Jonathan Richman : Roadrunner! One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six!

 

‘… He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.’ (William Blake)

‘We’d come up over a hill and he’d see the radio towers, the beacons flashing, and he would get almost teary eyed .. He’d see all this beauty in things where other people just wouldn’t see it.’ (John Felice, childhood friend of Jonathan Richman)

 

‘… Roadrunner once, Roadrunner twice, I’m in love with rock & roll

and I’ll be out all night’ (Jonathan Richman)

 

It is a matter of some hilarity in our family and eyebrow raising puzzlement to visitors to our home that whenever I perform any kind of count off I don’t echo the rock roadie, ‘One, two – one, two’ or the more conventional, ‘One, two, three, four …’.

Oh no!

When I count off I always chant with a crazed grin and extreme vigour:

One, two, three, four, five, six!

And, the reason for this is simple.

One, two, three, four, five, six!‘ is the intro to what may well be the most exhilarating rock and roll song ever recorded.

A song that never, ever, fails to thrill when you hear it – no matter which of its numerous live or recorded versions you chance upon or carefully select.

I refer, of course, to Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers immortal, ‘Roadrunner’.

We should, as they say, begin at the beginning.

Jonathan Richman was born in Natick, Massachusetts 10 miles west of Boston on May 16 1951. After a conventional suburban childhood the teenage Jonathan had a Pauline epiphany which would change his life forever.

On the radio, among 1967’s kaleidoscope of folk rock, blues rock, summery pop and psychedelia something shockingly, wonderfully, NEW crashed into his consciousness.

From the dark heart of New York City strange siren songs filled with sin and secrets – The Velvet Underground.

The combination of Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison’s relentless guitar attack, Lou’s deadpan vocals, John Cale’s instrumental extremity and Mo Tucker’s zen drumming entirely redrew the map of the world for Jonathan.

From that epochal moment whenever The Velvets played Boston, invariably at the Boston Tea Party at 53 Berkeley Street, Jonathan was there – absorbing the music through every physical and spiritual pore.

A particular favourite of his was, ‘Sister Ray’ a dervish three chord cataclysm that could last for anything up to half an hour until the band and audience were transported to undreamt of dimensions of being.

And, no one listening flew further or higher on the astral plane than Jonathan. For he was a waking dreamer with dreams of his own.

Dreams of his own that would become songs like shooting stars.

Songs influenced by his beloved Velvets but glowingly imbued with the imagination of a young man who intuitively perceived the shining radiance of the everyday world all around him.

A young man who could make that radiant world burst into life through a few chords and the total immersion of his own being in the song he was singing.

A young man who could write and perform a transcendent anthem about listening to the radio as he drove round Boston’s suburbs.

A young man who could turn the, ‘Stop ‘n’ Shop’, Route 128, the suburban trees, the factories, the auto signs and the radio waves saturating the Massachusetts night into holy way-stations on an ecstatic journey to heaven!

Join Jonathan now on that journey.

 

 

Va Va Voom! Va Va Voom! Va Va Voom!

There are apocryphal tales of Disc Jockeys in the 1950s locking themselves into the studio as they played, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ over and over and over until desperate radio station bosses broke in with axes to restore sanity to the airwaves.

I know exactly how those DJs felt.

I remember, as if it were yesterday, buying in August 1976 the vinyl LP, ‘Modern Lovers’ which had, ‘Roadrunner’ as its opening track.

I believe it took me several dazed days and nights before I even attempted to play another track on the record as I obsessively wore out the Roadrunner groove.

As soon as I got back to college I announced with a prophet’s zeal to anyone who would listen that their lives would be transformed by listening to Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, ‘Roadrunner’.

Look what listening to it a couple of hundred times had done for me!

Jonathan wrote Roadrunner in 1970 and recorded it first with John Cale as producer in 1972 – though such were the vagaries of the music business that it took until 1976 for it to emerge.

You can hear the homage to The Velvet Underground and especially Cale’s organ sound all through this version of Roadrunner.

The rhapsodic keyboards are courtesy of Jerry Harrison who would later achieve fame with Talking Heads. David Robinson, later of The Cars, provides the foot to the floor and keep it there drums. Ernie Brooks anchors everything on the bass.

And Jonathan? Well, miraculously, Jonathan brings his innocent eye and his full heart to the song and conjures a lustrous landscape where the spiritual and physical realms we live and move in balletically entwine.

In this song, and to my mind particularly in this version, Jonathan Richman achieves something very rare.

He manages to create a work of art which captures the quantum quick of life.

The reach and energy of his imagination takes him to a place where is viscerally aware of the unique distinctiveness of the people and objects in the world around him.

And, surrendering his ego to that vision he accepts it as a gift and offers it to us.

If we accept it, as he did, we too will have had a glimpse of eternity’s sunrise.

 

Notes:

There are many versions of Roadrunner.

‘Roadrunner Twice’ a hit single in the UK was recorded in 1974 with Jonathan backed by The Greg Kihn Band.

