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’

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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.

The Grateful Dead, Raul Malo, Marty Robbins & Me with El Paso – Ultimate Western Ballad

The Way Out West Series No 2

Loyal readers of The Jukebox will recall my previous post in the, ‘Way Out West’ series which was themed around an unlikely friendship formed through a mutual love of, ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ (go straight there as soon as you finish this if you haven’t read it already!).

Ghost Riders was voted No 1 Western Song of all time by the Western Writers of America.

My friend Carl and I didn’t know that as we sang it into the tequila fuelled small hours back in those dim and distant days.

We just knew it was a great song and that singing it never grew old.

Finishing Ghost Riders the next song that floated to the tip of our tongues was always Marty Robbins immortal classic, ‘El Paso’.

This one has everything you could ever ask for in a Western Ballad.

A West Texas location.

A Mexican maiden with flashing eyes whom a young cowboy can’t resist even at the cost of his life.

A gunfight over this fatal maiden leaving a handsome young stranger dead on the floor.

A hurried escape in the night on a fast stolen horse to the badlands of New Mexico.

The fateful return to Rosa’s Cantina even though a posse and deadly bullets surely lie in wait. For, in truth, the attraction of love really is stronger than the fear of Death.

A deathbed reconciliation sealed with a tender kiss.

What more do you want!

Well you might want this ballad to be sung with swooping authority by its author and have him backed by ringing Spanish guitar licks which echo through the song like chimes of destiny.

Take it away Marty Robbins and Grady Martin!

Now some sources will tell you that Marty wrote this song in less than 5 minutes and some say it was the work of several months. You choose.

What is sure is that it was recorded on 7 April 1959 as part of an epic session which produced what will always be greatest Western Ballad collection as long as the wild West Texas Winds blow over the plains, ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’.

There was some nervousness at Columbia Records that at four and a half minutes El Paso might be too long for audiences to take in an era when many hit songs barely made three minutes. This was to underestimate the power of story.

For, once you’ve heard the ringing guitar intro and the first line … ‘Out in the West Texas town of El Paso I fell in love with a Mexican girl’ you’re hooked and wild horses couldn’t stop you from wondering what happens next!

Released in late October, ‘El Paso’ soon became one of those rare songs that wins universal affection.

By the dawn of the new decade it was Number One on both the Country and Pop Charts and lodged deep in the consciousness of several generations.

The story of the nameless Cowboy and his love for Faleena indelibly sung by Marty with the invaluable assistance of Bobby Sykes and Jim Glaser echoes through popular culture to this day.

Now, The Grateful Dead might have been the emblematic group of the 1960s, ‘Counter Culture’ but they were also young men who had grown up watching John Wayne, James Stewart and Randolph Scott heroically ride through the Western landscape winning the love of Grace Kelly or Maureen O’Hara (even if Katy Jurado got caught in the cross fire) as they brought summary justice to those lawless frontier towns.

The 1950s were, of course, the glory days of TV Westerns.

I’ll wager that Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir spent many an hour watching, ‘Wagon Train’, ‘Gunsmoke’, ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Bonanza’ and that that out of sight of parents they considered themselves to be six shooting moody hombres not to be messed with.

Surely, this history and the lure of a long gripping ballad with room for plentiful six string stretch outs explains their devotion to, ‘El Paso’which they played many hundreds of themes over their fabled career.

Their version has a charm which never fails to engage me.

Western stories and Western lore do cast a spell like the eyes of Faleena.

There are few pleasures as reliable as settling down to watch a Western Movie or listen to a Western Ballad.

I caught the bug early.

When my Mum was out doing nursing night duty my Dad and I, entranced before the flickering 12 inch TV screen, would delight in the adventures of Rawhide’s Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates.

We agreed that Dad was perfect for the role of the mature Gil while I was a natural for the more youthful form of Rowdy.

Between us there were no situations we couldn’t handle.

