Smiley Lewis, Dave Edmunds & The Strypes : I Hear You Knocking

A Commander of an intergalactic Starship looking at the map of our Solar System would probable observe that there was one major Planet – Jupiter – accompanied by 7 minor ones.

Jupiter is immense.

The Earth would fit into Jupiter some three hundred times.

And, while we delight in a single Moon to light our nights Jupiter holds over 60 Moons in thrall.

Now some of the Moons of Jupiter, though small in comparison to their parent Planet, are fascinating  worlds in their own right.

Galileo discovered the four major Moons of Jupiter in 1610 and ever since we have yearned to know more about Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

The satellites of a Planet as important as Jupiter merit close attention and analysis.

As in Astronomy so in Musicology!

In New Orleans in the 1950s there was one giant presence dominating the musical universe – Antoine Fats Domino!

Fats was universally loved.

While he was the Pharoah of his Hometown scene he was also musical royalty from Alaska to Albuquerque from Lima to Liverpool.

In his 1950s heyday he sold records not just in the millions but in the tens of millions.

While Fats’ sound conquered the known world back home in New Orleans a series of lesser lights, satellite talents, made their own distinctive and impressive contributions to the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Preeminent, to my mind, amongst these Moons to Fats’ Jupiter, was Overton Amos Lemons known to the wide world as Smiley Lewis.

Smiley, who got his monicker due to two missing front teeth, was born near Lake Charles Louisina in 1913.

As a teenager he hopped a freight train and made his way to the Crescent City where he knew all the action was for someone ambitious to make a career in Music.

Smiley knew he could really play the guitar and he just knew that put before a microphone he had  a voice that could seduce, serenade and stir an audience until they screamed for more!

Serving an apprenticeship with Tuts Washington he honed his performing skills in the clubs of the French Quarter.

With Tuts he played in the House Band at the Boogie Woogie Club for WW2 troops stationed at Fort Polk.

When the War ended Smiley, Tuts and drummer Herman Seals formed a trio that went down a storm in New Orleans.

Starting out with Deluxe records Smiley found his recording stride when he hooked up in 1950 with the multi talented Kingpin of New Orleans music – Dave Bartholomew at Imperial Records.

From then on throughout the decade Smiley Smiley produced a series of influential, superbly sung and played Rhythm and Blues and Rock ‘n Roll records.

While he never sold more than 100,00 copies on any any of these fine records he was listened to closely by Fats himself as well as Elvis Presley and the sharp eared Rock ‘n’ Roll fanatics in Britain like Paul McCartney and Dave Edmunds.

Smiley made a lot of records everyone should know.

At a minimum everyone should know his, ‘Tee-Nah-Nah’, ‘Bells Are Ringing’, ‘One Night (Of Sin)’ and ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’.

But, he made only one record that Everyone Knows.

From 1955 The Immortal, ‘I Hear You Knocking’.

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The terrific triplet piano comes courtesy of another Fats Domino satellite – Huey Smith.

Dave Bartholomew claimed the writing credit and supplied production smarts and the studio band.

Get ready to sing a long … ‘You went away and left me long time ago ..’

The one and only Smiley Lewis!

 

 

Confession – I’ve been known to pump fistfuls of coins into a Jukebox to ensure this plays 10 times in a row so everybody, everybody, knows how great Smiley Lewis was!

I love the stately tempo here and the supreme relaxed authority of Smiley’s vocal which seems to draw us after him like tugboats in the wake of a mighty steamer.

The Rhythm Section and the Horns mesh perfectly with Huey’s stellar piano and provide the perfect platform for Smiley to glide over.

This record sounded glorious in 1955 and it will always do so.

Fifteen years after Smiley recorded it another true Rocker, Dave Edmunds, was casting about for a classic from the 50s that he could turbo charge with his blistering guitar and scintillating production skills.

His first thought was Wilbert Harrison’s ‘Let’s Work Together but he found himself beaten to the shellac by Canned Heat.

Then a bell rang – surely, ‘I Hear You Knocking’ had the same rhythm and making guitar the featured instrument instead of piano might make for an incendiary sound!

Once the idea hit home it was ‘just’ a matter of Dave putting in the hours playing all the instruments, piping his vocal down a telephone line and compressing the sound at his home from home Welsh studio – Rockfield –  and Voila you have an unstoppable hit.

Let’s Do It!

 

Its very common for musicians to cover the classic works of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Forefathers like Smiley Lewis but the electric soul thrilling wonder of those records is very rarely captured decades later.

Dave Edmunds take on ‘I Hear You Knocking’ is the exception that proves the rule.

Having made such a record with evident love and devotion Dave had every right to namecheck Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Chuck Berry and Smiley Lewis and consider himself part of their lineage.

Don’t just take my word for it.

John Lennon was a Rocker to the tips of his Bootheels.

When he heard  Dave Edmunds version he said, ‘I always liked simple Rock. There’s a great one in England now, ‘I Hear You Knocking’.

John Knew.

And, Praise Be! such a great song still finds a ready audience in musicians who have had that epiphany experience of truly encountering the treasures laid down by the 50s Pioneers.

I’m closing out with Jukebox favourites, The Strypes, who seem to have a direct line to the spirit of those Pioneers.

