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

PHere’s a Post that means a lot to me.

For the Song and the Singers featured and for the warm memories it evokes.

Nothing like music to open the gates of memory!

Music hath charms. Music hath charms.

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

Take me and Carl.

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

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

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

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

We met in Hospital.

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

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

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

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

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

A request I could hardly refuse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

Then we laughed and laughed until we nearly cried.

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

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

This one’s for you Carl:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

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

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

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

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

 

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

You want fire-snorting horses brought to life?

You want those ghostly riders coming hard right at you?

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

Call for The Man in Black!

Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

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

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

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

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

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

Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

 

Notes:

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

The major hit version was by Vaughn Monroe

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

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

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

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

Kelly Joe Phelps (where have you gone?) : Mr Tambourine Man, Goodnight Irene

Continuing the Celebration of favourite Jukebox Posts here’s a tribute to an authentically great musician who seems to have gone missing in action.

No new record for 7 years and no concerts.

Where have you gone Kelly Joe?

All over the globe fans like me pine for the shivering sound of your guitar.

Where have you gone Kelly Joe?

There have always been precious few musicians with, ‘The Touch’.

There has always been precious few musicians who know the blues and feel the spirit.

Where have you gone Kelly Joe?

There have always been precious few musicians who cut their own visionary path.

Where have you gone Kelly Joe?

When the roll is called of musicians who matter I know your name will be there.

Wherever you have gone Kelly Joe I hope you know how much you are missed  and whenever you are ready to play again you will be sure of a welcoming audience.

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‘I’ve heard Kelly Joe mention that he’s been inspired by people like Roscoe Holcomb, Robert Pete Williams, Dock Boggs, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and others. He seems to have absorbed all this (and all kinds of other stuff as well) and come back with something all his own.

Sounds like he’s coming from the inside out. The bottom up. He’s not just playing ‘AT’ the music or trying to recreate or imitate something that’s happened in the past. He seems to have tapped into the artery somehow. There’s a lot going on in between and behind the notes. Mystery. He’s been an inspiration to me.’  (Bill Frisell)

Modern music is saturated by the sound of you know what’s coming next, auto tuned, multi-tracked guitars.

Drowning in this aural tide you can forget that, in the right hands, the guitar can be a questing instrument; an instrument which can sound the depths of human emotions in this life of dust and shadows.

When Kelly Joe Phelps plays the guitar whether slide or finger picking what you hear is the sound of a musician who has indeed tapped into the artery.

I first encountered him more than two decades ago now at the tiny 12 Bar Club in London’s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street.

Standing a couple of feet away from him I was able to read, as he tuned up, the scrawled set list at his feet. It included:

‘Goodnight Irene’, ‘The House Carpenter’, ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’, ‘When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder’.

Fueled by my early evening libations I leaned towards him and said, ‘Wow, you’re going to have to be very good indeed to hold us with those songs without someone muttering every two seconds, ‘… Not as good as so and so’s version.’

Sensibly, he answered only with a wry smile before stilling the room in in the next hour with an astonishing display of instrumental virtuosity harnessed to a deep emotional understanding of both the Blues and the Gospel traditions.

Songs that were veritable foundation texts (in some hands museum pieces) came shockingly alive as Kelly Joe fearlessly explored the territory they opened up – voyaging wherever his heart and fertile musical imagination took him.

Listen now to his version of the canonical classic Leadbelly’s, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and marvel at the deliberate beauty and power of deep sea sway he brings to it.

Ever since I heard this take on Irene this is the one that plays in my dreams.

 

Born in the dwindling days of the 1950s Kelly Joe began his musical career as a bass player in modal and free Jazz combos where the ability to improvise and react to your fellow musicians was paramount.

At the same time, as an alert listener, he was immersing himself in the core deep works of artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and Dock Boggs.

Artists who made singing in the blood music which still casts a profound spell. Taking the slide guitar as his vehicle to explore this universe he began to cast spells of his own.

Kelly Joe’s music is all about reaching, reaching, for the other shore.

Listening to Kelly Joe play James Milton Black’s 19th Century hymn, ‘When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder’ there can be no doubt that we are brought in soul’s sight of that other shore.

Now, if you are a musician of Kelly Joe’s class and intuitive understanding of what makes the songs of the , ‘Old Weird America’ so profound and eternally relevant you will struggle to find such rich material in contemporary songbooks.

Happily, the Keeper of American Song, Bob Dylan, has laid down a storehouse of mystery filled dancing spells which musicians of spirit will always want and need to explore.

Bob once said that he saw himself a song and dance man. Kelly Joe takes him at his word here whirling, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ round a mystic Maypole.

As his career has progressed Kelly Joe has featured more original material. His own fine songs show how deep he has drunk at the well of the blues and gospel masters.

Kelly Joe’s music is filled with ancient lore and wholly alive in the here and now.

Surrender to his spell.

Come back Kelly Joe.

Come back.

Notes:

There is a handy 2 CD Kelly Joe compilation, ‘Roll Away the Blues’ on the Nascente label which I highly recommend.