I remember vividly that for my 6th Birthday my present was a wide brimmed Western hat with matching six guns, holster and spurs. Since those days I’ve been lucky enough to have been given some truly generous presents from those near and dear to me.

However, hand on heart, I have to say that no present has ever given me the sheer joy that receiving my six shooter set did!

Maybe it’s that memory that haloes the songs and the films as I watch and listen.

Maybe it’s the mythopoetic allure of The Western.

Maybe it’s because I’m one moody Hombre. One moody Hombre.

I feel inclined to emphasise the South of The Border aspect of the song now.

So, let’s swoon as the golden vocal tones of The Mavericks Raul Malo evoke those wild Texas days as the night falls all around Rosa’s Cantina.

Though we know the Cowboy’s love for Faleena is in vain, doomed, somehow as Raul glides through the verses we cling to the belief that maybe this time, this time, the two lovers will ride out into the sunset together.

Together.

And, in a Cantina, far away, Faleena’s eyes will flash as they whirl across the floor together.

And, as the music plays they will laugh as they remember those days in El Paso.

Notes :

Marty Robbins was a considerable songwriter as, ‘Big Iron’ and ‘You Gave Me A Mountain’ (a live staple for Elvis) attest. He had 17 No 1 Country Chart Hits.

Grady Martin was a magnificent Guitarist whose splendid licks feature on Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ Brenda Lee’s ‘I’m Sorry’ and Ray Price’s ‘For The Good Times’ among scores of other Hits.

El Paso was produced by Don Law who also produced the epochal Robert Johnson Blues sessions in the 1930s as well as Bob Wills’ ‘San Antonio Rose’. That’s verstIlity!

Clifton Chenier : The King of Zydeco – Bon Ton Roulet!

People been playing Zydeco for a long time, old style like French music. I was the first to put the pep into it.’ (Clifton Chenier)

Clifton was the biggest thing in Zydeco. Nobody else has ever measured up to him. He was the King’ (Chris Strachwitz Founder of Arhoolie Records.)

Like Elvis I like all kinds of music.

In the expanse of the subterranean chambers where my record collection lies there is music from many, many genres.

Deep racks of Jazz, Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Folk, Gospel, Rhythm & Blues, Rockabilly, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Soul and Doo-Wop shimmer in the half-light as I peruse the shelves searching for the perfect sound for Now.

Yesterday, I took a left turn at New Orleans Jazz and came, whooping delightedly, upon the section labelled, ‘Cajun and Zydeco’.

Now, I like to have a framed picture of my favourite artist from each genre displayed proudly above each of the appropriate racks.

So, for Jazz it’s Louis Armstrong. For Blues, Mississippi John Hurt. Bluegrass nestles under Bill Monroe (of course!).

Folk has Woody Guthrie atop the US section while Sandy Denny and Dolores Keane are the eminences of the British and Irish scenes.

Gospel has Mahalia Jackson face to face with Sam Cooke.

The High Priest, Ray Charles, looks out over the serried R&B racks while Wanda Jackson looks after all those wild Rockabilly Rebels.

Elvis himself takes pride of place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll section.

Aretha Franklin reigns over Soul. There’s a group portrait, from an Alan Freed Show of The Orioles, The Moonglows and The Five Satins, above the deep Doo-Wop collection.

Bob Dylan and Van Morrison stare moodily out above their special enclaves.

Above the Cajun Section I’ve hung Iry Lejeune.

There was never any question who would represent Zydeco.

The King of the Music. From Opelousas Louisiana, Clifton Chenier!

Being in a feisty mood I looked for a distinctive yellow Specialty 45 and laughed in anticipation as I pulled out, ‘Ay – Tete Fee’ (loosely, all my translations from Creole French are loose, ‘Hello Little Girl’).

This is a piquant gem, from 1955, indicative of the floor filling, floor shaking sound that echoed around Texas and Louisiana Dancehalls deep into the night when Clifton was in town.

Eh bien, mes Chers amis I think we can safely say that Clifton was right about the Pep!