I hear you knocking … I hear you knocking ….

 

 

Notes :

There are numerous compilations of Smiley Lewis’ hits.

As usual the best set for deep divers like myself is provided by Bear Family. Their superb, 4CD ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ is pure treasure.

Jeff Hannusch is a deeply knowledgeable writer on Smiley and the New Orleans scene. His book, ‘I Hear You Knocking’ is highly recommended.

As is John Broven’s ‘Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans’.

Ry Cooder & The Drifters (with stellar supporting cast) : Mexican Divorce

In Dave Alvin’s wonderful song, ‘Border Radio’ (sure to feature here next year) there are some lines which have always intrigued me:

‘This song comes from 1962 dedicated to a man who’s gone
50,000 watts out of Mexico
This is the Border Radio
This is the Border Radio’

What was that song from 1962?

What was the old song they used to know?

A song able to summon the life that was.

The life that was lost.

The life that haunts the life lived now.

It whispers of broken promises up and down the Rio Grande.

One day married. Next day free.

Except you’re never really free.

How could you be?

An old adobe house where you leave the past behind.

Except (and everyone knows this in their heart of hearts) you can never truly leave the past behind.

The past shadows your every step.

Another set of footprints in the sand.

The song running through your head night after night from 1962?

Of course, The Drifters with ‘Mexican Divorce’

They say it takes a village to raise a child – to cherish, to nurture well being and growth.

Well, it took a creative village – a constellation of craft and talent to produce the hypnotic aching majesty of, ‘Mexican Divorce’.

Let’s begin with the songwriting team.

The Composer was Burt Bacharach – and for Mr Bacharach I think we can all agree that only the term Composer will do.

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What Bacharach brought to the popular song was immense slegance and sophistication in the conception and construction of melodies, instrumental colour and arrangements.

A Bacharach song has a jewelled Faberge radiance that seduces and dazzles the listener.

A spell is cast, especially when sung by a singer of taste and discretion, that lingers on and on in the imagination.

Bacharach’s genius was to cast and recast that spell adapted to the particular talents of the artist he was working with.

Of course, this wizardry would attain its apogee in the breathtaking series of sides he cut with Dionne Warwick.

For, ‘Mexican Divorce’ Burt’s conjured a melody that takes you gently by the hand as it unfolds its tale of longing, loss and painful regret.

The lyricist partner for Burt here was Bob Hilliard a music industry veteran who had already had notable successes on Broadway, in Hollywood, and on the Pop Charts.

We all know Bob Hilliard songs – think; ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning’, ‘Our Day Will Come’ and, ‘Tower of Strength’ just for starters.

With, ‘Mexican Divorce’ there’s a lovely flow and economy of words which tells a heartbreaking tale that all of us can recognise the truth of.

We know that finding love can take so long. So long.

Alas, we also know that though walking away from love must be wrong and a Sin we do it over and over again.

Millions of footprints in the sand headed for the Broken Promise Land.

There’s no house so dark as one where the light has been turned off by a lover who doesn’t want to live there anymore.

And, sometimes, all you can do, though you know it’s fruitless, is to beg, beg in between tears:

‘..My love I beg – please, oh, please, don’t go!’

Carrying off the lead vocal duties with deep died melancholia was the tragic figure of Rudy Lewis (that’s Rudy on the right below)

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Rudy had the gift of bringing life and drama to a song so that it stays etched in the memory.

Supporting him with characteristic subtlety and sureness of tone were his colleagues in the 1962, post Ben E King, version of The Drifters.

Giving the song an extra layer of poignant theatricality were a quartet of extravagantly talented session singers.

Leading these singers was Cissy Houston who brought tempered Gospel fervour and warmth to every record she ever sang on. She’s pictured below with The Sweet Inspirations.

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And, Boy Howdy, did Cissy sing on some great records!

With Elvis Presley, with Aretha Franklin, with Otis Redding – with Van Morrison among many, many, others.

Around Cissy circled her nieces Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick whose crystalline tones gave the song a shimmering aura.

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Dee Dee was a superb back up singer as fine lead singer as singles like, ‘We’re Doing Fine’, ‘I Want to Be with You’ and, ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ attest.

But it was the younger sister, Dionne, who caught the ear of Burt Bacharach. He recognised that her voice had an airy pellucid quality which would make her perfect for a new batch of songs incubating in his imagination.

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During the session for, ‘Mexican Divorce’ Burt asked Dionne if she would like to sing some demos for him.

And, the rest, as they say, is History!

Providing the arrangement ( no doubt head to head with Burt) and conducting the strings was Claus Ogerman.

Claus was a deeply schooled Jazzman who had found a niche for himself at Verve records working with major artists like Bill Evans, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Wes Montgomery.

On the Pop front he arranged, Leslie Gore’s ‘Its My Party’, ‘Cry To Me’ for Solomon Burke and ‘Don’t Play That Song’ for ex Drifter Ben E King.

Manning the Desk were the legendary duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who always wanted to make sure a great song became a great Record.

Bacharach, Ogerman and Leiber & Stoller all loved the Cuban and Latin musical accents rife in New York City Dancehalls and on the airwaves.

