Van Morrison – Tupelo Honey: The Grandeur of Love

‘Tupelo Honey has always existed … Van was the vessel and the earthly vehicle for it’ (Bob Dylan)

If a songwriter is very, very lucky they might in their lifetime write one song that becomes the misty eyed anthem of love for devoted couples all over the world. A love song that incarnates love rather than merely describing it. A song that always seem fresh while yet building a patina of fond memories that increase every time it is played.

A song which flowing like a river, never the same twice, still seems to contain the past, the present and the future. A song which takes up residence in the hearts of succeeding generations – for today and every day, someone, somewhere, is discovering that they are in love for the very first time.

By my count (and on The Jukebox my count is the one that really counts) Van Morrison has written at least four songs that meet the criteria outlined above. From his incandescent second solo album the title track, ”Moondance’ with its peerless swooning swing and, ‘Crazy Love’ with its intoxicated, intoxicating, sweet surrender.

From ‘Avalon Sunset’ came the deep, devotional, ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’ – a song especially close to my heart as it was the first song my wife, Clare, and I danced to once we were married.

But, if I had to pick one song to demonstrate the depth of Van Morrison’s romanticism; proof that he was and is the great courtly love balladeer of his age I will always choose, ‘Tupelo Honey’ – a pluperfect song, glowingly alive with love’s grandeur.

Good God, what a hallelujah of a song! A song that shares the blissful total immersion in the sweetness of love with Solomon’s Song of Songs! I love the majestically sure, unhurried flow of the song which sweeps our hearts away, illuminating our deepest wish and need – to love and to be loved.

The team of musicians assembled in San Francisco in 1971 to record Tupelo Honey brought all their technical accomplishment to the track but, no doubt inspired by their mercurial leader, they brought something much rarer – a devotional surrender to the music they were making, so that ‘Tupelo Honey’ really does sound like a direct revelation from Heaven itself.

On drums, the great Connie Kay from the Modern Jazz Quartet, having already played with angelic grace throughout Van’s sublime masterpiece, ‘Astral Weeks’ outdoes himself with his backbeat and fills surging the song forward to greater and greater heights of rhythmic rapture. On guitar Ronnie Montrose plays with a shimmering, harp like delicacy that is endlessly beguiling.

Mark Jordan’s piano takes us by the hand and navigates us through the song assuring us that we can and will find our way to that promised land of love and fulfilment we all believe is out there waiting for us to come home to. Bruce Royston on flute is the harbinger of the miracles to come while Ted Templeman on organ, Gary Mallaber on percussion and ever faithful Jack Schroer on saxophones ensure that the miracles are delivered.

Tying everything together is Van’s vocal which reached pinnacles of inspiration that is beyond the reach of critical language to adequately express. So, I will unashamedly borrow my language from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’.

Van Morrison’s singing on Tupelo Honey flames out like shining from shook foil, it gathers and gathers and gathers to a greatness that elevates everyone who listens to it – inducting them into a vision that encompasses love in all its sacred and sexual incarnations. A vision which once experienced leaves a permanent flaming brand on the heart and soul.

This post dedicated to Clare because she’s as sweet as Tupelo Honey. Because she’s an angel of the very first degree.

Note:

There’s a wonderful live version from his 1979 tour of Ireland featuring Toni Marcus on violin and the late Peter Bardens on keyboards which I urge you to investigate.

Laurel and Hardy – The Deep Wisdom of Folly!

Sometimes it seems the world is so full of war, pestilence and strife that no amount of lamentation can ever be sufficient. Daily, we near drown in a deluge of news pouring out outrage after outrage – with each man made or natural disaster confirming that power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.

I suppose I could accept that this world is condemned and lay back listening to the hoot owl’s despairing elegy for a fallen world. Instead, today at least, despite or because of being somewhat more than in the middle of life I’m taking the other path through the thorny wood – the path illuminated by the gentle light of humour.

My guides on this path are the blessed shades of the greatest comedic partnership in the history of entertainment: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

I’ll be very surprised if just the mention of their names or a glance at the image above hasn’t already altered your mood for the better and got all the myriad muscles involved in producing a smile toned up and ready for action.

And, just to confirm the mood here’s their instantly recognisable theme tune, ‘The Dance Of The Cuckoos’ written by the heroically hardworking in house composer at Hal Roach Studios, Marvin Hatley.

