Immortal Jukebox : The Story So Far (with some vintage Van Morrison as a bonus!)

When I launched The Immortal Jukebox in March 2014 I had, as they say, no expectations.

I just knew that it was time to find out if I could think on the page with the same fluency I could talk about the music I loved.

My readers are of course the judge and jury as to whether I have managed in my writing to convey the depth of my passion for the music and musicians from the golden age of recording – by which I mean the late 1920s to the late 1970s.

It seems I have now written some 200 Posts here on The Jukebox – each one a letter from the heart.

Starting out with just my family and a handful of loyal friends I now see, with some amazement, that my combined WordPress, Twitter and Email followers are now approaching the 10,000 mark!

I determined from the beginning of this adventure that all my posts would read as if no one else could possibly have written them and that no matter how well known the record or artist featured I would illuminate their particular merits from my own unique angle.

I also decided, as time went on, to risk inserting fictional elements and personal anecdotes and reflections into the mix.

It’s my Blog and I’ll rant, rave, laugh and cry if I want to!

Heartfelt thanks to my readers who have produced so many intelligent and inspiring comments and so much warm encouragement.

Remember a handful of Nickels and The Jukebox is a cure for all your ills.

In reflective mode, I’ve been reviewing my Stats and thought I would share some of my discoveries with you.

Top 5 Posts :

1. ‘Ordinary (Extraordinary Stories) featuring Mary Gauthier & Iris Dement

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2. Van Morrison ‘In The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll’

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3. ‘An Archangel, A Journey, A Sacred River, The Folk Process & A Spiritual’

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4. ‘Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow!’ – Train songs featuring Bob Marley & The Wailers, Hank Williams, Curtis Mayfield and John Stewart.

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5. ‘John Lennon loved ‘Angel Baby’ by Rosie Hamlin (RIP) – Here’s Why!

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Thom’s Top 5 (the Posts that gave me the most pleasure to write)

1. ‘Bob Dylan : The Nobel Prize, One Too Many Mornings, The Albert Hall & Me.

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-AL

2. Van Morrison : Carrickfergus (Elegy for Vincent)

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-7J

3. ‘Walk Away Renee – The Lost Love That Haunts The Heart’

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-sQ

4. ‘Dolores Keane : Voice and Vision from Ireland’

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5. ‘A Poem for All Ireland Sunday – Up Tipp!’

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If you’ve missed out on any of these – catch up now!

I would be fascinated to know which Posts make your own Top 5 – set the Comments section ablaze!

To conclude let me thank every one of my readers for supporting The Jukebox.

I’ll sign off now with a song from the Patron Saint of The Immortal Jukebox – Van Morrison.

Heart stopping. Spirit lifting.

Hey Girl! Hey Girl!

An eerily beautiful prefigurement of Astral Weeks dreamlike mood.

Van takes a walk and watches the boats go by in the early morning light.

A spectral flute welcomes the wind and sun as Van’s vocal caresses each word of the lyric in which once again he encounters the young girl, his Beatrice figure, who will almost make him lose his mind.

The track is only three minutes and ten seconds long yet seems to last much longer – indeed seems to have stopped the flow of Time itself.

Time itself.

Clifton Chenier : The King of Zydeco – Bon Ton Roulet!

People been playing Zydeco for a long time, old style like French music. I was the first to put the pep into it.’ (Clifton Chenier)

Clifton was the biggest thing in Zydeco. Nobody else has ever measured up to him. He was the King’ (Chris Strachwitz Founder of Arhoolie Records.)

Like Elvis I like all kinds of music.

In the expanse of the subterranean chambers where my record collection lies there is music from many, many genres.

Deep racks of Jazz, Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Folk, Gospel, Rhythm & Blues, Rockabilly, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Soul and Doo-Wop shimmer in the half-light as I peruse the shelves searching for the perfect sound for Now.

Yesterday, I took a left turn at New Orleans Jazz and came, whooping delightedly, upon the section labelled, ‘Cajun and Zydeco’.

Now, I like to have a framed picture of my favourite artist from each genre displayed proudly above each of the appropriate racks.