‘Roadrunner Thrice’ is a wonderful live version.

Jonathan is a mesmeric performer able to fill a room with joy with a capital J.

So the best version of Roadrunner ever may be one he is yet to play.

 

Merle Haggard, Dave Alvin & Emmylou Harris – Kern River

‘I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By the worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.’

(T. S. Eliot – ‘The Dry Salvages’)

The river is a strong brown god.

In our lives we all have many rivers to cross. And, so often, we can’t seem to find our way over. Over to the land of milk and honey. Over to the land of lost content. Over to the home we are sure is there waiting, waiting.

So filled now with hope, now with faith, now firm in resolve, now lost and abandoned without hope or faith or resolve we stand silent and shivering on the river bank. Wondering will I ever cross over and what will await me when I do?

The river is a strong brown god.

Beside a river man is a paltry thing despite all the majesty of our boats and bridges. The river ran before man ever drew breath and will run and run long after our last breath.

The river is a strong brown god.

And, we are attracted to the power and mystery of rivers even as we fear their mystery and power. And, sometimes the river, in spate and flood, asserts its power and authority and reminds us brutally that beside a river man is a paltry thing.

A river, in flood and spate, can, in a moment, sweep away our idle dreams of the future and leave us chastened, bereft, beached and fearful of rivers for the rest of our lives.

The river is a strong brown god.

Merle Haggard know this. Merle has always seemed to me have the far away look of a man who knows how unfair and brutal life can be. A man who learned hard lessons in youth which he can never dismiss or deny.


A man who does not flinch to tell uncomfortable truths. A man who honed his craft as a songwriter so that his songs seem like the folk takes or fables we use to illustrate the wisdom of the race.

And, being the great songwriter and performer he is in 1995 he recorded my favourite river song, ‘Kern River’, a song as deep and mysterious as a river. A song filled with flinty, implacable power.

A song which has eddied and swirled through my imagination since the first time I fell under the current of its spell. It still runs through my dreams.

In a few short verses of spare telling detail delivered with a measured, dry-eyed, rueful tone Merle sums up a life stalled and cauterised by sudden trauma. Sudden trauma, when a river’s swiftness swept the love of a man’s life away.

On one side of the river life on the other death. Oblivious the river, Kern River, flows on. And, when your life has been cleft in two; into before and after what can you be sure of now?

Only that a river can be mean, meaner than you ever imagined. All you can be sure of now is that you will never, never, swim Kern River again. Oh, it may be that drowning may still be your fate for a man can’t escape his fate wherever he is, wherever he escapes to.

We all have an appointment in Samarra or Lake Shasta and you can drown in still water just as you can drown in a raging torrent.

Now, he is alone, a shattered survivor, weightless like chaff in the wind to be swept up into the mountains. Now he stares ahead remembering the town he grew up in where the oil flowed though his gusher never came in.

Now, as the hours and days fall like soft sift through the hourglass he remembers his lost love, his best friend, who he must live without for all the hours and days his life has left. All the hours and days he has left.

All around him the mountains remind him that beside nature man is a paltry thing. And that the river is a strong brown god. So he may cross, with care on the highway but he will never swim Kern River again.

Merle Haggard’s, ‘Kern River’ is a masterpiece from an American master. A song whose depths can never be sounded.

It takes up its place on The Immortal Jukebox as A15

Though nothing can match the Homeric authority of Merle’s own take on, ‘Kern River’ the song has attracted fellow songwriters and singers who know that it is a song of rare power.

Listen here to Dave Alvin’s meditative live in the studio version which has a lovely flow.

Dave Alvin, a mighty songwriter in his own right, has always listened closely to the masters of American song and it is clear that he has learned how to allow the power of a true song to flow through his guitar and his voice.

Emmylou Harris has spent decades mining the songbook of American roots music. To each of these treasures she brings the tender beauty of her voice and her unerring knack of finding superb musicians to make the songs come alive in performance.

Below, with The Red Dirt Boys she brings a dreamy, revival meeting by the river, passion to the song. You might believe for an instant that the river would be lulled and stilled.

Yet, we know the river can never really be propitiated. It will flow and flow on no matter how lovely the song sung on its banks.

The river is a strong brown god.

Notes:

Kern River was the title track of a CD Merle issued in 1995.

Dave Alvin has recorded the song on a lovely multi artist tribute CD to Merle called, ‘Tulare Dust’ and also on his own wonderful, ‘West of the West’

Emmylou Harris’ version can be found on her, ‘All That I Intended To Be’

Ry Cooder, Elton John, Solomon Burke & Jim Reeves: ‘He’ll Have To Go’

Christmas Cracker 6

Oceans and oceans of emotion have flowed through the telephone wires buzzing above your head. Think of all the announcements.

I’ve passed my exams!

I’ll be home for Christmas!

We are going to get married!

It’s a Girl!

We did all we could but I’m sorry to tell you that …..

