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.

 

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.’

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Ninth Day

Ninth Day

A Painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1577 to 1640)

A Poem by Norman Nicholson (1914 to 1987)

Music by  Chopin played by Claudio Arrau (1903 to 1991), Joe Tex and June Christy.

 

Our painting today is, ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ by Peter Paul Rubens.

More accurately, it is the the modello (a sketch shown to a patron for approval of the composition) for the altarpiece painted by Rubens for the convent of the Dames Blanches, Louvain now in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

rubens-adoration

There is a wonderful humanity in this work.

Though the event depicted was of universal importance it was witnessed, experienced, by, ‘ordinary’ men and women (and let us not forget animals as the peering camels here humorously demonstrate) on a day when the sun rose and set like any other.

Miracles take place (far more often than, ‘common sense’ will allow) against  the background of every day events.

Rubens manages to make each of the individual characters in the scene vividly present.

I feel as if I could  walk directly into this company and be made welcome.

 

Devotees of Chopin and his piano works, especially The Nocturnes, can spend long hours debating which great pianist has searched their depths most successfully.

I have never wavered in my conviction that the magical recordings made by Claudio Arrau must wear the crown.

His version of The Nocturnes has the quality of meditative prayer.

 

 

After the above and yesterday’s stop to gaze reverentially heavenward it’s time to turn to more earthly considerations.

The Greeks, as you might have expected, had different words to describe the varied forms of love we express and experience.

Yesterday we were concerned with Agape – the love of God for man and man for God. Today we will find songs that express Eros – sensuous, sexual love and the appreciation of beauty and Philia – the love expressed in affectionate regard and friendship.

Now we turn to a tremendous southern soul sermon from a master and mentor for the genre, Joe Tex. ‘I’ll Make Everyday Christmas (For My Woman)’ glows bright with Joe’s gently enveloping passion.

Joe’s forte was telling stories in song using humour and homespun wisdom so that you felt he was gifting you the hard won lessons of a richly lived life.

 

Joe had a country preacher’s sense of the hunger in the audience for parables that would make sense of the roadblocks and confusions assailing them in their lives and provide a route map for the way ahead.

They knew that Joe didn’t pretend that he had never been a rounder and a rogue as well as a true romantic and love disciple.

We often, rightly, pay more attention to the testimony of someone who admits to failure and frailty than those in their whited sepulchres who are quick to admonish our every fault.

Joe sings the song with a steadily growing intensity almost as if the promise he was making was as much to his own better self as to the woman it was made to.

When the record finishes its hard not to say, ‘Amen! Brother, Amen!’ and vow to make sure you too take care to make everyday Christmas for your own woman or man.

Next, the delightfully cool Miss June Christy with, ‘Christmas Heart’. June was a veteran big band vocalist who followed Anita O’Day as the singer with Stan Kenton.

As a solo artist she made a magnificent album, ‘Something Cool’ which should be on the shelves of anyone with an appreciation of the art of jazz singing.

 

 

I have always found something deeply engaging in the understated, wistful tone June Christy brings to a song.

It seems she has stripped out all unnecessary flourishes so that we hear the essence of the song as she steers us gently to understanding through her embrace of the melody and lyric.

The lack of hectoring or self regard in, ‘Christmas Heart’ makes its dreamlike plea for Christmas to be a day when all the wounded find rest and balm all the more affecting.

You never really need to ask who is your neighbour – just look around you.

Today’s poem is, ‘Carol For The Last Christmas Eve’ by a favourite poet of mine, Norman Nicholson from Millom in England’s rural Cumbria.

Never fashionable Nicholson’s work will endure.

‘The first night, the first night,
The night that Christ was born,
His mother looked in his eyes and saw
Her maker in her son.

The twelfth night, the twelfth night,
After Christ was born, the Wise Men found the child and knew
Their search had just begun.

But the last night, the last night,
Since ever Christ was born,
What his mother knew will be known again,
And what was found by the Three Wise Men,
And the sun will rise and so will we,

Umpteen hundred and eternity’

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Fifth Day

Fifth Day featuring :

A Painting by Taddeo Gaddi (1290 to 1366)

A Poem by Patric Dickinson (1919 to 1994)

Music by Charles Lloyd, Louis Armstrong and Kay Starr

Today’s painting is by the Florentine Taddeo Gaddi who was the star pupil of the great Master, Giotto.

