The percussion effects are supposedly provided by striking a chair and metal ashtrays! In the booth, the ever canny Leiber and Stoller realised that such magic must not be allowed to vanish into the ether. So, they kept the tape running and with minimal overdubbing – Voila! A never to be forgotten hit was produced.

The Dixie Cups only had a short 18 month or so career as hit makers (though they still perform even now). Yet, there is no doubt in my mind that the gloriously open hearted records celebrated here will forever retain a place in the annals of pop music and more importantly in the lives of all who listen to them.

Elvis listened closely yet the world barely knows him : Junior Parker!

Given the machinations of the music business, the powerful currents of cultural and social history and the mysteries of public taste it is entirely possible to be a magnificent singer, to have written and recorded some classic songs covered by giants such as Elvis Presley and to have made wonderful records at every stage of a two decade career (‘Mystery Train’, ‘Next Time You See Me’, ‘Feelin’ Good’, ‘Driving Wheel’) and yet remain a shadowy figure usually referred to only with regard to figures of more popular note.

My Lords, ladies and gentlemen and music lovers everywhere I give you an artist you’ve been longing for – if only you had known he was there – Junior Parker!


Born in 1927 and growing up in West Memphis, Arkansas in the 1930s and 1940s Junior Parker was exposed to a thriving Blues and Rhythm and Blues scene. He learned to play the harmonica at the feet of Rice Miller (the second Sonny Boy Williamson) and in his teenage years he befriended and played with Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, B B King and the mighty Howling Wolf. He also hooked up with bandleader/talent spotter/musical fixer Ike Turner who got him his initial shot at recording with Modern Records in 1952.

However, as with so many artists, it was after he met one of the most significant figures in twentieth century cultural history, Sam Phillips, and recorded at his Memphis Sun Studios that Junior Parker’s extraordinary talent as a singer, writer and performer first blossomed. Sun 187, ‘Feelin’ Good’ issued in 1953 and a sizeable R&B hit is Junior’s calling card showcasing his brilliantly controlled vocal style which combines supple variety with graceful flow.

Backed by guitarists Floyd Murphy and Pat Hare, pianist Bill Johnson and John Bowers on drums Junior takes a John Lee Hooker template and fashions (no doubt with the aid of the sharp eared Sam Phillips behind the desk) a record that pulses with energy and life. The hard wood floor sprung rhythm and the heart lifting guitar lines seem to clear a path for Junior to demonstrate the virtuosity of his singing.

He seems to gloriously glide and pirouette through the song ; now almost whispering hoarsely, now soaring into full throated release, all the while driving the song forward. Every time I hear this record I’m impelled to echo Junior, ‘Well I feel so good – Woooooooh!

Junior brought a song of his own, ‘Mystery Train’ to his next Sun session – one that would go on to be an epochal classic when covered by Sam Phillips’ greatest discovery, Elvis Presley. Junior’s version evokes an almost eerie atmosphere of a train slowly pulling its way in sultry heat through hazy southern fields.

Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black (taking their cue from the urgent, ‘Love My Baby’ the flip side of Junior’s Mystery Train) up the tempo and energy level to evoke a streamlined locomotive blurring past astonished bystanders. Elvis sings with bravura élan and on the spot brings to life the sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll that Sam Phillips had so fervently been searching for. Junior’s version can’t match Elvis though it’s fair to say no one on earth has ever managed to either!

As Sam Phillips, for obvious reasons, concentrated on promoting the careers of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, Junior found a home from home at Don Robey’s Duke Records, Memphis’ premier black music label. During his time with Duke Junior made a string of excellent records while relentlessly touring on the, ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ for the black communities throughout the nation.

Junior benefitted in these live shows from a fine band that had attack and colour through a well drilled rhythm team and a punchy brass section. This combination is shown to advantage on the wonderful, ‘Next Time You See Me’ from 1957. This one made the Hot 100 at 74 as well as top 5 R&B.

