Immortal Jukebox : The Story So Far (with some vintage Van Morrison as a bonus!)

When I launched The Immortal Jukebox in March 2014 I had, as they say, no expectations.

I just knew that it was time to find out if I could think on the page with the same fluency I could talk about the music I loved.

My readers are of course the judge and jury as to whether I have managed in my writing to convey the depth of my passion for the music and musicians from the golden age of recording – by which I mean the late 1920s to the late 1970s.

It seems I have now written some 200 Posts here on The Jukebox – each one a letter from the heart.

Starting out with just my family and a handful of loyal friends I now see, with some amazement, that my combined WordPress, Twitter and Email followers are now approaching the 10,000 mark!

I determined from the beginning of this adventure that all my posts would read as if no one else could possibly have written them and that no matter how well known the record or artist featured I would illuminate their particular merits from my own unique angle.

I also decided, as time went on, to risk inserting fictional elements and personal anecdotes and reflections into the mix.

It’s my Blog and I’ll rant, rave, laugh and cry if I want to!

Heartfelt thanks to my readers who have produced so many intelligent and inspiring comments and so much warm encouragement.

Remember a handful of Nickels and The Jukebox is a cure for all your ills.

In reflective mode, I’ve been reviewing my Stats and thought I would share some of my discoveries with you.

Top 5 Posts :

1. ‘Ordinary (Extraordinary Stories) featuring Mary Gauthier & Iris Dement

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-3M

2. Van Morrison ‘In The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll’

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-bi

3. ‘An Archangel, A Journey, A Sacred River, The Folk Process & A Spiritual’

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-6m

4. ‘Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow!’ – Train songs featuring Bob Marley & The Wailers, Hank Williams, Curtis Mayfield and John Stewart.

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5. ‘John Lennon loved ‘Angel Baby’ by Rosie Hamlin (RIP) – Here’s Why!

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-Y3

Thom’s Top 5 (the Posts that gave me the most pleasure to write)

1. ‘Bob Dylan : The Nobel Prize, One Too Many Mornings, The Albert Hall & Me.

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-AL

2. Van Morrison : Carrickfergus (Elegy for Vincent)

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-7J

3. ‘Walk Away Renee – The Lost Love That Haunts The Heart’

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-sQ

4. ‘Dolores Keane : Voice and Vision from Ireland’

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-Lb

5. ‘A Poem for All Ireland Sunday – Up Tipp!’

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-w9

If you’ve missed out on any of these – catch up now!

I would be fascinated to know which Posts make your own Top 5 – set the Comments section ablaze!

To conclude let me thank every one of my readers for supporting The Jukebox.

I’ll sign off now with a song from the Patron Saint of The Immortal Jukebox – Van Morrison.

Heart stopping. Spirit lifting.

Hey Girl! Hey Girl!

An eerily beautiful prefigurement of Astral Weeks dreamlike mood.

Van takes a walk and watches the boats go by in the early morning light.

A spectral flute welcomes the wind and sun as Van’s vocal caresses each word of the lyric in which once again he encounters the young girl, his Beatrice figure, who will almost make him lose his mind.

The track is only three minutes and ten seconds long yet seems to last much longer – indeed seems to have stopped the flow of Time itself.

Time itself.

Rufus Thomas : Celebrating the Centenary of a Sun & Stax Records pioneer!

A lot can happen in a 100 years.

Within 60 years of a few minutes of wavering powered flight a man can land on the Moon!

The War to end all Wars can be followed by the Jazz Age, The Great Depression and an even more deadly second World War.

Mankind can find cures for scourging diseases while developing ever more ingenious ways to destroy more and more lives with ever more deadly Bombs.

Radio, Records, and Television bring vibrant local cultures to global prominence.

From the 1920s onwards an immense treasury of music is captured on 78s or 45s or LPs.

Ragtime. Jazz. The Blues. Boogie-Woogie. Gospel. Country (and Western). Jump Blues. Rhythm and Blues. Hillbilly Boogie. Rockabilly. Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The Immortal Jukebox exists to celebrate this treasury and to salute the man and women who have made significant contributions to it.

So, today on the 100th anniversary of  his birth I am doffing my cap to the one and only Rufus Thomas by reblogging my post on him and his daughter Carla from three years ago.

Celebrate with me.

All families contains the history of multitudes through the cultures they are heir to and which they live within. At the same time each family can be an agent for cultural change and development through their actions and works. We stand on the shoulders of giants but we can see a destination ahead they could never reach.

This is particularly the case in families whose work lies within the popular arts. If you grow up with music and talk about music is all around.

If you watch shows from the side of the stage and know the drudgery as well as the glamour of, ‘show business’ you will either run a mile and seek, sensibly, to become a lawyer or farmer or you will think there is no other life worth living than that of writing, singing and performing songs and bathing in the approval of an audience.

The careers of Rufus and Carla Thomas, father and daughter, take us on a fascinating journey through twentieth century American popular culture.

We will encounter: travelling minstrel shows, the development of Afro-American radio and the birth and growth of two of the nations fountainhead records companies (Sun and Stax) which produced many of the greatest rock n roll, soul and rhythm and blues records ever made.

We will also meet music icons of the stature of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, B B King and Otis Redding and realise why the city of Memphis can justifiably lay claim to have been the capital city of American music.

Rufus Thomas was a magnetic figure with personality and character to burn. He had that most attractive and winning of human qualities – vitality.

There were no downcast faces when Rufus was around! He was a one man party who lit up every room he ever entered with his ebullience and appetite for creating and sharing enjoyment.