So, for Jazz it’s Louis Armstrong. For Blues, Mississippi John Hurt. Bluegrass nestles under Bill Monroe (of course!).

Folk has Woody Guthrie atop the US section while Sandy Denny and Dolores Keane are the eminences of the British and Irish scenes.

Gospel has Mahalia Jackson face to face with Sam Cooke.

The High Priest, Ray Charles, looks out over the serried R&B racks while Wanda Jackson looks after all those wild Rockabilly Rebels.

Elvis himself takes pride of place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll section.

Aretha Franklin reigns over Soul. There’s a group portrait, from an Alan Freed Show of The Orioles, The Moonglows and The Five Satins, above the deep Doo-Wop collection.

Bob Dylan and Van Morrison stare moodily out above their special enclaves.

Above the Cajun Section I’ve hung Iry Lejeune.

There was never any question who would represent Zydeco.

The King of the Music. From Opelousas Louisiana, Clifton Chenier!

Being in a feisty mood I looked for a distinctive yellow Specialty 45 and laughed in anticipation as I pulled out, ‘Ay – Tete Fee’ (loosely, all my translations from Creole French are loose, ‘Hello Little Girl’).

This is a piquant gem, from 1955, indicative of the floor filling, floor shaking sound that echoed around Texas and Louisiana Dancehalls deep into the night when Clifton was in town.

Eh bien, mes Chers amis I think we can safely say that Clifton was right about the Pep!

With faithful brother, Cleveland, by his side on ‘Frottoir’ (a metal rubboard, of Clifton’s devising, played with bottle openers) and a successsion of brilliant guitarists like Philip Walker, Lonnie Brooks and Lonesome Sundown, Clifton burned up hall after hall with his indefatigable Band The Zydeco Ramblers.

A later Zydeco star, Rockin’Sydney recalls that in Louisiana in the mid 50s even Elvis wasn’t seen as being a big a star as Clifton!

He was born in 1931 in St Landry Parish and picked up the rudiments of accordion from his father, Joseph.

All around Opelousas there were house party dances, fais – do – dos, where sharp eared Clifton heard waltz time creole songs, Cajun two steps and fiddle work outs.

As he moved into his teenage years he heard, on the radio, Cajun, blues, R&B, Country weepers and hillbilly boogie.

He stored all these sounds away and thought about how he might integrate them all into his own music.

The roots of the name Zydeco for the music Clifton came to define are open to many explanations.

Sparing you the scholastic debate I’m going with it emerging, mysteriously, out of the old folk song, ‘Les Haricots Sont Pas Sale’ (the beans are not salted!)

Clifton’s debut recording, Clifton’s Stomp, had been cut in 1954 at a Lake Charles studio after the astute producer J R Fulbright correctly observed that he played, ‘Too much accordion for these woods!’

Clifton had created a wildly addictive music that merged R&B attack with romantic Creole sway. Excellent records, well regarded locally, unknown nationally, followed for Specialty, Chess and Zynn.

While Clifton could always fill halls in Louisiana and Texas he wasn’t able to sell records in big numbers. So by the early 60s he was playing without a band in Houston roadhouses and bars.

Enter, the extraordinary Chris Strachwitz, a true hero of American roots music.

Almost the same age as Clifton their backgrounds could not have been more different!

Chris, from an aristocratic German family, arrived in America in 1947 and was knocked for six by the sounds of Jazz and R&B on the radio and in clubs, ‘I thought this was the most wonderful thing I had ever heard’.

Chris Strachwitz was not a man to be a bystander.

Soon he was recording artists like Jesse Fuller and in November 1960 issued the first record on his Arhoolie Records, Mance Lipscomb’s, ‘Songster and Sharecropper’ in an edition of 250 copies.

Chris was a big fan of Lightnin’ Hopkins so naturally accepted his invitation one night in 1964 to go and see a cousin, one Clifton Chenier, in a Houston bar.

And, the chance encounter turned out to be immeasurably enriching for both men, Zydeco Music and music fans of taste and discretion all over the world!

