The Monkey Speaks His Mind!


An Immortal Jukebox Production Starring:

Guy The Gorilla!

King Kong!

J. Fred Muggs!

Ham The Astronaut!

And a special appearance by Washoe!

Music by:

Dave Bartholomew

Dr John

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

Denzil Thorpe

Now we all know One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.

Even if it’s Mickey’s Monkey.

And, of course, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey.

Trust me. I’m a Monkey Man. A Monkey Man.

Time for The Monkey To Speak His Mind!

The great Guy The Gorilla, Lord of London Zoo, for more than three decades, kept this thoughts to himself.

Yet, none could doubt that Guy cast a quizzical eye on the rubbernecking crowds who passed by his domain.

Let’s get this Coconut Tree swinging with the man who translated The Monkey’s thoughts – New Orleans and American Music Master, Dave Bartholomew.

Yeah The Monkey Speaks His Mind .. discussing things as they are said to be

Now, when it comes to making great records there was no chink in the armoury of Dave Bartholomew. He could write a street smart lyric and invent winning melodies.

He could hand pick musicians and lead them from the bandstand or the Producer’s desk. He could craft arrangements to add colour and tone to his original conception.

Dave Bartholomew was the whole package. The Real Deal.

He is unquestionably a Roots Music All Star and season after season an obvious MVP pick.

This is the organising mind behind a string of classic records for Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis and Lloyd Price.

Yet, every time I thinks of Dave my musical memory lights first upon, ‘The Monkey Speaks His Mind’ for its wit, its wisdom and its one chord drive which lodges the song deep in the cortex.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind:

There’s a certain rumour that just can’t be true. That Man descended from our noble race. Why, the very idea is a big disgrace!’

Perhaps such thoughts tormented the mind of King Kong as he swayed atop The Empire State Building preparing for his doom.

King Kong is one of the great tragic heroes of Popular Culture and you can be sure his dignity and nobility will always win him a revered place in the affections of humans with functioning hearts.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind:

No Monkey ever deserted his wife, starved her baby and ruined her life.’

Let’s now call upon a man loaded with N’Awlins Mojo – Dr John.

In this live version his steam heat band soak us in jungle humidity and push up the ambient temperature of the Club.

Good job there were cooling libations to hand!

The guitarist and drummer exercise Zen mastery while the trombone solo sails acrobatically through the room.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind:

‘And you’ve never known a mother Monk to leave her babies with others to bunk and passed them from one to another ‘Til they scarcely knew who was their mother.’

Such thoughts must surely have crossed the mind of J Fred Muggs as he surveyed the passing parade of human folly.

To emphasise the point I call upon one of the finest bands ever to emerge from Texas – The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

One thing you can rely on in this unpredicatable world. If you go to a Fabulous Thunderbirds show you are gonna get good and sweaty and have the time of your life.

I speak as as someone who has seen them in all the incarnations that have toured the U.K.

The blacktop blast of Kim Wilson’s harmonica and the perfect economy of Jimmie Vaughan’s Guitar with Keith Ferguson and Fran Christian anchoring the sound makes for an over proof combination that’s guaranteed to get the adrenaline pumping and the heart rejoicing.

Adrenaline would surely have been coursing through Ham The Chimpanzee when he blasted into space on 31 January 1961.

The success of Ham’s mission gave the green light for manned space flights to follow.

As he climbed to unimagined heights viewing the world below from a new perspective perhaps Ham reflected that:

‘You will never see a Monkey build a fence around a Coconut Tree and let all the coconuts go to waste forbidding other monkeys to come and taste’.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind!

To conclude our meditations on the theme here’s a lovely lurching version from Jamaica, where the rhythms of New Orleans were readily appreciated and appropriated.

At the controls was Coxsone Dodd, founder of the legendary Studio 1 recording Mecca and label.

The vocal is by Denzil Thorpe having his brief moment of glory (Any information on Denzil’s subsequent career much welcomed here!)

Washoe learned to communicate fluently in sign language. In quiet moments I wonder if she signed to herself:

‘Here’s another thing a Monkey won’t do – go out on a night and get all in a stew. Or use a gun or club or knife to take another Monkey’s life!’

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind!

And, when The Monkey Speaks His Mind we would would do well to listen!

Notes:

Guy The Gorilla (Gorilla,gorilla,gorilla) was one of the most distinguished residents of London between 1947 and 1978. He is properly commemorated in a statue at London Zoo and in portrait paintings.

I saw him often when I was a child and clearly remember being affected by his immense physicality and his somber aura.

King Kong – there were many profoundly important events in 1933. Not least Kong’s appearance in the 1933 film bearing his name. Film technology is now immensely sophisticated yet it is the original King Kong who haunts the dreams.

J. Fred Muggs was one of the premier stars of American TV in the 1950s. As ‘Co-Host’ of the NBC Today Show he became a household name and reassuring presence.

Ham passed out top of his group of would be Space Monkeys and happily survived his voyage into space. He spent his remaining years in Washington D.C and North Carolina.

He was buried with appropriate honours, including a eulogy by Col John Stapp, in the Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico.

Washoe (1965 – 2007) developed a signing vocabulary of over 300 words and was able to see a Swan and sign ‘Water Bird’

Her example led to the institution of The Great Ape Project which aims to extend moral and legal protections currently only afforded to humans to the Great Apes.