Laurel and Hardy were innocents abroad in this wicked world. Not an innocence born of ignorance of the world but rather the innocence of guileless uncorrupted souls who glided through this vale of tears mildly baffled by the energy invested in the ambition fuelled grandiose plans and schemes that the rest of us consider so essential to our lives.

Stan and Ollie survived being surrounded by a society that thought them nothing but fools because between them they had something more precious than gold – a natural charm and dignity which survived every catastrophe unscathed. This was founded on the simple love they had for each other leading them to offer everyone they met goodwill and friendship. Every Laurel and Hardy film is a testament to how sweet the human spirit can be.

They were masters of physical comedy who unashamedly used every music hall and pantomime device available to them to draw us into their comic universe. They were obviously fortunate in the natural comic contrast in their relative body shapes – in some countries they are simply referred to as, ‘The Fat One and the Thin One’. In addition their virtuoso use of the direct look to the camera, the clownish falls, the tie-twiddling, the word gulping crying and their trademark hats and hairstyles gave them a powerful screen presence that was built to inspire affection and to last.

The musical numbers threaded through their career showcased Oliver Hardy’s modestly sweet tones, Stan’s artless harmonising and the balletic charm of their dancing. Let’s listen to them below with the delightful, ‘On The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine’ from the 1937 film, ‘Way Out West’. The song was published in 1913 by Harry Carroll and Ballard MacDonald and amazingly became a UK number 2 record, selling more than half a million copies, in 1975.

Now doesn’t that make you feel better about the world?

Sometimes, when struggling to find a moment of calm and clarity in the hubub around and within me I like to close my eyes and rehearse favourite Laurel and Hardy lines in my head:

‘I’m not as dumb as you look’

‘You can lead a horse to water but a pencil must be led’

‘Why don’t you do something to help me?’

‘Tell me that plan again’

‘I’m Mr Hardy, and this is my friend, Mr Laurel’

‘We certainly do!’

Never forgetting the immortal – ‘Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’

I don’t know whether that counts as a mantra or an exercise in mindfulness but it sure works for me!

In the recent, ‘Let The Mystery Be’ post here on The Jukebox I noted that the golden record sent into deep space aboard the Voyager spacecraft included Blind Willie Johnson’s, ‘Dark Was The Night’. Blind Willie’s record would let all know that the human race was prey to existential angst but had the strength to express that terror through redemptive art.

Reflecting on the achievement of Laurel and Hardy I believe that we should ensure any further Voyager should include, also from ‘Way Out West’, their wondrously uplifting performance of, ‘At The Ball That’s All’.

Due to the maddening vagaries of commerce and youtube the only way I can feature the video clip is to have it accompanied by a soundtrack not from the original film but by the latin rock group Santana. So I suggest you watch the clip below with the sound turned off and delight in their affecting dancing and go to the main youtube site for the full experience.

I think we can say with absolute confidence that any life form who found this would have to conclude that the inhabitants of Planet Earth must be a very fine race and that they should be visited as soon as possible to see more of that wonderful duo – Laurel and Hardy.

Commence to Dancing!

Riding High On Bob Dylan’s Jukebox – Warren Smith!

Now, to be clear your Honour, I can’t say for certain that Bob Dylan has a Jukebox and if he has I can’t be 100% sure which artists it features. But, but, I have to say that there is enough compelling evidence from Bob’s recording and performing history to say with some force that Bob really digs Warren Smith and has spent many an hour listening to the fabulous sides he cut for Sun Records in the late 1950s.

Consider; Bob’s tender tribute recording of Warren’s, ‘Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache’, his (unissued) take on, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, his regular 1986 tour performances of, ‘Uranium Rock’ and the aforementioned ‘Moustache’, his thanks in the sleeve notes of, ‘Down In The Groove’ to a, ‘Gal shaped just like a Frog’ (surely referencing Warren’s explosive, ‘Miss Froggie’), and, his repeated featuring of Warren on his Theme Time Radio shows and it becomes obvious that Bob in his boyhood Hibbing days, ear pressed to a transistor radio listening to John R and Hoss Allen, was hit hard by Warren and never forgot him.

Taking all that into account I think we can say with some confidence that Bob’s Jukebox, real or imaginary, will definitely be stocked with some Warren Smith 45s! So let’s cue up Warren’s April 1956 debut single for Sun (No 239), ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, a prime slice of Rockabilly that turned many a head beyond Bob’s.