My own favourites in his excellent catalogue are:

‘Lead Me On’

‘Roll Away the Stone’

‘Shiny Eyed Mr Zen’

‘Beggar’s Oil’

‘Brother Sinner and the Whale’

Kelly Joe is a transfixing live performer. Seek out You tube for some wonderful clips.

Guitar buffs should seek out his finger picking tutorials.

 

Pete Seeger, Eric Bibb, Johnny Rivers & Harry Belafonte : An Archangel, A Sacred River, A Spiritual & The Folk Process!

Continuing the celebration of The Jukebox’s first year a Post that I am especially fond of for the artists featured and the memories it evoked of my own childhood.

I hope it will resonate with you!

Four takes on, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’

‘… They were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.’ (Frederick Douglas)

‘And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great Prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as there never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, everyone shall be found written in the book.

And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to eternal life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’.
(Book of Daniel Chapter 12 King James Version)

‘Jordan River is deep and wide, hallelujah.
Meet my mother on the other side, hallelujah
Jordan River is chilly and cold, hallelujah,
Chills the body but not the soul, Hallelujah!’

I began my journey through primary education in the late 1950s with the good Nuns (and they were good Nuns) of the Convent of St Edwards in Paddington, London; which, though I was unaware of it at the time, was a only a couple of hundred yards from EMI’s Abbey Road Studios soon to be made famous by four lads from Liverpool.

I was a pupil at St Edwards from 1959 until the brutal (by UK standards) Winter of 1962/63 when our family made the move to leafy, suburban Harrow.

I have two particularly vivid memories of my time at St Edwards.

First, the disturbing thrill of reading a children’s version of the great Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘Beowulf’ and somehow realising that there was a magical transformative power in poetry and that this was a doorway to another life – the life of the imagination.

Second, I remember the hush that descended as we carefully placed our pens in our ink wells and settled down to listen to the Schools Music Programme Service of the BBC.

The cloth covered radio speaker sat high on the class wall, out of reach of curious hands and from its cavernous depths there emerged songs and tunes which would lodge deep, deeper than I could ever have imagined, into my consciousness.

I remember listening to such works as: Stephen Foster’s, ‘Camptown Races’, the nursery rhyme, ‘Lavender Blue Dilly Dilly’, the rustic folk songs from the North East of England, ‘Bobby Shafto’ and ‘When The Boat Comes In’, the royally penned English anthem, ‘Green Sleeves’ and the American ballad (indeed a murder ballad!), ‘Tom Dooley’.

These songs emerging from the mysterious ether entered my blood stream and permanently took up residence becoming as familiar as my own hands in front of me.

Above all I recall listening to and singing lustily along to a song I was told was a, ‘Spiritual’ called, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’.

Something in this song from the Civil War era in America caught and permanently held my attention so that eventually I am now moved to trace its history and present several versions here on the Jukebox.

Spirituals are a marvellous example of American invention blending of several streams of cultural history to create something vivid, vital and new.

They emerged from the black slave community as a thrilling synthesis of religious, physical and political experience.

Frequently they concern a downtrodden peoples journey, in hope and faith, from exile to salvation and deliverance in a promised land where the righteous will be reunited with their stolen families and departed loved ones.

In an act of supreme creativity Christian hymns and biblical texts were yoked to ancient African singing styles and melodic accents to produce something truly new and culturally particular.

Spirituals are the primary artefacts of the enormous African-American contribution to modern American popular culture.

We shall never know when, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’ was composed or who it’s author was. But, we can say that the first historical record we have of it comes from the 1867, ‘Slave Songs Of The United States’ collection by Charles Pickford Ware, William Francis Allen and Lucy McKim Garrison.

It seems that Ware first heard the song and transcribed a version during his stay on St Helena Island, South Carolina while he oversaw the plantations abandoned by fleeing Confederates in 1862.

‘Michael’ along with other spirituals (many collected from slaves Wallace and Minerva Wills by the Reverend Alexander Reid) such as, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’ and, ‘Steal Away To Jesus’ we’re popularised both in America and Europe from the 1870s by Nashville’s Fisk University Jubilee Singers through highly successful concert tours and a best selling songbook.

Spirituals began to be adopted as folk songs and vehicles of social solidarity and protest from the 1930s onwards by idealistic young white and black singers and musicians as part of what has come to be known as the, ‘Folk Revival’.

For many white artists their initial encounters with the cultures evoked in black Spirituals and blues and the Appalachian instrumental and ballad traditions proved nothing less than a deeply affecting and transformative conversion experience from which they never wished to recover!

Songs that would form the Folk Revival songbook were carried and passed on, transmitted, in many different ways.

In the curled pages of old ballad books, across the smoky campfire, hanging in the air of the chapel and echoing from the store front church.

Some from the blues tradition were half-heard among the din of the honky-tonk, the shebeen and the jazz dive.

Some were learned at the knee from the elders, some from local and travelling ne’er do wells, some overheard from the parlour radio, some blasted out from speeding cars and neon bright Jukeboxes.

A good song will find a way to be heard and sung.

Pete Seeger, whose ‘Plain Folks’ and almost schoolmasterly sing a long version of Michael as featured above was a key figure in the folk revival through his indefatigable worldwide touring and his membership of important groups such as the Almanac Singers and The Weavers.

