Muhammad Ali : The Supporting Cast – Bundini Brown

At the court of a King, and Muhammad Ali is nothing less than a king, there must always be a licensed fool : a Jester ; someone who while embodying the spirit of anarchy and ridicule also knows, to preserve their life and position, when to bow the knee and when to sing the praises of their liege. A Jester, someone who is by nature a rule breaker, has to push the boundaries of taste, manners and position but not forget that there are boundaries – which sooner or later must be enforced to preserve the system as a whole.

Drew Brown, universally known as, ‘Bundini’, occupied this role for the Greatest with festive wit, finesse and wholehearted distinction from the days of youthful glory in 1963 through the ensuing stratospheric ascent, the triumphs, the comebacks and comedowns down to the last unutterably poignant fight with Trevor Berbick in 1981. Despite a five year exile from the court for flagrantly ignoring the Nation of Islam morality which held firm sway in the camp in the mid and late 1960s he emerges from all the reputable histories as a key figure in Ali’s court.

He was born in 1928 and spent his youth in Florida before, barely into his teens, joining first the US Navy and then the merchant marine. He roamed the globe and learned how to look out for himself, how to drink (he loved to drink and went on shore leave binges throughout his life) and how to mock and outmanoeuvre authority. He was a tough street poet and philosopher who figured out that God was best thought of as, ‘Shorty’ – the guy you might disregard but who knew everything about you and who you would have to reckon with some sweet day.

He shared a generous love of live and humanity, energy, ego and quick witted humour with his master. They had a deep bond and recognised the distinction in the other. Bundini was usually aware that while his own talents were far from negligible, with their skilful use an important element in preparing Ali for each battle, they were as different in scale and impact to the world at large as moonlight is to sunlight. From time to time he fell into the Jester’s trap of overestimating his own importance but an actual or metaphorical cuff around the ear soon cured that. A king may be teased but not taunted.

In partnership they lit up the world as supreme patter merchants and travelling players who performed with as much brio to an audience of one as they did to the TV audience of millions. Throughout Ali’s career they put on a kind of peripatetic medicine show selling and demonstrating a genuine elixir of life which bottled a 100 per cent proof mixture of drama, excitement, passion, skill and wonder. Together their act was eyebrow raising, heart lifting, spirit surging, smile inducing, head shakingly outrageous and entirely wonderful.

No Don Draper, million dollar Madison Avenue advertising team, could have devised more successful promotional campaigns than those devised off the cuff by Bundini and Ali. Bundini was there with the net and the honey when they marched outside Sonny Liston’s house when angling for the first title fight. He was there, boosting the hysteria at the weigh in for that fight, as they yelled over and over the immortal lines, ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – Rumble young man rumble!’. Poor Sonny thought he was dealing with lunatics and got his mind thoroughly messed up.

Bundini was there to echo and amplify Ali’s preachers calls and to spur him to greater flights of oratory to win the audience for their cause. He was in the corner for the fights and while it was properly Angelo Dundee who set the strategy and was in command of the back up team it was Bundini’s voice you could hear clearest amid the maelstrom, ‘Dance Champ, Dance!’ ‘End the Show, End the Show!’.

Bundini lived every moment of every round: delighting in the Champ’s jabs and feints and the audacious brilliance of his combinations while wincing when he was tagged by his opponents. It was Bundini, in the dawning early morning light, who could risk the wrath of the sleeping giant and cajole Ali to put on the track suit and pound the roads – putting the endurance into those dancing legs. Bundini through his own largeness of life could charge Ali’s batteries. A King and his Jester who last beyond initial mirth and diversion must come to see each other in their common humanity and as they do so their bond deepens beyond place and fealty into what can only be described as love.

Bundini was the first of the original court to pass from this realm in 1987. Ali knew that he had lost a faithful friend – someone who had helped create the legend and the myths, someone who knew the price paid in sweat and pain as well as the glow of triumph on the summits.

He also knew that Allah, or call him Shorty, would be royally entertained by the tales only a Jester of genius like Bundini could tell.

Footnote: There are two further Muhammad Ali posts on the Jukebox – on his first title victory and his first Pro fight – Check them out!

The Immortal Jukebox A6 : Kenny Vance – Looking For An Echo

‘Humans are distinguished by being a remembering, storytelling and singing race’.
(Barclay Butler)

‘ A word thrown into the silence always finds its echo somewhere where silence opens hidden lexicons’. (Dejan Stojanovic)

‘ We were looking for an echo – an answer to our sound – a place to be in harmony; a place we almost found’

All of us search for, cherish and store in our hearts’ chambers the echoes of the sounds of the golden sunny uplands of our lives. Those times when we achieved what we set out to do; when we were first in love, when someone said,’you’re really good at that aren’t you?’, when you knew that this was a really fine time, THE fine time to be alive.

