For Arthur Alexander : A Ballad in Blue for a Blue Balladeer

Some voices clutch at the heart.

Some voices echo on and on in your soul.

Some voices speak to you in the dawn’s early light.

Some voices play softly in your mind through the long and speechless night.

Some voices call your own.

Arthur Alexander had such a voice.

It’s now twenty-four years since Arthur died largely unmourned except by soul and R&B afficianados.

Yet, his songs, especially sung by him in his inimitable affecting way, will never die.

So for the ultimate blue balladeer – a ballad in blue.

A Ballad in Blue.

‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

(Henry David Thoreau)

‘Now I ache, with heartbreak and pain and the hurt that I just can’t explain’

(Arthur Alexander)

Imagine you are the manager of a blue collar bar in a tough small town. You work long hours making sure everybody has a good time and that nobody’s good time winds up leaving someone else on their way to hospital.

You know who not to serve, who to share a joke with, who to warn off and who to throw out for their own good. You keep a weighted pool cue just out of sight from the floor within your reach – just in case.

You stock the jukebox and make sure that there’s old and new favourites: something that counts as a home town anthem; several that are fast and loud for the boys from the base; plenty to dance and sing along to for the girls with the faraway looks in their eyes; and, some for everyone to openly or quietly cry over.

The night, though long, passes quickly for you and you don’t realise how tired you are until the door’s been shut on the last, loud, lonely drunk.

You look around and sigh thinking of the work needed before the whole cycle starts again after you wake up in a few hours. Time to pour yourself a more than generous measure of premium whiskey and play one last song.

Only one will do. Arthur Alexander, the patron saint of stoical fortitude. I can’t go on, I can’t go on – I’ll go on.

‘In The Middle Of It All’ tells the story of a broken man surveying, with an eerie calm that almost amounts to existential detachment, the shattered ruins of his life : ‘ It looks like my life is about to fall’.

Like all the great Arthur Alexander songs – ‘You Better Move On’, ‘Anna’ and ‘Dream Girl’ – it’s the song of a grown up man; a man who has experienced joy and pain, the ecstasy and despair brought on by love and it’s loss. Though Arthur’s songs are suffused with intense feeling they are in no sense hysterical – the besetting sin of so much pop music.

The record opens with a beautiful elegaic guitar figure that seems to glisten and shimmer in the background throughout the song. It then flows on at a stately, magisterial ballad mid tempo with the swooning melody and instrumental backing acting as a cushioned support for Arthur Alexander’s deeply affecting and entrancing southern country soul voice.

Arthur’s vocal charm owes nothing to stylistic tricks rather it is founded on the ageless attraction of hearing the sound of a man’s open, if broken heart. A sound that we can all recognise when it is authentic and true. Arthur Alexander’s proud and wounded vocals once heard will echo on in your own heart.

While listening to the song it seems as if you have pulled up your bar stool next to a pleasant looking though downcast guy who with no fanfare or needy plea for sympathy tells you, if you want to hear, why it is that night after night you can find him resident at this bar and why, night after night, no matter how much he drinks he does not get drunk.

During the course of, ‘In The Middle of It All’ the drummer seems to beat out a steady purgatorial pilgrim’s tempo while Arthur’s exquisite vocal lays out the extent of his lonely and desolate emotional landscape.

His love for his girl which was, ‘Really, really real’ remains true even though the house and home their love had built together is now a reproachful ruin he occupies alone.

The place where they had been so happy, as far as he can recall, now has the rain steadily and dreadfully falling all around it. What he once thought were the certainties of love and loyalty have vanished like some cruel mirage as his world, ‘Just came down one day’.

The song seems to summon up this heart and soul assaulting rain as the strings swell and the chorus of backing singers join Arthur in his examination of regret and loss. You can feel the southern heat and humidity of Alabama where the song was recorded in every breath of Arthur’s vocal and in every beat of the music.

The wonderful piano playing provides arpeggios of insistent pain and a sense that, in this vale of tears, no shield of love or faith can ever be proof against the truth that a love which seemed so sure can, in an instant, crumble into mere dust.

Arthur Alexander’s singing throughout this song is filled with an aching tenderness as he caresses each word into bruised breath and life. It is as if by singing with such scrupulous care he can somehow make whole his shattered heart or at least prevent it’s final destruction. His singing remains controlled and conversational even as it grows in the depth of pain it examines.

Perhaps this is because the song, for this singer, even in such a situation is not a resentful scream but rather a tragic lullaby that tries despite all his trials to shore up a ruined life.

There is no escape from the realisation that all of us must sooner or later confront the inevitability of death, loss and failure. For as the roman poet Virgil and Arthur Alexander knew living a clear eyed life involves coming to terms with the terrible truth that there are tears in things, ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’.

If you want someone to hold your hand when this truth becomes real in your own life it’s hard to think of a better soul companion than Arthur Alexander.

‘In The Middle of It All’ is one of those rare songs that seems to live on in the silence after it has finished and after the record arm has returned to its cradle. Sometimes for me that silence feels like the silence between two sobs.

Forty years ago David Bowie in ‘Young Americans’ uttered an anguished plea: ‘Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry’. Well David, wherever you are tonight, here it is. It has always worked for me.