Pete, who collaborated on the writing and/or popularisation of the folk standards, ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, ‘If I Had A Hammer’ and the Civil Rights anthem, ‘We Shall Overcome’ quickly saw the potential in, ‘Michael’ when he learned it from Tony Saletan in the early 1950s.

Everywhere Pete went he sang the song and seeded a thousand folk music careers from his audiences at colleges, camp fire meetings and union rallies.

For Pete, fighting the good fight with every breath in his body, songs were working tools to promote social solidarity and change.

If you want to learn the basic repertoire of the folk revival Pete, with his no frills style and transparent sincerity, generosity and commitment is your only man!

Coming from a privileged academic and religiously rigorous family Pete became for over seven decades a warrior for truth, justice, peace, civil rights and the environment armed only with a long necked banjo and endless faith in the people and the future.

With characteristic eloquence Barrack Obama eulogised him as, ‘America’s tuning fork’ and thanked him for, ‘… Reminding us where we come from and where we need to go’.

I think the Archangel Michael would easily have recognised the lanky, upright figure carrying a banjo who waded across the Jordan at the end of January 2014!

Listening to Pete Seeger in concert and hearing ‘Michael’ on the radio in the early 1960s was an impossibly handsome and talented young black American of Caribbean heritage called Harry Belafonte who would go on to have an extraordinary career as a singer, actor and humanitarian.

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Harry just has Star Quality!

Harry’s version has a gospel fervour and burns with political commitment.

Harry was a remarkably fluent and versatile performer who could sell any type of song with beguiling charm.

His breakthrough Calypso and live at Carnegie Hall records were multi million sellers that took up residence in American Hi-Fi cabinets throughout the nation.

Harry loved the limelight and was an authentic show business Prince but behind the scenes he was also a very important and influential figure in the civil rights movement.

He was a friend and confidant of Martin Luther King providing the bail money to get MLK out of Birmingham Jail and the insurance policy that provided for his widow after his death.

In addition he quietly financed the Freedom Riders campaign that sought to increase voter registration from the black community and challenge head on the worst excesses of the bull headed, bull necked, Jim Crow South.

In light of this it is no surprise that Harry’s, ‘Michael’ enjoins its listeners, as they wait for the Archangel to row the boat ashore, to, ‘Hold that line in Arkansas’ and trumpets the message that, like Joshua at Jericho, Alabama will be the next to go.

As for Mississippi, while the buses speed south, it’s time to kneel and pray.

In my estimation, Harry Belafonte is a very fine artist but an even greater man.

Our third take on,’Michael’ is provided by Johnny Rivers: a much underestimated artist who had an unerring ear for a fine song and the ability to perform material from widely differing genres with an attack and flair that saw him rack up 17 top 40 hits from 1964 to 1977 including the gorgeous number 1 ballad, ‘Poor Side of Town’ ( see feature on The Jukebox) and iconic driving rockers like, ‘Memphis’ and, ‘Secret Agent Man’.

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Johnny gives it an irrestible rocking treatment.

Johnny’s residency at the Whisky A Go Go club in Hollywood drew a loyal crowd, including numerous rock luminaries, who recognised that Johnny had a rock and roll heart and a killer band.

On record his band included stellar figures from the LA, ‘Wrecking Crew’ stable including Hal Blaine on the drums, Joe Osborn on bass and Larry Knetchel on keyboards.

A Johnny Rivers record never out stays its welcome and I usually find, as with this storming take on, ‘Michael’ that I’m reaching for the repeat button as soon as the first second of silence hits me when the record finishes.

The final version of, ‘Michael’ I have chosen comes from the very hard working and productive roots music missionary, Eric Bibb.

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Eric grew up at the epicentre of the folk revival in the early 1960’s – New York CIty’s Greenwich Village.

He was very well connected in this world with his father Leon being an actor and singer, his uncle John Lewis being a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet and his Godfather being none other than Paul Robeson!

Eric has a gift for finding the secret heart of a song.

Eric, born in 1951, began to perform in his early teens and was making his recording debut by his middle twenties.

He has proved a very deft artist who is at home in the gospel, folk and blues traditions.

At his best, as on the version of, ‘Michael’ above he achieves a kind of meditative grace that searches out the heart and soul of a song so that a work you have heard a thousand times can suddenly appear fresh and alive with new potential and meaning.

A song, a Spiritual, a folk anthem, a testament to the human spirit, like, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’ will never run dry.

For we will always hope that we will meet again with our loved ones who have already crossed the Jordan.

Downtrodden peoples will always need to have faith that there is indeed salvation and deliverance ahead even if it often seems so very far away.

Finally, Most of us will hope that when we step gingerly into eternity’s boat that our ferryman will be the Archangel Michael and that he will carry us safely home across the chilly and cold Jordan River.

This post dedicated to Sister Calasanctius, Sister Mary Monica and Sister Mary Mildred who were all extremely kind and indulgent to a quiet boy who seemed forever lost in dreams of poetry and songs when he should have been paying attention to arithmetic and his times tables!

One Degree of Bob Dylan:

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Unsurprisingly given their association with the Folk Revival and the hectic days of the early 1960s all the above artists have connections with Bob Dylan, the Keeper of American Song.