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

It’s 28 years since my Dad died.

Yet, barely a day goes by without me remembering some saying of his or wondering what would he have made of the roller coaster of current events.

Each day, looking in the mirror, I resemble him more and more.

And, each day, I wish I could reach my hand out to hold his once more.

Until that day all I can do is remember him in my prayers, honour him in my actions and stumblingly capture him with my words.

So, for Fathers Day a Reblog of my tribute.

Fathers and Sons. Sons and Fathers. Sons carry their Father’s in their bloodstream, in their mannerisms and gestures and in the echoing halls of their memories.

No matter what you do in life, no matter how radically you roam from where you started you remain in some part of you (in more parts that you usually like to acknowledge) your Father’s son.

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

Coming to terms with your Father, the Son you were and are and the man and Father you have become is the work of a lifetime. A story that’s always unfolding, always being rewritten as you learn more about the man you are and understand more about the man your Father was.

Sons, schooled by the abrasive tides of life, sometimes learn to have a certain humility about the easy certainties of their youth as to who their Fathers was and what made him that way. It’s easy to be a Father until you become one.

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

Sons writing about Father’s is one of the great themes of all literature and songwriting because that story is always current, always unfolding, always full to the brim with all that is human in all its bloody and terrible glory.

No two stories of Fathers and Sons are the same though most will recognise something of themselves in every story.

Here’s a cry from the soul. Paul Simon’s, ‘Maybe I Think Too Much’ from his aptly titled, ‘Hearts And Bones’ record. Fathers and Sons – Hearts and Bones, Hearts and Bones.

Sons never know when they will need to call for their Fathers to appear in their dreams.

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

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

Forgive the initially muffled sound.

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

I miss my Father. My Dad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I miss sitting with him in easeful silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I miss the shyness of his smile.

I miss the sound of his voice.

I miss the touch of his leathery hands.

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

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

I miss my Dad.

My dad lies in the green pastures of his beloved Tipperary now under the sheltering slopes of Slievenamon (he would never have forgiven me had he been buried anywhere else!)

You can almost hear this song echoing in the silence all around him.

I walked many roads with my Father.

I’ve walked many miles without him by my side now (though I sometimes feel his presence).

I hope I have many miles to walk until I join him again.

As I walk I will lean on him as I face the twists, turns and trip hazards ahead, accompanied by the words of Seamus Heaney:

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

Thanks to Martin Doyle for featuring this tribute in The Irish Times.

My Dad would have been very proud to see it there.

Steve Forbert : Alive On Arrival and still swinging for the fence!

My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling bad or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was to keep swinging.’ (Hank Aaron)

You have to walk, that’s the element of time, which forces you to move and change. It’s in the fall, and there’s leaves and dust and dirt in the air – and things are gonna stick to you.’ (Steve Forbert).

Growing up in America most young boys indulge a fantasy where on their Major League debut they get to hit a home run off the opponents’ star pitcher at Fenway Park or Dodger Stadium.

Rounding the bases to ecstatic acclaim they nonchalantly wave their hat to the adoring crowd pausing only to catch the eye of the hometown sweetheart who has travelled hundreds of miles to share the moment.

In my own version of this story (slipping the bonds of time and chronology as you’re allowed to in dreams) I hit a homer off Whitey Ford at Ebbetts Field for my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.

Taking my seat in the dugout Jackie Robinson says, ‘Good hit, Kid’ and punches me on the shoulder.

The music business version of this myth might follow the following arc.

A 21 year old kid from Mississsippi moves to New York City carrying an acoustic guitar and a harmonica rack.

Armed with the fearlessness of youth he busks at Grand Central Station before landing a regular club gig at New Wave/Punk headquarters CBGB (opening for both Talking Heads and John Cale).

The script naturally segues into the scene where the famous manager says, ‘You got something Kid – I can get you a record deal!’

And, sure enough he does. And wouldn’t you just know it the debut album showcases a series of winning songs fizzing with wit, youthful charm and irresistible energy.

The second album adds seasoned musicians and produces a tremendous calling card hit single.

A hot shot critic for Rolling Stone notes that he makes listeners think that they actually do know him – and that this rare gift might just make him the next American Superstar!

And, that folks is the first act of, ‘The Steve Forbert Story’.

Time, I think, for us to fade up the soundtrack. From the aptly named, ‘Alive on Arrival’ the feisty, ‘Goin’ Down To Laurel’.

Straightaway Steve Forbert announces his artistic virtues.

He has a hoarse, reaching for that farther star, voice that charms as it plucks at your heart.

He sure can spin a story that’ll lodge and linger in the mind. With a wide and knowing grin he beckons you into the story of a shooting the breeze young man who is part straight arrow Tom Sawyer and part rapscallion Huck Finn:

‘Glad to be so careless in my way
Glad to take a chance and play against the odds
Glad to be so crazy in my day’

This is a red blooded young man who relishes the rush of life with his harmonica rhythmically rhyming with the wheels carrying him down to Laurel and the moon and sun above.

He’s more smart than you might think – he glories in being so young and carefree yet he knows those cares are waiting up ahead. For this great life can always end and love is a funny, funny, state of mind.

So, time to enjoy every wonderful moment spent with the girl who is a fool for him – well worth the trip to a dirty stinking Town.

Not time now to dwell on the serial marriages and breakdowns all around, the rain in the clouds somewhere above, the trains taking young men out of town leaving burning buildings behind them.

