Remembering Aretha Franklin : R – E – S – P – E – C – T!

 

Before night comes each of us must work, in our few days, the work we were uniquely created to accomplish.

Surely, that’s exactly what the late Aretha Franklin did in singing with such splendour and grace from earliest childhood until the last year of her life.

Enormous gifts were bestowed on Aretha.

The triumph of her life was in her acceptance, nurture and stewardship of those gifts.

In so doing she became the greatest female singer in popular music since the Second World War.

Her profound legacy can be found in scores of breathtaking performances and in the inspiration she gave to fellow musicians and singers as well all of us privileged to hear her in our lifetimes.

When Aretha sang she summoned up her whole humanity to insist upon, to imperiously demand our attention!

 

 

R – E – S – P – E – C – T!

R for Roots :

Aretha’s roots lay in Church.

Her Father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin was a celebrated Baptist preacher – immensely influential in the community through his recordings, radio and touring appearances. New Bethel Church in Detroit was visited by all the great and good of the Gospel world.

Chuch and Choirs and Quartets.

In Church wide eyed young Aretha took into her deepest being the rhythms and dynamics of her Father’s Sermons, the soaring exultation of the choirs.

Aretha conquered far flung worlds in her career but she never strayed in her heart far from that Church in Detroit.

From her Father and the Gospel tradition she knew that singing was Important.

An important aspect of sacred drama.

Important to her, important to a whole community – the heart of Life.

Throughout her life when Aretha sat down at her beloved piano or took centre stage her very presence and every note she sang, every breath she took had the force of a sworn Vocation.

She knew from the Bible and increasingly from her own personal life that this world could be a vale of tears, a place of sore trial and torment.

But, she knew there was a further shore.

She knew that in turmoil she could turn to song to guide her there.

She believed that though you might be abandoned by all who you relied on there was yet a hand that would reach out for yours and gently lead you Home.

 

E for Ecstacy :

Rapture. Euphoria. Exultation!

Listening to Aretha on record or in person gave you the opportunity to stand outside yourself transcending the cares of your everyday shackles.

Filled with the spirit Aretha pierced the veil.

Filled with the spirit Aretha gave us glimpses of no time, glimpses of Eternity.

Filled with the spirit Aretha lifted herself and her audience into other worlds.

Filled with the spirit Aretha called out to us to respond with all our hearts.

FIlled with the spirit Aretha made us reciprocate her urgency to be understood, to be respected, to be heard.

Filled with the spirit when she sang Aretha was always reaching, reaching, reaching.

S for Soul :

If you gotta ask you don’t know what it is.

Aretha not only had Soul in her recordings and performances she came to define its essence.

She sang as a woman in full.

A woman who was unaffaid to expose her vulnerability.

A Woman Of Heart and Soul.

A Woman of blood and bone and guts and unabashed carnality.

A Woman who could shout and scald, scream or tenderly whisper.

A Woman who could thrillingly fuse the sacred and the secular to examine and embody our deepest emotions.

 

P for : Politics

Like Bob Dylan says we live in a Political World.

Aretha grew up knowing Martin Luther King.

Her Father ordained Jesse Jackson.

Aretha was an inspiration to all the struggles for Civil Rights.

Civil Rights and Respect for African Americans.

Civil Rights and Respect for Women.

Civil Rights and Respect for The Poor.

With Aretha’s Voice At your back and in your heart no barrier could seem insurmountable.

E for : Eternity

The greatest artists stop time when they sing.

Most music, most art is ephemeral.

It is given to very few to add to the cairn Human Beings have added to the treasures of Eternity.

Aretha has beyond all question added significantly to that cairn.

C for : Choir and Community

When Aretha sang she was always singing to a surrounding community.

A community including fellow singers and musicians and fellow pilgrims.

Even alone at the piano there was a senses that she was singing to Another.

In her singing offering up gifts.

In her singing offering pleas for redemption.

In her singing offering cries of supplication.

In her singing offering heartfelt sorrow.

In her singing shouting to be heard – to be heard and answered.