What holds for individuals holds for friendships, communities and nations which strive to hold on to the fine times and to work towards regaining them when they seem misplaced, lost or abandoned. We remember with joy the times we made it to the summit and wincingly the times our faltering grip couldn’t hold on to the elusive prize and we had to start again bruised and chastened from base camp or the muddy ground

We are all looking for answers to our longings and dilemmas, for a place to be in harmony with ourselves, our families and those with whom, willingly and unwillingly, we share our lives.

‘Looking For An Echo’ a single released on Atlantic in 1975 by Kenny Vance has continued to echo in my life for nearly forty years because it’s an anthemic folk/doowop ballad that gloriously captures the sweet heartache of remembering the thrill of reaching for that harmony and the melancholic realisation of how rare it is to hold on to that harmony, once achieved.

Kenny Vance (who grew up as Kenny Rosenberg) is a son of Brooklyn and a canny time served music industry veteran. He came up through 1950s vocal and doowop groups before achieving chart success and a measure of fame with Jay and The Americans who had a string of hits throughout the 60s including the eerily beautiful, ‘She Cried’ (memorably covered by The Shangri – Las). They were a supporting act on both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones first US tours. Late additions to the group, talent spotted by Vance, were two hyper smart East Coast musicians and writers, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who would form the coolest band of the 1970s, Steely Dan.

Post Jay and The Americans, Kenny went on to carve a productive and profitable niche as a musical director for TV (Saturday Night Live) and in the Film Industry. He was involved in the highly successful soundtracks for Eddie and the Cruisers, American Hot Wax and Animal House.

By the mid 70s he was ready to record again and he produced a fine album called Vance 32 the highlight of which was Looking For An Echo, written by a friend, Richie Reicheg. The recording was layered beginning with simple acoustic guitar and Kenny’s searching, ruminative vocal. This gives the song the yearning quality which is so attractive. The electric instrumentation added builds the swelling atmosphere and the sense of time passing in tension and release.

The song is now something of a standard within the world of vocal group and doowop aficionados: regularly played on oldies radio stations and frequently used a a show stopping, tear inducing, finale to live shows. It reincarnates the doowop days of practicing in parks, subways and halls with vocals soaring upwards from stoops, fire escapes and tenement block roofs as bunches of teenagers quivering with energy and ambition reached for that sound that would warm their hearts and might, just might, make them stars if they could only be heard by someone who could get them into a recording studio and onto the radio.

The song is a quest song and we all know that most quests end in mature (or wearied) acceptance that we will never reach El Dorado to find the mother lode but that there were many fine times along the journey. And, that perhaps the place we now inhabit has its own virtues and consolations if not the fabled ones we imagined in our youth. Still, we listen for the echoes.

Kenny has revisited the song with his group the Planotones upping the dramatic ante and stressing the nostalgic heft of the song. I much prefer the original but would still queue to see him perform the song live.

Notes:

There is a superb version of the song by the titans of acapella singing The Persusasions – available to view on the internet and on their album, ‘Chirpin’.

I’m a lover of reference books on all subjects (as you may have guessed!) but none has given me such pleasure as Jay Warner’s, ‘American Singing Groups: A History 1940 – 1990′. I guarantee that if you read it you’ll be soon making long lists of records to buy and marvelling at the hope and energy which produced so many great sounds that still echo in our hearts and memories. You could start by looking up the entries for groups referenced in Echo – The Moonglows, The Harptones and The Dells.

My favourite Paul Simon album is his criminally under appreciated Hearts and Bones. For the exquisitely described heartbreak of the title track, the devastating sadness and accuracy of, ‘Maybe I Think Too Much’ but most of all for the sweet threnody that is ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War’ which manages, entirely successfully, to yoke a portrait of the surrealist couple to the spectral sounds of the Orioles and the Five Satins.

There is no end to the making of doowop compilations. I recommend those on the Rhino, Ace and Proper labels. Part of the charm of the doowop era is that there are so many one off triumphs that might turn up almost anywhere now – happy hunting!

Moments, Moments, Immortal Moments

Sometimes it might take just a single beat of your heart. A lightning strike seared into your memory: something really crucial has happened and whatever happens from now on it will be in the shadow of this! Maybe it’s the first time alone together when she called you by your name and it felt like a new christening. Or the time your toddling son folded his hand into yours without thinking as he looked for stability and security on the road ahead.

Sometimes it might take years; the slowly dawning realisation, (like a photograph emerging from the darkroom) that it was that moment, that event, which seemed so trivial at the time, where a new course was set that’s led you to your current harbour.