Chris was stunned by Clifton’s presence and the combination of low down blues and old time Zydeco emenating from the stage.

The music he heard and felt in his heart, soul and gut was life enhancing music.

Music filled with heart and history.

Music filled with toil and tears.

Music filled with longing and love.

Music filled with jumping joy!

The very next day they were in Goldstar Studio cutting ‘Ay Ai Ay’ and a crucial artistic and personal partnership was born.

For the next decade and more Clifton as an Arhoolie artist produced a series of superb records which established him as a major figure and essentially defined the sound and repertoire of Zydeco music.

Clifton was a natural showman who was also a questing musician always looking to develop his sound. He was a virtuoso on the piano accordion so that in his hands it seemed to have the power and variety of a full band in itself.

He could handle any tempo from funereal slow to tarmac melting speed while maintaining swing and sway.

The early Arhoolie albums were matched with singles which came out on the Bayou Label.

In addition to relentless touring on the Crawfish circuit he began to play Roots Music Festivals where his brilliance attracted approval from journalists like Ralph J Gleason who recognised what an extraordinary musician Clifton was.

Here’s a delightful clip of Clifton at a Festival in 1969 with a lovely relaxed performance of the anthem of Zydeco.

Ca c’est tres bon n’est ce pas?

Clifton now put together a truly great Band, ‘The Red Hot Louisiana Band’ which to these ears stands with Muddy Waters pluperfect 1950s Chicago blues band.

John Han on tenor sax, Joe Brouchet on bass, Robin St Julian on drums, Paul Senegal on guitar with the stellar Elmore Nixon on piano combined with Clifton and Cleveland were a wonderfully vibrant group which no audience could resist whether live or on record.

The next selection today may be my all time favourite bluesy Clifton track.

A mesmerising, ‘I’m On The Wonder’ is the work of a master musician who lives and breathes and prays through the music he plays.

Now ain’t that the playing of a King! Yes, Sir, nothing less than a King.

And, a King has many moods. Many moods.

Here’s a dreamy waltz (and anyone who’s ever taken some turns around a hardwood floor always welcomes a waltz!) to bring some languorous Louisiana warmth to your day wherever you may be!

The 1970s saw Clifton in his glorious pomp. A truly regal musician exploding with life and creativity. He WAS Zydeco Music and the recipe he created was one tasty gumbo!

Clifton died in December 1987 having given his life to the music he loved and nurtured.

What I crave, above all in music is flavour and when it comes to flavour it really doesn’t get more appetising than the music of Clifton Chenier.

All hail The King!

To conclude here’s a very evocative clip showcasing Clifford appearing at the legendary Jay’s Lounge and Cockpit in Cankton.

I sure would like to have seen Clifton tear that place up!

Notes:

There’s a superb compilation of Clifton’s pre Arhoolie sides on the Hoodoo Label entitled, ‘Louisiana Stomp’

On Arhoolie I recommend – ‘Louisiana Blues and Zydeco’, ‘Bogalusa Boogie’ (generally rated his best single album), ‘Zydeco Legend’ and, ‘Live at Longbeach’.

Clifton is the star of an excellent 1973 documentary film directed by Les Blank, ‘Hot Pepper’.

There are two highly recommended photographic books, ‘Musiciens cadiens et creoles’ by Barry Jean Ancelet and Elmore Morgan & ‘Cajun Music and Zydeco’ by Philip Gould.

Fathers Day : Paul Simon, John Gorka, Seamus Heaney, Slievenamon & My Dad

It’s 28 years since my Dad died.

Yet, barely a day goes by without me remembering some saying of his or wondering what would he have made of the roller coaster of current events.

Each day, looking in the mirror, I resemble him more and more.

And, each day, I wish I could reach my hand out to hold his once more.

Until that day all I can do is remember him in my prayers, honour him in my actions and stumblingly capture him with my words.

So, for Fathers Day a Reblog of my tribute.

Fathers and Sons. Sons and Fathers. Sons carry their Father’s in their bloodstream, in their mannerisms and gestures and in the echoing halls of their memories.