Pete Seeger was an early and passionate advocate for the young Bob’s exploding talents and he helped to open doors and make introductions to key figures in the Big Apple’s folk elites.

Harry Belafonte had a unknown Bob play harmonica on, ‘Midnight Special’ marking Bob’s debut on record. In his wonderfully artful and characteristically enigmatic work of autobiography, ‘Chronicles’ Bob pays a very heartfelt, indeed effusive, tribute to Harry:

‘Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it. He was a fantastic artist … He had ideals and made you feel you’re part of the human race. There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry.

‘ … Everything about him was gigantic … With Belafonte I felt like I’d become anointed in some kind of way … Harry was that rare type of character that radiates greatness, and you hope some of it rubs off on you. The man commands respect.’

Johnny Rivers recorded a fine version of Bob’s magisterial put down song, ‘Positively Fourth Street’. Bob called it the favourite of all versions of his songs and said it was obvious that they were from the same side of town and were from the same musical family.

Eric Bibb came across Bob through his Greenwich Village connections. In one of his first bands he played with Bill Lee (father of Film Director Spike) who played on Bob’s Freewheeling’ LP sessions.

Eric also had a direct meeting with Bob when he was only 11.

Apparently Bob advised the precocious Eric that when it came to guitar playing he should, ‘Keep it simple, forget all that fancy stuff’.

Hank Williams, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Marley & John Stewart : Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow!

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Welcome.

The Jukebox continues to feature favourite posts from 2014.

Today we turn to a Post that celebrated an inexhaustible vein of inspiration for songwriters and singers – the Train Song.

If you want to be a great songwriter you’re gonna need to write a great Train Song.

And, if you do, you’ll find you will never be forgotten.

Everybody loves a Train Song.

Listen, you cant see it yet but believe me that whisper you barely hear now is going to become a roar that will shake your bones and rattle your heart.

Here it comes!

Train time.

Train time.

Somewhere in my memory and imagination there’s always a train.

Maybe it’s the evening train soothing me to sleep or perhaps it’s the night train letting loose its eerie lonesome whistle as it heads off into the darkness in search of the dawn.

Trains heading from shore to shore, north and south, east and west, over the mountains, through the valleys and the deserts, across the endless plains.

Travellers, clutching their ticket to ride, look out the window at the passing show wondering anxiously or excitedly about the welcome waiting for them at their destination.

We get on trains for all kinds of reasons.

Because we got in trouble and had to roam, because we need to make a new home, a new life, in a new place where nobody knows our name.

Because we are starting a new adventure or running back to safety after a failed adventure.

Because we need a hand to hold or because we are wrenching away the hands that want to hold us down and hold us back.

We wait on station platforms to wave our children away as they move inevitably, happily, heart-wrenchingly into adult life.

We wave the boys away as they go off to war and stand sombrely as some of them come home again to rest in the ground; never to leave the home place again.

Trains are alive.

They scream and shout.

They roar and they rumble.

They keep up a constant conversation with the world as they clank and click, click and clank, over the shining steel rails.

They echo as they rush through the tunnels pushing the very air out of their way.

Above all trains have, are, Rhythm!

As soon as you get on a train you can’t help but listen to and fall under the spell of that rhythm.

It’s no wonder that songwriters and singers love to write train songs.

Trains – their rhythm, their sounds, their names and the stories that train journeys reveal about love and life and history are manna for the songwriter in every genre of popular music.

Thinking about this post I easily drew up a list of about 100,’Favourite’ train songs I thought I would like to write about).

I’ve managed after much internal debate to limit myself to just four songs today.

So take a stroll to the dining car, order your refreshment of choice, settle back in your seat and listen up!

First, from 1965 with fellow Impressions Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, a marvel from the gentle genius of soul – Curtis Mayfield.

People Get Ready – There’s a train a coming.

Whenever I feel the night closing in and it’s starting to feel like November in my soul I find that turning to the songs of Curtis Mayfield is a sure-fire way to see the light of dawn rising and feel the promise of the month of May approaching.

Curtis’ work and vision of life was grounded in his faith.

The very strong faith of a man who was both strong and gentle.

A man and a musician who spoke with authority and wisdom about life and love, war and peace, justice and injustice.

Curtis was a warrior for a better world, a champion of civil rights and for people standing up proudly for their human dignity whatever their race or station in life.

He always had one eye fixed on the shore across the Jordan while keeping the other focussed on the need to build the Kingdom right here, right now.

Curtis’ warrior’s weapons were melody, rhythm and folk poetry which he deployed with consummate skill.

Listen to the way his falsetto vocal and the arrangement of the sing beckon you lean in, to listen closely and to get on board.

Curtis Mayfield had the very rare and extraoridinary gift of being able to speak of faith, love and justice not as pious platitudes but as living fires expressed and incarnated in his songs, his guitar playing and his vocals.

His unutterably lovely guitar style feels like the strings in Chekhov’s heaven being softly plucked to wake and warn us as we journey through life as individuals and neighbours.

He reminds us of our duties in both roles.

That’s what prophets are sent to us to do.

Next, from his 1991 live album, ‘Deep Neon’ John Stewart with the compressed epic, ‘Runaway Train’.

