The Swinging Blue Jeans : Merseybeat Kings – The Hippy Hippy Shake, You’re No Good

Some Other Guys 2 – British Beat Groups in the shadow of The Beatles

As the 1960s dawned winds of change were blowing not just across the colonies of the British Empire but also whistling through the great provincial cities of England.

A generation of young working class men, now that military conscription had been banished to history, no longer had to shudderingly look forward to years of endless spud peeling, square bashing and boot polishing.

Now, if they had the imagination, the will and the courage they could march to the beat of their own drum. And, if along with the drum they added two guitars and a bass they had a beat group!

If you’re looking for the great provincial city where the new call to arms was most resoundingly answered you have to sail down the River Mersey to Liverpool.

Liverpool was a great port city. And through the port along with the everyday trade goods came more exciting and exotic products that might well have been described as contraband by the colonels of musical good taste at the Palais de Dance and the BBC.

Liverpool sailors on the 1950s transatlantic liners left a Britain still painfully recovering from the financial and physical trauma of World War 2. They left a land where there was still rationing and where the landscape was scarred with bomb-sites.

Arriving in New York their eyes must have been dazzled by the cornucopia of delights advertised in shocking neon colours. Consumer goods that were the subject of near fetishistic lust back home could be picked up off the shelves and carried triumphantly home.

Cameras, sharp clothes and above all records. Records vibrating with power on gleaming vinyl with exotic labels from exotic cities like Memphis, New Orleans and Cincinnati.

Records that nobody else would have. Records that showed you were ahead of the pack. In the know. Records you would let your little brothers listen to but woe betide them if they dared to try and play them when you were out!

Of course these younger brothers, cousins, the kid next door, listened and marvelled and thought to themselves – maybe, just maybe we can form a group and make magic like that encoded in the discs spinning at 45rpm.

And, maybe, just maybe, the girls now studiously ignoring them would find them suddenly very attractive indeed!

So its perhaps not so surprising that by mid 1961 several hundred beat groups in Liverpool, with greater or lesser degrees of skill, were channelling Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and The Everly Brothers.

Sweat ran down the walls of The Cavern, The Mardi Gras and Downbeat clubs as groups and audiences buoyant with youthful energy created a, ‘Happening Scene’ which would outdo their wildest dreams and change the world when it transpired that one of these groups, The Beatles, happened to have the mixture of genius, talent and character that changes not just the cultural weather but the climate.

In February 1961 The Beatles were back from their transformative boot camp experience in Hamburg. They now proceeded to hone those hard earned musical chops on home turf.

Though they had played The Cavern in their days as the skiffle group The Quarrymen their first appearance as The Beatles there was as unannounced guests of a long established Merseyside group, The Swinging Blue Jeans, whose own series of early 60s hits have a charm and power of their own which we celebrate here today on The Jukebox.

We will kick off with their signature hit, ‘The Hippy Hippy Shake’ which must be a near perfect distillation of the Merseybeat sound.

Boom! The Bluejeans had picked the song up from a 1959 single cut by 17 year old Chan Romero (finding obscure US 45s to cover was an essential part of the Merseybeat group armoury). Chan’s version was a winning sashay which benefited from the musical prowess of Earl Palmer, Barney Kessel and Rene Hall.

What the Bluejeans brilliantly did was to up the tempo, turn up the volume and defy anyone listening not to find out how ecstatically they could dance for the two minutes or so the song lasted!

Their stunning attack must owe something to their experience in Hamburg when they were booed off stage for daring to imagine an audience of drunken sailors, strippers and would be existentialists would go for a jazz/skiffle combo still sporting a banjo in the rhythm section! Wisely they heeded John Lennon’s advice to drop the banjo and rock out for all they were worth.

For Goodness Sake! You just can’t resist the relentless drive they bring to the song. The blood must have fair sung in their veins as they played this one live. It raced to Number 2 on the UK charts for Christmas 1963 and was later a top 30 hit in the USA.

The Swinging Blue Jeans locked themselves into my fondest memory because I loved, ‘The Hippy Hippy Shake’ from the first moment I heard it and because they appeared on the very first, ‘Top Of The Pops’ TV show which became an unmissable part of my childhood and adolescence.

The line up that recorded The Bluejeans greatest sides was Ray Ennis on Rhythm Guitar and vocals, Les Braid on bass and keyboards, Ralph Ellis on lead guitar and Norman Kuhlke on drums.

They would ollow up the classic Hippy Hippy Shake with a frantic cover of, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ which lodged just outside the UK top 10 and the US top 40.

Their next hit, featured below, was a cannily chosen cover of a song written by Clint Ballard Jnr and most beautifully sung by Betty Everett, ‘You’re No Good’ This one was top 5 in the UK and just grazed the US top 100. The video clip stars one of my favourite actresses from the 1960s era – Rita Tushinghmam who was also emblematic of the arrival of working class talent in the arts (10 points to all who can tell me which film the clip is taken from)

You want moody? Now that’s moody! Even the most hardened Gauloise puffing Existentialists must have dropped the blank stare for a few minutes as they tuned their bruised souls into this one!

And,for many the lyric of bitter experience telling of a misplayed hand in the game of love must have struck a deep chord.

The Bluejeans last hurrah, as far as the charts were concerned, was a lovely take on the Bacharach/David Dionne Warwick classic, ‘Don’t make Me Over’ which almost made the UK top 30 in January 1966. There’s a tough guys show their tender side feel about this one that always makes me swoon.

