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.

Skeeter Davis : The End of The World – Sweet Apocalypse!

I arrived at the green lawns and riverbanks of Cambridge University in 1974 having drunk deep of the glories of English Literature and well versed in the political history of the nation.

I was also brimful of blithe Irish eloquence.

I had read a lot and, apparently, knew a lot about matters profound and ephemeral. The work of the next three years (and the many following decades) would be refining mere knowledge into understanding.

I was immeasurably aided in this journey by the good fortune of being the only undergraduate of my year who chose the Medieval History option.

This was because it entailed weekly supervisions with The Master of my College, Edward Miller, an internationally renowned scholar who also happened to be a truly wise and kind man who could smile at my naivety without hobbling my enthusiasm while introducing me to rigorous, evidence led, thought and analysis.

Very often at the end of our discussions having described my latest essay as ‘showing real promise’ he would add that it might be helpful to read the work of some prominent historian (whom I had usually never heard of) in the interests of deepening my understanding of the subject.

At one of our meetings we were discussing how the approach of the first millennium had affected eschatological thought, religion and culture.

Edward Miler said that Norman Cohn’s, ‘The Pursuit of the Millenium’ was one of the great works of modern history and that I should lose no time in reading it.

So I did.

Having done so I found myself breathless in the high Himalayas of the mind.

I became a devotee of Cohn’s writings and reported that back to The Master at our next meeting.

Unprecedently, I was able to surprise him with my knowledge when I explained that this was not the first time I had come across the Cohn family as Norman Cohn’s son Nik had written a pioneering work of Rock’n’ Roll scholarship, ‘Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom’!

I also explained that after reading the works of Pere et Fils Cohn and contemplating end times I had turned to two pieces of music in particular.

First to Wagner’s epic, ‘Gotterdammerung’ – which he knew well and then to Skeeter Davis’ ‘The End of the World’ – which he did not know (though he said on the strength of her name alone he would investigate).

Looking back introducing a major scholar to the music of Skeeter Davis may have been my sovereign accomplishment in my three years at College.

For, once heard, no one can forget Skeeter!

Now, I don’t know about you but if I’ve got to be around when The World ends I’m going with Skeeter rather than Wagner!

Some will tell you it will end in flood and some in fire.

Some say it will end in cold, cold, timeless, Universal stasis.

Some say it ends when the one who vowed to love you for evermore told you they didn’t love you anymore.

Others will tell you that The World ends every day for those who draw their last breath no matter how the globe continues to spin for the rest of us.

‘The End of the World’ was issued in December 1962, at the height of The Cold War, when rational people really did think that Nuclear War was imminent and that there was not really a whole lot of use in the, ‘Duck and Cover’ strategy.

Many were readying themselves for the hard rain that was assuredly a gonna to fall. A gonna fall.

Lying in my desk drawer there’s a film script of an alternative history of 1962 (to be directed by David Lynch).

In my scenario the Russian Battelships don’t turn back and the ICBM’s turn most of the world into poisonous ash.

As the opening and end credits play it’s Skeeter’s sweet apocalyptic threnody that sets the mood.

The lullaby of all lullabies for the end of The World.

The record was No 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 as well as featuring prominently on the Easy Listening and Country Charts.

It even hit the top 5 on the Rhythm and Blues listings!

When something’s in the literal and metaphorical air everybody feels it.

Especially when articulated by someone like Skeeter who sang with such affecting winsome purity.

Skeeter’s voice whispers to you in the lonely watches before dawn.

Skeeter’s voice is young and ageless.

Skeeter’s voice is as real as a summer breeze and as ghostly as the breath of those summers long passed by.

Skeeter gets under your skin and stays there.

She was born Mary Frances Penick in December 1931 in Kentucky. Her delightful nickname came courtesy of her grandfather’s wonder at her constant buzzing energy.

The ‘Davis’ came about through her association at high school with Betty Jack Davis. They found they had a natural affinity and that together their harmonies held audiences spellbound.

So, they became The Davis Sisters and soon found themselves local stars and radio regulars on shows like The Wheeling Jamboree on WWVA.

Emboldened, the girls decided why not go to New York and get signed by RCA?

Flying for the first time they nervously enquired where their parachutes were stowed!

Amazingly they managed to get the air of music business panjandrum Steve Scholes and they were indeed signed to RCA.

