Little Eva – Making You Happy when You’re Feeling Blue!

Belhaven is a small, poor town in North Carolina. It was there that David and Laura Boyd struggled to raise their large family which would eventually, by the mid 1940s, include thirteen children. From the point of view of music history it’s fortunate they didn’t stop at nine children because Number 10, born in late June 1943, was a girl whom they named Eva Narcissus Boyd who later came to be known on pop charts all around the world as, ‘Little Eva’.


Under that soubriquet in 1962 and 1963 she would record a glorious series of life affirming pop records – one of which, ‘The Locomotion’ is indelibly imprinted on the memory of anyone who has ever heard it (though the steps to the dance may remain a little hazy for most of us!). I defy anyone not to light up a smile as this record speeds along propelled by Carole King’s driving piano and spurred by Art Kaplan’s insistent sax.

On top Eva sings her heart out winning our affections with the unbridled enthusiasm, the sheer pizazz, with which she lives out the song. Pretty soon everyone was doing a brand new dance and Eva by August 1962 was looking down on the world from the fabled Number One spot on the charts!

In Belhaven Eva had soaked up all the enormous music available on the radio and honed her singing chops with a family Gospel group, ‘The Boyd Five’. Eva was naturally ebullient and it was inevitable that she would feel as she grew up that Belhaven was not the place to get ahead and forge your dreams into reality. Of course, she was inevitably drawn to the great magnet city on the Hudson, New York, which continually called out to all who wanted to make a new life – come on up! If you can make it here you can make it anywhere!

So, having had a taster of life there in 1959 staying with her brother Jimmy as 1960 dawned Eva boarded the bus out of town to try her luck in the Big Apple. Initially she got a job as a maid on Long Island. Brother Jimmy’s wife was friends with Earl-Jean McCrea who sang with established vocal group The Cookies who had backed up many prominent artists on the Atlantic label including the King of them all – Ray Charles.

Earl-Jean copping that Eva could really sing asked her to try out for a vacant position in The Cookies in 1961. Her successful audition piece had been one of the greatest ever yearning love songs, ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ written by the immortal songwriting team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

Carole and Gerry with inspiration at full flood and publishers beating down their door for the next big hit decided that it was essential to employ a nanny for baby Louise to free them up to attend, full time, to their muse (especially as another child was on the way!). So in short order Eva became a member of the Cookies and a live in nanny in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn. Eva could also on hand to demo some of the songs pouring out of the Goffin/King hit machine.

Eva is heard for the first time on record on a Ben E King session adding punch to, ‘Gloria, Gloria’ and the marvellous, ‘Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)’. Around that time street wise Publisher Don Kirshner asked/demanded Gerry and Carole to come up with a smash hit dance song in the vein of, ‘Mashed Potato Time’ which had been a number 2 record for Dee Dee Sharp in May 1962. Don wanted the new Goffin/King composition to be Dee Dee’s follow up to Mashed Potato.

But, canny operator that he was, when he heard the demo of Locomotion by Little Eva he was certain he had a major hit on his hands and if he set up his own label (Dimension) to issue the record he would really accumulate the greenbacks! In fact the demo was so good, so infectiously captivating, that a big time studio re-recording could not match it’s magic and the issued version was thus simply the demo with some added vocals from Eva and Carole.

Eva was now a long way from Belhaven – appearing on the premier pop TV show of the day, ‘American Bandstand’ and settling into a whirlwind schedule of demos for Goffin/King, recordings with The Cookies and her own solo career – it would be the time of her life. With The Cookies she can be heard on another certified Goffin/King pop classic, ‘Chains’ from November 1962.

In Liverpool The Beatles, aficionados of the Girl Group sound, listened intently and, ‘Chains’ sung by George Harrison, would feature on the lads debut LP (though I have to say their version does not have the overwhelming vitality of The Cookies version). The Beatles also heard, liked and performed live, Eva’s follow up to Locomotion, ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Baby’

There’s nothing of the novelty song about that one! This is a tough girl group song which gives Eva the chance to show what a fine fluent singer she could be and how she could effectively vary the volume and tone of her singing to convey the emotion of the song. Like many of the girl group songs it’s a song nominally about a boy but really about the complex web of relationships between girls.

