Rolling Stones : The Joint was Rocking – Going Around and Around (Memories of Eel Pie Island )

‘Eel Pie Island was a big hang-out for me, an ancient damp ballroom stuck in the middle of the River Thames reached by a rickety wooden footbridge. But you felt that you were heading somewhere truly exotic.

It was the place where I began to understand the power of Rhythm & Blues.’ (Rod Stewart)

Last week was a big week.

My daughter started at University.

I drove her there with a knotted stomach – hoping, praying, that these next years would be all that she hoped – the time of her life.

On the way I ceded control of the CD Player – she’s not exactly a fan of the usual fare I play – Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Arthur Alexander.

First up was an Elton John compilation.

‘Crocodile Rock’ blasted out and suddenly these lines really hit home :

’I never had me a better time and I guess I never will’.

Proust had his Madeleine – I have Music.

As soon as I heard those lines I was beamed back there.

To The Island.

Eel Pie Island to give it its full cartographical title.

But, for us .. a raggle taggle band of would be anarchists and bohemians (in reality grammar school boys and girls, art school students and other assorted refugees from the ‘straight world’) it was always just The Island.

The Island.

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Spring and Summer of 1963.

The Time of My Life.

Crossing The River in the Moonlight by the Footbridge.

Crossing to a mysterious land where magic scenes and sounds were all around.

Arthur Chisnall’s Magic Kingdom where Music and Ideas and glorious youthful exuberance and madness reigned, unrestrained.

Blues, Ban The Bomb, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Pop Art …

Queueing up to get my hand stamped by Stan- usually with the name of an obscure African Country.

Clutching my Island Passport :

‘We request and require, in the name of His Excellency Prince Pan, all those whom it may concern to give the bearer of this passport any assistance he/she may require in his/her lawful business of jiving and generally cutting a rug.’

Drinking as much Newcastle Brown Ale as my belly could hold.

Escaping gravity as the sprung Ballroom floor of The Island Hotel see sawed up and down as we danced to Cyril Davies’ All Stars, The Tridents (with Jeff Beck), John Mayall’s Blues Breakers (with Eric Clapton) and Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men (with Rod Stewart).

Trying, desperately, to impress the impossibly glamorous girls in their sixties finery.

Someone said later that on The Island you could feel sex rising from The Island like steam from a kettle.

I certainly got burned.

I loved all those Bands – and The Artwoods and The Yardbirds and Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames.

But, But, from the first time I saw them, April 24th 1963, there was only one Band which commanded my total allegiance – The Rolling Stones.

Bear in mind they hadn’t yet made any records.

These Rolling Stones could be found, honing their chops, at The Station Hotel in Richmond or The Crawdaddy.

You might come across Keith or Mick or Brian shopping for Blues and R & B obscurities at Gerry Potter’s Record Shop on Richmond Hill.

These were The Rolling Stones before the legend.

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Before the national and international tours.

Before the Record Contract and the TV Shows.

These Rolling Stones were our secret.

Our Band.

And, Long before it became a slogan I was telling anyone who would listen (of course, there were precious few of those) that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts (not forgetting Stu) were not only the greatest R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in The Thames Delta but very possibly, very probably, Hell … 100% for certain the finest in the entire world!

I knew that because I saw them play two dozen times on The Island between April and the end of September 1963.

Two dozen times I felt their growing power as a unit.

Their ability to play hot and cool at the same time.

Their ability to Roll and and Sway as well as Rock.

Their ability to lock into the Rhythm and ease into The Blues.

Their ability to get the joint absolutely rocking – Going Around and Around.

I knew because as soon as they hit the first note of Route 66 the floor became a trampoline!

 

 

Now, anyone could see that going on stage in front of an audience put 50,000 Watts of energy through Mick Jagger.

Energy he learned to control and channel – to light like a fuse to send that audience into blissful explosion.

Bill Wyman didn’t move much but his Bass held that energy in tension.

Brian Jones looked great and added the instrumental flourishes.