Yes, love is a funny state of mind and isn’t it marvellous to discover that for yourself. Love does make the world go around and boarding that carousel makes the head spin and the heart pump faster and faster.

Steve Forbert, from the get go, do something that defines writers and performers who matter. His songs have quick vitality plunging us into a life we recognise and through the verve of performance winning our attention and allegiance.

Captured, we want to know how the story pans out. We want to stick along for the ride – wherever it may take us for we sense there are more fine, echoing stories ahead.

And, indeed there were. On his second record, ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ Steve nailed a song he had been working on for a long time. ‘Romeo’s Tune’ explodes with dizzying exuberance and joy.

You are swept along by the I can’t contain myself vocal and the surging melody.

It has, ‘this ones just got to be a hit’ and keeper written all over it.

Steve Forbert will be singing this song for the rest of his life and every audience that hears him sing it, for the first or the thousandth time, will sing with him.

Surely everyone wants Southern kisses and wants their lover to embody the the smell of The Moon for precious moments.

Of course, the years will rise and fall. They must. They must.

Yet, every day we wish for someone who will share that rise and fall with us. Someone who will care. Someone who will laugh with us as we sneak on out beneath the stars and run!

So now we move on to Act 2 wherein our hero encounters and endures a reversal in his fortunes. There is drama, disappointment, what some would call disloyalty, puzzlement, treachery and perfidy.

It is, after all, The Music Business!

Contrary to informed expectation and the spreadsheet projections of managers, record company bean counters and executives his follow up records did not produce chart topping hits and fill stadium bleachers.

Mogul patience runs out. Spectacularly so. A fifth album is recorded. But not issued. And, no one else can issue it either.

And, you got to understand this Kid .. you can’t record for anyone else either!

This is what we call a test of mettle. Steve hits the road, writes songs, ascends for year after backbreaking year the rocky slopes of purgatory.

Stubborn perseverance pays off when The E Street Band’s Gary Tallent appears on a metaphorical white horse ready to produce a ‘comeback’ album.

When it is issued, ‘Streets of This Town’ turns out to be a magnificent album of deeply felt songs that could only have been written by an artist of rare talent.

One bloodied but unbowed by the tempests he had survived. It is a record of hard won insight and tender empathy. The Kid is now unquestionably a Man. A man with visions to turn to when storms assail your own life.

Here’s a man who has realised that the promises made to you when you sign on the dotted line are often not honoured and that you might well lose a lot more than you gain in the transaction if you’re not very careful.

The skills of wheeling and dealing and knocking people down to get your way on the streets of this town must encourage him to light out for the territory even if it is with tears in a grown man’s eyes. Time to take off the uniform and abjure the crazy norm.

Streets of This Town was a major critical success as was its excellent follow up, ‘The American in Me’. But, this is real life not a film.

Critical hosannas did not turn into public acclamation. Record stores were not besieged by hordes of fans desperate to reintroduce themselves to the mature work of that guy who wrote that Romeo song.

So, Steve did what he had always done. He wrote engaging, literate songs that reflected his own struggles and joys and the life of the communities and generations around him.

He kept on keepin’ on. Always heading for another joint.

And, as he did it turned out that there was always an audience for songs that nourished the heart and stimulated the imagination.

Life flowed on for him and his audience so that songs written in youth took on new layers of meaning when recreated in performance decades down the track from their birth.

Here’s a tender, deeply moving, version of the powerful and poignant, ‘I Blinked Once’ that will surely have resonances in every life that has felt the chill wings of time’s winged chariot rushing by.

It could be, it might be … It is, A Home Run!

Steve Forbert sings reveal a man in full. An artist who speaks to how we live our lives in youth, in early maturity and middle age.

We recognise ourselves in these songs and understand that their author has kept the faith and is still running his race with purpose and determination. Long may he run!

In the coming months Steve Forbert will bring his bulging backpack of songs filled with wit and hard won wisdom to Milwaukee and Wilmington and Decatur.

If you’re within a couple of hours driving distance make sure you go!

He has great stories to tell that will remind you of the flowing tides of your own life and he knows how to tell them.

I’m delighted he’s still out there, crazy in his way, still swinging for the fence.

Still swinging for the fence.

Notes:

First of all many thanks to the man himself for sharing this Post through his official Twitter feed.

A warm welcome to fans of Steve now introduced to The Jukebox.

Steve Forbert, like Nick Lowe and Southside Johnny, is an artist I have enormous fondness for in addition to admiration for his writing and performing abilities.

This post has concentrated on songs from the first 15 years of a career which has now clocked up nearly 40.

I plan to write a further post on the later period of his career to stress how he has continued to write fine songs worthy of your attention.

Recommended Albums:

Alive on Arrival (1978)

Jackrabbit Slim (1979)

Streets of This Town (1988)

The American In Me (1992)

Any Old Time (2002 – a wholly charming collection of Jimmie Rodgers songs)

Over With You (2012)

Compromised (2015)

Steve is an excellent live performer.

I treasure all his live records and DVDs – my favourite being ‘Here’s Your Pizza’ from 1997 and ‘On Stage at World Cafe’ from 2007.

Opening for The Beatles Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry : Ain’t Got No Home!

In New Orleans, America’s greatest music city, they sure know how to throw a party.