No matter what you do in life, no matter how radically you roam from where you started you remain in some part of you (in more parts that you usually like to acknowledge) your Father’s son.

The process of becoming a man might be defined as honouring and taking the best from the experiences of your Father’s life while finding through your own experiences the kind of man and Father you want to be yourself.

Coming to terms with your Father, the Son you were and are and the man and Father you have become is the work of a lifetime. A story that’s always unfolding, always being rewritten as you learn more about the man you are and understand more about the man your Father was.

Sons, schooled by the abrasive tides of life, sometimes learn to have a certain humility about the easy certainties of their youth as to who their Fathers was and what made him that way. It’s easy to be a Father until you become one.

‘What did I know? What did I know of
Love’s austere and lonely offices?’ (Robert Hayden)

Sons writing about Father’s is one of the great themes of all literature and songwriting because that story is always current, always unfolding, always full to the brim with all that is human in all its bloody and terrible glory.

No two stories of Fathers and Sons are the same though most will recognise something of themselves in every story.

Here’s a cry from the soul. Paul Simon’s, ‘Maybe I Think Too Much’ from his aptly titled, ‘Hearts And Bones’ record. Fathers and Sons – Hearts and Bones, Hearts and Bones.

Sons never know when they will need to call for their Fathers to appear in their dreams.

‘They say the left side of the brain dominates the right
And the right side has to labor through the long and speechless night
In the night my Father came and held me to his chest.
He said there’s not much more that you can do
Go Home and get some rest.’

The song about Father’s and Sons that grips my heart every time I hear it and which calls to me in the middle of the night is John Gorka’s, ‘The Mercy Of The Wheels’.

Forgive the initially muffled sound.

‘I’d like to catch a train that could go back in time
That could make a lot of stops along the way
I would go to see my Father with the eyes he left behind
I would go for all the words I’d like to say
And I ‘d take along a sandwich and a picture of my girl
And show them all that I made out OK’

I miss my Father. My Dad.

I miss the smell of Old Holborn tobacco as he smoked one of his thin roll your own cigarettes.

I miss the days of childhood when I would buy him a pouch of Old Holborn for Father’s Day.

I miss getting up in the middle of the night with him to hear crackly radio commentaries on Muhammad Ali fights.

I miss the early Sunday mornings when we walked to a church two parishes away because he had been advised to walk a lot after his heart attack.

I miss hearing him roar home Lester Piggott as he brought the Vincent O’Brien horse into the lead in The Derby with half a furlong to go!

I miss hearing him say, ‘There’ll never be another like him’ as Jimmy Greaves scored another nonchalant goal for Spurs.

I miss hearing him say, ‘That was a complete waste of electricity’ as he glanced at the TV screen as some worthy drama concluded.

I miss sharing a pot of very, very strong tea with him well before six o clock in the morning – because as anyone with any sense knew the best of the day was gone before most people bothered to open an eye.

I miss sitting with him in easeful silence.

I miss him always expecting me to come top in every exam while always expecting me not to count on that.

I miss his indulgence in Fry’s Chocolate Cream bars.

I miss him saying, ‘You’ll be fine so ..’ whenever I had to face a daunting new challenge in life.

I miss him calling out the names of the men who worked with him on the building sites – Toher and Boucher and O’ Rahilly with me double checking the spellings as we filled out (creatively) the time sheets accounting for every hour of effort in the working week

I miss watching him expertly navigating his way to a green field site not marked on any map to start a new job and then watching him get hopelessly lost a mile from home on a shopping trip

I miss watching his delight as David Carradine in the TV show Kung Fu, unarmed, took on another gang of armed swaggering bullies and reduced them to whimpers in a few moments – ‘You watch he’ll be catching bullets next’.

I miss hearing his wholly unexpected but wholly accurate estimation of Bruce Springsteen’s cultural importance when seeing him featured on a news special when he first came to England: ‘He’ll never be Elvis’

I miss the way he remained a proud Tipperary man and Irishman despite living for more than 40 years in England.