Moments, moments, moments. Our lives in our imaginations and memories are never a complete coherent narrative but rather a silvery chain of moments: some cherished and celebrated some sharply etched with pain and sorrow. Some where we have the starring role in the drama others where we are strictly extras in the shadows at the edge of the stage.

The older we get the more we learn that some of those moments have become our own immortal moments: the moments we will return to again and again, voluntarily or necessarily as we try to make some sense of our frequently clogged and chaotic lives.

And, when we shuffle through these moments we will find many have been supplied by our encounters with the music, films and books that have become part of the imaginative and emotional furniture of our lives. Snatches of lyrics and melodies from favourite songs that you find yourself unexpectedly singing; scenes from films that seem to be always spooling somewhere deep in the consciousness now spotlit in front the mind’s eye, lines of poetry read decades ago that suddenly swoosh to the surface, seemingly unbidden, in response to some secret trigger.

I remember the exact moment, as a teenager, when I idly picked up a dusty book in a rundown junk shop and read these lines:

‘ Thou mastering me God!
Giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.’

The opening lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ epochal poem, ‘The Wreck Of The Deutschland’. Rooted to the spot I read the further twenty or so stanzas with my head and heart ablaze. I was aware of taking in only a fraction of the meaning and technique of the poem but I was absolutely sure that this was poetry of the highest order and that sounding its depths would be the work of a lifetime. I had made an emotional and spiritual connection that could never be undone and Poetry with that capital P was now a territory open for me, necessary for me, to explore. Strangely enough this was also the moment when I also glimpsed a future in which I might write poetry myself.

Similar thrilling encounters with literature, music and film now form a personal rosary of treasure in my life. I want to share just two more with you here today (I think I sense a series coming on!).

Marlon Brando and Eve Marie Saint as Terry and Edie in a duet scene from, ‘On The Waterfront’ from 1954 in pristine monochrome with wonderful cinematography by Boris Kaufman. This scene played with such truthfulness, tenderness and delicacy by both actors struck me very forcefully at the moment when first viewed and it has continued to bloom in my memory and imagination. If asked to give testimony for Marlon Brando as the greatest film actor of his time I would, of course, cite his thrilling physical presence and ability to dominate and take possession of the screen with special reference to, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ but it is this scene that would win the argument for me. Brando here hits a peak of American naturalistic acting using the method techniques he had learned but without being imprisoned by them.

In this scene with humour, pathos and dignity and without a shred of affectation or disrespect he incarnates Terry as a living, breathing man who wins our sympathy, as fellow human strugglers, trying stumblingly to articulate our feelings both to ourselves and to those we love and those we yearn to love us. Watch the way his body language evolves through the scene as he realises Edie is intrigued by him and interested in him for himself. The way he picks up, plays with and finally wears her dropped glove (seemingly improvised) should be required viewing in every drama school.

Astonishingly, this was Eve Marie Saint’s film debut. The camera obviously loved her at first sight. As Edie she is a luminous quiet presence whose watchful stillness, intelligence and sensitivity makes it inevitable that Terry will fall for her and fall hard. She understatedly lets Edie’s dawning love for Terry emerge as something as natural as drawing breath. She believably illuminates Edie as a young woman with steel in her character as well as beauty and charm. Acting with Brando, even for someone with her accomplished background on stage, must have been an intimidating challenge but there can be no doubt that Eve Marie Saint matched and balanced him through every frame of celluloid on show here.

At some heartbreaking level we understand that these fleeting moments of intimacy shared in this scene by characters afflicted by doubt and bruised souls will be moments they will both need to recall in the painfully tempestuous times ahead. Maybe it’s an eternal truth as Dylan wrote that, ‘Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain’. Few scenes in cinema history bring out the truth of this statement with more clarity.

Mink Deville, led by Willie Deville a pompadoured and preening singer (finger on the eyebrow and left hand on the hip!) who showed himself throughout a roller coaster personal and professional life to be a supreme rhythm and blues and soul song stylist. He had rasp and romance, swagger and sensitivity as well as presence and power in his vocal arsenal. I recall the moment of seeing him for the first time on the British flagship chart music programme, ‘Top Of The Pops’ in 1977 and jumping out of my chair to applaud this performance of the signature tune of his early career, ‘Spanish Stroll’.

Willie added sass, instrumental colour and wasted seventies urban elegance to the magic and mystery of doo-wop and Brill Building vocal group harmonies to create a wonderful record that creates its own bright shining world every time you hear it. His wonderfully liquid self regarding, shooting cuffs vocal is all strutting Latin braggadocio anchored in his assured rhythmic poise. Special praise is due to the mellifluous backing vocalists who wonderfully evoke the steam heat of a New York night on a tenement stoop as they support Willie’s imperious lead role.

