Rufus Thomas : Celebrating the Centenary of a Sun & Stax Records pioneer!

A lot can happen in a 100 years.

Within 60 years of a few minutes of wavering powered flight a man can land on the Moon!

The War to end all Wars can be followed by the Jazz Age, The Great Depression and an even more deadly second World War.

Mankind can find cures for scourging diseases while developing ever more ingenious ways to destroy more and more lives with ever more deadly Bombs.

Radio, Records, and Television bring vibrant local cultures to global prominence.

From the 1920s onwards an immense treasury of music is captured on 78s or 45s or LPs.

Ragtime. Jazz. The Blues. Boogie-Woogie. Gospel. Country (and Western). Jump Blues. Rhythm and Blues. Hillbilly Boogie. Rockabilly. Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The Immortal Jukebox exists to celebrate this treasury and to salute the man and women who have made significant contributions to it.

So, today on the 100th anniversary of  his birth I am doffing my cap to the one and only Rufus Thomas by reblogging my post on him and his daughter Carla from three years ago.

Celebrate with me.

All families contains the history of multitudes through the cultures they are heir to and which they live within. At the same time each family can be an agent for cultural change and development through their actions and works. We stand on the shoulders of giants but we can see a destination ahead they could never reach.

This is particularly the case in families whose work lies within the popular arts. If you grow up with music and talk about music is all around.

If you watch shows from the side of the stage and know the drudgery as well as the glamour of, ‘show business’ you will either run a mile and seek, sensibly, to become a lawyer or farmer or you will think there is no other life worth living than that of writing, singing and performing songs and bathing in the approval of an audience.

The careers of Rufus and Carla Thomas, father and daughter, take us on a fascinating journey through twentieth century American popular culture.

We will encounter: travelling minstrel shows, the development of Afro-American radio and the birth and growth of two of the nations fountainhead records companies (Sun and Stax) which produced many of the greatest rock n roll, soul and rhythm and blues records ever made.

We will also meet music icons of the stature of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, B B King and Otis Redding and realise why the city of Memphis can justifiably lay claim to have been the capital city of American music.

Rufus Thomas was a magnetic figure with personality and character to burn. He had that most attractive and winning of human qualities – vitality.

There were no downcast faces when Rufus was around! He was a one man party who lit up every room he ever entered with his ebullience and appetite for creating and sharing enjoyment.

He was born in rural Mississippi in1917 moving to Memphis as a toddler. It was in that bustling metropolis that he grew up and learned to become an entertainer who combined the talents of a dancer/hoofer, comedian, singer, talent show host and radio disc jockey.

I think that’s what you call an all rounder!

Leaving Booker T Washington High School in 1936 with the depression suffocating the nation he took his talents on the road throughout the South with the legendary F S Walcott Rabbit Foot Minstrels (commemorated in a lovely rowdy song by The Band).

‘The Foots’ were a glorious travelling tent show troupe which operated between 1900 and the late 1950s bringing comedy sketches and salty song and dance routines to any town, large or small, where the tent could be pitched and an audience drummed up.

Arriving in town the brass band would parade with comedians like Rufus announcing the wonders of the show to come. The stage, boards on a folding frame, would be set up with gasoline lamps acting as footlights.

While the liquored up audience waited for Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey or Louis Jordan to come on Rufus would whip up the crowd with comic dancing and jive jokes tailored to the local audience and introduce the dancing girls who invariably managed to increase the show’s temperature by several degrees centigrade.

After the War Rufus was back in Memphis working for a textile company and married with three children; Carla, Marvell and Vaneese. He hooked up again with his high school mentor, Nat D Williams, who was a key figure in Memphis Afro-American culture as teacher, journalist, talent spotter and pioneering radio host.

Nat D recognised that Rufus’ energy, affability and show business smarts gave him all the necessary qualities to be a successful talent show host. So, Rufus began to regularly host the shows at the Palace Theatre on Beale Street once announcing the youthful Riley (B. B.) King as the winner in the late 40s. Rufus was still hoping to make it as a singer though singles on labels like Star, Chess and Meteor shifted few units.