I miss his quiet certainty that there was an after life – a world where Father’s and Sons divided by death could meet again.

I regret not being able to introduce him to the beautiful woman who, amazingly, wanted to be and became my wife.

I regret not watching him watch my Daughter and my Son grow up into their glorious selves.

I regret not watching him enjoying the pleasures of retirement and old age.

I miss alternating between thinking I was nothing like him and thinking I was exactly like him!

I miss the shyness of his smile.

I miss the sound of his voice.

I miss the touch of his leathery hands.

I miss the way he swept his left hand back across his thinning scalp when he was tired (exactly as I do now).

I miss the sound of my name when he said it.

I miss my Dad.

My dad lies in the green pastures of his beloved Tipperary now under the sheltering slopes of Slievenamon (he would never have forgiven me had he been buried anywhere else!)

You can almost hear this song echoing in the silence all around him.

I walked many roads with my Father.

I’ve walked many miles without him by my side now (though I sometimes feel his presence).

I hope I have many miles to walk until I join him again.

As I walk I will lean on him as I face the twists, turns and trip hazards ahead, accompanied by the words of Seamus Heaney:

‘Dangerous pavements … But this year I face the ice with my Father’s stick’

Thanks to Martin Doyle for featuring this tribute in The Irish Times.

My Dad would have been very proud to see it there.

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).

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.

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.

Remembering George Jones : The greatest Country Music Singer who ever lived!

George Jones. The One and Only George Jones.

Four years ago the Silent Boatman, who comes for us all, carried George away.

He was, without any scintilla of doubt, the greatest singer Country Music has ever, or will ever, know.

He was born in Texas in 1931. From his dad he inherited a taste for the bottle and from his mother the hope of salvation.

The world and his own nature offered up the simultaneous allure and spectre of sin, guilt and damnation.

From some higher power he was blessed with a singing voice that could express with enormous authority and impact the whole damn bone and blood gamut of emotions we’re all forever chained and in thrall to throughout our lives.

A voice that was never unrestrained even when plumbing unfathomable depths of pain and loss.

George’s voice had to be controlled even under the most crushing spiritual and emotional pressure because it was his, and our, final defence against defeat, depression and madness.

Sing one for me George!

George could sing gospel with a repentant sinner’s fervour and in his youth with the tempo cranked up to hot rod levels he could almost sound like a rockabilly singer.

But, he lived and died as the greatest country honkytonk balladeer who ever lived.

If you want your heart pummelled and wrenched (and sooner or later we all do) no-one can perform emotional/emergency cardiac surgery like good ol’ George.

I won’t list all the hits – there are several fine compilations, easily available, where you can soak yourself in his genius for mining and assuaging in song the travails, tragedies and travesties of life, love and death.

What more do you want?

Take a few minutes now to listen to ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’.

 

 

When George recorded this he was a wreck of a man almost destroyed through drink and dissolution.

The writers, Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam, gifted him a morbid son of a bitch of a song that needed a singer who could emotionally outstare the tragic story of a life stalled for decades because of lost chances and lost love.

A life only released from the stasis of loneliness and pain by the release of death.

George was more than equal to the challenge. He was well acquainted with loss and he knew what it was to be half crazy.

Knowing this as a man helped the artist to sing the song with startling tenderness.

He sings with the tone of a man who has been so blasted by the storms that have assailed him that he has surrendered all his rage.

Now, he accepts with humility the consolations of bare humanity.

Hear the dignity he gives to the wonderful line ‘All dressed up to go away’ describing the funeral bound body of the song’s protagonist.

Hear how he allows the swelling instrumentation of the chorus to lift him as he reveals with power but without undue drama why, finally, the man at the centre of the song has stopped loving her today.

Only the truly great artists can stop time.

George stops it for us by largeness of heart, force of will and depth of talent.

Now let’s hear another demonstration of George’s genius as a singer and his capacity to capture and reveal the emotional depths and complexities which can be contained in a ‘simple’ country song.

‘A Good Year for the Roses’ showcases George mining sadness, despair, anger, bitterness and weary resignation.

