Bobby Freeman a 17 year old from San Francisco, thought it was such an important question that he had no hesitation in asking it 19 times during the 164 second course of his classic recording from 1958.
Yowsa! Yowsa! Yowsa!
Now Bobby’s demo with him on piano and vocals and a friend on echoing bongos/congas seems to have been taped in a deep, dark hollow before New York musos like Billy Mure with a glittering guitar break added some semblance of professionalism so that the record could be commercially released
Of course, the circumstances of a record’s genesis don’t matter a hoot if, instantly, as it blooms from your radio or neighbourhood Jukebox you just know that it has uttered a profound truth as you obey its command to shake a tail feather.
It was thus no surprise that, ‘Do You Want To Dance’ was a top 5 hit on the Billboard Chart.
There’s a hypnotic charm about the latin beat, ascending melody, false ending and the artless vocal’s increasingly insistent expression of the central question.
Resistance is useless – surrender!
Do You, Do You, Do You, Do you Want to Dance?
Do You, Do You, Do You, Do You Want to Dance?
The song, easy to learn and easy to extend vocally and instrumentally if the audience fell under its spell, became a fixture of many a group repertoire.
In Britain it was a notable success for Cliff Richard (1962) and in the US it attracted the attention of Del Shannon and The Four Seasons (1964) before the startling genius of Brian Wilson took into into realms undreamed of by Bobby Freeman.
The relationship between original and The Beach Boys version might be compared to that of a Lascaux cave painting and a high Renaissance masterpiece by Raphael.
Brian Wilson with his multi dimensional musical intelligence added structure and sophistication to Bobby Freeman’s sketch.
So we have three part harmony, vocal chanting, an instrumental ensemble of saxophones, timpani, massed guitars and organ seamlessly integrated into a sweeping wide screen orchestration which also features subtle key changes.
On the top Dennis Wilson, with his first lead vocal for the group, provided glowing warmth and drive.
A singular aspect of Brian Wilson’s talent in his mid 60s pomp was his ability to to create complex arrangements which though capable of endless analysis by musicians and critics flowed with what seemed complete naturalness into the hearts of his listeners.
Under Brian’s baton Pop Music had a cathedral like architectural glory it has rarely ever attained.
Success and sophistication went hand in hand as Brian and The Beach Boys had hit after hit.
John Lennon was another who knew a thing or two about marrying art and popularity in song.
He would have heard Bobby Freeman’s version in Liverpool as a teenager. The Rocker in John, a defining aspect of his character, must have been taken by its sensual sway and swoon.
For it was this aspect of the song he chose to emphasise when he recorded it for his, ‘homage to leather jacketed youth’ album from 1975, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’.
It should never be forgotten that John Lennon was a great Rock ‘n’ Roll singer. I’d hazard the view that the true primal therapy for John was singing and that through singing he found balm for his own troubled soul as well as providing it for millions of others all over the globe.
The final version featuring on The Jukebox is a 1977 blitzkrieg New York City take by The Ramones.
We will have to call this the spray paint on the subway wall graffiti version!
I must admit that in my college days I did some very enthusiastic ‘pogoing’ to this one propelled by my love of high octane, eyeballs out Rock ‘n’ Roll and large quantities of cheap alcohol.
There’s no messing with The Ramones.
They set out in a cloud of dust like a drag racer and don’t let up – wholly careless as to whether the parachute will deploy!
So, whichever version you prefer the eternal Question remains which we will all have to answer in our own way – ‘Do You Want to Dance?’
For my part the answer is a resounding Yes!
Bobby Freeman could never match, ‘Do You Want to Dance’ though he did have several other hits. He was a winning singer and I’m always pleased when one of his songs comes up under random play on my music player. A comprehensive collection of his 56-61 work can be found on Jasmine Records.
The Mississippi River is a wonder of nature. From its source in Lake Itasca Minnesota it flows 2320 miles all the way to Plaquemines (love the sound of that name!) Parish Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.
On its epic journey it courses through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
The citizens of Minneapolis, St Paul, St Cloud, La Crosse, Dubuque, St Louis, Cape Girardeau, Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans can gaze in awe as it majestically passes them by.
Songs and stories, tall tales and twisted tunes have always been an essential part of the freight and traffic carried by the mighty Mississippi.
No city (with all respect to Memphis) has contributed as much to the creative ecology of the river than New Orleans. Especially when it comes to players of the 88 keys of the piano.
With a roll call of keyboard saints and sinners including Jelly Roll Morton, Tuts Washington, Champion Jack Dupree, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Dr John, the lately departed Alan Toussaint and the piano man I’m featuring today, Huey Piano Smith, it’s obvious that New Orleans wears the laurel wreath when it comes to piano stylists. I feel a ‘New Orleans Piano Masters’ series coming on!
Now, each of the great musicians above has their own personal touch and tone: their own rhythmic fingerprint to charm our senses. What they share from their New Orleans heritage is profound immersion in the traditions of gospel, blues and jazz (not forgetting the concert music of the salon).
Sitting down at the keyboard a New Orleans Master can slide and shimmy through an encyclopaedia of piano styles calling up the distinctive rhythms of ragtime, stride and boogie-woogie as required.
The left hand lays down earthing bass lines while the right adds the melodic decoration. Listen closely and you will hear the interplay of rhythms from West Africa and Cuba giving what Jelly Roll Morton called a, ‘Spanish Tinge’ to the music.
And, all this is done with unhurried authority. New Orleans piano has marinated flavour. Tunes, at all tempos, swing. Each player their own River Boat Captain announcing their arrival in Town with proper swagger.
With all that dutiful history and exposition in mind let’s just glory in the absolute delight of Huey Smith’s ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu’ from 1957.
No system can resist this musical virus!
Johnny Vincent is credited with the novelty lyric (I have to admit that whenever anyone asks me do I have a cold I always answer, ‘No, but I do have the Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu!).
The record sold over a million copies and became a Jukebox favourite in any self respecting Honky-tonk.
The irresistible vocal is by Bobby Marchan. Commanding the keys Huey plays with gorgeous fluidity adding flashing filigree flourishes to the rock solid bass line. His years spent listening to Albert Ammons, Professor Longhair and Fats Domino all summoned up into 135 seconds of piano paradise.
Huey is a New Orleans native whose musical apprenticeship included several years as a teenager working with the superb showman Guitar Slim (see earlier Jukebox post). Specialty Records recognised his piano prowess and he was soon playing sessions for Earl King, Little Richard, Lloyd Price and Smiley Lewis.
It was 1957 when Huey formed, ‘Huey Piano Smith and His Clowns’ and signed a record deal with Johnny Vincent at Ace Records. Bobby Marchan, a flamboyant female impersonator with show-stopping vocal chops took the centre stage role.
Together in 1958 they made one of the most infectious records of all time with a lyric which defies certain transcription (I’ve had numerous arguments, on licensed premises, as to how the lyric should be reproduced phonetically!).
However you spell out the lyric you won’t be able to resist singing along to, ‘Don’t You Just Know It’.
Now that I think about it the song may well be founded and draw its immense energy from memories of childhood skipping games and adult excluding nonsense rhymes. Sometimes, nothing makes more sense or is more satisfying than to chant with all your heart:
… Ah, ha, ha, ha, hey, eh, ho, Dooba, Dooba, Dooba! Dooba, Dooba, Dooba!
There’s a tangled tale behind the next great record made by Huey. ‘Sea Cruise’ from 1959, the most famous song he was ever involved with, was written by Huey and recorded by him and The Clowns with Bobby Marchan (or by some accounts) Geri Hall on vocals.
