For Arthur Alexander : A Ballad in Blue for a Blue Balladeer

Some voices clutch at the heart.

Some voices echo on and on in your soul.

Some voices speak to you in the dawn’s early light.

Some voices play softly in your mind through the long and speechless night.

Some voices call your own.

Arthur Alexander had such a voice.

It’s now twenty-four years since Arthur died largely unmourned except by soul and R&B afficianados.

Yet, his songs, especially sung by him in his inimitable affecting way, will never die.

So for the ultimate blue balladeer – a ballad in blue.

A Ballad in Blue.

‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

(Henry David Thoreau)

‘Now I ache, with heartbreak and pain and the hurt that I just can’t explain’

(Arthur Alexander)

Imagine you are the manager of a blue collar bar in a tough small town. You work long hours making sure everybody has a good time and that nobody’s good time winds up leaving someone else on their way to hospital.

You know who not to serve, who to share a joke with, who to warn off and who to throw out for their own good. You keep a weighted pool cue just out of sight from the floor within your reach – just in case.

You stock the jukebox and make sure that there’s old and new favourites: something that counts as a home town anthem; several that are fast and loud for the boys from the base; plenty to dance and sing along to for the girls with the faraway looks in their eyes; and, some for everyone to openly or quietly cry over.

The night, though long, passes quickly for you and you don’t realise how tired you are until the door’s been shut on the last, loud, lonely drunk.

You look around and sigh thinking of the work needed before the whole cycle starts again after you wake up in a few hours. Time to pour yourself a more than generous measure of premium whiskey and play one last song.

Only one will do. Arthur Alexander, the patron saint of stoical fortitude. I can’t go on, I can’t go on – I’ll go on.

‘In The Middle Of It All’ tells the story of a broken man surveying, with an eerie calm that almost amounts to existential detachment, the shattered ruins of his life : ‘ It looks like my life is about to fall’.

Like all the great Arthur Alexander songs – ‘You Better Move On’, ‘Anna’ and ‘Dream Girl’ – it’s the song of a grown up man; a man who has experienced joy and pain, the ecstasy and despair brought on by love and it’s loss. Though Arthur’s songs are suffused with intense feeling they are in no sense hysterical – the besetting sin of so much pop music.

The record opens with a beautiful elegaic guitar figure that seems to glisten and shimmer in the background throughout the song. It then flows on at a stately, magisterial ballad mid tempo with the swooning melody and instrumental backing acting as a cushioned support for Arthur Alexander’s deeply affecting and entrancing southern country soul voice.

Arthur’s vocal charm owes nothing to stylistic tricks rather it is founded on the ageless attraction of hearing the sound of a man’s open, if broken heart. A sound that we can all recognise when it is authentic and true. Arthur Alexander’s proud and wounded vocals once heard will echo on in your own heart.

While listening to the song it seems as if you have pulled up your bar stool next to a pleasant looking though downcast guy who with no fanfare or needy plea for sympathy tells you, if you want to hear, why it is that night after night you can find him resident at this bar and why, night after night, no matter how much he drinks he does not get drunk.

During the course of, ‘In The Middle of It All’ the drummer seems to beat out a steady purgatorial pilgrim’s tempo while Arthur’s exquisite vocal lays out the extent of his lonely and desolate emotional landscape.

His love for his girl which was, ‘Really, really real’ remains true even though the house and home their love had built together is now a reproachful ruin he occupies alone.

The place where they had been so happy, as far as he can recall, now has the rain steadily and dreadfully falling all around it. What he once thought were the certainties of love and loyalty have vanished like some cruel mirage as his world, ‘Just came down one day’.

The song seems to summon up this heart and soul assaulting rain as the strings swell and the chorus of backing singers join Arthur in his examination of regret and loss. You can feel the southern heat and humidity of Alabama where the song was recorded in every breath of Arthur’s vocal and in every beat of the music.

The wonderful piano playing provides arpeggios of insistent pain and a sense that, in this vale of tears, no shield of love or faith can ever be proof against the truth that a love which seemed so sure can, in an instant, crumble into mere dust.

Arthur Alexander’s singing throughout this song is filled with an aching tenderness as he caresses each word into bruised breath and life. It is as if by singing with such scrupulous care he can somehow make whole his shattered heart or at least prevent it’s final destruction. His singing remains controlled and conversational even as it grows in the depth of pain it examines.

Perhaps this is because the song, for this singer, even in such a situation is not a resentful scream but rather a tragic lullaby that tries despite all his trials to shore up a ruined life.

There is no escape from the realisation that all of us must sooner or later confront the inevitability of death, loss and failure. For as the roman poet Virgil and Arthur Alexander knew living a clear eyed life involves coming to terms with the terrible truth that there are tears in things, ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’.

