Little Walter – Blues Giant – Harmonica Genius!

‘You gotta say Little  Walter invented the blues harmonica .. No one had that sound before him. No one could make the thing cry like a baby and moan like a woman.

No one could put pain into the harp and have it come out so pretty. No one understood that the harmonica – just as much as a trumpet, a trombone or a saxophone – could have have a sound that would drop you in your tracks!’. (Buddy Guy)

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Some people have just got it. And, by it, I mean IT – the mojo that definitively separates the great from the very good and the merely good.

From the sidelines or from the stalls we can often recognise, without expert knowledge ourselves, some invisible aura that marks out the special one, the summiteer, from those still scrambling up Mount Parnuss’ lesser slopes.

It’s not necessary to have been a Major League Baseball player to have recognised, on first sight, that Ted Williams was a great hitter or that Sandy Koufax was the pitcher you’d want pitching for you if your life was at stake.

Intensive years of conservatoire schooling are not needed to know, for certain, that Maria Callas had a gift for dramatic singing that is beyond compare or that Glenn Gould as he hunched over the keyboard and played Bach’s divine music was some kind of angel himself.

Anyone, after watching even one round of Muhammad Ali boxing in his peerless prime would in head shaking wonder have had to exclaim, ‘There’s never been anyone like him!’.

Little Walter (Jacobs) a bluesman and instrumentalist of undoubted genius and the subject of today’s Immortal Jukebox post is assuredly one of that elect company.

With the certainty that advancing age brings, I confidently declare that there never will be a harmonica player to equal, let alone out do, Little Walter for drive, flair, command, show-stopping technical skill and outrageously imaginative musical daring.

Listen to the brilliance of his playing on, ‘Juke’ his first solo 45 from 1952, recorded with his colleagues in Chicago blues finest ever outfit – The Muddy Waters band.

I believe the proper expression after bearing that is, ‘Lord, Have Mercy!’.

This is Little Walter stepping up the stage, front and centre, to announce to his fellow musicians and the wider world that he was the new royal ruler of the blues harmonica.

Sure, on his way up he had been influenced by the two blues harpists named Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Walter Horton. He had arrived in Chicago as WW2 ended by way of his birthplace, Marksville Louisiana, New Orleans, Helena Arkansas, Memphis and St Louis – all the while soaking up music and developing his awesome technique.

It is clear that he had also been listening intently to thrusting saxophonists like Big Jay McNeely in addition to harp masters. But, then Walter took everything he had learned and at the warp speed of his imagination, moved into interstellar overdrive, taking the humble harmonica into uncharted territory. The territory all subsequent blues harmonica players live in.

Juke, recorded at the end of a Muddy Waters session for Chess subsidiary, Checker Records, became an enormous hit. It was biggest seller the label had up to that point and the first (and still only) harmonica led instrumental to top the R&B charts.

Walter and the commercially savvy Chess Brothers realised that while Walter should remain an essential part of the Muddy Waters sound he now needed to have his own band, The Jukes, for recording and touring purposes.

Walter was obviously the star of the show but he was fortunate to have such alert and sympathetic sidemen as guitarists, Louis and David Myers and drummer Fred Below.

Together in the period 1952 to 1958 they had 14 top ten R&B chart successes – records that are rightly regarded as blues classics. The general pattern was for each 45 to feature an instrumental allowing Walter to swoop and soar wherever his seemingly unlimited imagination took him coupled with a tough, street wise vocal side.

Walter was not a great singer but he could give a lyric a dramatic authority that lodged a song deep into your memory. It’s hard to believe that any set of sides were ever more perfectly engineered to blast out of South Side Chicago Jukeboxes!

On, ‘the threatening ‘You Better Watch Yourself’ below his harmonica doubles as a switchblade slicing the air powered by intoxicant fouled male bravado. Or perhaps that should be doubles as a, ‘Saturday Night Special’ handgun waved to all and sundry in the joint as a signal – a declaration, that, ‘look out brothers and sisters! I’m a mean, mean dude and you had best not get in my way or mess with MY woman’.

More evidence here of Walter’s ability not simply to plug in to use the power of electricity to add volume to his harmonica but his understanding that testing the limits of the amplifiers could produce feedback and other distorting effects which he could harness to produce ever more individual and wondrous sounds.

There was something of the sorcerer about Walter – casting mysterious musical spells from a book unreadable to all but him.

Walter was a genius. He was also mean, moody and unreliable though he could be charming when he wanted to. Easily slighted, especially when drunk (and he was rarely without a bottle to hand) he was always one step, one sideways look, away from a fight.

His hungry indulgence in booze and drugs inevitably wore down his body and though his talent was immense it could not survive in its true glory beyond the late 1950s given the sustained onslaught of self abuse he visited upon it.

But when he was in his prime there was no one in Chicago or the whole wide world to touch him!

Walter, certain in his mastery of his instrument could play at the fastest tempos to whip an audience into a frenzy. But, like all the great musicians, he could exercise a mesmeric hold on his listeners playing at very slow tempo.

Listen to him on, ‘Quarter To Twelve’ sounding like some orchestral nocturnal spectre briefly visiting this material world to pass on some vital message.

I hear many things in the harmonica sounds of Little Walter.

I hear the cry and moan Buddy Guy heard. I also hear air renting sobs of pain, sly seduction, bitter rage – sometimes suppressed sometimes inescapably aimed right between our eyes and ears.

I hear terror and exultation, anxiety and ambition, lust, longing, and oceans of loss. Oceans of loss. I hear a proud and angry grown man and a bewildered, bereft child.

I hear all the swirling sea of human emotions we are heir to drawn from the very air and brought to shining dramatic life through Walter’s miraculous sound.

A last treat – here he is, courtesy of the pen of blues godfather WIllie Dixon, with what has become a blues standard, ‘My Babe’.

What a huge sound! No fooling, this is Chicago blues at its best – this is the stuff of life.

Goodnight Walter. May your story be heard and your tears dried. You gave us treasure from your magnificent gifts.

Notes

The Chess catalogue has zig zagged through many incarnations for reissue purposes with complications appearing and disappearing with frustrating frequency.

The compilation I listen to most is the Chess 50th Anniversary Collection. You could also investigate the sets from the Proper and Jasmine labels.

A record not to miss is, ‘The Blues World of Little Walter’ on blues specialist label Delmark. This is a quartet outing with Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers and Leroy Foster. Their 1950 version of ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin” will send shivers through your whole being.

Peter Green, Lonnie Mack, Gatemouth Brown – Guitar! Guitar! Guitar!

When we are children we spend much of our lives dreaming of the future. A future in which we will be fearless captains of storied lives. What wonders we will accomplish! Idly staring out of windows at home or at our school desks, seemingly in a daze, we lay out scenarios of heroic movies in which we are the writer, producer, director and multi Oscar winning star.

A lot of young men dreams swirl around images of themselves as the epitome of cool at the wheel of a gleaming, glamorous car (a Chevrolet Corvette or perhaps an E type Jaguar) which will make all their male friends envious and all the girls of their acquaintance, especially the girl of their dreams (there’s always a luminously lit girl in these dreams) stop, stare and ask – ‘Can I have a ride?’

Others disdain these petrol head reveries. Instead, their dreams see them on stage wowing the audience (and their fellow musicians) with the virtuosity of their six string genius. Doodling on their school notebooks they picture themselves strutting their soon to be recognised stuff elegantly armed with a Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster, a Gibson Flying V, Firebird or a 1959 Les Paul.

