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.

Van Morrison, Elvis and Berry Gordy all revered Jackie Wilson : Mr Excitement!

‘Jackie Wilson was the greatest singer I’ve ever heard. The epitome of natural greatness .. he set the standard I’d be looking for in singers forever’ (Berry Gordy, Founder of Motown).

‘I guess that makes me the white Jackie Wilson’ (Elvis Presley when hearing some called Jackie Wilson the black Elvis).

‘Jackie Wilson was the most dynamic singer and performer I think I’ve ever seen’ (Smokey Robinson).

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Just in case you thought these luminaries were exaggerating take a listen to Jackie’s debut solo single from 1957, ‘Reet Petite’ and you’ll hear that there’s no hyperbole involved.

Jackie Wilson was born to sing.

Jackie could sing with the elegant power that Ted Williams brought to Baseball.

Jackie could sing with the ‘don’t you know I’m better than you in every way’ confidence that Muhammad Ali brought to Boxing.

Jackie could sing with the ‘wow, that’s brilliant’ style of a Scott Fitzgerald Sentence.

Jackie Wilson could sing and take the breath away from the band behind him, the audience in front of him and every singer who imagined, before they heard him, that they were a pretty good singer.

Sing it Jackie! Sing it!

January 20th 1984 Memorial Hospital Mount Holly New Jersey

You know it’s more than 8 years now since I sang, ‘Lonely Teardrops’ that last time at a Dick Clark gig in New Jersey.

One minute I’m knee sliding while hitting all the high notes and the next it seemed like a madman with a hammer is bashing me in the chest.

Last time I was able to sing. Last time I was really able to walk and talk.

Last time I was Jackie Wilson – Mr Excitement!

I been in Hospitals ever since that night. Ever since.

Sometimes the lights are bright and sometimes it’s all shades and shadows. Machines bleeping nearly all the time. Nurses coming and going about their business. I got to know a few of them really well – though they wouldn’t know that.

Coma. Conscious but incapacitated is what they say.

Actually, in some ways I hear more now than I ever did.

When someone comes to the bedside I can feel them before they speak and it ain’t just the living who come to see me. Course, I don’t know who gone and died since I been banged up in here.

So, I don’t know, for sure, who is alive, who is dead and which are ghosts or dreams in my head.

But, they been comin’ to see me more and more these last few weeks. Almost as if they comin’ to say Goodbye.

Well, some I’m glad they came. And, some I wished they’d stayed in Hell.

A few shed those lonely teardrops when they whispered my name and theirs in my ear.

Maybe, like me they sing that one in their mind as the teardrops fall.

Mama came. She about cried a river. Told me, no matter what I done on life, ain’t no sin The Lord can’t forgive. If you ask him. Well, I know I got plenty to ask forgiveness for – especially the way I treated my wives and the mothers of my kids I never married. Here’s hopin’ Mama’s right.

Mama was the one took me to hear the Billups Chapel Choir and that’s when I knew I was born to be a singer. Sometimes, when it’s 3 in the morning and this place is quiet as a Monday Morning Chapel I think I hear that choir again singing, ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’.

Papa came. Now, I know he’s dead. Death ain’t changed him though. He came with a bottle in a brown bag and he done nothing but cuss me out all the time he sat here. Maybe I’m more like him than I ought to be but I ain’t dead yet. Not yet.

And maybe, just maybe, The Boatman still not absolutely sure I’m bound for hell. Leastwise that’s what I’m hopin’.

Berry and Gwen Gordy came with Billy Davis.

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Now when I first met Berry, in the 50s, he wasn’t an Emperor of the music business. No way. He was an ex boxer like me and a song hustler trying to make his way in this mean ol’ world.

Give him his due though. Him, Gwen and Billy came up with a string of hit songs when I went solo after leavin’ Billy Ward and The Dominoes. They knew that when it came to selling a song that there wasn’t anyone to touch me.

Berry said I was even better than Clyde McPhatter – and anyone who’s knows anything about singing knows that Clyde was as good as anyone’s ever been.

Always did like Gwen.

Billy was a gentleman and you don’t get many of them in the business I can tell you!

As they sat here they started singing, ‘That is Why (I Love You So).

Sounded real good even for a bunch of oldies.

But, nothing like what I could do with the song. Nothing like.

Elvis comes now and again when he can escape Colonel Tom. He just likes to sit and croon a little. Tells me how many of my moves found their way into his act. Actually, he came yesterday and sang, ‘All My Trials’. There’s no doubt he can sing. Really sing.

One thing Elvis said was that he loved it when I sang a big slow ballad holding the audience in the palm of my hand.

Yeh! I could sing them at any tempo. I remember, ‘Doggin’ Around’ always cast a spell. A true spell.

My cousin Levi came by and talked like we did when we was kids. He’s a hell of a singer. Imagine the lead singer of The Four Tops and Jackie Wilson in the same group! Shame our version of The Falcons never got to record.