T for : Thankfulness

Aretha was fully aware of the plenitude of her gifts and was properly grateful for them.

Looking back at her wondrous career we should be properly grateful too.

Now that she has crossed over we are all immensely in her debt.

Take her hand Precious Lord.

Take her hand Precious Lord gently in your own.

Lead her Home.

Lead her Home.

 

 

Little Richard with Jimi Hendrix & Billy Preston – I Don’t Know What You Got But Its Got Me

Epistemology.

Full many a year did I labour in the stony fields of Epistemology.

I’ve got the deep furrowed brows to prove it.

Knowledge that …

Knowledge how …

Savoir … Connaitre

Kennen … Weten.

Do you Ken?

Either you don’t know nothing or you know too much – it don’t seem there’s anything in between (hats off to Russell and Riddley).

What do I know?

Well, I know that if you have a song written by Don Covay

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With Guitar by Jimi Hendrix

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With Organ by Billy Preston

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And if you have the one and only Little Richard singing like a sanctified revival preacher

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Then, Brothers and Sisters, I do Know, I most assuredly Know that the resulting record is one of the greatest Singles ever made!

That’s what I Know.

Listen and you’ll Know too.

And, when you Know, as we all Know – You just Know.

 

 

Notes :

Little Richard:

recorded ‘I Don’t Know …’ in Los Angeles in 1965.

He had, of course, already given nuclear energy to the launch of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the mid ‘50s.

Here he draws upon his Gospel and R&B roots with all those hours listening to Brother Joe May, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Billy Wright informing the volcanic steam heat of his performance.

Perhaps only James Carr singing, ‘Dark End Of The Street’ matches Richard on this record for soul searing intensity.

Don Covay :

was gifted as singer, songwriter and producer. He had a particular mastery of the Soul Ballad.

His Father was a Baptist Preacher and his first forays into public performance was with his family Gospel Quartet, The Cherry Keys.

Classics he wrote include:

‘Mercy, Mercy’ (covered by The Rolling Stones),

‘Chain Of Fools’ and ‘See Saw’ for Aretha Franklin,

‘That’s How I Feel’ for The Soul Clan

’Pony Time’ (a No 1 for Chubby Checker)

’Letter Full Of Tears’ for Gladys Knight

’Its Better to Have and Don’t Need (Than Need and Don’t Have) is a magnificent song he put out under his own name.

The version he cut of ‘Mercy, Mercy’ with The Goodtimers In 1964 featured Jimi Hendrix.

At one time Don gloried in the role of Valet and Driver for Little Richard.

Jimi Hendrix :

Appeared like a meteor into the consciousness of the Rock world yet he had served his time on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ backing up a host of R&B and Soul acts.

His hook up with Little Richard was short lived – in part no doubt because Richard was not a man to be upstaged by a flamboyantly brilliant guitar player able to play solos with his teeth!

Billy Preston :

Billy had been a part of Little Richard’s constellation since the early 60s when he was still a teenager. In Hamburg The Beatles looked on in awe as Richard tore up the joint with his crazed vocals while Billy hit grooves that seemed to affect gravity itself.

At the end of their career together it seemed there was little they could all agree on – except that Billy Preston trailed Joy all around him and that he was a hell of a musician.

Jukebox Jive with Garland Jeffreys : Getting The Story Through

 

I’m delighted today to launch a new Feature, ‘Jukebox Jive with …’.

The aim is to provide an insight into the social and musical roots of artists close to the heart of The Jukebox.

It is a special pleasure that we begin with Garland Jeffreys for I have been an avid fan of his work for over 40 years!

Garland generously spared an hour of his time for a telephone interview with me to discuss his influences, his mentors and contemporaries and the records he most cherishes from his own catalogue.

Delightfully he also frequently broke into song down the line from New York to illustrate his answers.

 

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Garland is a singer, songwriter and performer of immense talent.

Someone who was best friends with Lou Reed and regularly called up on stage by Bruce Springsteen.

People, ‘In the Know’ know what a great artist Garland is!

He has written dozens of haunting songs which provide searching insights into what it is to live an engaged modern life.