There’s a fantastic paddle steamer surging tidal rhythm throughout the song that just sweeps you along before depositing you breathless and elated on the shore after three minutes of unalloyed joy.
Johnny Vincent smelled a hit. But, he thought (correctly) that the hit would be bigger and the dollars flow more freely if the track was speeded up, given some added sound effects and fronted up by a charismatic white singer.
After all Huey was a somewhat reticent figure and while Bobby Marchan’s transvestism raised few disapproving eyebrows in anything goes New Orleans it was hard to imagine them appearing on American Bandstand with Dick Clark!
While the ethics of Johnny Vincent’s decision to superimpose Frankie on the original track are problematic to say the least it’s also undeniably true that Frankie Ford, given his shot at Major League status, hit the ball right out of the park for a huge home run!
Ooh – Wee Baby! You got nothing to lose . . Won’t you let me take you on a Sea Cruise!
Frankie was from Gretna across the river from the Crescent City. He was a campy show bizz kid who jumped at joining high school bands and entering talent competitions showcasing his piano and vocal skills.
Listening to DJs like, ‘Poppa Stoppa’ and hanging around music clubs gave him a liking and feel for rhythm and blues. One of New Orleans connected music fixers Joe Carrona took a liking to Frankie and introduced him to Johnny Vincent and thus was history made!
The final record featured here today, another fine Huey Smith composition originally titled, ‘Loberta’ was transmuted into, ‘Roberta’ when Frankie took up the mike to sing.
Notwithstanding Frankie’s heroic vocal it’s already a hit for me before he opens up because of Huey’s bravura piano intro and the immediate foot to the floor entry of the band. Beautiful New Orleans ensemble musicianship.
Huey Smith was never one to demand the spotlight.
Maybe he knew that there would always be those who would recognise and delight in a truly fine piano player and note that ‘H. Smith’ was the writing credit on some of the most cheering and enduring records of the 1950s.
Huey Smith – there are numerous collections of his 50s classics. The one on my shelves which is full of treats is, ‘Don’t You Just Know It – The Very Best of 1956-1962, Singles As and Bs’ issued by Jasmine Records. Cue up, ‘High Blood Pressure’ straight away!
Frankie Ford died in 2015 aged 76. There is a compilation on Fuel 2000, ‘Sea Cruise’ which is a fitting memorial to a real trouper.
Bobby Marchan died in 1999. In addition to his wondrous performances on ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia’ and, ‘Don’t You Just Know It’ there are a number of fine records in his later career. Chief among these is his epic take on Big Jay McNeely’s, ‘There Is Something On Your Mind’
A true message, a strong signal always gets through. People are waiting. People are always waiting for a true message. And, especially when you are in your teens you seem to spend your life waiting. Waiting for the person, the thing, the sound which will release you from the prison you seem to have been entombed in for so long.
Oh, you don’t know what it is you are waiting for, exactly. How could you? You just know as you stare for hours and hours at the walls of your bedroom that something, something big, something important, something meant just for you, is on its way.
Something, out there somewhere, is coming. And, you know, you just know, that when it comes you will recognise it and fall upon it like a hungry wolf. It is bound to take you somewhere you’ve never been before opening up a whole new life. A whole new world.
There is always a Promised Land to long for, to believe in with all your heart. Whatever sensible people, older, wiser people tell you, YOU know that the Promised Land is real and just over the horizon.
In 1950s America the musical message, the true musical message came through the ether on radio waves. Border radio stations with 50,000 watts of power sent the message to distant parts of the land. And, in distant parts of the land people were waiting. People were waiting.
Sitting in his car, late at night, in Lubbock Texas with his friend Sonny Curtis, Charles Hardin Holly always and forever after to be known as Buddy Holly, tuned in to stations playing Blues and Rhythm and Blues music and had an epiphany.
‘Bo Diddley bought his babe a diamond ring …..’
And that was it! If a smart young musician who already knew his Hank Williams, Bob Wills and Louvin Brothers and who knew the young Elvis Presley could incorporate this thunderous rhythm into the songs he was writing (oh yes, this was a young man who was going to write and record his own songs and play the hell out of them on the Fender Stratocaster he had bought for the princely sum of $249.50) then surely the world beyond Lubbock would sit up and take notice.
So, when he got to Norman Petty’s Clovis, New Mexico studio in 1956,’Bo Diddley’ was one of the first songs he tried out with the ever faithful Jerry Allison on the drums.
That version didn’t see the light of day for many a year but Buddy now had THAT RHYTHM in his bones. And, so when he came up with a song called, ‘Not Fade Away’ it was pounded out to Bo’s immortal Rhythm.
Gathered, in Clovis, on May 27 1957, Buddy now a certified star, turned to the Rhythm and with Joe Maudlin on bass and Jerry Allison on cardboard box drums he laid down a record which was a great tribute to Bo and one which would perk up the waiting ears of Paul McCartney and John Lennon in Liverpool and in the outer reaches of London, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard (and we know what they then did!)
Listening to Buddy here you hear the sound of someone entirely present in their work. Present in the mixture of choppy propulsion and gleeful, aint it grand to be alive lyricism of his guitar work. Present in the distinctive alluring timbre of his vocal style.
Present in the easeful assurance of his lyric which characteristically combines assertiveness and romantic sweetness. Buddy Holly had one of the most vivacious sounds ever achieved in Rock n’ Roll and his blend of instrumental flow and aggression with tough yet tender songs set a template for generations of musicians that followed him. Few have ever caught up with Buddy.
Fast forward to 1963. Up in Canada, the big lonely, Arkansas native Ronnie Hawkins has found his niche purveying prime rockabilly and rock ‘n ‘ roll to the denizens of the toughest bars in Toronto and any other town where there’s an audience ready for a band filled with crack musicians led by a natural showman.
Ronnie Hawkins is a figure out of myth. A bear of a man, a larger than life hustler, a supreme tall tale teller some of whose juiciest takes may even be true no matter how outrageous they seem. Ronnie has been down all the blue highways and seen just about everything a man can see and not go blind.
One thing about Ol’ Ronnie; he may not be even close to being a great musician himself but he sure as hell can spot one when he hears one. And, given that Ronnie helmed the hottest band in Canada which offered a young musician a full date book, the opportunity to hone their musical skills and the promise of unlimited carnal delights, there was no shortage of would be members of The Hawks.
Joining The Hawks was like a raw recruit being sent to the toughest possible military base for intensive training. If you survived there was no other band’s ass you couldn’t kick to kingdoms come.
And, by 1963 when Ronnie and the latest vintage went into the studio to record Bo’s classic, ‘Who Do You Love’ Ronnie had assembled the best band he would ever have. A band that had talent to burn, fire and finesse and the stamina to play all night long, night after night after night.
On drums and vocals the only American in the troupe, Levon Helm (the eldest at 23). On rhythm guitar (soon to switch to bass) and vocals Rick Danko, on piano and vocals Richard Manuel and on guitar, a prodigy, Robbie Robertson. Completing the line up for this record was another stellar axeman, Roy Buchanan, here on bass.
Waiting in the wings was the greatest musician of them all the mighty Garth Hudson who was a revelatory master of the organ, the accordion and a bunch of saxophones. On that day in 1963 as they launched into, ‘Who Do You Love’ they brought all Bo’s ominous pealing thunder to the song while adding strike after strike of earth scorching lightning which lit an unquenchable match in the hearts of anyone who ever heard it.
This set of Hawks, as we know, would go on to collaborate with the greatest popular music artist of the 20th Century, Bob Dylan, accompanying him on epochal tours and making distinguished contributions to his recordings.