He was born in rural Mississippi in1917 moving to Memphis as a toddler. It was in that bustling metropolis that he grew up and learned to become an entertainer who combined the talents of a dancer/hoofer, comedian, singer, talent show host and radio disc jockey.

I think that’s what you call an all rounder!

Leaving Booker T Washington High School in 1936 with the depression suffocating the nation he took his talents on the road throughout the South with the legendary F S Walcott Rabbit Foot Minstrels (commemorated in a lovely rowdy song by The Band).

‘The Foots’ were a glorious travelling tent show troupe which operated between 1900 and the late 1950s bringing comedy sketches and salty song and dance routines to any town, large or small, where the tent could be pitched and an audience drummed up.

Arriving in town the brass band would parade with comedians like Rufus announcing the wonders of the show to come. The stage, boards on a folding frame, would be set up with gasoline lamps acting as footlights.

While the liquored up audience waited for Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey or Louis Jordan to come on Rufus would whip up the crowd with comic dancing and jive jokes tailored to the local audience and introduce the dancing girls who invariably managed to increase the show’s temperature by several degrees centigrade.

After the War Rufus was back in Memphis working for a textile company and married with three children; Carla, Marvell and Vaneese. He hooked up again with his high school mentor, Nat D Williams, who was a key figure in Memphis Afro-American culture as teacher, journalist, talent spotter and pioneering radio host.

Nat D recognised that Rufus’ energy, affability and show business smarts gave him all the necessary qualities to be a successful talent show host. So, Rufus began to regularly host the shows at the Palace Theatre on Beale Street once announcing the youthful Riley (B. B.) King as the winner in the late 40s. Rufus was still hoping to make it as a singer though singles on labels like Star, Chess and Meteor shifted few units.

The next stage in Rufus career was again given impetus in 1951 through the good offices of Nat D who brought him on to be a disc jockey for WDIA – a Memphis radio station which, uniquely at the time, used black DJs to broadcast to the considerable black audience in Memphis and anywhere else 50,000 watts of power could reach!

Radio was king in the first post war decade reaching into almost every home in the country and providing the soundtrack to millions of lives through immensely popular shows that gathered whole families round the set.

Rufus, with his easy charm was a radio natural and his, ‘Hoot and Holler’ show became essential listening not just for his own community but also for young white hipsters like Elvis Presley or Steve Cropper who just knew that they could play those rhythm and blues too if they were only given the chance.

As it happened in Memphis there was a man, one of the true heroes of American music, Sam Phillips who was able to make those dreams come true. Rufus, in the early 1950s was often at Sun studios at 706 Union Avenue working with Phillips as he recorded brilliant blues sides by artists like Howling Wolf.

It was Rufus who provided Sun with its first breakout single in 1953 with, ‘Bear Cat’ an answer record to Mama Thornton’s,’Hound Dog’ which reached No 3 in the R&B chart (this launched a series of legal actions but that’s another story).

Rufus let rip with the full force of his personality matching Big Mama all the way while adding a sly spin of his own to the story of mismatched lovers. The featured stinging guitar is by Joe Hill Louis.

Turn this one up as loud as you can!

Rufus, like all the other black artists at Sun then faded into the background as Sam Phillips realised that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow could only be found by recording white artists, preferably young handsome guys, who could combine blues, rhythm and blues and country influences to create a new sound on the face of the earth – rock ‘n’ roll.

Enter Elvis Presley! Elvis was aware of Rufus through listening to WDIA and he always retained a fondness for ‘Tiger Man’ which Rufus had recorded at Sun.

Rufus continued to combine full time work at the textile plant with his entertainment career throughout the 1950s. Meanwhile, Carla who had been born in 1942 was soon displaying the family relish for singing and performing.

At the tender age of 10 she joined the WDIA sponsored Teen Town Singers and was combining her school duties with twice weekly rehearsals and a radio show every Saturday. Rufus could hear that his daughter had an attractive voice and unusual poise for such a young artist.

So, in 1959 Rufus decided to approach a new Memphis recording outfit, Satellite Records, headed up by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton and persuaded them that they needed to move beyond the country and pop markets R&B to thrive in their home town and the rest of the nation.

Rufus and Carla recorded the duet, ‘Cause I Love You’ at Satellite’s studio and operational headquarters which was located in a former cinema/theatre on McLemore Avenue. And, voila! Satellite had its first hit (helped by the distribution deal agreed with sharp eared Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records).

Soon after Jim and Estelle would use the first two letters of their surnames and create Stax Records.

The next time Carla’s name appeared on a record it was on the Atlantic label with a song she had written as a 16 year old, ‘Gee Whizz (Look At His Eyes). Gee Whizz is a heart and soul on the sleeve love ballad that could only have been written by a teenager in the delirious throes of adolescent love/infatuation.

Do you remember that oh so sweet feeling as you gazed at your love object? While no one could or should maintain that obsessive attachment to the dream of love its a poor soul that does not cherish a small remembrance of those heady days.

And, nothing can swoosh you back to those days with more efficiency than Carla’s utterly beguiling vocal here. Lean back, close your eyes and swoon!

The song became an immediate radio favourite and once Atlantic was behind it and Carla appeared on the nations premier pop TV show, ‘American Bandstand’ there was no stopping, ‘Gee’ from ascending to the top 10 of the national charts and a permanent place in the memories of a generation.

Carla then issued a string of singles on Atlantic and then Stax demonstrating that the attractively naive young girl was growing into a smart and sassy young woman who could convincingly embody a full range of adult emotions with engaging vocal style.