 

Notes, credits and further listening:

It seems that Arthur Alexander recorded ‘In The Middle Of It All’ four times in his life. The version discussed above is the second 1962 version.

Arthur Alexander recorded some 120 songs during his recording career for a variety of labels. His initial career featuring many of the songs he will always be remembered for began at Dot Records and includes some of the premier recording at Rick Hall’s FAME studio in Muscle Shoals.

From 1965 he recorded for Sound Stage 7, a Monument subsidiary and in 1971 he recorded a lone album for Warner Brothers. In 1975, out of the blue, he recorded the marvellously fluid and typically affecting single, ‘Everyday I Have To Cry’ which incredibly made the US top 50.

Finally and most poignantly of all he recorded the lovely low key, Lonely Just Like Me’ album issued by Elektra in 1993 some three months prior to his death. This was later reissued by Hacktone Records with the addition of live performances and also with some hotel room demos which have some of the 3am in the morning, death on the horizon mood, shared with the New York Demos recorded by Buddy Holly prior to his untimely demise.

The ever alert Ace Records have issued two essential compilations covering the Dot and Monument Years. The other albums have also been reissued.

A welcome tribute collection, ‘Adios Amigo’ came out under the Razor and Tie imprint and features Nick Lowe’s tender cover of, ‘In The Middle Of It All’ (indeed Lowe’s career in this millennium might be seen as the largely successful attempt to pare his songwriting and recording style to their essentials in emulation of Arthur Alexander).

A relatively small investment will furnish you with the heartbreakingly magnificent catalogue of one of the greatest singers and songwriters in any genre and you will surely find that the songs and performances will become treasured fixtures in your life.

They were certainly a fixture in the life of John Lennon who had clearly listened closely to Arthur Alexander as evidenced in The Beatles cover of, ‘Anna’. The way that the famously acerbic Lennon could bring a wounded tenderness and discretion to ballad performances also betrays Artur’s influence.

John Lennon kept a jukebox filled with his favourite records to fortify him against the madness of the world that had grown up around him: prominent on his own immortal selection were records by Arthur Alexander.

Arthur Alexander was born in Sheffield Alabama in May 1940 and died in June 1993 in Nashville. He was only 53 years old. Despite recording several classic songs and having some of these covered by The Beatles (Anna) and The Rolling Stones (You Better Move On) he never really made much money from his songs.

Sadly, he was also prey to alcohol and mental health problems. Disillusioned and depressed he was for many years largely estranged from the music business and spent long spells working as a janitor and school bus driver.

There is a heartfelt biography by Richard Younger, ‘Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story’ published by the University of Alabama.

Arthur Alexander might be said to be the epitome of the, ‘Country Soul’ style of music. The movement as a whole is warmly evoked and intelligently discussed in Barney Hoskyn’s book, ‘Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted: Country Soul In The American South’ (Fontana/Bloomsbury).

Musicians growing up in a deeply segregated society were nevertheless heir to musical traditions that, principally through the medium of radio, effortlessly crossed the racial divide. Mucians and singers recognised great songs whether they were played on country or ‘Race’ music stations.

The constellation of wonderful musicians and songwriters who worked at Stax, FAME and Muscle Shoals studios were artistic freedom riders shattering barriers within the sanctuary of the recording studio even if they had to step carefully once they emerged into the heavy heat of the Southern mainstreet.

Booker T and The MG’s, Dan Penn, Chips Moman, Spooner Oldham and their brothers and sisters in rhythm made records that were recognisably southern and spoke eloquently of the lives shared by black and white alike.

There is a website ‘The annotated Arthur Alexander’ which is a very valuable resource for anyone seriously interested in delving further into Arthur’s recording career.

The Mafia, The Music Mogul, Island Records and Millie – My Boy Lollipop!

To everything there is a season. Turn, turn, turn.

Here in the woods Summer has now definitively turned into Autumn.
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The last blaze of heat but an ember in the memory.

Now, as the birds perform miraculous harmonies in song I wake at break of dawn to walk among mist wreathed trees.

Chill winds urge me onward.

As I broke into my running stride yesterday the Jukebox in my head selected an irresistible childhood favourite from 1964 which, for two minutes or so, persuaded me that perhaps it was a time to laugh and a time to dance.

Further, as I settled into the pace of the song I realised that, for one day only, the great David Rudisha, twice Olympic 800 metres champion, would not be so far ahead of me as he crossed the finishing line!

What song could produce such a miraculous effect? Well, a song that is guaranteed, guaranteed, to make your heart go GiddyUp!

I refer, of course, to the deliriously wonderful multi million selling, ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie Small.

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An innocent pop confection behind which lies, improbably; a Mafia Don, a forgotten original, an aristocratic music mogul and and the record label which would host Bob Marley and U2.

Oh, and an urban myth that the urgent harmonica on the record is played by none other than Rod Stewart! For the record all the evidence strongly suggests that it was actually played by Pete Hogman.

GiddyUp! GiddyUp!

Lollipop is the sound of careless youth. Of bottled Caribbean sunshine. Of gravity defying jumping Joy.

You want to feel the purity of emotion you had before you worried about grades, guys, girls, guns and geopolitics?

Drop the needle on My Boy Lollipop!

No wonder it was a top 5 hit in Britain and the USA and a smash all around the world. One of the chief functions of pop music is to put a smile on your face – to make you remember what a sheer blessing it is to be alive.