Charlie Watts and Keith Richards were the masters of Rhythm – born to play this Music.

Together they found gears unknown to their contemporaries.

And, they knew that you can’t exhaust your audience (and yourselves) by playing flat out all night long.

You have to be able to take the tempo down and cast a romantic spell.

You have to learn from the great Arthur Alexander about playing and pacing an R & B Ballad.

 

 

Through and with The Rolling Stones we became R&B and Blues afficianados.

We knew that there was a deep knowing in the seeming simplistic works of Jimmy Reed.

A deep knowing that most Bands either didn’t recognise or couldn’t find within themselves  when they took on a Jimmy Reed tune.

The Rolling Stones knew.

And, listening to them we could feel in our guts that they knew.

 

 

One night they played a song I didn’t recognise.

Turned out it was one that Mick and Keith wrote together.

I thought – if they get the hang of writing given how great they are as a live band they might be able to expand their reach far beyond the Bluesniks like me.

Who knows?

They might even end up being damn near enough as big as The Beatles!

 

Somethings you never forget.

Never.

24 nights on The Island.

The place was packed.

Reeling and Rocking.

Sounds that sent us divinely crazy.

Reeling and Rocking until the Moon went down.

Ah … ah … that Joint was Rocking.

And so were we.

Reeling and Rocking through the Time of Our Lives.

On The Island.

Going Around and Around.

 

 

When I got back Home from dropping my Daughter off I looked through my old files and found this.

The Rolling Stones Ad

I laughed and took down my vinyl copies of The Rolling Stones debut LP and their first two  EPs and played them as loud as my system would allow.

I tell you my Joint was really Rocking.

Notes :

There’s an excellent Book on Eel Pie Island by Dan Van der Vat and Michele Whitby.

I also recommend the Oral History edited by JC Wheatley – ‘British Beat Explosion – Rock ‘n’ Roll Island’

There are 2 worthwhile DVDs – ‘Clinging To A Mudflat’ and, ‘Eel Pie and Blues’

A search of YouTube will yield other fascinating clips.

Slim Harpo : The King Bee – Swamp Blues Superstar!

Sometimes ersatz just won’t do.

No. No. No.

Today you need the pure drop.

The real thing.

Taste and texture.

Something with the Kick that ignites your senses and gets your heart pumping fit to bust right through your ribs.

Low down Swamp Blues out of Louisiana.

Today, right this very minute, you want, hell, you need, some vintage Slim Harpo.

That’ll flat out do the job!

 

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Let’s Buzz a while!

 

Sting it then!

 

 

Slim Harpo. Slim Harpo.

Sleepy vocals and insistent, buzzing, stinging, right inside your mind Harmonica.

I sometimes debate which debut single might be said to be the greatest of all time and, of course,  never reach a settled decision.

But, always, always, high in contention is Slim Harpo’s ‘ epochal debut ‘King Bee/I Got Love If You Want It’ from 1957 on Excello Records.

Produced by the Sultan Of The Swamps J. D. ‘Jay’ Miller in his Crowley Lousiana Studio.

Guitar Gable on the stinging Guitar, John ‘Fats’ Perrodin on Bass and Clarence ‘Jockey’ Étienne on the Drums –  collectively the Musical Kings.

Incredibly ‘King Bee’ was the B Side .. but once heard, especially when blasting out of a Juke Joint Juke Box it is, no doubt about it, an Alpha A Side!

King Bee has the perfect combination of musical economy and impact wholly characteristic of Slim Harpo’s entire career.

In record after record he came up with winning vocals and melodies, memorable lyrics, and addictive instrumental instrumental interludes – all in under three minutes!

No wonder his records were Juke Box classics all over the South.

Slim Harpo, enormously aided by the ambience created by J D Miller, managed to cram everything essential to produce a great record into his sound and cut out everything else.

So his records cast a spell and have you coming back again and again in search of the secret of their allure.

For me, in addition to the hypnotic overall sound on King Bee it’s the moment when Slim drawls ‘Well’ before adding with a mixture of masculine menace and charm – ‘Buzz a while … sting it then’.