Listen to her here in 1963 with a song especially beloved by her European fans, ‘I’ll Never Stop Loving You’. You’d have to have a stony heart and leaden feet not to be up and practicing your finest twists and twirls to this one!

In that same year of 1963 Rufus showed that there was still life in the old trouper as he released a series of driving singles calling us with unflagging energy and wit to get up off our butts and out onto the dance floor.

The most potent and memorable of these, ‘ Walking The Dog’ has become something of a Soul/R&B standard (even receiving the accolade of a cover by The Rolling Stones). The video clip shows Rufus in full flow.

The mid 60s saw Carla and Stax records really hit their stride utilising teams of brilliant in house writers and the incomparable Booker T and The MGs as the house band. A perfect example of the power of such collaborations is a Carla classic from 1966: B -A – B – Y.

This pearl was authored by the great partnership of Isaac Hayes (a Teen Town alumni like Carla) and David Porter. There’s gospel testifying here as well as soul enticement in Carla’s seductive vocal backed by a steam heat rhythm section topped off with a straight into your skull chorus – a big hit guaranteed!

The canny bosses at Stax observing the success of Motown duet partnerships like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell had the inspired idea of teaming Carla with the top man at Stax and in fact the top man in soul of his era – Otis Redding.

Dubbed the King and Queen of Soul they recorded some excellent sides together including the big international hit, ‘Tramp’. However, the track I’ve chosen to spotlight the duo is a wonderful reverie, ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby ..’.

Carla wisely never tries to match the inferno intensity of Otis, rather her caressing coolness offsets him perfectly making for a seriously sexy record. I like to listen to this one with a large Gin and Tonic at hand.

Rufus and Carla were stars of the triumphant Stax/Volt tour of Europe in 1967 which has become legendary for the intensity of the artists performances and the fervour of the audience responses.

Back in Memphis Rufus continued to produce some excellent sides including, ‘Memphis Train’ and, ‘Sophisticated Sissy’ before striking gold again with a novelty dance song, ”The Funky Chicken’ which proved he had learned a lesson or two about pleasing an audience back in the Rabbit Foot days!

When it comes to selling a song Rufus has few competitors. I have never managed to play this song only once so be prepared.

The end of the 60s closed out the glory days for both Rufus and Carla though both would record some valuable material later. But, given the history above it is clear that singly and together they were a significant element of the magnificence of Memphis music in that golden era.

In an age of fluff and flummery it’s good to be reminded that some things and some people lived lives and made music that will always endure because it was grounded in everyday experience turned through talent and heightened expression into true art.

Now, Baby that is real!

,

Ella Mae Morse – Some Broad! Boogie, Blues & Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneer!

Los Angeles 1946.

A Bar.

One you’d think twice about going into.

Smoky, dimly lit. The clink of glasses.

Low conversation.

In the background the sound of a Jukebox.

Voice Over:

‘The suit don’t fit so good these days.

If you tussle with Tojo you’re apt to drop a few pounds.

Still alive.

Which is more than you can say for Kelly, Kowalski and Sanchez.

They wont ever see Memphis or Macomb or Marshall again.

One thing I can tell you I ain’t never going back to Omaha.

I’m going to sit right here and drink until they throw me out of here and come back tomorrow and do the same again.

The best thing about this bar is that they leave you alone.

No one wanting to hear your life story if it’s about anything other than booze or broads or sports.

You can tell without asking who’s seen action. It’s in the eyes.

The most athletic thing I do these days is dance. When I get the chance.

Since I got back I been doing some catching up on the music scene.

The Jukebox here is stuffed with those records made out here on the West Coast.

Capitol Records.

 

Now, some days I ain’t exactly bursting with energy.

But, I find a handful of Nickels and The Jukebox a pretty good cure for all my ills.

And, there’s this singer, Ella Mae Morse.

Now she’s everything plus.

 

She can sure shake a tail-feather. 

And she can sing just about anything.

Swing, Ballads, Blues, Country tunes and that Boogie-woogie.

Sometimes she seems to squeeze ’em all together so she’s singing like no one you’ve ever heard before.

If you were listening on the radio you’d be hard pressed to know whether she was white or black.

She gets my nickel every time.

Ain’t no fighter like Joe Louis. Ain’t no Ballplayer like Ted Williams.

Ain’t no singer like Ella Mae Morse.

I gotta tell you if she snapped the whip I would make the trip and no mistake.

I gotta feeling I’m goin’ to be listening to Ella Mae for the rest of my days.

Here, time I was hitting the mattress. Have a handful of Nickels on me.

This one here from ’42, ‘Cow- Cow Boogie’, was just about the first record out on Capitol and the first record for Ella Mae. They couldn’t press enough!

See ya down the road a piece. Down the road apiece.’

End credits play …..

 

Ah.

Ah, comma ti, ii, yi, aay, comma ti, yipply, yi, aay
Get along, get hip, little doggies indeed!

A Number One million seller!  Capitol Records well and truly launched.

Ella Mae was only 17 and this was the first take.

Johnny Mercer (who knew a thing or two about songs and recording) quashed her protests that she could do better by flatly stating – you can’t, nobody could.

That’s the great Freddie Slack on piano.

The song came courtesy of Boogie-woogie guru Don Raye and Gene De Paul.

Jazz giant Benny Carter had a hand in it too.

From the get go you can hear that Ella Mae has just got IT. Man, has she got IT.

She was born in 1924 in Mansfield Texas. Her father, an Englishman was an accomplished drummer who may have gifted her a way with rhythm – but he didn’t stick around long.