They just know that one day like Johnny B Goode their name will dazzle the night in neon lights as people come from miles around to hear them make that guitar ring, ring, ring like a bell.

Often these dreams vanish into the ether only to be recalled when the dust covered yearbook is once more brought into the light. But, but, there are always those who through determination, application and sheer willpower realise those dreams of childhood and as is the way of these things provide models for another generation of dreamers.

Today the Jukebox features three Guitar heroes who dreamed those dreams and who then burned those dreams into vinyl masterpieces in the 1950s and 1960s which continue to provide dreamscapes for aspiring axe-men to this day.

The Jukebox needle drops first on, ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’ a joyously swinging 1954 Peacock Records Rhythm & Blues gem by a guitarist, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, who defined Americana long before the term was invented. Gatemouth was from Orange Texas and man oh man could he cut a rug whether he was playing the blues, Zydeco, Rhythm & Blues or Country music! Like the man said he played American and World music – Texas style.

The version above was recorded at Radio City Music Hall in February 2003 and can be found on the highly recommended DVD, ‘Lightning In A Bottle’. The sharp eyed among you will recognise that behind the drums is the great Levon Helm from The Band.

Levon lays down a killer beat urging Gatemouth on as he magisterially wails through his signature tune. The fine horn section issues hot blast after hot blast lifting Gatemouth to ever greater instrumental heights on guitar.

The whole version puts me in mind of The Texas Special streamliner train as it flashed through the night on its way home to San Antonio. Gatemouth’s guitar style was full of fleet flair but never needlessly flashy. His sweetly stinging solos are those of a professional going enjoyably about his business with dexterous skill.

I’m delighted that I met Gatemouth at London’s 100 Club in the mid 1970s on one of his frequent European tours. He was quite a sight to see in his trademark black outfit featuring a feathered hat, pointed cowboy boots and studded Western shirt. To top it off when not on stage he smoked a pipe!

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With the enthusiasm of youth I waylaid him as he walked back to the stage for his second set and near begged him to play, ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’. To my eternal delight two minutes later he announced, ‘Here’s one Tom over there says I just have to play’ before launching into a blistering take on Okie Dokie. What a tune, what a musician, what a man!

While Gatemouth was laying down, ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’ in Houston in the heartland of unfashionable rural Indiana a young man born to play guitar, Lonnie Mack, was practicing obsessively while absorbing and incorporating influences from rock n roll, rockabilly, the blues and crucially gospel music.

On the family farm while there was no electricity there was a battery powered radio – usually tuned to The Grand Ol’ Opry. Keen eared Lonnie could hear that Merle Travis was a great player and when his parents went to bed he could tune the radio into black stations and hear T Bone Walker and other bluesmen and dream of a style which would marry Merle and T Bone’s imaginative fluency while adding an intensity he had heard in Ray Charles and the Blind Boy gospel groups.

In 1958 Gibson issued the distinctive Flying V guitar and teenage Lonnie who had been working the Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio roadhouse circuit since he was 13 got himself the 7th Flying V off the production line. And, boy did he put that guitar through its paces!

Wow! I think that bears repeating, Wow! And that was what practically every guitar player who heard, ‘Wham’ in 1963 said as they played the record over and over again trying to figure out how a chubby kid from the sticks could come up with such a sound that seemed to be savagely wild while being perfectly contained and controlled. With wonder most realised that if it came to a musical, ‘cutting contest’ there could only be one winner – Lonnie Mack.

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Lonnie Mack’s guitar playing here and throughout his stunningly brilliant 1964 LP, ‘The Wham Of That Memphis Man’, recorded for Fraternity Records in Cincinnati, has the overwhelming onrushing power of a field shredding tornado as it cuts a swathe through your brain cells while you desperately try to keep up with his prodigious invention.

Soon, guitar vibrato bars were popularly called Whammy Bars in tribute to the astounding sounds Lonnie coaxed and commanded from his own Bigsby vibrato tailpiece.

Lonnie’s admiration of Gospel music is reflected in the intensity of his performances and the way he thrillingly builds and releases tension to hold and lift both his audience and his fellow musicians. Using techniques borrowed from the blues, bluegrass and gospel Lonnie can fit blindingly fast licks and choruses into a finely judged musical structure and still shift into overdrive to guide a tune to its breathless conclusion. Once heard I’m telling you that you will not be able to get enough of the wham of Lonnie Mack.

While these American giants were scorching their groove into guitar history a generation of fanatical young Englishmen swore undying devotion to the Blues and dreamed that they too might capture and discharge lightning in their playing just like Elmore James, B B King or Buddy Guy.

The mentor and bandleader for many of these guitar tyros was one of the key figures in British Blues history, John Mayall. From 1963 onwards he led a series of bands called, ‘The Bluesbreakers’ who became an amalgam of finishing school and military academy for would be bluesmen – especially guitar players.

As most will know Mayall’s first great guitar slinger was none other than Eric Clapton who showed on the 1966 LP, ‘Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton’ that Britain had produced its first guitar player who could genuinely be considered to be on the level of the Chicago scene masters.

So it was genuinely shocking for producer Mike Vernon to learn as he set up the studio in 1967 to record Mayall’s LP, ‘A Hard Road’ that Eric had left the band. It was even more shocking to be told by John Mayall not to worry about that as the new lead guitarist, Peter Green, was even better than Eric! How could that be?

Well, heretical though it may be in many critical circles, I agree with John Mayall’s 1967 bravado. To my mind in the three years or so from 1967 to 1970 before his musical genius was effectively crippled by over indulgence in drugs, LSD especially, and mental instability, Peter Green was the most brilliant and extraordinarily affecting guitar player on the planet.

In later posts I will write about his career at some length. Today I will limit myself to some general observations about his sound and present in illustration his wondrous performance on, ‘The Supernatural’ from the, ‘Hard Road’ LP. Here, Peter Green and his, ‘Magic’ 1959 Les Paul will take you to places few guitar players can even imagine let alone reach.

Perhaps the simplest way to comment on that incredible performance would be just to quote someone, B B King, who knew a little bit about guitar playing – ‘He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats’. Amen, B B, Amen!

‘The Supernatural’ was the first recorded evidence that Peter Green had a very special quality as a musician: he had a feeling for the shivering essence of music. The critic Greil Marcus talks about the, ‘Yargh’ when trying to pinpoint the veil piercing quality of Van Morrison’s voice.

I think we could use the term, ‘The Touch’ to identify the same quality found in the voice of Peter Green’s guitar. Through an inspired use of vibrato, sustain and controlled harmonic feedback he conjures up soundscapes that open up such deep interior realms of feeling that listening to him can be a deeply emotional experience.

I have always thought that Peter Green and his Les Paul worked together like two brave but vulnerable living creatures voyaging into terra incognita when he took his guitar solos. It’s the mixture of musical daring with emotional vulnerability and depth that distinguishes Peter Green for me from all his contemporaries.

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Peter Green in his searching songs and performance seems to offer reports back from dark reaches within himself and I suspect all of us. In his playing we can come to recognise both the embracing warmth of those sub conscious depths and perhaps also their chill threat. The timber of humanity is always twisted and knotted and Peter Green’s guitar brilliantly illuminates that truth.

A great writer, Franz Kafka, once gave his view on what the function of a book should be and I think it holds up just as well for music:

‘ I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? … Good Lord, …. we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone …. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us’.

Listening to Peter Green I feel that the axe has indeed split the frozen sea.