Ruby rock some more indeed! Warren here is backed by the excellently named Snearly Ranch Boys with whom he had been playing at the Cotton Club in West Memphis when spotted by Sun Records supremo Sam Phillips. The song is credited to Johnny Cash (though those in the know say it was actually written by George Jones – presumably in his ‘Thumper’ incarnation). All agree that it cost Warren $40. Money well spent as it went on to be a regional Number 1 record with some 70,000 sold, outselling the debuts of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

Warren’s vocal is propulsively assured and the record bounces along like a well sprung pickup truck with some fine piano from Smokey Joe Bauch and neat guitar fills from Buddy Holobauch on lead and Stan Kessler on the steel.

Warren, then 24, born in 1932, brought up in Louise Mississippi, and a USAF veteran was ecstatic at the success of his first recording (the B side of which has a lovely vocal on the fine pure country, ‘I’d Rather Be Safe Than Sorry’). As a man with plenty of ambition and a very strong ego Warren looked forward confidently to becoming a huge star in emulation of Elvis.

Yet, life has a habit of throwing roadblocks in the way of the broad highway to fame and fortune we so fondly imagine in the days of youth. So it was for Warren. Despite recording some brilliant records, showcased below, the glittering prizes eluded him due to a mixture of the vagaries of fate, his own deficiencies, the limited marketing budget available to Sam Phillips and the appearance of more irresistible forces onto the scene (step forward Jerry Lee Lewis!).

His story, awaiting the screenplay, included a life threatening car crash taking a year out of his career, addiction to pills and booze, a spell in prison and an unexpected late renaissance courtesy of British Rockabilly fanatics before sudden death at the shockingly young age of 47 in January 1980.

Warren’s second outing for Sun (No 250) issued in september 1956 had as its flip side a somewhat strange version of the Child ballad, ‘Black Jack David’ which must be the oldest tune ever recorded on the Sun label. Its inclusion probably signified Sam Phillips trying to court the country market as well the burgeoning Rockabilly/Rock ‘n’ Roll scene.

The A side, in all its 1 minute 58 seconds of glory was the wholly ludicrous, politically incorrect, yet wholly addictive, ‘Ubangi Stomp’ penned by Charles Underwood then a student at Memphis State. I think the cartoon lyric shows that Charles was not studying Anthropology!

Warren’s band now included the excellent Al Hopson on guitar and Marcus Van Story on bass. The record sold some 100,000 copies but alas for Warren not in a rush but in a leisurely fashion over some 18 months.

Warren next recorded at in Sun Studios at 706 Union Avenue in early 1957 and the results were issued in April. The A side, written by fellow Sun artist Roy Orbison, was the thoroughly engaging, ‘So Long I’m Gone’ but it’s the electrifying, nay crazed, B side, ‘Miss Froggie’ featuring stellar incendiary guitar playing by Al Hopson and brilliant, ‘Look out! we ain’t gonna stop for no one’ drumming by Jimmy Lott that will ensure a place in Rock ‘n’ Roll eternity for Warren Smith.

My diligent scientific research over many decades has conclusively proved that it is impossible (and potentially injurious) to try to resist a song that opens with the epochal couplet:

‘Yes, I got a gal, she’s shaped just like a frog
I found her drinking’ muddy water, sleepin’ in a hollow log’

Warren Smith’s singing on this record is utterly magnificent. He generates heart stopping, heart bursting, levels of excitement smoothly increasing the pressure on the accelerator so that you half expect to hear the boom of the sound barrier being broken before the song ends.

I have to confess that in my youth as I prepared for a Saturday night out in London sure to be filled with alcoholic and romantic excess (the former inevitably more often delivered than the latter!) I would always sing repeatedly, as I made my way to the tube station, at the maximum volume I could get away without without being arrested or beaten up:

‘Well it’s Saturday night, I sure am feelin’ blue
Meet me in the bottom, bring me my boots and shoes’

It never failed to lift me up, bringing me energy and untold innocent delight. Thanks Warren.

The record was a substantial regional hit and took Warren to No 72 on the Billboard Hot 100, his highest ever placing there. However, it was, for commercially and culturally compelling reasons, Jerry Lee Lewis’, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ that monopolised Sam Phillips attention and promotional energies. Head shakingly Warren perhaps then realised that talent, good looks and brilliant recordings don’t always guarantee the brass ring will be yours.

