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, EBTG : Love, Love, ‘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. 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.

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

‘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:

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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.

Jesse Fuller : The Lone Cat – San Francisco Bay Blues

‘Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.’ (Viktor Frankl)

‘I was leaving the south to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant … To see if it would grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps to bloom.’ (Richard Wright)

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‘It took me a whole week one time when I wasn’t doing anything, and I made the thing I call the Fotdella in my back room. I just got the idea lying’ in my bed one night, just like I write songs. I lie down on the bed and write songs at night. I thought about doing’ something like that (the Fotdella) so that I could have something to go along with me and help me out instead of another fellow.

I just took some Masonite, heated some wood in hot water and rounded it off around a wheel. I learned that in the barrel factory where I used to work – that the way they do the staves. I tried to use bass fiddle strings, but they don’t sound so good, they stretch out of tune so I use piano strings. My wife named it the Fotdella because I play it with my foot, like, ‘Foot diller’ (Jesse Fuller)

There are very few jobs that I have really and truly coveted in my life. But, I have to say that I deeply envy the Director of the august institution that is the Smithsonian Museum.

Obviously the museums comprise one of world’s great scholarly centres and acts as the custodian of millions of scrupulously catalogued treasures illuminating our understanding of human history in innumerable field of endeavour – so heading it up would be a major task.

To fortify myself each morning, before drowning in emails and meetings, I would take a tour of the popular culture exhibits. I would linger over Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from the Wizard of Oz and gaze longingly at the Fonz’s leather jacket and just stop myself from sitting down in Archie Bunker’s chair.

But, I would stop and look longest at Jesse Fuller’s Fotdella – his unique foot operated percussion bass that added so much to his signature one man band sound. I would then go back to my office and play very loudly (for who is going to tell the Director to keep it down!) Jesse Fuller’s, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ and know for certain that I would be able to keep smiling all day!

You will probably, if you’re anything like me, want to play the above track several times in a row until you’re word perfect and have figured out how to do the correct buck and wing steps to accompany your own and Jesse’s vocals.

It’s now too late to warn you that Jesse Fuller’s music is seriously addictive. Nothing for it but to ask your preferred record dealer to rush you a copy of the CD, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ on the Original Blues Classics label from 1963 which is a beautifully compiled programme of his front rank repertoire.

Jesse didn’t make a record until 1958 when he was all of 62 years old. But from then on he brought to his records, before he died in 1976, songs and performances filled to the brim with dignity, quizzical humour, instrumental virtuosity and sheer effervescent love of life.

He also brought the lessons he had learned from a life abundant with such trial, tribulation and adventure that it would take a movie starring a black Charlie Chaplin to do justice to it!

Jesse was born in Jonesboro, Georgia in 1896. Before he settled in Oakland California in 1929 he had worked, rambled and hoboed all around the country working in a bewildering variety of jobs to keep body and soul together.

He had left the Jim Crow South as soon as possible in search of safety, independence and the promise of a better future. His early experiences had been very harsh as he had been farmed out to brutal, abusive ‘foster parents’ following the death of his mother before he was 10.

Hitting the road he worked in the circus, on the railroads, in back breaking quarries, turpentine and levee camps and the aforementioned barrel factory. All the while he was learning and performing songs gleaned from vaudeville and medicine shows, camp meetings, store front churches and the army of itinerant bluesmen and songsters who always appeared anyplace where black folks had a spare dollar to spend on booze and entertainment.

Jesse performed as a one man band because it meant he did not have to rely on anyone else to make a show happen. He performed with a 12 string guitar and a neck rack incorporating a kazoo, harmonica and microphone as well as a hi-hat cymbal and his own Fotdella to create a true full band sound coming from a single individual.

Similarly, his repertoire was a virtual compendium of the black musical heritage of the mid twentieth century to which he added his own distinctively intelligent and charming songs.

So, Jesse performed Jazz tunes, children’s songs, work songs, spirituals, vaudeville recitations, hillbilly heartbreakers, instrumental party pieces and just about any kind of music that would hold and win an audience long enough for them to realise they should definitely put something substantial in the hat once he had finished.

Listen here to his wonderfully articulated guitar work on, ‘John Henry’ one of the staples of the black tradition and you will understand that though there were novelty act elements to Jesse Fuller that did not mean that he was anything less than a very fine musician and a performer who winningly brought his own thought through style to every number he took on.

Jesse knew how to work an audience. Maybe he had learned a little of that from his improbable time in Hollywood. It seems that in the early 1920s he had operated a shoe shine or hot dog stand outside the film studios and he had been befriended by none other than Douglas Fairbanks Jnr who managed to get Jesse some work as an extra on, ‘The Thief Of Bagdad’ and, ‘East Of Suez’ (honestly I’m not inventing this to spice up a life that’s rich enough already!).

For many years after his move to Oakland he worked in the ship yards with music a useful side line. It wasn’t until 1950 or so with work drying up that he gave music his full attention.

He soon found an enthusiastic audience in the Bay area not least among sharp eared young folk/blues revivalists like Rambling Jack Elliott who would carry songs like, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ to the nations’ clubs and coffee houses where legions of would be Woody Guthries listened and learned.

As the 50s progressed he began to widen his circuit and venues like the Ash Grove in LA resounded to his music. By 1959 he had made his first record and featured at the Monterey Jazz Festival which led through the good offices of England’s Chris Barber to an enthusiastically received tour of the United Kingdom and Europe.

He would tour the UK very successfully again in 1966 even playing at the top of the newly opened London landmark the Post Office Tower. Everywhere that Jesse played he took everything in his stride – a lone cat with sharp senses and a true sense of self worth.

Below, with his exuberantly thoughtful and comical song, ‘The Monkey And The Engineer’ you can hear Jesse play with his audience to rousing effect.

Jesse Fuller’s songs with their relaxed yet jaunty authority were manna for the young roots musicians coming up in the early 1960s. It’s clear that the young Bob Dylan’s harmonica style was influenced by Jesse and Dylan faithfully tipped his sailor’s cap by featuring Jesse’s, ‘You’re No Good’ on his 1962 debut album. Eric Clapton, Paul MacCartney, Richie Havens and The Grateful Dead have all doffed their headgear in similar fashion.

I am always planning, in some part of my mind, the cultural, ‘must- sees’ on my next American trip. One flag that’s firmly pinned into that itinerary is Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland where I plan to make my own salute to the late, great Lone Cat – Jesse Fuller thanking him for the joyous life affirming music that was his gift to us all.

I think I would at first hear in my head his lovely version of ‘Where Would I Go But To The Lord’ as heard below which would seem appropriate to the setting.

However, I’m sure before I bid my last farewell I would have to launch into my own ebullient version of, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ with a little soft shoe shuffle thrown in as my own tribute to a wonderful artist.

One more time, ‘Walking with my baby down by the San Francisco Bay ……’