If you want someone to hold your hand when this truth becomes real in your own life it’s hard to think of a better soul companion than Arthur Alexander.

‘In The Middle of It All’ is one of those rare songs that seems to live on in the silence after it has finished and after the record arm has returned to its cradle. Sometimes for me that silence feels like the silence between two sobs.

Forty years ago David Bowie in ‘Young Americans’ uttered an anguished plea: ‘Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry’. Well David, wherever you are tonight, here it is. It has always worked for me.

 

Notes, credits and further listening:

It seems that Arthur Alexander recorded ‘In The Middle Of It All’ four times in his life. The version discussed above is the second 1962 version.

Arthur Alexander recorded some 120 songs during his recording career for a variety of labels. His initial career featuring many of the songs he will always be remembered for began at Dot Records and includes some of the premier recording at Rick Hall’s FAME studio in Muscle Shoals.

From 1965 he recorded for Sound Stage 7, a Monument subsidiary and in 1971 he recorded a lone album for Warner Brothers. In 1975, out of the blue, he recorded the marvellously fluid and typically affecting single, ‘Everyday I Have To Cry’ which incredibly made the US top 50.

Finally and most poignantly of all he recorded the lovely low key, Lonely Just Like Me’ album issued by Elektra in 1993 some three months prior to his death. This was later reissued by Hacktone Records with the addition of live performances and also with some hotel room demos which have some of the 3am in the morning, death on the horizon mood, shared with the New York Demos recorded by Buddy Holly prior to his untimely demise.

The ever alert Ace Records have issued two essential compilations covering the Dot and Monument Years. The other albums have also been reissued.

A welcome tribute collection, ‘Adios Amigo’ came out under the Razor and Tie imprint and features Nick Lowe’s tender cover of, ‘In The Middle Of It All’ (indeed Lowe’s career in this millennium might be seen as the largely successful attempt to pare his songwriting and recording style to their essentials in emulation of Arthur Alexander).

A relatively small investment will furnish you with the heartbreakingly magnificent catalogue of one of the greatest singers and songwriters in any genre and you will surely find that the songs and performances will become treasured fixtures in your life.

They were certainly a fixture in the life of John Lennon who had clearly listened closely to Arthur Alexander as evidenced in The Beatles cover of, ‘Anna’. The way that the famously acerbic Lennon could bring a wounded tenderness and discretion to ballad performances also betrays Artur’s influence.

John Lennon kept a jukebox filled with his favourite records to fortify him against the madness of the world that had grown up around him: prominent on his own immortal selection were records by Arthur Alexander.

Arthur Alexander was born in Sheffield Alabama in May 1940 and died in June 1993 in Nashville. He was only 53 years old. Despite recording several classic songs and having some of these covered by The Beatles (Anna) and The Rolling Stones (You Better Move On) he never really made much money from his songs.

Sadly, he was also prey to alcohol and mental health problems. Disillusioned and depressed he was for many years largely estranged from the music business and spent long spells working as a janitor and school bus driver.

There is a heartfelt biography by Richard Younger, ‘Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story’ published by the University of Alabama.

Arthur Alexander might be said to be the epitome of the, ‘Country Soul’ style of music. The movement as a whole is warmly evoked and intelligently discussed in Barney Hoskyn’s book, ‘Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted: Country Soul In The American South’ (Fontana/Bloomsbury).

Musicians growing up in a deeply segregated society were nevertheless heir to musical traditions that, principally through the medium of radio, effortlessly crossed the racial divide. Mucians and singers recognised great songs whether they were played on country or ‘Race’ music stations.

The constellation of wonderful musicians and songwriters who worked at Stax, FAME and Muscle Shoals studios were artistic freedom riders shattering barriers within the sanctuary of the recording studio even if they had to step carefully once they emerged into the heavy heat of the Southern mainstreet.

Booker T and The MG’s, Dan Penn, Chips Moman, Spooner Oldham and their brothers and sisters in rhythm made records that were recognisably southern and spoke eloquently of the lives shared by black and white alike.

There is a website ‘The annotated Arthur Alexander’ which is a very valuable resource for anyone seriously interested in delving further into Arthur’s recording career.

Van Morrison, Elvis and Berry Gordy all revered Jackie Wilson : Mr Excitement!

‘Jackie Wilson was the greatest singer I’ve ever heard. The epitome of natural greatness .. he set the standard I’d be looking for in singers forever’ (Berry Gordy, Founder of Motown).

‘I guess that makes me the white Jackie Wilson’ (Elvis Presley when hearing some called Jackie Wilson the black Elvis).

‘Jackie Wilson was the most dynamic singer and performer I think I’ve ever seen’ (Smokey Robinson).