I’m sure it was a rare barfly who didn’t imagine himself one hell of a buzzing, stinging King Bee when this one came blasting out of the Jukebox.

Mick Jagger and all The Rolling Stones were certainly stung by the sound.

On their debut album the first track on Side 2 is none other than a faithful take on King Bee – though it would be many years before The Stones would be able, on record, to come anywhere near the relaxed authority of Slim Harpo’s sound.

Slim Harpo’s sound and pared down songs because they effortlessly combined so many Blues, Country and Swamp Pop elements proved enormously attractive to a multi racial audience at home and to neophyte Bluesmen in Britain.

Virtually every Group you might hear in The Marquee or on Eel Pie Island had a Slim Harpo Song in their set.

The Kinks before Ray Davies emerged as one of the great original Songwriters mined Slim’s catalogue and came up with a creditable version of, ‘I Got Love If You Want It’.

Of  course, it’s not a patch on the original!

 

 

You got the rock ‘til your back ain’t go no bone rhythm.

You got the teasing vocal and the seductive Harmonica.

You got the I can’t believe it’s finished – I’ll have to cue it up again at once economy.

You got a great Slim Harpo Record.

Though King Bee had a big impact on fellow musicians and musica aficionados it didn’t set the cash registers ringing madly.

For that Slim, who was never a 7 days a week full time musician, had to wait until 1961 when he came up with a Song that just won everybody over – ‘Rainin’ In My Heart’.

Deservedly Top 20 R & B and Top 40 Pop In the Billboard Charts.

By now Slim’s Band had Rudy Richard on Guitar, James Johnson on Bass and Jesse Kinchen on Drums – and it’s hard when you hear them play to imagine you could ever find yourself a better Saturday Night Out Band to laugh and love and drink to!

All such Bands need a romantic swooner and they don’t come more romantically swooning than Rainin’ In My Heart.

I’ve seen fabulous live versions of this one by The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Van Morrison (the latter rarely outdone on swoon when he has a yen for it).

Van has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all aspects of The Blues and is no mean Harmonica player so it was no surprise that with Them he cut a dynamite version of Slim Harpo’s, ‘Don’t Start Crying Now’.

 

Now, Lordy Mama, ain’t that a blast!

From the first instant the Band lock in and you’re barrelling down the tracks until you hit the buffers less than three minutes later.

Nothing to do but get back on the train and set off again!

Slim Harpo’s biggest Hit came in 1965 with the scorching, ‘Scratch My Back’.

Get To It!

 

Seductive, Slinky, Sexy as all get out, aah Scratch My Back.

Scratch My Back.

Nothing as satisfying as an Itch that gets well and truly scratched!

Remember when I said what a great Saturday Night Band Slim Harpo had?

Well, well, well, here’s the ultimate proof.

If, ‘Shake Your Hips’ doesn’t get you up and out on the Dancefloor there’s just no hope for you.

No Hope at all.

This is pure Voodoo.

Pure Voodoo!

 

The Rolling Stones were ready to do justice to Slim’s Sound when they recorded this on their magnificent 1972 Double Album, ‘Exile On Main Street’.

Slim Harpo died, tragically young at 46, in 1970, just as he was about to tour Europe for the first time – where he would surely have been received as the Music Hero he was.

Slim Harpo Records define Swamp Blues and I will never tire of listening to The King Bee.

I’m stung every time.

I’ll leave you with a valedictory ballad that cuts like a scalpel to the heart.

Oh Slim, you sure were a Good Thing.

A very Good Thing indeed.

 

 

Notes :

I thoroughly recommend ‘Buzzin’ The Blues’ Bear Family’s encyclopaedic set of Slim Harpo’s recorded career which includes a wonderful live show from 1961.

Thanks due to Dave Emlen from kindakinks.com for pointing readers of his excellent site in this direction!

Little Walter : 50 Years Dead but he will never be gone! The King of the Blues Harmonica

Little Walter died 50 years ago in tragic circumstances.