I love the ringing tones of the guitars, the Spanish flourishes, the proto rap intervention by bassist Ruben Siguenza, the tempo changes and the dreamlike woozy character of the whole song. Most of all, most of all, I love and keep returning to the moment when Willie sings the line:

‘Make a paper boat, light it and send it, send it out now.’

Especially those last three words. Anyone who can make the heart leap with three simple words is an artist to cherish and revere. I’ll write a full tribute to this great late lamented talent in due course but in the meantime trawl Youtube for a series of magnificent vocal performances and load up your shopping cart with his albums. You won’t regret it.

Adios Amigo, adios.

Moments, moments, Immortal moments.

Footnote: Sadly since this post was written and published Lauren Bacall died. I dedicate this post to the memory of wonderful actress and hell of a broad who created more than her fair share of Immortal Moments.

Voyages Around Van 2 : Don’t Look Back

‘Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers in love. But always meeting ourselves.’ (James Joyce)

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ (William Faulkner)

‘Can’t repeat the past? … Why of course you can!’ (Scott Fitzgerald)

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ (Scott Fitzgerald)

Van Morrison like all true artists carries an Eden within him that he returns to over and over again when he needs spiritual refreshment and musical inspiration. This home place contains: the real and imagined streets and avenues of 1940s and 1950s Belfast; the boats in the harbour; the creeping morning fog and the booming foghorns; the scent of Shalimar and beeswax; the sounds of the musical saw and the real as prayer voice of Mahalia Jackson coming through the ether. Off to the side a radio is always playing tuned in to AFN delivering the blessings of the High Priest or the Goons on the grand old BBC.

Hank Williams and Leadbelly are telling their eternal truths on the record player downstairs and somewhere almost in and almost out of sight a young girl, the young girl, is incarnating the vision of eternal and temporal beauty. As he walks along the avenue the leaves on the trees tremble and dance and all the strings in heaven are harmonising (though he knows they can break too). The energy contained within this Eden will be enough to power a vocational life with half a century or more of singing, songwriting and veil tearing live performances. For he has the artists and pilgrim’s faith that the path that has been set out for him must surely lead him through triumphs, trials and tribulations eventually back to that first Eden again.

So when he is attracted to a song he hasn’t written himself it’s because he recognises some echo or intimation within the song’s imaginative structure; the melody, rhythm and lyric that promises to open a doorway to the longed for, never lost but never wholly present Eden – the Eden whose essence he can reach out for and sometimes grasp in performance. That’s what motivates him a thousand times more than the applause of the adoring fans or the plaudits of the critics.

The music of the great John Lee Hooker has often provided this doorway for Van. They share a cussed, defiant belief in their own individual visions and a refusal to tailor those visions to the demands of fashion or contemporary taste. Van and John Lee were separated by twenty eight years in age, the Atlantic Ocean, race, the great depression and a World War. However, this was mere happenstance for in the deepest levels of their musical being they were very close kin who knew the blues in the very marrow of their bones. They were and in music still are to use the lovely Celtic expression Anam Cara – soul friends.

And, the blues is a diverse music embracing all the moods we are heir to including joy, sadness, despair and reverie. Which is to say the blues is music that calls to the heart night and day through good times and bad; in our youth and in our old age. It’s a companion and comfort on our pilgrimage through life. Van recognised the humanity and power of Hooker’s songs and that they were gifts that would keep on giving for a really great song’s power and mystery can never be exhausted but only further explored – each version melding the truths of the song with the character and personality a true artist will bring to the work and that will inevitably change over time.

Time, time, time: inexorably ticking on, beating on, surging through our lives; driving us forward while reminding us of its former presence and our former life all the time – all the time. We can’t go back to that former time but we can’t, won’t, wholly leave it behind. We can’t shed the mind skin we are clothed in. Every day contains the present, the past and the future and coming to terms with that is a key task of a well lived life – and it’s a hell of a subject for a song.

John Lee Hooker released Don’t Look Back as a single on Vee Jay in 1964. Van, always an assiduous listener, picked up quickly on it and his utterly ravishing version with Them was released in June 1965 on their debut LP. It is said that Van considered his vocal here to be his best on the album and I agree with him. The song is treated as a, ‘hold your breath and let me stop the world from turning while I tell you this’ dream ballad which only the greatest singers can ever really bring off – and Van triumphantly brings it off here. I can hear echoes of the way Arthur Alexander stills the heart with his understated passion.