Together they gave, ‘Mexican Divorce’ a flavour of the exotic.

Mexico is different and the song reflected that.

Scroll forward a decade or so and much nearer Mexico Ry Cooder brought his own unerring instinct for finding the heart of a song to, ‘Mexican Divorce’.

Ry and his superb Band take the song at a languorous tempo like a lonely sleepwalker on a hot night finding his way back to the house where he was once happy.

Plas Johnson plays the all hope is fading heart rending Sax.

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Jim Keltner, always the first call on the West Coast, plays the gorgeous sashaying drum part.
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Bobby King adds a sad sweetness with his harmony vocals.

And Ry Cooder?

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Ry plays the guitar and the mandolin with a riveting tenderness reminiscent of the great Mississippi John Hurt.

And sings like a man who is at the end of his rope.

The end of his rope.

For now, of course, there’s no welcoming light in any window.

Empty darkness all around.

Empty hangers twisting in the wardrobe.

Dust settling on the doors.

The road to Mexico unwinds.

Down below El Paso.

Across the borderline.

Where identities and statuses change.

One day married.

Next day free.

Broken hearts.

Broken hearts.

The Beatles & The Isley Brothers : Twist and Shout!

The War is over.

The Good War.

The Korean War.

That’s enough for any generation to cope with.

Time to settle down.

Go to College or back to the job that’s been waiting for you.

Get Married.

Have a bunch of kids.

Paint the fence.

Mow the lawn.

Wash and polish the car.

Watch Television.

Breathe easy and when the dreams come open the window and stare at the Moon.

It’s good to be alive when so many lie dead in foreign ground.

What more could you want?

Well it seems Junior wants something more.

Something more.

Now, he can’t really put a name to it.

Except it ain’t hearing stories about how grateful he should be.

Grateful he doesn’t have to fight in a war.

Grateful he lives in a land of the free.

Grateful for these fine, fine, times.

He wants a new story to tell.

He doesn’t want, won’t have, can’t have, the story that’s planned out for him.

The one he’s supposed to be so grateful for.

The one where he gets born. Learns to dance (properly).

Strives to be a success. Bows his head to get blessed.

Makes his Mother and Father proud.

Keeps his head down and his nose clean.

Gets a good girl and a good job.

No. No. No. No!

He wants a story. A technicolor story, where he’s at the centre.

He wants Excitement.

He wants Danger.

Then. Then.

One day he switches on the radio and Boom!

This is it!

Whether you call it Rock ‘n’ Roll or Rhythm & Blues …

THIS IS IT!

The world will never be the same again.

Elvis. Chuck Berry. Jerry Lee Lewis. Little Richard.

Your head’s just about ready to explode.

Explode.

You stand out in the yard under the moon.

Under the Moon.

And you shout as loud as you can.

And you dance. You dance. You dance.

You Twist and Shout.

Twist and Shout!

Well, shake it up, baby, now (Shake it up, baby)
Twist and shout (Twist and shout)
C’mon C’mon, C’mon, C’mon, baby, now (Come on baby)
Come on and work it on out (Work it on out)

Boom! Boom! Boom!

Well, like The Brothers Isley say – Work it on out! Work it on out!

Now, if that don’t get you going I’m gonna have to send out an SOS for a defibrillator to get your heart started again!

The song was written by Bert Berns and Phil Medley and was originally recorded in early 1961 by The Top Notes for Atlantic Records.

Production was by the 21 year old Phil Spector.

And, he made a right royal mess of it!

So much so that Bert Berns, a very savvy dude indeed, was near apoplectic when he heard what Spector had done to his song; which he knew was a sure fire hit.

With the bit between his teeth Bert got the Isley Brothers into the studio in 1962 and crafted a classic record that has Gospel fervour, Rhythm and Blues drive and Rock ‘n’ Roll shazam.

That’s how you do it Phil!

Of course, Bert brilliant songwriter, arranger and producer that he was, didn’t do this all by himslelf.

First he needed singers with explosive energy who could take his song and wring every last drop of excitement from it.

Singers who could put on a dramatic performance which would demand that the listener put the needle back on the groove the instant it faded out.

Enter Ronald, O’Kelly and Rudolph Isley who were originally from Cincinnati.

With voices blending Gospel, R&B and Doo-Wop and a dynamite stage act The Isleys were bound to attract the attention of someone like Bert Berns who wrote songs crying out for impassioned vocals (think ‘Piece of My Heart’, ‘Cry to Me’ and ‘Under the Boardwalk).

The Isleys already had a million selling single to their name with their own cataclysmic, ‘Shout’ which had set Richter Scale dials aquiver all all over the record buying world.

To set the Earth shaking with Twist and Shout Bert called up King Curtis on Sax, Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale on Guitar, Chuck Rainey on Bass, Gary Chester on Drums and Paul Griffin on Piano.

Those guys knew what they were doing!

The public loved, ‘Twist and Shout’ and it became a substantial hit on both the R&B and Pop Charts.

The Isleys would go on to have a storied career featuring strings of hits and superb albums for the next four decades.

And, Bert, before his untimely death at the age of 38 in 1967, would prove himself one of the very greatest songwriter/producers of the 1960s.