His, ‘The Angelic Announcement to the Shepherds’ can be seen in the Baroncelli Chapel within Santa Croce in his native Florence.

It is a wonderfully dramatic painting.

 

gaddi_taddeo_announcement

An Angel acts as God’s messenger alerting humankind to an event upon which all history will pivot.

The Sheep are stirring and the Dog’s keen senses alert him to the messenger from afar.

As the Angel speaks eternity merges with linear time.

How could the waking Shepherd find the words to tell his sleeping companion what he has learned?

Surely all he could say was:

‘Let us go – someone we must see is waiting for us just down the hill. Come now!’

It is an invitation which remains open.

Today’s new music selection is cool, clear water, drawn from a deep well.

Saxophonist Charles Lloyd is a musical pilgrim who has journeyed, as so may have, through trial and turbulence in search of a place of peace.

 

 

If this stunning version of, ‘Shenandoah’ from his 2016 released Blue Note CD, ‘I Long to See You’ is anything to go by he has found that place and a way of sharing that blessing with us.

The rhythm section of Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland and the stellar guitar duo of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz add gorgeous shimmers of light as Lloyd horn calls us each of  us to set off on our own Camino.

Onward!

Our Sleigh is picking up a very special passenger today. He’s here to sing and play on a Christmas song, ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?’ that has the effervescence of a fine champagne.

Of course, I’m talking about Louis Armstrong.

If they ever get round to carving four heads into a mountain to celebrate musicians in the way that Presidents are celebrated at Mount Rushmore there can be no argument among men and women of reason that the first head to be carved must be that of Louis Armstrong.

 

Zat You, Santa? Zat You, Louis?

I could set out an exhaustive list of his astounding achievements as the preeminent musician of the 20th century with special reference to his role as the pioneer genius who transformed a pastime into an art form and who influenced everyone who ever had the good fortune to hear him play.

Others far better qualified than I have written major scholarly tomes on the subject. So, I will limit myself to a few remarks on the effect hearing the great man has had on me.

When I hear Louis play (at every period of his career) I hear the sound of a master musician revelling in the sheer joy of making music.

It was as if he lived and breathed through playing his horn – singing a song of exultation; using without reserve the wondrous gifts of imagination and creative daring yoked to technical brilliance that made him a such a unique musician.

Add to that his personal warmth and ebullience and you have a musician and a man who simply made everyone who encountered him feel better, more human and more glad to be alive.

Isn’t what Santa Claus is supposed to do too?

Next a singer, the late Kay Starr, who knew how to swing and who had the chops to share a bandstand with the finest musicians of her era.

Born on a reservation in Oklahoma with an Iroquois father and an Irish/Native American mother she was as American as you can be.

Maybe that’s how she could sing the hell out of any song in any genre of American popular music.

Kay had an inbuilt sense of rhythm and the ability to musically inhabit and sell a lyric. Listen here to how she brings out the drive and the humour of, ‘Everybody’s Waitin’ For The Man With The Bag’.

One of the co-writers of the song was Dudley Brooks who featured earlier in the list featuring Elvis Presley.

I can’t honestly say I have done everything I should this year (extra special good) but I can recognise an extra special good singer when I hear one and Kay Starr must be one of the best and merriest we ever did have!

Today’s poem is, ‘Advent: A Carol’ by Patric Dickinson a writer who revered and translated the Classical poets while looking at the world himself with a sharply individual measured intelligence.

‘What did you hear?
Said stone to echo:
All that you told me
Said echo to stone.

Tidings, said echo,
Tidings, said stone,
Tidings of wonder
Said echo to stone.

Who then shall hear them?
Said stone to echo:
All people on earth,
Said echo to stone.

Turned into one,
Echo and stone,
The world for all coming
Turned into one.’