Notes:

Gatemouth Brown died at 81 in September 2005 in his childhood home town of Orange Texas having just escaped the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. In a macabre twist his coffin was floated away from his burial site by flooding caused by Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Happily, he was later reinterred securely in Orange’s Hollywood Cemetery where his resting place is properly marked by a fine headstone and a plaque from the Texas Historical Commission.

Gatemouth made many fine recordings. I recommend the original albums:

1975 Bogalusa Boogie Man (Barclay)
1979 Makin’ Music (with Roy Clark) (One Way)
1981 Alright Again! (Rounder)
1982 One More Mile (Rounder)
1999 American Music, Texas Style (Verve/Blue Thumb)
2001 Back to Bogalusa (Verve/Gitanes)

For compilations:

1987 Texas Swing (Rounder) Rounder recordings
1990 The Original Peacock Recordings (Rounder) Peacock recordings

Lonnie Mack:

‘The Wham Of That Memphis Man’ should be in every collection – if you haven’t got it order it today!

In addition to his staggering guitar playing Lonnie is also a wonderfully intense singer who brings a gospel grace and intensity to his country soul vocals. The combined qualities are well captured on his Elektra albums, ‘Glad I’m In The Band’ and, ‘Whatever’s Right’ from 1969. His live, rampaging roadhouse blues sound is showcased on, ‘Live At Coco’s.

Two albums on Alligator Records from 1984 and 1986 are also well worth investigating, ‘Strike Like Lightning’ (extensively featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan) and, ‘Second Sight’.

Peter Green:

Everything Peter recorded with John Mayall and with Fleetwood Mac should be a mandatory purchase!

Lou Reed & Smokey Robinson idolised – Nolan Strong – The Wind

‘There was a guy who lived in Detroit and had a group called the Diablos. His name was Nolan Strong. They were my favorite vocalists at that time’ (Smokey Robinson)

‘If I could really sing I’d be Nolan Strong’ (Lou Reed)

Some songs, some voices creep up on you incrementally winning your affection the more you hear them. Others like the song, ‘The Wind’ and the voice of Nolan Strong immediately, inescapably, haunt your imagination.

In this case haunt may be too timid a term – it would be more accurate to say that, ‘The Wind’ in all its mysterious majesty took Possession of my imagination and held sway there for many months from the moment I was first exposed to its eerie brilliance. The only other song that’s had this effect on me was the late Nick Drake’s spectral, ‘Pink Moon’ which seemed a threnody from a drowned soul five fathoms down in an unforgiving sea.

‘I know she is gone but my love lingers on,
In a dream that the wind brings to me’.

Blow Wind!

The Wind reminds me yet again that the musical instrument that has the greatest power to affect my emotions and my spirit is the human voice. A voice like Nolan Strong’s calls out to the soul in a way that admits no explanation that can be understood in technical analysis using terms like pitch, tone and decibels. Nolan Strong’s voice can only be appreciated in terms of stilled heartbeats, stilled breath, cradle memories …..

In the song Nolan’s universe unlocking high tenor lead is supported by his colleagues in The Diablos. They had formed In 1950 at Central High School in Detroit when Nolan met fellow singers Juan Guieterriez (Tenor), Willie Hunter (Baritone), Quentin Eubanks (Bass) and Bob Edwards a guitarist.

They listened in particular to the wonderful and immensely influential recordings of Clyde McPhatter with The Dominoes. Nolan Strong like Elvis Presley and scores of other singers was deeply impressed by the glorious élan of Clyde’s vocals – a song sung by Clyde was given wings and soared thrillingly into stark distant spheres of the sky above us all.

Practicing and practicing and practicing and performing anywhere they were allowed The Diablos honed their sound as 1950 became 1951 then 1952 then1953 and then 1954. Eventually they fetched up at an address that would be part of the legend of the Detroit music scene. Not 2648 West Grand Boulevard where the entrepreneurial genius Berry Gordy would establish the sound of, ‘Young America’ in 1959 but 11629 Linwood the home of Fortune records run by Jack and Devora Brown.

Fortune was a, ‘Mom and Pop’ operation set up in the late 1940s hoping to make hits from Devora Brown’s songs and the talent pool latent in Detroit’s huge African-American population. The Browns were short on cash and the recording facilities at Fortune were primitive even by the standards of the time. Yet Fortune had imagination and in Devora a distinctive songwriter.

The first Diablos recording was a Devora song, ‘Adios, My Desert Love’ which charmed Detroit with its Latin rhumba accents and the intricate interplay of the harmony vocals underpinned by castanet and piano accompaniment.

Their next single was Fortune 511, ‘The Wind’ co-written by Devora and The Diablos. The recording features acoustic bass, vibes and electric guitar in addition to the delicate orchestral blend of vocals surrounding, cushioning, the astounding lead of Nolan Strong which both in its sung parts and the recitation prefigured the soundscapes conjured up later by Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson.

The first fifteen seconds of instrumental introduction establish an otherworldly atmosphere which is retained throughout the duration of the recording. The Diablos when they enter establish an anchor for our ears before Nolan enters taking us to uncharted realms with the heaven rending purity of his vocal. Nolan’s vocal contains both the comfort of the cool summer breeze and the chill of lost love’s memory. His vocal caresses us as once his lover caressed him. What could be more tender than Nolan’s vocal here?

There are some days in our lives we can never forget. Days which become emotional touchstones which as the years go take on a hallucinatory power when recalled – sometimes voluntarily, sometimes emerging unheralded into our startled consciousness. I believe in the collective unconscious and it is clear to me that Nolan Strong and The Diablos dived deep into it when recording, ‘The Wind’.

Listen to the last dying fall of the song and you will know that this is a dream that will always linger on. As long as we have hearts that beat and minds that dream it will linger on. Even until the heavens above can no longer shine. Even until then.

Notes:

Nolan strong died at 43 in 1977. His voice will always be with me and if you listen to any compilation of Nolan Strong and The Diablos I am sure it will stay with you as well.

Songs to particularly look out for include, ‘Daddy Rockin Strong’, ‘The Way You Dog Me Around’ and, ‘Mind Over Matter’.

I also recommend that you listen to Laura Nyro’s cover of The Wind from her essential album, ‘Gonna Take A Miracle’ which she recorded with the vocal group Labelle. Laura, whom I will write about often here, records the song as a tender homage to her days on New York street corners singing songs like The Wind which seemed to hang bright in the evening skies like the moon.

Van Morrison – in The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll!

‘Turn it up! Turn up your Rad-io!’ (Van Morrison – ‘Caravan’)

‘We were the War children – born 1945 ….’ (Van Morrison – ‘Wild Children’)

‘I can get your station when I need rejuvenation … Wavelength you never let me down’ (Van Morrison – ‘Wavelength’)

‘… I like Morrison because I know that his work comes from the same level as my own poetry – the level of daydreaming; that he’s out to annihilate ego; that he’s after the same,’nothingness’ as Kavanagh was after ….’ (Paul Durcan)

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Van Morrison is an only child. A child alone much of the time by inclination and perhaps vocation. A soul born to dream, to live in dreams and to birth those dreams in songs and singing – dreaming in God.

As a boy growing up in East Belfast he was close to the sea and the countryside. From his house, beyond his bedroom, he could hear voices echoing over the Beechie River and imagine the mist swathed shipyard towers looming out of the night as the foghorns guided ships safely home.

