Levon Helm – A Thanksgiving Toast!

For all my American readers and devotees of the American music so frequently featured on The Immortal Jukebox a Thanksgiving tip of the hat and toast from England (fuelled by more than a few shots of Maker’s Mark!)

I hear America singing in lone fiddlers and second line marching bands. I hear America singing through the blazing genius of Louis Armstrong’s horn and Bill Evan’s piano. I hear America singing in the guitar evangelism of Gary Davis, Elmore James, Chuck Berry, James Burton and Duane Allman.

I hear America singing in the eerie moans of Robert Johnson and Skip James. I hear America’s song echoing through the years in Jimmy Rogers’ blue yodels and in Hank Williams’ long lonesome laments. I hear America’s song ringing out in Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

I hear America singing in Ray Charles as he makes a congregation of us all. I hear America singing in the gut strings of Willie Nelson’s guitar and voice. I hear America singing in the nobility of Arthur Alexander’s stoic meditations, the glory and the fury of Nina Simone and in the stratospheric ascents to glory of Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson.

I hear America singing proudly and tenderly in Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday and Loretta Lynn.

I hear America singing sweetly in Jesse Winchester, Bill Withers, Irma Thomas and Bonnie Raitt. I hear America singing clear as a bell in Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, John Fogarty, Otis Redding, Steve Cropper, Booker T Jones, Al Jackson and Duck Dunn.

I hear America’s song being carried thousands of miles all the way down Highway 61 from Minnesota to New Orleans and on around the world in Bob Dylan’s harmonica and in his treasury of songs.

And today, right here, right now, I hear America singing up in all its beautiful humanity in the voice of a son of Arkansas, Levon Helm. For me Levon Helm’s over proof, burnished voice and warm, inviting drum sound brings the soul of America’s people, its rivers and mountains, prairies, swamps and deserts to tear swelling life.

I hear the life and love of life of America singing clear and true in Levon Helm’s life loving voice. I hear America singing in his joy of making music in company.

You want to hear what life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness sounds like? Well to me it sounds exactly like Levon Helm – the shining pride of American music. Listen to his lovely, leery vocal here on, ‘Cripple Creek’

And here to the almost prophetic candour he brings to, ‘The Weight’

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Marvelettes – Youth in all its passions!

In my role as Chief Operating Officer and Executive Director of The Immortal Jukebox Think Tank and Market Research Corporation I oversee a series of rigorous research projects into Pop Culture. The results are later published in weighty academic journals.

On the other hand I usually find that I can get a better handle on public taste and knowledge by conducting informal polls at the Immortal Jukebox’s local hostelry, ‘The Midnight Bell’. My latest poll question thrown out as, ‘Baby Love’ by The Supremes blasted out of The Bell’s Jukebox was, ‘Which Motown act was the first to have a Number 1 Pop record?’

Immediately I was confidently assured that it was, of course, The Supremes only to have that notion brushed aside by others who said it must have been Smokey Robinson & The Miracles if it wasn’t (LIttle) Stevie Wonder. A hesitant voice from the back said what about Mary Wells with, ‘My Guy?

All intelligent speculations but the act that brought Tamla Motown to the coveted Number 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1961 was none of the above. It was in fact a group now largely relegated to the footnotes of Motown histories – Ladies and Gentlemen I give you Inkster’s Immortals, The Marvelettes!

And the song that launched Motown into mainstream America? The song that would be a staple of The Beatles live act at The Cavern and which they would record for their second LP?

The song that would ascend to the top of the charts again in 1975 courtesy of The Carpenters and feature in a brilliant fight scene in the Scorsese film, ‘Mean Streets’? Well, as you will have guessed by now, it was, ‘Please Mr Postman’ – a song which just explodes with youthful hormonal energy!

Now that really was the sound of Young America just as the New Frontier was coming into being. The Marvelettes led by Gladys Horton’s gloriously husky come-hither lead vocal wrap us up in the quivering excitement of the ecstasies, angsts and agonies of young love.

Wanda Young, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart and Katherine Anderson gather agog around Gladys. Driven along by the peerless James Jamerson on bass and Benny Benjamin on the drums the girls, girls next door, thrillingly evoke the heart in mouth feeling of waiting for the long awaited love letter to arrive; desperate to know what secrets the letter will reveal.

A letter that surely must confirm that the dream of love is indeed a reality and banish those nightmares that the promises of love so sweetly given were a hollow sham.