Warren had four more sides issued by Sun including an intriguing cover of Slim Harpo’s swampy R&B classic, ‘Got Love If You Want It’ before he and Sam called it a day in January 1959. Indeed, one of the records Warren will always be remembered for, ‘Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache’ was never even issued by Sun when recorded only seeing the light of day in the early 1970s.

Well that got me croonin’ along and gliding elegantly round my kitchen! I love the unhurried tempo of the song and Warren’s mellifluous vocal which charms me every time. This is another one that’s always playing in my head somewhere. ‘Who you been lovin’ since I been gone’ has to be one of the eternal questions we repeat to ourselves as we replay earlier scenes in the autobiographical movie of our lives.

Warren never made the big time yet he made records that will always live every time they are played. No records sums up the primal attraction of Rockabilly more perfectly for me than, ‘Miss Froggie’. That’s why, whatever’s actually on Bob Dylan’s Jukebox, ‘Miss Froggie’ now proudly takes up its place on The Immortal Jukebox as A12.

I’ve promised myself that one day I’m going to hire a Red Cadillac Convertible and drive down Union Avenue in Memphis, having brushed my moustache (taking cars to dye the strands of grey), with the top down blasting out, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, ‘Ubangi Stomp’, and ‘Red Cadillac’ before stopping outside 706 where I’m going to get out and dance like I’ve danced before as, ‘Miss Froggie’ plays and I’m going to shout with all the force I can muster – that’s for you Warren!

Notes:

Warren Smith’s Sun Sides can be found on excellent compilations on either the Bear Family or Charly record labels.

Warren also recorded some attractive, quite commercially successful, country sides for Liberty Records in the mid 1960s before his addictions, car crash and prison experience largely sabotaged his career.

Warrens renaissance concerts in London in 1977 were issued on vinyl as, ‘Four R ‘n’ R Legends’. It is cheering to learn how appreciative the London audience was of Warren and how moved he was at their response to him.

Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Del Shannon (and Phil Phillips) dive into The Sea Of Love!

‘The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.’ (Isak Dinesen)

‘There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath’ (Herman Melville)

The sea begins at the shore. Standing at its edge we can only marvel at its immensity and otherness. Yet we know that some aspects of ourselves can only be brought to life by deserting the comforting security of the land and the harbour.

You have to put to sea; surrendering to its call, to discover the worlds of wonder which surely lie somewhere beyond the horizon. What’s true for the rolling deep and briny sea is true just as much for that other sea which consumes so much of our waking and dreaming hours – the sea of love.

Come with me now, come with me now and surrender to Phil Phillips and The Twilights original from 1959 and be borne back again to The Sea Of Love.

Phil Phillips wrote the song and sang lead vocals on this classic slice of swamp pop which was a million selling Number 1 R&B hit and Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. He was born John Phillip Baptiste in Lake Charles Louisiana in March 1931. His roots lay in gospel music with the family group The Gateway Quartet. It was his barely required love for Verdi Mae Thomas that inspired him to switch to the secular realm and Sea Of Love was the dreamily hypnotic result.

Originally recorded as a demo at a local radio station the song came to the attention of George Khoury a sharp local music mogul with a downtown record shop who had enjoyed some chart success already as a producer and record label owner through the lovely, ‘Mathilda’ by Cookie And The Cupcakes.

Indeed it’s Cookie And The Cupcakes, with Ernest Jacobs prominent on piano, along with the mysteriously unnamed Twilights who back up Phil on the recording made at Eddie Shuler’s Goldband Records Studio.

Despite the phenomenal sales which accrued once the original Khoury label recording was leased to big time Mercury Records Phil always claimed that he only ever earned $6,800 from his song with the rest disappearing into the coffers of George Khoury, Eddie Shuler and Mercury. A sadly familiar tale!

What can never be taken away from Phil is the glory of his song and his performance on the record. Sea Of Love drifts along at a stately, one might almost say somnambulant pace as it carries us along. There’s a quality of eyes closed pre dawn hours reverie about the record that allows it to dive fathoms deep into our unconscious.

I love the hummed opening which speaks as eloquently of the yearning for love as the reticent yet straight from the heart vocal which follows. To my ears the lyric and vocal have more than a tinge of the lyrical and romantic tradition of the french/creole culture Phil grew up in.