Ella Mae and her mother, a fine pianist, moved to Paris Texas in the early 30s.

Growing up she listened and sang every kind of music and from the age of 9 she was up on stage performing.

In 1939 she joined Jimmy Dorsey’s Band but as he found out though Ella Mae looked every inch a woman and though she sang with astonishing maturity she was in fact only 14 years old.

Freddie Slack, then in the Dorsey Band, remembered her when he was signed to Capitol in 1942.

And, the rest, is as they say, History.

It was hard for Capitol to know how to frame Ella Mae’s career as she straddled so many styles and genres.

Making superb sides was the easy part (checkout, ‘Buzz Me’, ‘Get On Board, Little Chillun’ and ‘Patty Cake Man’) finding a marketable hit was more problematic.

In 1946 she was reunited with Freddie Slack and together they made a record which must have set Richter dials quivering, ‘The House of Blue Lights’.

 

That’s Don Raye duetting with Ella Mae on the jive talk introduction.

From then on it’s Freddie’s fleet fingers, a solid gone rhythm section and sultry Ella Mae wailin, scattin and generally setting the world on fire!

I don’t know about you but as soon as this starts up I’m lacing up my boots and getting ready to broom on down to my local knocked out shack on the edge of town.

Hep musicians recognised a classic when they heard one and covers of, ‘Blue Lights’ must number in the hundreds (my favourites being those of Jerry lee Lewis, Asleep At The Wheel and Chuck Berry).

Some sages say you can clearly see Rock ‘n’ Roll emerging in the grooves of, ‘Blue Lights’ and they won’t find me starting a fist fight about that.

As the 40s closed out Ella Mae continued to record arresting sides for Capitol (‘Pine Top Schwartz’ and, ‘Pig Foot Pete’ demand your attention) before retreating from the music business while she married and raised three children in short order.

She was back in 1951 with another prime slice of proto Rock ‘n’ Roll – a cover of Jack Guthrie’s 1947 hit, ‘Oakie Boogie’.

The Orchestral backing was under the baton of Nelson Riddle and Speedy West played typically brilliant pedal steel.

 

Whatever the tempo with Ella Mae you know you’re in for a deluxe trip.

The musicians behind her must have thought; right guys let’s really tear it up this gal can take care of herself.

Boy howdy were they right!

In 1952 she had another million seller with, ‘Blacksmith Blues’ utilising the combined skills of Billy May and Nelson Riddle.

In 1953 she recorded a knock out, hopped up, track called, ’40 Cups of Coffee’ which has always been a winner for me.

 

Truth to tell when Ella Mae steps up to the microphone I can’t imagine needing any kind of stimulant. She made over proof records that’ll have your head and heart spinning every time you hear them.

In 1954, a dozen years into her recording career Ella Made made one of the first and, let’s not beat about the bush, one of the greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll era albums of all time, ‘Barrelhouse, Boogie and the Blues’.

This is an astounding work demonstrating that Ella Mae had all the sass and style of the very best rhythm and blues singers.

It was way ahead of its time and for a white woman unprecedented and I would hazard still unequaled.

Foced to choose just one gem from this treasury I’ve selected the epochal, ‘Rock Me All Night Long’.

Who could resist such an invitation? Not me Bub!

And, that was more or less that.

Ella Mae had more children and her 15 year recording career with Capitol came to a close in 1957.

But, without doubt the music she made there will always live wherever a Jukebox is plugged in.

When Ella Mae calls the plays you’d be mad not to dig her ways!

She gets my Nickel every time.

Notes:

Bear Family and Rev-Ola have fine single CD compilations of Ella Mae’s Capitol years.

Being the besotted fan I am I couldn’t live without the magnificent 5CD 134 track set produced by Bear Family in 1997. Go on treat  yourself!

It is also well worth checking IMDb for her appearances on film as an actress and as featured singer.

 

Johnny Cash, Debbie Harry & Gene Autry chase Ghost Riders In The Sky!

The ‘Way out West’ Series No 1

Music hath charms. Music hath charms.

And, among those charms is its uncanny ability to forge bonds of fellow feeling and friendship between people born in wildly different times, places and cultures.

Take me and Carl.

Carl came from the spice Island of Grenada in the Caribbean.

When we met he was seventy years old and I was a callow twenty two.

I had just emerged, blinking, from the ivory tower of Cambridge University awaiting my inevitable discovery as a great novelist.

Carl had spent decades in the fierce factories of Detroit and the searing cane fields of Florida.

We met in Hospital.

I was working there as a porter dramatically rushing the resuscitation trolley to people on the point of death and more prosaically ferrying patients to the X-Ray department and to the operating theatre for surgery.

Carl, having suffered a heart attack, came into Accident & Emergency by ambulance at 3am when I was on night shift.

I watched with a mixture of horror and fascination the team of doctors and nurses, with whom moments before I had been sharing idle banter,  urgently bring all their professional skills to the struggle to to save Carl’s life.

Happily they succeeded and before I left that morning I wheeled Carl to the ward where he would recover.

Normally that would have been the last time I saw him but as I was about to leave Carl said, ‘Will you come and see later?’.

A request I could hardly refuse.

So, that night I made the first of many visits to Carl’s bedside in the three weeks he spent in the hospital.

Walking into the ward I wondered what two such disparate individuals might find to talk about.

Almost without thinking I asked him, having learned of the time he had spent in America, what kind of music he had listened to there.

Given his age, and reading on his chart  that he was a Baptist by religion, I anticipated that he might answer Big Band Jazz or Gospel Music.