As, ‘The Band’ their first two albums would be certified masterpieces melding all the traditions of American music into a glorious seamless whole in songs of depth and fervour. The whole project of Americana music might be seen as trying to explore the territory opened by The Band.
But, in 1963 they were not Rock aristocrats – they were hot as hell sons of guns and their playing on, ‘Who Do You Love’ has rarely, if ever, been matched for incendiary passion. Robbie Robertson’s guitar playing here is simply astounding.
It’s as if Ronnie Hawkins had chained him up for a month, without his beloved guitar and then given it back saying, ‘You don’t get to keep it unless you set this studio ablaze!’
Robbie Robertson conjures more magic out of his guitar here in under three minutes than most guitarists manage in a lifetime. Out front Ronnie intones Bo’s lyric with lip smacking relish conscious that this record must be his finest hour.
The message certainly got through to a kid growing up in Freehold, New Jersey. The songs Bruce was drawn to, enraptured by, were songs filled with drama. Songs that swept you up and away with their passion. Songs that were emotional twisters. Bruce got Bo.
Bruce Springsteen has always understood that it’s essential power of rhythm that holds a song together. And as a writer and performer he has always understood, in a way that few others have, that a great artist performing on stage is invoking timeless ritual energies that have to have their being confirmed and released through rhythm now controlled, now unleashed, now controlled, now unleashed until the ritual is complete and artist and audience are elated, exhausted and free.
Bruce gets Bo. In particular he gets, the howling past the graveyard depths of ‘Mona’ which in some mysterious fashion called forth his own song, ‘She’s The One’. So often in concert he runs the two songs together doffing his cap to Bo and proving his devotion to tradition by adding to it not merely copying it.
The version I’m featuring here is from a spectacularly intense concert he and The E Street Band gave at LA’s Roxy in July 1978.
You’d think Bruce and the band would have needed to take an ice bath to recover after that! This is Bruce using every muscle and sinew to inhabit the spooked landscape of Bo’s song. Bruce shape shifts to become a shamanistic vessel for THE RHYTHM. Listening to this I would never quibble with his honorary title as, ‘The Boss’.
Over in Britain and Ireland in the 1950s and early 60s just knowing the name of Bo Diddley showed that you were one of the musical elect. He wasn’t exactly a household name and was very rarely played on the radio.
His records had to be tracked down in record shops like Dobells in London, NEMS in Liverpool or Belfast’s Atlantic Records who might stock or might order for you those precious 45s of Bo Diddley or Mona.
These singles issued on the black and silver London label and later on the yellow and red Pye label were fetishistic objects for a core group of fanatical rhythm and blues fans who included such future luminaries as Dick Taylor of The Pretty Things (named after a Bo Diddley song), Eric Burdon of The Animals and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. Being an R&B devotee was akin to joining a secret confraternity. Once you had heard Bo you were a changed being.
The hallmark of being an R&B band that really knew their stuff was that you could lock into THE RHYTHM you had learned from Bo and through ecstatic dance take your audience to a whole new level of consciousness. So, if you were in the know and danced at The Cavern, The Marquee, The Flamingo or Club A Go Go you wouldn’t go long without that Bo Diddley Rhythm starting to take you over.
Now, it’s undoubtedly the case that the 1960s represents the high water mark of the Blues Boom in Britain and Ireland. But, the signal, the Rhythm never went away. The signal continued to be sent and received.
In the 1970s out of the Thames Delta and the extraordinary landscape of Canvey Island came a cutthroat crew, Dr Feelgood, who committed themselves 100% to the rhythm every time they launched into their tempestuous version of Bo’s I Can Tell.
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen lead singer Lee Brilleaux’s eyeballs out attack on the song or stood open mouthed in amazement as Guitarist Wilko Johnson ricocheted across the stage strafing everyone with machine gun lead and rhythm licks.
As the 20th Century came to a close far from hip metropolitan Dublin four boys were born in Cavan who destined to be nothing less than mojo men.
By 2012, while still schoolboys, Ross Farrelly (harmonica, vocals), Josh McClorey (lead guitar/vocals), Peter O’Hanlon (bass, vocals) and Evan Walsh (drums), bursting with energy, home recorded a debut EP which featured a series of R&B rave-ups on songs by Billy Boy Arnold and Slim Harpo.
The killer cut being their 100 miles an hour down a dead end street take on Bo’s, ‘You Can’t Judge A Book ..’
The Strypes get Bo.
You can see that as they strut their stuff on stage.
You can hear it in every note they play.
When you get down to it, when you really get down to it, Rhythm rules.
And you either get the rhythm or you don’t. You’ve either got it or you haven’t got it.
The Strypes have definitely got it!
If you get a chance to go and see them Go!
A true message, a strong signal always gets through. People are waiting. They will always be waiting. And, Bo Diddley’s message and signal will always be out there – waiting to be picked up.
Hey, Bo Diddley!
P.S. If you havent read the previous post on Bo himself – what are you waiting for!
When you get down to it, when you really get down to it – rhythm rules.
Before you can utter a sound you can feel and respond to the rhythm of your mothers beating heart. And it’s your first and dearest tune; the lullaby a part of you will always live by. Rhythm rules.
You are then born suddenly into a world of seeming blooming and buzzing confusion where you must learn again to tune in to the essential rhythms of life. Heat and cold. Hunger and thirst. Night and day. Summer and Winter. Spring and Autumn. Rhythm rules.
Meanwhile the planets and the stars rotate in their ancient dance while the tides of the sea rise and fall, rise and fall, obedient to the imperial moon as they beat, beat, beat, rhythmically on the shores of the waiting land. Rhythm rules.
Rhythm rules. It always has and it always will. You don’t need to be able to read and write. You don’t need to speak a particular language. All you need is a beating heart.
And to demonstrate the utter primacy of the power of Rhythm there is only one man to turn to: he was born Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi in the dying days of 1928. As a boy he became Ellas McDaniel but the world will always know him as The Originator, the one, the only Bo Diddley.
In March 1955, as I rocked safely in my mother’s womb, Bo Diddley took his Guitar and went into Universal Studios in Chicago in the company of Otis Spann (piano), Jerome Green (maracas), Frank Kirkland (drums) and Lester Davenport (harmonica) and laid down two tracks, ‘Bo Diddley’ and ‘I’m A Man’ that would be issued as a 45 in April on the Chess Records subsidiary label Checker with the serial number 814. I will brook no argument that this is the greatest debut single of all time!
Listen here to Bo announcing himself to the world with the supreme confidence of a man who knows, absolutely knows, that he has found and can incarnate the rhythm which will sweep the globe and revolutionise popular music.
A primordial, irresistible Rhythm which will lift listeners out of the everyday world reconnecting them with their essential physicality and, as the beat pounds relentlessly on, a door to a buried collective unconscious is opened and bodies drenched in sweat discover a reinvigorated sense of their animal and numinous nature.
Now we can call up the musicologists (there’s usually a brace or two of them in a dusty corridor of your local university!) and learn that the, ‘Bo Diddley rhythm’ melds elements from Latin America, West Africa and the Southern States of America.
We can talk artfully about the influences of latin clave and body slapping, ‘hambone’ performers. We might refer to the beat as three stroke/rest/two stroke or say, ‘Shave and a hair cut (pause) two bits’ or bomp-ba-domp–ba-domp, ba-domp-domp.
Now, that’s all very well but what really counts is that unless you are being forcibly restrained by experts once you hear that Bo Diddley Beat you won’t have the inclination to think about any descriptive terms for the beat that you must get in sync with, must get down to. The beat that you feel in the soles of your feet, in your loins, in the pit of your stomach, in the very chambers of your heart.