There was a time, centuries and centuries, when announcements like that came by letter or were delivered face to face. The invention of the telephone allowed direct personal communication at great distance bringing the disembodied voice right into your ear and mind.

And, humans being human the telephone has been used for every virtuous and nefarious purpose imaginable.

Right now someone is planning to call you with the aim of draining your bank account.

Right now someone is patiently listening to a tortured soul who thinks life isn’t worth living anymore and assuring them that there is at least one person who will answer when they call again.

Right now some poor sap is reeling as he learns that the party’s over; that love can lie, that the love still burning so bright for him is naught but cold, cold ashes for her. And, you know what? He still won’t believe it!

Slumped on his bar stool with the jukebox blaring he tries to clear the fog in his head to summon up all his persuasive powers for one last, ‘Don’t Go!’ plea.

Surely, if he can only find the right words, he can reignite those hot flames and they will be together again:

‘Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone
Let’s pretend that we’re together all alone
I’ll tell the man to turn the Jukebox way down low
And you can tell your friend there with you he’ll have to go’

Ah, Jim Reeves, Gentleman Jim, the Prince, the peerless Potentate of three in the morning melancholia! I’ve spent many a night drinking deep with that velvet voice.

Many a night his oracular tones have echoed and reechoed in my mind and heart as I battled to accept the unacceptable, searching to find reasons, answers, and eventually a way out.

Mostly Jim taught me that there was no easy way out – some things can’t be worked round. No, they have to be got through, endured.

And if you need a companion on your exhausting, perilous progress back to sanity and some vestige of normality you won’t find one better than Jim Reeves.

You wont be surprised at Jim’s popularity in the Americas and in Europe. But, you might be a little taken aback to learn of his immense popularity in Jamaica and that in India and Sri Lanka he is enormously admired and revered by many as a, ‘Gandharva’ an earth born singer in tune with the heavens.

Jim’s, ‘I’m speaking directly to you, just you, in all your pain’ confiding vocals cut through barriers of race and culture.

No one is immune from Jim crooning, ‘Should I hang up or will you tell him he’ll have to go’ or, ‘Do you want me answer yes or no’.

And, tell me you don’t how the terrible cost of choking out the words, ‘Darling I will understand’.

Jim took Jim and Audrey Allison’s song which had done nothing in its first recording by Billy Brown and gave it a magic that endures. A magic that has won millions of listeners (14 weeks a country No 1 in 1960) and inspired hundreds of singers to seek out that magic too.

Jim Reeves life was cut short by a plane crash in 1964 but there can be doubt that as long as hearts get broken and people seek solace in music that Jim’s voice will live on.

Any Jukebox that I’ve got anything to do with will always have a copy of Jim Reeves ‘He’ll Have To Go’ ready to play for the lost and the lonely when they need it.

So, as sole proprietor of The Immortal Jukebox I’m announcing that, ‘He’ll Have To Go’ has been awarded the position of A13 on The Immortal Jukebox.

As its the season of goodwill and a time for generosity I’m donning my Santa Claus suit and bringing you several other versions of the song for you to digest with your drink of choice.

First up a rapturous, let’s turn the lights down and sway together in the cantina live version by Jukebox favourite, Ry Cooder, accompanied by Flaco Jimenez, the king of Conjunto, Norteno and Tejana accordion.

I think you’ll want a premium Tequila here.

‘He’ll Have To Go’ is always thought of a Country Pop song. However as the regal Solomon Burke definitively demonstrates below it works every bit as well as Country Soul.

Solomon has power in reserve as he cruises through his version suggesting depths of emotion by subtle shifts in tempo, accent and volume.

Solomon never lets you down.

I think a fine Tennessee sippin’ Whiskey will do the job here.

To conclude a version by one of the great rock/pop stars of the modern era, Elton John. At heart Elton has always been a huge music fan – someone who genuinely loves songs and singers.

As he says here he started out as the unregarded boy in the corner of the pub playing the piano. Since then, of course, he’s written more than a few songs himself that we all know by heart.

That’s how you become a huge star selling tens of millions of records. In addition he has been a relentlessly hard working performer and you can hear the fruits of all those hours on stage in this solo performance from 1992.

You’ll have to uncork the Champagne for this one.

Finally perhaps we should all close our eyes and sing our own a cappella version – remembering the time we all wished we could have said:

‘Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone
Let’s pretend that we’re together all alone
I’ll tell the man to turn the Jukebox way down low
And you can tell your friend there with you he’ll have to go’

This post dedicated to George who’ll be listening in his rural retreat – no doubt with a fine bottle at hand.

Notes:

I listened to a lot of versions of, ‘He’ll Have To Go’ preparing this post. A lot.

One I would definitely have included if Youtube would have cooperated was that by Glasgow’s great son, Frankie Miller (please look it up).

Frankie’s version is deeply heartfelt. In his 70s and 80s pomp Frankie could out write and out sing almost any singer you can think of.

Peers like Rod Stewart and Alan Toussaint recognised his special qulaities. Principally his ability to wring every blood drop of emotion from a song while carrying his audience with him through his beautiful rhythmic assurance.

