When we are children we spend much of our lives dreaming of the future. A future in which we will be fearless captains of storied lives. What wonders we will accomplish! Idly staring out of windows at home or at our school desks, seemingly in a daze, we lay out scenarios of heroic movies in which we are the writer, producer, director and multi Oscar winning star.
A lot of young men dreams swirl around images of themselves as the epitome of cool at the wheel of a gleaming, glamorous car (a Chevrolet Corvette or perhaps an E type Jaguar) which will make all their male friends envious and all the girls of their acquaintance, especially the girl of their dreams (there’s always a luminously lit girl in these dreams) stop, stare and ask – ‘Can I have a ride?’
Others disdain these petrol head reveries. Instead, their dreams see them on stage wowing the audience (and their fellow musicians) with the virtuosity of their six string genius. Doodling on their school notebooks they picture themselves strutting their soon to be recognised stuff elegantly armed with a Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster, a Gibson Flying V, Firebird or a 1959 Les Paul.
They just know that one day like Johnny B Goode their name will dazzle the night in neon lights as people come from miles around to hear them make that guitar ring, ring, ring like a bell.
Often these dreams vanish into the ether only to be recalled when the dust covered yearbook is once more brought into the light. But, but, there are always those who through determination, application and sheer willpower realise those dreams of childhood and as is the way of these things provide models for another generation of dreamers.
Today the Jukebox features three Guitar heroes who dreamed those dreams and who then burned those dreams into vinyl masterpieces in the 1950s and 1960s which continue to provide dreamscapes for aspiring axe-men to this day.
The Jukebox needle drops first on, ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’ a joyously swinging 1954 Peacock Records Rhythm & Blues gem by a guitarist, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, who defined Americana long before the term was invented. Gatemouth was from Orange Texas and man oh man could he cut a rug whether he was playing the blues, Zydeco, Rhythm & Blues or Country music! Like the man said he played American and World music – Texas style.
The version above was recorded at Radio City Music Hall in February 2003 and can be found on the highly recommended DVD, ‘Lightning In A Bottle’. The sharp eyed among you will recognise that behind the drums is the great Levon Helm from The Band.
Levon lays down a killer beat urging Gatemouth on as he magisterially wails through his signature tune. The fine horn section issues hot blast after hot blast lifting Gatemouth to ever greater instrumental heights on guitar.
The whole version puts me in mind of The Texas Special streamliner train as it flashed through the night on its way home to San Antonio. Gatemouth’s guitar style was full of fleet flair but never needlessly flashy. His sweetly stinging solos are those of a professional going enjoyably about his business with dexterous skill.
I’m delighted that I met Gatemouth at London’s 100 Club in the mid 1970s on one of his frequent European tours. He was quite a sight to see in his trademark black outfit featuring a feathered hat, pointed cowboy boots and studded Western shirt. To top it off when not on stage he smoked a pipe!
With the enthusiasm of youth I waylaid him as he walked back to the stage for his second set and near begged him to play, ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’. To my eternal delight two minutes later he announced, ‘Here’s one Tom over there says I just have to play’ before launching into a blistering take on Okie Dokie. What a tune, what a musician, what a man!
While Gatemouth was laying down, ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’ in Houston in the heartland of unfashionable rural Indiana a young man born to play guitar, Lonnie Mack, was practicing obsessively while absorbing and incorporating influences from rock n roll, rockabilly, the blues and crucially gospel music.
On the family farm while there was no electricity there was a battery powered radio – usually tuned to The Grand Ol’ Opry. Keen eared Lonnie could hear that Merle Travis was a great player and when his parents went to bed he could tune the radio into black stations and hear T Bone Walker and other bluesmen and dream of a style which would marry Merle and T Bone’s imaginative fluency while adding an intensity he had heard in Ray Charles and the Blind Boy gospel groups.
In 1958 Gibson issued the distinctive Flying V guitar and teenage Lonnie who had been working the Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio roadhouse circuit since he was 13 got himself the 7th Flying V off the production line. And, boy did he put that guitar through its paces!
Wow! I think that bears repeating, Wow! And that was what practically every guitar player who heard, ‘Wham’ in 1963 said as they played the record over and over again trying to figure out how a chubby kid from the sticks could come up with such a sound that seemed to be savagely wild while being perfectly contained and controlled. With wonder most realised that if it came to a musical, ‘cutting contest’ there could only be one winner – Lonnie Mack.
Lonnie Mack’s guitar playing here and throughout his stunningly brilliant 1964 LP, ‘The Wham Of That Memphis Man’, recorded for Fraternity Records in Cincinnati, has the overwhelming onrushing power of a field shredding tornado as it cuts a swathe through your brain cells while you desperately try to keep up with his prodigious invention.
Soon, guitar vibrato bars were popularly called Whammy Bars in tribute to the astounding sounds Lonnie coaxed and commanded from his own Bigsby vibrato tailpiece.