Keep Your Hands was a number 12 hit but alas, effectively the last solo hit Eva would have (though she recorded some other fine sides). This can, at least in part, be ascribed to the demands on Goffin/King to write and reserve their best songs for more big name artists and the lack of a savvy manager figure to look out for Eva’s interests (there’s the almost inevitable murky story of how little money she made from her days in the pop limelight).

But, there would be one last hurrah, and a mighty one at that, for Eva on record and in the charts in the essential (though mysteriously uncredited!) contribution she made to one of the most charming records of the early 60s, ‘Swinging On A Star’ by Big Dee Irwin.

Now, if that doesn’t give an enormous boost to your happiness index I have to say you must be seriously depressed! The record overflows with wit and sheer love of life with Eva providing the joyously sassy vitality of youth. You can hear the vocal chemistry and warmth of the relationship between Big Dee and Eva in their relaxed banter that makes the song such a pleasure to listen to (the flip, ‘Just A Little Girl’ is excellent too).

And as 1963 closed so did Eva’s career as a hitmaker though she kept recording through to 1971 when she determined to return home to North Carolina following the death of her mother. Eva had a troubled marriage with James Harris which reportedly involved extensive domestic violence (they were later reconciled).

When she returned home her purse was virtually empty despite her hits and she had three young children to care for. Taking whatever work was available she showed she was made of stern stuff and settled down to the obscure life she had left behind for those dizzying few years of the early 1960s.

Though Locomotion was a re-released hit in the UK and a Number One US hit for the second time through Grand Funk Railroad (!) Eva saw no boost to her bank balance. Strangely it was the bland Kylie Minogue version from 1988 which opened the door for Eva to be seen and heard again. She appeared on retro, ‘Golden Oldies’ shows, recorded some gospel material and toured with pop contemporaries like Bobby Vee and Brian Hyland.

Eva died in April 2003 from cervical cancer. For many years her grave in the Black Bottom Cemetery was marked by nothing but a tin marker. However, through the good offices of the town of Belhaven and monumental mason Quincy Edgerton a fitting headstone featuring a speeding locomotive now rests atop her final resting place.

It is no small thing, as Eva did, to have made records which will always evoke the joy of youth and the glorious gift of life. There are times when we all need a song which will make us happy even when we are feeling blue. Thank you Eva – may you rest in peace.

Notes:

In addition to the songs mentioned above I suggest you give a listen to the following attractive performances by Eva:

‘The Trouble With Boys’

‘What I Gotta Do (To Make You Jealous)

‘Takin’ Back What I Said’

Rod Stewart & The Faces – A Magnificent Racket!

Most of the posts published here on The Jukebox are (as I hope you will have judged) the result of contemplation, decades of listening history, careful planning and rigorous research. Not this one!

No, today’s post was generated through the mysteries of the algorithms that produce, ‘random’ selections on my Brennan JB7 music system. So, from the very instant that the first notes of, ‘Twisting The Night Away’ by Rod Stewart and The Faces exploded into my consciousness it was clear to me that any plans made for today’s post were null and void!

And, after I had hit the repeat button seven or eight times in a row and reached a state of exhausted elation having danced myself into a virtual stupor I was willing – if not wholly ready and able to write.

So, ‘My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen’ for your pleasure and delight let me transport you back to the Sundown Theatre Edmonton in London on the fourth of June 1973 so that you too can joyfully release your inner dolphins (so much better as a phrase for explaining the appearance of abandoned glee than the bare, ‘endorphins’ the physicians and chemists would have me use).

Dr Thom’s Jukebox prescription is that you now turn all your dials up way into the red zone and press play now! Repeat as necessary.

In the early 1970s furious intoxicant fuelled arguments raged in bars all over the world when one of the company would muse – ‘Who would you say is the greatest live Rock ‘n’ Roll band in the whole wide world?’ The general view was that the crown was the property of The Rolling Stones but strong counter arguments were made for Led Zeppelin or The Who and some, with a more global perspective, would advance the case for Bob Marley and The Wailers.