When George sings he makes fellow flawed pilgrims of us all.

On our pilgrimage we stumble. We fall. We fall again.

We can’t go on. Can’t go on. Yet we do. We go on.

With George’s voice beckoning us on. Step by step.

Step by stumbling step.

 

Not many really deserve to have angels sing them to their rest.

For the rest of us we could do no better than settle for the immortal tones of the sinner’s friend – George Jones.

You know I think the boatman might just have broken his vow of silence when he ferried George.

I can hear him saying, ‘Sing one for me George. Sing one for us all.’

George Jones died on April 26 2013 in his 82nd year.

God bless you George!

Jesse Winchester Remembered … The Songwriters’ Songwriter

Sometimes I’m asked because of my eclectic tastes if there is one under appreciated, lesser known artist who deserves to be much better known.

i always answer – Jesse Winchester.

 

To explain why and to pay tribute to his wonderful songs three years after his death I am Reblogging my Post on him from 2014.

An investment in Jesse Winchester records will pay you dividends for your lifetime.

Jesse  Winchester died at the age of 69 in April 2014.

I first heard him in the mid 1970s on Charlie Gillett’s rightly legendary radio show, ‘Honky Tonk’ which became my open university course on 20th century popular music.

Jesse Winchester was a highly accomplished songwriter and an affecting singer who could hush a room with the intensity of his performances.

He was recognised by fellow songwriters of the calibre of Elvis Costello, John Prine and Ron Sexsmith as a master of their calling.

Bob Dylan, surely the dean of Songwriting, said that you could not talk about the best songwriters in the world without including Jesse and he paid him the compliment (granted to few of his contemporaries) of playing one of his songs on his wonderful radio show, ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’.

Jesse was born in Memphis and always carried with him a southern courtliness and a very strong sense of place. When he wrote about a state or a town, say Mississippi or Bowling Green, he brought it to life with such arrestingly vivid imagery that you really felt you had spent time there with him as your home town guide.

There was an elegiac, black and white photograph quality to many of his best songs. I often went to the prints of Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange, who shot so many evocative documentary images of the pre-civil rights era south, to find a visual companion for his work.

It seems to me that his songs emerge into the air like photographic prints blooming into rich detailed life from the developing fluid of his imagination.

Jesse Winchester’s songs were mature crafted works: the product of a highly intelligent and sensitive man with an acute sense of the power of the memories we accumulate as we move through a life.

Memories of our communities, our families, our friends and lovers, our contempories and the times we were together in. Inevitably, recollections of victories and defeats, of love we held onto and love we threw away.

He had the will and the artistry to closely examine those memories and to clothe them in story songs illuminated by powerful sensory images. Listening to the best of his songs is a rich immersive experience which can feel like a dream that stays with you long after you have woken up and which you know will reurn to haunt you.

My favourite Jesse Winchester song is, ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind’ a wonderful almost archaeologically rich presentation of the sights, sounds and ambience of life in the rural heartland of the real and mythological state of Mississippi.

Like all the great Jesse Winchester songs this song does not shout at you, rather it beckons you to lean forward and listen to a master storyteller. A master who is so relaxed he seems to be singing the song while rocking back and forth on his front porch with a glass of bourbon at hand.

The instrumentation is simple – plucked guitar, atmospheric shimmer piano, stirring strings and a swelling vocal chorus supporting Jesse’s sweet, molasses filled vocal. The song paints a swooning picture of an unhurried life lived in a cotton country backwater.

You are made aware both by the lyric and the melody of the humidity of the south, of the sun that blazes from the sky wrapping everyone in an angry oven heat.

This is a land that has seen times of plenty – when the price of cotton was high. It is also a land that has felt the disdainful stamp of an invading army, neglect following painful defeat and economic depression.

Jesse Winchester paints in the details which make a scene come alive – the rusted barbed wire fence, the lazy creek, the tar paper shack. This is a land where one crop was king so you see the field specked with dirty cotton lint and in the background the characteristic sound of a John Deere tractor.