The Jukebox will have much more to say about The Isleys and Bert Berns later!

Across the wide Atlantic Ocean in Liverpool a bunch of leery, leather clad Rock ‘n’ Rollers with ambition and swagger listened to ‘Twist and Shout’ and thought – we could really tear up the place if we can get this one right.

So it was for The Beatles.

‘Twist and Shout’ became a fixture of their live show and walls, drenched in sweat, in Liverpool and Hamburg shook as John, Paul, George and Ringo proved what a fantastic Rock ‘n’ Roll Band they were.

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But, driving themselves and a complicit crowd into a Dionysian frenzy at a concert is one thing.

To reproduce that order of feeling in a recording studio is quite another.

Cut to the 11th of February 1963, one of the most significant dates in the history of popular music, popular culture and indeed history.

For that was the date The Beatles recorded their debut LP, ‘Please, Please Me’.

In one day – One Day! Over some 13 hours they recorded 10 songs and launched a career the reverberations of which are still shaking the world to this day.

Twist and Shout was the very last song they cut on that historic Abbey Road session.

And, they knew that.

John’s voice was almost shot and Paul, George and Ringo – despite the rivers of adrenaline that must have coursed through their veins that day – must also have been close to exhaustion.

In such circumstances there is only one thing to do.

Attack! Attack! Attack!

And, that, gloriously is what they did.

Every last ounce of energy went into this performance which still stands as a Rock ‘n’ Roll moment to match anything laid down by their legendary predecessors and inspirations – Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard.

All those thousands of hours of performing in dingy dives were pressed into the service of making ‘Twist and Shout’ a record which came at you with the force of a tidal wave.

John Lennon’s vocal has a crazed commitment that is shocking in its elemental power and his fellow Beatles match him every step of the way.

Every step of the way.

As they packed away their instruments they must have looked around and thought – is this all true?

Did we really do that?

Where are we going now?

I like to think John, voice ravaged, turned to his friends and said:

“Well, well, where are we going now fellas?’

And Paul, George and Ringo would have replied:

‘To the top, Johnny to the very toppermost of the poppermost!’

And, I think we can all agree that’s exactly where they went and that they took us all along for the ride.

Fats Domino RIP 1928 – 2017

There are some sentences you know you will have to write one day.

Still you hope it wont be this year or next.

So, reluctantly and with regret, I write the following sentence.

Fats Domino, Rock ‘n’ Roll Forefather has died in his 90th year.

Thinking of all the immense pleasure his music has given me and millions of others I could not let such an event pass without a full salute from The Immortal Jukebox.

I also want to pay homage to the magnificent saxophonist Herb Hardesty who died just before Christmas last year.

That’s Herb you can hear soloing on, ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ and, ‘I’m Walking’ and that’s him too playing one of the most perfect parts in all Rock ‘n’ Roll on, ‘Blue Monday’.

I am also adding what may be my all time favourite Fats track – ‘Be My Guest’.

A record which beautifully illustrated the sheer joy woven into every bar of a Fats Domino record.

A record which demonstrated the glorious camaraderie of the Fats Domino Band.

A record which, especially in the wildly addictive horn breaks, virtually provides the corner stone sound for Ska to develop in Jamaica in the 1960s.

God bless you Fats!

 

Had I been born in Louisiana in the 1920s I know what I would have done with my life if I had survived World War Two intact and by fair means or foul accumulated a decently thick bankroll.

I would have bought a roadhouse on the outskirts of New Orleans.

Let’s call it, ‘The Blue Parrott’. And, all the dollars I spent and all the hands I hired would have had but one aim – to make the Parrott the jumpinist, jivinist, most joyful Joint for hundreds of miles around.

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On the door and looking out for trouble before it becomes TROUBLE is an ex Marine called Tiny who stands six foot six and weighs in at 250 pounds. Tiny stormed the beach at Guadalcanal and came home with a limp and a chest full of medals.

Tiny never gets mad but he does get mean. No matter how drunk the drunks get and no matter how tough they think they are when they’re drunk no one, no one, thinks they can take Tiny down. Tiny maintains good order.

Behind the bar is Pops. Pops has looked sixty years old since I was six. He always will. Pops has heard and nodded sympathetically at every hard luck story ever told as he pours another shot of alcoholic redemption. Everyone know Pops understands. Everybody loves Pops. Pops has never touched a drop.

Out of sight in the Kitchen is Ferdy our chef. Ferdy don’t talk much. In fact he rarely says a word. Nobody cares about that because Ferdy can cook. Really cook.

So people who don’t come for the booze or the company or the music come anyway because they can’t resist Ferdy’s food. He will have you licking your lips just inhaling the aromas from his Gumbo, Jambalaya, crawfish étouffée and shrimp creole.

In the corner there’s a Wurlitzer Jukebox primed to pump out Hank Williams, Joe Turner, Louis Jordan and Harry Choates until the wee small hours.

I must, of course, have live music. A Roadhouse needs a House Band. So, I want a Band that’s has rural roots and city smarts.

I want a Band that folks will want to dance to, to listen to, to cry into their drinks to, to fall in love to, to remember the good and bad times in their lives to, to stare out the door and dream of another life to.