Millie’s artless gleeful vocal and guitarist Ernest Ranglin’s perfectly judged arrangement which morphed the original’s shuffle into a lovely lurching Ska/Bluebeat rhythm fulfils the life affirming and smile inducing functions effortlessly.

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And, it could make your Uncle, who Never dances (we all have one) turn into a veritable Dervish.

Millie, or in full – Millicent Dolly May Small is now 70! She was born in Clarendon Jamaica in 1946 and first attracted attention as a 12 year old when she won the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour contest.

Moving to big city Kingston in 1962 she made her initial, thoroughly charming, recordings in duet format with Owen Gray (‘Sugar Plum’) and Roy Panton (‘We’ll Meet’).

These, substantial hits in Jamaica, brought her to the attention of the urbane, uber canny, music buff and would be music mogul, Chris Blackwell.

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Blackwell, then in his mid 20s, sensed the commercial potential in Millie. Few in the music business have ever had a better nose for commercial potential.

He judged that her elfin looks and effervescent personality coupled with a proper pop song (one that appeals to six year olds, sixteen year olds and 66 year olds) might just provide him with the fabled, ‘breakthrough record’.

One that would turn his fledgling Island Records from a niche, ‘out of the boot of a car’ operation into a label that could quickly amass cash and be able to compete with the established major outfits like EMI and Decca in battles to sign and promote the hottest new acts.

So, he brought Millie over to London in 1963 and became her manager, chaperone and indeed Legal Guardian. Millie was then, in Motown grooming style, put through an intensive programme of stage education to prepare her for the UK and American markets.

Thus when Lollipop lit up radios and Jukeboxes in 1964 she was ready. So ready that she won the hearts of what seemed the entire nation through her appearances on key TV shows like, ‘Juke Box Jury’ and,’Ready, Steady, Go’.

She even managed to share screen time with The Beatles and matched them for charm and likability if not musical sophistication.

Similar triumphs followed in America where she was taken up by Murray The K. On her return home was greeted as virtual Royalty by everyone from the Prime Minister to her own family!

In Jamaica, one of Chris Blackwell’s many roles (which also included acting as ADC to the Governor General and local fixer for the James Bond film Dr No) was managing a Jukebox empire.

It may well have been this that alerted him to ‘My Boy Lollypop’ a 1956 regional hit in the New York area by Barbie Gaye.

The Gaye original has a lolloping shuffle rhythm, a doowop style vocal and a very 1950s burlesque sax solo instead of harmonica. Though it features first class musicians like Leroy Kirkland, Al Sears and Panama Francis it has very low pop wattage in comparison to the dazzling brilliance of Millie’s version.

The song was written by Robert Spencer a member of one of the incarnations of The Cadillacs (of, ‘Speedo’ fame). However, poor Robert didn’t get to bank much of the royalties as notorious record boss Morris Levy managed to get himself and another dubious connection on the songwriting credits.

Talking of, ‘Connections’ Barbie Gaye was managed by Gaetano ‘Corky’ Vastola who was later to share a cell with famed Mafia capo John Gotti.

Barbie was paid the princely sum of 200 dollars for Lollypop. Corky’s income from the record remains unknown (not least to the IRS!).

Millie had a few minor hits after Lollipop but was unfortunately classed as a novelty act rather than the pop princess she was.

Still, she made one of the most memorable records of the entire 1960s which will never fade from true pop pickers affections. She is now, quite rightly, garlanded with Jamaica’s Order of Distinction.

It is estimated that My Boy Lollipop has now sold over 7 million copies. It’s playing somewhere on the radio right now.

A proper pop record for all time.

P.S. Many, many thanks to all the Jukebox aficionados who have taken the time to nominate The Immortal Jukebox for the UK Blog Awards. And, for the very kind words used to describe the virtues of The Jukebox.

Nominations remain open so … If you haven’t already please do follow the link below!

The URL is http://www.theimmortaljukebox.com

My email is thomhickey55@yahoo.co.uk

http://ow.ly/9hHJ304McG4

On the bus with The Beatles Chris Montez – Let’s Dance!

‘Dance when you are broken open. Dance if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re absolutely free.’ (Rumi)

‘We should consider everyday lost when we have not danced at least once’ (Neitzsche)

‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul’ (Martha Graham)

‘Hey baby won’t you take a chance! Say that you’ll let me have this dance,
Well let’s dance! Let’s dance!’ (Sung by Chris Montez, written by Jim Lee)

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Names are wonderful things. I find few subjects so fascinating as Nomenclature and Taxonomy.

I know, I know; not something you often hear as an opening gambit at a party but as Leslie Gore might have said, ‘It’s my party and I’ll be obscure if I want to!

And, wouldn’t you know – the names of dances offer a rich seam of delight for an errant academic like myself. And, that’s before they yield up their myriad physical, social, emotional and spiritual delights.

There are undoubtedly impressive theses to be written and many, many, golden memories to be stirred recalling nights spent in glorious company lost in:-

The Jitterbug. The Charleston, The Tango, The Merengue, The Mambo (something for all you Mamboniks on The Jukebox later in the year), The Rumba and The Cha-Cha-Cha.