Mardi Gras might just be the greatest and most joyous greatest civic celebration on the entire planet.

Mardi Gras rolls around every year.

But, on September 16 1964 New Orleans was en fete for a very different occassion. The Beatles were coming to City Park as part of their very first American tour.

The Beatles! A year earlier few had heard of them.

Now, following their historic appearances on Ed Sullivan and their subsequent colonisation of the Hot 100 they were famous at a level only previously approached by Elvis himself.

The whole city virtually levitated with anticipation and not just the crazed teenage Beatles fans.

No, even the Crescent City’s Mayor, Victor H Schiro, thought it only mete and proper to declare Wednesday September 16 1964 to be officialy, ‘Beatles Day In New Orleans’.

He welcomed the arriving, ‘English Storm’ in the Hurricane Month and, correctly, noted that what The Beatles did and sang was based on a cousin ship with Jazz – the jumping, danceable historic art form which was New Orleans inestimable gift to World Culture.

And, wonder of wonders, as the lights went down, who should be first on the Bill at this epochal show?

Why, none other than one of New Orleans most favoured sons, Clarence Frogman Henry, who could make a dead man rise out of his grave to dance and shout with Joy.

You want Joy? Joy, raining down in torrents?

Ecouter le cri de la grenouille! Ecouter! Ecouter!

Now, in my book, one of the primary purposes of music is to provide good cheer – to lift the burdensome cares of the day and remind you that to be alive is a glorious gift.

And, I can think of few records that fulfill that purpose to better effect than, ‘Aint Got No Home’.

It was a substantial R&B and Pop hit in 1956 as all over the nation people fell in love with the voice that could sound like a lonely boy, a lonely girl, a treetop bird and, best of all – A Frog!

What’s not to like!

There’s the trademark rolling on the river rhythm New Orleans sound that carries you securely along with the drums, bass and sax meshing perfectly together.

Clarence brings all his patent piano and vocal charm, honed in clubs like The Chicken Shack, to produce a record that is both a novelty and a Rock ‘n’ Roll classic.

Clarence, born and raised in the Crescent City, had clearly been listening to Fats Domino, Professor Longhair and Shirley and Lee. The delightful Frog impression was his own boyhood invention.

Ooo .. ooooo …. ooooo … ooooo … ooooo .. oooooo!

Yes indeed. Yes Indeed.

I’m here to tell you that there’s no Jukebox in the whole wide World that wouldn’t be improved by having a copy of, ‘Aint Got No Home’ in its racks!

The success of Aint Got No Home brought appearances at the premier Black Theatres of the day – The Apollo in New York, The Howard in D.C and The Royal in Baltimore sharing the stage with luminaries like Clyde McPhatter and Chuck Berry.

But, there was no immediate hit follow up so Clarence went back home to the Boubon Street clubs where he always drew a loyal and enthusiastic hometown crowd.

Clarence’s next smash came courtesy of two fellow Louisianians Paul Gayten and Bobby Charles.

Paul Gayten, a prodigiously talented musician, arranger and Bandleader, acting as a talent scout for Chess Records had spotted the potential of Clarence and hustled him into Cosimo Matassa’s Studio to record his initial hit.

Paul had recorded Bobby Charles immortal, ‘See You Later Alligator’ later popularised by Bill Haley, and the two combined their talents to write, ‘(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do’ which gave Clarence a big, fat, International hit in 1961.

Bobby Charles, a secret hero of Rock ‘n Roll, will feature here later. He had the priceless gift of writing songs which sounded as if you’ve always known them yet which never lose their playability through the years.

I chose to feature the live version above for the thrill of seeing and listening to a gold plated N’Awlins Band (with back up Dancers!) and the oratorical tones of legendary WLAC DJ Bill ‘Hoss’ Allen.

Wonderful to hear the exchange between ‘Frog’ and ‘Hoss’, to briefly glimpse Robert ‘Barefootin” Parker and to realise that Frog’s accent is so thick you could near cut slices off it!

Clarence’s final appearance on the Charts also in ’61 was with a revival of the standard, ‘You Always Hurt the One You Love’ written by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher.

There are countless versions by everyone from The Mills Brothers to Peggy Lee and on to Ringo Starr.

Still, for my money, if you have a few drinks taken and fancy a whirl around a hardwood floor you can’t do better than call up the Frog!

Clarence has recorded extensively, toured Europe and played with many of the greats besides The Beatles but he has always returned home to the bosom of Bourbon Street.

If you’re lucky, even though he’s now in his ninth decade, you might see him there still.

Be assured you’re guaranteed a real find time and without doubt you’ll find yourself crooning along to his classic tunes.

As The Mayor of Jukeboxville I’m issuing my own Proclamation:

Whereas, in order to increase the wellbeing and mirth of all it devolves upon myself to officially proclaim today, June 5 2017, to be officially Clarence Frogman Henry Day.

Encore, ecouter le cri de la grenouille!

For Arthur Alexander : A Ballad in Blue for a Blue Balladeer

Some voices clutch at the heart.

Some voices echo on and on in your soul.

Some voices speak to you in the dawn’s early light.

Some voices play softly in your mind through the long and speechless night.

Some voices call your own.

Arthur Alexander had such a voice.

It’s now twenty-four years since Arthur died largely unmourned except by soul and R&B afficianados.

Yet, his songs, especially sung by him in his inimitable affecting way, will never die.

