Guitar Instrumentals a Go Go!

Every decent Jukebox ought to have several fine instrumentals on offer. The golden age of popular music, the 1920s to the 1970s, glittered with thrilling and moody instrumentals that blasted from car and transistor radios and the neon lit jukeboxes.

Most of tne great instrumental hits hold you from the first notes and then take you on a dizzy aural ride before depositing you breathless as the last note sounds.

I have always loved guitar instrumentals. There’s something elemental about those rousing riffs that locks deep into your memory and your musical heart. The guitar instrumental can evoke a panoply of moods and tones from slashing attack to daydream lullabies.

The effective power of an instrumental is not necessarily related to instrumental virtuosity – its more something to do with familiarity and surprise. Every time someone comes up with a winning riff you feel as if you’re recognising, recalling, something you’ve always known and yet you are charmed and surprised by its newly minted freshness. Simple really!

In a recent post I let you in on my fantasy off hosting a late night radio show and told you I already had the theme picked out. Well to kick of this instrumental fiesta here’s the one and only Link Wray with, ‘Turnpike USA’.

Can’t you just imagine setting cruise control, winding the windows down and driving into the setting or rising sun listening to this one?

Link Wray was a part Shawnee, power chording guitar hero if there ever was one! He was a master of distortion and of straight for the throat drive and attack. His records demonstrate the awesome power of electric energy being restrained then unleashed.

They will never go out of style and you can bet someone right now is strapping on a guitar thinking they can match Link. Very few of them will succeed but they’ll have a heap of fun trying!

Next up a guitar player so good and influential that a whole style, ‘Travis Pickin” is named in his honour. I refer to the mesmerising maestro of guitar picking from Muhlenberg County Kentucky, Merle Travis. Merle came out of and developed the multi-racial finger picking guitar styles of coal rich Western Kentucky.

His guitar playing miraculously melds elements of ragtime, jazz, hillbilly boogie, the blues and western swing. Which is to say that Merle listened with wide open ears to all the music pouring out of the local radio stations and figured out how to take the elements of style needed for the particular tune he was ready to play (or write). He could seamlessly switch from finger picking to flat picking like a musical conjurerer.

All this was done with charming relaxed authority. Sure, Merle wasn’t above a little showing off but generally his virtuoso skills were part of a musical whole not an end in themselves.

Perhaps this was because Merle was a brilliant songwriter as well as a supreme guitar stylist. After all, this is the man who wrote, ‘Sixteen Tons’ and ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ – songs that resound down the ages.

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

My next choice is from a musician, Johnny Jenkins, who is only well known to music scholars especially those devotees like myself of the home of deep southern soul the Stax/Volt label. This track appears on Volume 4 of the 9 CD, ‘Complete Singles’ set.

I consider possession of that collection of eternity shale to be the mark of a civilised person who would also have the 1911 Brittanica safely shelved along with the complete works of P G Woodhouse and Wild Bill Shakespeare.

Johnny was a left handed blues based player whose most important contribution to musical history, apart from the track in question here, is that he employed the young Otis Redding as his driver. And, one epochal day in 1962, allowed him to use up 40 minutes of remaining studio time to see what he could come up with.

Those blessed minutes yielded the stupendous ballad, ‘These Arms Of Mine’ and the rest as they say is, History!

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

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Finally we may all need cooling down now so to sign off I’ll leave you with a tune that seems to contain the midnight breeze, the lapping of waves on the Atlantic shore and the blessed breath of your baby child.

Surely you’ve guessed I’m introducing the immortal, ‘Sleep Walk’ by the Farina Brothers from Brooklyn New York – known to you and me and the Billboard Charts as Santo and Johnny.

In 1959 this climbed all the way to the top of the chart and it’s still regularly played when anyone wants to look at the stars and dream of a better day tomorrow. The boys greatest popularity came later in Mexico and Italy where they appreciate lyrical playing.

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

Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams & Rosetta Tharpe : Swingin’ Sisters !

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

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

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

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

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

Raise the roof Sister, raise the roof!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Holidays!

John Lennon, Lauren Bacall & Otis : You Know How To Whistle Don’t You?

‘… You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow.’

Spoken by Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart in the 1944 film classic, ‘To Have and Have Not’ these words were delivered with an alluring yet cool erotic charge in Bacall’s wonderfully husky and earthy vocal tones. There isn’t a man alive hearing those words who didn’t immediately start practicing that whistle!

Just blow. What could be simpler? After all what is a whistle but a clear high pitched sound created by forcing your breath through a small opening between your partly closed lips and/or your teeth?

Yet, the humble whistle which must surely have been the earliest form of musical communication practiced by mankind along with the handclap can like all forms of human language be freighted and graced with multiple meanings.

There’s, as above, the whistle of erotic appreciation and invitation. There’s the whistle of almost subconscious reassurance when you summon that favourite tune (in my case Buddy Holly’s Everyday) as you are about to start or contemplate an especially difficult challenge or task. A whistle can also be an urgent signal – look out! Look out! As heard in a thousand war films as an opposing soldier looms into sight of the brave resistance band.

In sport the whistle is generally heard as the shrill admonishing marker of foul play – stop that now! Again, the whistle can be your charm against the creeping dread we feel when confronted by our mortality – we whistle past the graveyard to keep our spirits up and those of the clutching underworld away.

When you’re absolutely sure that no one can find any fault with the work you’ve completed you can say with studied calm, ‘Take a look – you’ll see its all clean as a whistle!’ Of course, if you find as an honest person that corruption is all around you have a duty to become a Whistle Blower to bring the forces of justice and retribution hurrying down to halt and clean up that corruption. If you don’t do that and just mutter about your outrage to yourself what are you doing but whistling in the wind!