With faithful brother, Cleveland, by his side on ‘Frottoir’ (a metal rubboard, of Clifton’s devising, played with bottle openers) and a successsion of brilliant guitarists like Philip Walker, Lonnie Brooks and Lonesome Sundown, Clifton burned up hall after hall with his indefatigable Band The Zydeco Ramblers.

A later Zydeco star, Rockin’Sydney recalls that in Louisiana in the mid 50s even Elvis wasn’t seen as being a big a star as Clifton!

He was born in 1931 in St Landry Parish and picked up the rudiments of accordion from his father, Joseph.

All around Opelousas there were house party dances, fais – do – dos, where sharp eared Clifton heard waltz time creole songs, Cajun two steps and fiddle work outs.

As he moved into his teenage years he heard, on the radio, Cajun, blues, R&B, Country weepers and hillbilly boogie.

He stored all these sounds away and thought about how he might integrate them all into his own music.

The roots of the name Zydeco for the music Clifton came to define are open to many explanations.

Sparing you the scholastic debate I’m going with it emerging, mysteriously, out of the old folk song, ‘Les Haricots Sont Pas Sale’ (the beans are not salted!)

Clifton’s debut recording, Clifton’s Stomp, had been cut in 1954 at a Lake Charles studio after the astute producer J R Fulbright correctly observed that he played, ‘Too much accordion for these woods!’

Clifton had created a wildly addictive music that merged R&B attack with romantic Creole sway. Excellent records, well regarded locally, unknown nationally, followed for Specialty, Chess and Zynn.

While Clifton could always fill halls in Louisiana and Texas he wasn’t able to sell records in big numbers. So by the early 60s he was playing without a band in Houston roadhouses and bars.

Enter, the extraordinary Chris Strachwitz, a true hero of American roots music.

Almost the same age as Clifton their backgrounds could not have been more different!

Chris, from an aristocratic German family, arrived in America in 1947 and was knocked for six by the sounds of Jazz and R&B on the radio and in clubs, ‘I thought this was the most wonderful thing I had ever heard’.

Chris Strachwitz was not a man to be a bystander.

Soon he was recording artists like Jesse Fuller and in November 1960 issued the first record on his Arhoolie Records, Mance Lipscomb’s, ‘Songster and Sharecropper’ in an edition of 250 copies.

Chris was a big fan of Lightnin’ Hopkins so naturally accepted his invitation one night in 1964 to go and see a cousin, one Clifton Chenier, in a Houston bar.

And, the chance encounter turned out to be immeasurably enriching for both men, Zydeco Music and music fans of taste and discretion all over the world!

Chris was stunned by Clifton’s presence and the combination of low down blues and old time Zydeco emenating from the stage.

The music he heard and felt in his heart, soul and gut was life enhancing music.

Music filled with heart and history.

Music filled with toil and tears.

Music filled with longing and love.

Music filled with jumping joy!

The very next day they were in Goldstar Studio cutting ‘Ay Ai Ay’ and a crucial artistic and personal partnership was born.

For the next decade and more Clifton as an Arhoolie artist produced a series of superb records which established him as a major figure and essentially defined the sound and repertoire of Zydeco music.

Clifton was a natural showman who was also a questing musician always looking to develop his sound. He was a virtuoso on the piano accordion so that in his hands it seemed to have the power and variety of a full band in itself.

He could handle any tempo from funereal slow to tarmac melting speed while maintaining swing and sway.

The early Arhoolie albums were matched with singles which came out on the Bayou Label.

In addition to relentless touring on the Crawfish circuit he began to play Roots Music Festivals where his brilliance attracted approval from journalists like Ralph J Gleason who recognised what an extraordinary musician Clifton was.

Here’s a delightful clip of Clifton at a Festival in 1969 with a lovely relaxed performance of the anthem of Zydeco.

Ca c’est tres bon n’est ce pas?