Listening sagely, as is my wont, I would agree that the above bands were very fine outfits indeed but then with a glint in my eye, I would add that if I could conjure up one group to appear in a puff of dry ice before our very eyes and play their show right here, right now, none of the previously mentioned could be guaranteed to deliver the righteously raucous; let’s turn this place into the best party you’ve ever had or die in the attempt, good time that Rod Stewart and The Faces were sure to give us.

If I had added top up Tequila to my staple pints of Guinness I would clinch the argument (at least in my mind) by extravagantly miming Rod’s microphone stand gymnastics before adding – which of the other bands could really thrill you one minute, then bring a tear to your eye before making you laugh with sheer uproarious delight the next, like they could?

Now I know that this was a band whose brilliance was a matter of fits and starts dependent on their mood on the night and whether they were liquored up just enough to play freely or so overloaded that they could barely stand up. But, but, on a good night, and there were scores and scores of those, they made a bloody, bluesy, madly magnificent racket that could lift your spirits in a way no other outfit has ever matched.

Yes, It is true to say that as instrumentalists they weren’t exactly virtuosos but there are times when I don’t want my music to be like a sip of smooth bourbon. I want it to be like a shot of illegally distilled Moonshine, from back in the hills, which you half fear will send you stone blind as you take another hit because it just tastes so damn fine. That’s the kind of music they made.

The Faces – Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Lane (RIP), Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan (RIP) were to my mind the most glorious gang of vagabonds, rounders and reprobates ever to have taken the stage. They lived the Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle to the max and while I’ve never seen a copy of the rider they would have given to promoters of their shows I’d be very surprised if, ‘Cigarettes, Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women’ (among other hedonistic delights) didn’t feature very prominently!

I love the way they often sounded like they were falling pell-mell down several flights of very steep stairs; hitting each tread with bone shaking force yet somehow, miraculously, landing pat on their feet as they finally hit bottom ready to set off again for another fantastic foray towards Nirvana!

I’m going to write much more about Rod Stewart in future posts but I should say here that his early solo albums from 1969’s, ‘An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down’ through to 1974’s, ‘Smiler’ represent one of the most enduringly satisfying bodies of work in the history of post war music.

All his apprentice period gained busking with folk legend Wizz Jones, blues shouting with Steampacket and patrolling the big stages in front of guitar great Jeff Beck allied to his intelligent and sensitive appreciation of soul, country and R&B and the songwriting genius of Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke gave him the experience necessary for him to produce performances from that period which are a rare conjunction of immense popular success and lasting achievement.

Each member of The Faces made their own distinctive contribution to the glories of the overall sound. For me, the key member was Ronnie Lane who provided not just fine anchoring bass but also the earthing heart of the band. The louche guitar of Ronnie Wood and the never let the beat go drums of Kenney Jones synching with the tough when necessary, tender when necessary keyboards of Ian McLagan made a very potent combination.

The Faces best work was only sporadically captured on their albums. Rather, their true testament is to be found on the live sessions they recorded for the BBC; often for their greatest fan and champion the legendary DJ John Peel.

The five years or so Rod Stewart and The Faces were together made for one hell of a ride! We were lucky to have had them.

Time to hit that play button again.

Peter Green, Lonnie Mack, Gatemouth Brown – Guitar! Guitar! Guitar!

When we are children we spend much of our lives dreaming of the future. A future in which we will be fearless captains of storied lives. What wonders we will accomplish! Idly staring out of windows at home or at our school desks, seemingly in a daze, we lay out scenarios of heroic movies in which we are the writer, producer, director and multi Oscar winning star.

A lot of young men dreams swirl around images of themselves as the epitome of cool at the wheel of a gleaming, glamorous car (a Chevrolet Corvette or perhaps an E type Jaguar) which will make all their male friends envious and all the girls of their acquaintance, especially the girl of their dreams (there’s always a luminously lit girl in these dreams) stop, stare and ask – ‘Can I have a ride?’

Others disdain these petrol head reveries. Instead, their dreams see them on stage wowing the audience (and their fellow musicians) with the virtuosity of their six string genius. Doodling on their school notebooks they picture themselves strutting their soon to be recognised stuff elegantly armed with a Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster, a Gibson Flying V, Firebird or a 1959 Les Paul.