Until you open that letter you are in Limbo – once read you can share its joys or sorrows with your girlfriends. So Please, Please! Mr Postman! Deliver the letter! The Sooner the better!

Postman as a song was a virtual collage reflecting the input of original Marvelette Georgia Dobbins and local songwriter William Garrett before it was, ‘polished’ at Motown in house writers Brian Holland, Robert Bateman and Freddie Gorman.

For once so many cooks didn’t spoil the broth. Instead the Motown machine preserved the innocent allure of the song while adding the pop propulsion that would allow Motown to plant their first flag on the very summit of the pop charts.

The Marvelettes would never have the sexy sheen of The Supremes, the vocal grace of Gladys Knight & The Pips or the drive of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas but I am always won over by the open hearted longing that animates so much of their work.

So much pop music centres on the desire for monochrome everyday life to suddenly burst into new dimensions of thrilling colour. And, for me the relative lack of glamour and poise of The Marvelettes, their very ordinariness, makes their records all the more touching.

Listen to them here with their wonderfully charming hit from 1962, ‘Beechwood 4-5789’

Beechwood was written by the triumvirate of Marvin Gaye, ‘Mickey’ Stevenson and George Gordy and its Marvin playing the drums who kicks off the record in such fine style. Once again, Gladys Horton’s lead vocal takes us for a ride on the dizzying carousel of youthful love and infatuation.

This is a pure pop record with lovely spanish guitar trills flashing alongside the vocal lines. Guys sometimes believe its they who make the running in relationships but wiser heads have always known that it’s the girls who are in charge. The hunter, knowingly or not, usually does get captured by the game.

Motown had some of the qualities of a manufacturing company like Detroit’s own Ford Motors with an assembly line and strict quality control. It also had something of the quality of a royal court with Berry Gordy as the unchallenged monarch whose favour was the supreme currency which could be gifted or withdrawn according to commercial calculation and personal whim.

The Marvelettes, despite their early triumph with Postman were soon supplanted in Berry’s affections by The Supremes who offered more vocal versatility, more glamour and the mysterious star power of Diana Ross.

So the Marvelettes became, ‘We will find something for them later’ side projects for Motown’s A team of songwriters and producers.

However, given the brilliance of those A teams The Marvelettes still got access to some very fine material including Holland/Dozier/Holland’s, ‘Locking Up My Heart’, the Norman Whitfield produced, ‘Too Many Fish In The Sea’ and Smokey Robinson’s, ‘My Baby Must Be A Magician’.

It was the songwriting and production genius of Smokey Robinson that in 1966 provided The Marvelettes with their second million selling 45, ‘Don’t Mess with Bill’.

The lead vocal here comes from Wanda Young and she takes full advantage with a mature performance that matches the beautifully wrought production featuring judicious use of handclaps, vibes and organ with the immaculate Funk Brothers rhythm section binding everything together.

This is a record that suggests the smoke wreathed nightclub rather that the high school hop of their earlier releases.

By the end of the 1960s The Marvelettes had broken up – falling prey successive bouts of disillusion and illness. Yet, the products of the lovely yearning of their youth and the hard won craft of their later work will always have a special place in my heart. I hope the Jukebox showcase will win them a place in your affections too.

Biographical Notes:

Gladys Horton who died in January 2011 was the moving force behind the formation of The Marvelettes at Inkster High School in the late 1950s. Few singers have ever incarnated the whirling passions of youth with as much faithfulness as Gladys.

Wanda Young – listen out for her lead vocals on, ‘I’ll Keep Holding On’ and, ‘When You’re Young And In Love’. Wanda was married for some time to the late Bobby Rogers of The Miracles. I believe she still lives in the suburbs of Detroit.

Katherine Anderson was the only ever present in The Marvelettes as they moved through the arc of their career in the 1960s. Following the breakup of the group she has become very involved in social work in Detroit.

Georgeanna Tillman sadly died at only 35 in 1980. She had been afflicted with Sickle Cell Anemia and Lupus. Her illness was so severe that she had to leave the group in early 1965 though she remained working at Motown until the company moved from Detroit in the early 1970s.

Tequila! (The Champs) The best ‘B Movie B Side’ ever made!

In my youth, in the interests of conviviality and scientific research into plant biology, intoxication and rock and roll excess I developed quite a taste for the distilled beverage of the blue agave plant otherwise known as Tequila.

I soon discovered that if you wanted fuel to impel you to leave the earth’s orbit and achieve a speedy exit from the tedious demands of sobriety before entering the welcoming arms of drunkenness there was no drink to match Tequila.