I’m sure that many couples swooned together as they slow danced under the mirror ball as Don’t Make Me Over resounded over the dance floor.

The Swinging Blue Jeans have never retired though they have had a revolving door cast of members since their 60s heydays.

They lacked the potency of image and songwriting skills necessary for an extended career at the top. They were thus unable to build on their excellence as a Merseybeat group.

But, a fine Merseybeat group, as the tracks above surely demonstrate, was most assuredly something to be!

Notes:

There are a plethora of Swinging Blue Jeans compilations. My own, which has served me well, is, ‘The Swinging Blue Jeans at Abbey Road 1963-1967’ on EMI.

There is a possibly apocryphal story which I enjoy telling that at that first Top Of The Pops show a fight broke out between the Bluejeans and a scruffy London R&B Band called The Rolling Stones about ownership of a pen used to sign autographs!

The Bluejeans being an iconic Merseybeat band also made an appearance in a breakthrough for realism TV show about the Liverpool Police called, ‘Z Cars’ which was another staple of my youth.

Walk Away Renee : The lost love that haunts the heart

‘One fairer than my love! The all-seeing sun Nee’r saw her
match since first the world begun.’ (Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet)

‘Your name and mine inside a heart upon a wall
Still finds a way to haunt me though they’re so small’ (Michael Brown)

Some guys have all the luck. You know the type. They don’t shuffle and stumble. They stride, stroll and swagger through life. Golden apples and golden girls fall unbidden at their feet.

Most of us alternate between times when the tides of life seems to sweep us happily along and times when they treacherously turns against us. We carry on looking on in wonder at the guys who seem oblivious to those tides. Serenely they surf away from us into a golden sun.

And, some other guys just don’t seem made for these times. Fragile souls who retreat from the clashing, clangourous cacophony all around to the shelter of their rooms.

There in solitude and stillness they tune into tender melodies and celestial harmonies that heal their wounded hearts and near break our own when we are privileged to hear them.

From a veiled place deep inside the lonely tears and deep inside the hidden pain they spin glistening threads of gossamer music which surprisingly turn out to have a lasting tensile strength able to comfort and support us through the emotional crises that inevitably waylay us on our journey through the years.

The ultimate example here is the awesome genius of Brian Wilson. There will be much to say about the blessed Brian here later.

Today, we turn to a songwriter of striking originality, and singular achievement, the late Michael Brown, who in, ‘Walk Away Renee’ wrote a song whose incandescent beauty will never fade.

A song of haunting depth which, as we will see, calls out to be illuminated, imagined time after time by singers who find themselves gripped by the need to find within themselves the way to the heart of a masterpiece.

Let’s begin at the beginning. In 1965 Sixteen (16!) year old Michael Brown fell mythologically in love (as sensitive 16 year old’s will) with Renee Fladen who was unobtainable by virtue of her beauty which struck Michael dumb and the fact that she was the girlfriend of Tim Finn, the bass player in the group they both belonged to, ‘The Left Banke’.

Agonised and tormented Michael retreated to his room and communing with the Muses came up with a song which devastatingly yokes a lyric of heart sore adolescent angst to an endlessly enchanting melody set in a sophisticated and elegant arrangement.

An arrangement that features Brown’s spectral harpsichord, a string quartet helmed by his father, Harry Lookofsky, a distinguished classical and jazz violinist, and a melancholic, autumnal alto flute solo.

All of this underpinning a tender, introspective, emotionally truthful vocal from Steve Martin. This is a record of riveting gentleness which insinuates itself into the deepest chamber of your memory like the perfect sunset of your youth.

It’s not hard to hear the influences of the sun dappled Mamas and Papas and the pastoral, Choristers on a spree, sound of England’s The Zombies whose, ‘She’s Not There’ must surely have been on heavy rotation on Michael’s turntable.

Of course, like many, he will have spent untold hours beguiled by the melodic and harmonic genius of Brian Wilson though he will have been one of the very few able to turn admiration into true emulation.

Now when I was seventeen going on eighteen I would have told you that sixteen year olds could know nothing of love. And, when I was over the crest of 20, 30 and 40 I would have said the same.

Now that I have crested further summits I’m not so sure. Not so sure. Perhaps sixteen year olds know every bit as much about love as their seniors. Love is love is love and who dares to think they can truly sound the depths of another’s heart?

Michael Brown writing, ‘Walk Away Renee’ at 16 perfectly captured the sweet ache of young love and lost love. We are all eternally in his debt.

The Left Banke original was issued on the Smash label in July 1966 and ascended to Number 5 on the Billboard Chart. It became a touchstone of its times and and came to serve as the very definition of, ‘Baroque Pop’.

The special quality of the song was recognised at Motown and assigned to the ever reliable, Four Tops who recorded it for their 1967, ‘Reach Out’ album. Issued as a 45 in January 1968 it was top 20 in the US and top 5 in Canada, Ireland and the UK.

Here’s a wonderful example of how the collaborative power of the galaxy of talent at Motown could produce records that simply take your breathe away! So many elements of musical brilliance seamlessly integrated. Much of the credit must go to one of the greatest songwriting/production teams of the era – brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier.

They were able to draw on the resources of the stellar team of musicians at Motown to create a record which has subtle detail and immense emotional punch.

From the opening brass flourish we are aware that this is not a record you can turn away from. Benny Benjamin on the drums near matches Levi Stubbs vocal for dramatic effect (near matches for Levi at full throttle is surely unmatchable!).