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Third Day

Third Day featuring :

A Painting by Federico Barocci (1526 to 1612)

A Poem by John Betjeman (1906 to 1984)

Music by Bill Evans, Elvis Presley and Tish Hinojosa

 

Above all Christmas celebrates a birth.

And, there is nothing more intimate than the bond between a mother and child after a birth.

This intimacy is captured exquisitely by the Master of Urbino, Federico Barocci, in this Nativity which positively glows with the light of love.

federico-nativity

Bill Evans was the supreme lyric poet of the piano.

Listening to Bill’s unique sense of musical time and weight I find my spirit awakened, refreshed and released.

‘Blue in Green’ showcases the amazing precision and delicacy of his touch as a musician.

He is always instantly recognisable – the hallmark of true greatness.

This version of what has become a Jazz standard is from the Christmas 1959 session issued as, ‘Portrait in Jazz’.

You have to believe in telepathy when you hear Bill Evans play with Scott LaFaro (bass) and Paul Motion (drums)

This trio remains the benchmark for all piano trios.

 

 

Onward!

Onward our Sleigh proceeds cutting its way through the Christmas snow. Travel with me back in time now to Radio Recorders studios in Hollywood on September 7 1957.

A small group of men assemble to cut an album of Christmas songs. From Gadsden Tennessee the modestly brilliant guitarist Scotty Moore, from Memphis Tennessee the ever reliable bass player Bill Black and from Shreveport Louisiana the sprung-floor drummer D J Fontana.

Huddled together Gordon Stoker, Neal Matthews, Hoyt Hawkins and Hugh Jarrett – collectively the Jordanaires, a gospel quartet filled with the spirit. Today on piano sits Dudley Brooks.

Tuning up and swapping musicians banter they all look in the direction of a quietly spoken, respectful, hooded eyed, devestatingly handsome 22 year old from Tupelo Mississippi who has in the last few years recorded a series of records that seem to have shifted the axis of the planet.

In addition through his live shows and TV appearances he has set an entire generation ablaze to the marked discomfort of, ‘sensible’ folks who can’t bring themselves to approve of the shaky-legged, swivel-hipped singer who bears the ridiculous name of Elvis Aron Presley.

As usual the group will warm up by accompanying Elvis as he runs through some of the gospel songs that have surrounded him through his youth and adolescence.

If there’s one thing Elvis believes in and knows through his own bodily experience it’s the power of music to raise, thrill and sustain the spirit.

Neither he nor anyone else could have guessed when he started out that he would possess an almost unique capacity to supercharge a song, to sing with such relaxed intensity and charisma that the listener felt lifted up and transported whether the song was secular or sacred.

Given a half decent song Elvis always sang his heart out and on many occasions the results were and remain nothing short of miraculous.

Like the Beatles and Bob Dylan the best of Elvis’ records are if anything under rated for all the millions of copies they have sold.

I really don’t have a fixed position on many of the great political and cultural issues of our times though I’m happy to debate with anyone. What I am certain of and will jump up on any table anywhere, anytime, to proclaim before any audience is that Elvis was, is, and will always remain the King!

Elvis’ Christmas album was a massive success and continues to sell today. The cut featured above, ‘Santa Claus Is Back In Town’ was written by the whip smart pairing of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who couldn’t have write a lifeless song if they had tried.

Here they provide Elvis with an opportunity to demonstrate his charm, his rhythm and blues chops and the sheer swaggering physical presence his vocals could embody.

I love the tip of the hat to Elvis’ love of the Cadillac and the erotic promise of the whole song incarnated in the line, ‘Hang up your pretty stockings, turn off the light …. ‘.

Christmas brings many forms of celebration not least the chance for lovers to share some quality time together. And, I can think of no one better to serenade such times than Elvis.

We move now from a lover’s serenade to a mother’s lullaby. ‘A la Nanita Nana’ is a traditional song from Mexico sung here with characteristic tenderness and care by Tish Hinojosa.

Tish (short for Leticia) grew up, the thirteenth child, in a crowded household in San Antonio, Texas. Through her brothers and sisters and the crowded radio waves she absorbed and was inspired by music from her native Mexican culture and the folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll traditions which suffice the very air of Texas.