A beat that is and was a musical earthquake and which continues to produce aftershocks in the work of those who listened hard to what Bo was laying down.
People like Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard, Pete Townshend, Eric Burdon, Jeff Beck, Bob Seeger, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and Bruce Springsteen all fell under Bo’s spell and wrote and recorded songs with Bo’s Rhythm flowing through every bar and every line. Look out in a few days time for a further post illustrating Bo’s astounding influence on popular music.
Now, though it’s time to return to the original source. Here’s Bo from April 1957 with the spooky, hypnotic mantra, ‘Mona’.
Well you sure can hear the field holler here. And, you can feel, have to feel, the sweet agony of the longing and the lust. Some say Bo wrote this in homage to an exotic dancer who piled her trade at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit. If true, she must have been some dancer!
Mona is music stripped down to the barest elements needed to carry its message; like a rope bridge strung over a chasm that somehow stays in place when it seems it must fall into the depths below.
Listen to the eerie, I will not be denied vocal. Listen to the febrile, I just don’t know how much of this I can stand guitar, and tell me you are not shaken and stirred. Tell me that your heart is not going bumpety-bump! Mona, Oh Mona!
Bo was by no means a prisoner of his own Beat. He was a very fine songwriter with storytelling flair able to write lines that invoked the well known tropes of folk tales with wit and wisdom.
Musically he knew all about what Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry were doing in Chicago as well as the what was coming out of New Orleans from Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. His youthful training as a violinist had given him a feeling for melody and harmony that he brought into play when needed.
In 1956 he had written a song, in a rockabilly style shuffle rhythm which was immediately recognised as a classic – ‘Who Do You Love?’
I remember laughing out loud with pleasure the first time I heard the opening lines:
‘I walk forty-seven miles of barbed wire, I use a cobra snake for a neck tie,
I got a brand new house on the roadside, made from rattlesnake hide,
I got a brand new chimney made on top, made out of a human skull,
Now come on baby let’s take a little walk, and tell me, ‘Who do you love?’
Indeed! Why wouldn’t Arlene go for a walk with Bo- given the entrancing, hucksterish, nature of his lyrical come-on and the scintillating excitement of the lead guitar played here by Jody Williams.
You’re sure to have a fine, fine, time with a man who just rode a lion to town using a rattlesnake whip. A man with a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind who’s just 22 but don’t mind dying. Sure, he will probably be gone in a puff of smoke tomorrow morning. But, today’s the only day that counts Arlene – Carpe Diem!
Bo must have had an ear cocked to the rippling rhythms emerging from the interplay of musicians in dance bands from New Orleans and Caribbean. You can hear this loud and clear in a lovely, slyly humour filled record he cut in December 1958 – ‘Crackin’ Up’
Bo’s marvellous reading of the phrase, ‘What’s buggin’ you?’ on its own would have me happily laying down my cash to buy this one! Add to that Bo’s pretty, shimmering, glitterball guitar and the virtually DooWop backing vocals and you have a perfect pop confection that hits the spot every time.
In 1962 the Eminence grise of Chess Records, Willie Dixon, presented Bo with a guaranteed hit with the charming cracker-barrel philosophy treatise, ‘You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover’. Once Bo and the band lock in you are going nowhere till the song ends! Like Bo says … Come on in closer… Turn it up!
Bo Diddley was a radical innovator who respected the tradition he was heir to. He was a primitive artist and an avant garde artist. He was thoroughly modern and post modern before his time.
Imagine him here strapping on his square bodied guitar and sending everybody reeling with the so good you’re going to have to keep this one on repeat for an hour or so, ‘Mumblin’ Guitar’.
In any universe that I can imagine Bo Diddley will always be out in front of the pack. Bo Diddley is and was as cool as cool can be.
‘The Story of Bo Diddley’ double CD on Chess/Universal should be a corner stone of any collection of the best of 20th Century music!
As stated above, my next post, due very soon will showcase the depth of Bo’s influence on the generations of musicians who followed him. Don’t you dare miss it!
‘In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed … Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting?’
(St Paul 1 Corinthians)
‘When Brother Claude Ely would get up to sing, I mean he would just get a key on the guitar and when he started singing, it was like the heavens would open up’ (Dennis Hensley lead guitarist at Brother Ely’s Revival meetings)
‘Aint No grave gonna hold my body down .. Gonna get up out of the ground!’ (Brother Claude Ely)
Christmas Cracker 5
As I said in CC1 I often, to the delight and/or outrage of my friends, casually drop the name of an obscure artist into conversation stating that they recorded one of the greatest records ever made. I then respond to the blank stares by swooning in mock horror while exclaiming, ‘What do you mean you’ve never heard of ….’
Well, I’m gonna do it again today – what do you mean you’ve never heard of Brother Claude Ely?
He only recorded one of the greatest records ever made! I’ll brook no doubt about it, ‘Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down’ represents an inspirational peak in American gospel music and is a cornerstone of the treasury of American popular music in the 20th Century.
Prepare to be amazed!
Hearing that it’s no surprise to learn that Brother Claude, a heavy set man sporting a gold front tooth, wearing a white suit and cowboy hat, prowled his stage like an impatient panther. Preaching, singing and praying like a man possessed he worked up a torrential sweat that necessitated tender ministrations from a series of acolytes.
Now, you can unquestionably hear the influence of Claude’s soul shaking testifying in the epochal careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. If there is such a genre as Rockabilly Gospel Brother Claude was its only true monarch.
Elvis’ mother, the sainted Gladys, definitely attended the electrifying revival meetings where Brother Claude preached the word of The Lord and set the house alight with his fiery flailing guitar and burning bush vocals.
They say Elvis himself was blessed by Brother Claude and saucer eyed he must surely have learned a lot from Claude about how to lift an audience to ecstasy.
Brother Claude was born in Pucketts Creek, Virginia in 1922. He was brought up in the Pentecostal Holiness tradition and it soon became clear that Claude was one of those who felt the spirit profoundly.
The legend goes that he wrote, ‘Ain’t No Grave’ as a TB stricken 12 year old in 1934. A Sears guitar was brought to him in his sick bed and then .. ‘By the hand of God my fingers began to play the chords and a voice came into my mouth to sing. From that day on I have been playing guitar and singing’.
Following spells as a miner and WW2 serviceman Claude became a full time preacher in 1949 – a minister in his own Free Pentecostal Church. He carried the divine message message with him as he criss crossed The Appalachians singing and preaching.
Arriving in a new town he would drive one handed while bellowing into a bullhorn, ‘Tonight I’ll set up a tent in the middle of town – please come out and experience the fire and Holy Ghost’.
As soon as those physicists at CERN figure out how to set up a time machine I’m gonna book a trip back to Apallachia in the early 1950s and get with the Spirit with Brother Claude!
The canny Sid Nathan at King Records out of Cincinnati recognised how powerful a draw Brother Claude was and arranged in 1953 for a live recording to be made at a Courthouse in Letcher County, Kentucky.
So, we have the manna of a captured performance from Brother Claude at the height of his very considerable powers.
In addition to his travelling jubilee Claude reached out across the airwaves through his, ‘Gospel Ranger Show’ which greatly expanded the reach of his preaching and the number of his devotees.
Brother Claude raised roofs, wrecked churches and burned barns all the way through to his death, at 55, in 1978. And, when he died he was performing what else but, ‘Where Could I Go But To The Lord’.
Where indeed! Brother Claude Ely, after all his holy exertions, is at rest now. Waiting for the trumpet to sound. Waiting for the trumpet to sound.