His head, heart and spirit opened up and welcomed dreams and intimations of an immortal world coexisting with the mortal world. Walking down Hyndford Street to leafy Cyprus Avenue he could be transported so that he was both thrillingly outside himself and strangely never so completely himself.

Dreaming those young man’s dreams he found sustenance for his creative imagination in the sights and sounds of his home city, its hinterland, and in sounds closer to home emanating from the radio and the HMV record player. The radio and the record player would become almost sacred objects.

The sounds they produced would enter deep into his consciousness, his soul; sounds he could never forget, sounds he would store as treasure and draw on for decades – fusing them through the mysterious alchemy of art into extraordinarily beautiful and affecting visions of his own.

And these visions have their genesis in the days before Rock ‘n’ Roll. The days of post war austerity. Days which could seem monochrome, mundane and stultifyingly metronomic. Days when a dreaming boy hunched close to the radio and the record player in search of a rainbow for his soul.

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Together with fellow Irishman and fellow dreamer, poet Paul Durcan, he would dramatise those dreaming days in a song, ‘In The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll’ – a song which would catalogue some of the signposts of those dreams in a performance which has something of the hyper real, time slipping, giddy character of a waking dream. A performance which has me laughing out loud and punching the air with Joy as he hymns the stations and the musicians that called to him – that called his own unique voice into being.

‘In the Days’ is a dream that’s shot through with good humour, strangeness and charm. A dream that flows like a pure mountain stream strong enough to cut through stone yet gentle enough to dip your hand in. A stream you would surely want to let the goldfish go into!

A dream brought to vivid life over four days in the studio by an intimate quartet – Paul Durcan as the inspired/crazed narrator, Dave Early on drums, Steve Pearce on bass with Van Morrison on animating spirit, piano and vocals.

The sleeve notes tell me the song last 8 minutes and 13 seconds but that only records how long it lasts the first time you hear it – for once you’ve heard it it will be playing in your imagination and in your dreams for the rest of your life. Come aboard!

A Listeners guide:

Paul Durcan:

Paul Durcan is a maverick Irish poet who has been writing poems which fizz with emotional and literary energy for as long as Van has been writing songs which fizz with spiritual and musical energy. Durcan’s poetry speaks in an urgent conversational tone about almost every aspect of life not excluding the political, the sexual and the spiritual.

Reading a Durcan collection is to be taken on a thrilling literary roller coaster ride which will have you laughing and gasping as well as exhilarated and emotionally pummelled. He is a performance poet on the page as well as the stage addressing his audience as friends and fellow campfire sitters as he examines the crazy world we live in. He seems to me to be wholly mad and wholly sane simultaneously – ideal territory for a poet to occupy.

‘Justin’:

Who is Justin? Just a name plucked out of the air for its sound, its comparative rarity in a world awash with Jims and Georges and Pauls? Probably we will never know who this, ‘gentler than a man’ man was. Just a thought but it strikes me as not insignificant that an Irish poet from the latter half of the twentieth century would use a name which happens to be the little know second name of the greatest Irish poet of that era: Seamus Justin Heaney!

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The Wireless Knobs/Telefunken

Vintage radios such as those made by the Telefunken Company in Berlin were gorgeously tactile objects. Radios, humming with valve power and gleaming with polished wood, bakelite and glass, softly lit, took pride of place in our homes in the days before Televisions took up their imperial dominance in our living rooms. No point and shoot remotes then! Radios were switched on and off and tuned to stations using knobs that clunked satisfyingly into position and dials that you set spinning to call up and capture sounds from distant lands beamed in from the ionosphere.

The very air crackled with possibility as you waited for the signal to settle as you settled down to laugh along your favourite comedians, sing along with your favourite singers, gasp at the heroics of your favourite detective or be amazed by a discovery as the spinning dial led you into imaginative territory you had never dreamed existed.

Radios conjured up dreams, created communities of interest and painted pictures that seared into our memories. Radio, despite all the technological developments of the last few decades remains the dreamers ideal companion. Tune in!

‘I am searching for … Luxembourg, Athlone, Budapest, AFN, Hilversum, Helvetia …’

One of the great pleasures of vintage radio was discovering what programmes were made by exotically named radio stations broadcasting from places which often had to be looked up on an atlas to see where they were! Not knowing what you might find and be introduced to was exciting and expanded our cultural horizons.

I’ll take spinning the dial over preset culture any day of the week: only listening to what you already know you like narrows your horizons and precludes the revolutionary discoveries that open up new worlds.

As you scanned the stations on the radio dial even reciting their names became a form of litany – clearly recognised above by Paul Durcan who has a genius for incantatory recitation.

Luxembourg:

Radio Luxembourg had a very powerful signal (on 208 metres Medium Wave) which washed tidally over the British Isles bringing many young people their first regular exposure to those new fangled musics their parents just knew were no good for them. Luxembourg, in contrast to the BBC, was a commercial station which meant it was happy to devote whole programmes to showcasing the new releases from record labels such as Capitol and Phillips.

On Saturdays at 8pm in 1956 (when Van was aged 11) you could listen to, ‘Jamboree’ – described as two hours of non-stop, action packed radio featuring ‘Teenage Jury’ and American disc-jockey Alan Freed with an excerpt from his world changing show, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

Athlone:

Athlone is a historic Irish town on the shores of the River Shannon. From the 1930s to the 1970s the principal transmitter for Irish radio was located in Athlone and the Irish national radio station came to be known on radio dials all over the world as Athlone. The fledgling Irish state was keen to promote native culture with Irish sports and traditional music being prominently featured.

Athlone is also the birthplace of the great Irish tenor Count John McCormack whose golden voice resounded all over the globe in the first half of the twentieth century.

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Like Van he had a voice that was able to express the normally inexpressible – a voice that could send shivers through the soul.

AFN (American Forces Network)

One of the spin-offs from the presence of GIs in Europe as a result of WW2 and the ensuing cold war was AFN whose broadcasts of American music could be listened to by Europeans hungry for the jazz and blues based music which was so hard to find anywhere else. Being near an American military base was a boon both for the likely strength of the signal and the possibility that personnel from the base might have records never seen in domestic stores.

Lester Piggott:

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Lester Piggott (‘The long fellow’) was, as my Dad would have told you, the greatest horse racing jockey who ever lived. He won England’s premier race, The Epsom Derby, an almost unbelievable 9 times from 1954 as a teenager with, ‘Never Say Die’ through to 1983 when he won with, ‘Teenoso’. Lester Piggott became an almost mythical figure not just in the world of the turf but in the folklore of the nation.

Children and grandmothers who never opened a racing page in their lives would go into a bookmakers on the day of a classic race and simply say, ‘I’ll have five shillings on whatever Lester is riding!’ And, very, very often that turned out to be a very smart bet for no one was a better judge of what horse to ride than Lester Piggott and no one more capable of riding a race with ice cool expertise to ensure victory. Lester was a close mouthed man with a very dry sense of humour – he had no time for the hoopla of celebrity. He he lived to win horse races and he spoke horse with a fluency that’s probably never been matched.

Fats, Elvis, Sonny, Lightning, Muddy, John Lee!, Ray Charles:The High Priest! The Killer: Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard.

Van Morrison was extraordinarily fortunate to be the son of a father who had lived in Detroit and who had a fabled collection of blues and Rhythm & Blues records young Van could immerse his thirsty soul in. As he says he heard Muddy Waters and Blind Lemon on the street where he was born. Leadbelly became his guiding spirit. A spirit he has remained true to over five decades and more of music making.