They just know that one day like Johnny B Goode their name will dazzle the night in neon lights as people come from miles around to hear them make that guitar ring, ring, ring like a bell.

Often these dreams vanish into the ether only to be recalled when the dust covered yearbook is once more brought into the light. But, but, there are always those who through determination, application and sheer willpower realise those dreams of childhood and as is the way of these things provide models for another generation of dreamers.

Today the Jukebox features three Guitar heroes who dreamed those dreams and who then burned those dreams into vinyl masterpieces in the 1950s and 1960s which continue to provide dreamscapes for aspiring axe-men to this day.

The Jukebox needle drops first on, ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’ a joyously swinging 1954 Peacock Records Rhythm & Blues gem by a guitarist, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, who defined Americana long before the term was invented. Gatemouth was from Orange Texas and man oh man could he cut a rug whether he was playing the blues, Zydeco, Rhythm & Blues or Country music! Like the man said he played American and World music – Texas style.

The version above was recorded at Radio City Music Hall in February 2003 and can be found on the highly recommended DVD, ‘Lightning In A Bottle’. The sharp eyed among you will recognise that behind the drums is the great Levon Helm from The Band.

Levon lays down a killer beat urging Gatemouth on as he magisterially wails through his signature tune. The fine horn section issues hot blast after hot blast lifting Gatemouth to ever greater instrumental heights on guitar.

The whole version puts me in mind of The Texas Special streamliner train as it flashed through the night on its way home to San Antonio. Gatemouth’s guitar style was full of fleet flair but never needlessly flashy. His sweetly stinging solos are those of a professional going enjoyably about his business with dexterous skill.

I’m delighted that I met Gatemouth at London’s 100 Club in the mid 1970s on one of his frequent European tours. He was quite a sight to see in his trademark black outfit featuring a feathered hat, pointed cowboy boots and studded Western shirt. To top it off when not on stage he smoked a pipe!

With the enthusiasm of youth I waylaid him as he walked back to the stage for his second set and near begged him to play, ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’. To my eternal delight two minutes later he announced, ‘Here’s one Tom over there says I just have to play’ before launching into a blistering take on Okie Dokie. What a tune, what a musician, what a man!

While Gatemouth was laying down, ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’ in Houston in the heartland of unfashionable rural Indiana a young man born to play guitar, Lonnie Mack, was practicing obsessively while absorbing and incorporating influences from rock n roll, rockabilly, the blues and crucially gospel music.

On the family farm while there was no electricity there was a battery powered radio – usually tuned to The Grand Ol’ Opry. Keen eared Lonnie could hear that Merle Travis was a great player and when his parents went to bed he could tune the radio into black stations and hear T Bone Walker and other bluesmen and dream of a style which would marry Merle and T Bone’s imaginative fluency while adding an intensity he had heard in Ray Charles and the Blind Boy gospel groups.

In 1958 Gibson issued the distinctive Flying V guitar and teenage Lonnie who had been working the Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio roadhouse circuit since he was 13 got himself the 7th Flying V off the production line. And, boy did he put that guitar through its paces!

Wow! I think that bears repeating, Wow! And that was what practically every guitar player who heard, ‘Wham’ in 1963 said as they played the record over and over again trying to figure out how a chubby kid from the sticks could come up with such a sound that seemed to be savagely wild while being perfectly contained and controlled. With wonder most realised that if it came to a musical, ‘cutting contest’ there could only be one winner – Lonnie Mack.

Lonnie Mack’s guitar playing here and throughout his stunningly brilliant 1964 LP, ‘The Wham Of That Memphis Man’, recorded for Fraternity Records in Cincinnati, has the overwhelming onrushing power of a field shredding tornado as it cuts a swathe through your brain cells while you desperately try to keep up with his prodigious invention.

Soon, guitar vibrato bars were popularly called Whammy Bars in tribute to the astounding sounds Lonnie coaxed and commanded from his own Bigsby vibrato tailpiece.