On May 23 1953 they found themselves in Nashville for their first recording session with music legends Chet Atkins and Jerry Byrd in support.

Straight off the bat they came up with a classic record with Cecil Nunn’s, ‘I Forgot More (Than You’ll Ever Know About Him).

Here were divine harmonies telling an instantly recognisable story that resonated in so many lives.

An enormous hit resulted. Number 1 on the country charts for two months and a Radio and Jukebox staple for evermore.

Unlikely as it may seem the song hit home with the young Bob Dylan in Hibbing as he recorded it on his Self Portrait album as well as singing it live with Tom Petty in the 1980s.

The bohemian pairing of Elvis Costello and Tom Waits showed their softer side when they recorded the song.

When Skeeter toured with pre superstar Elvis as they sang gospel tunes backstage he confided that ‘I Forgot’ was one of his favourite songs

Still, it’s always Skeeter and Betty Jack for me. Listening to them evokes both the heaven of bliss and the regret of the love grown cold.

Now the girls were sitting pretty on top of the world. But, tragedy intervened when on 1 August 1953 they were involved in a car crash which left Betty dead and Skeeter seriously injured.

It would be the early 60s before Skeeter’s career really got back in gear. The support and encouragement of Chet Atkins who always believed in Skeeter was crucial.

From these early ‘comeback’ discs I’ve chosen the addictive, ‘I can’t help you I’m falling too’ an answer record to a massive Hank Locklin hit (this one should please the sage of Truro).

When it comes to Country singing Hank sets a high bar but Skeeter’s lyric Appalachian tones will have your heart and soul swaying in time.

Chet Atkins (pictured below) ensured that Skeeter always had the cream of Nashville pickers at her sessions and that Music City’s premier songwriters kept the material flowing.

You really can’t go wrong with Skeeter’s catalogue as she brings the restorative balm of her voice to every song she sings.

In the interest of showing the breadth of her talent I’m now featuring her 1963 top 10 take on a Carol King/Gerry Goffin song, ‘I Can’t Stay Mad At You’ which demonstrates that Skeeter could have been a premier lead singer for any Girl Group!

My last selection today comes from her lovely tribute to Buddy Holly album. The tenderness in Buddy’s writing found a counterpart in Skeeter’s vocals making this a very happy conjunction.

Get ready to swoon as you listen to, ‘True Love Ways’.

Listening to the above has made me rethink my apocalyptic film script.

For, there’s another way of thinking about the end of the world.

Every day the world we thought we knew ends as we discover more about the world around us.

So, every day the world ends and every morning the world is born again.

Granting us a blessed opportunity to remake the world of yesterday and try again to make a world for ourselves and each other that might just be truly worth living in.

And, as we do,so, however dark the situation, Skeeter’s voice will light the way.

Notes:

Every home should have a ‘Greatest Hits’ of her classic sides and the Buddy Holly tribute album.

I also heartily recommend the record she made with The NRBQ, ‘She Sings, They Play’ and the duets she made with Bobby Bare.

I was delighted when I learned that the plangent truth in Skeeter’s voice made her a huge star in Jamaica, Kenya and the Far East!

The Monkey Speaks His Mind!


An Immortal Jukebox Production Starring:

Guy The Gorilla!

King Kong!

J. Fred Muggs!

Ham The Astronaut!

And a special appearance by Washoe!

Music by:

Dave Bartholomew

Dr John

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

Denzil Thorpe

Now we all know One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.

Even if it’s Mickey’s Monkey.

And, of course, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey.

Trust me. I’m a Monkey Man. A Monkey Man.

Time for The Monkey To Speak His Mind!

The great Guy The Gorilla, Lord of London Zoo, for more than three decades, kept this thoughts to himself.

Yet, none could doubt that Guy cast a quizzical eye on the rubbernecking crowds who passed by his domain.

Let’s get this Coconut Tree swinging with the man who translated The Monkey’s thoughts – New Orleans and American Music Master, Dave Bartholomew.

Yeah The Monkey Speaks His Mind .. discussing things as they are said to be

Now, when it comes to making great records there was no chink in the armoury of Dave Bartholomew. He could write a street smart lyric and invent winning melodies.

He could hand pick musicians and lead them from the bandstand or the Producer’s desk. He could craft arrangements to add colour and tone to his original conception.

Dave Bartholomew was the whole package. The Real Deal.

He is unquestionably a Roots Music All Star and season after season an obvious MVP pick.