There’s a delightful rhythm guitar part from Eddie Willis and little remarked upon but beautifully articulated backing vocals from one of Motown’s secret weapons, The Andantes.

In the instrumental break there’s a wonderful confection of softened brass and Woodwinds that shows the refined palette of the storied production team.

And then there’s the always in the pocket vocals of Lawrence Payton, Duke Fakir and Renaldo Benson supporting and encouraging lead singer Levi Stubbs.

Levi Stubbs! Levi Stubbs!

When it comes to describing the singing of Levi Stubbs even the word heroic is inadequate. Perhaps only by overhearing mighty Thor singing the warriors home to Valhalla could we find an apposite correlative for the majesty and power Levi brings to, ‘Walk Away Renee’.

This, in contrast to the swooningly affecting adolescent Left Banke original is a 100% proof adult version with Levi adding layers of inured pain and bruised authority to the song. It’s a wind down the windows and put the pedal to the floor performance that never fails to quicken the pulse.

The next take on Renee I’d like to feature comes from the mercurial RIckie Lee Jones. It’s a track from her arresting EP from 1983, ‘Girl at Her Volcano’ where you can also find alluring versions of, ‘My Funny Valentine’ and, ‘Under the Boardwalk’.

When she’s on form RIckie can take any song – one of her own or one from the classic repertoire – and through a combination of the bohemian off kilter charm of her vocals and piano entirely seduce us.

RIckie doesn’t come at the song head on. Rather, she shines a woozy light on its facets illuminating further beauties within. She takes us by the hand and leads us into a dream world where time is bent and stretched. Where past and present merge. A land where we would not be surprised to see the ghosts of past loves floating, just out of reach, before us.

There’s a touch of shamanistic ritual in Rickie’s version or searching for a literary reference you might call it magic realism. Either way it’s wholly Rickie Lee. The boldness of her imaginative invention is testament to her artistic prowess and a lovely tribute to Michael Brown’s great song.

Now for some blue collar New Jersey soul. No, not The Boss. Here’s a characteristically impassioned version by an artist you can always rely on to give his all to a song – Southside Johnny. I must admit to having punched the air many times when I’ve been to see Johnny in concert.

He has always had the gift of communing with his audience to engage them as conspirators in the enterprise of making a song yield up it’s emotional heart.

This version is the heartfelt confession of a man who’s been around the romantic block more than a few times and has the scars to prove it. But not a man who has given up on love or life.

Finally a lovely, lyrical lullaby version courtesy of Linda Ronstadt and Cajun Queen Ann Savoy. It can be found on their fine album, ‘Adieu False Heart’.

There is something of the polished parlour about this performance which glows in the mind the more you hear it (and I’m sure you’ll want to hear it often).

Walk Away Renee is a song you can’t forget. It speaks to you wherever you may find yourself in the deep woods of life.

You may recall it as you emerge, wet eyed and blinking after struggle, into sunny uplands or you may find yourself singing it softly, softly, as the rain beats down again on your weary eyes.

Few songs can make such a claim. God bless you Michael Brown.

Notes:

Michael Brown after Renee: The recorded legacy of The Left Banke was best captured on the 1982 compilation, ‘There’s Gonna Be a Storm: The Complete Recordings 1966-1969’ on the Mercury label. It includes their 2 albums, ‘Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina’ and,’Left Banke Too’ with an added handful of tracks. Sixteen of the 26 tracks were written by Michael Brown. It is a marvellous record.

On the strength of Renee and the wonderful, ‘Pretty Ballerina’ alone Michael Brown deserves entry into the top echelon of pop songwriters.

Two albums was all Michael managed with Left Banke before he fell out with his bandmates. His later work was with Montage (look out for, ‘She’s Alone’), Stories and The Beckies.

Michael died of heart disease in March 2015.

And Renee?

Renee Fladen-Kamm is now a distinguished singer and vocal coach often working with choirs specialising in medieval music.

More versions of Renee to listen to:

Billy Bragg

Cyndi Lauper

Marshall Crenshaw

Terry Reid

Jimmy Lafave

Elliot Smith

Buddy Miller

Bill Withers : American Hero – born on the 4th of July!

The great Bill Withers was born on July 4th in 1938.

He is a great master of American Song who has added significantly to that treasure trove.

As a tribute I am pleased to reblog a post from the very early days of The Jukebox which many of you will have missed.

 

‘A good man out of the treasure of his heart bringeth forth good things’ (Matthew)

‘Lean on me when you’re not strong and I’ll help you to carry on’ (BIll Withers)

Bill Withers stuttered painfully as a boy and young man which meant he didn’t say much.  What he did do was listen carefully and thoughtfully to the people around him in his family and his community. 

Bill was  born and brought up in poor blue collar West Virginia mining communities where every day was a struggle with the constant background threat of injury and disaster.

In such communities loyalty, mutual reliance  and co-operation were not painted storybook virtues but living realities.   People worked with and for each other so that everyones burden would be a little lighter and thus more bearable. 

Bill was and is a proud working man who knows the labourer is worthy of his hire and worth listening to.

After leaving home at 17 Bill spent 9 years in the US Navy where once again you learned that if you wanted your back covered you had to perform the same service for your comrade – buddy or not.  Your life literally was often in your brother’s hands.

He also listened with intent and attention to the songs he heard in church and on the radio. His imagination became infused with the enduring resorative grace of gospel, the energising pulse of rhythm and blues and the sweet balm of soul music. 