Clifton now put together a truly great Band, ‘The Red Hot Louisiana Band’ which to these ears stands with Muddy Waters pluperfect 1950s Chicago blues band.

John Han on tenor sax, Joe Brouchet on bass, Robin St Julian on drums, Paul Senegal on guitar with the stellar Elmore Nixon on piano combined with Clifton and Cleveland were a wonderfully vibrant group which no audience could resist whether live or on record.

The next selection today may be my all time favourite bluesy Clifton track.

A mesmerising, ‘I’m On The Wonder’ is the work of a master musician who lives and breathes and prays through the music he plays.

Now ain’t that the playing of a King! Yes, Sir, nothing less than a King.

And, a King has many moods. Many moods.

Here’s a dreamy waltz (and anyone who’s ever taken some turns around a hardwood floor always welcomes a waltz!) to bring some languorous Louisiana warmth to your day wherever you may be!

The 1970s saw Clifton in his glorious pomp. A truly regal musician exploding with life and creativity. He WAS Zydeco Music and the recipe he created was one tasty gumbo!

Clifton died in December 1987 having given his life to the music he loved and nurtured.

What I crave, above all in music is flavour and when it comes to flavour it really doesn’t get more appetising than the music of Clifton Chenier.

All hail The King!

To conclude here’s a very evocative clip showcasing Clifford appearing at the legendary Jay’s Lounge and Cockpit in Cankton.

I sure would like to have seen Clifton tear that place up!

Notes:

There’s a superb compilation of Clifton’s pre Arhoolie sides on the Hoodoo Label entitled, ‘Louisiana Stomp’

On Arhoolie I recommend – ‘Louisiana Blues and Zydeco’, ‘Bogalusa Boogie’ (generally rated his best single album), ‘Zydeco Legend’ and, ‘Live at Longbeach’.

Clifton is the star of an excellent 1973 documentary film directed by Les Blank, ‘Hot Pepper’.

There are two highly recommended photographic books, ‘Musiciens cadiens et creoles’ by Barry Jean Ancelet and Elmore Morgan & ‘Cajun Music and Zydeco’ by Philip Gould.

The Monkey Speaks His Mind!


An Immortal Jukebox Production Starring:

Guy The Gorilla!

King Kong!

J. Fred Muggs!

Ham The Astronaut!

And a special appearance by Washoe!

Music by:

Dave Bartholomew

Dr John

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

Denzil Thorpe

Now we all know One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.

Even if it’s Mickey’s Monkey.

And, of course, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey.

Trust me. I’m a Monkey Man. A Monkey Man.

Time for The Monkey To Speak His Mind!

The great Guy The Gorilla, Lord of London Zoo, for more than three decades, kept this thoughts to himself.

Yet, none could doubt that Guy cast a quizzical eye on the rubbernecking crowds who passed by his domain.

Let’s get this Coconut Tree swinging with the man who translated The Monkey’s thoughts – New Orleans and American Music Master, Dave Bartholomew.

Yeah The Monkey Speaks His Mind .. discussing things as they are said to be

Now, when it comes to making great records there was no chink in the armoury of Dave Bartholomew. He could write a street smart lyric and invent winning melodies.

He could hand pick musicians and lead them from the bandstand or the Producer’s desk. He could craft arrangements to add colour and tone to his original conception.

Dave Bartholomew was the whole package. The Real Deal.

He is unquestionably a Roots Music All Star and season after season an obvious MVP pick.

This is the organising mind behind a string of classic records for Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis and Lloyd Price.

Yet, every time I thinks of Dave my musical memory lights first upon, ‘The Monkey Speaks His Mind’ for its wit, its wisdom and its one chord drive which lodges the song deep in the cortex.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind:

There’s a certain rumour that just can’t be true. That Man descended from our noble race. Why, the very idea is a big disgrace!’

Perhaps such thoughts tormented the mind of King Kong as he swayed atop The Empire State Building preparing for his doom.