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Just in case you thought these luminaries were exaggerating take a listen to Jackie’s debut solo single from 1957, ‘Reet Petite’ and you’ll hear that there’s no hyperbole involved.

Jackie Wilson was born to sing.

Jackie could sing with the elegant power that Ted Williams brought to Baseball.

Jackie could sing with the ‘don’t you know I’m better than you in every way’ confidence that Muhammad Ali brought to Boxing.

Jackie could sing with the ‘wow, that’s brilliant’ style of a Scott Fitzgerald Sentence.

Jackie Wilson could sing and take the breath away from the band behind him, the audience in front of him and every singer who imagined, before they heard him, that they were a pretty good singer.

Sing it Jackie! Sing it!

January 20th 1984 Memorial Hospital Mount Holly New Jersey

You know it’s more than 8 years now since I sang, ‘Lonely Teardrops’ that last time at a Dick Clark gig in New Jersey.

One minute I’m knee sliding while hitting all the high notes and the next it seemed like a madman with a hammer is bashing me in the chest.

Last time I was able to sing. Last time I was really able to walk and talk.

Last time I was Jackie Wilson – Mr Excitement!

I been in Hospitals ever since that night. Ever since.

Sometimes the lights are bright and sometimes it’s all shades and shadows. Machines bleeping nearly all the time. Nurses coming and going about their business. I got to know a few of them really well – though they wouldn’t know that.

Coma. Conscious but incapacitated is what they say.

Actually, in some ways I hear more now than I ever did.

When someone comes to the bedside I can feel them before they speak and it ain’t just the living who come to see me. Course, I don’t know who gone and died since I been banged up in here.

So, I don’t know, for sure, who is alive, who is dead and which are ghosts or dreams in my head.

But, they been comin’ to see me more and more these last few weeks. Almost as if they comin’ to say Goodbye.

Well, some I’m glad they came. And, some I wished they’d stayed in Hell.

A few shed those lonely teardrops when they whispered my name and theirs in my ear.

Maybe, like me they sing that one in their mind as the teardrops fall.

Mama came. She about cried a river. Told me, no matter what I done on life, ain’t no sin The Lord can’t forgive. If you ask him. Well, I know I got plenty to ask forgiveness for – especially the way I treated my wives and the mothers of my kids I never married. Here’s hopin’ Mama’s right.

Mama was the one took me to hear the Billups Chapel Choir and that’s when I knew I was born to be a singer. Sometimes, when it’s 3 in the morning and this place is quiet as a Monday Morning Chapel I think I hear that choir again singing, ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’.

Papa came. Now, I know he’s dead. Death ain’t changed him though. He came with a bottle in a brown bag and he done nothing but cuss me out all the time he sat here. Maybe I’m more like him than I ought to be but I ain’t dead yet. Not yet.

And maybe, just maybe, The Boatman still not absolutely sure I’m bound for hell. Leastwise that’s what I’m hopin’.

Berry and Gwen Gordy came with Billy Davis.

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Now when I first met Berry, in the 50s, he wasn’t an Emperor of the music business. No way. He was an ex boxer like me and a song hustler trying to make his way in this mean ol’ world.

Give him his due though. Him, Gwen and Billy came up with a string of hit songs when I went solo after leavin’ Billy Ward and The Dominoes. They knew that when it came to selling a song that there wasn’t anyone to touch me.

Berry said I was even better than Clyde McPhatter – and anyone who’s knows anything about singing knows that Clyde was as good as anyone’s ever been.

Always did like Gwen.

Billy was a gentleman and you don’t get many of them in the business I can tell you!

As they sat here they started singing, ‘That is Why (I Love You So).

Sounded real good even for a bunch of oldies.

But, nothing like what I could do with the song. Nothing like.

Elvis comes now and again when he can escape Colonel Tom. He just likes to sit and croon a little. Tells me how many of my moves found their way into his act. Actually, he came yesterday and sang, ‘All My Trials’. There’s no doubt he can sing. Really sing.

One thing Elvis said was that he loved it when I sang a big slow ballad holding the audience in the palm of my hand.

Yeh! I could sing them at any tempo. I remember, ‘Doggin’ Around’ always cast a spell. A true spell.

My cousin Levi came by and talked like we did when we was kids. He’s a hell of a singer. Imagine the lead singer of The Four Tops and Jackie Wilson in the same group! Shame our version of The Falcons never got to record.

Tell you one guy who wouldn’t dare turn up. Nat Tarponol. He must owe me a million dollars! To think that I near carried his label Brunswick on my back while he was piling my greenbacks head high into his account.

I get a kick when Carl Davis drops by. When everyone thought I was finished it was Carl who kept the faith. He hooked me up with those Detroit Funk Brothers and Lord didn’t we cook!

Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and I Get The Sweetest Feeling put me right back where I belonged – right on top.

One time Carl came in and told this Irsih guy, Van Morrison, had made a tribute record, ‘Jackie Wilson Said’ and that he could out sing near any R&B, Blues and Soul singer who ever lived. I would have laughed but then he played me the record.

Who would believe it! The guy has the Rhythm in his soul. No doubt about it. Then I got to thinking.

Sure, an Irish guy with a dynamite voice (though they tell me he don’t move too much!) but what about a Black Jewish guy from Detroit who can bring a tear to every eye from Dublin to Detroit with his version of, ‘Danny Boy’!

Beat that Mr Morrison!

Anyway, I’m real tired now. Never been so tired. I can still feel that bullet near my spine and it feels like that one kidney of mine is about to call it a day.

I don’t know for sure but I think I hear those pipes calling louder and louder and somewhere over the river a choir calling me.

Guess they could use a star Tenor.

Goodnight.

Notes:

Jackie Wilson died on 21 January 1984. He was 49 years old. He never recovered from the heart attack he had on 29 September 1975 while performing, ‘Lonely Teardrops’.

In his career Jackie scored more than 50 hit singles. He had 6 R&B Number Ones and 6 Top Ten Pop Chart hits.

‘Reet Petite’ ‘Lonely Teardrops’ and ‘That’s Why (I Love You So)’ were all products of the Gordy/Davis/Gordy songwriting partnership.

‘Doggin’ Around’ was written by Lena Agree.

‘Reet Petite’ shows someone in complete control of glorious gifts. You want to shout with joy with Jackie as he pulls off miracle after miracle with a broad wink to the audience – ‘Ain’t I something!’ You sure were Jackie, you sure were.

In, ‘Lonely Teardrops’ Jackie melds Doo-Wop sweetness with Gospel dynamism effortlessly shifting up and down through his astonishing vocal range.

With Jackie there is always the sense of a flesh and blood man confronting the trials and triumphs of love – no matter how thrillingly theatrical his performance.

In, ‘That’s Why’ he slaloms through vocal twists and turns like the great French skier Jean Claude Killy. When he sings, ‘Don’t stop the music – let’s go! I always find myself shouting Go Jackie Go! Go Jackie Go!

On, ‘Doggin’ he proves that he was a master at any tempo. He conjures up the picture of the troubled lover illuminated in the sodium glare of the street corner lamp with a sea of darkness and heartbreak all around. Yet, there’s more than a touch of bravado and menace in his warning that he may just have to bring his errant lover down.

As for ‘Danny Boy’ just listen and marvel.

John Fogerty, Johnny Winter & James Burton hit that Riff! : Susie Q!

From the time fire first flickered in Mankind’s camp and imagination we have always been engaged in Quest.

And, engaged every bit as much, in stories about Quest.

The quest for food and warmth.

The quest for Love.

The quest for Knowledge.

The quest for Meaning.

The quest for Oblivion.

The quest for Freedom.

The quest for the North West Passage. The quest for the South Pole.

The quest to put a man on The Moon. A man on The Moon.

And, ever since the sound of the Electric Guitar thrillingly sliced through the air and ether the quest for The Riff!

The Riff that has other Guitar Players saying, ‘Damn, how come I didn’t get that one first?’

The Riff that snaps the neck back hard when it cuts through the fug of tobacco smoke and fog of alcohol as it roars out of the Jukebox speakers.

Now, as we know, where The Riff comes from is A Mystery.

Famously Keith Richard came up with, ‘Satisfaction’ in his sleep!

No one knows for certain how to hit that seam of guitar gold. Yet, we can all tell, as we shiver in recognition, when a true seam has been opened up.

And, there can be no doubt that in 1956 in the studios of KWRH Radio in Shreveport Louisiana a very rich seam was opened up!

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Dale Hawkins wrote a song, ‘Susie Q’ that featured A Riff, a Righteous Riff, conjured out of the Swampy Southern air by a teenage wonder, James Burton, one of the most imitated and significant guitarists in the entire history of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Look Out! Look Out!

Riff coming through!

Dale was a Louisiana native and a cousin of Ronnie Hawkins. Bitten early by Louisiana style Blues and the burgeoning sounds of Rockabilly and Rock ‘n’ Roll he found that he could sing this new music with conviction adding some local hot sauce in his vocal style and songwriting to the mix.

History will show (at least in the Authorised Immortal Jukebox Version) that his greatest contribution to Rock ‘n’ Roll was the opportunity he gave to guitarists James Burton and later Roy Buchanan (My Babe) to strut their very considerable stuff.

James Burton (pictured below during his stint with Ricky Nelson) is a pioneer of Rock ‘n’ Roll Guitar style.