If you do one thing this holiday season seek out Frankie Miller’s CD, ‘Highlife’ and then work your way through his catalogue. You won’t regret it.

I recommend a peaty single malt from Islay as your accompaniment.

Other versions I think you might profitably seek out include those from: Bryan Ferry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Rivers, UB 40, Brook Benton, Nat King Cole, Billy Joe Royal, Ronnie Milsap, Johnny Cash, Harry Dean Stanton, Jackie Edwards, Elvis Costello and Tom Jones.

Riding High On Bob Dylan’s Jukebox – Warren Smith!

Now, to be clear your Honour, I can’t say for certain that Bob Dylan has a Jukebox and if he has I can’t be 100% sure which artists it features. But, but, I have to say that there is enough compelling evidence from Bob’s recording and performing history to say with some force that Bob really digs Warren Smith and has spent many an hour listening to the fabulous sides he cut for Sun Records in the late 1950s.

Consider; Bob’s tender tribute recording of Warren’s, ‘Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache’, his (unissued) take on, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, his regular 1986 tour performances of, ‘Uranium Rock’ and the aforementioned ‘Moustache’, his thanks in the sleeve notes of, ‘Down In The Groove’ to a, ‘Gal shaped just like a Frog’ (surely referencing Warren’s explosive, ‘Miss Froggie’), and, his repeated featuring of Warren on his Theme Time Radio shows and it becomes obvious that Bob in his boyhood Hibbing days, ear pressed to a transistor radio listening to John R and Hoss Allen, was hit hard by Warren and never forgot him.

Taking all that into account I think we can say with some confidence that Bob’s Jukebox, real or imaginary, will definitely be stocked with some Warren Smith 45s! So let’s cue up Warren’s April 1956 debut single for Sun (No 239), ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, a prime slice of Rockabilly that turned many a head beyond Bob’s.

Ruby rock some more indeed! Warren here is backed by the excellently named Snearly Ranch Boys with whom he had been playing at the Cotton Club in West Memphis when spotted by Sun Records supremo Sam Phillips. The song is credited to Johnny Cash (though those in the know say it was actually written by George Jones – presumably in his ‘Thumper’ incarnation). All agree that it cost Warren $40. Money well spent as it went on to be a regional Number 1 record with some 70,000 sold, outselling the debuts of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

Warren’s vocal is propulsively assured and the record bounces along like a well sprung pickup truck with some fine piano from Smokey Joe Bauch and neat guitar fills from Buddy Holobauch on lead and Stan Kessler on the steel.

Warren, then 24, born in 1932, brought up in Louise Mississippi, and a USAF veteran was ecstatic at the success of his first recording (the B side of which has a lovely vocal on the fine pure country, ‘I’d Rather Be Safe Than Sorry’). As a man with plenty of ambition and a very strong ego Warren looked forward confidently to becoming a huge star in emulation of Elvis.

Yet, life has a habit of throwing roadblocks in the way of the broad highway to fame and fortune we so fondly imagine in the days of youth. So it was for Warren. Despite recording some brilliant records, showcased below, the glittering prizes eluded him due to a mixture of the vagaries of fate, his own deficiencies, the limited marketing budget available to Sam Phillips and the appearance of more irresistible forces onto the scene (step forward Jerry Lee Lewis!).

His story, awaiting the screenplay, included a life threatening car crash taking a year out of his career, addiction to pills and booze, a spell in prison and an unexpected late renaissance courtesy of British Rockabilly fanatics before sudden death at the shockingly young age of 47 in January 1980.

Warren’s second outing for Sun (No 250) issued in september 1956 had as its flip side a somewhat strange version of the Child ballad, ‘Black Jack David’ which must be the oldest tune ever recorded on the Sun label. Its inclusion probably signified Sam Phillips trying to court the country market as well the burgeoning Rockabilly/Rock ‘n’ Roll scene.

The A side, in all its 1 minute 58 seconds of glory was the wholly ludicrous, politically incorrect, yet wholly addictive, ‘Ubangi Stomp’ penned by Charles Underwood then a student at Memphis State. I think the cartoon lyric shows that Charles was not studying Anthropology!

Warren’s band now included the excellent Al Hopson on guitar and Marcus Van Story on bass. The record sold some 100,000 copies but alas for Warren not in a rush but in a leisurely fashion over some 18 months.

Warren next recorded at in Sun Studios at 706 Union Avenue in early 1957 and the results were issued in April. The A side, written by fellow Sun artist Roy Orbison, was the thoroughly engaging, ‘So Long I’m Gone’ but it’s the electrifying, nay crazed, B side, ‘Miss Froggie’ featuring stellar incendiary guitar playing by Al Hopson and brilliant, ‘Look out! we ain’t gonna stop for no one’ drumming by Jimmy Lott that will ensure a place in Rock ‘n’ Roll eternity for Warren Smith.