I recommend her CDs, ‘Culture Swing’ and, ‘Frontejas’ for those of you inclined to further listening.

The historical facts of Jesus’ birth remain shrouded in the mysteries of antiquity. However, I think we can be sure mothers nursing their new born child have always sung songs to soothe the babe just exposed to the blooming buzzing confusion of this world of ours.

The first sound we hear as we grow in our mother’s womb is the beating of her heart and hers is the first face we come to recognise in those initial hours and days of life.

Similarly, our first sense of the musicality of language comes from the sound of our mother reassuring us that we are loved and all is well. If we are lucky we will carry this message with us throughout the whole of our lives.

I have no doubt that Mary, though she had much to ponder in her heart, will have sung to her precious babe a song that could we but hear it would sound very like, ‘A la Nanita Nana’.

Today’s poem is, ‘Christmas’ by John Betjeman a poet who managed to combine popularity with real poetic achievement.

‘ And is it true? And is it true?
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass Window’s hue,
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?

… No carolling in the frosty air,
Nor all the steeping-shaking bells
Can with this simple truth compare –
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.’

Louis Jordan : Jukebox King! Choo, Choo, Ch’boogie!

‘High brow, low brow, they all agree, we’re the best in harmony
We’re the greatest band around, make the cats jump up and down,
We’re the talk of rhythm town’ (Louis Jordan, Five Guys Named Moe’)

‘Louis Jordan was one of my main inspirations … He was a super musician who taught me so much about phrasing’ (B.B. King)

‘He could sing, he could dance, he could play, he could act. He could do it all.’
(James Brown)

‘He really was as close to perfection as it was possible to be. He was the best presenter of a song by movement and action I have ever seen. (Playing with him) was like being dragged along by a wild horse!’ (Chris Barber)

According to the Panjandrums at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Louis Jordan was the Father of Rhythm & Blues, the Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll and probably a pioneer of Rap!

And, I have to say, I am happy to add the immense authority of The Immortal Jukebox to the encomium of those august authorities in Cleveland.

Louis Jordan did indeed have it all.

He was the complete entertainer; astoundingly assured in the roles of Bandleader, saxophonist, songwriter, vocalist and, comedian.

He was an inescapable presence in 1940s America. Every Jukebox in every roadhouse, tavern or Honky-tonk with a black clientele from sea to shining sea would have been stuffed with Louis Jordan records.

He was omnipotent in the Black music charts. In the 1940s he had 18 (!) Number 1 singles on the R&B charts along with 54 top 10 entries.

Being on Decca’s, ‘Sepia’ label, along with his dazzling appearances in person, on the radio and on film, gave him exposure to the wider white audience and this led to hits lodged on the country, folk and pop charts too.

OK, enough pontificating!

Here’s Louis with an all time classic he cut in 1945, ‘Caldonia’.

The song was credited to Louis’ then wife, Fleecie Moore (who ended up stabbing Louis in a marital spat!) though that was surely a matter of hiding income for Louis from publishers rather a true statement of authorship.

If this don’t move ya I have to say, ‘Jack, you’re dead!’

Louis was backed by The Tympany Five which, at all times, included agile musicians who brought big band power and swing to the bandstand. Amazing how so few could produce so full and powerful a sound.

Great players like Carl Hogan on guitar (a clear influence on Chuck Berry), Will Bill Davis and Bill Doggett on piano and organ, Shadow Wilson on drums and Dallas Bartley on bass provided Louis with the launch pad for the effervescent vocals, saxophone smarts and sheer showmanship which slayed audiences everywhere.

Once the band kicked in Louis’ personality and charisma did the rest. I don’t care whether you call it Jump Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Boogie-Woogie, Cabaret Jazz or Rock and Roll!

What counts is that Louis will, most assuredly, make you jump, jive and wail ’til the cows come home!

Louis was born in July 1908 in Brinkley, Arkansas. Drawing on the influence of his musical father he soon became proficient on clarinet and piano before settling on his premier instrument – the Alto Sax.

It is clear that Louis was a hardworking musician able to absorb a wide range of influences and musical styles in search of an amalgam which would become known as the Louis Jordan sound.