All across the globe neophyte axemen have grown boney fingers as they played over and over the definitive solos he cut with Dale, Ricky, Elvis himself and Emmylou Harris in a storied career.

Yet, almost none have equalled the terse economy and authority of James himself.

In Susie Q his guitar begins by flashing like a switchblade in the Louisiana moonlight before calling up peals of menacing thunder.

You’re always primarily attending to his playing even while admiring the foreboding and threat provided by Dale’s vocal and the rhythm section.

All these forces combined make Susie Q a stone cold classic.

Once Susie Q was picked up by Checker Records in Chicago in 1957 it stormed up the charts and became ubiquitous on Jukeboxes.

It became one of those songs that continues to inspire bands and guitarists in particular for generations after generation.

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One of those it inspired, John Fogerty, was the lead guitarist, singer and songwriter for Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Susie Q was their first real hit record. They went on under John’s leadership to be arguably the greatest Singles Bands in the history of American Popular Music.

When John Fogerty plays guitar and sings he does it with raging commitment.

There’s a breathtaking boiling intensity to all his songs and in every note flowing from his Guitar.

He wasn’t born on the bayou and he didn’t live on Green River.

Riverboats didn’t pass his door.

John Fogerty from the moment he heard Stephen Foster songs as a child before being thunderstruck by the primal Rock ‘n’ Roll eruption in the mid 50s intuitively understood that there was a mythic power in this music.

And, in his soul and imagination, he lived within that mythology and knew, in the way a born artist does, that he could lock into that power and add treasures of his own to the mother lode.

Aided by brother Tom, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford he would indeed add volume after volume to the corpus of classic Americana.

No one in his generation had a better grasp of the visceral power of Rock ‘n’ Roll. And, as you listen to his take on Susie Q, it’s clear no one could match him for emulating that visceral power.

Our final date with Susie comes courtesy of Johnny Winter. Johnny with his trusty Gibson Firebird Guitars called up electric storms of sound every time he played.

Growing up in post war Beaumont Texas he immersed himself in The Blues while attending closely to the finger picking miracles of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis.

Johnny loved nothing more than to find a song or a Riff that he could really stretch out on. And, when he found one like Susie Q barns all across America began to combust and light up the night sky!

I confidently predict that there will never be a time when a Guitarist with a mean glint in his eye won’t hit that Susie Q Riff and think .. Now you’ll be true! Now you’ll be Mine! Oh Susie Q!

Notes:

I never got to see James Burton play with Elvis. But, I did see Emmylou Harris’ London debut back in 1975 and I remember the special ovation James received when introduced by Emmylou.

It seemed as if several generations of Guitar afficianados had assembled to watch, admire and applaud the master to the rafters.

Dale Hawkins, who died in 2010 aged 73, is a more considerable figure than his Chart listings suggest.

His early work is captured on the Ace Records collection, ‘Dale Hawkins, Rock ‘n’ Roll Tornado’.

His gifts as a songwriter and singer are particularly well reflected in the Albums, ‘Memphis & Tyler, Texas’ and ‘Back Down to Louisiana’.

Mystery Revisited! Iris Dement, The Velvet Underground & Blind Willie Johnson

By some mischance or gremlin one of my posts disappeared from the WordPress system leaving a spectral trace as, ‘Unknown or Deleted’ in my Stats.

It’s taken me a while to work out which post.

Now, I find, perhaps appropriately, it’s the one on the theme of Mystery!

So here it is again (with an additional track).

We are born into a world of blooming and buzzing confusion.

Yet we soon learn to discriminate. Magellans all, instinctive cartographers we test the boundaries of our physical and intellectual environments every hour of every day as we draw and redraw the map of the world we have made for ourselves.

We try, schooled and unschooled, consciously and unconsciously, to make sense of it all. We continuously attempt to construct a free flowing narrative which we hope will contain, order and give meaning to our lives.

Yet, on every mind map, every finely inked delineation of the rivers, the seas, the coasts and continents and the sheer mountains there is always, must always be, a blank space, that used to be called, ‘Terra Incognita’ the unknown world(s) coexistent with the known world.

And, who knows, perhaps that land sustains and shapes everything in the world we think we know.

We all understand that there is much, much, that seems far beyond our understanding. Much that may be beyond any human understanding.

I believe, without getting too catholically theological on you that there is essentially at the heart of every life much that will always remain – probably necessarily – a Mystery.

Each of us will have our own evolving sense of the mystery. A sense that grows not from interrogation but out of fleeting glimpses.

One of the graces my love of music has given me is a conviction that there will never be an end to the making of songs because there will never be an end to our sense of and need for Mystery.