The next stage in Rufus career was again given impetus in 1951 through the good offices of Nat D who brought him on to be a disc jockey for WDIA – a Memphis radio station which, uniquely at the time, used black DJs to broadcast to the considerable black audience in Memphis and anywhere else 50,000 watts of power could reach!

Radio was king in the first post war decade reaching into almost every home in the country and providing the soundtrack to millions of lives through immensely popular shows that gathered whole families round the set.

Rufus, with his easy charm was a radio natural and his, ‘Hoot and Holler’ show became essential listening not just for his own community but also for young white hipsters like Elvis Presley or Steve Cropper who just knew that they could play those rhythm and blues too if they were only given the chance.

As it happened in Memphis there was a man, one of the true heroes of American music, Sam Phillips who was able to make those dreams come true. Rufus, in the early 1950s was often at Sun studios at 706 Union Avenue working with Phillips as he recorded brilliant blues sides by artists like Howling Wolf.

It was Rufus who provided Sun with its first breakout single in 1953 with, ‘Bear Cat’ an answer record to Mama Thornton’s,’Hound Dog’ which reached No 3 in the R&B chart (this launched a series of legal actions but that’s another story).

Rufus let rip with the full force of his personality matching Big Mama all the way while adding a sly spin of his own to the story of mismatched lovers. The featured stinging guitar is by Joe Hill Louis.

Turn this one up as loud as you can!

Rufus, like all the other black artists at Sun then faded into the background as Sam Phillips realised that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow could only be found by recording white artists, preferably young handsome guys, who could combine blues, rhythm and blues and country influences to create a new sound on the face of the earth – rock ‘n’ roll.

Enter Elvis Presley! Elvis was aware of Rufus through listening to WDIA and he always retained a fondness for ‘Tiger Man’ which Rufus had recorded at Sun.

Rufus continued to combine full time work at the textile plant with his entertainment career throughout the 1950s. Meanwhile, Carla who had been born in 1942 was soon displaying the family relish for singing and performing.

At the tender age of 10 she joined the WDIA sponsored Teen Town Singers and was combining her school duties with twice weekly rehearsals and a radio show every Saturday. Rufus could hear that his daughter had an attractive voice and unusual poise for such a young artist.

So, in 1959 Rufus decided to approach a new Memphis recording outfit, Satellite Records, headed up by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton and persuaded them that they needed to move beyond the country and pop markets R&B to thrive in their home town and the rest of the nation.

Rufus and Carla recorded the duet, ‘Cause I Love You’ at Satellite’s studio and operational headquarters which was located in a former cinema/theatre on McLemore Avenue. And, voila! Satellite had its first hit (helped by the distribution deal agreed with sharp eared Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records).

Soon after Jim and Estelle would use the first two letters of their surnames and create Stax Records.

The next time Carla’s name appeared on a record it was on the Atlantic label with a song she had written as a 16 year old, ‘Gee Whizz (Look At His Eyes). Gee Whizz is a heart and soul on the sleeve love ballad that could only have been written by a teenager in the delirious throes of adolescent love/infatuation.

Do you remember that oh so sweet feeling as you gazed at your love object? While no one could or should maintain that obsessive attachment to the dream of love its a poor soul that does not cherish a small remembrance of those heady days.

And, nothing can swoosh you back to those days with more efficiency than Carla’s utterly beguiling vocal here. Lean back, close your eyes and swoon!

The song became an immediate radio favourite and once Atlantic was behind it and Carla appeared on the nations premier pop TV show, ‘American Bandstand’ there was no stopping, ‘Gee’ from ascending to the top 10 of the national charts and a permanent place in the memories of a generation.

Carla then issued a string of singles on Atlantic and then Stax demonstrating that the attractively naive young girl was growing into a smart and sassy young woman who could convincingly embody a full range of adult emotions with engaging vocal style.

Listen to her here in 1963 with a song especially beloved by her European fans, ‘I’ll Never Stop Loving You’. You’d have to have a stony heart and leaden feet not to be up and practicing your finest twists and twirls to this one!