Tell you one guy who wouldn’t dare turn up. Nat Tarponol. He must owe me a million dollars! To think that I near carried his label Brunswick on my back while he was piling my greenbacks head high into his account.

I get a kick when Carl Davis drops by. When everyone thought I was finished it was Carl who kept the faith. He hooked me up with those Detroit Funk Brothers and Lord didn’t we cook!

Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and I Get The Sweetest Feeling put me right back where I belonged – right on top.

One time Carl came in and told this Irsih guy, Van Morrison, had made a tribute record, ‘Jackie Wilson Said’ and that he could out sing near any R&B, Blues and Soul singer who ever lived. I would have laughed but then he played me the record.

Who would believe it! The guy has the Rhythm in his soul. No doubt about it. Then I got to thinking.

Sure, an Irish guy with a dynamite voice (though they tell me he don’t move too much!) but what about a Black Jewish guy from Detroit who can bring a tear to every eye from Dublin to Detroit with his version of, ‘Danny Boy’!

Beat that Mr Morrison!

Anyway, I’m real tired now. Never been so tired. I can still feel that bullet near my spine and it feels like that one kidney of mine is about to call it a day.

I don’t know for sure but I think I hear those pipes calling louder and louder and somewhere over the river a choir calling me.

Guess they could use a star Tenor.

Goodnight.

Notes:

Jackie Wilson died on 21 January 1984. He was 49 years old. He never recovered from the heart attack he had on 29 September 1975 while performing, ‘Lonely Teardrops’.

In his career Jackie scored more than 50 hit singles. He had 6 R&B Number Ones and 6 Top Ten Pop Chart hits.

‘Reet Petite’ ‘Lonely Teardrops’ and ‘That’s Why (I Love You So)’ were all products of the Gordy/Davis/Gordy songwriting partnership.

‘Doggin’ Around’ was written by Lena Agree.

‘Reet Petite’ shows someone in complete control of glorious gifts. You want to shout with joy with Jackie as he pulls off miracle after miracle with a broad wink to the audience – ‘Ain’t I something!’ You sure were Jackie, you sure were.

In, ‘Lonely Teardrops’ Jackie melds Doo-Wop sweetness with Gospel dynamism effortlessly shifting up and down through his astonishing vocal range.

With Jackie there is always the sense of a flesh and blood man confronting the trials and triumphs of love – no matter how thrillingly theatrical his performance.

In, ‘That’s Why’ he slaloms through vocal twists and turns like the great French skier Jean Claude Killy. When he sings, ‘Don’t stop the music – let’s go! I always find myself shouting Go Jackie Go! Go Jackie Go!

On, ‘Doggin’ he proves that he was a master at any tempo. He conjures up the picture of the troubled lover illuminated in the sodium glare of the street corner lamp with a sea of darkness and heartbreak all around. Yet, there’s more than a touch of bravado and menace in his warning that he may just have to bring his errant lover down.

As for ‘Danny Boy’ just listen and marvel.

The Young Rascals : Blissful Blue Eyed Summer Soul!

‘The Rascals are Coming! The Rascals are Coming!’ (Scoreboard announcement at The Beatles Shea Stadium concert)

‘My God, you guys really are white!’ (Otis Redding on encountering The Rascals in a neighbouring studio)

‘Some people may not realize it, but The Rascals were the first Rock Band in the world … okay over in England, some guys were making some noise. But in the real world, in the centre of the universe – New Jersey – The Rascals were the first band!’ (Steve Van Zandt speech for The Rascals Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction)

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There’s always one.

One Summer of your youth that stays shimmering in your mind for evermore.

For me it was the long, once in a century, extraordinarily hot, Summer of 1976.

A Summer when I was not yet 21.

A Summer when my head and my entire being was aflame, aflame.

A Summer when the waters of The Cam glistened silver in the Summer sun.

A Summer when the Colleges of Cambridge never looked lovelier as I piloted (very inexpertly) down the River.

And, as always, a soundtrack in my head.

Summer Songs. Summer Songs.

And, there’s always one song that summons your shimmering Summer like no other.

For me, in the Summer of 1976, it was ‘Groovin’ a song of gossamer grace recorded by The Young Rascals in 1967.

Now, I don’t know about you but when I hear, ‘Groovin” the jazzments in my mind approach something like ecstasy!

Eddie Brigati, co-writer with Felix Cavaliere, of this miraculous song recalls that at the time they were living in a hotel right off Central Park in New York City.

Down the crowded avenue they would go on a Sunday afternoon doing anything they wanted to do!

When you’re in the prime of youth and the world is opening up for you to explore and conquer it’s indeed hard to imagine anything better than groovin’ on a sunny afternoon with the one closest to your heart.

You can just feel that life is getting better and better – endlesssly.

Let the future and responsibilities wait; for now smile, take a deep breath of fresh air and you’ll hear yourself saying, ‘Ah-ha-ha, Ah-ha-ha’ and you’ll remember those moments, those immortal moments, for the rest of your life wherever life takes you thereafter.