The radio brought to him and millions of others the original Rock ‘n’ Roll creators – the revolutionaries whose legacy will live for ever. The greater the distance we are from those giants of the 1950s the greater their genius is clear. They were the guides and spirits who befriended us – who turned on the coloured lights for whole generations. Their genius is lovingly celebrated in the roll call here to form an honours board of immortality.

There can be no doubt that Van Morrison has joined that company.

As the song fades back into the ether a transported Paul Durcan says:

‘We certainly got a lot of beautiful things in there Van’.

Truer words were never spoken.

Thanks to Kerry Shale for suggesting the topic of this post. For those of you who may not be familiar with the name Kerry is a multi-talented actor, writer and voice over artist. He also, obviously, has great musical taste!

Elvis listened closely yet the world barely knows him : Junior Parker!

Given the machinations of the music business, the powerful currents of cultural and social history and the mysteries of public taste it is entirely possible to be a magnificent singer, to have written and recorded some classic songs covered by giants such as Elvis Presley and to have made wonderful records at every stage of a two decade career (‘Mystery Train’, ‘Next Time You See Me’, ‘Feelin’ Good’, ‘Driving Wheel’) and yet remain a shadowy figure usually referred to only with regard to figures of more popular note.

My Lords, ladies and gentlemen and music lovers everywhere I give you an artist you’ve been longing for – if only you had known he was there – Junior Parker!

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Born in 1927 and growing up in West Memphis, Arkansas in the 1930s and 1940s Junior Parker was exposed to a thriving Blues and Rhythm and Blues scene. He learned to play the harmonica at the feet of Rice Miller (the second Sonny Boy Williamson) and in his teenage years he befriended and played with Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, B B King and the mighty Howling Wolf. He also hooked up with bandleader/talent spotter/musical fixer Ike Turner who got him his initial shot at recording with Modern Records in 1952.

However, as with so many artists, it was after he met one of the most significant figures in twentieth century cultural history, Sam Phillips, and recorded at his Memphis Sun Studios that Junior Parker’s extraordinary talent as a singer, writer and performer first blossomed. Sun 187, ‘Feelin’ Good’ issued in 1953 and a sizeable R&B hit is Junior’s calling card showcasing his brilliantly controlled vocal style which combines supple variety with graceful flow.

 

Backed by guitarists Floyd Murphy and Pat Hare, pianist Bill Johnson and John Bowers on drums Junior takes a John Lee Hooker template and fashions (no doubt with the aid of the sharp eared Sam Phillips behind the desk) a record that pulses with energy and life. The hard wood floor sprung rhythm and the heart lifting guitar lines seem to clear a path for Junior to demonstrate the virtuosity of his singing.

He seems to gloriously glide and pirouette through the song ; now almost whispering hoarsely, now soaring into full throated release, all the while driving the song forward. Every time I hear this record I’m impelled to echo Junior, ‘Well I feel so good – Woooooooh!

Junior brought a song of his own, ‘Mystery Train’ to his next Sun session – one that would go on to be an epochal classic when covered by Sam Phillips’ greatest discovery, Elvis Presley. Junior’s version evokes an almost eerie atmosphere of a train slowly pulling its way in sultry heat through hazy southern fields.

Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black (taking their cue from the urgent, ‘Love My Baby’ the flip side of Junior’s Mystery Train) up the tempo and energy level to evoke a streamlined locomotive blurring past astonished bystanders. Elvis sings with bravura élan and on the spot brings to life the sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll that Sam Phillips had so fervently been searching for. Junior’s version can’t match Elvis though it’s fair to say no one on earth has ever managed to either!

As Sam Phillips, for obvious reasons, concentrated on promoting the careers of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, Junior found a home from home at Don Robey’s Duke Records, Memphis’ premier black music label. During his time with Duke Junior made a string of excellent records while relentlessly touring on the, ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ for the black communities throughout the nation.

Junior benefitted in these live shows from a fine band that had attack and colour through a well drilled rhythm team and a punchy brass section. This combination is shown to advantage on the wonderful, ‘Next Time You See Me’ from 1957. This one made the Hot 100 at 74 as well as top 5 R&B.

Essentially a blues shuffle, ‘Next Time’ establishes itself as an irresistible standard from the first few notes. You are swept along by the exhilarating licks and riffs traded between the brass section, the guitar and the piano.

Junior’s vocal has regal command as he tells the old, old story’s folk wisdom – ‘If it hurts you my darling – you only have yourself to blame.’ Junior never seems to strain for effect: his thoroughbred vocals have power in reserve allowing him to cruise through the song while effortlessly stirring the audience.

My next two selections illustrate Junior’s versatility and ability to inhabit the heart of a song to illuminate its overt and hidden dramas. For, ‘I Need Love So Bad’ he draws on the song writing pen of Percy Mayfield, the peerless poet and professor of the blues, and produces a performance that glows with passion.

I’m awestruck by Junior’s vocal here. Listen to the way he wraps his voice round Percy’s melody and lyric in a tender loving embrace. The song is one of those 3am in the locked bar blues expertly anatomising the never plumbed depths of male despair and angst (not to mention self-pity!). Junior manages to sing in a manner that suggests a man who is exhausted and world weary though not, yet, wholly defeated. It’s a wondrous performance that slays me no matter how often I hear it.

Contrast that performance with the almost Sam Cooke like elegance (there is no higher praise for a singer) that he brings to, ‘Someone Somewhere’.

Junior, here, shows what a great soul singer he would have been if he’d followed that path. While the horns mistily wreathe around him and the guitar glistens Junior’s vocal traces beautifully delicate emotional patterns that linger in the mind long after the record has ended.

Perhaps one of the hallmarks of a great singer is the way their voices enter and find a home in our hearts; imprinting themselves on our consciousness ever more deeply as we replay their songs on our turntables or in our waking and dreaming imaginations. Junior Parker belongs in that hallowed company as a singer.

I’ll close with Junior showing how he could take a hoary blues standard and reveal new depths. Eddie Boyd’s, ‘Five Long Years’ has had hundreds of covers but I doubt any have had the deeply affecting power of Junior’s version below recorded soon before his death.

I would call that chamber music blues – relaxed, intimate, exquisitely paced, deeply felt. Though Junior’s vocal seems wholly natural and spontaneous it conceals the craft of an absolute master.

Junior Parker was a great singer who, without grandstanding, artfully achieved total control of his instrument – his glorious voice. Though his life was cut short his legacy will be long lasting. Do yourself a favour and investigate his catalogue. Trust me you will not regret it.

Further Listening:

Junior Parker’s recorded legacy is desperately in need of an expertly curated box set. In the meantime look out for compilations of his Sun material and 2 MCA compilation of his Duke sides. Hard to find but wonderful to listen to are the, ‘Lion in winter’ recordings he made in 1970/1971 for Groove Merchant and United Artists.

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

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’

Louis Prima : Buona Sera, Just A Gigolo – Let’s Have A Party!!

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You know him. We all know him. You know who I mean. The Guy. That Guy. You met him at school, at college, or you met him at work or at what in your glory days was your favourite bar. He might have been your uncle or your dad’s best buddy – call him Eddie or Tom or Mike. That guy – the walking, talking, laughing, crying, joking, catalytic, charismatic, party starting Guy! Yes, that Guy.

Might be years since you’ve seen him but you can still remember and spin the stories: ‘What about the time he … And would have got arrested if the cop hadn’t had him singing at his wedding!’