The term irreplaceable is too often used – in the case of Little Walter no other term will do.

Since his untimely death many fine musicians have been inspired by the majesty of his Sound and in consequence produced superb records.

None have matched Walter’s. No one ever will.

In his honour I present again The Immortal Jukebox tribute to the greatest Blues Harmonica Player of all time.

You gotta say Little Walter invented the blues harmonica .. No one had that sound before him. No one could make the thing cry like a baby and moan like a woman.

No one could put pain into the harp and have it come out so pretty. No one understood that the harmonica – just as much as a trumpet, a trombone or a saxophone – could have have a sound that would drop you in your tracks!’. (Buddy Guy)

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Some people have just got it.

And, by it, I mean IT – the mojo that definitively separates the great from the very good and the merely good.

From the sidelines or from the stalls we can often recognise, without expert knowledge ourselves, some invisible aura that marks out the special one, the summiteer, from those still scrambling up Mount Parnuss’ lesser slopes.

It’s not necessary to have been a Major League Baseball player to have recognised, on first sight, that Ted Williams was a great hitter or that Sandy Koufax was the pitcher you’d want pitching for you if your life was at stake.

Intensive years of conservatoire schooling are not needed to know, for certain, that Maria Callas had a gift for dramatic singing that is beyond compare or that Glenn Gould as he hunched over the keyboard and played Bach’s divine music was some kind of angel himself.

Anyone, after watching even one round of Muhammad Ali boxing in his peerless prime would in head shaking wonder have had to exclaim, ‘There’s never been anyone like him!’.

Little Walter (Jacobs) a bluesman and instrumentalist of undoubted genius and the subject of today’s Immortal Jukebox post is assuredly one of that elect company.

With the certainty that advancing age brings, I confidently declare that there never will be a harmonica player to equal, let alone out do, Little Walter for drive, flair, command, show-stopping technical skill and outrageously imaginative musical daring.

Listen to the brilliance of his playing on, ‘Juke’ his first solo 45 from 1952, recorded with his colleagues in Chicago blues finest ever outfit – The Muddy Waters band.

I believe the proper expression after bearing that is, ‘Lord, Have Mercy!’.

This is Little Walter stepping up the stage, front and centre, to announce to his fellow musicians and the wider world that he was the new royal ruler of the blues harmonica.

Sure, on his way up he had been influenced by the two blues harpists named Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Walter Horton. He had arrived in Chicago as WW2 ended by way of his birthplace, Marksville Louisiana, New Orleans, Helena Arkansas, Memphis and St Louis – all the while soaking up music and developing his awesome technique.

It is clear that he had also been listening intently to thrusting saxophonists like Big Jay McNeely in addition to harp masters. But, then Walter took everything he had learned and at the warp speed of his imagination, moved into interstellar overdrive, taking the humble harmonica into uncharted territory. The territory all subsequent blues harmonica players live in.

Juke, recorded at the end of a Muddy Waters session for Chess subsidiary, Checker Records, became an enormous hit. It was biggest seller the label had up to that point and the first (and still only) harmonica led instrumental to top the R&B charts.

Walter and the commercially savvy Chess Brothers realised that while Walter should remain an essential part of the Muddy Waters sound he now needed to have his own band, The Jukes, for recording and touring purposes.

Walter was obviously the star of the show but he was fortunate to have such alert and sympathetic sidemen as guitarists, Louis and David Myers and drummer Fred Below.

Together in the period 1952 to 1958 they had 14 top ten R&B chart successes – records that are rightly regarded as blues classics. The general pattern was for each 45 to feature an instrumental allowing Walter to swoop and soar wherever his seemingly unlimited imagination took him coupled with a tough, street wise vocal side.

Walter was not a great singer but he could give a lyric a dramatic authority that lodged a song deep into your memory. It’s hard to believe that any set of sides were ever more perfectly engineered to blast out of South Side Chicago Jukeboxes!