I also discovered, as I deepened my research, that John Steinbeck in, ‘Tortilla Flat’ had very accurately delineated the journey a seasoned Tequila drinker takes as the bottle is drained. First a period of serious and concentrated conversation (which you always wish you had written down the next day) followed by the evocation of a series of sweetly sad memories.

Next, thoughts of old and unsatisfactory loves before the mind inevitably turns to thoughts of bitter loves. Recovering, you then move on to a general and undirected sadness at the state of the world before tumbling into a black, unholy, despondency.

Soon you begin to sing a song filled with longing for love or for death (if you’re Irish you have a deep treasury of such songs to draw on!) and then before you lose the power to sing or indeed to talk at all you launch into a verse or two of every song you’ve ever known while loudly encouraging all around you to do the same.

You are convinced as you unsteadily make your way home that there has never been such a glorious night of music and conversation since the heady days of Paris in the 1920s.

Dimly, in the morning, you recall that you had insisted on playing one record on the Jukebox seventeen times and orchestrating the mass singalong of that song’s title with relentless enthusiasm. The song was, of course, the ever intoxicating, ‘Tequila’ by The Champs – a Billboard Pop and R&B Number One from 1958.

Picture the scene. You’re in a bar in Texas or just across the Mexican border. The kind of bar where as you enter its Stygian interior you fear you have just lost the power of sight. But, somewhere in the deep shadows you can make out the figure of a burlesque dancer on a stage at the very back. And, behind the dancer a band seemingly comprised of recently released desperadoes adorned with knife scars who are here while they lay plans for their next bank heist.

It’s the kind of bar where everyone has a story to tell if you’ve got the money to fill their glass just one more time. Stories that might just be true and which you will store up to claim as your own on another Tequila night. Stories that you overhear while the band blast out a thrillingly vulgar tribute to the magical powers of Tequila – no words needed of course beyond the thrice repeated title. Tequila! Tequila! Tequila!

Tequila was a ‘B’ side and it may be the best ‘B Movie’ B side ever made. It was recorded just before Christmas in 1957 for the Californian Challenge label owned at the time by Hollywood Cowboy Hero Gene Autry. ‘Tequila’ was actually an afterthought to a session intended to find a hit for rockabilly singer Dave Burgess.

The session band included the Flores Trio of Danny Flores on Sax, Gene Alden on drums and Buddy Bruce on guitar with Cliff Hills on bass supporting Burgess on rhythm guitar and vocals.

They laid down Burgess’ own song, ‘Train to Nowhere’ and versions of, ‘Night Beat’ and, ‘All Night Rock’ before they rounded off the session by running down a tune written by Danny Flores featuring an entrancing mambo beat and a down and dirty sax solo topped off with irresistible shouts (from Flores) of Tequila!

Tequila was issued as the B side of Train to Nowhere but radio DJs soon recognised that it was Tequila that had the magic ingredients that make for a big fat hit. The Number One spot, sales of more than a million and a Grammy all followed as the world drank deep of Danny Flores immortal tune.

Danny Flores had grown up in Long Beach California and had taken on something of the mantle of a Mexican Hillbilly as he played the local blue collar bars. Mexican Hillbilly or proto Latino Rock, ‘Tequila’ was played with love night after night for decade after decade by Danny Flores until he died in 2006.

Danny knew that on some nights what you really need to light up your life can be summed up in a single word (All Together Now!) Tequila!

Eric Clapton: Finding Redemption at 461 Ocean Boulevard

Music is an art and a craft. And, for a performing artist it’s an art and a craft that must be practiced; physically, emotionally and spiritually engaged with- if the music is to live and the artist is to grow.

Between the beginning of 1971 and the early part of 1974 Eric Clapton who had become rock music royalty and widely acknowledged as a guitar god after his work with The Yardbirds, John Mayall, Cream, Delaney and Bonnie and Derek and The Dominoes was not practicing his art and craft.

Instead he was holed up in Hurtwood Edge, his luxurious hideaway in rural Surrey, seemingly having abandoned his talent and career in pursuit of the oblivion provided by alcohol and heroin.

As is the way with addicts wasted days became wasted weeks became wasted months became wasted years.

His life and his career was saved from this tragic torpor through a combination of his own everlasting love of the classic blues, his need as a man and a musician to make music again and the insistent promptings of friends like Pete Townsend and fellow Domino Carl Radle.