Drawing on the traditions of Jazz, Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Doo-Wop, Reggae and Soul his work shines a forensic light onto the issues of The Working Life, Race and Class, Love and Sex in post World War 2 America as refelected in the Nation’s premier City – New York.

Garland was born in June 1943 and grew up in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. His heritage was a mixture of Black, White and Puerto Rican – not forgetting a trace of Cherokee!

It’s undoubtedly the case that such a complex heritage gave Garland an outsider status – too black to be white, too white to be black.

While this provided a series of challenging scenarios in his youth it had the artistic advantage of making him a sharp and subtle observer of the world around him.

His parents were hard working people who instilled in him a love of music and pride in doing a job well.

Perhaps it’s better at this point to allow Garland to tell you himself; through his wonderfully warm and affectionate memoir song, ‘14 Steps To Harlem’ what it was like growing up in the 50s and 60s in such a household.

 

 

IJ – Who was the Artist who called your own voice (as Bob Dylan’s was called by Woody Guthrie)?

GJ :

Well, I grew up in a house filled with music.

My Mother loved Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington and Frank Sinatra.

I loved those and discovered for myself someone as great as Nina Simone who I used to see perform at The Village Gate.

All this stood me in very good stead later when I shared a stage with Jazz Giants like Sonny Rollins and Carmen McRae – you should have heard our duet on, ‘Teach Me Tonight’ (Garland croons … should the teacher stand so near, my love)

There’s a depth in Jazz I’m mining to this day.

I always could sing so naturally I sang along to the radio – those fabulous R&B, Doo-Wop and Rock ‘n’ Roll songs saturated the New York air.

If I have to pick one I’ll go for Frankie Lymon – he was a hell of a singer and he was my size!

Frankie could really sing and not just the uptemp hits everyone remembers but also heart rending ballads like, ‘Share’.

Frankie sang songs filled with energy and sweetness and you knew he was talking about the real life lived out on the New York Streets.

A record I just couldn’t stop playing?,,,

Well I’d have to say Frankie Lymon (don’t forget The Teenagers) with, ‘I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent’.

 

 

IJ – Was there a Radio Station/Radio Show that was important in introducing you to the Music you love?

GJ :

We all listened to WINS and especially to Alan Freed’s Moondog Show.

I loved the Sports coverage on WINS too.

I was a true Brooklyn Dodgers fan – proud to say I was there in 1947 when Jackie Robinson played his first Major League game at Ebbets Field!

Later on I used to go to see broadcasting legend Bob Fass at the WBAI Studios

I went there a few times with the great Bass Player, Richard Davis, who played on my own records as well as being the instrumental star of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.

Richard was a great musician but a humble man.

He was something of a mentor for me as was Paul Griffin (who played Piano on Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone among many other classic recordings).

Of course, I was close with Lou Reed from our days at Syracuse University – boy were we the odd couple!

IJ : What was the first record made by one of your contemporaries that made you think – Wow they’ve really got it!

GJ :

Oh, Yeh … Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’.

I’m a couple of years younger than Bob Dylan.

I used to go to and play at New York Folk Clubs like The Gaslight and Gerde’s.

I saw him then. He has always been a fascinating character.

Managing to be a fantastic self promoter without obviously being one.

He had a unique style and his songs just made sense of the times we were living in.

He wasn’t afraid to be challenging politically and in personal relationships.

 

 

IJ : Which of your own Records was the first to turn out exactly how you wanted it to?

GJ :

I’d have to say that would be, ‘Ghost Writer’ from 1977.

That was an inspired record – the whole album where everything came together. The songs, my singing and the musicians I played with all playing at a peak.

Songs like, ‘Cool Down Boy’, ‘Why – O’ and, ‘Spanish Town’ said something then and they still do.

Dr John’s on there and David Spinoza.

Hugh McCracken who played Guitar and Harmonica deserves a lot of credit.

Sadly he died 5 years ago now – that’s the way when you’ve been in the music world as long as I have.

Ghost Writer as an individual song tells my story.