Johnny Cash, one of the Mount Rushmore figures of American music, was a great song collector. Throughout his life and career he had an ear out for remarkable songs. Songs that would sing in the blood and challenge the spirit. Songs that he could incarnate; bringing his extraordinary physical and spiritual intensity to them.
Johnny Cash, to his cost, knew all about the fallibility of mankind, all about sin and redemption. So, when he sang a Gospel song he was always a pilgrim who knew that his journey home would not be without snares and painful desert wanderings.
And, as death loomed large, in his epic ‘American’ recordings he set down a one foot in time, one foot in eternity, version of, ‘Ain’t No Grave’ that will haunt you.
This is the sound of a man, a pilgrim, who is bone tired, footsore and weary from decades of journeying. The ominous simplicity of the recording suggests a man jettisoning the inessential as with courage he knowingly, painfully, head bowed, eyes dimmed, readies himself for the last few strides of his earthly journey.
It’s a journey whatever our faith or lack of faith, whatever life we have lived that we will all, one day coming, have to make.
For some, listening to Brother Claude and Brother John lightens the load we carry.
Ace Records has issued a fine compilation of Brother Claude’s King recordings called, ‘Satan Get Back!’ The 23 glorious tracks it contains should be in every collection.
Macel Ely, the nephew of Brother Claude, has with the assistance of the wholly wonderful Dust To Digital publishing/recording company put together a superb biography/oral history complete with CD called,’Ain’t No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Brother Claude Ely’.
The American Recordings series by Johnny Cash, produced by Rick Rubin, may constitute one of the greatest American autobiographies.
In my youth, in the interests of conviviality and scientific research into plant biology, intoxication and rock and roll excess I developed quite a taste for the distilled beverage of the blue agave plant otherwise known as Tequila.
I soon discovered that if you wanted fuel to impel you to leave the earth’s orbit and achieve a speedy exit from the tedious demands of sobriety before entering the welcoming arms of drunkenness there was no drink to match Tequila.
I also discovered, as I deepened my research, that John Steinbeck in, ‘Tortilla Flat’ had very accurately delineated the journey a seasoned Tequila drinker takes as the bottle is drained. First a period of serious and concentrated conversation (which you always wish you had written down the next day) followed by the evocation of a series of sweetly sad memories.
Next, thoughts of old and unsatisfactory loves before the mind inevitably turns to thoughts of bitter loves. Recovering, you then move on to a general and undirected sadness at the state of the world before tumbling into a black, unholy, despondency.
Soon you begin to sing a song filled with longing for love or for death (if you’re Irish you have a deep treasury of such songs to draw on!) and then before you lose the power to sing or indeed to talk at all you launch into a verse or two of every song you’ve ever known while loudly encouraging all around you to do the same.
You are convinced as you unsteadily make your way home that there has never been such a glorious night of music and conversation since the heady days of Paris in the 1920s.
Dimly, in the morning, you recall that you had insisted on playing one record on the Jukebox seventeen times and orchestrating the mass singalong of that song’s title with relentless enthusiasm. The song was, of course, the ever intoxicating, ‘Tequila’ by The Champs – a Billboard Pop and R&B Number One from 1958.
Picture the scene. You’re in a bar in Texas or just across the Mexican border. The kind of bar where as you enter its Stygian interior you fear you have just lost the power of sight. But, somewhere in the deep shadows you can make out the figure of a burlesque dancer on a stage at the very back. And, behind the dancer a band seemingly comprised of recently released desperadoes adorned with knife scars who are here while they lay plans for their next bank heist.
It’s the kind of bar where everyone has a story to tell if you’ve got the money to fill their glass just one more time. Stories that might just be true and which you will store up to claim as your own on another Tequila night. Stories that you overhear while the band blast out a thrillingly vulgar tribute to the magical powers of Tequila – no words needed of course beyond the thrice repeated title. Tequila! Tequila! Tequila!
Tequila was a ‘B’ side and it may be the best ‘B Movie’ B side ever made. It was recorded just before Christmas in 1957 for the Californian Challenge label owned at the time by Hollywood Cowboy Hero Gene Autry. ‘Tequila’ was actually an afterthought to a session intended to find a hit for rockabilly singer Dave Burgess.
The session band included the Flores Trio of Danny Flores on Sax, Gene Alden on drums and Buddy Bruce on guitar with Cliff Hills on bass supporting Burgess on rhythm guitar and vocals.
They laid down Burgess’ own song, ‘Train to Nowhere’ and versions of, ‘Night Beat’ and, ‘All Night Rock’ before they rounded off the session by running down a tune written by Danny Flores featuring an entrancing mambo beat and a down and dirty sax solo topped off with irresistible shouts (from Flores) of Tequila!
Tequila was issued as the B side of Train to Nowhere but radio DJs soon recognised that it was Tequila that had the magic ingredients that make for a big fat hit. The Number One spot, sales of more than a million and a Grammy all followed as the world drank deep of Danny Flores immortal tune.
Danny Flores had grown up in Long Beach California and had taken on something of the mantle of a Mexican Hillbilly as he played the local blue collar bars. Mexican Hillbilly or proto Latino Rock, ‘Tequila’ was played with love night after night for decade after decade by Danny Flores until he died in 2006.
Danny knew that on some nights what you really need to light up your life can be summed up in a single word (All Together Now!) Tequila!
Sometimes a song, a blues song, filled with venom, emerges into the world coiled, contained and poised to strike. A song which as the venom circulates round the listener’s bloodstream commands surrender even as they ready themselves for the next strike.
Songs like this from the 1940s and 1950s often had as big, or a bigger, effect on fellow artists as they did on the radio and jukebox audiences. Especially if the song had an arresting instrumental riff that every self respecting guitar player just knew, in their hands, stretched out, would really blow the roof off their hometown honky-tonk.
Played over and over by hundreds of artists such a song becomes part of the DNA of the blues and showcasing a distinctive take on it a rite of passage for the would be guitar slinger out to make a name for themselves.
Featured today on The Immortal Jukebox is just such a song, ‘The Things I Used To Do’, Guitar Slim’s Rhythm & Blues classic from 1953.
Now don’t you feel snake bit? From the opening notes you know this song will bore deep into you and that there will be no escape from its clutches. As the song proceeds at irresistible lava flow pace the stinging, swooping distorted guitar figure seems to slow time while the languorous booze fuelled vocal, stately piano and swirling brasses wreath you in a narcotic mind haze that envelops all your senses so that the end of the record always seems a jolt waking you up from a delicious dream you never wanted to end. So play it again and relive the dream!
Guitar Slim, born Eddie Jones in Greenwood Mississippi in late 1926, was inspired, like so many, as a guitar player by T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown. His own style developed initially in New Orleans saw him learning to use amp distortion to boost the impact of his Les Paul’s sharp trebly sound. He performed and sang with a gospel fervour that quickly won him a loyal audience in the blues clubs.
In addition he developed a show stopping stage act where the audience were treated to the sight of Slim decked out in a shimmering suit with hair dyed to match blasting out aggressive solos at high volume while sauntering through a club trailing a couple of hundred feet of guitar lead behind him. Once seen Guitar Slim was never forgotten! Listen to the great Buddy Guy explain the effect seeing Guitar Slim had on him!
‘The Things I Used To Do’ benefitted from the piano and arranging skills of a youthful Ray Charles who patiently coaxed Slim, over many takes, to deliver the recorded performance that has such a lovely spontaneous feel. Joining Slim in the J&M studio in New Orleans were Frank Mitchell on Trumpet, Gus Fontenette on Alto Sax, Charles Burbank and Joe Tillman played Tenor Sax with a rhythm section of Oscar Moore on Drums and Lloyd Lambert on Bass completing the lineup.