Well, Show Business and the music industry is heavily populated with those Guys – it comes with the territory of exposing yourself by getting up on stage for an audience to judge just how good you are or indeed if you’re any good at all.

And, of all those Guys, of all those Guys, the Guy who stands out for me as the most catalytic and charismatic; the most guaranteed to start the party you can never forget was Louis Prima. Let’s have a Party!

To start the party a recording from Louis’ great period with Capitol Records in the late 1950s when he produced a fountain of hits that had crowds jumping, jiving and wailing all across the world (but most especially in Las Vegas where he had legendary residencies at the Sahara and the Desert Inn).

Well, that has all the fun of the circus! Louis sells this operatic paean to love under the moon and stars of Naples with a mixture of genuine romanticism and sheer show biz pizazz. Often in Prima performances he seems to wind up like a baseball pitcher deciding, seemingly in the moment, whether to throw the fastball, the change up or the curve according to his own mood or the mood he senses coming across the footlights from the audience (and even in the studios Louis Prima always played to the audience).

The distinctive shuffle beat that is at the heart of Louis’ 50s sound is augmented by a wailing sax curtesy of bandleader and right and left hand man Sam Butera and by an assortment of hortatory foot stomps and handclaps. Now that I think of it Louis Prima may just be the most musically hortatory performer who ever lived!

I imagine that among the audience listening to this song will have been many former WW2 GIs who had indeed found love under the moon and stars of Naples. Some who brought brides home must have smiled at the memory of those Mediterranean nights and some who decided to return to the sweetheart waiting at home must have smiled more ruefully as they remembered the girl they left beside the beautiful Bay of Naples.

Louis Prima started out in New Orleans imbibing the spirit of Jazz in the cradle of the music. But, like so many others it was in the Big Apple in the mid/late 1930s that his career took off both as the dynamic live performer who could sell out theatres in both the white and the black communities and as a recording artist. It was in New York in 1936 that he wrote and recorded, ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ which in the version by Benny Goodman would become an iconic Jazz standard.

Louis, notwithstanding Italy’s Axis status during WW2, continued to record and have hits with songs celebrating Italian-American life during the course of the war. ‘Angelina’ may well have introduced many rural Americans to terms like,’Pizzeria’ and ‘Pasta’. Few, however would have needed dictionaries to get the point of, ‘Please No Squeeze Da Banana’ or ‘Bacci Galupe (Made Love On The Stoop).

Post war Louis struggled to maintain a big band along with his stable of horses and alimony payments to a string of ex-wives. Key developments that would lead to his renaissance as a big league performer were his meeting with the 17 year old singer(and soon to be wife number 4) Keely Smith in 1948 (when Louis was 37) and his hiring of Sam Butera as band leader and arranger for his Vegas residencies and for his recordings with Capitol. Buttera, a fluent, no nonsense tenor sax player had a great instinct for songs and arrangements that would suit Louis Prima’s crowd pleasing genius.

It was Sam Butera who had the inspired idea to mash-up the songs, ‘Just A Gigolo’ and, ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’ to create a matchless vehicle for Louis Prima’s overwhelming ebullience. The live version below features what can only be called a burlesque performance with Louis clowning and mugging like a solid-gone hep cat. The band and the sometimes bewildered Keely do their best to keep up and echo their leader as he plays with the song, them and the audience.

Louis could tone things down on record as you can hear in his and Keeley’s hit duet on Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s evergreen romantic classic, ‘That Old Black Magic’ which won a Grammy Best Song in 1959. I still think you can insert an imaginary exclamation mark after every line sung by Louis but it does not to my mind distract from a fine recording which showcases a cool Keely vocal.

The late 50s and early 60s were golden days for Louis (despite splitting with Keeley in 1960) as he hit peak form as a live performer while recording several excellent sets for Capitol. He was, of course, hit by the tsunami of The Beatles appearance on the scene and it might have seemed that his days as an artist of note were numbered. Louis reacted by continuing as a considerable live draw and by setting up his own record label.

Then by one of those quirks of fate beyond all analysis Louis found himself right back in the spotlight with an enormous hit through the unlikeliest of collaborators – Walt Disney! Louis had recorded Mary Poppins and Robin Hood LPs and a Winnie The Pooh theme before he scored a great triumph with his movie stealing performance of the Sherman Brothers’, ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ as the voice of the Orangutang, ‘King Louie’ in the film, ‘The Jungle Book’.

With the assistance of Phil Harris, voicing the character of Baloo the Bear, Louis lays down a classic performance that still stirs young and old some 50 years after it was recorded. I love the way the song builds slowly, beginning almost drowsily and the way Louis takes such care in enunciating the lyric.

I remember first hearing this song as an 11 year old at the cinema and being thrilled by the abandon of the characters to rhythm, to the beat! I also remember that even on the way out of the cinema some bright sparks had already memorised the song and gave stentorian performances with exaggerated simian antics to puzzled passers by going about their Saturday morning shopping. That defines an instant classic pretty well for me!

Louis Prima never gave up performing – how could he? It was oxygen and ambrosia for him. Louis died, after three years in a coma on 24 August 1978. He had lived a big-hearted, generous, big life. Louis packed an enormous amount of music and joy into his 67 years.

SING UP LOUIS! SING UP!

Louis Prima! Now that was some Guy!

Recommended Recordings:

‘The Wildest’ (Capitol 1958)

‘The Widest Comes Home!’ (Capitol 1962)

‘Lake Tahoe Prima Style’ (Live on Capitol 1962)

There is also a valuable film documentary, ‘The Wildest’ from 1999 which shows Louis in unstoppable full flow.

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Sam Cooke brings it on home! (Hors Categorie)

This week is School Half-Term in our part of the world. So there will be little time for blogging! Instead, there will be lots of cycling, lots of swimming, trips to see favourite aunts and visits from my extended family.

We are also going to be touring England’s West Country; gazing at the eternally mysterious ancient standing stone circle at Stonehenge, sampling the delights of the grandeur of Bath and idling through charming sleepy small towns and villages.

Following tradition my son Tom will be in charge of in car entertainment. So, lots of Louis Prima, Julie Andrews, Bobby Darin, Ruth Brown and now, top of his charts with a bullet – Meghan Trainor!

While I’m away I’ve cued up on The Immortal Jukebox an artist very dear to my heart – Sam Cooke (about whom I will write much more later!)

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Sam was (is – greatness is always current) an artist of immense talent and cultural impact; a musical exemplar, a guiding spirit able to illuminate life’s arc of sorrows, joys and struggles with power, wit and grace.

Sam Cooke resists all easy categorisation. Artists of this stature can’t be neatly filed in genre racks!

When I think about how to describe him I’m drawn to a term taken from the greatest of all cycling races – Le Tour de France. Anyone hoping to complete the race, let alone win it, has to be able to complete a series of lung wracking, muscle burning, mountain ascents seemingly designed to test the absolute limits of human endurance. Mountain stages receive, ‘Categorie’ ratings exquisitely calibrating the brutality of the challenge presented.

Categories of difficulty are assigned taking into account how far the riders have cycled before they begin to climb and the subsequent length and steepness of the ordeal to the summit. The, ‘easiest’ climbs are rated Categorie 4 and the most arduous Categorie 1. And then, then, there are some climbs, climbs like Alpe d’Huez with it’s terrifying 21 hair pin bends on the route to the summit at over 6000 feet involving gradients up to a near impossible 13% that merit the extraordinary term, ‘Hors Categorie’ – beyond category.