My diligent scientific research over many decades has conclusively proved that it is impossible (and potentially injurious) to try to resist a song that opens with the epochal couplet:

‘Yes, I got a gal, she’s shaped just like a frog
I found her drinking’ muddy water, sleepin’ in a hollow log’

Warren Smith’s singing on this record is utterly magnificent. He generates heart stopping, heart bursting, levels of excitement smoothly increasing the pressure on the accelerator so that you half expect to hear the boom of the sound barrier being broken before the song ends.

I have to confess that in my youth as I prepared for a Saturday night out in London sure to be filled with alcoholic and romantic excess (the former inevitably more often delivered than the latter!) I would always sing repeatedly, as I made my way to the tube station, at the maximum volume I could get away without without being arrested or beaten up:

‘Well it’s Saturday night, I sure am feelin’ blue
Meet me in the bottom, bring me my boots and shoes’

It never failed to lift me up, bringing me energy and untold innocent delight. Thanks Warren.

The record was a substantial regional hit and took Warren to No 72 on the Billboard Hot 100, his highest ever placing there. However, it was, for commercially and culturally compelling reasons, Jerry Lee Lewis’, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ that monopolised Sam Phillips attention and promotional energies. Head shakingly Warren perhaps then realised that talent, good looks and brilliant recordings don’t always guarantee the brass ring will be yours.

Warren had four more sides issued by Sun including an intriguing cover of Slim Harpo’s swampy R&B classic, ‘Got Love If You Want It’ before he and Sam called it a day in January 1959. Indeed, one of the records Warren will always be remembered for, ‘Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache’ was never even issued by Sun when recorded only seeing the light of day in the early 1970s.

Well that got me croonin’ along and gliding elegantly round my kitchen! I love the unhurried tempo of the song and Warren’s mellifluous vocal which charms me every time. This is another one that’s always playing in my head somewhere. ‘Who you been lovin’ since I been gone’ has to be one of the eternal questions we repeat to ourselves as we replay earlier scenes in the autobiographical movie of our lives.

Warren never made the big time yet he made records that will always live every time they are played. No records sums up the primal attraction of Rockabilly more perfectly for me than, ‘Miss Froggie’. That’s why, whatever’s actually on Bob Dylan’s Jukebox, ‘Miss Froggie’ now proudly takes up its place on The Immortal Jukebox as A12.

I’ve promised myself that one day I’m going to hire a Red Cadillac Convertible and drive down Union Avenue in Memphis, having brushed my moustache (taking cars to dye the strands of grey), with the top down blasting out, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, ‘Ubangi Stomp’, and ‘Red Cadillac’ before stopping outside 706 where I’m going to get out and dance like I’ve danced before as, ‘Miss Froggie’ plays and I’m going to shout with all the force I can muster – that’s for you Warren!

Notes:

Warren Smith’s Sun Sides can be found on excellent compilations on either the Bear Family or Charly record labels.

Warren also recorded some attractive, quite commercially successful, country sides for Liberty Records in the mid 1960s before his addictions, car crash and prison experience largely sabotaged his career.

Warrens renaissance concerts in London in 1977 were issued on vinyl as, ‘Four R ‘n’ R Legends’. It is cheering to learn how appreciative the London audience was of Warren and how moved he was at their response to him.

Lou Reed & Smokey Robinson idolised – Nolan Strong – The Wind

‘There was a guy who lived in Detroit and had a group called the Diablos. His name was Nolan Strong. They were my favorite vocalists at that time’ (Smokey Robinson)

‘If I could really sing I’d be Nolan Strong’ (Lou Reed)

Some songs, some voices creep up on you incrementally winning your affection the more you hear them. Others like the song, ‘The Wind’ and the voice of Nolan Strong immediately, inescapably, haunt your imagination.

In this case haunt may be too timid a term – it would be more accurate to say that, ‘The Wind’ in all its mysterious majesty took Possession of my imagination and held sway there for many months from the moment I was first exposed to its eerie brilliance. The only other song that’s had this effect on me was the late Nick Drake’s spectral, ‘Pink Moon’ which seemed a threnody from a drowned soul five fathoms down in an unforgiving sea.

‘I know she is gone but my love lingers on,
In a dream that the wind brings to me’.

Blow Wind!

The Wind reminds me yet again that the musical instrument that has the greatest power to affect my emotions and my spirit is the human voice. A voice like Nolan Strong’s calls out to the soul in a way that admits no explanation that can be understood in technical analysis using terms like pitch, tone and decibels. Nolan Strong’s voice can only be appreciated in terms of stilled heartbeats, stilled breath, cradle memories …..

In the song Nolan’s universe unlocking high tenor lead is supported by his colleagues in The Diablos. They had formed In 1950 at Central High School in Detroit when Nolan met fellow singers Juan Guieterriez (Tenor), Willie Hunter (Baritone), Quentin Eubanks (Bass) and Bob Edwards a guitarist.