Meanwhile the air is suffused with the cloying smell of the honeysuckle vine, the barks of hungry dogs and the rustle of grasshoppers.

Only the snakes coiled up in the thick weeds and the old men are asleep. ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind’ is a loving recreation of a physical and emotional home place, a lullaby and a love letter to the past. The song is touched with greatness.

The land described in the song is at one level Mississippi – on another level it is of course the land of childhood; that Eden we all ache to recover but never can except through the alchemy of art.

It is the land of lost content which Houseman once memorialised as the blue remembered hills. In the song Jesse Winchester has brought this land to poignant shining life.

Jesse Winchester had a good heart and pursued his vocation as a songwriter and singer with all the resources at his considerable command. He leaves an enduring legacy. May he rest in peace.

Recommended listening:

‘Jesse Winchester’ his superb debut album containing stand out songs such as the wistful, ‘Yankee Lady’, the ruminative, ‘Biloxi’ and the transcendent, ‘Brand New Tennessee Waltz’

His second album, ‘Third Down 110 To Go’ (often available as a twofer with the above) has two classics in the gospel drenched, ‘Isn’t That So’ and the quiet wisdom of ‘Dangerous Fun’ which contains the immortal couplet:

‘It takes patience to walk and spirit to run
But nothing to pity yourself
But it’s dangerous fun’

The twofer of, ‘Learn To Love It’ and, ‘Let The Rough Side Drag’ in addition to the masterpiece of, ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind” has the maturely romantic, ‘Every Word You Say’, the lazy swooning ‘Defying Gravity’, the philosophical, ‘How Far To The Horizon’ and a brilliant take on the Amazing Rhythm Aces country pop classic ‘Third Rate Romance’.

All the rest of his output has sprinklings of glorious songcraft and winning vocals. Look out in particular for the songs, ‘Bowling Green’, ‘A Showman’s Life’ and the emotionally overwhelming, ‘Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding’ which only a songwriter with a full heart and a steady head could bring off (see the YouTube clip below of his appearance on Elvis Costello’s TV show ‘Spectacles’ which demonstrates the effect he could have on his peers).

A trawl through his catalogue will find you arguing that I have missed out many of your favourites.

Gerry & The Pacemakers : Anthems from Liverpool

British Beat – Some Other Guys 4

‘People they rush everywhere

Each with their own secret care’

(Gerry Marsden – Ferry Cross The Mersey)

Liverpool in the 1950s was a city filled with youthful dreamers.

Of course, the quartet of dreamers who would go on to launch millions of dreams across the entire globe were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – The Beatles.

But, dreaming alongside them and in their wake were thousands of other young men from the port city.

Dreamers who had, like The Beatles, been electrified by the records brought home to Liverpool by sailors returning from America (for a more detailed introduction on this topic and the City of Liverpool see the opening paragraphs of : The Swinging Blue Jeans : Merseybeat Kings – The Hippy Hippy Shake, You’re No Good)

Prominent among these dreamers were two brothers from Dingle in Liverpool; Freddie (born 23 October 1940) and Gerry (born 24 September 1942).

Their father, also Fred, played the Ukulele and encouraged his sons to take up music.

Fred chose the drums (initially playing percussion on a chocolate box tin!).

Gerry took up the guitar and encouraged by family reactions to his spirited rendition of, ‘Ragtime Cowboy Joe’ elected himself lead singer.

Skiffle sessions at local halls led to performances at larger venues. Les Chadwick joined on bass and later another Les, Les Maguire, joined on keyboards to complete the classic line up of Gerry and the Pacemakers.

From 1960 onwards they built up a devoted following in their home town with many shows at The Cavern – often alternating with The Beatles.

They had the great good fortune to be added at the last minute to a Liverpool show by the great Gene Vincent.

Like The Beatles they honed their playing chops and their stamina by playing extended sets at Hamburg’s Top Ten Club. They became a tight Beat Group able to hold a crowd as they lashed into R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll classics.

Gerry was a natural front man with boundless energy and bonhomie.