John Stewart as a songwriter and performer with The Cumberland Three, The Kingston Trio and as a solo artist made the term Americana a living, breathing, up and walking reality long before it became a term beloved of over eager genre defining journalists.

He looms in my mind like a figure out of one of the great Westerns directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks.

Think of someone who’s two parts Henry Fonda and one part James Stewart with a singing voice like the wind crossing the Painted Desert and a guitar style that can summon up the runaway train of American History.

This version of a song originally recorded in 1987 has something of the lion in winer about it which makes it all the more poignant as it describes the dangers of the curves around midnight and the flashing red warnings unseen in the rain.

Stewart knows that steel rails and hard lives are always in twos and that too easily we light the fuses on our relationships without thinking about the cost for those who remain.

And he does it with a hell of a guitar riff!

In the late 1960s and through the following decade in particular John Stewart created a series of mythopoetic records that speak of an America and an American people that’s filled with a continental grandeur and generosity as well as fabled characters with shoulders broad enough to carry the past while facing unafraid the challenges of the future.

Coming into the depot now from Jamaica are The Wailers with a live in the studio 1973 version of the irresistible, ‘Stop That Train I’m Leaving’.

Commonly at this time The Rolling Stones were described as the best live band in the World and there’s no doubt that they had a strong claim to that title.

But, for my money the real holders of the crown were The Wailers.

In Bob Marley and Peter Tosh they had two winning songwriters who were also entrancing vocalists and deeply charismatic performers.

The rhythm sections of brothers, Aston, ‘Family Man’ and Carlton, ‘Carly’ Barrett (base and drums respectively) are only rivalled in my estimation by Duck Dunn and Al Jackson from Booker T and The MGs for the ability to establish and maintain a groove that never lets go.

Earl Lindo adds the swelling colourful keyboard textures and the legendary Joe Higgs adds vocal seasonings and percussion fills in support of the band he had mentored from their boyhoods.

You can feel the heat and languor of the Jamaican sun in this recording of Peter Tosh’s song and understand how the train in question might have been a swelteringly slow ride.

Country boys would have looked up from the fields as the train went by and thought that it wouldn’t be too hard to hop aboard (if they could avoid the conductor) and see whether the delights of Kingston town were all they were promised to be in story and song.

Jamaica was and is a deeply unequal society which offers few opportunities for advancement for the poor beyond music and sport.

Reggae music in particular became the vehicle whereby those seemingly born to live small found a way to get up, stand up and walk tall in the world.

Finally, I turn to the song that gives this post it’s title – the peerless Hank Williams with, ‘I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow’.

Hank Williams. Hank Williams. Hank Williams.

When I think of Hank I think of a figure straight out of myth.

A figure from Homer, Virgil or Dante.

In a typically artful song Leonard Cohen speaks of Hank never answering the question of quite how lonely life does get but instead coughing all night long 100 floors above him in the Tower of Song.

Cohen is deeply versed in literature and American song so I have no doubt there is no irony in his ranking of himself and Hank.

Hank Williams consistently had the power in his work to command your attention by imposing and projecting his wounded spirit and will into a song with such intensity that listening to him is almost always as troubling as it is inspiring and rewarding.

I doubt that anyone has from such seemingly slender musical resources ever had such a gigantic impact on popular music.

Listening to Hank I feel as if I am sitting with my tribe round some ancient campfire when out of the snowy mist an unknown, unknowable, wandering bard appears.

Without hesitation he offers his songs of loss and loneliness: the loss or loneliness we all know or fear.

I heard that lonesome whistle blow
All I do is sit and cry
When the ev’nin’ train goes by
I heard that lonesome whistle blow

As he sings the listeners, the fire and the night are stilled until, his song sung, Hank, the eternal stranger, without adieu vanishes into the darkness he came from.

John Lennon, John Sebastian, Otis Redding & Lauren Bacall : You Know How To Whistle Don’t You?

Continuing the series of Posts from the early days of The Jukebox here’s a particular favourite of mine from 2014 illustrating how the humble whistle can make for unforgettable moments on screen and in song.

So, settle down and get ready to whistle along!

‘… You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow.’

*

Spoken by Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart in the 1944 film classic, ‘To Have and Have Not’ these words were delivered with an alluring yet cool erotic charge in Bacall’s wonderfully husky and earthy vocal tones.

There isn’t a man alive hearing those words who didn’t immediately start practicing that whistle!

Just blow.

What could be simpler?

After all what is a whistle but a clear high pitched sound created by forcing your breath through a small opening between your partly closed lips and/or your teeth?

Yet, the humble whistle which must surely have been the earliest form of musical communication practiced by mankind (along with the handclap) can like all forms of human language be freighted and graced with multiple meanings.

There’s, as above, the whistle of erotic appreciation and invitation.

There’s the whistle of almost subconscious reassurance when you summon that favourite tune (in my case Buddy Holly’s Everyday) as you are about to start or contemplate an especially difficult challenge or task.

A whistle can also be an urgent signal – Look out! Look out!

As heard in a thousand war films as an opposing soldier looms into sight of the brave resistance band.

In sport the whistle is generally heard as the shrill admonishing marker of foul play – stop that now!