They listened in particular to the wonderful and immensely influential recordings of Clyde McPhatter with The Dominoes. Nolan Strong like Elvis Presley and scores of other singers was deeply impressed by the glorious √©lan of Clyde’s vocals – a song sung by Clyde was given wings and soared thrillingly into stark distant spheres of the sky above us all.

Practicing and practicing and practicing and performing anywhere they were allowed The Diablos honed their sound as 1950 became 1951 then 1952 then1953 and then 1954. Eventually they fetched up at an address that would be part of the legend of the Detroit music scene. Not 2648 West Grand Boulevard where the entrepreneurial genius Berry Gordy would establish the sound of, ‘Young America’ in 1959 but 11629 Linwood the home of Fortune records run by Jack and Devora Brown.

Fortune was a, ‘Mom and Pop’ operation set up in the late 1940s hoping to make hits from Devora Brown’s songs and the talent pool latent in Detroit’s huge African-American population. The Browns were short on cash and the recording facilities at Fortune were primitive even by the standards of the time. Yet Fortune had imagination and in Devora a distinctive songwriter.

The first Diablos recording was a Devora song, ‘Adios, My Desert Love’ which charmed Detroit with its Latin rhumba accents and the intricate interplay of the harmony vocals underpinned by castanet and piano accompaniment.

Their next single was Fortune 511, ‘The Wind’ co-written by Devora and The Diablos. The recording features acoustic bass, vibes and electric guitar in addition to the delicate orchestral blend of vocals surrounding, cushioning, the astounding lead of Nolan Strong which both in its sung parts and the recitation prefigured the soundscapes conjured up later by Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson.

The first fifteen seconds of instrumental introduction establish an otherworldly atmosphere which is retained throughout the duration of the recording. The Diablos when they enter establish an anchor for our ears before Nolan enters taking us to uncharted realms with the heaven rending purity of his vocal. Nolan’s vocal contains both the comfort of the cool summer breeze and the chill of lost love’s memory. His vocal caresses us as once his lover caressed him. What could be more tender than Nolan’s vocal here?

There are some days in our lives we can never forget. Days which become emotional touchstones which as the years go take on a hallucinatory power when recalled – sometimes voluntarily, sometimes emerging unheralded into our startled consciousness. I believe in the collective unconscious and it is clear to me that Nolan Strong and The Diablos dived deep into it when recording, ‘The Wind’.

Listen to the last dying fall of the song and you will know that this is a dream that will always linger on. As long as we have hearts that beat and minds that dream it will linger on. Even until the heavens above can no longer shine. Even until then.

Notes:

Nolan strong died at 43 in 1977. His voice will always be with me and if you listen to any compilation of Nolan Strong and The Diablos I am sure it will stay with you as well.

Songs to particularly look out for include, ‘Daddy Rockin Strong’, ‘The Way You Dog Me Around’ and, ‘Mind Over Matter’.

I also recommend that you listen to Laura Nyro’s cover of The Wind from her essential album, ‘Gonna Take A Miracle’ which she recorded with the vocal group Labelle. Laura, whom I will write about often here, records the song as a tender homage to her days on New York street corners singing songs like The Wind which seemed to hang bright in the evening skies like the moon.

John Lennon lauded it, Willie Mitchell produced it, Ann Peebles sang it: ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’

‘When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day’.

(Feste’s song from Shakespeare’s, ‘Twelfth NIght’)

‘Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with liquid silver drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain’

(Langston Hughes – ‘April Rain Song’)

‘Hey rain – Get off my window … ‘

(Ann Peebles, Don Bryant, Bernie Miller – ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’)

‘And when the Sun comes out,
After this Rain shall stop,
A wondrous Light will fill,
Each dark, round drop;
‘Twil be a lovely sight.’

(W H Davies – ‘The Rain’)

Shakespeare was right. Somewhere, each and every day, the rain rains down. Sometimes to bend and batter, sometimes to nurture and replenish. Of course, somewhere, each and every day, the sun shines brightly, bathing us in its balm or sending us scurrying from its awesome burning power.

Though we might pray and dance to win the favour of the weather gods in the end we find that the sun shines when it wants to shine and that when it’s time for rain – it rains. As with so many aspects of our lives we are not in control so we must learn to adapt or spend a lifetime in fruitless frustration.

Naturally, being a storytelling, metaphor manufacturing species, we look to the skies and begin to discern patterns and meaning in every drop of rain and every ray of sun that visits itself upon us. The rain can seem a rebuke for our failures; a physical manifestation of despair or the blessed agent of change and growth. Perspective is all.

Poets, songwriters and proverb makers have always known that rain, a small four letter word like love and hate, always attracts the ear and can be freighted with multiple emotional meanings to suit almost any human situation.

Bearing all the above in mind it’s no surprise that a sharp songwriter like Don Bryant should have had his imagination quickened when his girlfriend (later his wife) Ann Peebles looked up at the skies above Memphis one summer night in 1973 and exclaimed, ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’. Some phrases simply beg to be song titles and this was surely one thought Don.