Essentially a blues shuffle, ‘Next Time’ establishes itself as an irresistible standard from the first few notes. You are swept along by the exhilarating licks and riffs traded between the brass section, the guitar and the piano.

Junior’s vocal has regal command as he tells the old, old story’s folk wisdom – ‘If it hurts you my darling – you only have yourself to blame.’ Junior never seems to strain for effect: his thoroughbred vocals have power in reserve allowing him to cruise through the song while effortlessly stirring the audience.

My next two selections illustrate Junior’s versatility and ability to inhabit the heart of a song to illuminate its overt and hidden dramas. For, ‘I Need Love So Bad’ he draws on the song writing pen of Percy Mayfield, the peerless poet and professor of the blues, and produces a performance that glows with passion.

I’m awestruck by Junior’s vocal here. Listen to the way he wraps his voice round Percy’s melody and lyric in a tender loving embrace. The song is one of those 3am in the locked bar blues expertly anatomising the never plumbed depths of male despair and angst (not to mention self-pity!). Junior manages to sing in a manner that suggests a man who is exhausted and world weary though not, yet, wholly defeated. It’s a wondrous performance that slays me no matter how often I hear it.

Contrast that performance with the almost Sam Cooke like elegance (there is no higher praise for a singer) that he brings to, ‘Someone Somewhere’.

Junior, here, shows what a great soul singer he would have been if he’d followed that path. While the horns mistily wreathe around him and the guitar glistens Junior’s vocal traces beautifully delicate emotional patterns that linger in the mind long after the record has ended.

Perhaps one of the hallmarks of a great singer is the way their voices enter and find a home in our hearts; imprinting themselves on our consciousness ever more deeply as we replay their songs on our turntables or in our waking and dreaming imaginations. Junior Parker belongs in that hallowed company as a singer.

I’ll close with Junior showing how he could take a hoary blues standard and reveal new depths. Eddie Boyd’s, ‘Five Long Years’ has had hundreds of covers but I doubt any have had the deeply affecting power of Junior’s version below recorded soon before his death.

I would call that chamber music blues – relaxed, intimate, exquisitely paced, deeply felt. Though Junior’s vocal seems wholly natural and spontaneous it conceals the craft of an absolute master.

Junior Parker was a great singer who, without grandstanding, artfully achieved total control of his instrument – his glorious voice. Though his life was cut short his legacy will be long lasting. Do yourself a favour and investigate his catalogue. Trust me you will not regret it.

Further Listening:

Junior Parker’s recorded legacy is desperately in need of an expertly curated box set. In the meantime look out for compilations of his Sun material and 2 MCA compilation of his Duke sides. Hard to find but wonderful to listen to are the, ‘Lion in winter’ recordings he made in 1970/1971 for Groove Merchant and United Artists.

Doug Sahm: Bringing It All Back Home (To Texas)

‘I wanna bring up one of my really old buddies, Doug Sahm! Everybody knows Doug and we go back a long way … ‘ (Bob Dylan welcoming Doug to the stage in 1995)

‘You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul’ (Doug Sahm)

Doug Sahm was a walking, talking, totally, ‘Texas Texture’ kind of a guy. A Texan’s Texan. Texas is a very, very, big place and is home to a staggering variety of music which is nourished in beery roadhouses, sprung floor dance halls and honky tonks heavy with the aroma of marajuana.

Music there is avidly listened to, played and danced to by a knowledgeable audience who know which songs are the best to two-step to, which are the best to slow dance to and which are the best to get you ready for a first class fist fight.

Doug Sahm growing up in a largely black section of San Antonio in the 1940s and 1950s absorbed the music blasting out from the radio and the clubs and stored it away as the treasury he would draw on, honour and add to for the rest of his life. You name it Doug Sahm knew it, loved it and could play it with the affection of a true devotee.