On, ‘the threatening ‘You Better Watch Yourself’ below his harmonica doubles as a switchblade slicing the air powered by intoxicant fouled male bravado.

Or perhaps that should be doubles as a, ‘Saturday Night Special’ handgun waved to all and sundry in the joint as a signal – a declaration, that, ‘look out brothers and sisters! I’m a mean, mean dude and you had best not get in my way or mess with MY woman’.

More evidence here of Walter’s ability not simply to plug in to use the power of electricity to add volume to his harmonica but his understanding that testing the limits of the amplifiers could produce feedback and other distorting effects which he could harness to produce ever more individual and wondrous sounds.

There was something of the sorcerer about Walter – casting mysterious musical spells from a book unreadable to all but him.

Walter was a genius. He was also mean, moody and unreliable though he could be charming when he wanted to. Easily slighted, especially when drunk (and he was rarely without a bottle to hand) he was always one step, one sideways look, away from a fight.

His hungry indulgence in booze and drugs inevitably wore down his body and though his talent was immense it could not survive in its true glory beyond the late 1950s given the sustained onslaught of self abuse he visited upon it.

But when he was in his prime there was no one in Chicago or the whole wide world to touch him!

Walter, certain in his mastery of his instrument could play at the fastest tempos to whip an audience into a frenzy. But, like all the great musicians, he could exercise a mesmeric hold on his listeners playing at very slow tempo.

Listen to him on, ‘Quarter To Twelve’ sounding like some orchestral nocturnal spectre briefly visiting this material world to pass on some vital message.

I hear many things in the harmonica sounds of Little Walter.

I hear the cry and moan Buddy Guy heard.

I hear air renting sobs of pain, sly seduction, bitter rage – sometimes suppressed sometimes inescapably aimed right between our eyes and ears.

I hear terror and exultation, anxiety and ambition, lust, longing, and oceans of loss. Oceans of loss.

I hear a proud and angry grown man and a bewildered, bereft child.

I hear all the swirling sea of human emotions we are heir to drawn from the very air and brought to shining dramatic life through Walter’s miraculous sound.

A last treat – here he is, courtesy of the pen of blues godfather WIllie Dixon, with what has become a blues standard, ‘My Babe’.

What a huge sound! No fooling, this is Chicago blues at its best – this is the stuff of life.

Goodnight Walter.

May your story be heard and your tears dried.

You gave us treasure from your magnificent gifts.

Your Sound will never die.

Notes

The Chess catalogue has zig zagged through many incarnations for reissue purposes with complications appearing and disappearing with frustrating frequency.

The compilation I listen to most is the Chess 50th Anniversary Collection. You could also investigate the sets from the Proper and Jasmine labels.

A record not to miss is, ‘The Blues World of Little Walter’ on blues specialist label Delmark. This is a quartet outing with Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers and Leroy Foster. Their 1950 version of ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin” will send shivers through your whole being.

Christmas Alphabet : C for Chuck Berry ( Run Rudolph Run) & The Chieftains with Rickie Lee Jones

It’s that time of year again.

And, as loyal readers will know The Immortal Jukebox has a tradition of marking Christmas Tide with special Posts.

Songs of celebration and reflection from many genres and from artists famous and obscure.

This year for all our delight it’s a ‘Christmas Alphabet’ to follow up on the ‘Christmas Cornucopia’ and ‘Christmas Cracker’ series from 2016 and 2015 (if you haven’t read those yet start as soon as you’ve finished this!)

From today you can look forward to a Post every other day.

So, let’s start with C for the great Chuck Berry who died this year.

Now, as we all Chuck was a multi MVP, All Star and indeed a by acclamation inductee Hall of Fame Songwriter.

But that’s not all!

Chuck, when he put his diamond sharp mind to it was also a gifted and sensitive interpreter of other writers’ songs.

In the first flourish of his epochal years recording for Chess Records Chuck laid down two superb Christmas singles showcasing his skills as a guitarist and singer.