A New York City Son trying to make my way while having fun.

Someone who knows about tradition in Literature – Shakespeare, Spencer and Sydney and who knows that there’s a poetry in the streets that demands to be expressed.

I agree with you that Ghost Writer is a, ‘Blue Hour’ song – a vision that comes from the ghosts whispering in that hour that’s the last of the night or the first of the morning.

I also love that Dub Reggae feel we got down.

 

 

IJ – What other albums make up your top 3?

GJ :

‘Escape Artist’ from 1981 and, ‘The King of In Between’ from 2011.

As to individual songs I would have to go for, ‘Wild in the Streets’ which was a breakthrough song for me and something of a New York City Anthem.

It’s a Song every audience expects me to play and I make sure not to disappoint them.

I still love it – I make sure to play it straight just like I recorded it.

From more recent times I’m proud of  ‘Coney Island Winter’ which says a lot about modern America and stands up for people who need to be stood up for.

Garland started that menacing whispered intro…

This is a classic.

A Song alive, vibrating, with the energy of the Streets.

An energy that can be exhilarating  but which can also be threatening and at times even fatal.

It’s a song that has the beat, beat, beat of the summer sun and of hot young blood.

A song to be sung on the stoops and the fire escapes and on the baking roofs.

 

Garland was nearly 70 when he made one of his very best albums, ‘The King of In Between’.

What’s almost miraculous about this record is that it has the energy and rage of youth combined with the craft and wisdom of maturity.

‘Coney Island WInter’ has the unstoppable power of a Locomotive yet has a profound tenderness towards those left behind by a cruel and heedless system.

It’s a story that happens every day that only a rare storyteller could make come so thrilling alive.

 

IJ – What was your greatest ever Live Show?

GJ :

A show that really stands out for me was one from The Ritz in NYC with The Rumour backing me up.

Those English guys can really play! (the partnership is brilliantly captured on the Rock ‘n ‘Roll Adult CD)

IJ – What Song by another Artist do you wish you had written?

GJ :

For it’s simplicity, its power and its endless playability I would have to say, ‘Gloria’ by Van Morrison in his days with Them.

A Million Garage Bands can’t be wrong!

IJ – Who’s an under rated Artist we ought to look out for?

GJ :

Garland Jeffreys ! (Seconded! The Immortal Jukebox)

IJ – Nominate a Song – one of your own or by someone else to take up the A100 slot on The Immortal Jukebox.

GJ :

Garland Jeffreys – ‘Ghost Writer’.

IJ – Anything you’d like to add?

GJ :

Sure – I’d like to say that I’m forever grateful to all my fans and supoorters. I’ve spent my life trying to make the very best music I can and that’s what I’m always going to do.

Oh ..and if you’re starting out as a musician I’d advise you to protect your copyrights!

Start  your own record company. Of course the main thing you’ve got to do is love the music, the writing and the performing.

Wise words. Wise words.

New York has had many great chroniclers.

For my money Garland deserves his place among them.

His songs have an urban strength and urgency tempered by empathy for the outsiders and also-rans so often unblinkingly passed by.

Songs can be so many things.

For me Garland’s songs have been lifeboats when the tempest raged, lamps to light the way to a safer shore and ladders to climb up to the Stars.

What moves me most is the sense that I am witnessing a unique voice and vision telling me hard won truths.

Jackie Robinson said that the most luxurious possession, the richest treasure anyone can have is their dignity.

Garland has assuredly joined Jackie in that All Star Dugout.

Today, June 29, is Garland’s Birthday.

Happy Birthday Garland – may your Songs always be sung.

 

Notes :

Many thanks to Claire Jeffreys for setting up the Interview.

Thanks too to Mick Tarrant for the introduction.

A Garland Jeffrey’s Playlist :

In addition to the tracks above I regularly play

‘I May Not Be Your Kind’

‘One-Eyed Jack’

‘Matador’

‘Jump Jump’

‘Miami Beach’

‘Don’t Call Me Buckwheat’

‘Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll’

‘I Was Afraid of Malcolm’

”Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me’

‘Roller Coaster Town’

That would make a hell of a mix CD!