A Band people come to see the first night they get home from the Service or the Slammer so they can believe they really are home.

I want a Band that can whip up a storm one minute and lull a baby to sleep the next. I want a Band that you can stand to listen to three nights a week for year after year.

I want the Band to have a front man who makes people feel good just looking at him.

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I want a drummer who lives in and for rhythm.

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I want saxophone players who can play pretty or down and dirty as the song demands.

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I want a guitar player who never shows off but is so good he makes other guitar players despair and consider taking up the banjo.

I want a Bass player who everybody feels but nobody notices.

I want a piano player who has the left hand of a deity and the right hand of a angel on a spree. I want the piano player to sing with such relaxation that it seems like he is making up every song on the spot.

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I want the Band to have a secret weapon in a songwriter and arranger who knows all the music of the past and has worked out a way to make the music of the future from it.

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I want Fats Domino, Earl Palmer, Herb Hardesty, Red Tyler, Lee Allen, Ernest McLean, Frank Fields and Dave Bartholomew.

I want, and will have, the best damn Band that ever came out of New Orleans – The Fats Domino Band!

Well, well, well …. Wah, Wah, Wah, Wah, Wah, Wah.

Baby that is Rhythm and Blues and Baby though you didn’t realise it at the time – Baby that is Rock ‘n’ Roll.

By my reckoning Fats Domino’s, ‘The Fat Man’ recorded in December 1949 in New Orleans and co-written with Dave Bartholomew and blues history is the first great record of the 1950s.

Some things are immediately apparent. Fats Domino sings with overflowing charm while his piano combines surging boogie-woogie with irresistible triplet flourishes. Right about here the great Earl Palmer invents Rock ‘n’ Roll drumming with his driving backbeat which lifts the Band and our spirits until his final fill decisively says, ‘That’s All Folks’ and you rush to cue it up again.

For the musically sophisticated there’s an excellent analysis of the crucial role of Fats Domino’s Band in the development of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ned Sublette’s book, ‘The Year Before The Flood: A Story of New Orleans’.

For the rest of us all we need to understand is that Earl Palmer’s bass and snare drum attack owed a lot to the style of New Orleans Parade Bands and that the way the whole Band locked into its rhythmic parts drew on Cuban, ‘Latin’ traditions to create something new under the sun in the Crescent City.

Listening here it’s abundantly clear that this is a Band that really does know its way around and that we should sign up now for a glorious cruise into the future. Of course, New Orleans picked up on Fats first with some 10,000 citizens putting their money down to buy, ‘The Fat Man’ in the first fortnight after its issue. A million or so sales followed as the entire United States fell under Fats’ spell.

We scroll forward half a decade now to a record which still sounds dew fresh 60 years after it was recorded in 1955. ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ was an instant classic and the passage of time has only added to its charms.

Fats grew up speaking Creole French and that must be a factor in his immensely winning vocal style. The Lower Ninth Ward where Fat’s family settled after moving Vacherie still retained a country feel despite its proximity to the city. So there always remained something of the relaxed rural about Fats nature.

Maybe that explains why I can’t think of anyone in the entire history of Rock ‘n’ Roll who exudes such bonhomie as Fats. As soon as he starts to sing the clouds part and the sun lights up clear blue skies. It’s an amazing gift he shares with his great New Orleans forebear Louis Armstrong. His piano adds further shimmer and dazzle.

Herb Hardesty has a lovely sax part here which always has me sets me gleefully swaying along with him and the Band. It seems the recording was compressed and speeded up to ensure favour with the mainstream (white) audience. Well, that sure worked!

‘Ain’t That A Shame’ is regularly used in movies to evoke the1950s most notably in George Lucas’ best film, ‘American Graffiti’.

Not too long after it was issued at 251 Menlove Avenue Liverpool the first song full time teenage rebel and would be rocker John Lennon learned to play was none other than, ‘Ain’t That A Shame’. John would formally tip his hat to Fats in his essential covers record, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

Following the major success of ‘Shame’ both through Fats version and Pat Boone’s cover the doors to the pop world swing widely open and Fats, always guided by Dave Bartholomew, took full advantage with a series of huge hits that had global impact.

Blue Monday tells a tale we all know all too well. Oh, I’ve had many, many, of those Sunday mornings when my head was bad yet I still grinned at the apparition in the mirror and concluded as the Seltzer fizzed that it was all worth it for the time that I had.

Naturally while reflecting that the awful ordeal of Monday would have to be faced I consoled myself that Fats knew and understand my feelings and somewhere in the grooves of his song lay the promise of the next, sure to be even better, weekend to come. This is one of the great vamping grooves that engages you from the get go to the thumping valedictory chord.

Blueberry Hill had been recorded many times before Fats took permanent ownership of the song in 1956. Fats and the Band invoke a bitter sweet recollection of the trajectory of love; part rural reverie, part lazy post love making langour. Their collective vocal and instrumental sound glides you through the song like an expertly piloted pirogue.

One last song. From the pen of superb singer and songwriter Bobby Charles the hypnotic marvel that is, ‘Walking to New Orleans’. String arrangement courtesy of Milton Bush. The relaxation maintained throughout with the sure groove could only be Fats Domino. This is one of those songs that the entire family sings along to when we are on long car journeys!