I was a little taken aback therefore when he answered by singing in a mellow baritone:

‘An old cowpoke went riding out one dark and windy day,

Upon a ridge he rested as he  went along his way,

When all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw

Riding through the ragged skies and up a clouded draw …’

Now, my education, at University, might have been airily academic but luckily on those few occasions when I was not bent over some medieval text I could be found, a huge tub of popcorn by my side, obsessively watching every ‘A’, ‘B’ or series Western that ever came to town.

So, without missing a beat, I joined in as we sang:

‘Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel,

 Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel,

 A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky,

For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry ..’

And then, to the incredulity of the rest of the ward, we lifted our voices up and sang together lustily:

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

Then we laughed and laughed until we nearly cried.

And, we sang that song, among many other Western favourites, every time we met until Carl died some two years later.

‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ was Carl’s favourite song and the version he preferred, ‘Because he don’t mess about with the song’ was the one by Gene Autry from 1949.

This one’s for you Carl:

 

 

According to the Western Writers of America, ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ is the greatest of all Western songs and I whole heartedly agree with that august body.

The song was written in 1948 by Stan Jones and first recorded by him and his marvelously named, ‘Death Valley Rangers’ that same year.

 

stan-jones-2

Stan, then a Park Ranger in Death Valley, is reputed to have written the song on his 34th birthday as he recalled a legend told to him when he was 12 by an old cowboy.

Now, all stories told by Stan Jones need to be taken with a fistful of salt as he was a noted fabulist who often valued the effect of a tale above its veracity (as frequently do I!).

The tale of the spectral herd in the skies and the curse of, ‘Stampede Mesa’ probably traces its origins to mythical cautionary stories told around the cowboy campfire in nineteenth century Texas.

Whatever its cultural lineage Stan crafted a certifiable classic which is shot through with haunting images which never leave the mind once heard.

Burning in the mental firelight of my imagination as the song proceeds I feel the hot breath of those red-eyed cows and shudder with fear as their black and shiny horns and steely hooves thunder by.

In my dreams I’m there with the gaunt faced cowboys their shirts soaked with sweat as they endlessly pursue the cursed herd they never, ever, will catch.

Surely that’s my name I hear them calling in the wind at the dead of night!

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

Stan wrote many more fine Western ballads notably those featuring in the films of the greatest of all Western Film Directors – John Ford.

But, neither he, nor anyone else, ever wrote a better one than, ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’.

The brilliance and mother lode Americana quality of the song has, for seven decades now, attracted hundreds and hundreds of artists to take a shot of rye, strap on their spurs and saddle up with the Ghost Riders to see if that herd can finally be corralled.

And, if anyone, by force of will and character could carry out that miracle it would surely be none other than Johnny Cash – no mean mythic figure himself.

 

 

Johnny sings the song with the oracular power an old testament prophet issuing a grave warning to his tribe to prevent them from sleepwalking to doom.

You want fire-snorting horses brought to life?

You want those ghostly riders coming hard right at you?

You want to feel those mournful cries in the pit of your stomach and the marrow of your bones?

Call for The Man in Black!

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

Stan Jones’ evocative melody has always attracted guitarists and instrumental groups who like to tell an atmospheric story using six resonant strings instead of the vocal chords.

Today I’ve chosen to feature a top 30 Billboard Chart hit from 1961 (and top 10 in the UK) by The Ramrods  – who had clearly listened closely to Duane Eddy.

 

 

The Ramrods were out of Connecticut and had brother and sister Claire and Rich Litke on drums and sax respectively.

Vinny Lee took the lead guitar role with Gene Moore in support.

They were essentially one hit wonders though I greatly enjoyed listening to their follow up, ‘Loch Lomond Rock’ which, probably uniquely, mashes up twangtastic guitar with a bagpipe solo!

And, now as they say, for something completely, completely different.

I have to say that when I started researching this post I never expected to feature a trance version by Debbie Harry!

 

 

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh, Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh’ Indeed!

 Debbie’s version comes from Alex Cox’s 1998 film, ‘Three Businessmen’ and in my view is the best thing about it.

The production is by Dan Wool who had worked frequently with Stan Jones’ son who is a music editor – so legal clearances to use the song were easily arranged.

There’s definitely something sexily hypnotic about Debbie’s vocal adding an unexpected dimension to an established standard.

I’m going to conclude with another version out of left field or should I say the firmament.

And, versions of Ghost Riders don’t get more left field than the hipster version by Scatman Crothers!

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

 

 

Everyone has heard Scatman’s distinctive tones through his voice over work for TV and film. That’s Scatman as Hong Kong Phooey and as the hep Jazz playing feline in, ‘The Aristocats’.

Some may remember his appearances on TV in the show, ‘Chico and the Man’ or on film as Dick Halloran in Kubrick’s, ‘The Shining’ (one of four films he shared billing with Jack Nicholson).

Scatman was always a hep cat as evidenced by his drumming with Slim Gaillard. He brings all his vouty hipster presence to this version of Ghost Riders which has me cheering him on while doubled up with laughter.

There will be many more fine versions of Ghost Riders because we all love a good story.

Especially one that’s so incredible it just has to be true.

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

 

Notes:

There’s a fine biography of Stan Jones by Michal K Ward published by Rio Neuvo.