 

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’

Rod Stewart, Bryan Ferry, Dobie Gray : The In Crowd, Drift Away

We all like to think we are in the know.

We know important things.

Things that those not in the know don’t even know they don’t know.

A few code words and we know from their reaction, or lack of it, if others are in the know or not.

We soon know if they know.

We know whether or not they merit entry into the In Crowd.

If it’s square, brother we ain’t there!

In music, especially, there are communities of In Crowds.

I know some of these communities very well.

The Bluegrass buffs who can list, alphabetically, chronologically or by instrument every member of every incarnation of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.

The Jazzbos who can do the same for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

The walkin’ talkin’, don’t interrupt me, Beatles completists who tell you solemnly that if you weren’t at their Port Sunlight show on 18 August 1962 (Ringo’s debut of course) then you really don’t know much about The Beatles.

The matrix number alchemists.

The, yes but have you got the Swedish pressing with the alternate take of track 3 on the EP, show offs.

The, of course, I’ve got The Complete Basement Tapes including the song where Bob …

OK, OK, OK.

I know those communities because in many respects I’m a paid up, card carrying, got the T Shirt and the embossed programme, member of those communities.

And, of course, if you’re reading The Immortal Jukebox then you are most definitely in with The In Crowd.

Dobie Gray is an In Crowd artist par excellence.

Covered by everyone from Ray Charles to Bruce Springsteen and revered by fans of Country, Soul, R & B and Pop Music (not to mention the fanatical devotees of Northern Soul) he recorded a series of classic songs in the 60s and 70s that will always launch the argument as to whether the original is really still the greatest.

Written by Barry Page and arranged by the brilliant Gene Page, ‘In Crowd’ was top 20 in the USA and top 30 in Britain in 1965.

I’m sure it was Gene who so artfully blended the brass flourishes and The just so backing vocals.

The tempo is just right for dancers – uptempo but not frantic with crescendos allowing for those so inclined to demonstrate their athleticism by spinning and pirouetting all the way to the fade out.

Dobie’s vocal has an Olympian, above it all, quality ideally suited to the song’s theme.

The thing about great Dance songs like this is that when you’re living inside one you dance with heightened senses and you really do make every minute and second count.

Dobie, born in 1940, came from a Texas sharecropping family with a Father who was a Baptist Minister. So, as for so many, the first songs he sang were Gospel standards.

But, of course, the radio beamed in R&B, Country and Pop and Dobie liked them all and found his warm vocal tones could easily cope with the demands of the different genres.

In the dawn of the 60s in Los Angles, in pursuit of a career in acting or singing, he hooked up with Sonny Bono (always an In Crowd Hombre) who got him his first recording contract.

By 1963 he had his first minor hit ‘Look at Me’.

The name Dobie came from the popular TV show, ‘The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis’ (there is much debate about Dobie’s original name but I’m going with Lawrence Darrow Brown).

Dobie wasn’t able to find a hit follow up despite some excellent recordings. Showing his versatility he switched to acting and was a cast member in, ‘Look Homeward, Angel’, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ and had a two year run in the definitive 60s Musical, ‘Hair’.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, the son of a Northumbrian Coal Miner who looked after the Pit Ponies, Bryan Ferry, became an art student and connoisseur of black dance music.

I think it’s fair to say that Bryan most definitely set out to be in with The In Crowd and that few have had such a complete sucess in achieving their goal.

Flushed with the artistic, critical and commercial success of Roxy Music in his early solo records he revisited the records that had electrified his youth.

It’s not hard to see the attraction, ‘In Crowd’ had for Bryan.

His version had a crepuscular 1970s urgency signalled by the growling aggressive guitar with Bryan’s vocal walking the razors edge between witty reflection and self satisfaction.

Bryan, by now, knew all about those other guys striving to imitate him!

The final version I’m showcasing today comes courtesy of The Ramsey Lewis Trio and Nettie Gray. Nettie Grey? Well, as In Crowders know Nettie was the Washington DC waitress who played, ‘In Crowd’ for Ramsey on her coffee shop Jukebox suggesting that it might make a rousing set closer.