This is the organising mind behind a string of classic records for Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis and Lloyd Price.

Yet, every time I thinks of Dave my musical memory lights first upon, ‘The Monkey Speaks His Mind’ for its wit, its wisdom and its one chord drive which lodges the song deep in the cortex.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind:

There’s a certain rumour that just can’t be true. That Man descended from our noble race. Why, the very idea is a big disgrace!’

Perhaps such thoughts tormented the mind of King Kong as he swayed atop The Empire State Building preparing for his doom.

King Kong is one of the great tragic heroes of Popular Culture and you can be sure his dignity and nobility will always win him a revered place in the affections of humans with functioning hearts.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind:

No Monkey ever deserted his wife, starved her baby and ruined her life.’

Let’s now call upon a man loaded with N’Awlins Mojo – Dr John.

In this live version his steam heat band soak us in jungle humidity and push up the ambient temperature of the Club.

Good job there were cooling libations to hand!

The guitarist and drummer exercise Zen mastery while the trombone solo sails acrobatically through the room.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind:

‘And you’ve never known a mother Monk to leave her babies with others to bunk and passed them from one to another ‘Til they scarcely knew who was their mother.’

Such thoughts must surely have crossed the mind of J Fred Muggs as he surveyed the passing parade of human folly.

To emphasise the point I call upon one of the finest bands ever to emerge from Texas – The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

One thing you can rely on in this unpredicatable world. If you go to a Fabulous Thunderbirds show you are gonna get good and sweaty and have the time of your life.

I speak as as someone who has seen them in all the incarnations that have toured the U.K.

The blacktop blast of Kim Wilson’s harmonica and the perfect economy of Jimmie Vaughan’s Guitar with Keith Ferguson and Fran Christian anchoring the sound makes for an over proof combination that’s guaranteed to get the adrenaline pumping and the heart rejoicing.

Adrenaline would surely have been coursing through Ham The Chimpanzee when he blasted into space on 31 January 1961.

The success of Ham’s mission gave the green light for manned space flights to follow.

As he climbed to unimagined heights viewing the world below from a new perspective perhaps Ham reflected that:

‘You will never see a Monkey build a fence around a Coconut Tree and let all the coconuts go to waste forbidding other monkeys to come and taste’.

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind!

To conclude our meditations on the theme here’s a lovely lurching version from Jamaica, where the rhythms of New Orleans were readily appreciated and appropriated.

At the controls was Coxsone Dodd, founder of the legendary Studio 1 recording Mecca and label.

The vocal is by Denzil Thorpe having his brief moment of glory (Any information on Denzil’s subsequent career much welcomed here!)

Washoe learned to communicate fluently in sign language. In quiet moments I wonder if she signed to herself:

‘Here’s another thing a Monkey won’t do – go out on a night and get all in a stew. Or use a gun or club or knife to take another Monkey’s life!’

Yeah, The Monkey Speaks His Mind!

And, when The Monkey Speaks His Mind we would would do well to listen!

This Post dedicated to the great Dave Bartholomew. A Founding Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll still going strong at 98! Wishing him health and happiness and looking forward to celebrating his Centenary.

Notes:

Guy The Gorilla (Gorilla,gorilla,gorilla) was one of the most distinguished residents of London between 1947 and 1978. He is properly commemorated in a statue at London Zoo and in portrait paintings.

I saw him often when I was a child and clearly remember being affected by his immense physicality and his somber aura.

King Kong – there were many profoundly important events in 1933. Not least Kong’s appearance in the 1933 film bearing his name. Film technology is now immensely sophisticated yet it is the original King Kong who haunts the dreams.

J. Fred Muggs was one of the premier stars of American TV in the 1950s. As ‘Co-Host’ of the NBC Today Show he became a household name and reassuring presence.

Ham passed out top of his group of would be Space Monkeys and happily survived his voyage into space. He spent his remaining years in Washington D.C and North Carolina.

He was buried with appropriate honours, including a eulogy by Col John Stapp, in the Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico.

Washoe (1965 – 2007) developed a signing vocabulary of over 300 words and was able to see a Swan and sign ‘Water Bird’

Her example led to the institution of The Great Ape Project which aims to extend moral and legal protections currently only afforded to humans to the Great Apes.

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.

Steve Forbert : Alive On Arrival and still swinging for the fence!