Many lives and lovers altered forever by blessed hours lost in:-

The Hully Gully, The Hustle, The Jerk, The Macarena, The Pony, The Stroll, The Madison, The Frug and The Shake. Not forgetting The Bump, The Funky Chicken, The Locomotion, The Hitchhike and (my favourite) The Watusi!

You want to get happy? Dance! Dance! Dance!

Let’s Dance! The Twist, The Stomp or The Mashed Potato, any old dance that you want to do. But, Baby, Baby, Baby don’t leave me all alone on the floor – Let’s Dance! Let’s Dance!

Now if that don’t just THRILL your very soul I can only conclude that you must have done a deal with Ol’ Mephistopheles years and years ago (and I have to tell you he never cuts a square deal).

Chris Montez’s 1962 Let’s Dance is another killer cut from LA’s Gold Star Studio. And, yet another debut single that was an immediate classic.

From the opening count off- 1. 2, .. 1, 2, 3! and the materialisation of the thunderous up and at ’em boys, don’t you dare get in our way drums (courtesy of Jesse Sailes) we’re plunged head, heart and hot feet into a liberating, stimulating, heart lifting, heartbeat accelerating musical journey to pop paradise.

Once Chris starts to sing with straight off the street Chicano cool and Ray Johnson hits his immortal groove on the Organ all resistance is useless!

Unless you’re in a coma you’ll spend the next two minutes or so in abandoned bliss. As Chris says, (and I second that emotion) …. Ooh, oh, Yeh!

Of course it was a top 5 smash in the US and in Britain selling over a million copies and earning a Gold Disc. Indeed it hit the top 5 for a second time in Britain when rereleased in 1973 sending my own teenage endorphins into overdrive.

It was the delirious drive of the organ that did it for me. Wave after wave of delight washing over me until I felt all my senses were drenched and part of me wished that I would never come up for air.

Dancing to the song it felt like you were being granted access to some secret realm of weightless joy – soaring into a sensual stratosphere.

In the US Chris got to tour with greats like Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson. In 1963 he toured Britain with Tommy ‘Dizzy’ Roe and found, on the bottom of the bill, a promising beat combo with the odd name of, ‘The Beatles’ that had a lot of energy, an encyclopaedic knowledge of Rock ‘n’ Roll and an ability to stir the girls in the audience to something near frenzy. They seemed like good guys and he wondered if they might ever make it big in America!

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Chris, like his early idol Ritchie Valens was Chicano – born Ezekiel Christopher Montanez on January 17 1943 in Hawthorne California (also the home of the blessed Brain Wilson of The Beach Boys).

In his youth Chris absorbed the ranchera singing style as well as the powerfully affecting sounds of Doo-Wop, R&B and the uptown ballads of The Drifters.

Given his chance at recording by Monogram Chris delivered two major hits with, ‘Let’s Dance’ and the follow up, ‘Some Kind of Fun’. Everything should have been hunky dory except that, as so often in those times, he got a lot of fame but this did not translate into a fat bank balance!

Disillusioned, Chris resolved to go to college and study music rather than record for glory alone. His next appearance on record came through Herb Alpert, co-founder of A&M records.

Herb was no Rock ‘n’ Roller but he was a very savvy music business figure who heard a caressing, whispy tone to Chris’ voice which he believed would suit a different type of song – dreamy ballads which would appeal across the generations.

Herb picked up, ‘Call Me’ a winning ballad from Petula Clark (penned by Tony Hatch who also wrote Downtown) and sensed that it would suit Chris and reestablish his career while adding a new stylistic dimension.

The seasoned professionals behind Chris created a come hither, menthol mood, underpinning Chris’ airy vocal. The record buying public got on board and by the end of 1965 Chris was back in the higher echelons of the Billboard charts.

The title track of Chris’ debut LP for A&M was a song that had been around for more than two decades, ‘The More I See You’ by the classic American Songbook team of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon.

There had already been fine versions by Chet Baker, Nat Cole and Bobby Darrin before Chris layer down his take on the song.

What he produced was an unexpected easy listening classic. A warm summer breeze sound that charmingly swirled around your mind and set the body aglow. Many couples locked eyes and limbs as they danced to, ‘The More I See You’.

It’s the kind of song that people fall in love to. The kind of song that couples adopt as, ‘Their Song’.

A top 20 hit ensued and the song, despite the stature of many of the artists who had previously recorded it, is now indelibly associated with Chris Montez.

This was the high water mark of Chris’ career which continues to this day. Anytime you get a chance to see him perform you can be sure of a fine show which features Chicano rock, Spanish balladeering and easy listening charm.

They say that no one on their death bed says, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work’. Don’t let yourself end up thinking, ‘I really wished I’d danced more’.

Dance liberates and heals. It is the hidden language of the soul.

Start today by taking the floor wherever you are with your nearest and dearest. Crank up, ‘Let’s Dance’ and, ‘The More I See You’ and let your body go!

You won’t regret it and you’ll want to say thanks to Chris Montez.

Fare Thee Well Muhammad Ali – Fare Thee Well Champ

Regular readers of The Jukebox will know of my lifelong love and admiration for Muhammad Ali.

Tens of millions of words will be written about his legendary life and career. Below is the heartfelt, unfiltered, outpouring of a devotee whose life was immeasurably enriched by the great man’s life.