Sensibly, Ramsey took her advice and the live version cut at Bohemian Caverns became his biggest ever hit (top 5 Billboard).

I’m not going to say anything about this version beyond the fact that it always has me throwing a whole series of shapes that are most definitely not recommended by any osteopath or chiropractor but which afford me an enormous sense of well being

When his time in, ‘Hair’ concluded Dobie met the songwriting Brothers Paul and Mentor Williams.

It was Mentor who wrote and produced Dobie’s greatest record, ‘Drift Away’. I’m loath to call any record perfect but I’m making an exception here to prove the rule.

The incandescent warmth of Dobie’s vocal and the shimmering production really does sweep you away into an ambrosial reverie.

A song that is played on Pop, Soul and Country Stations every day and will do so as long as humans need to get that beat and drift away (which is to say until the day we turn into Replicants).

Drift Away was recorded in Nashville at Quadrafonic Studios in early 1973.

No praise can be too high for the team of musicans who lift Drift Away into the stratosphere.

David Briggs on Keyboards, Mike Leach on Bass, Kenny Malone on Drums and Reggie Young on Guitar were very much a Nashville A Team with extraordinary musical alertness and empathy.

I must mention the lovely, pellucid guitar figures played by Reggie Young for the intro and doubled up throughout the song. Now that’s a hook!

And, what about the wonderfully right and resonant sound Kenny Malone produces on a field marching drum!

Engineer Gene Eichelberger managed to balance all the elements so perfectly that you imagine all present exhaling a sigh of complete satisfaction when the track was played back in the studio.

Perfect, perfect, perfect!

The song, of course, sold more than a million copies as it became a top 5 hit and eternal radio staple.

Now, you can say all kinds of laudatory and derogatory things about Rod Stewart’s career but one thing everyone should agree on is that Rod is one hell of a judge of a good song.

So, it was almost inevitable that Rod would pick up on Drift Away and give it the full tartan scarves waving on the terraces treatment. And that’s
meant as a compliment – its rare that someone can be simultaneously part of the crowd and step out from it to lead it as Rod did so brilliantly in the 1970s).

After Drift Away Dobie continued to record quality material without troubling the charts. He earned favour in the music business through a productive songwriting partnership with Troy Seals.

George Jones, Ray Charles and Don Williams among others queued up to record their material .

Dobie died just before Christmas in 2011.

His songs will always last because rhythm and rhyme and harmony never go out of fashion.

Because, confused though we often are we will always seek solace in melodies that move us.

No one understands all the things they do.

But, one thing we do know.

One thing we do know.

Music can carry us through.

Carry us through.

Notes :

Dobie’s ‘Greatest Hits’ should be in every collection. I would draw your attention in particular to the dance classic, ‘Out on the Floor’ and his gorgeous version of, ‘Loving Arms’.

I have a special fondness for his album, ‘Soul Days’ produced by Norbert Putnam for its wonderfully relaxed and glowing treatment of soul standards like, ‘People Get Ready’.

There are a staggering number of versions of ‘Drift Away’.

My favourites are by The Neville Brothers and Tom Rush.

For Arthur Alexander : A Ballad in Blue for a Blue Balladeer

Some voices clutch at the heart.

Some voices echo on and on in your soul.

Some voices speak to you in the dawn’s early light.

Some voices play softly in your mind through the long and speechless night.

Some voices call your own.

Arthur Alexander had such a voice.

It’s now twenty-four years since Arthur died largely unmourned except by soul and R&B afficianados.

Yet, his songs, especially sung by him in his inimitable affecting way, will never die.

So for the ultimate blue balladeer – a ballad in blue.

A Ballad in Blue.

‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

(Henry David Thoreau)

‘Now I ache, with heartbreak and pain and the hurt that I just can’t explain’

(Arthur Alexander)

Imagine you are the manager of a blue collar bar in a tough small town. You work long hours making sure everybody has a good time and that nobody’s good time winds up leaving someone else on their way to hospital.