So for the ultimate blue balladeer – a ballad in blue.

A Ballad in Blue.

‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

(Henry David Thoreau)

‘Now I ache, with heartbreak and pain and the hurt that I just can’t explain’

(Arthur Alexander)

Imagine you are the manager of a blue collar bar in a tough small town. You work long hours making sure everybody has a good time and that nobody’s good time winds up leaving someone else on their way to hospital.

You know who not to serve, who to share a joke with, who to warn off and who to throw out for their own good. You keep a weighted pool cue just out of sight from the floor within your reach – just in case.

You stock the jukebox and make sure that there’s old and new favourites: something that counts as a home town anthem; several that are fast and loud for the boys from the base; plenty to dance and sing along to for the girls with the faraway looks in their eyes; and, some for everyone to openly or quietly cry over.

The night, though long, passes quickly for you and you don’t realise how tired you are until the door’s been shut on the last, loud, lonely drunk.

You look around and sigh thinking of the work needed before the whole cycle starts again after you wake up in a few hours. Time to pour yourself a more than generous measure of premium whiskey and play one last song.

Only one will do. Arthur Alexander, the patron saint of stoical fortitude. I can’t go on, I can’t go on – I’ll go on.

‘In The Middle Of It All’ tells the story of a broken man surveying, with an eerie calm that almost amounts to existential detachment, the shattered ruins of his life : ‘ It looks like my life is about to fall’.

Like all the great Arthur Alexander songs – ‘You Better Move On’, ‘Anna’ and ‘Dream Girl’ – it’s the song of a grown up man; a man who has experienced joy and pain, the ecstasy and despair brought on by love and it’s loss. Though Arthur’s songs are suffused with intense feeling they are in no sense hysterical – the besetting sin of so much pop music.

The record opens with a beautiful elegaic guitar figure that seems to glisten and shimmer in the background throughout the song. It then flows on at a stately, magisterial ballad mid tempo with the swooning melody and instrumental backing acting as a cushioned support for Arthur Alexander’s deeply affecting and entrancing southern country soul voice.

Arthur’s vocal charm owes nothing to stylistic tricks rather it is founded on the ageless attraction of hearing the sound of a man’s open, if broken heart. A sound that we can all recognise when it is authentic and true. Arthur Alexander’s proud and wounded vocals once heard will echo on in your own heart.

While listening to the song it seems as if you have pulled up your bar stool next to a pleasant looking though downcast guy who with no fanfare or needy plea for sympathy tells you, if you want to hear, why it is that night after night you can find him resident at this bar and why, night after night, no matter how much he drinks he does not get drunk.

During the course of, ‘In The Middle of It All’ the drummer seems to beat out a steady purgatorial pilgrim’s tempo while Arthur’s exquisite vocal lays out the extent of his lonely and desolate emotional landscape.

His love for his girl which was, ‘Really, really real’ remains true even though the house and home their love had built together is now a reproachful ruin he occupies alone.

The place where they had been so happy, as far as he can recall, now has the rain steadily and dreadfully falling all around it. What he once thought were the certainties of love and loyalty have vanished like some cruel mirage as his world, ‘Just came down one day’.

The song seems to summon up this heart and soul assaulting rain as the strings swell and the chorus of backing singers join Arthur in his examination of regret and loss. You can feel the southern heat and humidity of Alabama where the song was recorded in every breath of Arthur’s vocal and in every beat of the music.

The wonderful piano playing provides arpeggios of insistent pain and a sense that, in this vale of tears, no shield of love or faith can ever be proof against the truth that a love which seemed so sure can, in an instant, crumble into mere dust.

Arthur Alexander’s singing throughout this song is filled with an aching tenderness as he caresses each word into bruised breath and life. It is as if by singing with such scrupulous care he can somehow make whole his shattered heart or at least prevent it’s final destruction. His singing remains controlled and conversational even as it grows in the depth of pain it examines.

Perhaps this is because the song, for this singer, even in such a situation is not a resentful scream but rather a tragic lullaby that tries despite all his trials to shore up a ruined life.

There is no escape from the realisation that all of us must sooner or later confront the inevitability of death, loss and failure. For as the roman poet Virgil and Arthur Alexander knew living a clear eyed life involves coming to terms with the terrible truth that there are tears in things, ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’.

If you want someone to hold your hand when this truth becomes real in your own life it’s hard to think of a better soul companion than Arthur Alexander.

‘In The Middle of It All’ is one of those rare songs that seems to live on in the silence after it has finished and after the record arm has returned to its cradle. Sometimes for me that silence feels like the silence between two sobs.

Forty years ago David Bowie in ‘Young Americans’ uttered an anguished plea: ‘Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry’. Well David, wherever you are tonight, here it is. It has always worked for me.

 

Notes, credits and further listening:

It seems that Arthur Alexander recorded ‘In The Middle Of It All’ four times in his life. The version discussed above is the second 1962 version.

Arthur Alexander recorded some 120 songs during his recording career for a variety of labels. His initial career featuring many of the songs he will always be remembered for began at Dot Records and includes some of the premier recording at Rick Hall’s FAME studio in Muscle Shoals.

From 1965 he recorded for Sound Stage 7, a Monument subsidiary and in 1971 he recorded a lone album for Warner Brothers. In 1975, out of the blue, he recorded the marvellously fluid and typically affecting single, ‘Everyday I Have To Cry’ which incredibly made the US top 50.