When I contemplate the stature of Sam Cooke I now use the term, ‘Hors Categorie’ as my own shorthand for those rare artists who rule imperiously over their own artistic realm.

When you hear a characteristic performance by Sam Cooke the use of classifications like, ‘Soul’, ‘Gospel’, ‘Rhythm and Blues’, ‘Jazz’ and, ‘Pop’ becomes insignificant.

Sam was a musical explorer; never intimidated by any map that might proscribe the limits of the world he might journey to and claim for himself and his audience. Artists of this stamp have the wherewithal and ambition to redraw all our maps.

Let’s start off with his electrifying, ‘Any Day Now’ when he was still a member of The Soul Stirrers.

This is singing that invites you to share in a transcendent experience.

An experience that can’t really be described in prose but which might be just glimpsed through the medium of a poem or here via a song taking us to a place we’ve never known yet still somehow recognise.

Sam’s vocal here glides through the song like a raptor effortlessly riding the air currents – now ascending, now swooping down, now wheeling for the sheer life-affirming thrill of it! Sam Cooke sang, at all emotional temperatures, with an ease and elegant poise that is genuinely awe-some, in it’s proper sense.

I’m listening to this performance on the feast of Pentecost – who can doubt that tongues of fire can descend on human heads when you listen to Sam Cooke sing, ‘Any Day Now’!

Now let’s hear Sam taking the church-wrecking skills displayed above into another dimension as he ignites the Harlem Square Club in 1963 with an out of the ball park grand slam performance of his own, ‘Bring It On Home To Me’.

This is a man entirely at home on stage, entirely at home with the audience surrounding him; the audience he can seduce, thrill and command with regal authority. He’s not exaggerating when he sings, ‘Everybody’s with me tonight!’

Sam Cooke seems to live inside rhythm; pushing or lagging the beat in time with the demands of his and our own beating hearts. Crescendo after crescendo rains down on us until we are intoxicated, elated, finally enraptured. Very few singers have genuinely had the gift of opening up the gates to rapture and bringing it on home as Sam could.

When I hear Sam Cooke sing time after time I hear myself saying, ‘Now, That’s How You Sing!’

Mickey & Sylvia, Everything but the Girl : ‘Love Is Strange’

‘Love’s not Time’s fool, through rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom’.

(William Shakespeare)

‘In Spain, the best upper sets do it
Lithuanians and Letts do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love’

(Cole Porter)

‘And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love you make’

(Lennon/MacCartney)

Love, despite the wisdom enshrined in The Beatles, ‘All You Need Is Love’ is not ALL you need – shelter, good health and enough food to feed your family are also necessary components of the life we would all wish to lead.

That said nothing is more necessary for life to flourish than the experience of love which acts as a kind of spiritual and emotional battery affording you the resilience to face the daily vicissitudes of life.

The song I have chosen to feature on the Jukebox today is the pop/rhythm and blues classic, ‘Love is Strange’.

It was in November 1956 that Mickey (Baker) and Sylvia (Vanderpool) had their incandescent take on the song issued as a 45 on Bob Rolontz’s Groove label.

It made an immediate mark on its time ascending to Number 1 in the R&B charts and just missing the national top 10 of the pop charts.

The song has been included in the Grammy Hall Of Fame and has featured in numerous films – most famously in, ‘Dirty Dancing’.

What a record!

As soon as the stylus hits the vinyl this is a guaranteed massive hit as Mickey Baker’s brilliant guitar intro explodes from the radio or Jukebox speakers brooking no inattention (guitar players all over the globe were instantly sent reeling and bound to a course of finger busting hours attempting to match Mickey here).

Love Is Strange prominently features Mickey’s razor sharp, irresistibly insistent, shining silver blues licks which continue to flash and gleam throughout the duration of the record.

Mickey was a technically accomplished player who had no problem melding bolero and calypso rhythms here to make the song glide and flow so beautifully.

The duet vocal is charming and unabashedly erotic with Sylvia’s imploring youthful female tones being matched with Mickey’s masculine forcefulness.

Perhaps, as so often happens in life, it is the hunter who gets captured by the game!

Neither Mickey nor Sylvia were great singers but that only adds to the allure of their performance. It’s clear that they are in the grip of a force stronger and stranger than themselves.

Love, as they embody in their performance here, is something you never want to lose once you’ve had it.

You never want to quit though time may toll that you may have just put yourself in the way of an awful fix. You are in this fix once you realise that love is indeed more important than money in the hand and though it can give you the thrills of a roller-coaster it is far too important to classed merely as a game.

Apart from Mickey’s stellar guitar work the most memorable passage in the record is the flirtatious conversation between Mickey and Sylvia about how you should most effectively call your lover to your side.

Sylvia’s vocal here with its witty mixture of urgent command and come-hither mellifluousness would surely have any errant swain frantically scrambling towards her at top speed!

As Mickey takes the record on home with his final guitar flourishes you sense that the couple will now deliriously continue their mating dance long into the night.

Mickey and Sylvia’s record has inspired scores of cover version in many musical genres in the decades since it was issued.

Today here on the Jukebox I want to draw your attention to a characteristically gorgeous version from 1992 by the English duo of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn known collectively as, ‘Everything But The Girl’.

The flawless marriage of guitar, strings and voices on this track provides the listener with seamless pleasure.

I hear this version evoking a drowsy, warm English summer meadow atmosphere. As the trees bend in the light breeze you can almost hear the distant call of the Thrush, the Blackbird and the Nightingale.

Somewhere, off to the side, the mayflies harmonise as they too seek to engage in the strange mysteries of love.

Everything But The Girl are distinguished as writers and performers by a rare combination of musical and emotional intelligence.

With their take on, ‘Love Is Strange’ they simultaneously suggest an edenic innocence and a reflective, almost rueful, over-the-shoulder look back at that former paradise from the vantage point of a later maturity.

Tracey Thorn has a heart-winning voice that convinces by its modesty of expression.

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As she sings you feel you have been privileged to eavesdrop as she spins out silken threads of song. She is adept at gently inviting the listener to ponder the stories and range of emotions contained in her songs so that you may be surprised at how deeply they have entered your consciousness.

Ben Watt quiet excellence as a musician, songwriter and harmonist gives their work together a longevity and depth of field that will repay close attention.

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Poets, Princes, Paupers and regular folks like you and me will always dream about, sing about and gaze wonderingly into the night sky pondering the eternal mystery of love. All I can do in conclusion is to echo Bob Dylan and say:

‘Love is all there is, it makes the world go around
Love and only love it can’t be denied
No matter what you think about it
You just won’t be able to do without it …’

Notes:

Who wrote, ‘Love Is Strange’?

As the saying goes, ‘Where there’s a hit there’s a writ!’

Most authorities agree that the glistening guitar riff threaded through the song owes a lot to the work of the flamboyantly talented blues guitarist Jody Williams especially on the record, ‘Billy’s Blues’ by Billy Stewart.

Jody was a protege of the great Bo Diddley who is generally credited with authorship of, ‘Love Is Strange’ (though under the name of his wife Ethel Smith for tangled business reasons!).

Bo did in fact record the song first – some 5 months before Mickey&Sylvia though they claim to be responsible for the lyrics!

Also Bo’s version was not released until the 21st century.

So record label students may see everybody (except poor Jody) credited at one time or another. Since the record has sold millions of copies this matters!

Other Versions:

I listened to too many versions of this song before writing this post!

Only two would enter my personal pantheon of greatness.