Lonnie’s admiration of Gospel music is reflected in the intensity of his performances and the way he thrillingly builds and releases tension to hold and lift both his audience and his fellow musicians. Using techniques borrowed from the blues, bluegrass and gospel Lonnie can fit blindingly fast licks and choruses into a finely judged musical structure and still shift into overdrive to guide a tune to its breathless conclusion. Once heard I’m telling you that you will not be able to get enough of the wham of Lonnie Mack.

While these American giants were scorching their groove into guitar history a generation of fanatical young Englishmen swore undying devotion to the Blues and dreamed that they too might capture and discharge lightning in their playing just like Elmore James, B B King or Buddy Guy.

The mentor and bandleader for many of these guitar tyros was one of the key figures in British Blues history, John Mayall. From 1963 onwards he led a series of bands called, ‘The Bluesbreakers’ who became an amalgam of finishing school and military academy for would be bluesmen – especially guitar players.

As most will know Mayall’s first great guitar slinger was none other than Eric Clapton who showed on the 1966 LP, ‘Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton’ that Britain had produced its first guitar player who could genuinely be considered to be on the level of the Chicago scene masters.

So it was genuinely shocking for producer Mike Vernon to learn as he set up the studio in 1967 to record Mayall’s LP, ‘A Hard Road’ that Eric had left the band. It was even more shocking to be told by John Mayall not to worry about that as the new lead guitarist, Peter Green, was even better than Eric! How could that be?

Well, heretical though it may be in many critical circles, I agree with John Mayall’s 1967 bravado. To my mind in the three years or so from 1967 to 1970 before his musical genius was effectively crippled by over indulgence in drugs, LSD especially, and mental instability, Peter Green was the most brilliant and extraordinarily affecting guitar player on the planet.

In later posts I will write about his career at some length. Today I will limit myself to some general observations about his sound and present in illustration his wondrous performance on, ‘The Supernatural’ from the, ‘Hard Road’ LP. Here, Peter Green and his, ‘Magic’ 1959 Les Paul will take you to places few guitar players can even imagine let alone reach.

Perhaps the simplest way to comment on that incredible performance would be just to quote someone, B B KIng, who knew a little bit about guitar playing – ‘He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats’. Amen, B B, Amen!

‘The Supernatural’ was the first recorded evidence that Peter Green had a very special quality as a musician: he had a feeling for the shivering essence of music. The critic Greil Marcus talks about the, ‘Yargh’ when trying to pinpoint the veil piercing quality of Van Morrison’s voice.

I think we could use the term, ‘The Touch’ to identify the same quality found in the voice of Peter Green’s guitar. Through an inspired use of vibrato, sustain and controlled harmonic feedback he conjures up soundscapes that open up such deep interior realms of feeling that listening to him can be a deeply emotional experience.

I have always thought that Peter Green and his Les Paul worked together like two brave but vulnerable living creatures voyaging into terra incognita when he took his guitar solos. It’s the mixture of musical daring with emotional vulnerability and depth that distinguishes Peter Green for me from all his contemporaries.

Peter Green in his searching songs and performance seems to offer reports back from dark reaches within himself and I suspect all of us. In his playing we can come to recognise both the embracing warmth of those sub conscious depths and perhaps also their chill threat. The timber of humanity is always twisted and knotted and Peter Green’s guitar brilliantly illuminates that truth.

A great writer, Franz Kafka, once gave his view on what the function of a book should be and I think it holds up just as well for music:

‘ I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? … Good Lord, …. we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone …. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us’.

Listening to Peter Green I feel that the axe has indeed split the frozen sea.

Notes:

Gatemouth Brown died at 81 in September 2005 in his childhood home town of Orange Texas having just escaped the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. In a macabre twist his coffin was floated away from his burial site by flooding caused by Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Happily, he was later reinterred securely in Orange’s Hollywood Cemetery where his resting place is properly marked by a fine headstone and a plaque from the Texas Historical Commission.