Finally and most poignantly of all he recorded the lovely low key, Lonely Just Like Me’ album issued by Elektra in 1993 some three months prior to his death. This was later reissued by Hacktone Records with the addition of live performances and also with some hotel room demos which have some of the 3am in the morning, death on the horizon mood, shared with the New York Demos recorded by Buddy Holly prior to his untimely demise.

The ever alert Ace Records have issued two essential compilations covering the Dot and Monument Years. The other albums have also been reissued.

A welcome tribute collection, ‘Adios Amigo’ came out under the Razor and Tie imprint and features Nick Lowe’s tender cover of, ‘In The Middle Of It All’ (indeed Lowe’s career in this millennium might be seen as the largely successful attempt to pare his songwriting and recording style to their essentials in emulation of Arthur Alexander).

A relatively small investment will furnish you with the heartbreakingly magnificent catalogue of one of the greatest singers and songwriters in any genre and you will surely find that the songs and performances will become treasured fixtures in your life.

They were certainly a fixture in the life of John Lennon who had clearly listened closely to Arthur Alexander as evidenced in The Beatles cover of, ‘Anna’. The way that the famously acerbic Lennon could bring a wounded tenderness and discretion to ballad performances also betrays Artur’s influence.

John Lennon kept a jukebox filled with his favourite records to fortify him against the madness of the world that had grown up around him: prominent on his own immortal selection were records by Arthur Alexander.

Arthur Alexander was born in Sheffield Alabama in May 1940 and died in June 1993 in Nashville. He was only 53 years old. Despite recording several classic songs and having some of these covered by The Beatles (Anna) and The Rolling Stones (You Better Move On) he never really made much money from his songs.

Sadly, he was also prey to alcohol and mental health problems. Disillusioned and depressed he was for many years largely estranged from the music business and spent long spells working as a janitor and school bus driver.

There is a heartfelt biography by Richard Younger, ‘Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story’ published by the University of Alabama.

Arthur Alexander might be said to be the epitome of the, ‘Country Soul’ style of music. The movement as a whole is warmly evoked and intelligently discussed in Barney Hoskyn’s book, ‘Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted: Country Soul In The American South’ (Fontana/Bloomsbury).

Musicians growing up in a deeply segregated society were nevertheless heir to musical traditions that, principally through the medium of radio, effortlessly crossed the racial divide. Mucians and singers recognised great songs whether they were played on country or ‘Race’ music stations.

The constellation of wonderful musicians and songwriters who worked at Stax, FAME and Muscle Shoals studios were artistic freedom riders shattering barriers within the sanctuary of the recording studio even if they had to step carefully once they emerged into the heavy heat of the Southern mainstreet.

Booker T and The MG’s, Dan Penn, Chips Moman, Spooner Oldham and their brothers and sisters in rhythm made records that were recognisably southern and spoke eloquently of the lives shared by black and white alike.

There is a website ‘The annotated Arthur Alexander’ which is a very valuable resource for anyone seriously interested in delving further into Arthur’s recording career.

Van Morrison, Elvis and Berry Gordy all revered Jackie Wilson : Mr Excitement!

‘Jackie Wilson was the greatest singer I’ve ever heard. The epitome of natural greatness .. he set the standard I’d be looking for in singers forever’ (Berry Gordy, Founder of Motown).

‘I guess that makes me the white Jackie Wilson’ (Elvis Presley when hearing some called Jackie Wilson the black Elvis).

‘Jackie Wilson was the most dynamic singer and performer I think I’ve ever seen’ (Smokey Robinson).

Just in case you thought these luminaries were exaggerating take a listen to Jackie’s debut solo single from 1957, ‘Reet Petite’ and you’ll hear that there’s no hyperbole involved.

Jackie Wilson was born to sing.

Jackie could sing with the elegant power that Ted Williams brought to Baseball.

Jackie could sing with the ‘don’t you know I’m better than you in every way’ confidence that Muhammad Ali brought to Boxing.

Jackie could sing with the ‘wow, that’s brilliant’ style of a Scott Fitzgerald Sentence.

Jackie Wilson could sing and take the breath away from the band behind him, the audience in front of him and every singer who imagined, before they heard him, that they were a pretty good singer.

Sing it Jackie! Sing it!

January 20th 1984 Memorial Hospital Mount Holly New Jersey

You know it’s more than 8 years now since I sang, ‘Lonely Teardrops’ that last time at a Dick Clark gig in New Jersey.

One minute I’m knee sliding while hitting all the high notes and the next it seemed like a madman with a hammer is bashing me in the chest.

Last time I was able to sing. Last time I was really able to walk and talk.

Last time I was Jackie Wilson – Mr Excitement!

I been in Hospitals ever since that night. Ever since.

Sometimes the lights are bright and sometimes it’s all shades and shadows. Machines bleeping nearly all the time. Nurses coming and going about their business. I got to know a few of them really well – though they wouldn’t know that.

Coma. Conscious but incapacitated is what they say.

Actually, in some ways I hear more now than I ever did.

When someone comes to the bedside I can feel them before they speak and it ain’t just the living who come to see me. Course, I don’t know who gone and died since I been banged up in here.

So, I don’t know, for sure, who is alive, who is dead and which are ghosts or dreams in my head.

But, they been comin’ to see me more and more these last few weeks. Almost as if they comin’ to say Goodbye.