Lonnie’s admiration of Gospel music is reflected in the intensity of his performances and the way he thrillingly builds and releases tension to hold and lift both his audience and his fellow musicians. Using techniques borrowed from the blues, bluegrass and gospel Lonnie can fit blindingly fast licks and choruses into a finely judged musical structure and still shift into overdrive to guide a tune to its breathless conclusion. Once heard I’m telling you that you will not be able to get enough of the wham of Lonnie Mack.
While these American giants were scorching their groove into guitar history a generation of fanatical young Englishmen swore undying devotion to the Blues and dreamed that they too might capture and discharge lightning in their playing just like Elmore James, B B King or Buddy Guy.
The mentor and bandleader for many of these guitar tyros was one of the key figures in British Blues history, John Mayall. From 1963 onwards he led a series of bands called, ‘The Bluesbreakers’ who became an amalgam of finishing school and military academy for would be bluesmen – especially guitar players.
As most will know Mayall’s first great guitar slinger was none other than Eric Clapton who showed on the 1966 LP, ‘Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton’ that Britain had produced its first guitar player who could genuinely be considered to be on the level of the Chicago scene masters.
So it was genuinely shocking for producer Mike Vernon to learn as he set up the studio in 1967 to record Mayall’s LP, ‘A Hard Road’ that Eric had left the band. It was even more shocking to be told by John Mayall not to worry about that as the new lead guitarist, Peter Green, was even better than Eric! How could that be?
Well, heretical though it may be in many critical circles, I agree with John Mayall’s 1967 bravado. To my mind in the three years or so from 1967 to 1970 before his musical genius was effectively crippled by over indulgence in drugs, LSD especially, and mental instability, Peter Green was the most brilliant and extraordinarily affecting guitar player on the planet.
In later posts I will write about his career at some length. Today I will limit myself to some general observations about his sound and present in illustration his wondrous performance on, ‘The Supernatural’ from the, ‘Hard Road’ LP. Here, Peter Green and his, ‘Magic’ 1959 Les Paul will take you to places few guitar players can even imagine let alone reach.
Perhaps the simplest way to comment on that incredible performance would be just to quote someone, B B King, who knew a little bit about guitar playing – ‘He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats’. Amen, B B, Amen!
‘The Supernatural’ was the first recorded evidence that Peter Green had a very special quality as a musician: he had a feeling for the shivering essence of music. The critic Greil Marcus talks about the, ‘Yargh’ when trying to pinpoint the veil piercing quality of Van Morrison’s voice.
I think we could use the term, ‘The Touch’ to identify the same quality found in the voice of Peter Green’s guitar. Through an inspired use of vibrato, sustain and controlled harmonic feedback he conjures up soundscapes that open up such deep interior realms of feeling that listening to him can be a deeply emotional experience.
I have always thought that Peter Green and his Les Paul worked together like two brave but vulnerable living creatures voyaging into terra incognita when he took his guitar solos. It’s the mixture of musical daring with emotional vulnerability and depth that distinguishes Peter Green for me from all his contemporaries.
Peter Green in his searching songs and performance seems to offer reports back from dark reaches within himself and I suspect all of us. In his playing we can come to recognise both the embracing warmth of those sub conscious depths and perhaps also their chill threat. The timber of humanity is always twisted and knotted and Peter Green’s guitar brilliantly illuminates that truth.
A great writer, Franz Kafka, once gave his view on what the function of a book should be and I think it holds up just as well for music:
‘ I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? … Good Lord, …. we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone …. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us’.
Listening to Peter Green I feel that the axe has indeed split the frozen sea.
Gatemouth Brown died at 81 in September 2005 in his childhood home town of Orange Texas having just escaped the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. In a macabre twist his coffin was floated away from his burial site by flooding caused by Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Happily, he was later reinterred securely in Orange’s Hollywood Cemetery where his resting place is properly marked by a fine headstone and a plaque from the Texas Historical Commission.
Gatemouth made many fine recordings. I recommend the original albums:
1975 Bogalusa Boogie Man (Barclay)
1979 Makin’ Music (with Roy Clark) (One Way)
1981 Alright Again! (Rounder)
1982 One More Mile (Rounder)
1999 American Music, Texas Style (Verve/Blue Thumb)
2001 Back to Bogalusa (Verve/Gitanes)
1987 Texas Swing (Rounder) Rounder recordings
1990 The Original Peacock Recordings (Rounder) Peacock recordings
‘The Wham Of That Memphis Man’ should be in every collection – if you haven’t got it order it today!
In addition to his staggering guitar playing Lonnie is also a wonderfully intense singer who brings a gospel grace and intensity to his country soul vocals. The combined qualities are well captured on his Elektra albums, ‘Glad I’m In The Band’ and, ‘Whatever’s Right’ from 1969. His live, rampaging roadhouse blues sound is showcased on, ‘Live At Coco’s.
Two albums on Alligator Records from 1984 and 1986 are also well worth investigating, ‘Strike Like Lightning’ (extensively featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan) and, ‘Second Sight’.
Everything Peter recorded with John Mayall and with Fleetwood Mac should be a mandatory purchase!