In that same year of 1963 Rufus showed that there was still life in the old trouper as he released a series of driving singles calling us with unflagging energy and wit to get up off our butts and out onto the dance floor.

The most potent and memorable of these, ‘ Walking The Dog’ has become something of a Soul/R&B standard (even receiving the accolade of a cover by The Rolling Stones). The video clip shows Rufus in full flow.

The mid 60s saw Carla and Stax records really hit their stride utilising teams of brilliant in house writers and the incomparable Booker T and The MGs as the house band. A perfect example of the power of such collaborations is a Carla classic from 1966: B -A – B – Y.

This pearl was authored by the great partnership of Isaac Hayes (a Teen Town alumni like Carla) and David Porter. There’s gospel testifying here as well as soul enticement in Carla’s seductive vocal backed by a steam heat rhythm section topped off with a straight into your skull chorus – a big hit guaranteed!

The canny bosses at Stax observing the success of Motown duet partnerships like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell had the inspired idea of teaming Carla with the top man at Stax and in fact the top man in soul of his era – Otis Redding.

Dubbed the King and Queen of Soul they recorded some excellent sides together including the big international hit, ‘Tramp’. However, the track I’ve chosen to spotlight the duo is a wonderful reverie, ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby ..’.

Carla wisely never tries to match the inferno intensity of Otis, rather her caressing coolness offsets him perfectly making for a seriously sexy record. I like to listen to this one with a large Gin and Tonic at hand.

Rufus and Carla were stars of the triumphant Stax/Volt tour of Europe in 1967 which has become legendary for the intensity of the artists performances and the fervour of the audience responses.

Back in Memphis Rufus continued to produce some excellent sides including, ‘Memphis Train’ and, ‘Sophisticated Sissy’ before striking gold again with a novelty dance song, ”The Funky Chicken’ which proved he had learned a lesson or two about pleasing an audience back in the Rabbit Foot days!

When it comes to selling a song Rufus has few competitors. I have never managed to play this song only once so be prepared.

The end of the 60s closed out the glory days for both Rufus and Carla though both would record some valuable material later. But, given the history above it is clear that singly and together they were a significant element of the magnificence of Memphis music in that golden era.

In an age of fluff and flummery it’s good to be reminded that some things and some people lived lives and made music that will always endure because it was grounded in everyday experience turned through talent and heightened expression into true art.

Now, Baby that is real!

,

Fats Domino is 89 today! Many Happy Returns Fats!

The great Fats Domino was born 89 years ago today.

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

So, I am reblogging my previous tribute.

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’.

As a birthday treat I am 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.

 

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.

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.

I want a drummer who lives in and for rhythm.

Earl Palmer

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

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.

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.

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.

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Tenth Day

A painting by Andrei Rublev (approx 1360s to 1420s)

A Poem by Charles Causley (1917 to 2003)

Music by Herbert Howells (1892 to 1983), Big Joe Turner and Fats Waller

 

rublev-nativity

Our painting today is by Andrei Rublev whose Icons and Frescos are supreme works of devotional art.

They are works to be still before.

If you surrender to these works they will work in your soul.

Rublev, following the Orthodox tradition, sees the events of The Nativity not as historical episodes but as living events the faithful community participated in as they celebrated the liturgy.

The calm and peace of the image contains immense and complex feeling.

The birth of The Saviour is shown as a cosmic event which is yet an acceptance of human mortality and frailness.

Herbert Howells music has an English reticence which belies the oceanic depths of feeling it can summon from the listener.

His, ‘A Spotless Rose’ especially when sung with the aching purity of The New College Oxford Choir tenderly ushers the cosmic into our mortal consciousness.

Onward!

Today I think it’s time to remember that Christmas is a time for celebration.

A time to meet up with old friends and make new ones.

A time to sing and dance and laugh.

A time to shake our fists in the face of the dark, cruel winter as we affirm our faith in the inevitable restorative power of the light.

For many years I did much of my celebrating in bars, pubs, Honky Tonks and Road Houses soaking up the music and the booze as the nights progressed. The music choices today reflect that biblious spirit.

First, the Boss Of The Blues – Big Joe Turner. Big is no empty boast; Joe was over 6ft 2 and weighed more than 300 pounds so when he arrived in a room you knew he was there!