The major hit version was by Vaughn Monroe

Basso profundo versions by Lorne Green, Marty Robins, Burl Ives, Frankie Laine

Western versions by Sons of the Pioneers, Riders in the Sky, Chris Ledoux, Jimmy Wakeley, Mary McCaslin

Instrumental versions by The Ventures, The Shadows, The Spotniks, Glen Campbell/Roy Clark, Dick Dale

‘Other’ versions by Spike Jones, Blues Brothers, Brothers Four, Judy Collins, Christopher Lee

 

Happy Christmas from Bob Dylan, Charles Dickens, Judy Garland & Immortal Jukebox!

 

Twelfth Day:

An Etching by Rembrandt

A Literary extract from Charles Dickens

Music by Shostakovich conducted by Rostropovich, played by Maxim Vengerov, Bob Dylan and Judy Garland

Our painting today is by Rembrandt who may be the most searching anatomist of the human heart who has ever lived.

rembrandt

There is such depth of humanity in Rembrandt’s etching of Mother and Christ Child.

The scene glows with immediate and eternal love and intimacy.

Our first music selection today is one of the great works of the 20th Century.

Shostakovich lived through dark times yet, perhaps because of this, his work while never denying the darkness always returns to the light.

Maxim Vengerov is a musician to his fingertips and urged on by Rostropovich he wrings every scintilla of emotional power from the work.

Onward!

So, at last – the twelfth day of our Sleigh’s journey and it’s Christmas Eve!

I hope you have enjoyed the music and reflections on the way here.

I have agonised over the music choices in this series and have many years worth stored up for Christmases to come (you have been warned!).

But today’s choices were the first I wrote down and were my inevitable selections for the day before the great Feast.

First, the Keeper of American Song, Bob Dylan, with his inimitable spoken word rendition of Clement Moore’s, ‘The Night Before Christmas’.

It is safe to say that Bob’s pronunciation of the word ‘Mouse’ has never been matched in the history of the dramatic arts!

Of course, in the process of his more than 50 year career Bob has continually been reinventing himself and in so doing has gloriously renewed American culture.

The clip, above comes from his wonderful, ‘Theme Time’ radio show where over a 100 episodes he displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge of twentieth century popular music and a wicked sense of humour.

Bob also recorded for the season at hand the deeply heartfelt, ‘Christmas In The Heart’ album which gets better and more extraordinary with every hearing.

It is clear that Bob, who is well aware that it’s not dark yet (but it’s getting there) is consciously rounding out his career by assuming the mantle of the grand old man of American Music tipping his hat to every tradition (hence the deeply stirring Sinatra covers CDs).

The only safe thing to say about Bob is that he will have a few surprises for us yet!

And, indeed this year he assumed in typically enigmatic way the mantle of a Nobel Laureate. The man never known to make a foolish move managed by not attending the investiture ceremony to harvest more publicity than all those who did!

In his nicely judged speech he managed to be both filled with humility and unblinkingly directly compare himself to Shakespeare!

Now that’s the one and only Bob Dylan!

Now we turn to Judy Garland with a Christmas song without peer, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’. Her singing on this song seems to me to be almost miraculous.

It’s as if her singing really came from the secret chambers of the heart all the rest of us keep under guard.

No wonder she has such a deep impact on us – we know she is expressing a profound truth about the human condition – our need to love and know we are loved.

Judy Garland paid a high price in terms of personal happiness for living her life and art with such an exposed heart and soul but she fulfilled a vocation given to very few and left an indelible mark on her age and will surely do for aeons to come.

Today, not a poem but the concluding passages from, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by the incomparable Charles Dickens – a writer for all seasons and situations.

‘Hallo!’ growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?

‘I am very sorry, sir’ said Bob, ‘I am behind my time,’
‘You are?’ repeated Scrooge. ‘Yes. I think you are. Step this way, sir, if you please.’
‘It’s only once a year, sir,’ pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. ‘It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.’

‘Now I’ll tell you what my friend, said Scrooge, I am not going to stand that sort of thing any longer. And therefore, he continued, leaping from his stool and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again, and therefore I am about to raise your salary!’

Bob trembled and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.

‘A merry Christmas Bob! said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. ‘A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!’

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards, and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!

And who am I to do anything other than echo Mr Dickens and Tiny Tim?

So, to all the readers of the Jukebox I wish you a peaceful and joyous feast – however you choose to celebrate it. God bless us, Every One!

 

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Tenth Day

A painting by Andrei Rublev (approx 1360s to 1420s)

A Poem by Charles Causley (1917 to 2003)

Music by Herbert Howells (1892 to 1983), Big Joe Turner and Fats Waller

 

rublev-nativity

Our painting today is by Andrei Rublev whose Icons and Frescos are supreme works of devotional art.

They are works to be still before.

If you surrender to these works they will work in your soul.

Rublev, following the Orthodox tradition, sees the events of The Nativity not as historical episodes but as living events the faithful community participated in as they celebrated the liturgy.

The calm and peace of the image contains immense and complex feeling.

The birth of The Saviour is shown as a cosmic event which is yet an acceptance of human mortality and frailness.

Herbert Howells music has an English reticence which belies the oceanic depths of feeling it can summon from the listener.

His, ‘A Spotless Rose’ especially when sung with the aching purity of The New College Oxford Choir tenderly ushers the cosmic into our mortal consciousness.

Onward!

Today I think it’s time to remember that Christmas is a time for celebration.

A time to meet up with old friends and make new ones.

A time to sing and dance and laugh.

A time to shake our fists in the face of the dark, cruel winter as we affirm our faith in the inevitable restorative power of the light.

For many years I did much of my celebrating in bars, pubs, Honky Tonks and Road Houses soaking up the music and the booze as the nights progressed. The music choices today reflect that biblious spirit.