Gatemouth made many fine recordings. I recommend the original albums:

1975 Bogalusa Boogie Man (Barclay)
1979 Makin’ Music (with Roy Clark) (One Way)
1981 Alright Again! (Rounder)
1982 One More Mile (Rounder)
1999 American Music, Texas Style (Verve/Blue Thumb)
2001 Back to Bogalusa (Verve/Gitanes)

For compilations:

1987 Texas Swing (Rounder) Rounder recordings
1990 The Original Peacock Recordings (Rounder) Peacock recordings

Lonnie Mack:

‘The Wham Of That Memphis Man’ should be in every collection – if you haven’t got it order it today!

In addition to his staggering guitar playing Lonnie is also a wonderfully intense singer who brings a gospel grace and intensity to his country soul vocals. The combined qualities are well captured on his Elektra albums, ‘Glad I’m In The Band’ and, ‘Whatever’s Right’ from 1969. His live, rampaging roadhouse blues sound is showcased on, ‘Live At Coco’s.

Two albums on Alligator Records from 1984 and 1986 are also well worth investigating, ‘Strike Like Lightning’ (extensively featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan) and, ‘Second Sight’.

Peter Green:

Everything Peter recorded with John Mayall and with Fleetwood Mac should be a mandatory purchase!

I happen to be a Swede myself – Sweden, Ingrid Bergman and Billy Bragg

We are spending two weeks of our summer vacation here in the delightful ancient university town of Lund in southern Gotland, Sweden. With its squares, cobbled streets, army of bicyclists and plethora of book and coffee shops Lund inescapably reminds me of my own Alma Mater, Cambridge. Like Cambridge Lund empties out in the summer as students return home or fill backpacks for exotic travel. Meanwhile the more well heeled professors pack their Volvos and head for their southern European Villas, Trulli and Gites.

As we stroll around the delightful Statsparken listening to the strains of a tango ensemble drifting over from the bandstand my mind, in holiday, ‘powering down’ mode idly rambles around my memory bank searching under the tags of Sweden.

The first outputs, unsurprisingly given my interests, are the names of a series of actors, writers, sports stars and musicians. First out was Ingemar Johansson who was briefly World Heavyweight Boxing champion in 1959/1960. I chuckled as I recalled that his,’ send the opponent to sleep’ right hand was variously christened, ‘Toonder and lightning’, ‘Thor’s Hammer’ and, my favourite, ‘Ingo’s Bingo!’


I’m sure millions of Swedes, listening on the radio to his first fight with reigning champ Floyd Patterson, must have let out a mighty multiple chants of Bingo! as Ingemar decked Floyd seven times in the third round to bring boxing’s premier crown home to Sweden!

Moving onto a somewhat more elevated intellectual plane my memory numbskulls next presented me with a series of powerful images attached to the name of Ingmar Bergman. I remembered that when programming the Sixth Form film club in the early 1970s I had insisted that we show Bergman’s intense masterpiece, ‘The Seventh Seal’ to balance out contemporary cult classics. Bergman was also my go to Auteur to demonstrate to prospective girlfriends that I was a deep thinker!

I was a little chastened to think that the next Swede in my memory download had not been the first – Raoul Wallenberg who was surely one of the great heroes of the twentieth century. Through a combination of bravery and immense resourcefulness he was principally responsible, as Sweden’s special envoy to Nazi occupied Hungary, for providing the means for tens of thousands of Jews to escape their inevitable fate in the Death Camps. His own fate, still in some measure mysterious, was to be captured, imprisoned and executed by the Soviets. His name and the light of his life will live forever.

Of course being a devotee of Scandinavian noir fiction and film I fairly quickly brought to mind Henning Mankell and his moody, brilliant and affecting detective Kurt Wallander. Our family devotion was proved by taking the highly enjoyable, recommended, vintage fire engine borne tour of Ystad the scene of so many of Wallender’s cases.

That said my favourite Swedish detective remains Martin Beck the complex, introspective hero of ten magnificent novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I also affect that when I wear my finest Saville Row overcoat that I cut a figure not dissimilar to that of the actor Mikhail Persbrandt when playing the role of Beck’s maverick sidekick, Gunwald Larsson.