King Kong is one of the great tragic heroes of Popular Culture and you can be sure his dignity and nobility will always win him a revered place in the affections of humans with functioning hearts.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind:

No Monkey ever deserted his wife, starved her baby and ruined her life.’

Let’s now call upon a man loaded with N’Awlins Mojo – Dr John.

In this live version his steam heat band soak us in jungle humidity and push up the ambient temperature of the Club.

Good job there were cooling libations to hand!

The guitarist and drummer exercise Zen mastery while the trombone solo sails acrobatically through the room.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind:

‘And you’ve never known a mother Monk to leave her babies with others to bunk and passed them from one to another ‘Til they scarcely knew who was their mother.’

Such thoughts must surely have crossed the mind of J Fred Muggs as he surveyed the passing parade of human folly.

To emphasise the point I call upon one of the finest bands ever to emerge from Texas – The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

One thing you can rely on in this unpredicatable world. If you go to a Fabulous Thunderbirds show you are gonna get good and sweaty and have the time of your life.

I speak as as someone who has seen them in all the incarnations that have toured the U.K.

The blacktop blast of Kim Wilson’s harmonica and the perfect economy of Jimmie Vaughan’s Guitar with Keith Ferguson and Fran Christian anchoring the sound makes for an over proof combination that’s guaranteed to get the adrenaline pumping and the heart rejoicing.

Adrenaline would surely have been coursing through Ham The Chimpanzee when he blasted into space on 31 January 1961.

The success of Ham’s mission gave the green light for manned space flights to follow.

As he climbed to unimagined heights viewing the world below from a new perspective perhaps Ham reflected that:

‘You will never see a Monkey build a fence around a Coconut Tree and let all the coconuts go to waste forbidding other monkeys to come and taste’.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind!

To conclude our meditations on the theme here’s a lovely lurching version from Jamaica, where the rhythms of New Orleans were readily appreciated and appropriated.

At the controls was Coxsone Dodd, founder of the legendary Studio 1 recording Mecca and label.

The vocal is by Denzil Thorpe having his brief moment of glory (Any information on Denzil’s subsequent career much welcomed here!)

Washoe learned to communicate fluently in sign language. In quiet moments I wonder if she signed to herself:

‘Here’s another thing a Monkey won’t do – go out on a night and get all in a stew. Or use a gun or club or knife to take another Monkey’s life!’

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind!

And, when The Monkey Speaks His Mind we would would do well to listen!

This Post dedicated to the great Dave Bartholomew. A Founding Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll still going strong at 98! Wishing him health and happiness and looking forward to celebrating his Centenary.

Notes:

Guy The Gorilla (Gorilla,gorilla,gorilla) was one of the most distinguished residents of London between 1947 and 1978. He is properly commemorated in a statue at London Zoo and in portrait paintings.

I saw him often when I was a child and clearly remember being affected by his immense physicality and his somber aura.

King Kong – there were many profoundly important events in 1933. Not least Kong’s appearance in the 1933 film bearing his name. Film technology is now immensely sophisticated yet it is the original King Kong who haunts the dreams.

J. Fred Muggs was one of the premier stars of American TV in the 1950s. As ‘Co-Host’ of the NBC Today Show he became a household name and reassuring presence.

Ham passed out top of his group of would be Space Monkeys and happily survived his voyage into space. He spent his remaining years in Washington D.C and North Carolina.

He was buried with appropriate honours, including a eulogy by Col John Stapp, in the Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico.

Washoe (1965 – 2007) developed a signing vocabulary of over 300 words and was able to see a Swan and sign ‘Water Bird’

Her example led to the institution of The Great Ape Project which aims to extend moral and legal protections currently only afforded to humans to the Great Apes.

Steve Forbert : Alive On Arrival and still swinging for the fence!

My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling bad or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was to keep swinging.’ (Hank Aaron)

You have to walk, that’s the element of time, which forces you to move and change. It’s in the fall, and there’s leaves and dust and dirt in the air – and things are gonna stick to you.’ (Steve Forbert).