Well, some I’m glad they came. And, some I wished they’d stayed in Hell.

A few shed those lonely teardrops when they whispered my name and theirs in my ear.

Maybe, like me they sing that one in their mind as the teardrops fall.

Mama came. She about cried a river. Told me, no matter what I done on life, ain’t no sin The Lord can’t forgive. If you ask him. Well, I know I got plenty to ask forgiveness for – especially the way I treated my wives and the mothers of my kids I never married. Here’s hopin’ Mama’s right.

Mama was the one took me to hear the Billups Chapel Choir and that’s when I knew I was born to be a singer. Sometimes, when it’s 3 in the morning and this place is quiet as a Monday Morning Chapel I think I hear that choir again singing, ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’.

Papa came. Now, I know he’s dead. Death ain’t changed him though. He came with a bottle in a brown bag and he done nothing but cuss me out all the time he sat here. Maybe I’m more like him than I ought to be but I ain’t dead yet. Not yet.

And maybe, just maybe, The Boatman still not absolutely sure I’m bound for hell. Leastwise that’s what I’m hopin’.

Berry and Gwen Gordy came with Billy Davis.

Now when I first met Berry, in the 50s, he wasn’t an Emperor of the music business. No way. He was an ex boxer like me and a song hustler trying to make his way in this mean ol’ world.

Give him his due though. Him, Gwen and Billy came up with a string of hit songs when I went solo after leavin’ Billy Ward and The Dominoes. They knew that when it came to selling a song that there wasn’t anyone to touch me.

Berry said I was even better than Clyde McPhatter – and anyone who’s knows anything about singing knows that Clyde was as good as anyone’s ever been.

Always did like Gwen.

Billy was a gentleman and you don’t get many of them in the business I can tell you!

As they sat here they started singing, ‘That is Why (I Love You So).

Sounded real good even for a bunch of oldies.

But, nothing like what I could do with the song. Nothing like.

Elvis comes now and again when he can escape Colonel Tom. He just likes to sit and croon a little. Tells me how many of my moves found their way into his act. Actually, he came yesterday and sang, ‘All My Trials’. There’s no doubt he can sing. Really sing.

One thing Elvis said was that he loved it when I sang a big slow ballad holding the audience in the palm of my hand.

Yeh! I could sing them at any tempo. I remember, ‘Doggin’ Around’ always cast a spell. A true spell.

My cousin Levi came by and talked like we did when we was kids. He’s a hell of a singer. Imagine the lead singer of The Four Tops and Jackie Wilson in the same group! Shame our version of The Falcons never got to record.

Tell you one guy who wouldn’t dare turn up. Nat Tarponol. He must owe me a million dollars! To think that I near carried his label Brunswick on my back while he was piling my greenbacks head high into his account.

I get a kick when Carl Davis drops by. When everyone thought I was finished it was Carl who kept the faith. He hooked me up with those Detroit Funk Brothers and Lord didn’t we cook!

Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and I Get The Sweetest Feeling put me right back where I belonged – right on top.

One time Carl came in and told this Irsih guy, Van Morrison, had made a tribute record, ‘Jackie Wilson Said’ and that he could out sing near any R&B, Blues and Soul singer who ever lived. I would have laughed but then he played me the record.

Who would believe it! The guy has the Rhythm in his soul. No doubt about it. Then I got to thinking.

Sure, an Irish guy with a dynamite voice (though they tell me he don’t move too much!) but what about a Black Jewish guy from Detroit who can bring a tear to every eye from Dublin to Detroit with his version of, ‘Danny Boy’!

Beat that Mr Morrison!

Anyway, I’m real tired now. Never been so tired. I can still feel that bullet near my spine and it feels like that one kidney of mine is about to call it a day.

I don’t know for sure but I think I hear those pipes calling louder and louder and somewhere over the river a choir calling me.

Guess they could use a star Tenor.

Goodnight.

Notes:

Jackie Wilson died on 21 January 1984. He was 49 years old. He never recovered from the heart attack he had on 29 September 1975 while performing, ‘Lonely Teardrops’.

In his career Jackie scored more than 50 hit singles. He had 6 R&B Number Ones and 6 Top Ten Pop Chart hits.

‘Reet Petite’ ‘Lonely Teardrops’ and ‘That’s Why (I Love You So)’ were all products of the Gordy/Davis/Gordy songwriting partnership.

‘Doggin’ Around’ was written by Lena Agree.

‘Reet Petite’ shows someone in complete control of glorious gifts. You want to shout with joy with Jackie as he pulls off miracle after miracle with a broad wink to the audience – ‘Ain’t I something!’ You sure were Jackie, you sure were.

In, ‘Lonely Teardrops’ Jackie melds Doo-Wop sweetness with Gospel dynamism effortlessly shifting up and down through his astonishing vocal range.

With Jackie there is always the sense of a flesh and blood man confronting the trials and triumphs of love – no matter how thrillingly theatrical his performance.

In, ‘That’s Why’ he slaloms through vocal twists and turns like the great French skier Jean Claude Killy. When he sings, ‘Don’t stop the music – let’s go! I always find myself shouting Go Jackie Go! Go Jackie Go!

On, ‘Doggin’ he proves that he was a master at any tempo. He conjures up the picture of the troubled lover illuminated in the sodium glare of the street corner lamp with a sea of darkness and heartbreak all around. Yet, there’s more than a touch of bravado and menace in his warning that he may just have to bring his errant lover down.