Moving to the piano he began, with help from Ann and DJ Bernie Miller, to fashion a steamy soul ballad themed around a spurned woman being tormented by the sound of the rain against the windows of the house she used to share with her departed lover.

Each drop tolling upon the panes seems to bring back memories – she calls them sweet but in the context of the song there is surely a substantial bitter-sweet element to her recollections. Let’s listen and decide where the bitter/sweet balance lies! (You will need to be patient while the clip loads).

Now that’s a serious record! Loaded to the gunnels with love, longing and loneliness and blazing with the banked heat of searing emotion. No wonder John Lennon a man of firm conviction and a lifetime aficianado of superior R&B/Soul balladry, called it, ‘The best song ever’.

I make it a point of my critical practice to rarely take issue with John. So, ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ will take its rightful place on the Immortal Jukebox as A11 joining 99 other records in rotation as, ‘the best song ever’ just waiting to be selected by you (isn’t that what Jukeboxes are all about).

Ann Peebles sings the song with mature womanly authority investing the lyric with immense drama and emotional punch without once straying into diva like hysteria. Her vocal uses judicious variation of vocal volume, tone, register, leaps and slides to convey the migraine inducing situation the protagonist finds herself in as the rain insistently beats on and on against her window assaulting her mind with memories of days and nights when watching the rain was a shared experience. Now the rain only emptily echoes the sweet times.

Ann brings gospel training to her performance seeming to draw herself up, straight backed, to lament her loss, a loss she cannot deny but which will not defeat her. There is old testament glower and grit along with new testament sweetness and mercy in her vocal. In the end, exhausted she can still muster the strength to hurl a curse at the rain – Get off my window!

The drama and palpably humid heat of the song owes everything to the enormously gifted musical team that assembled at Hi studios Memphis HQ located at 1320 South Lauderdale in the old Royal Movie Theater. This is one of those addresses like 3 Abbey Road and 706 Union Avenue which should have preservation orders protecting them in perpetuity in view of the cultural impact of the works created there.

The moving mind and musical intelligence behind a wondrous series of superb soul records emanating from Hi in the 1970s (Al Green’s epochal run of hits being the most artistically and commercially successful of these) was bandleader/trumpeter/producer and arranger, Willie Mitchell.

Willie Mitchell is one of those rare figures who through production alchemy could turn a fine song into a living, breathing great record which would burn up the radio airwaves and sound like it had always been part of your life the first time you heard it.

It was Willie who thought of the attention arresting intro featuring electric timbale to mimic the sound and spooky impact of the rain. Willie knew that any arrangement he came up with for a song could be given a golden lustre because at his command he had a peerless rhythm section comprised of the Hodges brothers: Leroy (bass), Mabon ‘Teenie’ (guitar) and Charles (organ) with Howard Grimes on drums. Together, this quartet, supplemented when needed by Archie Turner on piano and the Memphis Horns were able to sustain a distinctively supple and slinky groove that became the signature sound of the Hi label. It’s a ravishing sound that seduces the ear while providing a singer with the room to strut their stuff.

‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ has the musicians supporting and swirling around the vocal providing an emotional surround sound accompaniment. Though the sound is full it is never clogged. Maybe that’s something to do with the cooperative trust and intimacy shared by brothers – always aware of the other, always adjusting, so that each has the space they need to build the whole.

The interplay between Teenie’s liquid subtle guitar fills, Charles’ emotion quickening organ and Leroy’s propulsive anchoring baseline is a wonder to behold. Howard Grimes drums always seem to me to be saying, ‘Listen up! This is some serious stuff we are laying down here!’ Together, their style is at least as tender as it is strong and powerful as if each tune was as precious to them as a child or a woman they loved.

It’s a rare life that doesn’t include some long nights staring out of a dark window as the rain falls prompting memories of lost love, lost time and lost hope. A song like, ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ can be a true companion getting you through those nights until the world turns again and the rain becomes one more memory while you wait for the sun.

Notes:

Ann Peebles 5 albums from the 1970s for Hi have now been reissued and have my unreserved recommendation. Just listen to the imperious, ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’, the incandescent, ‘Love Vibration’ or the stupendous, ’99 lbs’ and I guarantee you’ll be getting your credit card out!

5 Classic Rain Songs (Send in your suggestions):

Bob Dylan: ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ – a cloudburst of songwriting and performing genius.

Brook Benton: ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ – Tony Joe White who wrote it and Brook Benton singing it will surely convince you, while you listen, that Lord, it’s raining all over the world.

Creedence Clearwater Revival: ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’ – John Fogarty is a heroic pessimist with the drive of a 50s rocker combined with an acute eye for history and social dislocation. And, he’s one hell of a singer and guitar player. There are no answers to his question.

Randy Newman: ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ – A typically clear eyed and heartbreaking meditation on the crooked timber of humanity.

Buddy Holly: Raining In My Heart’ – Perhaps there is an artist who can cut more directly and deeper to the heart than Buddy Holly. If there is I’m not sure my heart would be up to listening to them.