He was the epitome of what is known in Britain as a, ‘Cheeky Chappie’ – the kind of man who always sees the glass half-full not half-empty and who anticipates the rainbow following the rain.

These qualities and the unity of the group was spotted by Brian Epstein.

 

He signed them to a management deal (his second after The Beatles) and persuaded Producer George Martin to bring them on to EMI’s Columbia label.

This proved to be a very astute move for all parties.

For, incredibly, the first three Gerry and the Pacemakers singles all went to Number One in the UK Charts!

They began in March and May 1963 with two (to my mind cheesy) Mitch Miller songs ‘How Do You Do It’ and ‘I Like It’.

Then in October 1963 they issued a record which has become a part of the very fabric of life in Liverpool, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

The group had been performing the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein Show Tune for several years and it had always proved a Show Stopper.

George Martin, drawing on his classical training, provided a melting string arrangement to frame Gerry’s fervent vocal.

Listening to Gerry sing here it becomes apparent that while his appearance and manner exuded sunny optimism his greatest gift as a singer was to embody shadow and melancholy.

Indeed, taking the three records featured on The Jukebox today into account I have no hesitation in crowning Gerry as the Monarch of Mersey Melancholy!

Gerry has the musical and emotional intelligence to trust in the craft of the melody and lyric and present them powerfully but not hysterically.

So he is walking on – not running.

There is a mature determination to outface the dark in this performance. Though he may have to button his coat and turn up his collar against a biting wind he has faith that every dark night gives way to the dawn.

Gerry’s vocal makes you believe in the sweet silver song of the lark and the promise of the golden sky.

‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ almost immediately on issue became the anthem of Liverpool Football Club. The players run out to the song and to hear it sung by the massed ranks of The Kop is one of the greatest sports experiences.

It has taken on added depth and poignancy for Liverpool fans following the appalling tragedy at Hillsborough Stadium in April 1989 when 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives.

Every rendition of the song is in a sense a memorial to the 96.

Gerry and the Pacemakers had become big stars in the UK and in April 1964 they issued the record which, aided by appearances on Ed Sullivan and the overwhelming impact of The Beatles, would become their breakthrough in the American market, ‘Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying’ which made the top 5 in Billboard.

This is my favourite of all their records and a gold plated 60s classic.

Again George Martin was a key figure with a lovely arrangement expertly balancing strings, woodwinds and vocals to hugely winning effect.

Gerry’s regal melancholy is in full flow here on a song credited to all four members of the group.

Listening I imagine a shattered heart which has spent a long night without the balm of sleep. Yet, sometimes those white sleepless nights lead to moments of sudden, undeniable, clarity.

It’s Over. Over.

Looking out a window, almost too tired for tears, you can only wait for the Moon to cede to the Sun in the heavens and believe in the latter’s restorative warmth.

‘But don’t forget that love’s a game,

And it can always come again,

Oh don’t let the sun catch you cryin’,

Don’t let the sun catch you cryin’, oh no, 

Oh, oh, oh …. ‘

The last record I’m featuring here today is from late 1964/early 1965. It’s another record deeply redolent of life in the group’s native Liverpool, ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’.

 

 

 

There’s something about the tidal sway of a Ferry trip that encourages reverie and contemplation.

This is beautifully captured in this Gerry Marsden song.

The record begins with the quiet assurance of a Ferry slipping away from the shore. Gerry’s plangent tones take us on a journey reminding us all of the consolations of the familiar:

‘We don’t care what your name is boy – we’ll never turn you away’.

We all need such a place for life does go on day after day and beating hearts can’t help but be torn in so many ways.

Gerry and the Pacemakers broke up a group in late 1966 but the above trio of records will surely always earn them a secure place in the affections of those who need a reminder to not be afraid of the dark and to hold their head up high.

Dedicated to the memory of Freddie Marsden (died December 9 2006)

Wishing Gerry Marsden a speedy recovery from his recent ill health.

Make sure you check out the three other Posts in the ‘Some Other Guys’ series featuring The Merseybeats, The Swinging Blue Jeans & Billy Fury.