My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling bad or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was to keep swinging.’ (Hank Aaron)

You have to walk, that’s the element of time, which forces you to move and change. It’s in the fall, and there’s leaves and dust and dirt in the air – and things are gonna stick to you.’ (Steve Forbert).

Growing up in America most young boys indulge a fantasy where on their Major League debut they get to hit a home run off the opponents’ star pitcher at Fenway Park or Dodger Stadium.

Rounding the bases to ecstatic acclaim they nonchalantly wave their hat to the adoring crowd pausing only to catch the eye of the hometown sweetheart who has travelled hundreds of miles to share the moment.

In my own version of this story (slipping the bonds of time and chronology as you’re allowed to in dreams) I hit a homer off Whitey Ford at Ebbetts Field for my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.

Taking my seat in the dugout Jackie Robinson says, ‘Good hit, Kid’ and punches me on the shoulder.

The music business version of this myth might follow the following arc.

A 21 year old kid from Mississsippi moves to New York City carrying an acoustic guitar and a harmonica rack.

Armed with the fearlessness of youth he busks at Grand Central Station before landing a regular club gig at New Wave/Punk headquarters CBGB (opening for both Talking Heads and John Cale).

The script naturally segues into the scene where the famous manager says, ‘You got something Kid – I can get you a record deal!’

And, sure enough he does. And wouldn’t you just know it the debut album showcases a series of winning songs fizzing with wit, youthful charm and irresistible energy.

The second album adds seasoned musicians and produces a tremendous calling card hit single.

A hot shot critic for Rolling Stone notes that he makes listeners think that they actually do know him – and that this rare gift might just make him the next American Superstar!

And, that folks is the first act of, ‘The Steve Forbert Story’.

Time, I think, for us to fade up the soundtrack. From the aptly named, ‘Alive on Arrival’ the feisty, ‘Goin’ Down To Laurel’.

Straightaway Steve Forbert announces his artistic virtues.

He has a hoarse, reaching for that farther star, voice that charms as it plucks at your heart.

He sure can spin a story that’ll lodge and linger in the mind. With a wide and knowing grin he beckons you into the story of a shooting the breeze young man who is part straight arrow Tom Sawyer and part rapscallion Huck Finn:

‘Glad to be so careless in my way
Glad to take a chance and play against the odds
Glad to be so crazy in my day’

This is a red blooded young man who relishes the rush of life with his harmonica rhythmically rhyming with the wheels carrying him down to Laurel and the moon and sun above.

He’s more smart than you might think – he glories in being so young and carefree yet he knows those cares are waiting up ahead. For this great life can always end and love is a funny, funny, state of mind.

So, time to enjoy every wonderful moment spent with the girl who is a fool for him – well worth the trip to a dirty stinking Town.

Not time now to dwell on the serial marriages and breakdowns all around, the rain in the clouds somewhere above, the trains taking young men out of town leaving burning buildings behind them.

Yes, love is a funny state of mind and isn’t it marvellous to discover that for yourself. Love does make the world go around and boarding that carousel makes the head spin and the heart pump faster and faster.

Steve Forbert, from the get go, do something that defines writers and performers who matter. His songs have quick vitality plunging us into a life we recognise and through the verve of performance winning our attention and allegiance.

Captured, we want to know how the story pans out. We want to stick along for the ride – wherever it may take us for we sense there are more fine, echoing stories ahead.

And, indeed there were. On his second record, ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ Steve nailed a song he had been working on for a long time. ‘Romeo’s Tune’ explodes with dizzying exuberance and joy.

You are swept along by the I can’t contain myself vocal and the surging melody.

It has, ‘this ones just got to be a hit’ and keeper written all over it.

Steve Forbert will be singing this song for the rest of his life and every audience that hears him sing it, for the first or the thousandth time, will sing with him.

Surely everyone wants Southern kisses and wants their lover to embody the the smell of The Moon for precious moments.

Of course, the years will rise and fall. They must. They must.

Yet, every day we wish for someone who will share that rise and fall with us. Someone who will care. Someone who will laugh with us as we sneak on out beneath the stars and run!

So now we move on to Act 2 wherein our hero encounters and endures a reversal in his fortunes. There is drama, disappointment, what some would call disloyalty, puzzlement, treachery and perfidy.

It is, after all, The Music Business!

Contrary to informed expectation and the spreadsheet projections of managers, record company bean counters and executives his follow up records did not produce chart topping hits and fill stadium bleachers.