Bill was storing wisdom and treasure in his heart and when the stuttering stopped his voice came through loud and clear. 

Bill Withers would draw from a deep well of resources to write and perform songs that would always be fresh and relevant because they addressed fundamental questions about how our lives were and should be lived.

Which is to say that in many senses Bill Wither’s vocation combined that of a songwriter and singer with that of a preacher ministering to his community through the uplifting medium of music. 

The prolific country songwriter Harlan Howard defined the essence of a great song as three chords and the truth and that’s exactly what Bill Withers offers us in his wonderfully vivid songbook.

Lean on Me is a simple song that tells an eternal truth.   We all have pain, we all have sorrow: we all need someone to lean on.  It opens with plain repeated piano stabs calling the listener to attention – listen up I got something to say! 

The melody and rhythm echo the tradition of a gospel service: state your theme, tell your story through examples we can all recognise from our daily lives then call on the audience to respond. 

Invite your listeners to testify that the seemingly unbearable can be borne if you call out to your brother or if your sister calls out to you – ‘I’ll help you carry on’.

Show that we can all be the leaning post for our brother or sister in need .. ‘I’m just right up the road, I’ll share your load if you just call me.’ 

For, as long as the moon lasts we are  all bound to stumble and fall in this life – it’s just a question of who falls when and how far and whether a helping hand and load bearing shoulder will be at hand to help you up and lead you on. 

The foolishly proud always think they can stand up alone while the wise now that with help we can all make it through today’s troubles to tomorrow.

Lean on me acknowledges, indeed celebrates our weakness and vulnerability but also our strength.  We are supplicants but we are also enablers, uplifters and  restorers. 

Yes, life will batter us and nobody walks in the sunshine all through their life but if we are honest, admit to our difficulties and failings and call for help we can be amazed that others are ready to come to our aid. Family, fraternity and faith in each other will get us through.

Of course, where a song is concerned having good intentions and a good moral to impart does not mean that the song will live. And, if a song does not live, get up and walk by itself on its own merits, then you won’t capture your audience, won’t get them to listen once – let alone sing along and punch that number on the jukebox. 

Lean on Me passes this test easily: it’s a wonderful up and walking living song!

First and foremost Bill Wither’s warm, supple and alluring voice commands your attention and wins your allegiance – you want to listen to what this man has to say.  This is the voice of a strong, mature man with hard miles over rough ground on the clock. 

Yet, it’s the voice of an optimistic man ready to roll up his sleeves and face unafraid whatever challenges the next day will bring.  So, when Bill Withers sings you listen and when he calls out for you to respond you find that before you’ve realised it you’re singing :

‘We all need someone to lean on’

The song proceeds at a stately pace like a great powerful train allowing lolly gagging passengers plenty of time to get on board – confident they are in safe hands and will arrive at the right destination at the appointed time – the driver clearly knows what he’s doing.

As,’Lean on Me’ develops in come the most primal musical accompaniment of all – handclaps.  These are organically perfect in context: a song addressing our common humanity using the, ‘instrument’ even the most musically illiterate can at least assay when enthused. 

On record Bill uses the handclap as a propulsive encourager of the spirit of the song, ‘Come on! This way’.  In concert it is unimaginable that the bands handclaps aren’t swelled by all of those in the audience.  By now everybody is on board the train and seeing themselves as one body – whatever seat they happen to be in.

As the song moves forward the strings come in to emphasise the swelling strength that acknowledged common vulnerability can unlock – ‘Call on me brother’ and we will get through, we will get through – together. 

This is a song, without doubt as time has proven, an anthem, that proclaims our individuality and our community membership should not be warring forces but aspects of a natural, nurturing whole.  That’s what Bill and, ‘Lean on Me’ are – nurture for our humanity.

The greatest ever political leader once put it this way a century or so before Bill, ‘We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.’. That is how we will find the better angels of our nature.

Abraham Lincoln said that. Or to put it another way:

‘You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand

We all need someone to lean on.’

Bill Withers said that.  I doubt that popular music has ever had a truer or more passionate guide to our better angels than Bill Withers.

 

Notes, Comments and further listening:

Lean on Me was written and produced by Bill Withers and recorded in 1972.

The musicians featured were James Gadson on drums, Ray Jackson on keyboards, Benorce Blackman on guitar and Melvin Dunlap on bass.

Lean on Me was a Number One record on both the R&B chart and the Hot 100 Billboard US charts.

Bill Wither’s catalogue is filled with powerful melodic songs and taut performances.  His first two albums, ‘Just as I Am’ and ‘Still Bill’ are essential components of any record collection. Songs like the warm, witty and wise ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and the gloriously evocative and consoling, ‘Aint No Sunshine’ are undeniable classics.

‘Bill Withers at Carnegie Hall’ is among the very greatest live records with superlative singing and musicianship responding to an audience that is thrilled to celebrate in his company.

Sony have recently reissued the complete Bill Withers catalogue which is widely available at a ridiculously cheap price given the eternity shale it contains.

On the bus with The Beatles Chris Montez – Let’s Dance!

‘Dance when you are broken open. Dance if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re absolutely free.’ (Rumi)

‘We should consider everyday lost when we have not danced at least once’ (Neitzsche)

‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul’ (Martha Graham)

‘Hey baby won’t you take a chance! Say that you’ll let me have this dance,
Well let’s dance! Let’s dance!’ (Sung by Chris Montez, written by Jim Lee)

Names are wonderful things. I find few subjects so fascinating as Nomenclature and Taxonomy.