I remain convinced that to be a poet is the highest calling in literature. So I soon thought of one of my own, ‘lifeboat poets’ (see forthcoming series!) Tomas Transtromer. His poetry deals might and main with life in all its human complexity. So he is a nature poet, a religious and mystical poet and a poet of everyday life. This is highly charged poetry creating a force field of words to capture essential truths. It takes a poet to say:

‘Every abstract picture of the world is as impossible
As a blueprint of a storm. Don’t be ashamed because you’re human – be proud!
Inside you vaults beyond vaults open endlessly
You will never be finished, and that’s as it should be.’

Tomas Transtromer died in March this year. Following the earlier death of Seamus Heaney it feels to me as if the tent poles of poetry have been felled.

Turning to the arena of music a plethora of names crowded into my mind each crying out for my attention. Jazz greats like saxophonist Lars Gullin and pianist Bengt Hallberg recorded music fully the equal of their American counterparts in the 1950s and they were the role models for a marvellous Swedish film about the jazz life, ‘Sven Klang’s Combo’.

This is some seriously cool music. I suggest you pour yourself an Akvatit and lean back in your easiest chair with eyes closed and let Lars and Bengt illuminate your spirit with their Northern sounds.

Ann Sofie von Otter is a mezzo soprano with a wide stylistic range stretching as far as a collaborative album with Elvis Costello!

It would be remiss of me not to mention ABBA – surely no one alive in the 1970s hasn’t lustily sang along to, danced along to and said (even if sotto voce) thank you for the music to Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni – Frid. If you’re too hip to appreciate the pop perfection of Abba I have to tell you buddy you’re too hip!

I should add that Agnetha’s 2004 album, ‘My Colouring Book’ filled with beautifully sung, heartfelt covers of 60s classics is a largely overlooked gem of a record you are strongly advised to investigate.

But, the song that kept bobbing to the top of my consciousness was not by a Swedish artist but a song about a Swede – ‘Ingrid Bergman’ a recording of a ‘lost’ Woody Guthrie lyric with added tune by Billy Bragg from the album, ‘Mermaid Avenue’ also featuring Americana kings, Wilco.

I should, in confession, say now that I lied when I said the first Swedish name that occurred to me was Ingemar Johansson. No, in truth one name kept flashing like a lighthouse beam illuminating my mind – Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman.

As her name and a succession of images of Ingrid played in my mind the soundtrack accompaniment was provided by Woody Guthrie’s lovely, sensual love letter to Ingrid touchingly performed here by Billy Bragg. Play it one time Billy!

Under two minutes long but expressing a world of emotion. Sitting in thrall in our cinema seats gazing at the vision of the soft, womanly, beauty of Ingrid Bergman generations of boys and men fell irrecoverably in love. In our dreams we would all have manned the oars willingly and set sail to the island of Stromboli oblivious to the risk of catastrophic volcanic explosion!

Ingrid benefitted from the genius of the great lighting cameramen and cinematographers so that her naturally fresh and intoxicating beauty literally glowed from the screen. However, for me, Ingrid in addition had a rare earthy quality that gave all the characters she played an approachable humanity who could combine moral strength with vulnerability.

I never thought of Ingrid Bergman as a ‘Goddess’ but simply as the loveliest, most heart and soul affecting actress to ever grace the silver screen.

‘If you’ll walk across my camera
I will flash the world your story’

Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman. Here’s looking at you kid.

Now the reach of this blog might not encompass the entire world (though over 150 countries so far is a good start) but it does definitely cover Britain and Sweden and I hope this short tribute from a Brit to Sweden and Swedes finds favour in both nations. We will definitely be coming back to Sweden.

Tak sa mycket Sverige. Vi kommer att se dig snart igen.

Note – in case you are wondering where the, ‘I happen to be a Swede myself’ phrase comes from I can tell you it was the typically disorienting reply from Bob Dylan in 1966 to Swedish broadcaster Klas Burling’s simple question, ‘Do You know any Swedes?’

Lou Reed & Smokey Robinson idolised – 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 √©lan 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.

Thanks to Kerry Shale for suggesting the topic of this post. For those of you who may not be familiar with the name Kerry is a multi-talented actor, writer and voice over artist. He also, obviously, has great musical taste!

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.