Mogul patience runs out. Spectacularly so. A fifth album is recorded. But not issued. And, no one else can issue it either.

And, you got to understand this Kid .. you can’t record for anyone else either!

This is what we call a test of mettle. Steve hits the road, writes songs, ascends for year after backbreaking year the rocky slopes of purgatory.

Stubborn perseverance pays off when The E Street Band’s Gary Tallent appears on a metaphorical white horse ready to produce a ‘comeback’ album.

When it is issued, ‘Streets of This Town’ turns out to be a magnificent album of deeply felt songs that could only have been written by an artist of rare talent.

One bloodied but unbowed by the tempests he had survived. It is a record of hard won insight and tender empathy. The Kid is now unquestionably a Man. A man with visions to turn to when storms assail your own life.

Here’s a man who has realised that the promises made to you when you sign on the dotted line are often not honoured and that you might well lose a lot more than you gain in the transaction if you’re not very careful.

The skills of wheeling and dealing and knocking people down to get your way on the streets of this town must encourage him to light out for the territory even if it is with tears in a grown man’s eyes. Time to take off the uniform and abjure the crazy norm.

Streets of This Town was a major critical success as was its excellent follow up, ‘The American in Me’. But, this is real life not a film.

Critical hosannas did not turn into public acclamation. Record stores were not besieged by hordes of fans desperate to reintroduce themselves to the mature work of that guy who wrote that Romeo song.

So, Steve did what he had always done. He wrote engaging, literate songs that reflected his own struggles and joys and the life of the communities and generations around him.

He kept on keepin’ on. Always heading for another joint.

And, as he did it turned out that there was always an audience for songs that nourished the heart and stimulated the imagination.

Life flowed on for him and his audience so that songs written in youth took on new layers of meaning when recreated in performance decades down the track from their birth.

Here’s a tender, deeply moving, version of the powerful and poignant, ‘I Blinked Once’ that will surely have resonances in every life that has felt the chill wings of time’s winged chariot rushing by.

It could be, it might be … It is, A Home Run!

Steve Forbert sings reveal a man in full. An artist who speaks to how we live our lives in youth, in early maturity and middle age.

We recognise ourselves in these songs and understand that their author has kept the faith and is still running his race with purpose and determination. Long may he run!

In the coming months Steve Forbert will bring his bulging backpack of songs filled with wit and hard won wisdom to Milwaukee and Wilmington and Decatur.

If you’re within a couple of hours driving distance make sure you go!

He has great stories to tell that will remind you of the flowing tides of your own life and he knows how to tell them.

I’m delighted he’s still out there, crazy in his way, still swinging for the fence.

Still swinging for the fence.

Notes:

First of all many thanks to the man himself for sharing this Post through his official Twitter feed.

A warm welcome to fans of Steve now introduced to The Jukebox.

Steve Forbert, like Nick Lowe and Southside Johnny, is an artist I have enormous fondness for in addition to admiration for his writing and performing abilities.

This post has concentrated on songs from the first 15 years of a career which has now clocked up nearly 40.

I plan to write a further post on the later period of his career to stress how he has continued to write fine songs worthy of your attention.

Recommended Albums:

Alive on Arrival (1978)

Jackrabbit Slim (1979)

Streets of This Town (1988)

The American In Me (1992)

Any Old Time (2002 – a wholly charming collection of Jimmie Rodgers songs)

Over With You (2012)

Compromised (2015)

Steve is an excellent live performer.

I treasure all his live records and DVDs – my favourite being ‘Here’s Your Pizza’ from 1997 and ‘On Stage at World Cafe’ from 2007.

Opening for The Beatles Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry : Ain’t Got No Home!

In New Orleans, America’s greatest music city, they sure know how to throw a party.

Mardi Gras might just be the greatest and most joyous greatest civic celebration on the entire planet.

Mardi Gras rolls around every year.

But, on September 16 1964 New Orleans was en fete for a very different occassion. The Beatles were coming to City Park as part of their very first American tour.

The Beatles! A year earlier few had heard of them.

Now, following their historic appearances on Ed Sullivan and their subsequent colonisation of the Hot 100 they were famous at a level only previously approached by Elvis himself.

The whole city virtually levitated with anticipation and not just the crazed teenage Beatles fans.