As for ‘Danny Boy’ just listen and marvel.

John Fogerty, Johnny Winter & James Burton hit that Riff! : Susie Q!

From the time fire first flickered in Mankind’s camp and imagination we have always been engaged in Quest.

And, engaged every bit as much, in stories about Quest.

The quest for food and warmth.

The quest for Love.

The quest for Knowledge.

The quest for Meaning.

The quest for Oblivion.

The quest for Freedom.

The quest for the North West Passage. The quest for the South Pole.

The quest to put a man on The Moon. A man on The Moon.

And, ever since the sound of the Electric Guitar thrillingly sliced through the air and ether the quest for The Riff!

The Riff that has other Guitar Players saying, ‘Damn, how come I didn’t get that one first?’

The Riff that snaps the neck back hard when it cuts through the fug of tobacco smoke and fog of alcohol as it roars out of the Jukebox speakers.

Now, as we know, where The Riff comes from is A Mystery.

Famously Keith Richard came up with, ‘Satisfaction’ in his sleep!

No one knows for certain how to hit that seam of guitar gold. Yet, we can all tell, as we shiver in recognition, when a true seam has been opened up.

And, there can be no doubt that in 1956 in the studios of KWRH Radio in Shreveport Louisiana a very rich seam was opened up!

Dale Hawkins wrote a song, ‘Susie Q’ that featured A Riff, a Righteous Riff, conjured out of the Swampy Southern air by a teenage wonder, James Burton, one of the most imitated and significant guitarists in the entire history of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Look Out! Look Out!

Riff coming through!

Dale was a Louisiana native and a cousin of Ronnie Hawkins. Bitten early by Louisiana style Blues and the burgeoning sounds of Rockabilly and Rock ‘n’ Roll he found that he could sing this new music with conviction adding some local hot sauce in his vocal style and songwriting to the mix.

History will show (at least in the Authorised Immortal Jukebox Version) that his greatest contribution to Rock ‘n’ Roll was the opportunity he gave to guitarists James Burton and later Roy Buchanan (My Babe) to strut their very considerable stuff.

James Burton (pictured below during his stint with Ricky Nelson) is a pioneer of Rock ‘n’ Roll Guitar style.

All across the globe neophyte axemen have grown boney fingers as they played over and over the definitive solos he cut with Dale, Ricky, Elvis himself and Emmylou Harris in a storied career.

Yet, almost none have equalled the terse economy and authority of James himself.

In Susie Q his guitar begins by flashing like a switchblade in the Louisiana moonlight before calling up peals of menacing thunder.

You’re always primarily attending to his playing even while admiring the foreboding and threat provided by Dale’s vocal and the rhythm section.

All these forces combined make Susie Q a stone cold classic.

Once Susie Q was picked up by Checker Records in Chicago in 1957 it stormed up the charts and became ubiquitous on Jukeboxes.

It became one of those songs that continues to inspire bands and guitarists in particular for generations after generation.

One of those it inspired, John Fogerty, was the lead guitarist, singer and songwriter for Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Susie Q was their first real hit record. They went on under John’s leadership to be arguably the greatest Singles Bands in the history of American Popular Music.

When John Fogerty plays guitar and sings he does it with raging commitment.

There’s a breathtaking boiling intensity to all his songs and in every note flowing from his Guitar.

He wasn’t born on the bayou and he didn’t live on Green River.

Riverboats didn’t pass his door.

John Fogerty from the moment he heard Stephen Foster songs as a child before being thunderstruck by the primal Rock ‘n’ Roll eruption in the mid 50s intuitively understood that there was a mythic power in this music.

And, in his soul and imagination, he lived within that mythology and knew, in the way a born artist does, that he could lock into that power and add treasures of his own to the mother lode.

Aided by brother Tom, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford he would indeed add volume after volume to the corpus of classic Americana.

No one in his generation had a better grasp of the visceral power of Rock ‘n’ Roll. And, as you listen to his take on Susie Q, it’s clear no one could match him for emulating that visceral power.

Our final date with Susie comes courtesy of Johnny Winter. Johnny with his trusty Gibson Firebird Guitars called up electric storms of sound every time he played.

Growing up in post war Beaumont Texas he immersed himself in The Blues while attending closely to the finger picking miracles of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis.

Johnny loved nothing more than to find a song or a Riff that he could really stretch out on. And, when he found one like Susie Q barns all across America began to combust and light up the night sky!

I confidently predict that there will never be a time when a Guitarist with a mean glint in his eye won’t hit that Susie Q Riff and think .. Now you’ll be true! Now you’ll be Mine! Oh Susie Q!

Notes:

I never got to see James Burton play with Elvis. But, I did see Emmylou Harris’ London debut back in 1975 and I remember the special ovation James received when introduced by Emmylou.

It seemed as if several generations of Guitar afficianados had assembled to watch, admire and applaud the master to the rafters.

Dale Hawkins, who died in 2010 aged 73, is a more considerable figure than his Chart listings suggest.

His early work is captured on the Ace Records collection, ‘Dale Hawkins, Rock ‘n’ Roll Tornado’.

His gifts as a songwriter and singer are particularly well reflected in the Albums, ‘Memphis & Tyler, Texas’ and ‘Back Down to Louisiana’.