Again, the whistle can be your charm against the creeping dread we feel when confronted by our mortality – we whistle past the graveyard to keep our spirits up and those of the clutching underworld away.

When you’re absolutely sure that no one can find any fault with the work you’ve completed you can say with studied calm, ‘Take a look – you’ll see its all clean as a whistle!’

Of course, if you find as an honest person that corruption is all around you have a duty to become a Whistle Blower to bring the forces of justice and retribution hurrying down to halt and clean up that corruption.

If you don’t do that and just mutter about your outrage to yourself what are you doing but whistling in the wind!

Oh yes, the modest yet heartfelt whistle can communicate remarkably complex and subtle messages depending on the situations and characters of the whistler and the whistled to.

Ruminating on the subject has for a music fanatic like me inevitably called to mind the use of whistling in numerous songs across many genres of popular music. So many indeed that I have painfully limited myself to only four examples from the score or so that immediately came to mind.

Let’s start with the use of the whistle from a man, John Lennon, who had no difficulty with finding words but who did have problems with acknowledging and dealing with the powerful, sometimes deliberately buried emotions swirling around his deep dramatic heart and soul.

I can’t help hearing the whistle here in, ‘Jealous Guy’ as the sound of a man who has experienced too much and made too many mistakes reaching beyond words for the blessing and balm of forgiveness as much by himself as the lover he has wronged.

We may feel, sometimes, that we have the world at our feet yet we know that there will always be a part of us, shivering inside, that needs comfort and care.

Roll on John.

Next a record, ‘Handy Man’ by Jimmy Jones, that the teenage John Lennon would almost certainly have heard as he and Paul McCartney began to fashion songs and dreams of their own in Liverpool before setting out to conquer Hamburg and the known world.

Jimmy Jones, who possessed a fine high tenor voice, really only had two hits (the other being the charming and witty, ‘Good Timing’) but they were songs that still have an emotional heft beyond their undoubted power as vessels of nostalgia for the neon lit diner days of the 1950s.

The whistling here is provided by a genuine giant of popular music, Otis Blackwell, who composed jukeboxfulls of fine songs including classics like, ‘Fever’, ‘Don’t be Cruel’ and, ‘Great Balls of Fire’.

In 1966 John Sebastian the leader of The Lovin’ Spoonful was at the top of his very considerable game.

He had talent oozing from his fingertips and a sunny disposition that promised that the world was a wonderful playground where adventures a plenty were just waiting to be discovered.

He manged to be both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and a songwriter of considerable range and sophistication moving from the euphoric attack of, ‘Do you Believe in Magic’ to the tenderest romantic lullaby of, ‘Darling Be Home Soon’.

Sebastian provides the lovely, easy, hammock swinging whistle here in the drowsily beautiful, ‘Daydream’.

May you have such a day soon!

Finally, and poignantly, I have to conclude with one of the signature songs of the 1960s from a voice for the ages. Otis Redding with the first record released after his untimely death, ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’.

The tide rolled away for Otis as it will for you and me but while we have breath this song will be his testament and our consolation.

God Bless You Otis!

 

Footnote:

Sadly since this post was written and published Lauren Bacall died.

I dedicate this post to the memory of wonderful actress and hell of a broad who created more than her fair share of Immortal Moments.

Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint & Willy Deville : On The Waterfront, Spanish Stroll – Immortal Moments

Another post from the first year of The Jukebox.

Of all the hundreds of Posts I have written for The Jukebox this may be my own favourite.

Sometimes it might take just a single beat of your heart.

A lightning strike seared into your memory: something really crucial has happened and whatever happens from now on it will be in the shadow of this!

Maybe it’s the first time alone together when she called you by your name and it felt like a new christening.

Or the time your toddling son folded his hand into yours without thinking as he looked for stability and security on the road ahead.

Sometimes it might take years; the slowly dawning realisation, (like a photograph emerging from the darkroom) that it was that moment, that event, which seemed so trivial at the time, where a new course was set that’s led you to your current harbour.

Moments, Moments, Moments.

Immortal Moments.

Our lives in our imaginations and memories are never a complete coherent narrative but rather a silvery chain of moments: some cherished and celebrated some sharply etched with pain and sorrow.

Some in which we have the starring role and others where we are strictly extras in the shadows at the edge of the stage.

The older we get the more we learn that some of those moments have become our own immortal moments: the moments we will return to again and again, voluntarily or necessarily as we try to make some sense of our lives.

And, when we shuffle through these moments we will find many have been supplied by our encounters with the music, films and books that have become part of the imaginative and emotional furniture of our lives.

Snatches of lyrics and melodies from favourite songs that you find yourself unexpectedly singing; scenes from films that seem to be always spooling somewhere deep in the consciousness now spotlit in front the mind’s eye, lines of poetry read decades ago that suddenly swoosh to the surface, seemingly unbidden, in response to some secret trigger.

I remember the exact moment, as a teenager, when I idly picked up a dusty book in a rundown junk shop and read these lines:

‘ Thou mastering me God!
Giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.’

The opening lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, ‘The Wreck Of The Deutschland’.

Rooted to the spot I read the further twenty or so stanzas with my head and heart ablaze.