Doug was your man if you wanted to hear honkytonkin’ country, some gritty R&B, gutbucket or romantic blues, a Cajun two step, a once round the floor again polka, western swing or Tex-Mex border ballads. And, you could hear all these styles in one night and dance till you dropped! Whether you were a redneck or a hippie, a fan of Willie Nelson, The Grateful Dead or T Bone Walker, Doug had just the groove you were looking for.

Doug has been a boy wonder musician playing fiddle, steel guitar and mandolin on radio from the age of 6 – he was never anything other than a working musician until he died at the tragically young age of 58 in 1999.

Though Doug was widely known in Texas where he had played paying gigs before he turned 10 (once sharing the stage with the great Hank Williams) he first came to wider notice in 1965 with a fabulous record, ‘She’s About A Mover’. This was issued under the name The Sir Douglas Quintet as legendary producer Huey Meaux hoped buyers would assume the band were members of the all conquering British Invasion.

The subterfuge couldn’t last long once it was noticed that two of the band were clearly of Mexican heritage and they all had rich Texas accents. No matter, radio play was duly delivered and once heard, ‘Mover’ was an unstoppable hit!

Doug and the boys had managed to blend Ray Charles, The Beatles and a Texas two-step rhythm into an addictive confection which still has the freshness and impact of a classic song (Texas Monthly No 1 Texas tune of all time!). The Quintet lock into the rhythm as the magnificent Augie Meyers adds bite, colour and texture on the Vox Organ.

Front and centre Doug shows what a marvellously soulful, warm and winning singer he was; always true to the spirit of the song he was singing, always connecting with his fellow musicians and his audience. As I might have said in 1965 – it’s a gas! An absolute gas!

Doug was launched into a career which featured national TV spots and tours with James Brown, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys. There was never a major hit follow up to, ‘Mover’ but the initial version of the Quintet produced albums with gems a plenty including, ‘Mendocino’ and, ‘Nuevo Laredo’.

The next Doug Sahm record I want to draw your attention to is the Jerry Wexler produced album, ‘Doug Sahm And Band’ on Atlantic from 1973.

The record is notable for extensively featuring Bob Dylan who at that time was still largely in reclusive mode. More importantly it is one of those records which has such a consistently attractive musical character and personality that it seems to glow in your imagination as you listen to it. And, believe me as someone who has listened to this record hundreds of time its charm never palls.

It’s one of those records like Van Morrison’s, ‘Moondance’ which alters your mood for the better every time you hear it. One of those records that just as you are about to put it back in the sleeve you decide with a smile that you should play again, just one more time!

Every track has been my favourite at one time or another. Doug, the Cosmic Cowboy, assisted by musicians of the calibre of Dr John, Flaco Jimenez, ‘Fathead’ Newman, David Bromberg and his indispensable musical brother Augie Meyers cooks up a richly flavoured Texas stew which continually whets and satisfies your musical appetite.

There is a glorious sense of relaxed enjoyment in making music, a sense, listening , that we are neighbours of Doug’s dropping in on a house party that will last for days, each song suggesting another, as everyone is having so much damn fun! It’s Texas blues, Texas country, Tex-Mex and 100% the magic of Doug Sahm.

Forced to choose one song to play here I’ve selected his anthem for his hometown, ‘(Is Anybody Going)To San Antone’ which features Dylan on guitar and harmony vocals. This song, like so many on the album and throughout Doug’s career, conjures joy out of thin air – which will do for me as the definition of what music at its best can do in our lives.

Doug was always touring, always making music whether he was in or out of fashion. Mind you, he was always in fashion with fellow Texas musicians and musicians and listeners everywhere who appreciated a man who talked a mile a minute, wore his heart on his sleeve and was always ready to play one more song.

Doug made a lot of records featuring wonderfully productive collaborations because he put the music first not his ego. He brought a lot to any group venture but he knew that it’s the combination of flavours that makes for the tastiest meals.