The Immortal Jukebox A11: Gene Chandler – Duke of Earl

‘As I walk through this world, Nothing can stop The Duke Of Earl’

There are days when all is right with the world. Days when the sun shines clear in an azure sky that bathes you in balmy glory. Days when the gods are indulgent so that your long shot romps home at 100-1 and the girl you’ve nearly asked out a thousand times suddenly smiles at you and asks what you’re doing later. The poet Robert Browning expressed this feeling of elated contentment very well in his verse drama, ‘Pippa Passes’:

‘The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-sides dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his heaven –
All’s right with the world!’

Being an educated sort of chap these lines often spring to mind when I find myself enjoying one of those blessed days when nothing seems impossible – when all the gears of the universe seem to mesh perfectly to deliver pleasure, promise and delight.

Probably 10% of my memory is indexed to recall the deathless thoughts of the great poets when these occasion presents themselves. However, I would estimate that at least 30% of my memory neurones are tasked with filing, indexing and processing the melodies, lyrics and performances of the canon of popular music created in the recording era between the 1920s and 1980s.

So while I will sometimes find myself quoting Browning, Byron or Wendell Berry as I give thanks for the gift of life – much more often I find myself singing at the top of my voice the lyric from one of my all-time favourite songs (it will be one of my 8 Desert Island Discs list when the BBC finally get round to asking me to appear on that iconic radio programme), ‘Duke Of Earl’ by Gene Chandler.

Scanning my memory for this post I recall chanting out, ‘Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl’ on the red letter days of my life. The day I learned that I had won a scholarship to Cambridge, the day I got married and the day my son was born were all celebrated with repeated choruses of Gene Chandler’s immortal classic from 1962.

‘Duke of Earl’ is one of those songs that works every time – always lifting the heart and spirit with its simply stated belief that there is indeed a paradise to be shared and that a Duke can find and cherish his Duchess as they walk together through the Dukedom. Since first hearing this song I have never been able to use the technically correct term, ‘Duchy’ for the territory ruled over by a Duke – such is the power of music!

Apparently the song evolved from the vocal warm up exercises used by the Doo-Wop group The Dukays which formed in late 1950s Chicago. Gene (then known by his original name of Eugene Dixon) practiced his vocal craft with James Lowe, Shirley Jones, Ben Broyles and Earl Edwards. It was while running through the pre-show, ‘Do do do do’ routine that one night Gene mixed things up by singing instead, ‘Du, du, du … Duke of Earl’ and thus with some help from manager Bernice Williams a million selling No 1 pop and R&B record was born!

The Dukays record company (Nat Records) preferred the song, ‘Nite Owl’ to ‘Duke of Earl’ so Gene went to Vee-Jay records as a solo artist to find fame and hopefully some fortune. To promote the record Gene gamely appeared dressed in Hollywood History’s version of ducal attire – Top Hat, Monocle, Walking Cane, Opera Cape and White Gloves! I have to say he carried it off very well, as many a video clip shows, and the, ‘Duke Of Earl’ look has in consequence become my default fancy dress party attire!

The vocals on ‘Duke Of Earl’ display a top flight Doo-Wop group creating a wonderfully full sound from basso profundo bass to ascending to the heavens falsetto tones. Every, ‘nonsense’ syllable is entirely translatable by our human hearts as glimpses of momentary happiness. Gene Chandler sings with the affecting gliding ease that would carry him to some 40 hit records. Gene sang the hell out of every song that came his way whether it was badged, ‘Doo-Wop’, ‘R&B’, ‘Soul’ or ‘Disco’. Whatever the genre Gene delivered a welcoming humanity through his vocals that engages the listener on a visceral level – locking in our attention and winning our affection.

I look forward to many more, ‘Duke Of Earl’ days in my life and wish the same for you.

Notes:

‘Duke Of Earl’ has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was selected as one of the, ‘500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll’.

Gene Chandler has had a fabulously successful and diverse career as a singer, songwriter and producer. Look out for several versions of the scintillating, ‘Rainbow’ which is frequently quoted in concert by Van Morrison who knows a great song when he hears one! I prefer the atmosphere drenched 1965 version recorded in Gene’s hometown Regal Theatre.

Gene had a series of wonderful collaborations with the king of tender soul balladry – Curtis Mayfield. Even the stoniest hearts will crack listening to, ‘Just Be True’ and if you’re aren’t out on the floor dancing to, ‘Nothing Can Stop Me’ from the first notes you need to get your reflexes tested!

A few hours listening to the above along with, ‘Think Nothing About It’, ‘A Man’s Temptation’, ‘You Can’t Hurt Me No More’, ‘Groovy Situation’ and, ‘Get Down’ among others will more than repay your time.

As a producer Gene won the NATRA Producer of the Year Award for the unreservedly recommended, ‘Backfield In Motion’ by Mel and Tim (look it up now!)

I was delighted to find that Gene’s website is called The Dukedom! You can find it at genedukeofearl.com