You would also know Joe was around because his voice could break through walls and wake the dead.

Joe had to develop his shouting style when he worked in the hectic, heaving bars of wide-open Kansas City in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Even though the joints Joe worked in such as the Kingfish and the Sunset would have been rammed to the doors with free spending, free fighting customers Joe never had any problem getting heard from behind the bar.

As, ‘The Singing Barman’ he formed a famous partnership with pianist Pete Johnson immortalised in the standard, ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’.

If I had been a customer I would have ordered (in honour of the Rudy Toombes song) One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer – knocked them back and settled in for a night of peerless blues.

Joe’s career lasted some 60 years and he was variously styled as a bluesman, a jazz singer, a Rythmn and Blues stylist and a pioneer rock ‘n’ roller – whatever the label the big man went his own sweet way launching every song into the stratosphere with the immense power of his vocals.

 

From the moment, ‘Christmas Date Boogie’ opens we know we are in good hands.

Big Joe is very much the master of ceremonies marshalling the instrumental forces around him. They are all fine players given their chance to shine but there is no doubt who is the star of the show!

You can just imagine the big beaming smile of Joe as he tears into this Christmas frolic.

Resistance is useless – where’s the Bourbon?

I’ll let the very fine Irish poet (I think you may have guessed by now that I am somewhat well disposed to Irish poets) Michael Longley introduce the next music Titan:

‘He plays for hours and hours on end and thought there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty, at the still centre of his loud dominion –
THE SHOOK, THE SHAKE, THE SHEIKH OF ARABY’.

The subject of the poem and the artist featured in our second music selection is, of course, the one and only, one man musical encyclopedia and indefatigable party starter: Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller.

A short list of his accomplishments would have to include his very considerable prowess as a pianist, organist, singer, songwriter, composer and comedian.

 

 

Yet any list of talents and achievements would undersell Fats impact on his contemporary artists and his audiences.

Fats was beyond category – he was Fats Waller and The Lord of any room he chose to light up.

He could in the course of a single number go from being rollickingly rumbustious to wistful gentle melancholy.

Sadly his early death meant that the true depth of his talents were never fully sounded but nevertheless he leaves a unique legacy of wondrously entertaining recordings.

If you ever need cheering up and reminding of how good it is to be alive just press the button next to Fats name and you will feel a whole lot better – I guarantee it.

Today’s poem is, ‘Mary’s Song’ by Charles Causley.

‘Warm in the wintry air
You lie,
The ox and the donkey
Standing by,
With summer eyes
They seem to say:
Welcome, Jesus,
On Christmas Day!

Sleep, King Jesus:
Your diamond crown
High in the sky
Where stars look down.
Let your reign
Of love begin,
That all the world may enter in.’

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Fourth Day

Fourth Day featuring :

A painting by Giorgione (1477 to 1510)

A poem by Christopher Smart (1772 to 1771)

Music by Mae McKenna & Mairi Macinnes, Roger Miller and Billy Eckstine

Giorgione, a Venetian artist from the period of the High Renaissance, remains a figure of intense mystery.

 

giorgione_-_adoration_of_the_shepherds_-_national_gallery_of_art

What we can say from his, ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ (NGA Washington) is that he could suspend time and evoke awe and silent wonder.

This painting offers us a profound sense of reverence. The Nativity tableau shows Mary communing with her child as both motherly protector and prayerful worshiper.

Joseph, so often the forgotten man of the narrative, seems overwhelmed by the enormity and mystery of the events he has been caught up in.

Shepherds were ill-regarded outsiders in biblical times. Yet, it was they who were granted the blessing of an audience with the new born King.

This must be some new type of King who welcomes first the poor and the ragged before the rich and high born.

The sight greeting the Shepherds was beyond words.

Their attitude of humble surrender to an experience beyond their understanding is intensely moving.

Our contemplative music today comes from the Hebrides.

The Christ Child’s Lullaby or Taladh Chriosda in Scots Gaelic is full to the brim with maternal feeling for the vulnerable new born.