I was aware of taking in only a fraction of the meaning and technique of the poem but I was absolutely sure that this was poetry of the highest order and that sounding its depths would be the work of a lifetime.

I had made an emotional and spiritual connection that could never be undone and Poetry with that capital P was now a territory open for me, necessary for me, to explore.

Strangely enough this was also the moment when I also glimpsed a future in which I might write poetry myself.

Similar thrilling encounters with literature, music and film now form a personal rosary of treasure in my life.

I want to share just two more with you here.

Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint as Terry and Edie in a duet scene from, ‘On The Waterfront’ from 1954 in pristine monochrome with wonderful cinematography by Boris Kaufman.

This scene played with such truthfulness, tenderness and delicacy by both actors struck me very forcefully at the moment when first viewed and it has continued to bloom in my memory and imagination.

If asked to give testimony for Marlon Brando as the greatest film actor of his time I would, of course, cite his thrilling physical presence and ability to dominate and take possession of the screen with special reference to, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.

But, it is this scene that would win the argument for me.

Brando here hits a peak of American naturalistic acting using the method techniques he had learned but without being imprisoned by them.

In this scene with humour, pathos and dignity and without a shred of affectation or disrespect he incarnates Terry as a living, breathing man who wins our sympathy, as fellow human strugglers, trying stumblingly to articulate our feelings both to ourselves and to those we love and those we yearn to love us.

Watch the way his body language evolves through the scene as he realises Edie is intrigued by him and interested in him for himself.

The way he picks up, plays with and finally wears her dropped glove (seemingly improvised) should be required viewing in every drama school.

Astonishingly, this was Eva Marie Saint’s film debut.

The camera obviously loved her at first sight.

As Edie she is a luminous quiet presence whose watchful stillness, intelligence and sensitivity makes it inevitable that Terry will fall for her and fall hard.

She understatedly lets Edie’s dawning love for Terry emerge as something as natural as drawing breath.

She believably illuminates Edie as a young woman with steel in her character as well as beauty and charm.

Acting with Brando, even for someone with her accomplished background on stage, must have been an intimidating challenge but there can be no doubt that Eva Marie Saint matched and balanced him through every frame of celluloid on show here.

At some heartbreaking level we understand that these fleeting moments of intimacy shared in this scene by characters afflicted by doubt and bruised souls will be moments they will both need to recall in the painfully tempestuous times ahead.

Maybe it’s an eternal truth as Dylan wrote that, ‘Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain’.

Few scenes in cinema history bring out the truth of this statement with more clarity.

Mink Deville were led by Willy Deville a pompadoured and preening singer (finger on the eyebrow and left hand on the hip!) who showed himself throughout a roller coaster personal and professional life to be a supreme rhythm and blues and soul song stylist.

He had rasp and romance, swagger and sensitivity as well as presence and power in his vocal arsenal.

I recall the moment of seeing him for the first time on the British flagship chart music programme, ‘Top Of The Pops’ in 1977 and jumping out of my chair to applaud this performance of the signature tune of his early career, ‘Spanish Stroll’.

 

Willy added sass, instrumental colour and wasted seventies urban elegance to the magic and mystery of doo-wop and Brill Building vocal group harmonies to create a wonderful record that creates its own bright shining world every time you hear it.

His wonderfully liquid self regarding, shooting cuffs vocal is all strutting Latin braggadocio anchored in his assured rhythmic poise.

Special praise is due to the mellifluous backing vocalists who wonderfully evoke the steam heat of a New York night on a tenement stoop as they support Willy’s imperious lead role.

I love the ringing tones of the guitars, the Spanish flourishes, the proto rap intervention by bassist Ruben Siguenza, the tempo changes and the dreamlike woozy character of the whole song. Most of all, most of all, I love and keep returning to the moment when Willy sings the line:

‘Make a paper boat, light it and send it, send it out now.’

Especially those last three words.

Anyone who can make the heart leap with three simple words is an artist to cherish and revere.

I’ll write a full tribute to this great late lamented talent in due course but in the meantime trawl Youtube for a series of magnificent vocal performances and load up your shopping cart with his albums. You won’t regret it.

Adios Amigo, adios.

Moments, moments, Immortal moments.

Little Richard : Tutti Frutti (‘Awop Bop Aloo Bop Alop Bam Boom!’)

I see with no little surprise that after 5 years of The Jukebox the number of Views is fast approaching 500,000.

Half a Million!

Reflecting on this I thought it would be appropriate for the next few weeks to feature some Posts from the early years that many of you who have become followers more recently may never have seen.

The choice of which Posts to feature follows no scientific principle.

I have simply chosen those for which I have a particular fondness.

So, here’s a post from 2014 celebrating one of the greatest figures in the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll – Little Richard!

No novelist would dare to invent a character like Richard ; suffice to say there never was anyone like him before  and there will never be anyone like him again.

Turn all your dials into the Red Zone now and prepare for unbridled joy!

‘My heart nearly burst with excitement – I had heard God’. (David Bowie on first hearing Tutti Frutti)

‘Ambition: To Join Little Richard!’ (Entry in Bob Dylan’s High School Yearbook’)

‘It was as if, in a single instant, the world changed from monochrome to technicolour’ (Keith Richards)

Before any truly catyclismic event in world history there are usually foreshadowings and auguries: precursor events that indicate something immense is on its way.