The record, issued by Art Rupe’s Specialty Records label, became a huge hit spending 14 weeks at No 1 on the R&B chart and easily selling over a million copies. The song became a Jukebox staple and almost an anthem across the South – especially in Texas and Louisiana.
Though Slim was never to have another record with the visceral, nothing can stop this being a hit impact of ‘Things’ his Specialty material features many wonderfully intense performances like, ‘Reap What You Sow’, ‘Story of My Life’ and, ‘Sufferin’ Mind’ demonstrating his brilliant guitar/vocal interplay.
Guitar Slim lived life with the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor seemingly scornful of the effect this would inevitably have on his health and career. Troubled by alcoholism Guitar Slim died in February 1959 aged only 32.
Yet, I’ll bet that in a blues club somewhere this week someone is bound to say, ‘Here’s one you might remember from the 1950s’ and launch into, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ certain that the audience whether or not they are scholars of the blues will fall under its unbreakable spell.
As a bonus treat I’m going to feature two superb versions of, ‘Things’ by two master blues guitarists – Buddy Guy and Albert Collins.
First up an imperious live outing from 1991 by Buddy who had listened closely to Guitar Slim in Louisiana before his arrival in Chicago in 1957. Once there Buddy impressed everybody with the power and intensity of his playing and soon those in the know were confidently proclaiming that the new heavyweight champion of Blues Guitar was none other than Buddy Guy.
Buddy has regularly featured, ‘Things’ in his set so that it often feels like he uses it as a touchstone of his youth and a battery charger to fire him up in performance. And, when Buddy fires we all get gloriously burned!
In conclusion here’s a lyrical, hypnotic version by Houston born Albert ‘Iceman’ Collins. Albert is one of those players who has a tone and touch that’s wholly individual and thus instantly recognisable.
It’s more than 60 years now since Guitar Slim cut, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ but from where I’m listening it still sounds newly minted and surprising every time it’s played. I think you call that a classic.
‘Sufferin’ Mind’ on Specialty Records and, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ on UK Ace Records are both fine Guitar Slim compilations well worth your attention.
I have picked out 2 from the hordes of covers of, ‘Things’ above. Something of the reach of the song is indicated by further versions I have enjoyed you might care to look out for:
The Fabulous Thunderbirds
Gary Clark and Jimmy Vaughan
Pee Wee Crayton
Stevie Ray Vaughan
And during Van Morrison’s epic 70th Birthday Cyprus Avenue concerts what should he segue into from a contemplative, ‘Enlightenment’ but …. The Things I Used To Do!
Now, to be clear your Honour, I can’t say for certain that Bob Dylan has a Jukebox and if he has I can’t be 100% sure which artists it features. But, but, I have to say that there is enough compelling evidence from Bob’s recording and performing history to say with some force that Bob really digs Warren Smith and has spent many an hour listening to the fabulous sides he cut for Sun Records in the late 1950s.
Consider; Bob’s tender tribute recording of Warren’s, ‘Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache’, his (unissued) take on, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, his regular 1986 tour performances of, ‘Uranium Rock’ and the aforementioned ‘Moustache’, his thanks in the sleeve notes of, ‘Down In The Groove’ to a, ‘Gal shaped just like a Frog’ (surely referencing Warren’s explosive, ‘Miss Froggie’), and, his repeated featuring of Warren on his Theme Time Radio shows and it becomes obvious that Bob in his boyhood Hibbing days, ear pressed to a transistor radio listening to John R and Hoss Allen, was hit hard by Warren and never forgot him.
Taking all that into account I think we can say with some confidence that Bob’s Jukebox, real or imaginary, will definitely be stocked with some Warren Smith 45s! So let’s cue up Warren’s April 1956 debut single for Sun (No 239), ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, a prime slice of Rockabilly that turned many a head beyond Bob’s.
Ruby rock some more indeed! Warren here is backed by the excellently named Snearly Ranch Boys with whom he had been playing at the Cotton Club in West Memphis when spotted by Sun Records supremo Sam Phillips. The song is credited to Johnny Cash (though those in the know say it was actually written by George Jones – presumably in his ‘Thumper’ incarnation). All agree that it cost Warren $40. Money well spent as it went on to be a regional Number 1 record with some 70,000 sold, outselling the debuts of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
Warren’s vocal is propulsively assured and the record bounces along like a well sprung pickup truck with some fine piano from Smokey Joe Bauch and neat guitar fills from Buddy Holobauch on lead and Stan Kessler on the steel.
Warren, then 24, born in 1932, brought up in Louise Mississippi, and a USAF veteran was ecstatic at the success of his first recording (the B side of which has a lovely vocal on the fine pure country, ‘I’d Rather Be Safe Than Sorry’). As a man with plenty of ambition and a very strong ego Warren looked forward confidently to becoming a huge star in emulation of Elvis.
Yet, life has a habit of throwing roadblocks in the way of the broad highway to fame and fortune we so fondly imagine in the days of youth. So it was for Warren. Despite recording some brilliant records, showcased below, the glittering prizes eluded him due to a mixture of the vagaries of fate, his own deficiencies, the limited marketing budget available to Sam Phillips and the appearance of more irresistible forces onto the scene (step forward Jerry Lee Lewis!).
His story, awaiting the screenplay, included a life threatening car crash taking a year out of his career, addiction to pills and booze, a spell in prison and an unexpected late renaissance courtesy of British Rockabilly fanatics before sudden death at the shockingly young age of 47 in January 1980.
Warren’s second outing for Sun (No 250) issued in september 1956 had as its flip side a somewhat strange version of the Child ballad, ‘Black Jack David’ which must be the oldest tune ever recorded on the Sun label. Its inclusion probably signified Sam Phillips trying to court the country market as well the burgeoning Rockabilly/Rock ‘n’ Roll scene.
The A side, in all its 1 minute 58 seconds of glory was the wholly ludicrous, politically incorrect, yet wholly addictive, ‘Ubangi Stomp’ penned by Charles Underwood then a student at Memphis State. I think the cartoon lyric shows that Charles was not studying Anthropology!
Warren’s band now included the excellent Al Hopson on guitar and Marcus Van Story on bass. The record sold some 100,000 copies but alas for Warren not in a rush but in a leisurely fashion over some 18 months.
Warren next recorded at in Sun Studios at 706 Union Avenue in early 1957 and the results were issued in April. The A side, written by fellow Sun artist Roy Orbison, was the thoroughly engaging, ‘So Long I’m Gone’ but it’s the electrifying, nay crazed, B side, ‘Miss Froggie’ featuring stellar incendiary guitar playing by Al Hopson and brilliant, ‘Look out! we ain’t gonna stop for no one’ drumming by Jimmy Lott that will ensure a place in Rock ‘n’ Roll eternity for Warren Smith.
My diligent scientific research over many decades has conclusively proved that it is impossible (and potentially injurious) to try to resist a song that opens with the epochal couplet:
‘Yes, I got a gal, she’s shaped just like a frog
I found her drinking’ muddy water, sleepin’ in a hollow log’
Warren Smith’s singing on this record is utterly magnificent. He generates heart stopping, heart bursting, levels of excitement smoothly increasing the pressure on the accelerator so that you half expect to hear the boom of the sound barrier being broken before the song ends.
I have to confess that in my youth as I prepared for a Saturday night out in London sure to be filled with alcoholic and romantic excess (the former inevitably more often delivered than the latter!) I would always sing repeatedly, as I made my way to the tube station, at the maximum volume I could get away without without being arrested or beaten up:
‘Well it’s Saturday night, I sure am feelin’ blue
Meet me in the bottom, bring me my boots and shoes’
It never failed to lift me up, bringing me energy and untold innocent delight. Thanks Warren.