Van Morrison’s respect, love and affection for the song and it’s composer is etched into every syllable of his scrupulously careful vocal which glows with inner fire. The languid piano part, probably played by the late Peter Bardens, affects an electrically charged otherworldly sound that foregrounds Van’s lingering, beautifully imagined and controlled blues croon. He sings the song, in this version, with infinite gentleness like a man singing to himself looking out the nighttime window as he waits for the sun to appear over the horizon and start another day.

Listen to the tenderness with which he phrases the lyric revealing the sureness and sadness at the heart of the song. I remember hearing him sing, ‘… Stop dreaming … ‘ for the first time and having an intense out of body experience. Van’s performance here is astonishing in its authority and audacity; especially for a youth barely out of his teens. But, genius answers only to itself.

Before his performance of this luminous song was captured again, on his tour of Ireland in 1979, he had transformed himself from the wondrously gifted callow youth of 1965 into a completely realised master of his chosen craft. He had produced at least four albums that can safely be accounted masterpieces. The work of profound spiritual grace that is Astral Weeks; the incandescent Moondance; the exploratory revelations of St Dominic’s Preview and the blazing house wrecking testimony of Too Late To Stop Now.

He had also become a superb band leader who could choose talented, sympathetic musicians and mould them into crack outfits able to switch genres and animate arrangements with fluid power and ease. He had clearly studied the Ray Charles and James Brown bands; noting the way they used horns and back up singers to heat and dramatise their performances. Above all he needed listening musicians who would recognise, respond and surrender to those moments when he would become inspired and launch into extended improvisation that could take a song far beyond any rehearsal’s imaginings.

The 1979 band included Peter Van Hooke on drums and fellow Ulsterman Herbie Armstrong on rhythm guitar who would be faithful and watchful long term lieutenants. Pat Kyle and John Altman gave the horns swing and sensuousness while Katie Kissoon and Anna Peacock sang their hearts out following or prefiguring their leaders vocal stylings. Bobby Tench played gorgeous spiky guitar fills while Mickey Feat anchored the sound with his bass. Peter Bardens was back after many musical adventures at Van’s side and showed he still knew how to second guess his mercurial leader’s thoughts. A new sound (surely a response to the presence of Scarlet Rivera in Bob Dylan’s band) was provided by the entrancing violin playing of Toni Marcus.

With these resources at his command Van now gave, Don’t Look Back’ a more dynamic, searching blues and soul review arrangement that supported his stupendous vocal tour de force. When he is on this kind of form he seems to control not just his brilliant musicians but also the forces of time, temperature and gravity affecting the audience and the venue. You might observe that he becomes lost in the music but it seems to me it is rather that he steps away from the everyday into an old home – a magical, edenic realm where for those few minutes everything is in balance, where all is well and all shall be well.

No one can do this easily or guarantee a performance where this will occur. All the more reason to treasure those occasions when we become with him dwellers on the threshold able to contemplate ascending the staircase that stretches all the way to moon.

Listen to John Altman’s imperious sax solo, the swelling power of the call and response vocals, the sweetness of the violin and the tidal power of the arrangement but above all marvel at the way Van incarnates the vision of the song in his powerful, tender and subtly nuanced vocal. It’s one of his greatest performances comparable to his legendary, incendiary triumph singing Caravan at the Last Waltz.

So hear him sing a song that summons up the past that surrounds us all. Board the boat that’s ceaselessly borne back; meet the ghosts and the giants of your own life and recognise that the past is never past. As a matter of fact try to live in the here and now. Then go on and live into the future.

Footnote:

Don’t forget, if you haven’t already to read the previous posts on Van – featuring his performances of Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria. In fact, I recommend checking out the archive generally if you’re new to the Jukebox.

An Interlude In Madeira

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This past two weeks I’ve been relaxing in the lush green Atlantic island of Madeira with my family. While soaking up the sun and sights (more anon) and catching up on the massive books to be read next list I’ve, as always, kept an ear out for interesting music.

The most charming and arresting musical experience I had here was listening to the fluid jazz guitar quartet led by Juan Calderado which plays regularly to the patrons of the delightful Ritz Cafe in downtown Funchal. Juan, a rhythm guitar partner and two percussionists lay down an entrancing mellow groove that seems to shimmer around them in the lovely Madeiran summer light.

While the repertoire is a straightforward mixture of jazz and superior pop standards the arrangements and performances demonstrate an acute musical intelligence and feel with real rhythmic and melodic improvisation giving each tune life and charm. Catch them if you can!

Madeira is of course a Portuguese province and the gentle lilt of that graceful language softens all conversations here. Portuguese is the language of one of my most beloved musical genres – Fado. This is a music of bruised pride and dignity; a music that understands that a passionate life along with the joyous rewards of love and family will also inevitably involve the wounds and scars of disappointment, regret and loss which no one truly engaged in the business of living can avoid.