The ideal example of the above is the glorious series of records he made with his friends, Flaco Jimenez, Freddie Fender and Augie Meyers under the banner of The Texas Tornados. Listening to these albums offers a feast of pleasures as they carry you through a loving history of Texan musical culture. A few days spent with these wonders virtually guarantees you a PhD in Texas Studies!

To give you a sense of the prowess and generosity of Doug as a bandleader here’s a deliriously enjoyable clip of him with the Tornados featuring a properly rowdy version of, ‘Adios Mexico’ followed by a lovely take on Butch Hancock’s exquisite ballad (Number 1 in my Texas pantheon), ‘She Never Spoke Spanish To Me’. If you’re not up and dancing at the first and crying after the second there’s no hope for you.

Doug Sahm lived every day with a smile on his face. All over the world from Stockholm to San Antone, from London to Lubbock his music made him friends and followers. When you dig a groove as wide and deep as Doug did it can never vanish. I usually like to recommend selected records to illustrate an artist’s career. But for Doug Sahm I would simply advise you to buy as many as you can.

Adios compadre. Vaya con Dios.

Breaking News July 2:

Cheryl Sahm has read and approved this post and wants to draw attention to the Kickstarter campaign with regard to an excellent Documentary about Doug. A great cause I am happy to support here on The Jukebox.

CALLING ALL GROOVERS!!! We’ve got MAJOR news! Steve Earle | Lucinda Williams | T Bone Burnett | Boz Scaggs | Marcia Ball Find out WHY these folks want YOU to join them. The filmmakers of Sir Doug and The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove documentary want the world to know Doug Sahm’s authentic sound, so we’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $75K in only 30 days! Please checkout the link below and see how you can support Doug’s legacy.

http://bit.ly/SirDoug

We’re raising the funds needed to license over 40 of Doug Sahm’s hits for our film and it’s going to take the help from ALL of DOUG’s FANS and FRIENDS to get there! Without these funds, we can’t pay for music rights to distribute the film. Oh yeah, and while we’re at it, let’s get him the recognition he deserves in the ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME too.

Kickstarter is all or nothing, so please pledge, post, share, and tweet! Regardless of whether you can give, it would mean so much if you could help spread the word

‪#‎KickstartSirDoug‬ ‪#‎RRHOF‬ ‪#‎InductDoug‬ ‪#‎DougSahm‬ ‪#‎SirDoug‬ ‪

Fathers Day : Paul Simon, John Gorka, Seamus Heaney, Slievenamon & My Dad

Fathers and Sons. Sons and Fathers. Sons carry their Father’s in their bloodstream, in their mannerisms and gestures and in the echoing halls of their memories. No matter what you do in life, no matter how radically you roam from where you started you remain in some part of you (in more parts that you usually like to acknowledge) your Father’s son.

The process of becoming a man might be defined as honouring and taking the best from the experiences of your Father’s life while finding through your own experiences the kind of man and Father you want to be yourself.

Coming to terms with your Father, the Son you were and are and the man and Father you have become is the work of a lifetime. A story that’s always unfolding, always being rewritten as you learn more about the man you are and understand more about the man your Father was. Sons, schooled by the abrasive tides of life, sometimes learn to have a certain humility about the easy certainties of their youth as to who their Fathers was and what made him that way. It’s easy to be a Father until you become one.

‘What did I know? What did I know of
Love’s austere and lonely offices?’ (Robert Hayden)

Sons writing about Father’s is one of the great themes of all literature and songwriting because that story is always current, always unfolding, always full to the brim with all that is human in all its bloody and terrible glory. No two stories of Fathers and Sons are the same though most will recognise something of themselves in every story.

Here’s a cry from the soul. Paul Simon’s, ‘Maybe I Think Too Much’ from his aptly titled, ‘Hearts And Bones’ record. Fathers and Sons – Hearts and Bones, Hearts and Bones. Sons never know when they will need to call for their Fathers to appear in their dreams.