A demo tape of Bassist Radle, Keyboard player Dick Sims and Drummer Jamie Oldaker jamming together appears to have whetted Eric Clapton’s desire to play again.

He began to imagine a record which would feature his continuing devotion to the blues and his preference for organic, song centred recordings in the style of The Band in contrast to the bombastic pyrotechnics of his Cream days.

It was time to take, ‘Blackie’ his custom made Fender Stratocaster out if its case and strap it on!

So in April 1974, installed in Golden Beach Florida he assembled the above musicians adding George Terry on guitar and Yvonne Elliman on vocals with the redoubtable Tom Dowd sitting in the producer’s chair.


The result in terms of music history was a record, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ which in my view stands second only to the all time classic, ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’ in the canon of Clapton’s recordings.

It’s a record, at its heart, where a true bluesman reached out in tender gospel supplication for peace and redemption – a peace and redemption the record seems to find.

When you have hit bottom you learn, whatever you thought in your careless heyday, that no one can ever really stand up alone. You need help. You learn you will have to go down on your knees and ask for help.

You need strength to carry on – especially if you know that your vocation as a bluesman is to live life out on a highway which is always shadowed by tempting snares.

Snares you have fallen prey to before (Lord I’ve done so much wrong) and which you can never doubt you can fall prey to again – perhaps never to recover from.

Somehow, from somewhere, as part of your recovery you will have to find a renewable source of strength; a nurturing relationship between your self, the world and god in whichever form he appears to you. All this is evoked for me by Eric Clapton in this humble hymn.

There is a deeply affecting tenderness in Clapton’s guitar playing and his vocal in this song with superb use of sustain and falsetto. Indeed throughout 461 Eric Clapton meshes his guitar and vocal talents like two well worn hands meeting and supporting each other in prayer.

Eric Clapton through obsessive practice and natural affinity learned and internalised the language of the blues as a teenager so that it became second nature to him.

His extravagantly brilliant playing with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers became the aspirational benchmark for a whole generation of guitar players.

He has, no matter how far from the original source he has sometimes strayed, always eventually returned to the blues for sustenance, rescue and refreshment.

So, searching to rediscover the essence of that calling, in Criterion Studios in 1974 he turned again to the masters who had called forth his own voice as a bluesman and guitar player.

Listen to the majestic, tensile strength of his take on the Willie Dixon/Elmore James blues standard from 1960, ‘I Can’t Hold Out’.

Eric doesn’t try to emulate the scything style of Elmore instead emphasising the tension rather than the release. So that when he does stretch out all you can do is echo his own, ‘Aaal Riiggght’ and ‘Oooh Yeh!’

Lest anyone think that the powerhouse Eric Clapton heard on ‘Layla’ was lying buried in the Surrey woods, never to rise again, listen to the coruscating brilliance of his playing on, ‘Motherless Children’!

Driven on by the relentless rhythm section he demonstrated his signature ability to mine the tropes of the blues guitar he knows and loves so well so that what emerges goes beyond generic statement to become real artistic creation.

This track begs you to cast caution to the winds before jumping on board a runaway train for a ride to the very end of the line!

461 was an artistically and commercially successful record. Eric’s Kingston Surrey by way of Kingston Jamaica take on Bob Marley’s, ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ became a US No 1 single and his version of Johhny Otis’, ‘Willie and The Hand Jive’ was also a substantial hit.

But, I’m not going to feature neither here today. Instead I will close with the emblematic, ‘Let It Grow’ which glows with a redemptive penitent fervour that almost always brings tears to my eyes.

At the end of this track and listening to 461 as a whole you can’t doubt that Eric Clapton had definitively rediscovered his mojo and was once again an artist gloriously practicing his craft.

Perhaps, you can never glimpse Paradise until you have spent your allotted time in Purgatory.

The Things I Used to Do – Guitar Slim, Buddy Guy & Albert Collins

Sometimes a song, a blues song, filled with venom, emerges into the world coiled, contained and poised to strike. A song which as the venom circulates round the listener’s bloodstream commands surrender even as they ready themselves for the next strike.

Songs like this from the 1940s and 1950s often had as big, or a bigger, effect on fellow artists as they did on the radio and jukebox audiences. Especially if the song had an arresting instrumental riff that every self respecting guitar player just knew, in their hands, stretched out, would really blow the roof off their hometown honky-tonk.

Played over and over by hundreds of artists such a song becomes part of the DNA of the blues and showcasing a distinctive take on it a rite of passage for the would be guitar slinger out to make a name for themselves.