Mother and child, once one, now two, create together a sacred space where love and mutual regard dwells.

The standing stone vocals of Mae McKenna and Mairi Macinnes, switching fluently between languages, supported by the pellucid instrumental playing of William Jackson and Tony McManus casts a timeless spell.

 

 

Onward!

Our Sleigh cuts a deep track through the falling snow as it’s carrying a whole heap of presents for all the good boys and girls all around the world (the list has been checked twice and we surely know who has been naughty and who has been nice).

Our first song is, ‘Old Toy Trains’ by the one and only Roger Miller. He wrote a hatful of hit songs, was a multiple Grammy winner and admitted to the Country Music Hall Of Fame.

In addition he also had a theatrical Tony Award in his trophy cabinet for his score for the hit Broadway musical, ‘Big River’ which he based on the writings of Mark Twain.

Despite all the above he has always seemed to be to be under rated with many damning him with the faint praise of describing him as a writer of, ‘Novelty Songs’.

Certainly there is humour in his songs but as anyone who is any kind of honest writer will tell you it is much harder to write comedy than it is to write tragedy.

The key to understanding Miller’s very real eminence as a songwriter lies in the sharpness of his observations expressed in language that is simple in nature but complex in impact.

Roger Miller had a poor upbringing but as he said words became his toys and you can feel that in the playfulness and delight with which he uses the resources of the American language as spoken by the everyday working man and woman.

Roger Miller liked people and liked telling stories that would resonate with their common experiences. Listening to him you do feel spoken to by a ruminative and intelligent man who has seen enough of life to be slow to judge and quick to smile.

There’s often a metaphorical raised eyebrow in the tone of his language and vocals but never a raised fist.

‘Old Toy Trains’ is a simple song that catches the magic of Christmas Eve – a magic that it is easy to lose or forget as we grow in supposed sophistication. Miller taps into the time- suspended feeling as we approach a great event and the hope we all have that all will be calm and all will be well.

Most of us will look back on a present we received when we were young children and reflect that no later gift has ever so perfectly matched our dreams than the toy train, drum, doll (or in my case) a cowboy outfit we received and cherished all those years ago.

Next, Billy Eckstine with the luxuriantly romantic, ‘Christmas Eve’.

Mr B was a pure class act. A handsome dandy who knew how very good he was as a singer and a bandleader. Billy’s rich, burnished voice lent dignity and drama to every song he ever recorded.

Listening to Billy here you are swept into a world where the brandy is five star and the Christmas lights twinkle all night on your perfect tree as you and your loved one dreamily dance by the flickering firelight.

I love the slow motion control of Eckstine’s vocal and the intoxicating musical arrangement courtesy of Lionel Newman.

Time to take the top off your favourite bottle and lean back to sink deep into this one.

Today’s poem extract comes from, ‘Christmas Day’ by Christopher Smart – an 18th Century English poet who pursued his vocation steadfastly despite spells in an asylum and prison.

‘Spinks and ouzles sing sublimely,
We too have a saviour born,
Whiter blossoms burst untimely
On the blest Mosaic thorn

God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate and a native
Of the very world he made.’

The Animals : We Gotta Get Out of This Place (The Template for every Bruce Springsteen song!)

‘[Hearing The Animals] was a revelation … the first records with full blown class consciousness … the chorus of, ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ where working stiffs are looking for a better life can be heard in all my albums …

That’s every song I’ve ever written. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding either. That’s, ‘Born to Run’, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’

(Bruce Springsteen reflecting on his songwriting influences at the South by Southwest Music Conference in 2012)

‘We gotta get out of this place,
If it’s the last thing we ever do,
We gotta get out of this place,
‘Cause girl, there’s a better place for me and you’

Well! Wasn’t The Boss giving you the straight steer!

The Animals magnificently raw and visceral 1965 recording of, ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ laced with frustration, pain and outrage hits you deep in the solar plexus.

These guys aren’t kidding!

Only The Beatles, ‘Help’ kept the disc out of the Number One spot in the UK and it was top 20 in America.

Subsequently it has been recognised as a resonant landmark recording – a cultural earthquake that continues to provide unexpected aftershocks to this day.