I know, I know; not something you often hear as an opening gambit at a party but as Leslie Gore might have said, ‘It’s my party and I’ll be obscure if I want to!

And, wouldn’t you know – the names of dances offer a rich seam of delight for an errant academic like myself. And, that’s before they yield up their myriad physical, social, emotional and spiritual delights.

There are undoubtedly impressive theses to be written and many, many, golden memories to be stirred recalling nights spent in glorious company lost in:-

The Jitterbug. The Charleston, The Tango, The Merengue, The Mambo (something for all you Mamboniks on The Jukebox later in the year), The Rumba and The Cha-Cha-Cha.

Many lives and lovers altered forever by blessed hours lost in:-

The Hully Gully, The Hustle, The Jerk, The Macarena, The Pony, The Stroll, The Madison, The Frug and The Shake. Not forgetting The Bump, The Funky Chicken, The Locomotion, The Hitchhike and (my favourite) The Watusi!

You want to get happy? Dance! Dance! Dance!

Let’s Dance! The Twist, The Stomp or The Mashed Potato, any old dance that you want to do. But, Baby, Baby, Baby don’t leave me all alone on the floor – Let’s Dance! Let’s Dance!

Now if that don’t just THRILL your very soul I can only conclude that you must have done a deal with Ol’ Mephistopheles years and years ago (and I have to tell you he never cuts a square deal).

Chris Montez’s 1962 Let’s Dance is another killer cut from LA’s Gold Star Studio. And, yet another debut single that was an immediate classic.

From the opening count off- 1. 2, .. 1, 2, 3! and the materialisation of the thunderous up and at ’em boys, don’t you dare get in our way drums (courtesy of Jesse Sailes) we’re plunged head, heart and hot feet into a liberating, stimulating, heart lifting, heartbeat accelerating musical journey to pop paradise.

Once Chris starts to sing with straight off the street Chicano cool and Ray Johnson hits his immortal groove on the Organ all resistance is useless!

Unless you’re in a coma you’ll spend the next two minutes or so in abandoned bliss. As Chris says, (and I second that emotion) …. Ooh, oh, Yeh!

Of course it was a top 5 smash in the US and in Britain selling over a million copies and earning a Gold Disc. Indeed it hit the top 5 for a second time in Britain when rereleased in 1973 sending my own teenage endorphins into overdrive.

It was the delirious drive of the organ that did it for me. Wave after wave of delight washing over me until I felt all my senses were drenched and part of me wished that I would never come up for air.

Dancing to the song it felt like you were being granted access to some secret realm of weightless joy – soaring into a sensual stratosphere.

In the US Chris got to tour with greats like Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson. In 1963 he toured Britain with Tommy ‘Dizzy’ Roe and found, on the bottom of the bill, a promising beat combo with the odd name of, ‘The Beatles’ that had a lot of energy, an encyclopaedic knowledge of Rock ‘n’ Roll and an ability to stir the girls in the audience to something near frenzy. They seemed like good guys and he wondered if they might ever make it big in America!

Chris, like his early idol Ritchie Valens was Chicano – born Ezekiel Christopher Montanez on January 17 1943 in Hawthorne California (also the home of the blessed Brain Wilson of The Beach Boys).

In his youth Chris absorbed the ranchera singing style as well as the powerfully affecting sounds of Doo-Wop, R&B and the uptown ballads of The Drifters.

Given his chance at recording by Monogram Chris delivered two major hits with, ‘Let’s Dance’ and the follow up, ‘Some Kind of Fun’. Everything should have been hunky dory except that, as so often in those times, he got a lot of fame but this did not translate into a fat bank balance!

Disillusioned, Chris resolved to go to college and study music rather than record for glory alone. His next appearance on record came through Herb Alpert, co-founder of A&M records.

Herb was no Rock ‘n’ Roller but he was a very savvy music business figure who heard a caressing, whispy tone to Chris’ voice which he believed would suit a different type of song – dreamy ballads which would appeal across the generations.

Herb picked up, ‘Call Me’ a winning ballad from Petula Clark (penned by Tony Hatch who also wrote Downtown) and sensed that it would suit Chris and reestablish his career while adding a new stylistic dimension.

The seasoned professionals behind Chris created a come hither, menthol mood, underpinning Chris’ airy vocal. The record buying public got on board and by the end of 1965 Chris was back in the higher echelons of the Billboard charts.

The title track of Chris’ debut LP for A&M was a song that had been around for more than two decades, ‘The More I See You’ by the classic American Songbook team of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon.

There had already been fine versions by Chet Baker, Nat Cole and Bobby Darrin before Chris layer down his take on the song.

What he produced was an unexpected easy listening classic. A warm summer breeze sound that charmingly swirled around your mind and set the body aglow. Many couples locked eyes and limbs as they danced to, ‘The More I See You’.

It’s the kind of song that people fall in love to. The kind of song that couples adopt as, ‘Their Song’.

A top 20 hit ensued and the song, despite the stature of many of the artists who had previously recorded it, is now indelibly associated with Chris Montez.

This was the high water mark of Chris’ career which continues to this day. Anytime you get a chance to see him perform you can be sure of a fine show which features Chicano rock, Spanish balladeering and easy listening charm.

They say that no one on their death bed says, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work’. Don’t let yourself end up thinking, ‘I really wished I’d danced more’.

Dance liberates and heals. It is the hidden language of the soul.