The song almost seems like a creole chanson translated into English. Perhaps this gives the song something of its woozy surreal charm. Listening repeatedly to the song I felt adrift in a free floating dream – buoyed up by the depths of the sea with only the cool gaze of the forgiving moon to light my way.

The mysterious allure of the song has attracted many singers, both famous and obscure, keen to steer their own course through The Sea Of Love. The first cover I’ve chosen to feature today is by the erstwhile Charles Weedon Westover who became one of the princes of early 1960s pop under the more familiar name of Del Shannon!

As you will have heard this is a much more rhythmically forceful version befitting its 1982 vintage and the confident swagger of Del’s backing band on the song – none other than Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers.

If Phil Phillips original brings to mind a pirogue calmly meandering through the bayou this version has the thrust of a powerful diesel engined motor boat beating back the deep sea channel waves. There’s an artful use of swirling keyboards in the middle of the song as a nod and wink tribute to Del’s own, never to be forgotten ‘Runaway’.

This version was a top 40 hit, the last of Del’s career (which ended so tragically with his suicide in 1990) and a highlight from the highly recommended, ‘Drop Down And Get Me’ album.

Del Shannon (who will feature more extensively on The Jukebox later) was throughout his life a highly distinctive and affecting singer who seemed in his voice to evoke the aura of someone who had never quite recovered from some awful secret hurt. A hurt that left him so wounded and anxious that any happiness on offer appeared bound to be fleeting if not wholly illusory. It’s a voice that suits the plangent mood of Sea Of Love holding you enthralled as the song unfolds.

Next from 1985 a version showcasing a plethora of Rock music, ‘Big Beasts’ on a retro R&B spree in the form of The Honeydrippers who featured Led Zeppelin alumni Robert Plant and Jimmy Page as well as Jeff Beck and Chic maestro Nile Rodgers. Paul Shaffer, famed for fronting the Letterman Show Houseband, held down the keyboard chair. Together they fashion a knowing homage to their 1950s roots in their swooning take on Sea Of Love which went top 5 on The Billboard Hot 100 chart.

And now as they used to say on, ‘Monty Python’ for something completely different. Here’s a, ‘Toasting’ master from Jamaica, U Roy (Ernest Beckford) with a deliriously enjoyable version rechristened, ‘Do You Remember’ which references both Phil Phillips original and a fine 1970 cover by The Heptones drawing on the production smarts of Joe Gibbs.

You can surely feel the hot Caribbean sun and the sea breezes wafting all about you as the irresistible rhythms take you over while U Roy extemporises with a winning mixture of cheeky humour and romantic ardour. You won’t be able to play this only once!

Follow that! Well, fortunately I’ve kept a take on Sea Of Love to conclude which can hold its own against any competition. This, by the one, the only Tom Waits, was a key element in the 1989 noiresque thriller movie, ‘Sea Of Love’ (starring a resurgent Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin), which was named after and featured Phil Phillips original song.

Tom Waits! there’s no one like him. Tom, here, gives us an intense, emotional, spooky hall of distorted mirrors Sea Of Love that leaves your head spinning and your heart battering threateningly against your ribcage. This is the diving deep, claustrophobic, submarine version which alters your sense of time and space with its strange charm.

Tom Waits is a true American original who wouldn’t know how to just copy a song. His Sea Of Love is a loving recreation of a classic love song and Tom, having written a few of those himself, does it full justice by doing it entirely his own way,

As Tom showed Phil Phillips songs from the late 1950s still has endless depths to sound. Depths to sound in the always flowing, always churning, Sea Of Love.

Notes:

Phil Phillips career was effectively hamstrung by a lengthy contract with Mercury which he fought hard to escape from. Disillusioned with the record industry and never seeing any significant windfalls from later versions of his classic song he went on to be a well regarded radio DJ in Louisiana.

The always commendable German collectors label Bear Family has issue a compilation, inevitably titled Sea Of Love, which with excellent sound collects all the highlights of Phil’s career. Well worth a listen for more examples of his haunting vocal style.

Phil was quite properly inducted in 2007 into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame.

Addendum – Since writing this post I’ve discovered this wonderful clip of Phil singing his classic song at The Louisiana hall Of Fame – prepare to feel your eyes moisten!