The ominous intro, courtesy of Chas Chandler’s bass guitar, is doubled and redoubled throughout the song as Hilton Valentine’s guitar, John Steel’s drums and Dave Rowberry’s keyboards crank up the sense of uncontainable tension through every second the song lasts.

The record starkly dramatises themes of righteous working class anger, the simmering tensions within families especially those between fathers and sons, the asphyxiating atmosphere of the home town and the overwhelming urge to get away – to make a new life down the road.

Eric Burdon sings like a man possessed. He seems, deep from his gut, to be singing a bone crunching Urban Blues for all the disdained miners and shipyard workers he grew up amongst.

The passion and power in his vocal embodies his refusal to accept that, whatever he is told about the, ‘realities’ of his situation it cannot, cannot! be true that there’s no use in trying.

As an act of hope and faith he must, simply must, find that better future. And as a man he knows that a future that’s not shared with his girl, so young and pretty, is not a future worth pursuing.

Looking at his grey haired and life battered father he knows that to stay in the Hometown means he and his girl will be condemned to slaving their lives away and then to dying before their time.

All around there is the fading light and the smell of death. Time to go. Time to choose life. To choose life!

Yet, ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ was born many thousands of miles away from Newcastle and the mighty rolling River Tyne.

To tell the full story of how it came into being and how its onward journey proceeded I’m going to call on three of Kipling’s honest servants; Who and Where and When.

Who Wrote it? When?

Barry Mann and Cyntia Weil in 1965.

Barry and Cynthia were A list songwriters who forged a partnership to rival Carol King and Gerry Goffin. They had the gift of writing songs that lingered in the heart and mind because of the strength of the melodies and the emotional truths of the lyrics.

Think of, ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’, ‘On Broadway’, ‘Just a Little Lovin” and, ‘He’s Sure The Boy I love’ to name but four classics form their songbook.

Their success came from natural talent yoked to hard, hard, work. Six days a week they sat down together and wrote and cut demos. Searching, relentlessly, for the miraculous marriage of melody and lyric which makes the difference between just another song and a song which takes on a life of its own and sails to the stars.

Where was it written?

In New York City!

Now, pop historians often refer to the songs and records made in New York in the late 50s/early 60s as exemplifying, ‘The Brill Building Sound’. These were polished pop products, alive with youthful fire and energy, which drew skilfully on the Gospel, Rhythm and Blues and Latin sounds which swirled around the stoops and roofs of The Big Apple.

And, The Brill Building at 1619 Broadway was a hive of publishing companies and songwriting teams slaving in tiny cubicles as they conspired to storm the Hot 100. But, that’s not where Mann and Weil wrote, ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’. No, they wrote the song and made the demo at 1650 Broadway where Aldon Music was based.

At 1650 you could write a song, demo it on piano and vocal and then take it the basement studio to be further worked on by a full band.

Then simply find the right artist, add radio and live promotion and Voila! You have a hit!

Who turned a NYC demo into a hit record from England?

Allen Klein, Mickie Most and The Animals.

Allen Klein! A legendary figure in the Music Business. He was a fixer, a hustler, some kind of genius with the numbers, a ‘you’d better not get in my way buddy’ negotiator and a man you never, ever, wanted to make an enemy of!

He made several fortunes, for himself, and some for his clients – which by the end of his career had included both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones! We are talking about a big time operator.

In the mid 60 s he was getting into his stride and building the personal and business networks he would ruthlessly exploit therafter. One of his friends and networking allies was Don Kirshner, the Don off Aldon Music!

So, Allen was often in 1650 Broadway. And, one day he listened to a demo by Mann and Weill – ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ and smelled the aroma of a big, fat, hit.

Mann/Weil had imagined the song as a vehicle for The Righteous Brothers or a chance for Barry to record the song himself for Leiber & Stoller’s Redbird label.

Allen, didn’t see it that way. He saw it as a chance to feed his client in England, Mickie Most, who was proving to be a producer with the midas touch.

So, Allen sent the demo to Mickie who was searching for a gritty song to suit the gritty group from Newcastle.