The Portuguese term for the soul of the music is, ‘Saudade’ which encompasses longing and fate – forces we all know something about. Saudade involves an accommodation with those forces not a surrender – it’s music that doesn’t rage against fate but rather ruefully smiles at its presumptions accepting its lessons and storing the wisdom for future use. It is a music of a people who have known defeat more than once yet who remain undefeated.

The queen of Fado, Amalia Rodrigues, is a figure who stands comparison with the greatest divas of popular music : Edith Piaf, Bessie Smith, Lydia Mendoza and Umm Kulthum; artists whose work made them not just admired but loved by entire nations and cultures. They defiantly expressed, not without significant cost to themselves, a deep measure of the longings, joys and frustrations struggling humanity has to battle. We feel listening to them as if they represent our hearts and souls standing up and singing out in the face of life’s torrents.

Amalia Rodrigues is virtually a secular saint in Portuguese culture; a constant source of solace and resolve during times of conflict, depression and highly charged political ferment. She was a woman whose beauty and style marked her out as special and that was before you heard her extraordinarily searching and affecting voice. This is a voice that will engage with your emotions, wring your heart and linger long in your memory.

Travel Notes:

If you are ever planning a trip to Madeira there are scores of excellent guidebooks and histories that will help you enjoy your stay. My comments below are strictly unscientific and personal observations!

Driving:

The Portuguese drivers are tremendously avid tailgaters. They seem to be in competition with one another to see who can get within ten millimetres or so of the car ahead in order to force them to switch lanes so they can then roar off into the distance! Watching one of these operators loom larger and larger in your mirror is an unnerving experience. Move over and let them by.

Madeira is a land of mountains and valleys making for dramatic vistas and world class hiking trails. It also means that you will have to confront some heart stopping steep roads. Make sure your car has plenty of power and a smooth, secure gearbox. You’re going to be using first and second gear a lot and before you go brush up on your hill starts because boy are you going to need to have confidence in that skill!

Lizards:

If you’re renting a house or apartment you’re sure to find you’re sharing it with a menagerie of speedy, skittering and leaping green and yellow reptiles. The first time one appears its a rare person who won’t jump a few inches into the air. However, you soon realise they are harmless and doing you valuable service in keeping the insect population under control. By the end of two weeks here I had fondness for them and even gave one sprightly fellow his own nickname (Lightning).

Bridges and Tunnels:

Because of the mountainous terrain Madeira must be paradise for anyone who has an interest in the wonders of civil engineering. Millions of tonnes of concrete must have been poured to build the gorge spanning bridges and the deep bored tunnels. There’s a great photographic essay waiting to be completed on this theme.

Be sure to:

Take the wonderfully relaxing cable car ride from Funchal to Monte. The fifteen minutes or so you spend suspended in a comfortable cabin looking out and over Funchal, the mountains and the sea seems to makes time tick at a more proper stately pace. You arrive philosophically refreshed and in the right mood to wander amid the botanical gardens of Monte. You can take the cable car back down but I recommend swooshing down in the traditional toboggan ride powered by the steep slopes of the mountain and expertly steered by two costumed, ‘pilots’. It’s the only way to go downhill!

Visit the cave and volcano centre at São Vicente on the north coast of the island. First there’s a pleasant drive there from Funchal and once you arrive the complex is both beautiful and utterly fascinating. The caves are extensive and immersing yourself in them under the tutelage of a knowledgeable but not intrusive guide is a rewarding experience. The film and exhibition about the volcanic and geological history of the island have been brilliantly conceived and executed. If you’re anything like me you’ll emerge looking to buy a series of books on the subjects. Fantastic value at only 6 Euros!

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Imagine yourself as Ishmael (remember he alone survived) boarding The Peaquod when you visit the village of Canical where John Huston’s film of Moby Dick with Gregory Peck as the monomaniacal Ahab was filmed in 1956. I consider Moby Dick not only to be the Great American Novel but a monumental work which ranks alongside The Iliad, The Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s Tragedies. The magnificent sonorousness of Melville’s heroic prose and the epic scope of his imagination never fails to thrill the mind and stir the spirit. I try to read the great work every year.

Once I’ve landed back home and caught up with the post and my domestic duties normal service will resume here at the jukebox. Hope you all enjoy your holidays wherever you venture.

Guitar Instrumentals a Go Go!