Start today by taking the floor wherever you are with your nearest and dearest. Crank up, ‘Let’s Dance’ and, ‘The More I See You’ and let your body go!

You won’t regret it and you’ll want to say thanks to Chris Montez.

Van Morrison – Sometimes We Cry

‘There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love’ (Washington Irving)

‘Oh, I awoke in anger, so alone and terrified,
I put my fingers to the glass,
And bowed my head and cried’ (Bob Dylan – I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine)

Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we don’t know why. Sometimes (though we are loath to admit it) we know exactly why.

Sometimes we know we are about to cry. Sometimes the hot tears overwhelm us in an instant.

Sometimes we cry when we read, or write, a tear stained letter.

Sometimes we cry when the hearse carries our loved one away.

We knew that would happen one day, even thought ourselves prepared for it, yet we learn that no one is ever truly prepared for such an emotional earthquake.

Sometimes when we unexpectedly catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror we find ourselves surprised by tears of shame and regret.

Sometimes we cry tears of pure joy – remember the day your child was born? The day you got married?

The day that dream that you feared would never be more than a dream became miraculously true!

Sometimes we cry because with sickening finality we know that dream is over, over.

Sometimes we cry not believing just how stupid, stupid, pluperfectedly stupid we have been.

Sometimes we simply cry and cry and cry and somehow having cried our hearts out we feel a little better.

Sometimes we need a great singer to to sing about the tears in things and we feel a whole lot better.

Call for (Sir) George Ivan Morrison!

Ritchie Valens – Soy Capitan, Soy Capitan!

‘[Ritchie Valens] was a quiet, underrated yet enormously influential member of the handful of folk visionaries who almost single-handedly created rock and roll in the Fifties’ (Lester Bangs)

‘I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.’ (St John’s Gospel)

February 2 1959.

The coin rose into the Iowa night air – spinning, spinning, spinning.

Tommy Allsup and 17 year old Ritchie Valens watched it carefully wondering which way it would land and who would have the good luck to exchange freezing hours on the ancient, ‘Winter Dance Party’ tour bus for a seat on a plane with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.

Before they knew it they’d be in the warmth of Fargo Airport and arrive at their next gig in Moorehead without having to worry about frostbite.

The coin was caught and Ritchie, the victor, smiled. Then, round about midnight the Beechcroft Bonanza took off with 21 year old pilot Roger Petersen at the controls.

But February 3rd was barely born before Petersen, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens lay dead on a frozen field just outside of Clear Lake. February 3rd 1959 – the day the music died.

On that icy bus Ritchie must have often dreamed of his California hometown. Sure, Pacioma was dusty, down at heel, downright dirty but, but, it was warm!

Warm sun, warm air, warm water, alive with the comforting warmth of family life.

Ritchie, of Mexican heritage, was born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13 1941 (11 days before Bob Dylan in far away Minnesota).

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley he was exposed to and influenced by a wide variety of musical styles including Mariachi, Flamenco, R&B and Jump Blues. He had a special affection for cowboy crooners and always listened out for the guitar sound of each genre.

In his imagination and his guitar licks he was developing a striking sound which would echo and add to the history he had inherited.

Things happened very fast for Ritchie.

He was working, really working, the days allotted to him.

Before his mid teens he was a proficient guitarist and a handy drummer. By October 1957 he was a member of a local band, The Silhouettes, and honing his performance skills at Valley venues.

He was known by some as the, ‘Little Richard of the Valley’ and by the middle of the following year he had come to the attention of wannabe music mogul, Bob Keane.

Impressed by Ritchie’s quietly charismatic personality, his ability to command an audience and his guitar fluency Keane signed him to his new Del-Fi label soon after his 17th birthday in May 1958.

Ritchie made some demos at Keane’s two track home studio before he was ushered into 652 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles – the home of Gold Star Studios which had superior recording technology including state of the art echo chambers courtesy of owner/founders David Gold and Stan Ross.

Gold Star would become famed in the 1960s for epochal sides produced by the divergent geniuses of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson.

What Gold Star already had when Ritchie arrived in July 1958 was a team of superbly accomplished, committed and flexible musicians who could turbo charge any song they played on.

Ritchie was very fortunate to have nonpareil drummer Earl Palmer, pianist Ernie Freeman and doubling guitar/bassists Carol Kaye and Rene Hall lending their very considerable talents to his material.

The records Ritchie made at Gold Star are a very potent combination of the charming, deeply affecting, visions of a sweet 17 years old who was a hell of a guitar player with the dynamic drive of top class studio professionals.

What glorious, explosive, life enhancing, last a lifetime and more, records they were!

So, let’s drop the needle on Ritchie’s appropriately named debut single, ‘Come On, Let’s Go’ and listen as he and the band take off for the winning line like a nuclear powered dragster!

As soon as, ‘Come On, Let’s Go!’ revs up you know you’re not going to be any kind of wallflower at this dance.

No, you’re going to slip, slide and spin right to the centre of the hardwood floor and you know, come on, that you won’t be on your own for long.

The Darling you’ve been dreaming of is going to be there right opposite you with eyes only for you. And, as the rushing, rippling guitar flows all around the two of you will slip and slide and spin in perfect harmony. Just like in your dreams.

Everyone will say – ‘Don’t they make a great couple’.

But you won’t need to be told. You’ll be in your own cocoon of rhapsody and even if the speakers failed now it wouldn’t matter – because you’re together, together, and the rhythm is pounding through your heart.