The Animals.

The Animals, who had the previous year, made an all time classic record in ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ (which had stunned everybody from Bob Dylan to Muddy Waters) would surely devour such a song and take it all the way to the top of the charts.

Mickie Most had ears fine tuned for what makes a hit. And, he proved this over and over again with The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Lulu, Donovan and Jeff Beck among many others.

He had immediately spotted the potential of The Animals when he saw their powerhouse performances at their Hometown base of Club-A- Go-Go. They clearly had a deep natural feeling for Rhythm & Blues and Soul Music.

Perhaps Mickie Most’s best gift as a producer was to know the strengths of a song and his artists. The Animals strength was the intensity of their earthy sound. He largely kept out of their way in the studio concentrating on capturing that sound on tape.

Who listened?

Rhythm & Blues buffs and all over the world, tuning in to their radios and TVs, teens and twenties discovering the way music could reflect the lives they led and inspire dreams of escape.

Now some of these buffs, some in their teens, had dreams of making such music themselves.

Dreams which would just about turn into an inferno of desire when they heard ‘We gotta Get Out Of This Place’.

Enter, aged 15 from Freehold, New Jersey, one Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen!

Who else listened?

The Soldiers of The Vietnam War.

Getting out of this place is fine if its your own choice.

But what if the choice is made for you by your Government?

What if, instead of lighting out for the territory you were drafted and put on a plane to fight a war thousands of miles from home?

What if you were listening to this song amid shells and bullets at Dong Xoai, la Drang, Khe Sanh or Hue?

What then? What then?

Then, a song written in New York before being recorded in London by a group from Newcastle might take on an even more desperate and urgent character.

Falling asleep each night after another day in Hell you couldn’t help but add your voice to that chorus;

‘We gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do’.

The line about being dead before your time is due would echo and echo as you saw comrades fall all around you.

No wonder, ‘We Gotta get Out Of This Place’ is generally considered to The defining song of the War for Vietnam Vets (there’s an excellent book of the same title by Doug Bradley and Craig Werner).

Who might be listening now?

Music buffs like me. Listeners to Oldies stations.

And, always, always, anyone seemingly trapped by life.

A woman trapped in a loveless or abusive marriage.

A child unable to drink clean water.

People enslaved by lack of education, poverty and corruption.

And, today watching The News about the trauma and tragedy of places like war devastated Aleppo who can doubt that if those benighted citizens heard, ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ they would not say words to the effect of Amen Brother, Amen!

Bob Dylan : The Nobel Prize, One Too Many Mornings, The Albert Hall & Me!

In honour of Bob Dylan being selected as the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature I am Reblogging one of the very first Immortal Jukebox posts which combines a tribute to Bob with a review of his 2013 Albert Hall concert in London.

Some may argue that as a songwriter/performer Bob does not qualify for the Literature Award.

Frankly, I regard such views as unforgivably petty and deeply wrong headed.

I can think of no figure in post World War 2 global culture more worthy of a Nobel Prize!

To add to the review below which had no soundtrack here’s my all time favourite Bob Dylan song in a bravura performance from the 1966 tour soon to be immortalised in a 36 CD set!

No one in the field of popular music has ever written as well as Bob Dylan and no one has performed and sung with such inimitable power.

Congratulations Bob!

Sometimes, you just know.  There is literally something in the air. 

A sense of gathering fevered anticipation as the crowd assembles and the air becomes charged with faith and hope that this will be one of those nights.

The ones that you will relive in memory and recount proudly a thousand times to those who didn’t have the foresight, the cash, the sheer luck to be in that town on that night when everything clicked, when the energy built and built arcing from person to person, from stalls to gallery and flashing from the stage until we were all swept up and away into an ecstatic realm for those few hours on that one night that you will never forget and never be quite able to recapture.

All you can do is call for another drink, smile that distant smile and say with a regretful tone  ‘You really should,have been there.’

SW7 Revisited

‘Let us not talk falsely now – the hour is getting late’.   Bob Dylan

‘The thing about Bob is that he is and always will be Bob’. Jeff Lynne

I discovered and fell headlong into obsessive allegiance to the music and persona of Bob Dylan as a callow fourteen year old in 1969.  Up to that night, when I incredulously listened to the epiphany of Desolation Row on a French language radio station I had been largely dismissive of contemporary pop/rock music. 