The experience he gained in the 1930s working with Jazz giants like Clarence Williams and especially with Chick Webb at New York’s Savoy Ballroom stood him in very good stead when he felt ready to launch his own band.

He learned about commanding the stage, about arrangements and how to pace a show. Above all, he learned that his greatest asset was himself. Louis was one of those rare artists that audiences immediately take to – probably because, whatever kind of day, week or year you were having, listening to Louis just made you glad to be alive!

Now, let’s turn to a moody masterpiece from 1944 that sold by the million to every kind of audience, the wonderfully titled, ‘Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby’.

Ain’t that a question most of us have had to hazard a time or two!

The relaxed intimacy of Louis’ vocal and the superb individual and ensemble playing of the band make this this one of the great, ‘after hours’ songs for me. Pour yourself a superior malt whiskey and lose yourself!

One of the many great pleasures when listening to Louis Jordan is his brilliant delivery of a lyric. He can be louche, sly, comic or confiding. He can inhabit the role of the outraged husband, the yearning lover, the regular guy or the guy who has the inside dope.

He’s the guy with all the latest gossip expressed in the latest jive talk. When he talks you lean in and listen!

In a previous post, (‘Elegy for Vincent http://wp.me/p4pE0N-7J) I wrote about our habit of greeting each other with quotations from our favourite Irish traditional songs.

I had a similar experience when I used to meet my friend, ‘Slim’ (who was, of course, a man of mighty size) at a blues bar in deepest Soho.

We would invariably try to outdo each other with our recall of tasty Louis Jordan lines:

‘What makes your big head so hard?’

‘You take your morning paper from the top of the stack
and read the situations from the front to the back
The only job that’s open needs a man with a knack – so put it right back in the rack, Jack!’

‘Lot took his wife down to the cornerstore for a malted – she wouldn’t mind her business, boy did she get salted!’

‘Why, I’ll go back in that joint and take a short stick
and bust it down to the ground!
Open the door Richard!’

‘Those other chicks leave me cold
You can’t compare brass to 14 carat gold,
After they made her they broke the mold,
Cause she’s reet, petite and gone!’

‘Tomorrow is a busy day,
We got things to do, we got eggs to lay,
We got ground to dig and worms to scratch,
It takes alot of settin’ gettin’ chicks to hatch’

‘Sure had a wonderful time last night,
Come here, feel this lump on my head!’

I have to confess I’ve had my fair share of, ‘Lump on the head’ nights.

I found when I got home, in the wee small hours, as I searched for the ice pack and contemplated a kill or cure, ‘hair of the dog’ solution that Ol’ Uncle Louis had the perfect song that could soothe the addled head and even have me slippin’ and a slidin’ across the parquet floor playing imaginary Cuban percussion!

The original version of, ‘Early in the Mornin’ is from 1947. Look out as well for the, you have to see it to believe it, version featured in a 1949 film, ‘Look Out Sister’ where Louis appears as a cowboy!

I am going to conclude this brief introduction to the majesty of Louis Jordan’s catalogue with one of my all time favourite records, ‘Choo, Choo, Ch’Boogie’, a monster hit from 1946, which sounds wonderful 70 years on and is sure to sound just wonderful in 600 years time.

This is a pure product of America. America at its best.

Generous, democratic, thrillingly alive.

When I hear America singing it is very often Louis Jordan I hear.

And, I rejoice.

Notes:

The breadth and depth of Louis Jordan’s recorded output is best captured by the 131 track compilation on JSP Records, ‘Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five’.

Believe me, you will find yourself enjoying every last one of the 131 sides!

After his great years in the 1940s Louis continued to perform with brio and when the circumstances were right he could still produce superb recordings.

I love, ‘Somebody Up There Digs Me!’ from 1956 which benefited from Quincy Jones involvement and, ‘Man we’re Wailing’ from 1957.

Louis was extensively featured in, ‘Soundies’ and these have been collected on DVD.

The English eminence grise of Jazz scholarship, John Chilton, has written a typically well researched and sympathetic biography, ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ published by The University of Michigan.

The influence of Louis on succeeding generations of musicians is undoubtedly immense.