First, the Boss Of The Blues – Big Joe Turner. Big is no empty boast; Joe was over 6ft 2 and weighed more than 300 pounds so when he arrived in a room you knew he was there!

You would also know Joe was around because his voice could break through walls and wake the dead.

Joe had to develop his shouting style when he worked in the hectic, heaving bars of wide-open Kansas City in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Even though the joints Joe worked in such as the Kingfish and the Sunset would have been rammed to the doors with free spending, free fighting customers Joe never had any problem getting heard from behind the bar.

As, ‘The Singing Barman’ he formed a famous partnership with pianist Pete Johnson immortalised in the standard, ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’.

If I had been a customer I would have ordered (in honour of the Rudy Toombes song) One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer – knocked them back and settled in for a night of peerless blues.

Joe’s career lasted some 60 years and he was variously styled as a bluesman, a jazz singer, a Rythmn and Blues stylist and a pioneer rock ‘n’ roller – whatever the label the big man went his own sweet way launching every song into the stratosphere with the immense power of his vocals.

 

From the moment, ‘Christmas Date Boogie’ opens we know we are in good hands.

Big Joe is very much the master of ceremonies marshalling the instrumental forces around him. They are all fine players given their chance to shine but there is no doubt who is the star of the show!

You can just imagine the big beaming smile of Joe as he tears into this Christmas frolic.

Resistance is useless – where’s the Bourbon?

I’ll let the very fine Irish poet (I think you may have guessed by now that I am somewhat well disposed to Irish poets) Michael Longley introduce the next music Titan:

‘He plays for hours and hours on end and thought there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty, at the still centre of his loud dominion –
THE SHOOK, THE SHAKE, THE SHEIKH OF ARABY’.

The subject of the poem and the artist featured in our second music selection is, of course, the one and only, one man musical encyclopedia and indefatigable party starter: Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller.

A short list of his accomplishments would have to include his very considerable prowess as a pianist, organist, singer, songwriter, composer and comedian.

 

 

Yet any list of talents and achievements would undersell Fats impact on his contemporary artists and his audiences.

Fats was beyond category – he was Fats Waller and The Lord of any room he chose to light up.

He could in the course of a single number go from being rollickingly rumbustious to wistful gentle melancholy.

Sadly his early death meant that the true depth of his talents were never fully sounded but nevertheless he leaves a unique legacy of wondrously entertaining recordings.

If you ever need cheering up and reminding of how good it is to be alive just press the button next to Fats name and you will feel a whole lot better – I guarantee it.

Today’s poem is, ‘Mary’s Song’ by Charles Causley.

‘Warm in the wintry air
You lie,
The ox and the donkey
Standing by,
With summer eyes
They seem to say:
Welcome, Jesus,
On Christmas Day!

Sleep, King Jesus:
Your diamond crown
High in the sky
Where stars look down.
Let your reign
Of love begin,
That all the world may enter in.’

 

Blue Moon (Revisited) : Elvis, Cowboy Junkies & The Marcels

‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.’

(Shakespeare from The Merchant of Venice)

While The Akkadians slept the Moon shone down.

While The Hittites dreamed of an eternal empire the Moon set the tides a flowing.

While The Assyrians and The Phoenicians marched the Moon shone down.

While The Babylonians, The Persians and The Etruscans dreamed of eternal empires the Moon set the tides a flowing.

While The Greeks and The Romans rose and fell the Moon shone down.

While the empires of great Alexander and that of Chandragupta Mauraya rose and fell the Moon set the tides a flowing.

Look up! Look up!

It’s the same moon! The same moon!

And, looking up, we can’t help but feel the Moon looks down on us knowing all the secrets of our hearts.

Sometimes we shiver as we realise we know so little of what the Moon has known and seen and is yet to see.

Yet, somewhere within us we feel that the Moon is a mother and a mentor.

So we address the Moon in worship, in stone, in ritual, in story and poetry and song.

Somehow we feel the Moon understands.

So night after night, for century after century, for millennia after millennia we look up.

We look up as the Moon looks down. We look up as the Moon looks down.

And, looking up we see the Wolf Moon. Or the Snow Moon. Or perhaps the Pink Moon or the Milk Moon.

Sometimes above us we see a Strawberry Moon or a Mourning Moon. Sometimes the Thunder Moon or the Harvest Moon.

Sometimes as we look up and ponder our fates we are blessed by a Blue Moon.

The song Blue Moon came from the fabled Broadway Golden Age partnership of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. It was written in 1933/34 and went through several iterations before becoming the song we all know and love.

Initially Rodgers’ limpid melody so redolent of the moonlight was called, ‘Prayer’ and intended for Jean Harlow. Unused, it became, ‘Manhattan Melodrama’ then, ‘The Bad in Every Man’ before by the power of commerce (MGM demanded a hit!) and the alchemy of the tortured genius of Lorenz Hart it became the eternal yearning prayer of the heart that is, ‘Blue Moon’.

All Lorenz Hart’s great romantic songs are distinguished by their lyrical felicity and sophistication. But, with Hart, there is also always a melancholic core, a subliminal shadow of foreboding, a sense that isolation and the curse of loneliness can only be eluded momentarily – if at all.

Without a love of his own he sensed that his dream, his prayer for someone to care for, would almost certainly go unanswered and that the blue moon above would cruelly stay blue and never, ever, glow gold.

In his version from 1949 Billy Eckstine’s burnished tones evoke a man walking down the moonlight city streets at four o’ clock in the morning.