Let’s get our blood pumping and senses tingling with Chuck’s definitive take on Johnny Marks’ ‘Run Rudolph Run’

I like to clear a mighty big dancing space before I put this one on and I’d advise you to do the same if you don’t want your Christmas decorations to come crashing down around you!

Yup! Yup! Yup!

Chuck cracks the whip and boy don’t those reindeer speed like a Saber Jet through the firmament!

Johnny Marks was a Christmas Song specialist and I think we can allow that he had really got the hang of it when you consider that in addition to Run Run Rudolph he also wrote, ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’, ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ and, ‘A Holly Jolly Christmas’.

What Chuck and the storied Chess Studio team brought to Run Run Rudolph was an irresistible brio that grips from the get go and doesn’t let up till the son of a gun hits the run off groove.

Just so you know you’re in good company going wild to Run Run Rudolph it was this song that Keith Richard chose to record for his first solo single in 1978 (and a lovely, extra loud, extra louche, job he made of it too).

Keith, surely, was the Boy Child who wanted a Rock ‘n’ Roll Record Guitar!

Chuck, being the fond of a greenback, canny operator that he was, took the arrangement they came up with here wholesale for his own, ‘Little Queenie’ when there would be no question about whose bank account the songwriting royalties would roll into!

Chuck has a powerful case for being the inventor of Rock ‘n’ Roll songwriting and Guitar style.

Yet, neither of these gifts came out of nowhere.

Chuck loved, understood and could integrate into his own sound The Blues, Swinging Jazz, Country Music and the Latin rhythms coming from South of the Rio Grande and from Cuba and the Islands.

So, when in 1947 he heard Charles Brown singing, ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ his ears must have pricked up as he thought, ‘Now that’s one I could do to show off my after midnight singing and guitar style’.

And so it proved.

You can settle back in your armchair for this one and maybe unstopper the Brandy Bottle.

Well, don’t that go down smoothly.

Chuck’s perfectly weighted vocal and hush don’t wake the baby guitar is perfectly complemented by Johnnie Johnson’s lyrical and lush piano.

One to listen to thrice before you move on!

Now a wonderful Transatlantic partnership between two maverick talents.

First, Ireland’s most successful cultural crusaders along with the manufacturers of Guinness – The Chieftains.

Joined here by the bohemian brilliance of Rickie Lee Jones.

The space they afford each other allows each to shine.

Rickie embodies the weary world and the thrill of hope even as The Chieftains evoke the bright shining stars and the glorious new Morn.

Together they make something really special and moving out of, ‘O Holy Night’

Ry Cooder, Captain Beefheart, John Handy : Hard Work! Hard Work!

Hard Work. Hard Work.

Never killed anyone.

Or so the sages say.

But, Lord, Lord, it sure can make you dog tired.

What brought me to these thoughts?

Moving House.

Moving up into the hills.

Farming country criss crossed with ancient footpaths.

Moving all our stuff.

All our stuff.

All the Books!

All the Vinyl!

All the DVDs and CDs.

All the accumulated treasures and trifles of a lifetime to be boxed, bagged and loaded.

Now that is hard work!

Hard Work.

So, Dear Readers, precious little time to research and ponder deeply before writing.

So, so, I set the numbskulls free to roam in my brain’s music data base with ‘Hard Work’ as the search tag.

And, look what emerged!

From the 1970s two paens to the Working Life.

First up Saxophonist John Handy.

An alumnus of the Great Charles Mingus Band.

Classic solo on, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’

Here, he digs in and you just gotta go with the groove.

Hard Work. Hard Work.

Next. From the Soundtrack of Paul Schrader’s, directorial debut, ‘Blue Collar’ the one and only Captain Beefheart in the guise of a classic Blues Singer with, ‘Hard Working Man’.

Can’t you feel the gears grinding and the metal shuddering!

A constellation of talent on show.

Written and produced by Jack Nitzsche a shadowy guiding hand and presence involved with many great records for decades.

Guitar by Ry Cooder.

Ry has impact whenever he plays.

Hard Work! Hard Work!

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.)

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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.

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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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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