Every decent Jukebox ought to have several fine instrumentals on offer. The golden age of popular music, the 1920s to the 1970s, glittered with thrilling and moody instrumentals that blasted from car and transistor radios and the neon lit jukeboxes. Most of tne great instrumental hits hold you from the first notes and then take you on a dizzy aural ride before depositing you breathless as the last note sounds.

I have always loved guitar instrumentals. There’s something elemental about those rousing riffs that locks deep into your memory and your musical heart. The guitar instrumental can evoke a panoply of moods and tones from slashing attack to daydream lullabies. The effective power of an instrumental is not necessarily related to instrumental virtuosity – its more something to do with familiarity and surprise. Every time someone comes up with a winning riff you feel as if you’re recognising, recalling, something you’ve always known and yet you are charmed and surprised by its newly minted freshness. Simple really!

In a recent post I let you in on my fantasy off hosting a late night radio show and told you I already had the theme picked out. Well to kick of this instrumental fiesta here’s the one and only Link Wray with, ‘Turnpike USA’. Can’t you just imagine setting cruise control, winding the windows down and driving into the setting or rising sun listening to this one?

Link Wray was a part Shawnee, power chording guitar hero if there ever was one! He was a master of distortion and of straight for the throat drive and attack. His records demonstrate the awesome power of electric energy being restrained then unleashed. They will never go out of style and you can bet someone right now is strapping on a guitar thinking they can match Link. Very few of them will succeed but they’ll have a heap of fun trying!

Next up a guitar player so good and influential that a whole style, ‘Travis Pickin” is named in his honour. I refer to the mesmerising maestro of guitar picking from Muhlenberg County Kentucky, Merle Travis. Merle came out of and developed the multi-racial finger picking guitar styles of coal rich Western Kentucky. His guitar playing miraculously melds elements of ragtime, jazz, hillbilly boogie, the blues and western swing. Which is to say that Merle listened with wide open ears to all the music pouring out of the local radio stations and figured out how to take the elements of style needed for the particular tune he was ready to play (or write), He could seamlessly switch from finger picking to flat picking like a musical conjurerer.

All this was done with charming relaxed authority. Sure, Merle wasn’t above a little showing off but generally his virtuoso skills were part of a musical whole not an end in themselves. Perhaps this was because Merle was a brilliant songwriter as well as a supreme guitar stylist. After all, this is the man who wrote, ‘Sixteen Tons’ and ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ – songs that resound down the ages.

The showcase for Merle the picker here is this jaw dropping take on, ‘Cannonball Rag’

My next choice is from a musician, Johnny Jenkins, who is only well known to music scholars especially those devotees like myself of the home of deep southern soul the Stax/Volt label. This track appears on Volume 4 of the 9 CD, ‘Complete Singles’ set. I consider possession of that collection of eternity shale to be the mark of a civilised person who would also have the 1911 Brittanica safely shelved along with the complete works of P G Woodhouse and Wild Bill Shakespeare.

Johnny was a left handed blues based player whose most important contribution to musical history, apart from the track in question here, is that he employed the young Otis Redding as his driver. And, one epochal day in 1962, allowed him to use up 40 minutes of remaining studio time to see what he could come up with. Those blessed minutes yielded the stupendous ballad, ‘These Arms Of Mine’ and the rest as they say is, History!

The track I’ve selected here is called, ‘Spunky’ and lasts barely two minutes. But, what joy, what joy! I advise you to turn this up as loud as you can and clear your furniture away. For, if you’re anything like me you’ll find yourself whirling around like a dervish possessed while this one plays! I can’t tell you how much I love this record.

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Finally we may all need cooling down now so to sign off I’ll leave you with a tune that seems to contain the midnight breeze, the lapping of waves on the Atlantic shore and the blessed breath of your baby child. Surely you’ve guessed I’m introducing the immortal, ‘Sleep Walk’ by the Farina Brothers from Brooklyn New York – known to you and me and the Billboard Charts as Santo and Johnny. In 1959 this climbed all the way to the top of the chart and it’s still regularly played when anyone wants to look at the stars and dream of a better day tomorrow. The boys greatest popularity came later in Mexico and Italy where they appreciate lyrical playing.

Got to say that’s put me in the mood to play Link Wray again – why don’t you?

Swingin’ Summer Sisters Jubilee!

The School holidays are upon us and as is my wont I’m about to cross the ocean to a far away Isle where we can stretch out in the sun, sip something cool and refreshing and relax for a blessed fortnight.

The taxi is booked and the cases are nearly packed. Before we take off there’s only one last thing to do – make sure that the faithful patrons of the Immortal Jukebox are left supplied with nourishing thoughts and sounds while I see how burnished and golden an Irish complexion can become in two weeks.