Amid the rapt surrounding stillness he offers up his prayer in a stately voice that suggests the rarely glimpsed gold moon is a passing dream or chimera not the harbinger of a bright future.

Still, he walks on. For, whatever else befalls, he knows he can rely on the Moon to light the world tomorrow night and every night that he can look up to see it. And, there is comfort in that.

Elvis recorded his ghostly take on Blue Moon in the summer of 1954 for Sun Records with the wind whispering percussion probably played by Buddy Cunningham. Elvis takes the song far, far, away from The Great White Way.

Elvis’ Blue Moon shines over Southern soil. I have always heard his eerie crooning here as a keen for the lost thousands of Southern men and boys who perished in the Civil War.

Elvis, normally a singer of enormous physicality, here, miraculously achieves a wraithlike weightlessness that evokes the silent smoke drifting over the battlefield after the living and the wounded have withdrawn leaving the charred earth to the care of the unnumbered dead and their departing spirits.

Lately, when the sky is clear and the moon is high, I’ve taken to heading off into the dark woods in search of clarity of mind and peace of the spirit. It’s my habit to read a passage from a beloved book to inspire and sustain my thoughts before I set off.

Last week it was James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses.

Over the course of five days I recited over and over again the following passage until I knew it by heart and could chant it out to the Moon above as it bathed me in the balm of its light:

‘Her antiquity in preceding and surviving succeeding tellurian generations; her nocturnal predominance; her satellite dependence; her luminary reflection; her constancy under all her phases, rising and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect; her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation, her potency over effluent and refluent waters; her power to to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite and aid delinquency; the tranquil inscrutability of her visage, the terribility of her isolated dominant propinquity; her omens of tempest and of calm; the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence; the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence, her splendour, when visible; her attractions when invisible.’

Perhaps after such an exhalation of genius there is no more to be said about The Moon.

Yet, our imaginations cannot exist on a diet of the sublime alone. We also need more than once in a while to throw our heads back, laugh out loud, and ask the silent moon to share in our good humour.

So, on other nights, as the moon shines through crowded trees I dare to sing with all the force at my command to the distant satellite the joyful Esperanto which kick starts The Marcels 1961 worldwide No 1 hit version of Blue Moon (All together now!)

‘Bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom ba bom ba ba bom ba ba dang a dang dang
Ba ba ding a dong ding Blue Moon moon blue moon dip di dip di dip
Moo Moo Moo Blue Moon dip di dip di dip Moo Moo Blue Moon dip di dip di dip
Bom ba ba boom ba bom ba bom bom ba ba bom ba ba bom ba ba dang a dang dang
Ba ba ding a dong ding …’

Now, don’t that make you feel mighty, mighty, fine!

The Marcels (named after the hairstyle) were five high school (multi-racial) friends from Pittsburgh who in 1959 bonded over their love of Doo-Wop and Rhythm & Blues music.

Richard Knauss was the baritone, Fred Johnson hit those low, low notes on bass, Ron ‘Bingo’ Mundy was first tenor with Gene Bricker second. Out front was the happily named Cornelius Harp.

A demo tape of theirs found its way to sharp eared Stu Phillips at Colpix Records. He was particularly taken by their arrangement of The Cadillacs, ‘Zoom’ with its ‘Bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom ba bom ba ba bom ba ba dang a dang dang’ intro.

When he had a little time free in Colpix studio on 15 February 1961 Stu asked them to sing, ‘Heart and Soul’ but found they didn’t have it worked up.

So instead, in a glorious example of serendipity he said let’s do, ‘Blue Moon’ using that intro to, ‘Zoom’ – and thus a classic was cut in two takes!

I recommend you listen first to the song for the sheer thrill of it then listen again to all the wonderful ensemble vocal work going on behind Cornelius Harp’s stellar lead.

I have to say that my heart is always uplifted by the hosanna in excelcis passage that starts at 1.53 and lasts for ten ecstatic seconds – providing enough joy to blast you all the way to the moon and back!

Sometimes I look up at the Moon and wonder if she ( the Moon is surely a she?) is sad and lonely in all that immensity of space – perhaps recalling her traumatic birth some 4.5 billion years ago when cruel Theia hit the Earth broadsde and brought her into independent being.

Does her ache carry across the lonely miles to Earth. Is that the ache you feel in the pit of your stomach, for no discernible reason, on certain moonlit nights?

Does her ache call forth the howling of the wolves?

Sometimes, as Shelley wrote the Moon does seem to be a dying lady lean and pale wrapped in a gauzy veil.

Now, if its ache you want I defy you to find any group to match The Cowboy Junkies.

Listen to them here taking Blue Moon with riveting gentleness into the cold dark realms of inter stellar space. The Timmins siblings assisted by Jeff Bird and Jaro Czewinec will slow down the beating of your heart and let it find a contemplative rhythm that may just open up interior worlds normally barred and shut in the hurly-burly of our everyday lives.

It seems to me that this version is an exquisite hymn to and lament for two of the greatest American artists; Lorenz Hart and Elvis Presley whose tenure on this Earth was so brief yet whose music will echo on through the centuries.

We humans have been looking up at the Moon in wonderment throughout all of our existence as a species. Contemplating the Moon has stirred us to puzzle about the meaning of becoming, birth, death and resurrection.

We come to understand that life is a series of cycles.

How many cycles and how they continue we know not.

We know not.

So we look to the Moon. And the Moon looks down on us.

We must hope that the Moon will bless us with her silver will and turn her perfect face towards us always.

And, with the Psalmist trust the righteous will flourish and peace will abound so long as the moon endures.