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As usual the music I have chosen speaks with a purity of emotion and eloquence which my writing can never hope to match.

Dare to dream. Dare to dream. Dare to dream.

Pursue your dream with all the energy at your command, all your talent and every ounce of your will.

Wake up in the morning and work every day to make your dream one day nearer to coming true.

You will stall. You will stumble. You will have setbacks and disasters.

Don’t let your dream be dashed. Dare to dream. Dare to dream.

And, when you need inspiration (we all need inspiration) look to Muhammad Ali.

Look up into the night sky. That’s his star shining brilliant and true. Follow the star.

Dare to dream. Dare to dream. Dare to dream.

Muhammad Ali was a skinny Black kid from Louisville Kentucky who dared to dream.

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He dared to dream on stepping into his local gym that he would become the best fighter it would ever see.

He dared to dream that he would be a Golden Gloves Champion.

He dared to dream that he would win an Olympic Gold Medal.

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He dared to dream that he would beat the terrifying, unbeatable Sonny Liston and become the Heavyweight Champion of the whole wide World!

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He dared to dream that he could invent a style of boxing beyond the imaginations of anyone who had ever fought before – float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. No jive you’ll go in five.

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He dared to dream that little educated as he was he could charm paupers and peasants and kings and have all of them laugh with love and recognise a true monarch of life.

He dared to dream that he could stand up proud before the might of the state and say, ‘I won’t fight in a war I don’t believe in’.

He dared to dream when they took his title away that one day he would win it back.

He dared to dream when he lost for the first time in his career to the great Joe Frazier that he would beat him the next time and the time after that.

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He dared to dream that he could beat the unbeatable colossus that was George Foreman.

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He dared to dream that he could break all the rules of boxing and win the title by laying back on the ropes while the hardest puncher in the world whaled on him for all he was worth.

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He dared to dream that when he was cruelly stricken by illness that he would find peace of mind and heart and spirit in the love of his family and God.

He dared to dream that a skinny Black kid from Louisville would become the best known man in the whole wide world.

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He dared to dream that he would become the greatest fighter who ever lived.

He dared to dream that he would become the greatest and most significant sportsman who ever lived.

He dared to dream that his life would uplift and inspire dreamers all over the world.

He fulfilled all of his dreams and launched millions and millions of others because he pursued his dream with all the energy at his command, all of his vast talent and every ounce of his will.

He woke up every morning and worked as hard as he could to bring his dream one more day nearer to coming true.

Though he sometimes stalled, sometimes stumbled and endured setbacks and disasters he never allowed his dreams to be dashed. He always, always dared to dream.

He was Muhammad Ali. He was exactly what he said he was – The Greatest of All Time.

Thank you Muhammad for all the outrageous boasts. Thank you for all the giddy glory. Thank you for all the thrills and all the good hearted laughter.

May all your tears be dried. May flights of angels sing you to your well deserved rest.

Good Night Champ and may God bless and keep you always.

Fred Neil – The reluctant guru of Greenwich Village

‘He was a hero to me’ (David Crosby)

‘I would prefer not to’ (Bartleby the Scrivener- Herman Melville)

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Some artists songs reflect the busy world being born and dying all around them.

Some artists songs are front line combatant reports showing us how it feels to fall in and out of love.

Some artists songs like those of Fred Neil, the subject of today’s Immortal Jukebox tribute, are invitations to enter a dreamscape where the deep emotions of our unconscious selves are mysteriously evoked, recognised and sounded.

Listening to such songs can be an enormously affecting, liberating and transformative experience.

Everybody knows a Fred Neil song though most don’t know that song as a Fred Neil song.

So, ‘Everybody’s Talking At Me’, a song played on the radio all around the world every day is generally regarded as a Nilsson song or, ‘That song from Midnight Cowboy’.

And, ‘Dolphins’ is usually thought of as proof of Tim Buckley’s soaring imagination. Yet both were written and first recorded in definitive versions by Fred Neil.

Fred Neil was a magnificent songwriter with a voice of extraordinary beauty who entranced and permanently influenced the early 60s generation of singer-songwriters who congregated in the artistic crucible/enclave of Greenwich Village in New York City.

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Bob Dylan started out in the village playing harmonica for Fred at Cafe Wha? David Crosby, John Sebastian, Richie Havens and Karen Dalton all sat at Fred’s feet and wondered, ‘How does he do it?’

How does he play with such relaxed freedom and integrate voice and guitar so seamlessly?

How does he write songs that sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before which yet fall upon your ears like the welcome voice of an old friend returning home after a long journey?

How does every song he sings sound like an epic voyage into uncharted waters?

How does he do it?

One thing you can be sure of – Fred ain’t gonna tell you. Fred, famously, keeps his own counsel. But, if you watch and listen hard he might just show you the way a true musician carries himself.

When he’s singing a song Fred sails into the distance following his own charts to lands that aren’t inked in on any maps you can buy at the store.

Copy Fred and you’ll most likely drown – take inspiration from him and you just might find our who you are and where you’re bound.

Listening to Dolphins we join Fred on a voyage that can have no end. A voyage in search of the essential self we so carefully hide from the wide, wounding world.

The caressing intimacy of Fred’s vocal is that of a man who, at some unknowable cost, has been granted a revelation that has changed him utterly.