‘They say the left side of the brain dominates the right
And the right side has to labor through the long and speechless night
In the night my Father came and held me to his chest.
He said there’s not much more that you can do
Go Home and get some rest.’

The song about Father’s and Sons that grips my heart every time I hear it and which calls to me in the middle of the night is John Gorka’s, ‘The Mercy Of The Wheels’ Forgive the initially muffled sound.

‘I’d like to catch a train that could go back in time
That could make a lot of stops along the way
I would go to see my Father with the eyes he left behind
I would go for all the words I’d like to say
And I ‘d take along a sandwich and a picture of my girl
And show them all that I made out OK’

I miss my Father. My Dad.

I miss the smell of Old Holborn tobacco as he smoked one of his thin roll your own cigarettes.

I miss the days of childhood when I would buy him a pouch of Old Holborn for Father’s Day.

I miss getting up in the middle of the night with him to hear crackly radio commentaries on Muhammad Ali fights.

I miss the early Sunday mornings when we walked to a church two parishes away because he had been advised to walk a lot after his heart attack.

I miss hearing him roar home Lester Piggott as he brought the Vincent O’Brien horse into the lead in The Derby with half a furlong to go!

I miss hearing him say, ‘There’ll never be another like him’ as Jimmy Greaves scored another nonchalant goal for Spurs.

I miss hearing him say, ‘That was a complete waste of electricity’ as he glanced at the TV screen as some worthy drama concluded.

I miss sharing a pot of very, very strong tea with him well before six o clock in the morning – because as anyone with any sense knew the best of the day was gone before most people bothered to open an eye.

I miss sitting with him in easeful silence.

I miss him always expecting me to come top in every exam while always expecting me not to count on that.

I miss his indulgence in Fry’s Chocolate Cream bars.

I miss him saying, ‘You’ll be fine so ..’ whenever I had to face a daunting new challenge in life.

I miss him calling out the names of the men who worked with him on the building sites – Toher and Boucher and O’ Rahilly with me double checking the spellings as we filled out (creatively) the time sheets accounting for every hour of effort in the working week

I miss watching him expertly navigating his way to a green field site not marked on any map to start a new job and then watching him get hopelessly lost a mile from home on a shopping trip

I miss watching his delight as David Carradine in the TV show Kung Fu, unarmed, took on another gang of armed swaggering bullies and reduced them to whimpers in a few moments – ‘You watch he’ll be catching bullets next’.

I miss hearing his wholly unexpected but wholly accurate estimation of Bruce Springsteen’s cultural importance when seeing him featured on a news special when he first came to England: ‘He’ll never be Elvis’

I miss the way he remained a proud Tipperary man and Irishman despite living for more than 40 years in England.

I miss his quiet certainty that there was an after life – a world where Father’s and Sons divided by death could meet again.

I regret not being able to introduce him to the beautiful woman who, amazingly, wanted to be and became my wife.

I regret not watching him watch my Daughter and my Son grow up into their glorious selves.

I regret not watching him enjoying the pleasures of retirement and old age.

I miss alternating between thinking I was nothing like him and thinking I was exactly like him!

I miss the shyness of his smile.

I miss the sound of his voice.

I miss the touch of his leathery hands.

I miss the way he swept his left hand back across his thinning scalp when he was tired (exactly as I do now).

I miss the sound of my name when he said it.

I miss my Dad.

My dad lies in the green pastures of his beloved Tipperary now under the sheltering slopes of Slievenamon (he would never have forgiven me had he been buried anywhere else!) You can almost hear this song echoing in the silence all around him.