The record was a substantial regional hit and took Warren to No 72 on the Billboard Hot 100, his highest ever placing there. However, it was, for commercially and culturally compelling reasons, Jerry Lee Lewis’, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ that monopolised Sam Phillips attention and promotional energies. Head shakingly Warren perhaps then realised that talent, good looks and brilliant recordings don’t always guarantee the brass ring will be yours.
Warren had four more sides issued by Sun including an intriguing cover of Slim Harpo’s swampy R&B classic, ‘Got Love If You Want It’ before he and Sam called it a day in January 1959. Indeed, one of the records Warren will always be remembered for, ‘Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache’ was never even issued by Sun when recorded only seeing the light of day in the early 1970s.
Well that got me croonin’ along and gliding elegantly round my kitchen! I love the unhurried tempo of the song and Warren’s mellifluous vocal which charms me every time. This is another one that’s always playing in my head somewhere. ‘Who you been lovin’ since I been gone’ has to be one of the eternal questions we repeat to ourselves as we replay earlier scenes in the autobiographical movie of our lives.
Warren never made the big time yet he made records that will always live every time they are played. No records sums up the primal attraction of Rockabilly more perfectly for me than, ‘Miss Froggie’. That’s why, whatever’s actually on Bob Dylan’s Jukebox, ‘Miss Froggie’ now proudly takes up its place on The Immortal Jukebox as A12.
I’ve promised myself that one day I’m going to hire a Red Cadillac Convertible and drive down Union Avenue in Memphis, having brushed my moustache (taking cars to dye the strands of grey), with the top down blasting out, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, ‘Ubangi Stomp’, and ‘Red Cadillac’ before stopping outside 706 where I’m going to get out and dance like I’ve danced before as, ‘Miss Froggie’ plays and I’m going to shout with all the force I can muster – that’s for you Warren!
Warren Smith’s Sun Sides can be found on excellent compilations on either the Bear Family or Charly record labels.
Warren also recorded some attractive, quite commercially successful, country sides for Liberty Records in the mid 1960s before his addictions, car crash and prison experience largely sabotaged his career.
Warrens renaissance concerts in London in 1977 were issued on vinyl as, ‘Four R ‘n’ R Legends’. It is cheering to learn how appreciative the London audience was of Warren and how moved he was at their response to him.
‘The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.’ (Isak Dinesen)
‘There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath’ (Herman Melville)
The sea begins at the shore. Standing at its edge we can only marvel at its immensity and otherness. Yet we know that some aspects of ourselves can only be brought to life by deserting the comforting security of the land and the harbour.
You have to put to sea; surrendering to its call, to discover the worlds of wonder which surely lie somewhere beyond the horizon. What’s true for the rolling deep and briny sea is true just as much for that other sea which consumes so much of our waking and dreaming hours – the sea of love.
Come with me now, come with me now and surrender to Phil Phillips and The Twilights original from 1959 and be borne back again to The Sea Of Love.
Phil Phillips wrote the song and sang lead vocals on this classic slice of swamp pop which was a million selling Number 1 R&B hit and Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. He was born John Phillip Baptiste in Lake Charles Louisiana in March 1931. His roots lay in gospel music with the family group The Gateway Quartet. It was his barely required love for Verdi Mae Thomas that inspired him to switch to the secular realm and Sea Of Love was the dreamily hypnotic result.
Originally recorded as a demo at a local radio station the song came to the attention of George Khoury a sharp local music mogul with a downtown record shop who had enjoyed some chart success already as a producer and record label owner through the lovely, ‘Mathilda’ by Cookie And The Cupcakes.
Indeed it’s Cookie And The Cupcakes, with Ernest Jacobs prominent on piano, along with the mysteriously unnamed Twilights who back up Phil on the recording made at Eddie Shuler’s Goldband Records Studio.
Despite the phenomenal sales which accrued once the original Khoury label recording was leased to big time Mercury Records Phil always claimed that he only ever earned $6,800 from his song with the rest disappearing into the coffers of George Khoury, Eddie Shuler and Mercury. A sadly familiar tale!
What can never be taken away from Phil is the glory of his song and his performance on the record. Sea Of Love drifts along at a stately, one might almost say somnambulant pace as it carries us along. There’s a quality of eyes closed pre dawn hours reverie about the record that allows it to dive fathoms deep into our unconscious.
I love the hummed opening which speaks as eloquently of the yearning for love as the reticent yet straight from the heart vocal which follows. To my ears the lyric and vocal have more than a tinge of the lyrical and romantic tradition of the french/creole culture Phil grew up in.
The song almost seems like a creole chanson translated into English. Perhaps this gives the song something of its woozy surreal charm. Listening repeatedly to the song I felt adrift in a free floating dream – buoyed up by the depths of the sea with only the cool gaze of the forgiving moon to light my way.
The mysterious allure of the song has attracted many singers, both famous and obscure, keen to steer their own course through The Sea Of Love. The first cover I’ve chosen to feature today is by the erstwhile Charles Weedon Westover who became one of the princes of early 1960s pop under the more familiar name of Del Shannon!
As you will have heard this is a much more rhythmically forceful version befitting its 1982 vintage and the confident swagger of Del’s backing band on the song – none other than Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers.
If Phil Phillips original brings to mind a pirogue calmly meandering through the bayou this version has the thrust of a powerful diesel engined motor boat beating back the deep sea channel waves. There’s an artful use of swirling keyboards in the middle of the song as a nod and wink tribute to Del’s own, never to be forgotten ‘Runaway’.
This version was a top 40 hit, the last of Del’s career (which ended so tragically with his suicide in 1990) and a highlight from the highly recommended, ‘Drop Down And Get Me’ album.
Del Shannon (who will feature more extensively on The Jukebox later) was throughout his life a highly distinctive and affecting singer who seemed in his voice to evoke the aura of someone who had never quite recovered from some awful secret hurt. A hurt that left him so wounded and anxious that any happiness on offer appeared bound to be fleeting if not wholly illusory. It’s a voice that suits the plangent mood of Sea Of Love holding you enthralled as the song unfolds.
Next from 1985 a version showcasing a plethora of Rock music, ‘Big Beasts’ on a retro R&B spree in the form of The Honeydrippers who featured Led Zeppelin alumni Robert Plant and Jimmy Page as well as Jeff Beck and Chic maestro Nile Rodgers. Paul Shaffer, famed for fronting the Letterman Show Houseband, held down the keyboard chair. Together they fashion a knowing homage to their 1950s roots in their swooning take on Sea Of Love which went top 5 on The Billboard Hot 100 chart.
And now as they used to say on, ‘Monty Python’ for something completely different. Here’s a, ‘Toasting’ master from Jamaica, U Roy (Ernest Beckford) with a deliriously enjoyable version rechristened, ‘Do You Remember’ which references both Phil Phillips original and a fine 1970 cover by The Heptones drawing on the production smarts of Joe Gibbs.
You can surely feel the hot Caribbean sun and the sea breezes wafting all about you as the irresistible rhythms take you over while U Roy extemporises with a winning mixture of cheeky humour and romantic ardour. You won’t be able to play this only once!
Follow that! Well, fortunately I’ve kept a take on Sea Of Love to conclude which can hold its own against any competition. This, by the one, the only Tom Waits, was a key element in the 1989 noiresque thriller movie, ‘Sea Of Love’ (starring a resurgent Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin), which was named after and featured Phil Phillips original song.