Songs, even the greatest songs do not expain Mystery but they can, sometimes, illuminate Mystery and allow it to settle and perhaps to bloom in our own mysterious centre.

The songs that follow are best listened to in still, patient solitude. These songs are alive and if you open yourself to them they will speak. They may well carry you so far away that you find yourself confronting the most mysterious realm of all – your own inner self.

As one of the songwriters most dear to my heart Iris Dement (featured previously in the ‘Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories’ post which provides her background) put it so much more eloquently than I can – ‘Let The Mystery Be’.

The version at the head of this post is Iris solo.

As a Bonus for this recovered post here’s a lovely version featuring David Byrne and Natalie Merchant with 10,000 maniacs.

Uncharacteritically, I will say little about my selections here. I’ll allow the artists to each evoke Mystery in their own way.

No one knows for certain. I think I’ll just let the Mystery be.

The Velvet Underground’s third album from 1969 could never have equalled the seismic impact on contemporary culture of their debut and sophomore records which seemed to have tilted the axis of music; opening up new thematic territory with a mixture of cool calculation and raging brio.

Maestro John Cale departed taking his unique combination of chapel fervour, conservatoire training and cathartic use of unleashed chaos with him.

There is a feeling of calm after the hurricane infusing the third Velvets album. Lou Reed, now unchallenged as leader, chose to showcase quieter, mor contemplative songs. Two of those ‘What Goes On’ (memorably covered by Bryan Ferry) and, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ are among the most luminously beautiful and aching songs in popular music.

To close out the record Lou wrote a seemingly artless song, ‘Afterhours’ which was sung with limpid grace by the self effacing Mo Tucker, the band’s percussionist.

After Hours contains a lovely line that rings through my mind every time I am wending my way home after a late night in London – ‘All the people look well in tne dark’. I find comfort, disquiet and unfathomable Mystery in that line and the song that surrounds it. A song that speaks powerfully in the child like tones and cadences of a nursery rhyme.

My venture into Mystery concludes with a recording, a performance, from December 1927 which Ry Cooder (whom God preserve) has called, ‘The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music’.

Blind Willie Johnson’s, ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’ is rightly featured on the, ‘Golden Record’ sent in 1977 aboard The Voyager space probe to represent the human experiences of the natives of Planet Earth to whomsoever it might encounter!

However far Voyager ventures it will still be catching up with the immensities contained within Blind Willie’s masterpiece. I seems to me to be the most profound keening ever uttered on the essential loneliness of the human condition.

Listening to the songs above I’m reminded that music is the most pure, potent and direct means we have of engaging with the deepest, inescapable mysteries of life.

The Young Rascals : Blissful Blue Eyed Summer Soul!

‘The Rascals are Coming! The Rascals are Coming!’ (Scoreboard announcement at The Beatles Shea Stadium concert)

‘My God, you guys really are white!’ (Otis Redding on encountering The Rascals in a neighbouring studio)

‘Some people may not realize it, but The Rascals were the first Rock Band in the world … okay over in England, some guys were making some noise. But in the real world, in the centre of the universe – New Jersey – The Rascals were the first band!’ (Steve Van Zandt speech for The Rascals Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction)

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There’s always one.

One Summer of your youth that stays shimmering in your mind for evermore.

For me it was the long, once in a century, extraordinarily hot, Summer of 1976.

A Summer when I was not yet 21.

A Summer when my head and my entire being was aflame, aflame.

A Summer when the waters of The Cam glistened silver in the Summer sun.

A Summer when the Colleges of Cambridge never looked lovelier as I piloted (very inexpertly) down the River.

And, as always, a soundtrack in my head.

Summer Songs. Summer Songs.

And, there’s always one song that summons your shimmering Summer like no other.

For me, in the Summer of 1976, it was ‘Groovin’ a song of gossamer grace recorded by The Young Rascals in 1967.

Now, I don’t know about you but when I hear, ‘Groovin” the jazzments in my mind approach something like ecstasy!

Eddie Brigati, co-writer with Felix Cavaliere, of this miraculous song recalls that at the time they were living in a hotel right off Central Park in New York City.

Down the crowded avenue they would go on a Sunday afternoon doing anything they wanted to do!

When you’re in the prime of youth and the world is opening up for you to explore and conquer it’s indeed hard to imagine anything better than groovin’ on a sunny afternoon with the one closest to your heart.

You can just feel that life is getting better and better – endlesssly.

Let the future and responsibilities wait; for now smile, take a deep breath of fresh air and you’ll hear yourself saying, ‘Ah-ha-ha, Ah-ha-ha’ and you’ll remember those moments, those immortal moments, for the rest of your life wherever life takes you thereafter.

Groovin’ was an unstoppable Nunber One record that sat atop Billboard for four straight weeks.