Growing up in America most young boys indulge a fantasy where on their Major League debut they get to hit a home run off the opponents’ star pitcher at Fenway Park or Dodger Stadium.

Rounding the bases to ecstatic acclaim they nonchalantly wave their hat to the adoring crowd pausing only to catch the eye of the hometown sweetheart who has travelled hundreds of miles to share the moment.

In my own version of this story (slipping the bonds of time and chronology as you’re allowed to in dreams) I hit a homer off Whitey Ford at Ebbetts Field for my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.

Taking my seat in the dugout Jackie Robinson says, ‘Good hit, Kid’ and punches me on the shoulder.

The music business version of this myth might follow the following arc.

A 21 year old kid from Mississsippi moves to New York City carrying an acoustic guitar and a harmonica rack.

Armed with the fearlessness of youth he busks at Grand Central Station before landing a regular club gig at New Wave/Punk headquarters CBGB (opening for both Talking Heads and John Cale).

The script naturally segues into the scene where the famous manager says, ‘You got something Kid – I can get you a record deal!’

And, sure enough he does. And wouldn’t you just know it the debut album showcases a series of winning songs fizzing with wit, youthful charm and irresistible energy.

The second album adds seasoned musicians and produces a tremendous calling card hit single.

A hot shot critic for Rolling Stone notes that he makes listeners think that they actually do know him – and that this rare gift might just make him the next American Superstar!

And, that folks is the first act of, ‘The Steve Forbert Story’.

Time, I think, for us to fade up the soundtrack. From the aptly named, ‘Alive on Arrival’ the feisty, ‘Goin’ Down To Laurel’.

Straightaway Steve Forbert announces his artistic virtues.

He has a hoarse, reaching for that farther star, voice that charms as it plucks at your heart.

He sure can spin a story that’ll lodge and linger in the mind. With a wide and knowing grin he beckons you into the story of a shooting the breeze young man who is part straight arrow Tom Sawyer and part rapscallion Huck Finn:

‘Glad to be so careless in my way
Glad to take a chance and play against the odds
Glad to be so crazy in my day’

This is a red blooded young man who relishes the rush of life with his harmonica rhythmically rhyming with the wheels carrying him down to Laurel and the moon and sun above.

He’s more smart than you might think – he glories in being so young and carefree yet he knows those cares are waiting up ahead. For this great life can always end and love is a funny, funny, state of mind.

So, time to enjoy every wonderful moment spent with the girl who is a fool for him – well worth the trip to a dirty stinking Town.

Not time now to dwell on the serial marriages and breakdowns all around, the rain in the clouds somewhere above, the trains taking young men out of town leaving burning buildings behind them.

Yes, love is a funny state of mind and isn’t it marvellous to discover that for yourself. Love does make the world go around and boarding that carousel makes the head spin and the heart pump faster and faster.

Steve Forbert, from the get go, do something that defines writers and performers who matter. His songs have quick vitality plunging us into a life we recognise and through the verve of performance winning our attention and allegiance.

Captured, we want to know how the story pans out. We want to stick along for the ride – wherever it may take us for we sense there are more fine, echoing stories ahead.

And, indeed there were. On his second record, ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ Steve nailed a song he had been working on for a long time. ‘Romeo’s Tune’ explodes with dizzying exuberance and joy.

You are swept along by the I can’t contain myself vocal and the surging melody.

It has, ‘this ones just got to be a hit’ and keeper written all over it.

Steve Forbert will be singing this song for the rest of his life and every audience that hears him sing it, for the first or the thousandth time, will sing with him.

Surely everyone wants Southern kisses and wants their lover to embody the the smell of The Moon for precious moments.

Of course, the years will rise and fall. They must. They must.

Yet, every day we wish for someone who will share that rise and fall with us. Someone who will care. Someone who will laugh with us as we sneak on out beneath the stars and run!