I have identified one such sequence in history and set it out below:

In the summer of 1883 in the Sunday Strait between Java and Sumatra the Island of Krakatoa was the location for a volcanic eruption of staggering power.

The explosion which destroyed the island was heard in Perth, Australia some 2000 miles away.

It was probably the loudest sound ever heard by humankind as the sky grew dark with rock, ash and pumice.

Tsunamis were generated as the shock wave reverberated seven times around the planet.

Weather patterns and temperatures were disrupted for years on a global scale. The explosion was the equivalent of 200 megatonnes of TNT. In comparison the Atom Bomb explosion over Hiroshima was a mere firecracker.

If you were looking for the epicentre of the world’s scientific ferment in 1904 it is unlikely anyone would have settled on the Patent Office in sleepy Bern, Switzerland.

Yet it was there that the 25 year old Albert Einstein had an intellectual epiphany.

He realised that mass and energy were not two separate realms but expressions of each other.

He expressed this relationship in a beautiful world changing equation (you know, E = MC squared).

This was an epochal, paradigm shifting breakthrough that has resounded through science and culture ever since.

Asteroids are rare visitors to this earth but when they do pay us a home visit the effects can be profound.

As June ended in 1908 in Tunguska in remote Siberia it seemed that the sky was split in two and covered with fire as an asteroid travelling at more than 33,000 miles per hour exploded trigerring a shock wave that devestated 800 square miles of forest.

Eighty million trees lay on their sides levelled like so much matchwood.

For days afterward the skies above Asia and Europe were eerily aglow.

In the 1940s as the Second World War proceeded the significance of Einstein’s work for military purposes was sharply appreciated in Washington, Berlin, London and Moscow as teams of dragooned scientists raced to produce a war winning weapon.

The race was won in the deserts of the American South West by an international team ironically including many refugees from Hitler’s Reich. Mankind now had the capacity to destroy itself and the Atomic Age was born.

Energy, Energy, Energy.

Energy contained and the power of energy released is the linking factor in all these events.

There is something awesome in the contemplation of the overwhelming impact such displays of energy can have upon us.

Immense outpourings of energy expressed in music, film and literature can lead to revolutions in human consciousness that can profoundly alter the landscape of our thoughts and our very dreams.

Following such events the cultural climate is forever changed and aftershocks continue to ripple on through the succeeding ages.

One such moment took place at Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio at Rampart Street New Orleans on September 14th 1955 when Little Richard exploded into a version of an outrageously sexy, raucous and filthy song that had long been a staple of his live performances.

The savvy producer of the session, Bumps Blackwell, had heard the song during a time out break the musicians had taken in a local bar, the Dew Drop Inn, and instantly realised that, furnished with cleaned up lyrics suitable for listening to on the radio, this was an unstoppable hit with a drive, attack and energy that was something new under the sun and moon in the Crescent City and for all he knew the whole world.

Richard played the frenzied piano himself with the masterful drummer Earl Palmer for once taken aback and struggling to keep up. Lee Allen plays a scintillating sax solo after being given his cue by the vocalist’s trademark screams and hollers.

Little Richard, the Little Richard who occupies a permanent treasured chair at the top table of Rock n Roll pioneers and innovators was born as an artist at the very moment he began to play Tutti Frutti.

His vocals are a delirious fusion of the gospel pulpit, the back alley dive and the tent show after hours party.

They lift the song beyond jump blues, beyond rhythm and blues into a new territory that incredulous contemporary listeners and musicians and the generations who followed them would light out for in their millions whooping all the way!

But very few of them would be able to combine, like Little Richard could, the rapturous, glossolalial soar and swoop with the low down and dirty guttural rasp.

For that you maybe needed to be the twelfth child of a family that included both preachers and bootleggers and grow up listening to testifying choirs in the morning and gut bucket blues men late at night.

It would also help if you had lived by the train tracks and woken up repeatedly to the sound of the whistle screaming through your town.

Primary among those attempting to reproduce the Little Richard scream was the teenage Paul McCartney who used it extensively when covering Richard’s songs (his vocal party piece was Long Tall Sally, which was one of the two songs he played atop a desk on his last day at school in Liverpool) and he also incorporated it into his own rockers to give them a wildness that would drive the girls crazy.

I’m sure you know that I’m no physicist or mathematician but according to my calculations the energy released in the first thirty seconds of Tutti Frutti as Little Richard leaves Earth’s orbit for the celestial beyond is exactly equal to and more lasting in impact and influence than the Krakatoa explosion!

Perhaps the incantation, ‘Awop Bop Aloo Bop Alop Bam Boom!’ was the unlocking alchemical phrase the Universe had been waiting to hear for many millennia.

Who would have thought that such mystic power would have emerged from an omnisexual, mascara wearing son of Macon Georgia!

You can christen Little Richard the Meteor, the Comet, the Quasar or the Architect of Rock n Roll – he deserves all those accolades and all the honours heaped upon him in his mature years.

But it is the dionysiac outpouring of energy in Tutti Frutti that will prove his lasting legacy.

The universe shook the day he recorded it and it’s still shaking now.