Look out for a follow up post featuring artists of the stature of B B King, Van Morrison, Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson to name but a few!

Donald Fagen : The Nightfly – Walking between raindrops

‘During the final mix down of the album, I started to feel kind of funny and that feeling turned into an even weirder feeling that had to do with work and love and the past and morality and so forth.

I wouldn’t complete another CD until 1993. So I’m glad I made The Nightfly before a lot of the kid-ness was beat the hell out of me, as happens to us all’ (Donald Fagen)

‘You’ll walk between the raindrops, between the raindrops,
Walk between the raindrops back to your door’ (Donald Fagen)

Hip, Hep, Cool.

Qualities that are hard to define. Yet most of us will recognise and admire (grudgingly or otherwise) those who are authentically hip, hep and cool.

Cultural insiders who are ahead of the curve and opening up new territory before the masses come to settle on the old.

In the 1970s, as co-leader of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen was a veritable tenured Professor of Cool.

His partnership with Walter Becker in the peerless Steely Dan had illuminated the 1970s music scene with astonishing lightning bolts of twisted, subversive, hyper intelligence, lyrical misdirection, mystery and musical sophistication.

They had pop smarts, jazzbo chops and rock clout all in one sleek package. Lauded with critical garlands each of their 70s albums also featured solid commercial hits.

But, as the 1980s dawned the golden days were dimming fast for Steely Dan. With Walter Becker hors de combat Donald Fagen set to work on a solo record.

He was then in his early 30s and aware that the tides of time were inescapably moving him into a new phase of life. Of course, like the tides there were powerful attractions both to the push towards the future and the alluring pull of the past.

And, standing on the shore gazing at the inherently mysterious immensity of those seas it was natural for him to reflect with amazement, affection and no little rueful wonder at the times he had lived through and the evolution of the naive young man he had been into the puzzled, grizzled veteran who was kept awake by the questions we all have to face – sooner or later.

Where have I been?

What was all that about?

How did I end up like this?

Who am I

What do I do now?

The Nightfly is his attempt to answer all those questions. It’s a record that shows us an artist brilliantly finding the means to come to terms with the challenges of perspective.

Fagen’s triumph is the way the individual songs and the architecture of the album as a whole honour and celebrate the hopes and dreams of the youth he was while allowing his older self to offer, without spite or scorn, insightful and sometimes painful illuminations of how easily those tender hopes and dreams could be wrecked upon the rocks.

And, the diligent listener to The Nightfly will find themselves glancingly educated (which is often the very best way to be educated) about the moral, social, commercial, political and cultural history of the United States at the hinge of the 1950s and 1960s.

Oh, and you’ll also find this all lovingly wrapped in cannily composed, superlatively played music produced with technical assurance. The lyrics, sung with cool deliberation and swing, have both immediate attraction and depths to be studied.

And, you can listen to it all the way through at any time of the day or night!

That’s what I call a classic!

So let’s kick off as the album does with the glorious, ‘I. G. Y.’

I. G. Y. stands for International Geophysical Year. The reference books tell me this took place between July 1957 to December 1958 when Donald Fagen was not yet a teenager.

Yet, you can be sure a whip smart, newspaper reading, TV watching, cinema going, obsessive radio listener like young Donald would have, by a process of osmosis, been saturated in the optimism of the age.

So we have American technology promising a glittering future where New York to Paris will take a mere ninety minutes and the city will be lit up by solar power. What a glorious time to be free!

Artists will have tons of leisure time to create their masterpieces while fellows with compassion and vision will make wise decisions with the aid of just machines.

What a beautiful world.

What white 10 year old looking around the picket fenced suburbs in Ike’s America wouldn’t have felt this way?

There’s a swelling uplift in the music amplified by the characteristically elegant orchestration of the instrumental palette of sound to signal the dazzle of the road ahead to the future.

There is something deeply touching and poignant with dramatic irony about the boy’s faith in that scientifically led future and in the fellows who will bring this Utopia to shining life.

A theremin shimmer, redolent of so many science fiction movies, part thrilling, part terrifying, permeates the whole song.