You don’t have to think about how the dance goes .. The two of you are the Dance. And, you wish it would never, ever end. And, in some part of your being that Dance never will end.

And, anytime you need to recreate that feeling all you have to do is whisper your mantra to yourself, ‘Come on, Let’s Go!’

The success of Come On, a summer Billboard top 50 hit and eventual half a million selling single, made the decision to leave high school and become a full time professional musician a no brainer.

Before his untimely death Ritchie would appear twice on Dick Clark’s Bandstand, take part in Alan Freed’s NYC Christmas Jubilee extravaganza and feature in the Rock ‘n’ Roll movie, ‘Go! Johnny Go!’ as well as playing local gigs, join the ill fated Winter Dance Party tour and record two albums worth of songs at Gold Star.

He was working with a true spirit and a generous heart the days allotted to him.

This spirit and generosity is captured for all eternity in the two sides of his second single, recorded in October 1958, the lovely paen to teenage amour, ‘Donna’ and the electrifying, you’re never the same after you’ve heard it for the first time, can’t wait to hear it again and again, ‘La Bamba’.

Now when discussing La Bamba I could put on my oversize musicologist’s hat and wax in a scholarly fashion about Vera Cruz and folkloric traditions. But as soon as you hear the throaty roar of the opening guitar riff none of us is going to be bothered with that!

No. We’re going to be delirious with delight as Ritchie and the Band rattle through the song leaving all the doors and windows of our imagination blown wide open.

Guitar buffs will find a lifetime’s inspiration in the ensemble passages and the venomous rattlesnake solo (just ask Jimmy Page and Robert Quine).

Obviously the vast majority of people listening to the song will have next to no idea about the meaning of the lyric. Yet, all of us who are fluent in the Esperanto of Rock ‘n’ Roll will understand immediately that it’s a celebration of life.

I love the way Ritchie can’t help but burst into laughter at the sheer blast of being in the studio laying down what they must all have recognised was a classic.

Our understanding of La Bamba is surely most truly expressed in abandoned dancing that blissfully banishes all the idle traffic littering our everyday mind.

La Bamba means nothing more and nothing less than love and life and freedom.

Cue it up again. It’s mighty medicine for anything that’s ailing you!

Ritchie Valens and Donna Ludwig were born on opposite sides of the racial, cultural and financial tracks. No way they could be a couple (especially if Mr Ludwig had any say in the matter) but time has told us time after time that love laughs at impossibility. Love can navigate through seemingly impenetrable barriers.

And, anyone listening to the artless charm of, ‘Donna’ can’t help but be moved at its primary colour evocation of what it means to be young and in love.

Its swooning tempo and lyrical guitar remind us (if we need reminding) of those days in our youth when our hearts beat faster just at the mention of our beloved’s name.

Perhaps you sang that name to yourself under your breath (for in some sense it was a secret you were hugging to yourself) as you walked home after the dance or as you sat on the bus on your way to school. People must have wondered what you were smiling at so radiantly.

Of course it’s not something you can ever really explain – you have to live it to know the sweetness of that feeling. What you could do for anyone who really wanted to know was play them, ‘Donna’ and say – well I guess it feels just like this!

Ritchie Valens lived for only Seventeen years. The Night came for him – as it will come for us all.

Yet the days he had were enough for him to record two rock ‘n’ roll classics and ensure himself legendary status among fellow musicians and fans of the music he loved.

Soy capitan Ritchie. Soy Capitan.

Notes:

Indicative of my love of Ritchie Valens’ music is my ownership of two CD sets summing up his short career. Both, ‘The Ritchie Valens Story’ on Rhino and, ‘Come On, Let’s Go!’ on Del Fi will provide deep draughts of joy.

The movie, ‘La Bamba’ featuring Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie is a thoroughly enjoyable Hollywood product with musical heft provided by the always excellent Los Lobos.

There is a memorial monument to Ritchie, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper north of Clear Lake which is among the pilgrimage sites I plan to visit in the USA.

John Sebastian – Magic and The Muses

When you’re hot you’re hot.

Sportsmen talk about being, ‘In the Zone’. A space and time where the reflexes are sharp and the mind is calm and concentrated.

A space and time where everything seems to happen in blissful slow motion as they focus absolutely on the task at hand.

All the endless hours spent training and acquiring expertise are now rewarded in winning performances where no thought is given to technique because it has been completely absorbed into their being.

They see what they have to do and do it oblivious of any distraction using the minimum effort necessary.

And, when you’re in the Zone you can accomplish extraordinary things. You can set records and ascend to the status of a legend.

Think of Joe DiMaggio’s scarcely believable 56 game hitting streak for the New York Yankees which began on May 15 and ran through to July 17 of 1941. Whatever the opposing Pitchers served up (four of them future Hall of Fame members) Joltin’ Joe saw the ball big and clear and his bat did the rest.

When you’re hot you’re hot.

Think of the imperious Edwin Moses a double Olympic Gold Medallist in the 400 metre hurdles who won 122 consecutive races between 1977 and 1987, four times breaking the world record.

You could have set the hurdles on fire – Ed would have serenely taken that in perfect stride and still broken the tape in first place.

When you’re hot you’re hot.

No one has ever found a guaranteed formula for entering the Zone and no one has ever found a guaranteed formula for staying in the Zone.

What matters is what you achieve in the Zone for once you’re out of the Zone no amount of effort, alchemy or voodoo incantation can carry you back.