So I’ve dropped my spare nickels on some records intended to ensure your hips and hearts get a good workout while I’m away. All these selections feature women artists who, without false modesty, stand front and centre playing a mean guitar while singing with passion and authority. All of these artists deserve, and will get a post devoted to themselves later. But, in the meantime … Ladies and Gentlemen it’s the Swinging Summer Sisters Jubilee Festival!

To kick thing off we have Sister Rosetta Tharpe – a woman who was a force of nature (if there hasn’t been a hurricane Rosetta yet there should have been) defying all attempts to contain her ebullient personality and musical largesse within genre categories. So she was a glorious gospel singer, a rowdy rhythm and blues shouter and a proto rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll guitar hero. Whatever the nominal tradition she was working within the good sister believed in turning the dials up to 11 and barrelling straight at you!

She became a star of the gospel world in the 1930s and as the decades proceeded her work brought her a wider and more diverse audience all thrilling to the allure of her overwhelming talent and charisma. The clip below is from a 1960s TV show. Later in 1964 she was in England as part of one of those missionary blues and gospel tours that were like musical manna for devout fans who had previously only known of the legendary artists from hard to find records – look out for videos of her electric performance at a railway station with ranks of serried music buffs watching her across the tracks!

Raise the roof Sister, raise the roof!

Next up from Beaumont Texas the sultry smoky tones of the wonderful Barbara Lynne. The song is her self penned classic, ‘Youll lose a good thing’ a big R&B hit from 1962 featuring her assured left handed guitar playing. This one will slay you!

In a sense this is an answer record to all those, ‘slippin around’ soul braggarts who never seemed to think of the woman left at home while they were illicitly trysting at the dark end of the street. Well, in this song Barbara makes the case in the most dignified, enticing and winning terms for the woman scorned. Anyone listening to her incandescent entreaty here must think the guy in question would be a world class fool if he let this pearl slip through his fingers. Something in the grain of Barbara’s voice lodges in your mind and grips your heart – once heard you’re never going to forget her. I am not one for giving out too much advice but I do advise you to listen to and buy as many Barbara Lynne records as you possibly can – it’ll be an investment in emotional musical maturity that will pay you long term dividends.

Our next artist, flame haired mighty guitar mama Boonie Raitt, needs very little introduction having had several career flowerings and triumphs over a forty year plus career. She’s a time served blues veteran who can conjure up the spirits of Memphis Minnie and Sippie Wallace and trade licks and innuendos with John Lee Hooker himself. Her tender or tormented slide guitar is integral to her sound and she loves to lean into a solo wrenching every ounce of musical meaning from the instrument.

Bonnie is a great interpretative singer with a keen ear for songs that have real emotional weight and reach. She can soar and swoop vocally to accent the strident or the seductive. Her voice now has a vintage aged in the wood quality that admits to vulnerability while maintaining impressive strength.

She has recorded the definitive cover of Richard Thompson’s aching folk standard, ‘The Dimming Of The Day’, the classic modern break – up rock ballad, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ and the knock ‘em dead in the aisles swooner, ‘Love Has No Pride’. She has judiciously looted the song catalogues of John Hiatt and Paul Brady and has latterly moved onto the territory of the great American Songkeper himself – Bob Dylan.

To represent Bonnie I’ve chosen her take on fellow blues stylist Chris Smither’s, ‘Love Me Like A Man’. This is a performance by an artist wholly in command of her talent, her material and her audience.

Finally an artist, Lucinda Williams who wouldn’t comprehend the meaning of half hearted if she tried. I first saw her in London sometime in the early 1980s when she supported Mary Chapin Carpenter. The latter presented her literate, beautifully crafted song/stories with exemplary professionalism. However, it was Lucinda’s passionate intensity that really struck home to the extent that I virtually ran from the concert to the nearest record shop to buy all her available albums!

Lucinda’s music is firmly grounded in the southern verities of the blues and deep dyed country with added rock stylings. The shades of Hank Williams and Charlie Patton surround her approvingly as she plays. She has written at least one classic song – the gut wrenching elegy, ‘Sweet Old World’ and her take on Nick Drake’s, ‘Which Will’ is a magical recording that hangs in the air around you long after it has finished.

Lucinda sings from the core of her being and when she is on she is a mesmerising performer who will have you holding your breath one minute, crying the next then reeling home wondering how she does it. There’s no one like her.

I’ve chosen her boozy, bluesy reverie, ‘Big Red Sun’ to close out this post. A Lucinda Williams concert is the kind where you might find easily yourself falling in or out of love, falling down and not noticing and wonder the next morning why your head hurts yet you still sport an ear splitting grin. Feel free to take the top of the Tequila bottle and sway along.

Happy Holidays!