You know who not to serve, who to share a joke with, who to warn off and who to throw out for their own good. You keep a weighted pool cue just out of sight from the floor within your reach – just in case.

You stock the jukebox and make sure that there’s old and new favourites: something that counts as a home town anthem; several that are fast and loud for the boys from the base; plenty to dance and sing along to for the girls with the faraway looks in their eyes; and, some for everyone to openly or quietly cry over.

The night, though long, passes quickly for you and you don’t realise how tired you are until the door’s been shut on the last, loud, lonely drunk.

You look around and sigh thinking of the work needed before the whole cycle starts again after you wake up in a few hours. Time to pour yourself a more than generous measure of premium whiskey and play one last song.

Only one will do. Arthur Alexander, the patron saint of stoical fortitude. I can’t go on, I can’t go on – I’ll go on.

‘In The Middle Of It All’ tells the story of a broken man surveying, with an eerie calm that almost amounts to existential detachment, the shattered ruins of his life : ‘ It looks like my life is about to fall’.

Like all the great Arthur Alexander songs – ‘You Better Move On’, ‘Anna’ and ‘Dream Girl’ – it’s the song of a grown up man; a man who has experienced joy and pain, the ecstasy and despair brought on by love and it’s loss. Though Arthur’s songs are suffused with intense feeling they are in no sense hysterical – the besetting sin of so much pop music.

The record opens with a beautiful elegaic guitar figure that seems to glisten and shimmer in the background throughout the song. It then flows on at a stately, magisterial ballad mid tempo with the swooning melody and instrumental backing acting as a cushioned support for Arthur Alexander’s deeply affecting and entrancing southern country soul voice.

Arthur’s vocal charm owes nothing to stylistic tricks rather it is founded on the ageless attraction of hearing the sound of a man’s open, if broken heart. A sound that we can all recognise when it is authentic and true. Arthur Alexander’s proud and wounded vocals once heard will echo on in your own heart.

While listening to the song it seems as if you have pulled up your bar stool next to a pleasant looking though downcast guy who with no fanfare or needy plea for sympathy tells you, if you want to hear, why it is that night after night you can find him resident at this bar and why, night after night, no matter how much he drinks he does not get drunk.

During the course of, ‘In The Middle of It All’ the drummer seems to beat out a steady purgatorial pilgrim’s tempo while Arthur’s exquisite vocal lays out the extent of his lonely and desolate emotional landscape.

His love for his girl which was, ‘Really, really real’ remains true even though the house and home their love had built together is now a reproachful ruin he occupies alone.

The place where they had been so happy, as far as he can recall, now has the rain steadily and dreadfully falling all around it. What he once thought were the certainties of love and loyalty have vanished like some cruel mirage as his world, ‘Just came down one day’.

The song seems to summon up this heart and soul assaulting rain as the strings swell and the chorus of backing singers join Arthur in his examination of regret and loss. You can feel the southern heat and humidity of Alabama where the song was recorded in every breath of Arthur’s vocal and in every beat of the music.

The wonderful piano playing provides arpeggios of insistent pain and a sense that, in this vale of tears, no shield of love or faith can ever be proof against the truth that a love which seemed so sure can, in an instant, crumble into mere dust.

Arthur Alexander’s singing throughout this song is filled with an aching tenderness as he caresses each word into bruised breath and life. It is as if by singing with such scrupulous care he can somehow make whole his shattered heart or at least prevent it’s final destruction. His singing remains controlled and conversational even as it grows in the depth of pain it examines.

Perhaps this is because the song, for this singer, even in such a situation is not a resentful scream but rather a tragic lullaby that tries despite all his trials to shore up a ruined life.

There is no escape from the realisation that all of us must sooner or later confront the inevitability of death, loss and failure. For as the roman poet Virgil and Arthur Alexander knew living a clear eyed life involves coming to terms with the terrible truth that there are tears in things, ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’.

If you want someone to hold your hand when this truth becomes real in your own life it’s hard to think of a better soul companion than Arthur Alexander.