The first is the magnificently sung version by the Everly Brothers which shows them yet again to be untouchably the greatest duet singers of all time.

The second is a an unutterably poignant, fragmentary solo version lasting less than two minutes, sung by Buddy Holly in his New York City apartment in the last months before his untimely death in early 1959.

It would take a stony heart not to be moved to tears by this performance.

Mickey Baker (McHouston Baker):

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Mickey was certainly one of the most gifted and adaptable guitarists of his era. To take just two examples of his enduring musical impact consider his timeless work on the Coasters, ‘I’m A Hog For You Baby’ and Big Joe Turner’s, ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’.

Mickey spent many years in France where his fluent musicianship was much appreciated.

In addition to his impressive track record as a guitarist for hire, often with the Atlantic and Savoy labels, he also produced intriguing LP’s with fellow European residents Champion Jack Dupree and Memphis Slim. Mickey Baker was a class act.

Sylvia Robinson (nee Vanderpool)

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Sylvia (1936-2011) was a very sharp woman who had success as a writer, performer, producer and label boss in over half a century of involvement in the music business.

In addition to fostering the careers of The Moments (Sexy Mama, Look At Me I’m In Love’) and Shirley and Company (the wondrous dance floor filler, ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’) she had a great fat hit of her own with, ‘Pillow Talk’ which won worldwide sales in 1972/73.

As if that was not enough she founded and was the early driving force behind the Sugar Hill label which can fairly claim to have introduced the rap genre to the world with the records of The Sugar Hill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and Grandmaster Flash with the still potent, ‘The Message’.

Everything But The Girl:

EBTG functioned as a band between 1982 and the end of the century after which both Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn have pursued intriguing solo projects (though remaining together as a couple in their private life).

The EBGT catalogue, reissued by Demon/Edsel in the UK, contains many treasures I urge you to explore.

Equally their solo work has yielded impressive results.

I am especially taken with Tracey’s CDs, the deeply felt, ‘Love and It’s Opposite’ and her idiosyncratic Christmas record, ‘Tinsel and Lights’. Ben’s solo record, ‘Hendra’ the first he has issued for three decades has a corpus of affecting and beautifully crafted songs which linger long in the mind.

Both Ben and Tracey are accomplished writers of memoir.

Tracey’s, ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ is wonderfully alive, witty and keenly intelligent. Ben’s, ‘Patient’ is a clear eyed, thoughtful and moving examinations of his own period of serious ill-health (which he is now happily recovered from).

His latest book, ‘Romany and Tom’ is a moving, emotionally searching, history of the lives of his parents which does them great honour.

Big Al Downing, G L Crockett – Moonshine And Molasses: Black Rockabilly

Featuring :

Big Al Downing – Down On The Farm

G L Crockett – Look Out Mabel 

Sometimes, just sometimes, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits.’ (Bob Dylan 2015 MusiCares speech’)

Rockabilly might be described as the deliriously exciting sound of a supercharged truck with no lights on hauling moonshine through the hills and hollers to outrun the dreaded excise men.

Rockabilly is not a reflective music – its a full pelt, foot to the floor and damn the tyres assault on the senses.

A shot of over proof booze that might well take the top of your head off and leave you stone blind but once you’ve opened that unlabelled bottle you are likely to develop the taste and keep coming back for more.

Rockabilly owes a lot to hillbilly boogie and something to the blues and rhythm and blues. It certainly was an essential ingredient of what at Sun Studios, with a little judicious tweaking, came to be known as rock ‘n’ roll.

Generally Rockabilly was the preserve of electrically energetic white boys who had grown up on the Grand Ol’ Opry but who then found themselves wanting to apply the lessons they had learned from Hank Williams, ‘Move It On Over’ to play at a more hopped up speed while cutting loose with their vocals and instrumental breaks.

If you want pure excitement from music (and sometimes we all do) it’s sure hard to beat Rockabilly!

While it is undoubtedly true that Rockabilly was largely made by white southerners there were black musicians who were hep to the moonshine beat.

Of course, even in the darkest days of the segregated south there was one thing the powers that be could not cordon off – the airwaves! So whether you were white or black you could tune into stations like WLAC blasting out of Nashville and find yourself ready to rock.

Today I’m featuring two black musicians who, oblivious to all racial stereotyping, made classic Rockabilly records that stand up with the very finest of the genre.

To jump start your heart and nervous system we begin with Big Al Downing’s ‘Down On The Farm’ first issued on the White Rock label out of Dallas in March 1958.

Strap yourself in – this is going to be a thrill filled 91 second ride!

Careful scrutiny of the label on the White Rock 45 (palindromically numbered 1111) shows the record credited to Al Downing (with the Poe Kats).

The Poe Kats were a white trio led by Oklahoman Bobby Poe featuring the incendiary guitar of Vernon Sandusky.

The thoughtful Bobby, hearing the pounding piano prowess and powerful Fats Domino influenced vocal style of Big Al at a Coffeyville Kansas radio station figured that a quartet that could handle both Little Richard and Elvis material would prove a big hit in the sweat drenched beer joints and VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) halls throughout Kansas and Oklahoma.

As, ‘Down On The Farm’ shows he was completely correct in his assumption!

Al’s vocal drives smoothly at speed throughout the song while he and the band threaten to burn out their engines as they wildly take the turns with savage guitar and piano breaks.

Somehow, they manage to survive the trip in one piece and as they look back at the scorched earth smoking in their wake there’s only one thing to say -‘Whoo – Wee!’ The song leaves you in no doubt that barns all over the turning world would soon be taken over by the quicksilver power of this addictive music.

At least that’s what this crazy fool will always believe.

Our second example of black Rockabilly, ‘Look Out Mabel’ also from 1958 comes courtesy of the mysterious G. L. Crockett.

G.L. or George as his mother may have called him was born in Carrollton, Mississippi in 1928 or 1929 depending on source you believe most reliable.

In a recording career spanning eight years from 1957 to 1965 he only had four singles issued which collectively take up little more than ten minutes of your precious time.

Yet two of those singles, ‘Mabel’ and the 1965 Jimmy Reed style R&B steamer, ‘It’s A Man Down There’ once heard will take up permanent residence in your musical memory bank.

‘Look Out Mabel’ was produced in Chicago by the talented Mel London who worked with such blues luminaries as Elmore James and Otis Rush.

London made sure that the record was drenched in drama so that Crockett’s, ‘If I’m gonna go down, I’m going’ down fighting’ vocal rides atop relentless piano from Henry Gray and a well nigh demented guitar solo from Louis Myers.

If I was choreographing a fight scene set in a 1950s southside Chicago club I would definitely have, ‘Look Out Mabel’ playing at full volume while the bottles broke and the knives flashed.

Assuming the script allowed I’d have the hero leaving the club later with Mabel on his arm and wisecracking as they start up the midnight blue Buick ‘Oh, come on Mabel let’s go on down the line’.

Notes:

Embed from Getty Images

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Big Al Downing was one of fifteen children born in blink and you’ve missed it rural Lenapah Oklahoma in 1940.

In addition to the wonder that is, ‘Down On The Farm’ he produced eminently listenable music in the country, soul and R&B genres during his forty year plus recording career.

The standouts for me are his piano contributions to Wanda Jacksons epochal, ‘Let’s Have A Party’ and his pile drivingly excellent version of Jimmy McCracklin’s, ‘Georgia Slop’ which is guaranteed to have everybody at the party lunatically lurching in unison.