In the years 1965, 1966 and 1967 John Sebastian, leading the Lovin’ Spoonful, was hot. Smokin’ HOT. He was in the dead centre of the songwriting, singing and recording Zone and like a musical Merlin magic flashed from his fingers.

For that blessed period there can be no doubt that there was magic in him and magic in the music.

And, listening I dare you not to believe in the magic of rock and roll, not to believe in the magic that can set you free!

Zing! Zing! Zing! Go the strings of my heart!

Do You Believe in Magic, a top 10 hit in August 1965, announced John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful as supreme messengers of Joy.

Now whether you call, ‘Magic’ folk music, jug band music or rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t matter. For its all of those and more. It’s a technicolor head spinning fairground ride through a starlit New York night.

It’s the kind of song you flat out fall in love with. It’s the kind of song that plays in your head as you fall in love.

As your heart salmon leaps along with the ecstatic guitar licks and rousing vocals you want, need, to tell a stranger about the magic of rock ‘n’ roll.

Play that stranger this song and voila! they’ll become zealous believers dancing till morning and arranging to meet up for more magic tomorrow night.

I find four or five plays in row just about right for this classic.

John Sebastian had the rhythm and tempo of New York days and nights flowing through his veins. He was the son of a musician father and writer mother whose Greenwich Village home became a home from home for artists like Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Lightning Hopkins when they came to play in the Big Apple.

Young John soaked all these influences up and listened hard to the radio picking up on the rhythmic attack and irresistible charm of the music coming out of Detroit and Liverpool.

He added his New York native sensibility and in the irresistible, always going to be a Number 1 record, Summer in the City’ brilliantly and concisely evoked the urban landscape of honking cars, ear blasting jackhammers, street stickball, concrete stoops, echoing air shafts, clanging fire escapes and refuge rooftops.

If there’s a better description of baking summer city streets than, ‘Hotter than a match head’ please let me know.

Sebastian (collaborating here with his brother Mark and Spoonful bassist Steve Boone) summons up the deadening heat of the gritty New York days but knows these are always survivable because of the promise of the cool night when, work done and dusted down from for another day, it’s a different city.

A different city where you want to find a girl and dance, dance, dance until the moonlit still of the night becomes the magical violet hued light of dawn.

A different city where desperate dreams of the strength sapping day become shining night time life transforming realities.

In the summer in the city, the great city, dreams can and do come true.

Most great rock ‘n’ roll love songs concern themselves with the comet like rush of new found love and lust or the gut wrenching aftermath of love lost and betrayed.

It is rare to find a songwriter who can write with captivating tender conviction about the deep but simple pleasures of mature heart and soul nurturing love.

There may be no better example of such a song than John Sebastian’s romantic masterpiece, ‘Darling Be Home Soon’.

Those of lucky enough to have found a true heart’s companion will recognise immediately the deep truth of, ‘I’ve been waiting since I toddled for the great relief of having you to talk to’.

Don’t matter what nobody says all of us are searching for, longing for, the home where our hearts can beat in time with another who has found their home too.

There is a lovely breathy intimacy in Sebastian’s vocal and a sense of sure, surging oceanic feeling in the instrumental accompaniment which always brings glistening tears to my eyes each time I rediscover its enchantment and realise you can, and should settle for nothing less, than to shoot the moon.

And, as far as pop songwriting goes from 1965 through 1967 John Sebastian was practically in orbit round the moon as Euterpe and Terpsichore the Muses of Song, Lyric Poetry and Dance took up residence on his shoulder.

While they rested there wonderful songs filled with emotional insight and droll humour flowed like a river in spate from his pen.

I guarantee that your day will be better if you listen to, ‘Rain on the Roof’, ‘You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice’, Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind’, ‘Darling Companion’, ‘Daydream’, ‘You’re A Big Boy Now’ and ‘Didn’t Want To Have To Do It’.

Its a roster of songs that puts Sebastian squarely in the premier league of 60s songwriters – up there with Smokey Robinson, Carol King and Ray Davies.

For a last example of his pop wizardry I’m going to leave you with his, guaranteed to give you a mile wide grin, backporch pickin’ and a grinnin’, tribute to the expertise of the great musicians below the Mason-Dixon line – Nashville Cats.

The effortless flow and folk poetry of the song never fails to charm. You want to know how to describe the best Bluegrass playing? How about, ‘Clean as country water and wild as mountain dew’.

You want to describe how magnificently fluent those Southern boys are when they pick? You won’t beat, ‘They can pick more notes than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill.’

Now we have to say that John Sebastian’s tenure in The Zone ended in 1968 when The Loving Spoonful effectively broke up. As a solo artist John Sebastian, apart from, ‘Welcome Back’ has never approached the glories of his heyday.

He has written warm and witty songs and performed them on record and on stage with winning charm. He seems to me like an Olympic Champion who knows that he will never again take the Gold but who still takes part for sheer pleasure.

Euterpe and Terpischore have moved on. The records happily remain.

Very few songwriters have ever bottled and gifted us as much joy as John Sebastian.

In in his golden period he produced a veritable champagne fountain of songs which can never fail to skyrocket our spirits.

Believe in Magic!

Notes;

Any Spoonful collection is stuffed with joy. I have and regularly play Rhino Records Anthology which you may still be able to track down.

In addition to his work with Spoonful John Sebastian aided no doubt by his sunny nature was a frequent collaborator with musicians like Fred Neil, Bob Dylan and Crosby Stills and Nash.