Who wouldn’t be charmed by its relaxed groove? There’s a lazy Cuban feel to the recording emphasised by the presence of congas but not drums. The great Chuck Rainey on bass gives the song liquid momentum as does Michael Weinstein on harmonica.

The glory of the song though, as with all Rascals recordings, lies in the seductive beauty of their vocals.

Felix on lead with wonderful harmonic support from David Brigati (the Fifth Rascal).

Gene Cornish is there on guitar filling out the sound which is topped off with the birdsong!

Put that all together and you have, as Eddie Brigati said, ‘that simple little summer song that everybody knows’.

Amazingly, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records thought the song would not appeal as it was so different to the more boisterous R&B and Soul sounds Rascals fans had come to expect from them.

A clear case of underestimating the public taste!

Luckily, a figure seemingly ever present around the music scene in 60s New York, Disc Jockey Murray the K, bearded Jerry Wexler and argued with convincing force that Groovin’ was a sure fire Number One smash!

Now this wasn’t the first Number One The Rascals would achieve and it wouldn’t be their last.

Their debut at the summit of the charts in February 1966 was with one of the great rave-up records of all time, ‘Good Lovin’.

If you pair it with, ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ by the Spencer Davis Group featuring the teenage Steve Winwood you have one hell of a party going on!

You got the fever? Here’s the cure!

One, two, three!

Versions of the song had previously been recorded by Lemme B Good (Limmie Snell) and The Olympics (benefitting from the production smarts of Jerry Ragavoy).

However, neither of those worthy platters could match the joyous, adrenaline fuelled, ‘I may just die on the spot’ stairway to heaven rush of The Rascals version.

Tom Dowd, legendary producer and engineer at Atlantic, captured the attack of The Rascals live sound perfectly – you feel you’re in the middle of that party with them and you never want the song to end even though you can’t possibly keep dancing at this rate for more than another sixty seconds!

On drums Dino Danelli demonstrates what a wonderfully drivin’ sticksman he was while the transcendent Hammond Organ break by Felix is playing on a loop in my head since the first day I heard it.

Gene Cornish provides wonderfully scuzzy guitar licks that don’t let up throughout.

As for the let’s start in overdrive and then really put the hammer down vocals you can hear why Otis might have been surprised at their complexions!

The Rascals, 1940s Baby Boomers all, had grown up in the New York/New Jersey area and all had born again experiences when they heard the likes of Ray Charles, Little Richard and Fats Domino on the airwaves.

Also important in the development of their sound was the ethereal DooWop singing of The Harptones and The Moonglows.

Especially epiphanic for Felix would be discovering Jazzman Jimmy Smith and the awesome power of The Hammond Organ (the same lightning bolt would strike Steve Winwood, Georgie Fame and Ian McLagan over in England).

After serving apprenticeships in local bar bands they came together as members of Joey Dee and the Starliters (David Brigati bringing them in). Touring Europe playing, ‘Peppermint Twist’ for all they were worth they found themselves on a bill with The, then unknown in America, Beatles.

The dime dropped that they should be front men not side men!

Soon they were tearing up venues like Manhattan’s The Phone Booth and coming to the attention of Promoter Extraordinaire Sid Bernstein who got them signed to Atlantic (their first white act!).

The Rascals catalogue in their glory days, 1965 to 1968, gleams with musical treasure.

There was something about The Rascals that chimed with the times. This is reflected in their third and final Number One record from 1968, ‘People Got To Be Free’ which was a fervent and frank civil rights anthem.

Undeniably preachy and of its time. Yet, yet – wrapped in glorious vocals and a swirling magic carpet of guitars, percussion and horns. I’m always in favour of anthems you can really shake a tail feather to!

And, you know, looking around this mean old world, who can disagree that the train of freedom, for so many, is long, long overdue.

As with so many 60s Groups ‘Personal Differences’ and the relentless grind of searching for the next hit took their toll on The Rascals and it would not be until well into the 21st Century that all the original members got together (for a theatrical celebration of their career devised by über fan Steve Van Zandt).

Most of all I love The Rascals for the youthful Joie de Vivre of their sound.

There’s something enormously affecting in the blend of their voices and the reaching for the stars arrangements of their songs.

I’m going to leave you with a personal favourite that has a yearning and tremulous charm that never palls.

And, that’s surely something to celebrate in world that’s constantly changing.

Notes:

There’s an invaluable compilation of The Rascals work on Rhino Records. Tracks I return to over and over include, ‘I’ve Been Lonely Too Long’ ‘A Beautiful Morning’ ‘A Girl Like You’ and ‘Mustang Sally’.