Featured today on The Immortal Jukebox is just such a song, ‘The Things I Used To Do’, Guitar Slim’s Rhythm & Blues classic from 1953.

Now don’t you feel snake bit? From the opening notes you know this song will bore deep into you and that there will be no escape from its clutches. As the song proceeds at irresistible lava flow pace the stinging, swooping distorted guitar figure seems to slow time while the languorous booze fuelled vocal, stately piano and swirling brasses wreath you in a narcotic mind haze that envelops all your senses so that the end of the record always seems a jolt waking you up from a delicious dream you never wanted to end. So play it again and relive the dream!

Guitar Slim, born Eddie Jones in Greenwood Mississippi in late 1926, was inspired, like so many, as a guitar player by T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown. His own style developed initially in New Orleans saw him learning to use amp distortion to boost the impact of his Les Paul’s sharp trebly sound. He performed and sang with a gospel fervour that quickly won him a loyal audience in the blues clubs.

In addition he developed a show stopping stage act where the audience were treated to the sight of Slim decked out in a shimmering suit with hair dyed to match blasting out aggressive solos at high volume while sauntering through a club trailing a couple of hundred feet of guitar lead behind him. Once seen Guitar Slim was never forgotten! Listen to the great Buddy Guy explain the effect seeing Guitar Slim had on him!

‘The Things I Used To Do’ benefitted from the piano and arranging skills of a youthful Ray Charles who patiently coaxed Slim, over many takes, to deliver the recorded performance that has such a lovely spontaneous feel. Joining Slim in the J&M studio in New Orleans were Frank Mitchell on Trumpet, Gus Fontenette on Alto Sax, Charles Burbank and Joe Tillman played Tenor Sax with a rhythm section of Oscar Moore on Drums and Lloyd Lambert on Bass completing the lineup.

The record, issued by Art Rupe’s Specialty Records label, became a huge hit spending 14 weeks at No 1 on the R&B chart and easily selling over a million copies. The song became a Jukebox staple and almost an anthem across the South – especially in Texas and Louisiana.

Though Slim was never to have another record with the visceral, nothing can stop this being a hit impact of ‘Things’ his Specialty material features many wonderfully intense performances like, ‘Reap What You Sow’, ‘Story of My Life’ and, ‘Sufferin’ Mind’ demonstrating his brilliant guitar/vocal interplay.

Guitar Slim lived life with the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor seemingly scornful of the effect this would inevitably have on his health and career. Troubled by alcoholism Guitar Slim died in February 1959 aged only 32.

Yet, I’ll bet that in a blues club somewhere this week someone is bound to say, ‘Here’s one you might remember from the 1950s’ and launch into, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ certain that the audience whether or not they are scholars of the blues will fall under its unbreakable spell.

As a bonus treat I’m going to feature two superb versions of, ‘Things’ by two master blues guitarists – Buddy Guy and Albert Collins.

First up an imperious live outing from 1991 by Buddy who had listened closely to Guitar Slim in Louisiana before his arrival in Chicago in 1957. Once there Buddy impressed everybody with the power and intensity of his playing and soon those in the know were confidently proclaiming that the new heavyweight champion of Blues Guitar was none other than Buddy Guy.

Buddy has regularly featured, ‘Things’ in his set so that it often feels like he uses it as a touchstone of his youth and a battery charger to fire him up in performance. And, when Buddy fires we all get gloriously burned!

In conclusion here’s a lyrical, hypnotic version by Houston born Albert ‘Iceman’ Collins. Albert is one of those players who has a tone and touch that’s wholly individual and thus instantly recognisable.

It’s more than 60 years now since Guitar Slim cut, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ but from where I’m listening it still sounds newly minted and surprising every time it’s played. I think you call that a classic.

Notes:

‘Sufferin’ Mind’ on Specialty Records and, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ on UK Ace Records are both fine Guitar Slim compilations well worth your attention.

I have picked out 2 from the hordes of covers of, ‘Things’ above. Something of the reach of the song is indicated by further versions I have enjoyed you might care to look out for:

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

Gary Clark and Jimmy Vaughan

Earl King

Little Milton

Freddie King

Chuck Berry

James Brown

Jimmy Hendrix

Muddy Waters

Pee Wee Crayton

Stevie Ray Vaughan

Elvin Bishop

Richie Havens

And during Van Morrison’s epic 70th Birthday Cyprus Avenue concerts what should he segue into from a contemplative, ‘Enlightenment’ but …. The Things I Used To Do!