Much as I liked the vitality of the Beatles and especially the Kinks I was not thrilled and transported by their records in the way that I was when reading the works of D H Lawrence or Chekhov which seemed to open up whole new worlds of sensation and understanding.

The Dylan I discovered that night was like the elder brother I never had – someone cleverer, more assured and knowing than me who yet leaned over to tell me all the secrets he had learned with a nod, a wink and a rueful grin. 

He would continue to fulfill that role throughout the following decades.dylan3

So, when I saw him in concert in November 2013 at London’s Albert Hall I was moved to reflect on all the years and miles we had travelled since he had last been there.

At the Albert Hall In 1966 when the last notes of an  epochal, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ that sounded like nothing less than an electric typhoon faded into the night air Bob Dylan walked off stage a fully realised genius.  In the previous four years he had created a body of work that would have, even if he had never recorded again, made him the single most important artist of the second half of the century.

However, he was also swaying on the precipice of a physical and emotional collapse. This was brought on by an impossible workload of recording and touring only tolerable through the fuel of a teeming headful of ideas and an increasingly dangerous reliance on ever more powerful drug cocktails.

He had once said that, ‘I accept chaos – I’m not sure if chaos accepts me’.  Now he was learning to his cost that chaos was indifferent to his acceptance – chaos swallows and destroys.

He was saved from permanent burn out and death by the happenstance of a motorbike accident that gave him the opportunity to clean up, rest, recuperate and find a new way of working allowing for some form of future and family life in the haven of Woodstock.

Over the next 47 years he would never again attain the heights of inspiration achieved through to 1966 (neither would anyone else!) but he would continue, in an unmatched way, through craft, cunning and sheer bloody mindedness to write, create and perform works that honoured the traditions of American song while being thoroughly modern, post modern and finally timeless expansions of and additions to that tradition.

bobdylan1So, when he returned to the Albert Hall as Thanksgiving approached in November 2013, as he looked around at the grand old venue he might have been excused the quizzical smile that had become his trademark expression. 

Much like Ishmael returning after an age to the Nantucket waterfront he carried with him the knowledge of how hard survival could be and how that knowledge was every bit as much a curse as a blessing.

In 2013 Bob Dylan could be more reasonably compared to an old testament prophet (Jeremiah? Isiah? Micah ?) than to any of his ‘peers’ within the entertainment industry albeit a prophet who doubled as a song and dance man.

A song and dance man, walking and gliding through a blasted landscape, who while not dismissive or disrespectful of his classic creations, primarily chose to mine the new seam of the songs collected as Tempest.

In this he was aided by a road tested band, alert to his hair tigger mercurial nature, who artfully melded blues, rockabilly and sly swing to embody and illuminate the songs.

Upfront, the man himself settled either into a seafarers stance when centre stage or bobbed like a sparring boxer when stationed behind the piano.  His voice, a bare ruined choir of its former glory, though still uniquely distinctive, adapted its tone to the demands of each song – variously knowing, bewildered, threatening, regretful, cajoling and doleful. 

Somehow his totemic harmonica playing still manages to encompass all these qualities and more and audibly thrills the warmly affectionate audience.

Bob Dylan has, not without cost, become what he set out to be all those years ago – a hard travellin’ troubadour, with a lifetimes worth of songs, something for every occasion, in his gunny sack, always on the way to another joint.  Always looking at the road ahead not the road behind. 

I can’t help but feel that up ahead the shades of Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Whitman and Rabbie Burns are waiting to welcome another to their company.

Well they can wait a little longer – this troubadour has more miles to go before he’s ready for the final roadhouse.  May god bless him and keep him always.

Thanks to Karl-Erik at Expecting Rain for posting this article on his wonderful site.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louis Jordan did indeed have it all.

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

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

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

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

OK, enough pontificating!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What makes your big head so hard?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generous, democratic, thrillingly alive.

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

And, I rejoice.

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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