Fans of the French Ye-Ye sound should check out Nicoletta’s version of ‘How Can I Be Sure’ which went out under the title, ‘Je Ne Pense Qu’a T’aimer’.

Big Joe Turner : Moving The Earth – Shake Rattle and Roll !

“Rock and roll would have never happened without him” – Doc Pomus

Auguries. Signs. Portents.

Beneath the stillness something is stirring.

Tectonic plates are shifting.

Magma is on the move.

In the sky above the birds describe strange patterns.

Something is stirring. Something is stirring.

The restless beasts of the field call out in distress.

The Moon turns blood red and the wick of The Sun threatens to gutter and die.

Still ponds spit and steam.

Something is stirring. Something is stirring.

Rivers run dry while the dreadful Sea rises higher and higher and higher.

The wolves and the tigers prowl quietly in the night.

Babes stir anxiously in their mother’s wombs.

Something is stirring. Something is stirring.

Rock ‘n’ Roll. Rock ‘n’ Roll. Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Enter Stage Left : Big Joe Turner – a man no bear would dare pursue.

Well Areet Banaza! Areet Banaza! Take me home Daddy! Take me home!

‘Shake Rattle and Roll’ is one of those records that has you exclaiming in the brief moments between its end and you hitting repeat, ‘Now that’s the greatest record ever made’.

And you don’t get no fighting talk from me about that.

Which is why, ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’ majestically takes its place on The Immortal Jukebox as A18

It was issued in April 1954 on Atlantic Records and took up residence in the R&B charts for the next 6 months.

It’s a landmark record that exploded in the consciousness of every audience that heard it.

You’re not so keen on the Foxtrot as soon as you’ve heard, ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’!

Big Joe had cut more than 50 singles, many of them magnificent, when he signed with Atlantic in 1951.

There he found a home where his immense ability was recognised, supported and promoted.

The hits flowed – ‘Chains of Love’, ‘Sweet Sixteen’, ‘Honey Hush’ and, ‘TV Mama’ captured his talent in full flow and turned new generations of the public and fellow artists on to the great man.

I have often heard Big Joe described as a, ‘Blues Shouter’ and up to a point Lord Copper that’s true.

At full volume it’s true that Big Joe’s voice could stop a speeding truck or leave a forest felled in its wake.

Yet, Big Joe was a lot more than just a shouter. He had immense power at his command but it was highly controlled power.

Big Joe could swing. Big Joe could stroll.

Big Joe could be seductive.

Big Joe could be salacious. Boy Howdy could he be salacious!

Big Joe could command a band and a bandstand.

Big Joe could sell a lyric.

Big Joe was a marvel who could do what the hell he pleased with a song!

Big Joe just kept getting better and better and sooner or later it was obvious that the world would catch up with him and realise that he was an American Master whose work would be inscribed in history for evermore.

Now, none of this would come as any surprise to the head honchos at Atlantic – Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Etregun.

They were savvy businessmen and deep dyed music fanatics who knew, just knew, that given the right material and surrounded by musicians of the right calibre Big Joe would make records that would be unstoppable.

Unstoppable.

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So they assembled an A Team to guarantee Big Joe the success his mighty talent deserved.

First, a songwriter, musician and arranger who is one of the secret heroes of 20th Century music – Jesse Stone.

Jesse, was born in 1901, into a highly musical family and it was soon clear that Jesse had the dedication and the smarts to make a career in the music business.

Wherever there was a thriving music scene – Kansas City, Detroit, New York City, Jesse was there learning, listening and storing away ideas for songs and arrangements.

Pretty soon he became a go to guy if you wanted a sound that swung and perked up the ears of the audiences of the day.

Benny Goodman had a hit with his,’Idaho’. Louis Jordan took, ‘Cole Slaw’ up the charts.

Oh, and he also happened to write, ‘Smack Dab in the Middle’, ‘Money Honey’, ‘Losing Hand’ and, ‘Sh-Boom’!

But Jesse never wrote a song with more visceral impact than Shake Rattle and Roll. The lyric is a no holds barred celebration of the pleasures of the flesh yoked to a dynamite arrangement that just sweeps you away.

The glorious Sax solo comes courtesy of Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor who was everybody’s first choice when recording in NYC studios in the 1950s.

On Guitar the superb Mickey Baker (featured here earlier on the ‘Love is Strange post).

On Drums Connie Kay who later showed his sensitive side when playing with The Modern Jazz Quartet and his mystical side when he formed the rhythm section with Bassist Richard Davis for Van Morrison’s epochal, ‘Astral Weeks’ sessions.

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Together with Big Joe front and centre they made a record that truly is earth shaking.

A record that you’ll believe to your very soul.

Your very soul.

How does it go?

It goes like this!

‘Shake, Rattle and Roll.’

Sing it Big Joe. Sing it!