Groovin’ was an unstoppable Nunber One record that sat atop Billboard for four straight weeks.

Who wouldn’t be charmed by its relaxed groove? There’s a lazy Cuban feel to the recording emphasised by the presence of congas but not drums. The great Chuck Rainey on bass gives the song liquid momentum as does Michael Weinstein on harmonica.

The glory of the song though, as with all Rascals recordings, lies in the seductive beauty of their vocals.

Felix on lead with wonderful harmonic support from David Brigati (the Fifth Rascal).

Gene Cornish is there on guitar filling out the sound which is topped off with the birdsong!

Put that all together and you have, as Eddie Brigati said, ‘that simple little summer song that everybody knows’.

Amazingly, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records thought the song would not appeal as it was so different to the more boisterous R&B and Soul sounds Rascals fans had come to expect from them.

A clear case of underestimating the public taste!

Luckily, a figure seemingly ever present around the music scene in 60s New York, Disc Jockey Murray the K, bearded Jerry Wexler and argued with convincing force that Groovin’ was a sure fire Number One smash!

Now this wasn’t the first Number One The Rascals would achieve and it wouldn’t be their last.

Their debut at the summit of the charts in February 1966 was with one of the great rave-up records of all time, ‘Good Lovin’.

If you pair it with, ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ by the Spencer Davis Group featuring the teenage Steve Winwood you have one hell of a party going on!

You got the fever? Here’s the cure!

One, two, three!

Versions of the song had previously been recorded by Lemme B Good (Limmie Snell) and The Olympics (benefitting from the production smarts of Jerry Ragavoy).

However, neither of those worthy platters could match the joyous, adrenaline fuelled, ‘I may just die on the spot’ stairway to heaven rush of The Rascals version.

Tom Dowd, legendary producer and engineer at Atlantic, captured the attack of The Rascals live sound perfectly – you feel you’re in the middle of that party with them and you never want the song to end even though you can’t possibly keep dancing at this rate for more than another sixty seconds!

On drums Dino Danelli demonstrates what a wonderfully drivin’ sticksman he was while the transcendent Hammond Organ break by Felix is playing on a loop in my head since the first day I heard it.

Gene Cornish provides wonderfully scuzzy guitar licks that don’t let up throughout.

As for the let’s start in overdrive and then really put the hammer down vocals you can hear why Otis might have been surprised at their complexions!

The Rascals, 1940s Baby Boomers all, had grown up in the New York/New Jersey area and all had born again experiences when they heard the likes of Ray Charles, Little Richard and Fats Domino on the airwaves.

Also important in the development of their sound was the ethereal DooWop singing of The Harptones and The Moonglows.

Especially epiphanic for Felix would be discovering Jazzman Jimmy Smith and the awesome power of The Hammond Organ (the same lightning bolt would strike Steve Winwood, Georgie Fame and Ian McLagan over in England).

After serving apprenticeships in local bar bands they came together as members of Joey Dee and the Starliters (David Brigati bringing them in). Touring Europe playing, ‘Peppermint Twist’ for all they were worth they found themselves on a bill with The, then unknown in America, Beatles.

The dime dropped that they should be front men not side men!

Soon they were tearing up venues like Manhattan’s The Phone Booth and coming to the attention of Promoter Extraordinaire Sid Bernstein who got them signed to Atlantic (their first white act!).

The Rascals catalogue in their glory days, 1965 to 1968, gleams with musical treasure.

There was something about The Rascals that chimed with the times. This is reflected in their third and final Number One record from 1968, ‘People Got To Be Free’ which was a fervent and frank civil rights anthem.

Undeniably preachy and of its time. Yet, yet – wrapped in glorious vocals and a swirling magic carpet of guitars, percussion and horns. I’m always in favour of anthems you can really shake a tail feather to!

And, you know, looking around this mean old world, who can disagree that the train of freedom, for so many, is long, long overdue.

As with so many 60s Groups ‘Personal Differences’ and the relentless grind of searching for the next hit took their toll on The Rascals and it would not be until well into the 21st Century that all the original members got together (for a theatrical celebration of their career devised by über fan Steve Van Zandt).

Most of all I love The Rascals for the youthful Joie de Vivre of their sound.

There’s something enormously affecting in the blend of their voices and the reaching for the stars arrangements of their songs.

I’m going to leave you with a personal favourite that has a yearning and tremulous charm that never palls.

And, that’s surely something to celebrate in world that’s constantly changing.

Notes:

There’s an invaluable compilation of The Rascals work on Rhino Records. Tracks I return to over and over include, ‘I’ve Been Lonely Too Long’ ‘A Beautiful Morning’ ‘A Girl Like You’ and ‘Mustang Sally’.

Fans of the French Ye-Ye sound should check out Nicoletta’s version of ‘How Can I Be Sure’ which went out under the title, ‘Je Ne Pense Qu’a T’aimer’.

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.

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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!

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