Odetta was right to talk about Fred’s voice being a healing instrument. In singing he heals himself and offers us balm for our own wounds. It is a rare and precious gift.

He knows full well that it’s not for him to tell any of us how to get along. Each of us has to steer our own course in search of the secret of our own true self.

The Dolphins cannot be willed to appear; you have to search. and, often, a;most always, nothing valuable can be found unless something valuable has also been lost.

What Fred can offer us through the majesty of his fathomless voice and crystalline guitar is a vision of a mysterious, thrilling beauty which though generally out of reach can illuminate our lives and inspire us like the circling moon and stars above.

Horizons are there to be scanned. Nothing is ever discovered in the safety of the harbour. Set sail. set sail.

Search for the Dolphins.

Everybody’s Talkin’ is a song lasting less than three minutes which you won’t ever be able to leave behind. A song which carries us over deep waters. A song which yet has the playful lightness of a skipping stone.

A song that whispers and whispers in the wind. Who are you? Where are you bound?

Fred’s golden baritone and the perfect alluring metre of his guitar help us slip the bonds of time measured in deadening seconds and minutes for the time beyond measurement lived in the chambers of our hearts and the shivers of our souls.

How long does it take to fall in love?

How long does it take to have the scales fall from your eyes and see, see, the world anew?

How long do you have to pray for forgiveness and redemption?

How long will it take before you jettison the baggage weighing down your life?

How long does it take to stop thinking how long will it all take?

How long. How long.

Oh, everybody’s talkin’ at you all the time. All the time.

Even if you knew what it was they wanted you couldn’t give it to them.

What Fred offers is a faith that somehow, no matter how bewildering the sound and fury of the world is there remains a place, a home, where the sun will keep on shining through the rain

There is somewhere where the weather will suit your clothes.

A home where you will no longer be a stranger in a strange town.

Sometimes, early in the blue light of dawn eerily beautiful dreams of freedom float to the surface of my sleeping mind. And, sometimes I can hear a spectral deep voice calling out ‘I’ve got a secret – didn’t we shake Sugaree’.

Then, waking with a lazy grin and a sense of gratitude I know that Fred has been visiting my imagination once again.

By 1971 Fred Neil was weary of the whole hoopla of the music business and the dangerous attractions of New York City (particularly the easy access to the drugs which threatened to mire him in lethargic melancholia).

So Fred simply flew the coop and literally went searching for the Dolphins in Florida. Down there he seemed to find the peace of mind he had always been looking for. There, comfortable in his own skin, he played for his own amusement not for applause or esteem.

He was not an exile. Rather he was a sailor who after many circumnavigations had at last found a place to weigh anchor.

Notes:

Fred Neil died in July 2001.

Fred had early songwriting success placing, ‘Come Back Baby’ with Buddy Holly and, ‘Candy Man’ with Roy Orbison.

His first LP, for Elektra in 1964, Tear Down the Walls’ was shared with Vince Martin. Tracks like, ‘Baby’, ‘Wild Child in a World of Trouble’ and, ‘Weary Blues’ already feature Fred’s honeyed vocal style and ability to make every line seem like a new gleaming thought.

‘Bleeker & MacDougal’ again on Elektra from 1965 was Fred’s solo debut. It is a wonderful record that yielded many treasures particularly, ‘Blues on the Ceiling’, ‘Other Side of This Life’ and, ‘Little Bit of Rain’.

In 1966 Fred moved to Capitol for the all time classic, ‘Fred Neil’ which in addition to the tracks featured above has a mesmeric version of, ‘Faretheewell’ (often known as Dink’s song’.

A live collection, ‘The Sky is Falling’ goes some way to explaining the hold Fred exerted over his contemporaries.

Those who fall fully in thrall to Fred’s genius should seek out, ‘The Many Sides of Fred Neil’ which is richly veined with rare gems.

Happy Birthday to Paul Brady – Irish Folk Icon!

Paul Brady will be 69 this week. Here’s a tribute from the very early days of The Jukebox many of you may have missed.

Bard: A tribal poet – singer skilled gifted in composing and reciting verses of satire and eulogy on heroes and their deeds.

‘Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake’. (Richard Sennett)

‘Some guys got it down …. Paul Brady …. Secret heroes’. (Bob Dylan)

Paul Brady harbours and husbands extraordinary talents. He is a great singer of traditional ballads in the Irish and American traditions able to breathe life into ‘set texts’ through his exquisite instrumental and vocal control and his natural discretion.

These craft skills allow him to reveal the often buried wit, vigour, romance, tragedy and flat out strange power of those remarkable works composed by the great ‘Anon’.

He is also an accomplished guitarist with the quiet unflashy discipline of the skilled accompanist who can anchor a tune setting a virtuoso fiddler like Andy McGan free to fly.

He also has driving rock ‘n’ roll chops learned through ingesting whole the riffs and rhythms of the Shadows and Chuck Berry as a youth.

As far as traditional ballad performance goes Paul Brady’s version of Arthur McBride is rightly regarded as an enduring triumph.

It was wholly appropriate that he performed it at the Dublin memorial evening for the late keeper of the Irish word hoard, Seamus Heaney.