It’s the increasingly plangent tone of the vocal and subtle signifiers like, ‘The fix is in’ and, ‘ by Seventy-Six we’ll be A.O.K’ that darken the brilliant blue skies. Maybe that game in the sky won’t be just a game? Maybe spandex jackets won’t be quite as wonderfully satisfying as imagined.

The future sure looks bright but maybe there are storms brewing which will sweep in from near and far to upset this vision. Looking back it is possible to celebrate what was a glorious time and still shiver as you contemplate terrible events just around the bend.

Next we turn to, the swooning, sensually charged, ‘New Frontier’.

The locus for this swooning celebration/recollection of the endless promise of the New Frontier is not the wide open spaces of America but an underground fallout shelter where the young man (who happens to be about Donald Fagen’s height and weight) fortified with provisions and lots of beer imagines that the big blonde with the touch of Tuesday Weld will fall prey to his charm, ‘ I hear you’re mad about Brubeck – I like your eyes, I like him too’.

The real Donald was, of course, more mad about Miles, Monk and Sonny Rollins than Dave. Yet, breathes there a young man who hasn’t, ‘adjusted’ his taste to curry favour with a fragrant beauty with a French twist who loves to limbo?

The young man’s boast that soon he will soon be moving from Squaresville to the city prior studying design overseas is delightfully juvenile. Yet, he genuinely believes it and beyond his priapic ardour does want to climb into the dawn and share secrets as well as passion before the Reds push the button down.

The mature man must shake his head recalling the callowness of the youth he used to be while secretly wishing he could stand in those shoes again, just once.

There are no wingdings quite like the teenage wingdings of yore. It’s quite a trick to make both the youth and the man he grew to be credible.

The musicianship demonstrated here is stellar. Ed Green’s drums beat out the just can’t stand it any more passion while Larry Carlton (consistently magnificent throughout the record) plays ambrosial guitar. Gary Katz’s producton and the engineering of Roger Nichols conspired to gift the record a crystalline clarity that has rarely been matched.

The title track is just wonderful. Like so many us marooned in the stifling suburbs Donald escaped (at least in his imagination) with the aid of late night DJs heard on a much treasured bedroom transistor radio.

In his case it was the highly creative storyteller Jean ‘Shep’ Shepherd and the hep Mort Fega who opened up his own New Frontier. So, if this character was to become a DJ himself what kind of show would he present?

Surely a graveyard shift program, on an independent station, where deep into the night you could spin the music of your jazz idols and converse with like minded souls until the sun came through the skylight.

Yet, once again, never denying the truth and poetry of the ardent dream, a shadow looms.

Some souls out there include callers who warn about the race of men in the trees. And, all the sweet music in the world taken with liberal helpings of Java and Chesterfield Kings can’t mend a broken heart. He muses that he wishes he had a heart like ice. But, he doesn’t.

So, deep into the night he craves balm from the music which though it can’t cure can make the pain less sharp. And, who knows, a flame not doused by ice could yet rekindle.

We know from Donald Fagen’s captivating memoir, ‘Eminent Hipsters’ that whatever else in his life may have soured with age and infirmity that his belief in the power of great music has never dimmed.

This is a man who affirms that the music of Ray Charles rescued a generation by liberating them from emotional suppression which was the fallout from World War 2. You can feel that conviction in the music of The Nightfly even at its most wearied low point.

Finally, the shining carousel in giddy, glittering motion song which provided me with the key to the album, ‘Walk Between Raindrops’.

Some people say they wish that they had known in their youth what they now know.

I agree with Donald Fagen that this is a profoundly wrong headed idea. The glory of youth is all that you do not know, can’t possibly know, as you fix your eyes on your guiding star and the rainbow up above. The rain, hard or soft, will come soon enough. Soon enough.

The song takes its cue from a rabbinical story where, miraculously, the rabbi stays dry in the rain by walking between the raindrops.

It can’t be done. Of course it can’t.

Yet that’s exactly what Donald Fagen has done in The Nightfly.

He’s walked back to his youth and hymned the young man he was with knowing affection despite the rain of bitter knowledge manhood has inevitably brought him.

And, to do that he has indeed walked between the raindrops. I call that a miracle.