Fats Domino was and remains the King of New Orleans. The unique rhythmic signature of the city resounds joyfully through every bar of every Fats Domino recording.

They ought to put a statue up in the Lower Ninth and name a Square and a Bridge or two after him. He deserves nothing less.

Some personal memories to conclude.

In the late 1970s I went to see Fats Domino in concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. I only decided to go at the last minute and despite my silver tongue couldn’t persuade any of my hipper than hip friends to accompany me.

I was marooned up in Row YY at the very back of the Upper Circle. Friendless and far from the Bar. None of that mattered once Fats opened up with, ‘I’m Ready’. For the next hour or so as Fats played standard after standard with wit, playful power and affectionate authority I transcended to a state of near nirvanic bliss.

It was a rain soaked night but I waited for an hour after the show outside the Stage Door just to call out, ‘Thanks and God Bless You Fats!’ as he got into his bus.

That night remains one of my benchmark nights for musical excellence and personal happiness. Thanks and God Bless you Fats.

Now that there is more than a distinguished tinge of grey in my beard I lean more and more on the sovereign, reliable pleasures of life.

A good night’s sleep next to the woman I love; a mug of fresh brewed coffee in the morning, a walk on the common, the poetry of Herbert, Heaney and Hopkins. A glass of Malt Whiskey as the sun sets. The films of John Ford and Buster Keaton and the good humoured, life affirming, music of Antoine Fats Domino.

And, echoing Fats I’m ready, willing and able to follow this regime until someone puts out the big light.

 

The Contours : Do You Love Me (Motown – The Empire lifts off!)

You broke my heart ’cause I couldn’t dance
You didn’t even want me around
And now I’m back to let you know
I can really shake ’em down!’ (Berry Gordy)

Roma uno die non est condita.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

It takes time to found a mighty Empire that will conquer all the known world.

So, from the founding of Rome (let’s say 753BC) to the final defeat of Carthage it was all of 600 years.

It is therefore somewhat remarkable it took Berry Gordy less than a decade from the founding of Motown in 1959 to establish an Empire that colonised the hearts and souls of music fans from Addis Abbaba to Zanzibar and Zagreb!

An $800 loan from his family became a multi, multi million dollar record company which would record songs that will last as long as we have Spirits that need lifting, hearts that need stirring (or consolation) and hips that just gotta move.

First, get yourself a base that you own.

Let’s show our ambition and call this base, ‘Hitsville USA’.

A Studio come Clubhouse where your singers and musicians can find competition and camaraderie 24 hours a day (acording to legend the local beat cop thought 2648 West Grand Drive Boulevard must be an all hours drinking den given the numbers of shady looking characters turning up at all hours of the day and night).

Next get yourself a live and play in the Basement group of musicians with Jazz chops who can fashion a wholly new sound – which is not jazz, not old school R&B, Blues or Rock n’ Roll.

Let’s call them The Funk Brothers and let’s have one of them, James Jamerson on Bass, be a fully fledged genius who will add grace and depth to every recording he ever plays on.

Let’s have a slogan calling that sound, ‘The Sound of Young America’ and let’s make so many great records that the slogan will became an every day reality on the airwaves and the charts.

And, we don’t mean, in still highly segregated America, the Black Music Charts .

No, no, no.

We mean the Pop Music charts.

Where the real money is to be made.

Open for Business and cast a cool appraising eye on all the would be stars who beat a path to your door.

This kid Smokey Robinson’s a Keeper – he’s got a notebook with hundreds of songs and he can sing ’em like a bird and work the Recording Desk too!

Not that I can’t write and produce myself.

You ever heard, ‘Reet Petite’ or, ‘Lonely Teardrops’?

Big Hits but Berry didn’t get the money!

Not going to happen again!

So, in 1960, New Frontier!, we get our first hit.

Barrett Strong with, ‘Money’ (bunch of English guys in Hamburg called The Beatles will learn a lot playing that one!).

Then Smokey comes up with, ‘Shop Around’ and by the end of the year we got a Million Seller!

Here comes 1961 and we get ourselves our first Pop Number One!

The Marvellettes, ‘Please Mr Postman’.

I got my eyes and ears on that Brian Holland – there’s a lot more hits where that came from!

Early ’62 I figure we need to find a song like, ‘Twist and Shout’ that will have all the White Kids, all the Black Kids and everybody who ain’t tied to a chair out on the floor and running down to the record store to lay down their cash.

Let’s call it, ‘Do You Love Me’.

I thought it might suit The Temptations but maybe they just sing too well for this one (I got big plans for them later).

So, what about The Contours?

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Probably the best dancers of anyone who ever came through these doors!

Come to think of it Billy Gordon got a, ‘Wake the Dead and get ’em up Dancin” Voice if I ever heard one!

Next time they come through I’m gonna sit down at the piano and teach them the song one evening and record it the next day.

Gonna tell James to drive this one like a runaway train.

None of his fancy jazz licks – nail that backbeat to the Basement floor!

Of course, when Benny Benjamin is behind the Drums, the record is going to sound immense.