I walked many roads with my Father. I’ve walked many miles without him by my side now (though I sometimes feel his presence). I hope I have many miles to walk until I join him again. As I walk I will lean on him as I face the twists, turns and trip hazards ahead, accompanied by the words of
Seamus Heaney:

‘Dangerous pavements … But this year I face the ice with my Father’s stick’

Chris Smither – Killing The Blues on Desolation Row

‘Somebody said they saw me, swinging the world by the tail,
Bouncing over a white cloud – killing the blues’. (Roly Salley)

‘I been left for dead before – but I still fight on
Don’t wait up – Leave the light on, I’ll be home soon’. (Chris Smither)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s groups of earnest, intense young men in the great academic institutions of America began to develop what can only be called an obsession with Afro-American blues music which had been recorded in the pre war period.

Names like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James began to take on a hallowed and mythical status. As they endlessly played the few records they could find of these mystery figures from the 1920s and 1930s (to the despair of their room and dorm mates) they wondered: could it be that some 30 or more years after these wondrous sides had been made that these legendary musicians might still be alive and just waiting to be discovered by enterprising young blues scholars?

Scouring record sleeves and song lyrics for clues it occurred to Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins that Mississippi John Hurt’s, ‘Avalon Blues’ from his epochal 1928 sessions must surely refer to Avalon Mississippi and who knows maybe Mississippi John was still living there; oblivious to the esteem he was held in by highly educated white men young enough to be his grandsons.

And, miraculously John Hurt was still living in Avalon and though he had long left the life of a professional musician behind he was delighted to be, ‘Re- Discovered’ and given the chance to bring, ‘Frankie’ and, ‘Candyman’ to life again in coffee houses, the gleaming halls of Harvard and festival stages where the riveting gentleness of his songs, his guitar playing, his vocals and his personality won him tens of thousands of devout new admirers.

An LP of his 1963 Newport performance was issued and this record along with others like Lightning Hopkins, ‘Blues In The Bottle’ became sacred texts for aspiring white bluesmen who practiced the guitar stylings until their fingers bled. Some of these blues apprentices were able to produce note for note recreations of their heroes great works. However, it soon became clear to the acute among them that just being able to play all the right notes in the right order at the right tempo did not make you a Bluesman.

No, really being able to play the Blues called for a cultural immersion, a sacramental devotion; a process of virtually religious formation that was beyond the desire, the will and the capability of almost all those who imagined that they could walk the walk, talk the talk and play the guitar like those old men had done and it seemed in many cases could still do.

However, there are always exceptions to every rule and always some acolytes who indeed have heard a true call, who have a vocation they are willing and eager to commit themselves to no matter how difficult the path. The artist celebrated on The Jukebox today, Chris Smither, over a 45 year long career has proved that the call he heard as a teenager in New Orleans was indeed inviting him into a new baptism as an authentic musician who can play the blues or any blues related music with complete authority. Here he is with his take on Mississippi John’s ‘Frankie and Albert’. The visuals of this live version are shaky but the sound is fine

It’s charming that Chris starts this virtuoso performance by parodying the stumbling steps of a novice setting out to follow the footsteps of a master. As you listen it’s clear that Chris Smither has now attained master status himself as he marries thumb, fingers and stamping foot to attain and maintain a grove, the Groove, which will win and hold the attention of the audience as the eternal tale of faithless love and its terrible consequences unwinds.

Chris Smither’s first instrument was the Ukelele and perhaps that goes some way to explain his fleet fingers and fluid touch as he plays the guitar. Add in his bedrock bass lines provided by a calloused thumb and the accents provided by his Italian loafers (thin soled, heavy heeled) stomping on a wooden board and you have a one man orchestra!

As, ‘Frankie’ progresses I hear a Super Chief locomotive speeding through the waving prairies sending light and sound streaming into our eyes, our ears and our hearts.

Chris Smither a fine songwriter himself with a wry, laconic style has throughout his career taken songs from his contemporaries and illuminated their depths through the scrupulous attention he brings to their strengths and a commitment to finding his own key to the heart of a song in his guitar style, choice of tempo and vocal tone.