So now we move on to Act 2 wherein our hero encounters and endures a reversal in his fortunes. There is drama, disappointment, what some would call disloyalty, puzzlement, treachery and perfidy.

It is, after all, The Music Business!

Contrary to informed expectation and the spreadsheet projections of managers, record company bean counters and executives his follow up records did not produce chart topping hits and fill stadium bleachers.

Mogul patience runs out. Spectacularly so. A fifth album is recorded. But not issued. And, no one else can issue it either.

And, you got to understand this Kid .. you can’t record for anyone else either!

This is what we call a test of mettle. Steve hits the road, writes songs, ascends for year after backbreaking year the rocky slopes of purgatory.

Stubborn perseverance pays off when The E Street Band’s Gary Tallent appears on a metaphorical white horse ready to produce a ‘comeback’ album.

When it is issued, ‘Streets of This Town’ turns out to be a magnificent album of deeply felt songs that could only have been written by an artist of rare talent.

One bloodied but unbowed by the tempests he had survived. It is a record of hard won insight and tender empathy. The Kid is now unquestionably a Man. A man with visions to turn to when storms assail your own life.

Here’s a man who has realised that the promises made to you when you sign on the dotted line are often not honoured and that you might well lose a lot more than you gain in the transaction if you’re not very careful.

The skills of wheeling and dealing and knocking people down to get your way on the streets of this town must encourage him to light out for the territory even if it is with tears in a grown man’s eyes. Time to take off the uniform and abjure the crazy norm.

Streets of This Town was a major critical success as was its excellent follow up, ‘The American in Me’. But, this is real life not a film.

Critical hosannas did not turn into public acclamation. Record stores were not besieged by hordes of fans desperate to reintroduce themselves to the mature work of that guy who wrote that Romeo song.

So, Steve did what he had always done. He wrote engaging, literate songs that reflected his own struggles and joys and the life of the communities and generations around him.

He kept on keepin’ on. Always heading for another joint.

And, as he did it turned out that there was always an audience for songs that nourished the heart and stimulated the imagination.

Life flowed on for him and his audience so that songs written in youth took on new layers of meaning when recreated in performance decades down the track from their birth.

Here’s a tender, deeply moving, version of the powerful and poignant, ‘I Blinked Once’ that will surely have resonances in every life that has felt the chill wings of time’s winged chariot rushing by.

It could be, it might be … It is, A Home Run!

Steve Forbert sings reveal a man in full. An artist who speaks to how we live our lives in youth, in early maturity and middle age.

We recognise ourselves in these songs and understand that their author has kept the faith and is still running his race with purpose and determination. Long may he run!

In the coming months Steve Forbert will bring his bulging backpack of songs filled with wit and hard won wisdom to Milwaukee and Wilmington and Decatur.

If you’re within a couple of hours driving distance make sure you go!

He has great stories to tell that will remind you of the flowing tides of your own life and he knows how to tell them.

I’m delighted he’s still out there, crazy in his way, still swinging for the fence.

Still swinging for the fence.

Notes:

First of all many thanks to the man himself for sharing this Post through his official Twitter feed.

A warm welcome to fans of Steve now introduced to The Jukebox.

Steve Forbert, like Nick Lowe and Southside Johnny, is an artist I have enormous fondness for in addition to admiration for his writing and performing abilities.

This post has concentrated on songs from the first 15 years of a career which has now clocked up nearly 40.

I plan to write a further post on the later period of his career to stress how he has continued to write fine songs worthy of your attention.

Recommended Albums:

Alive on Arrival (1978)

Jackrabbit Slim (1979)

Streets of This Town (1988)

The American In Me (1992)

Any Old Time (2002 – a wholly charming collection of Jimmie Rodgers songs)

Over With You (2012)

Compromised (2015)

Steve is an excellent live performer.

I treasure all his live records and DVDs – my favourite being ‘Here’s Your Pizza’ from 1997 and ‘On Stage at World Cafe’ from 2007.

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.

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!

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.

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’.