Immense.

Maybe I’ll start with a spoken intro and then let The Funk Brothers explode and tell Billy I don’t want him to be able to sing this song a second time ’cause I want him to tear his throats to shreds the first time!

Ok – let’s go!

Now, if that ain’t shaking ’em down I don’t know what is!

The Funk Brothers never let up and Billy Gordon’s lead vocal comes at you like a tidal wave.

Hubert Johnson, Billy Higgs, Joe Billingslea and Sylvester Potts make up a chorus that has an irresitble goofball charm. The trilling guitar comes from Huey Davis.

When I’ve managed to master some skill which has previously eluded me (and there’s a lot of them!) I just can’t stop myself singing, ‘I’ m back and I can really shake ’em down – Watch me now!’.

I love the corny spoken introduction, the false ending, the references to the Mashed Potato and The Twist and the bullfrog, ‘Um, Bom, Bom, Bom, brrrmm’ backing vocals.

Of course Berry got his hit!

Top 5 in every Chart and well over a Million copies sold.

They say it was the fastest selling single in the history of Motown.

Malheureusement, it was the pinnacle of The Contours career though they did make a handful of other excellent recordings.

They were simply too low down in the pecking order of Motown Vocal Groups.

And, when you consider they were up against the likes of The Four Tops and The Tempatations that is hardly to be wondered at.

There’s almost always been a version of the group out there driving a crowd crazy with, ‘Do You Love Me’.

And, by some mysterious alignment of the heavens, in 1987 the song gained a wholly unexpected new lease of life through being featured in the world wide hit film. ‘Dirty Dancing’ (even if they did, disgracefully, chop off the ending!).

One of the versions of The Contours got to go on a world tour and enjoy the big time once again.

Not so, for poor Billy Gordon.

For Billy died in poverty after spending time in prison (bizarrely with one time colleague Joe Billingslea being a Corrections Officer in the Prison!).

So it goes. So it goes.

Yet, every day someone, somewhere, has their life lit up by hearing Billy intone:

You broke my heart ’cause I couldn’t dance
You didn’t even want me around
And now I’m back to let you know
I can really shake ’em down!

And then, if they’ve got any blood in their veins they’ll go stone crazy for the next two and a half minutes.

Watch me Now!

Dedicated to :

Billy Gordon (RIP)

Sylvester Potts (RIP)

Hubert Johnson (RIP)

Huey Davis (RIP)

James Jamerson (RIP)

Benny Benjamin (RIP)

Joe Billingslea

Billy Hoggs

Notes:

Britain’s Ace Records has two excellent complications documenting The Contours recorded legacy.

Tracks to look out for –

‘First I Look at the Purse’

‘Whole Lotta Woman’

‘Shake Sherry’

‘Just A Little Misunderstanding’

On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox : Save the Last Dance for Me

‘The Jukebox. I lived beside Jukeboxes all through the Fifties … You want to hear a guy’s story, and if the guy’s really seen a few things, the story is quite interesting’ (Leonard Cohen)

‘Oh I know that the music’s fine,
Like sparkling wine go and have your fun,
Laugh and sing, but while we’re apart,
Don’t give your heart to anyone.’

(Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’)

Once in a very Blue Moon you turn on the radio and a song comes on that you know, know, from the first instant you hear it, is a song you will love for the rest of your life – however long that may be.

It’s a song you’ve never heard before yet at once you feel familiar with it.

Somehow, it seems you’ve been waiting for this song.

A song that you know, know, is true.

You know, know, this guy is telling you a story ripped from his heart.

You know, know, that this song really mattered to this guy and now it really matters to you.

This is a song that speaks to you.

A song that speaks to some essential human yearning.

Once in a very Blue Moon you hear a song like, ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’.

The Drifters glorious original recording from 1960, indelibly sung by Ben E King, shimmered then in the New York night skies and now it shimmers all over the globe.

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Shimmers anywhere a lover burns; oh Baby don’t you know I love you so – Can’t you feel it when we touch?

With every baion beat of your heart you vow I will never never let you go.

But, what if she lets you go?

For the one who caught your eye will surely be given the eye by other guys.

What if she is so intoxicated by the pale moonlight and the sparkling wine that she forgets who’s taking her home and in whose arms she should be when the night ends?

What if when he asks if she’s all alone and can he take her home she says Yes instead of No!

Ah, ah, there’s the rub!

For, however agonising it may be, Love only thrives in freedom.

You make a prisoner of Love and it sickens and dies.

So, sometimes, you have to paste on a smile as your Love enjoys the pale moonlight and the sparkling wine with another right before your very eyes.

You have to have Faith.

You have to have Trust.

The Drifters, led by Ben E King, with Dock Green (baritone), Elsbeary Hobbs (bass) and Charlie Thomas (tenor) soar as they bring all these emotional tensions to quick, quivering life scoring a permanent mark on your heart.

Ben E King had a wonderful gift for balancing strength and vulnerability in his vocals.

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There’s a special poignancy in a strong man confiding the intimate terrors and the torments hidden under the confident, life and soul of the party, smile.

It’s one of the reasons ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ is immortal.

Before you have a record you need the song.

And, for the song you need songwriters.