Oh yes, the modest yet heartfelt whistle can communicate remarkably complex and subtle messages depending on the situations and characters of the whistler and the whistled to. Ruminating on the subject has for a music fanatic like me inevitably called to mind the use of whistling in numerous songs across many genres of popular music. So many indeed that I have painfully limited myself to only four examples from the score or so that immediately came to mind.

Let’s start with the use of the whistle from a man, John Lennon, who had no difficulty with finding words but who did have problems with acknowledging and dealing with the powerful, sometimes deliberately buried emotions swirling around his deep dramatic heart and soul. I can’t help hearing the whistle here in, ‘Jealous Guy’ as the sound of a man who has experienced too much and made too many mistakes reaching beyond words for the blessing and balm of forgiveness as much by himself as the lover he has wronged. We may feel, sometimes, that we have the world at our feet yet we know that there will always be a part of us, shivering inside, that needs comfort and care. Roll on John.

Next a record, ‘Handy Man’ by Jimmy Jones, that the teenage John Lennon would almost certainly have heard as he and Paul McCartney began to fashion songs and dreams of their own in Liverpool before setting out to conquer Hamburg and the known world.

Jimmy Jones, who possessed a fine high tenor voice, really only had two hits (the other being the charming and witty, ‘Good Timing’) but they were songs that still have an emotional heft beyond their undoubted power as vessels of nostalgia for the neon lit diner days of the 1950s. The whistling here is provided by a genuine giant of popular music, Otis Blackwell, who composed jukeboxfulls of fine songs including classics like, ‘Fever’, ‘Don’t be Cruel’ and, ‘Great Balls of Fire’.

In 1966 John Sebastian the leader of The Lovin’ Spoonful was at the top of his very considerable game. He had talent oozing from his fingertips and a sunny disposition that promised that the world was a wonderful playground where adventures a plenty were just waiting to be discovered. He manged to be both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and a songwriter of considerable range and sophistication moving from the euphoric attack of, ‘Do you Believe in Magic’ to the tenderest romantic lullaby of, ‘Darling Be Home Soon’.

Sebastian provides the lovely, easy, hammock swinging whistle here in the drowsily beautiful, ‘Daydream’. May you have such a day soon!

Finally, and poignantly, I have to conclude with one of the signature songs of the 1960s from a voice for the ages. Otis Redding with the first record released after his untimely death, ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’. The tide rolled away for Otis as it will for you and me but while we have breath this song will be his testament and our consolation. God Bless You Otis!

Once in a blue moon a poem : Static

Once or twice a year when the stars are in their correct alignment and the muse comes to call I find myself moved to write a poem. I present one below that came unbidden one Sunday afternoon some years ago just after I had listened to a commentary on an Irish hurling match between arch county rivals Tipperary and Kilkenny.

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Sundays in summer my father took me with him to hear the Gaelic Games
Hurling, of course, a Tipperary Man’s birthright and delight.

Since radio reception of RTE – which on the old valve box still read, ‘Athlone’
Was poor and filled with a blizzard of wordless static we’d take the car (a Hillman Imp)
Up the vertiginous slope of Harrow on the Hill and park next to a telegraph pole –
In search of a perfect signal

As if by magic through the air came the alternating anguished and ecstatic tones of
Michael O’Hehir – his voice slicing through the miles like the Sliothair splitting the posts
For a marvellous point

Listening, rapt, willing victory, the match would pass in what seemed minutes
After, we’d sit in easeful silence as the evening became itself
And we were simply ourselves : a father and a son at one
Listening on a clear channel.

Notes:

Though I firmly believe that a poem should always retain some mystery many of you deeply versed in the lore of music may find some of the references above baffling. Here’s a key that may help!

Gaelic Games: The principal Gaelic games of Ireland are Gaelic Football and Hurling. They are played throughout the island of Ireland. The GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) was instrumental in the revival of these games in the late nineteenth century. The GAA was very important then in Irish society and culture in fostering a sense of distinct Irish national consciousness. The GAA, now that the Catholic Church, has largely lost its grip on Irish society, is probably the most interwoven institution within that society. The GAA’s strength is that it is an intensely local organisation calling on and winning loyalty from the family, the town land, the parish and finally the County. GAA rivalries at every geographic level are staggeringly intense. Reputations made playing these games last a lifetime and more.

Hurling: A wonderful field sport played by teams of 15 a side. Players use sticks, called Hurleys. The Sliothair (a ball near in size to a baseball) can be hand passed and hit through the ground or the air. A point is scored by sending the Sliothair above the bar and between the posts of the opponent’s goal.

Hurling calls for bravery, speed of thought and action and enormous technical skill. Played well it is absolutely thrilling to watch.

RTE: Radio Telefis Eireann – the national broadcasting station of Ireland.

Harrow on the Hill: A leafy suburb some ten miles from central London. Chiefly known for the fee paying public school attended by such luminaries as Lord Byron and Winston Churchill. I grew up there.

Michael O’Hehir: A much beloved commentator on all Irish sports from the mid 1930s to the mid 1980s but particularly associated with Gaelic games. For exiles from Ireland listening to him was an extraordinarily powerful emotional experience. He was deeply knowledgeable and had the gift of coining a memorable phrase in the moment an event took place. His voice could climb dizzily through the registers from marching band flute to ear splitting soprano saxophone squaks!

This post dedicated to the memory of my father, Wally Hickey (1926 – 1989).