Heaney would have understood how the seeming ease of Paul Brady’s performance of Arthur McBride was based on a deep understanding of the ballad form and hard hours spent honing his instrumental and vocal craft. It takes a great artist to make the artful seem artless.

The song is an Irish tall tale featuring protagonists Arthur and the unnamed narrator encountering a military recruiting party led by a bumptious sergeant as they take the early morning air one Christmas day.

The Sergeants blandishments and promises of glory, riches and female favours are satirically shown to be counterfeit coin by Arthur who though he chooses not to join the army would clearly have been a first class barrack room lawyer had he chosen to enlist.

Arthur and his friend turn the tables on the sergeant and the unfortunate little drummer boy leaving them bloody backed on the beach and the boys then merrily continue their seasonal stroll.

The drummer boys instrument, his ‘rowdeydowdow’ having been made a playful football bobs uselessly in the tide. The song represents a victory for the native over the coloniser, of hedge school wit and satire over the prepared script. Brains beats bullshit.

Paul Brady’s performance of the ballad as shown here is peerless. Nothing is pushed too hard, the song virtually seems to sing itself with Brady as the pilot who knows every ripple of the tide and currents as he steers the song home. Now he allows a little drift, now he touches the tiller, now he adjusts the tempo and volume to bring out the full salty tang of the song.

His guitar playing throughout is astonishingly deft and alert to every nuance of feeling. Arthur McBride is a big song filled with lovely sly dramatic touches which Paul Brady inhabits with unshowy assurance.

Listening to the song you naturally follow the arc of the narrative and feel yourself drawn in to the world it presents. In traditional song Paul Brady wears the bards cloak teasing out the shape and character of the song sure in its proven potency to cast a spell over its audience.

As a contemporary songwriter he has at least two hatfuls of wonderful songs and he is the author of two certifiable classics; the euphoric ‘Crazy Dreams’ and the heart rending ‘The Island’. He has also found himself in demand as a supplier of quality material for artists of the calibre of Tina Turner (Steel Claw, Paradise Is Here) and Bonnie Raitt (Luck Of The Draw, Not The Only One).

Paul Brady’s songs are imbued with deep feeling set within satisfyingly well carpentered structures. They are the product of inspiration shaped by a craft won through a thorough musical education. Paul Brady’s songs are built to last and last they will.

This is not a matter of tricks or sleight of hand but of a deep understanding in his mind, in his heart, in his hands and fingers and in his voice that real songs truly speak to and of the lives we lead both above and below the public surface.

To produce these songs he draws upon traditional practice and the craft techniques of which he is a master. He is then free to follow his inspiration wherever it leads and to choose the right tools for the task at hand.

Like his Irish near contemporary Van Morrison he can mesmerically summon the spirits to open up the terrestrial and mystical landscapes of Ireland. Like Van he is a canny songsmith finding the particular combinations of lyric, melody, rhythm and vocal attack needed to make a song take off on record and in performance.

A perfect example of this is, ‘Crazy Dreams’ one of the great ‘leaving my hometown’ songs where he lights out for the territory to find out if his those dreams of independence, of self realisation in a new world, can be made to come true.

The song has a thrillingly heady melody and a rhapsodic rhythm always flowing forward like waters heading for the falls. Paul Brady’s vocals achieve tremendous excitement for the listener because of the way he maintains his setting at intense simmer rather than boil. You can feel the gathering impulse to follow the dream in every second of the performance. Ringing, dazzling guitars and shimmering keyboards surf atop drums which drive the dream forward.

He’s leaving behind the Joycean snow falling on the Liffey, the fog of familiarity that shrouds his true identity as he packs his suitcase filled with his own dreams not those of his city, his friends and his family. Now is the time for one last look back – closing the door on the hesitations of the past before turning definitively to the future.

Now is the time to drink champagne with your darling companion until you both fall down. Tomorrow the dream comes alive. This is a journey we all have to take for someone elses’s dreams get you nowhere.

The Island is a miraculous piano centred meditation on the pain and futility of civil wars yoked arfully to a deeply tender love song. In this song Paul Brady incandescently evokes a triumph of love over hate. As an Irishman he knows the power of death fixation (the young boys dying in the ditches) yet he hymns the nurturing power of another love which finds its expression in lovemaking by the healing waters of the ocean.

His vision for his neighbours rejects a future built on slogans, tombstones and twisted wreckage. Rather, it looks to a future illuminated by the simple dreams we all have for ourselves and our families. Our children deserve to inherit a country not mired in the hurts and traumas of the past.

In so doing Paul Brady willingly takes on tne role of the holy fool opposing the zealots who are willing to sacrifice anyone and everything to achieve their utopian goals. The simple message of the song is choose love – be prepared to be a fool for love.

Paul Brady’s sublime vocal in this song is filled with bruised tenderness. Who would not want to go to the Island when the invitation is sung with such alluring enticement? Throughout the song the prayerful piano piano (by the late Kenny Craddock) invokes the redemptive balm of the love of one person for another. If that’s a foolish faith so be it. Paul Brady’s performance of this wonderful song makes that faith affectingly real and welcoming.

Paul Brady is a great musician whose work has firmly placed him in the front rank of the the bardic company of Ireland.

An Irish Bard is something to be.

Recommended listening:

Paul Brady has never made a bad record. Here are a few of my favourites with key tracks in brackets.