Listen to him here take on one of Bob Dylan’s most extravagant masterpieces, ‘Desolation Row’ and make it his own with this gorgeously sardonic, rheumy eyed version.

Desolation Row might be described as a tour d’horizon of the madness of America in the mid 1960s or a glimpse into the head full of ideas surging through Bob Dylan’s brain at the time (lots of room for overlap there!) Chris Smither strips away the bravura of Bob’ s performance and sings the song like a long time resident on Desolation Row who knows Cinderella well, has suffered the nightsticks of the riot squad and is used to the sounds of the ambulances echoing in the night.

Chris Smither is a troubadour who lives his life on the road travelling light from town to town bringing a treasury of song in his knapsack. He’s a great live performer because he is able to surrender himself to the songs he plays trusting that all the hours of living with the material and his instrument will allow him to just play and let the work flow.

Watching Chris Smither play amounts to a seminar in the psychological concept of flow. The emotional heart of the songs he plays are channeled and directed, released in all their vibrant energy to touch his audience. Time seems to be suspended, speeded up or slowed down according to the demands of the song in hand. Meanwhile his hands, thumb and fingers go where they are meant to go, where they must go, without any seeming effort or glances in the mirror. The sorrow, the joy, the wisdom and the rapture locked in great songs are released to bloom in our imaginations.

Below, you’ll find yourself holding your breath as Chris suspends time as he performs Peter Case’s wonderful song, ‘Cold Trail Blues’.

I love the way Chris begins the song at the slowest possible ambulant tempo. The whole songs proceeds like a dream like serenade where the everyday rules of time no longer apply. The guitar lines and the vocal seems to be like smoke drifting into the sky towards a bright but cold and distant moon. The very act of playing the song seems to be a demonstration of that hope against hope that all hope is not lost. Perhaps, just perhaps, the chances of love and a life worth living again have not been absolutely left too far, too far behind.

Chris Smither has had his struggles with life. For much of the 1970s he was mired in alcoholism and is thus no stranger to the physical and emotional ditches by the side of the broad highway of life. Returning, chastened, to that highway he has written songs imbued with hard won, though never bitter wisdom. Many of his songs are honest, measured reports from the emotional battlefields we all visit from time to time. In, ‘Leave The Light On’ he hymns the lure of home as only a man who has spent half his lifetime absent from home can. The song offers reassurance that we can learn from the defeats and the self inflicted wounds of this bruising life and find a kind of blessed peace if we pay attention.

Perhaps this last song, Roly Salley’s ‘Killing The Blues’ most aptly demonstrates Chris Smither’s ability to play a song in its platonic perfection. This is surely one of those songs handed to its writer directly from the heavenly home of the songwriting muse. How else to explain a song so immediately a truthful discovery as well as a reminder of a truth we have all always known. There have been many fine version of this song song but none anywhere near Chris Smither here. The song in this performance flows sweetly and surely like an an ancient river to the endlessly welcoming sea.

Chris Smither casts spells and enchants us. One of the great tasks of a musician using rhythm, melody and line is to take us out of our everyday world and take us to a place, a still space, where we can realign our hearts and minds and find again our true direction. That’s a task Chris Smither has carried out with devotion and distinction.

Finally to show the measure of Chris Smither’s vocation as a musician here’s his answer to the question, ‘Do you remember learning (Mississippi John Hurt’s) Candyman?

‘I’m still learning it!’

Recommended Recordings:

There are enormous pleasures contained in every record Chris Smither has ever made. My personal favourites are:

‘Another Way to Find You’ (Live)
‘Live As I’ll Ever Be’ (Live!)
‘It Ain’t Easy’
‘Small Reservations’

There is an excellent tribute album to Chris, ‘Link Of Chain’ featuring Mary Gauthier and Dave Alvin among many other roots music luminaries.

Chris Smither is well represented on YouTube and I especially like the ‘Extended Play’ clip.