Tom Waits! there’s no one like him. Tom, here, gives us an intense, emotional, spooky hall of distorted mirrors Sea Of Love that leaves your head spinning and your heart battering threateningly against your ribcage. This is the diving deep, claustrophobic, submarine version which alters your sense of time and space with its strange charm.
Tom Waits is a true American original who wouldn’t know how to just copy a song. His Sea Of Love is a loving recreation of a classic love song and Tom, having written a few of those himself, does it full justice by doing it entirely his own way,
As Tom showed Phil Phillips songs from the late 1950s still has endless depths to sound. Depths to sound in the always flowing, always churning, Sea Of Love.
Phil Phillips career was effectively hamstrung by a lengthy contract with Mercury which he fought hard to escape from. Disillusioned with the record industry and never seeing any significant windfalls from later versions of his classic song he went on to be a well regarded radio DJ in Louisiana.
The always commendable German collectors label Bear Family has issue a compilation, inevitably titled Sea Of Love, which with excellent sound collects all the highlights of Phil’s career. Well worth a listen for more examples of his haunting vocal style.
Phil was quite properly inducted in 2007 into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame.
Addendum – Since writing this post I’ve discovered this wonderful clip of Phil singing his classic song at The Louisiana hall Of Fame – prepare to feel your eyes moisten!
John Lennon, with characteristic force, once famously observed that before Elvis there was nothing.
When you consider the lamentable history of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Britain in the years preceding the advent of The Beatles it’s hard not to agree with my friend Barclay Butler who once regaled me, over several pints of beer, with a Shakespeare parody proclaiming that, ‘Before The Beatles, in this Sceptred Isle, this other Eden, this demi-paradise, this precious stone set in the silver sea – there was nothing, nowt, nada, Zilch!’
Now, I like a sweeping generalisation as much as the next man but as an old grey-beard I’ve also learned that the rule tends to be proved by the inevitable exception.
So I feel it incumbent on me to say that Lonnie Donegan, the founder of Skiffle music in Britain, really did strum the first immortal chords of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the United Kingdom.
In addition,in the the process of recording fine records such as, ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ and, ‘Cumberland Gap’ he inspired every superstar British rocker who followed, from Paul McCartney to Mark Knopfler, to launch their careers in music.
There are also two other pre Beatles records, both featuring wonderful lead playing by disgracefully under appreciated guitarist Joe Moretti, which would fully merit their place on any roadhouse jukebox.
I urge you to spare some of your precious time to listen to 1959s magnificently kinetic, ‘Brand New Cadillac’ by the enigmatic Vince Taylor (the supposed model for David Bowie’s immortal creation Ziggy Stardust) and the thrillingly evocative film noir swagger and strut of, ‘Shakin’ All Over’ by Johnny Kidd and The Pirates from 1960.
As is the way of things most people who know, ‘Cadillac’ know it from the properly rowdy cover by The Clash while, ‘Shakin’ found wide fame through inferior versions by, ‘Guess Who’ in North America and Normie Rowe in Australia. Sometimes the originals really are the best!
Everyone knows that The Beatles were from Liverpool and it was also from that great city on The Mersey that Billy Fury, Britain’s only remotely credible pre Fab Four rocker, hailed.
He now has a permanent memorial there through a proud statue which adorns the Albert Dock – an appropriate location for a man who spent two years working as a deck hand on a Mersey tug boat The Formby.
Billy as you can see from the image above was moodily handsome in the vein of James Dean, Chet Baker and Elvis.
He also sported a mighty quiff and looked dynamite in neon coloured jackets!
Moreover, in contrast to almost all his pre Beatles contemporaries, he had a sense of the creative energy and spontaneity at the heart of the revolutionary music sweeping all over the world from the American South.
Billy, like millions of us, had his head, his heart and his soul set aswirl by the epoch shattering sounds of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He also had affection for the folk art masterpieces produced by the Orpheus of Alabama, Hank Williams.
Perhaps it was Billy’s childhood experience of rheumatic fever resulting in a permanently damaged heart that gave him his fatalistic sense that he would die young, his aura of diffident vulnerability and a wounded charisma that was particularly attractive to his female fans.
His career proper began in 1958 in, ‘You wouldn’t dare make it up’ circumstances. Eighteen year old Billy attended a Birkenhead, Liverpool rock/pop revue concert featuring a series of artists promoted by the Svengali like show business manager Larry Parnes.
Hearing the self penned songs Billy (then known as Ronald Wycherley!) was pitching to Marty Wilde and instantly recognising his marketability Parnes pushed the trembling Billy onto the stage and by the next morning Ronald Wycherley was rechristened Billy Fury and off on the road in the tour bus!
Girls liked Billy’s looks and his sometimes shy, sometimes shameless, performing manner while the male members of the audience had to admit that he really could rock out when he wanted to.
Both sides of the Fury persona were featured on the 10 song album, ‘The Sound Of Fury’ with every song written by Billy, that he recorded in a single day in April 1960. The, ‘not too far from Sun Studio’ lead rockabilly guitar was provided by Joe Brown and the solid drums by Alan White.
The whole album is over in half an hour yet it had then and still now retains the visceral impact of true Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Listen here to Billy bring some heat and style into the grey 1950s London with his own, ‘Turn My Back On You’
Now, hear his heart stilling, heart breaking, blood on the tracks ballad, ‘You Don’t Know’
Billy on record at least never really approached the kind of ecstatic abandon Elvis and Jerry Lee reached (who ever has?) but uniquely for Britain at the time he embodied an affecting personal engagement with his material and vocals that I still find admirable and moving.
His recurring poor health, lack of driving ambition and the erratic tides of popular taste left his career as a Rock ‘n’ Roll star effectively marooned once the Beatles led beat boom hit its stride in the mid 60s .
Yet amazingly, it turns out he had as many 60s hits (24) in Britain as his fellow Liverpudlians though their sales both in Britain and worldwide would, of course, have dwarfed his.
Though he continued to write and record and always had a core of life long devotees he became one of those, ‘Whatever happened to’ figures so plentifully present in music history.
Billy, whose health was never robust, finally succumbed to his heart problems and died in 1982 aged only 42.
Looking back, few who listen carefully will ever forget his look and his alluring voice.
There is a poignancy about him that clutches at the heart.
To my mind Billy’s ability to inhabit a mysteriously powerful vulnerability reached its zenith with a record that haunted Billy (he recorded it three times) and will surely haunt you too – ‘Wondrous Place’.
This is one of those songs where you feel like you are eavesdropping, in an unsettling yet addictive way, to a very intimate psychic drama.
Billy seems to be singing to himself as he walks alone in the pre dawn early morning hours down some lonesome moonlit road; perhaps some Merseyside dockland version of Hank Williams’ lost highway.
There is a sleepy reverie suggested by the slow river drifting tempo and the heartbeat percussion. Billy’s lovely humming breaks and artful hesitations combined with his tender, airy vocal seems that of a man trying, not entirely successfully, to persuade himself that the wondrous place he hymns is his to revisit when he wills.
There is more of the wistful goodbye to love lost in this performance than a celebration of a continuing relationship.
‘Wondrous Place’ lasts less than two and a half minutes but as you listen you feel it lasts a much longer time.
Somehow it makes you aware of all the individual breaths of life that fill all the seconds, all the minutes of all the days and nights you have left to you.
And, perhaps all of us carry memories; recalled on moonlit walks or quiet moments snatched from the hourly burly of everyday life of a wondrous place that we can never quite recapture though we can revisit it in the echoing halls of our imaginations – especially when a singer like Billy Fury shows us the way.