‘In The Middle of It All’ is one of those rare songs that seems to live on in the silence after it has finished and after the record arm has returned to its cradle. Sometimes for me that silence feels like the silence between two sobs.

Forty years ago David Bowie in ‘Young Americans’ uttered an anguished plea: ‘Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry’. Well David, wherever you are tonight, here it is. It has always worked for me.

 

Notes, credits and further listening:

It seems that Arthur Alexander recorded ‘In The Middle Of It All’ four times in his life. The version discussed above is the second 1962 version.

Arthur Alexander recorded some 120 songs during his recording career for a variety of labels. His initial career featuring many of the songs he will always be remembered for began at Dot Records and includes some of the premier recording at Rick Hall’s FAME studio in Muscle Shoals.

From 1965 he recorded for Sound Stage 7, a Monument subsidiary and in 1971 he recorded a lone album for Warner Brothers. In 1975, out of the blue, he recorded the marvellously fluid and typically affecting single, ‘Everyday I Have To Cry’ which incredibly made the US top 50.

Finally and most poignantly of all he recorded the lovely low key, Lonely Just Like Me’ album issued by Elektra in 1993 some three months prior to his death. This was later reissued by Hacktone Records with the addition of live performances and also with some hotel room demos which have some of the 3am in the morning, death on the horizon mood, shared with the New York Demos recorded by Buddy Holly prior to his untimely demise.

The ever alert Ace Records have issued two essential compilations covering the Dot and Monument Years. The other albums have also been reissued.

A welcome tribute collection, ‘Adios Amigo’ came out under the Razor and Tie imprint and features Nick Lowe’s tender cover of, ‘In The Middle Of It All’ (indeed Lowe’s career in this millennium might be seen as the largely successful attempt to pare his songwriting and recording style to their essentials in emulation of Arthur Alexander).

A relatively small investment will furnish you with the heartbreakingly magnificent catalogue of one of the greatest singers and songwriters in any genre and you will surely find that the songs and performances will become treasured fixtures in your life.

They were certainly a fixture in the life of John Lennon who had clearly listened closely to Arthur Alexander as evidenced in The Beatles cover of, ‘Anna’. The way that the famously acerbic Lennon could bring a wounded tenderness and discretion to ballad performances also betrays Artur’s influence.

John Lennon kept a jukebox filled with his favourite records to fortify him against the madness of the world that had grown up around him: prominent on his own immortal selection were records by Arthur Alexander.

Arthur Alexander was born in Sheffield Alabama in May 1940 and died in June 1993 in Nashville. He was only 53 years old. Despite recording several classic songs and having some of these covered by The Beatles (Anna) and The Rolling Stones (You Better Move On) he never really made much money from his songs.

Sadly, he was also prey to alcohol and mental health problems. Disillusioned and depressed he was for many years largely estranged from the music business and spent long spells working as a janitor and school bus driver.

There is a heartfelt biography by Richard Younger, ‘Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story’ published by the University of Alabama.

Arthur Alexander might be said to be the epitome of the, ‘Country Soul’ style of music. The movement as a whole is warmly evoked and intelligently discussed in Barney Hoskyn’s book, ‘Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted: Country Soul In The American South’ (Fontana/Bloomsbury).

Musicians growing up in a deeply segregated society were nevertheless heir to musical traditions that, principally through the medium of radio, effortlessly crossed the racial divide. Mucians and singers recognised great songs whether they were played on country or ‘Race’ music stations.

The constellation of wonderful musicians and songwriters who worked at Stax, FAME and Muscle Shoals studios were artistic freedom riders shattering barriers within the sanctuary of the recording studio even if they had to step carefully once they emerged into the heavy heat of the Southern mainstreet.

Booker T and The MG’s, Dan Penn, Chips Moman, Spooner Oldham and their brothers and sisters in rhythm made records that were recognisably southern and spoke eloquently of the lives shared by black and white alike.

There is a website ‘The annotated Arthur Alexander’ which is a very valuable resource for anyone seriously interested in delving further into Arthur’s recording career.