Save the Last Dance for Me was written by one of the greatest songwriting teams of the 20th Century – Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.

Think of, ‘A Teenager in Love’, ‘This Magic Moment’, ‘Little Sister’, ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’, and, ‘Sweets for My Sweet’ just for starters!

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Now, if there was ever a guy who had really seen a few things and knew how to tell a story that guy was Jerome Solon Felder, known to the world as Doc Pomus.

Doc Pomus, born in 1925, grew up in Brooklyn, a fiercely intelligent bookish boy who became obsessed by the sounds of Jazz, Blues and Rhythm and Blues you could listen to 24 hours a day on New York radio stations.

Doc was not the kind of guy who had casual interests.

No, when Doc took something up he dove in – head, neck and feet.

So it was with Doc and the Blues.

And, certainly his intimate understanding of the Blues grew in depth when in his youth he was stricken by Polio.

It didn’t stop him writing and singing the Blues.

It didn’t stop him heaving himself on crutches up on to the stages of Jazz and Blues clubs throughout the 1940s.

But, but, it did stop him from triumphantly sweeping his new bride round the dance floor at his wedding.

Instead, he had to smile as other men held her tight waiting for the night to end when, finally, they would share a last dance of their own.

Doc remembered those conflicting emotions when he wrote, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ on the back of one of the invitations to their wedding.

Doc’s lyric throbs with love and longing. With yearning and anxiety.

It’s a mixture that cuts deep into the listeners soul.

Doc’s writing partner, the urbane Mort Shuman, read the lyric and, inspired, devised a melody that has the glittering sheen of tears in the eyes.

So, now you have an emotionally complex and true lyric and a ‘you’ll never forget this once you’ve heard it the first time’ melody and a vocal group with a dynamite lead singer.

You’ve got the song. You’ve got the singers.

What more do you need?

Well, what you need is savvy Record Producers, songwriters themselves, who know from bitter experience, that a great song does not guarantee a great record.

What you need in New York in 1960 is Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

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They will bring in superb musicians like Bucky Pizzarelli, Allen Hanlon, Gary Chester and Lloyd Trotman and frame their expertise in an arrangement that will ensure the great song and the great singers make a great Record.

They’ll make the record start like a beating heart.

They’ll have subtle latin rhythms seducing the ear throughout.

They’ll not shy away from bringing in the sweeping strings when they’re demanded.

They’ll balance the urgent lead vocal with tender echoes from the rest of the vocal group.

They’ll listen and listen again and polish and polish and polish until they’ve made a Record that nothing less than a masterpiece of American Popular Music.

Together, Songwriters, Singers and Producers will make a Record which will never fade for true stories are always true and always recognised as such by open hearts.

An open heart like that of Leonard Cohen.

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Leonard will likely have heard, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ on a Jukebox in a cafe in Montreal habituated by fellow Poets and Writers searching for inspiration, recognition and the redemptive fires of love.

Leonard, a Ladies Man if there ever was one, confided that in those days he was no student of music – though he was certainly a student of cafes and waitresses.

But, once he heard a song that really told a guy’s story in a way that he could believe he remembered the number of that song on The Jukebox and punched it in again and again.

And, when he came to have a Jukebox of his own he filled it with Records that told interesting stories.

Records like, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’.

Leonard was a Gentleman and a Scholar of the dance of Love and the dance of Life and knew as a Poet how emotionally powerful precisely chosen words, of the right weight and rhythm, were once set to music.

So, embarking on a career as a Songwriter and performer in the late 1960s he brought all his considerable gifts to his new vocation.

Over the next half century he created a body of work that stands with any in the history of Popular Music.

Deep currents run through Leonard Cohen songs.

Songs about every aspect of the love between men and women and between human kind and God.

Beautiful Songs that illuminate our search for Love without disguising the frequent ugly betrayals we are heir to all our lives.

Leonard knew that Life was so serious that often the only proper response was laughter – sometimes ironic sometimes wholehearted.

Leonard understood the steps and missteps in the Dance of Life.

He knew that we all want someone to dance with very tenderly and long.

He knew that we all want someone to dance with through the panic till we’re safely gathered in.

We all want someone to dance with to the end of love.

As the end of his life approached Leonard reached back to those Jukebox days and began to sing, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ in concert.

It was, in fact, the last song he ever sang in public (though the version featured here is from Ghent some years earlier).

Leonard knew, as Doc Pomus knew, that in dance we stretch out our hands and our bodies and make a connection which can sustain us through the panics and perils of life.

Leonard Cohen and Doc Pomus, each in their own way, danced, danced, danced to the end of love.

Listen to The Drifters and canny old Leonard and make a promise that you’ll save the last dance for the one you love.

For there is one Dance we all do alone as we journey through life to death.

Until that day stretch out your hand.

Take your partner in your arms and dance!

Have Faith.

Trust.

Save the last dance.

The very last dance.

Notes:

There’s a fine biography of Doc Pomus by Alex Halberstadt ‘Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus’

The film documentary ‘AKA Doc Pomus’ by Peter Miller and William Hechter is a must watch.

I highly recommend Allan Showalter’s Blog cohencentric.com for all things related to Leonard Cohen.