Paul Brady/Andy Irvine (Mary And The Soldier)

Welcome Here Kind Stranger (The Lakes Of Pontchatrain, Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore)

Hard Station (Crazy Dreams, Busted Loose, Nothing But The Same Old Story)

True For You (Helpless Heart)

Trick Or Treat (Nobody Knows, Trick Or Treat)

Back To The Centre (The Island, The Homes Of Donegal)

The Missing Liberty Tapes a 1978 live recording stands as a high peak of Irish acoustic based music making.

Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels burn rubber and inspire Bruce Springsteen!

Whatever gets you through the night. That’s right John. Whatever gets you through. Gets you through.

The days. The days you don’t own. You’re a prisoner of the days. A prisoner uniformed, numbered and defined by your family history and name.

A prisoner marked out by race, class, Zip Code, bank balance and Grade Point Average. And, if you ain’t no fortunate son one day you might wake up to find you’ve been drafted to fight in a war halfway around the world against folks you never heard of.

Everyone thinks they know everything about you from the way you look, the way you walk and of course the way you talk. Because your folks old country was Ireland or Italy or Poland you’re, ‘one of them’ and bound to act just like the way expected of one of them.

And you? Who do you think you are? Looking down the checklist on offer you only know you have to tick the box for, ‘None of the above’.

Sometimes, most of the time, it’s hard to breathe. It feels like you are being suffocated and thrashing about in a steel mesh net that’s tightening, tightening.

The only time you feel you are really breathing, not gasping for breath, is when you follow Grand River Avenue all the way down to the shore.

Down to Walled Lake. Down to the Casino.

To dance, dance, dance, dance until finally you’re breathing clear. Until, miraculously, you feel electrically alive and wholly free. Free.

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Now you’ve had your radio tuned permanently to Lee Alan who hosted his show from right here in The Casino. And, you know that music legends have played here. Louis Armstrong himself, Sinatra and Chuck Berry as soon as he got out of the slammer.

Detroit is the home of Motown so here at The Casino Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and The Miracles all strut their stuff. The British invasion bands come out to the shore too to see if they can cut it in front of an audience that really knows. Really knows.

And, one thing above all the thousand or so regulars know. Really know. There’s only one band that will hit the stage at a hundred miles an hour and just be warming up. One band from right here in Detroit that will play and play until they drop.

Until they and the dancers circling the floor under the Mirrorball in a haze of smoke and sweat communally become transformed beings. That band, the unchallengeable monarchs of The Casino, are Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels.

Ah Jenny, Jenny, Jenny, won’t you come along with me!

Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels – now that’s burning rubber!

They had been Billy Lee and the Riverias. After producer/songwriter Bob Crewe saw them at Walled Lake they became Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels and in a New York studio in 1965 they achieved an almost impossible feat – to recreate the frenzied glory of their live show and capture it on vinyl.

You can imagine Mitch prowling the floor, doing the splits and knee dropping as he tears into the inspired medley of Little Richard’s, ‘Jenny, Jenny’ and, ‘C.C Rider’ the blues standard which probably came to them through Chuck Willis.

Jim McCarty on the lead guitar, Jo Kubert on rhythm guitar, Earl Elliott on bass and Johnny ‘Bee’ Badanjek on drums whip up a tornado of sound that laid waste the idea that the spirit of Rock n Roll was dead or alive only in bands from across the Atlantic Sea.

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More than a million copies were sold as Jenny became a top 10 pop hit and, especially pleasing to the band, Number 1 on the R&B chart.

When you find the secret to capturing the intensity of live performance on record you just gotta do it again! Listen here to Mitch and the boys fire up and lift off like a Saturn 5 space rocket as they make an immortal anthem out of, ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu’ written by Bill Medley of Righteous Brothers fame (track down their version too).

What’s it all about? Your guess wins the prize! What it’s about is the exhilaration of Johnny Bee’s drums sound and the adrenaline rush of Jimmy McCarty’s guitar solo and the ecstatic abandon of Mitch’s vocal.

It’s about being 100% alive and throwing your head back and laughing at the sheer wonder of it all.

Growing up in Detroit Mitch and The Wheels developed a deep love and understanding of the music of the black community all around them – Rhythm and Blues.

So, whatever historians or sociologists might think it was entirely natural for them to turn to the work of a great luminary like Little Richard and a, ‘You gotta be in the know to know’ artist like Shorty Long and in a blast furnace of energy meld, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and, ‘Devil With A Blue Dress On’ into an outpouring of ferocious joy.

Find 11 on your dial and keep it there throughout!

Taking on songs like these is high risk strategy. If you don’t pull it off you dishonour music you love and look ridiculous. But, once Johnny Bee kicks things off with an awesome drum tattoo and Mitch pours his heart and soul into the vocal you know that you’re never gonna tire of this record.

Additional musical brilliance here courtesy of Mike Bloomfield on guitar and Barry Goldberg on the organ. They were rewarded with a top 5 hit.

Someone else plugged into the primal source, Bruce Springsteen, recognised this and characteristically doffed his cap with his own tribute in the, ‘Detroit Medley’

Bruce a head and heart scholar of the music knew that for mainline energy and commitment to the Dionysiac essence of Rock ‘n’ Roll Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels have rarely, if ever, been matched let alone outdone.