No, even the Crescent City’s Mayor, Victor H Schiro, thought it only mete and proper to declare Wednesday September 16 1964 to be officialy, ‘Beatles Day In New Orleans’.

He welcomed the arriving, ‘English Storm’ in the Hurricane Month and, correctly, noted that what The Beatles did and sang was based on a cousin ship with Jazz – the jumping, danceable historic art form which was New Orleans inestimable gift to World Culture.

And, wonder of wonders, as the lights went down, who should be first on the Bill at this epochal show?

Why, none other than one of New Orleans most favoured sons, Clarence Frogman Henry, who could make a dead man rise out of his grave to dance and shout with Joy.

You want Joy? Joy, raining down in torrents?

Ecouter le cri de la grenouille! Ecouter! Ecouter!

Now, in my book, one of the primary purposes of music is to provide good cheer – to lift the burdensome cares of the day and remind you that to be alive is a glorious gift.

And, I can think of few records that fulfill that purpose to better effect than, ‘Aint Got No Home’.

It was a substantial R&B and Pop hit in 1956 as all over the nation people fell in love with the voice that could sound like a lonely boy, a lonely girl, a treetop bird and, best of all – A Frog!

What’s not to like!

There’s the trademark rolling on the river rhythm New Orleans sound that carries you securely along with the drums, bass and sax meshing perfectly together.

Clarence brings all his patent piano and vocal charm, honed in clubs like The Chicken Shack, to produce a record that is both a novelty and a Rock ‘n’ Roll classic.

Clarence, born and raised in the Crescent City, had clearly been listening to Fats Domino, Professor Longhair and Shirley and Lee. The delightful Frog impression was his own boyhood invention.

Ooo .. ooooo …. ooooo … ooooo … ooooo .. oooooo!

Yes indeed. Yes Indeed.

I’m here to tell you that there’s no Jukebox in the whole wide World that wouldn’t be improved by having a copy of, ‘Aint Got No Home’ in its racks!

The success of Aint Got No Home brought appearances at the premier Black Theatres of the day – The Apollo in New York, The Howard in D.C and The Royal in Baltimore sharing the stage with luminaries like Clyde McPhatter and Chuck Berry.

But, there was no immediate hit follow up so Clarence went back home to the Boubon Street clubs where he always drew a loyal and enthusiastic hometown crowd.

Clarence’s next smash came courtesy of two fellow Louisianians Paul Gayten and Bobby Charles.

Paul Gayten, a prodigiously talented musician, arranger and Bandleader, acting as a talent scout for Chess Records had spotted the potential of Clarence and hustled him into Cosimo Matassa’s Studio to record his initial hit.

Paul had recorded Bobby Charles immortal, ‘See You Later Alligator’ later popularised by Bill Haley, and the two combined their talents to write, ‘(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do’ which gave Clarence a big, fat, International hit in 1961.

Bobby Charles, a secret hero of Rock ‘n Roll, will feature here later. He had the priceless gift of writing songs which sounded as if you’ve always known them yet which never lose their playability through the years.

I chose to feature the live version above for the thrill of seeing and listening to a gold plated N’Awlins Band (with back up Dancers!) and the oratorical tones of legendary WLAC DJ Bill ‘Hoss’ Allen.

Wonderful to hear the exchange between ‘Frog’ and ‘Hoss’, to briefly glimpse Robert ‘Barefootin” Parker and to realise that Frog’s accent is so thick you could near cut slices off it!

Clarence’s final appearance on the Charts also in ’61 was with a revival of the standard, ‘You Always Hurt the One You Love’ written by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher.

There are countless versions by everyone from The Mills Brothers to Peggy Lee and on to Ringo Starr.

Still, for my money, if you have a few drinks taken and fancy a whirl around a hardwood floor you can’t do better than call up the Frog!

Clarence has recorded extensively, toured Europe and played with many of the greats besides The Beatles but he has always returned home to the bosom of Bourbon Street.

If you’re lucky, even though he’s now in his ninth decade, you might see him there still.

Be assured you’re guaranteed a real find time and without doubt you’ll find yourself crooning along to his classic tunes.

As The Mayor of Jukeboxville I’m issuing my own Proclamation:

Whereas, in order to increase the wellbeing and mirth of all it devolves upon myself to officially proclaim today, June 5 2017, to be officially Clarence Frogman Henry Day.

Encore, ecouter le cri de la grenouille!

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.