Ry Cooder & The Drifters (with stellar supporting cast) : Mexican Divorce

In Dave Alvin’s wonderful song, ‘Border Radio’ (sure to feature here next year) there are some lines which have always intrigued me:

‘This song comes from 1962 dedicated to a man who’s gone
50,000 watts out of Mexico
This is the Border Radio
This is the Border Radio’

What was that song from 1962?

What was the old song they used to know?

A song able to summon the life that was.

The life that was lost.

The life that haunts the life lived now.

It whispers of broken promises up and down the Rio Grande.

One day married. Next day free.

Except you’re never really free.

How could you be?

An old adobe house where you leave the past behind.

Except (and everyone knows this in their heart of hearts) you can never truly leave the past behind.

The past shadows your every step.

Another set of footprints in the sand.

The song running through your head night after night from 1962?

Of course, The Drifters with ‘Mexican Divorce’

They say it takes a village to raise a child – to cherish, to nurture well being and growth.

Well, it took a creative village – a constellation of craft and talent to produce the hypnotic aching majesty of, ‘Mexican Divorce’.

Let’s begin with the songwriting team.

The Composer was Burt Bacharach – and for Mr Bacharach I think we can all agree that only the term Composer will do.

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What Bacharach brought to the popular song was immense slegance and sophistication in the conception and construction of melodies, instrumental colour and arrangements.

A Bacharach song has a jewelled Faberge radiance that seduces and dazzles the listener.

A spell is cast, especially when sung by a singer of taste and discretion, that lingers on and on in the imagination.

Bacharach’s genius was to cast and recast that spell adapted to the particular talents of the artist he was working with.

Of course, this wizardry would attain its apogee in the breathtaking series of sides he cut with Dionne Warwick.

For, ‘Mexican Divorce’ Burt’s conjured a melody that takes you gently by the hand as it unfolds its tale of longing, loss and painful regret.

The lyricist partner for Burt here was Bob Hilliard a music industry veteran who had already had notable successes on Broadway, in Hollywood, and on the Pop Charts.

We all know Bob Hilliard songs – think; ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning’, ‘Our Day Will Come’ and, ‘Tower of Strength’ just for starters.

With, ‘Mexican Divorce’ there’s a lovely flow and economy of words which tells a heartbreaking tale that all of us can recognise the truth of.

We know that finding love can take so long. So long.

Alas, we also know that though walking away from love must be wrong and a Sin we do it over and over again.

Millions of footprints in the sand headed for the Broken Promise Land.

There’s no house so dark as one where the light has been turned off by a lover who doesn’t want to live there anymore.

And, sometimes, all you can do, though you know it’s fruitless, is to beg, beg in between tears:

‘..My love I beg – please, oh, please, don’t go!’

Carrying off the lead vocal duties with deep died melancholia was the tragic figure of Rudy Lewis (that’s Rudy on the right below)

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Rudy had the gift of bringing life and drama to a song so that it stays etched in the memory.

Supporting him with characteristic subtlety and sureness of tone were his colleagues in the 1962, post Ben E King, version of The Drifters.

Giving the song an extra layer of poignant theatricality were a quartet of extravagantly talented session singers.

Leading these singers was Cissy Houston who brought tempered Gospel fervour and warmth to every record she ever sang on. She’s pictured below with The Sweet Inspirations.

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And, Boy Howdy, did Cissy sing on some great records!

With Elvis Presley, with Aretha Franklin, with Otis Redding – with Van Morrison among many, many, others.

Around Cissy circled her nieces Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick whose crystalline tones gave the song a shimmering aura.

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Dee Dee was a superb back up singer as fine lead singer as singles like, ‘We’re Doing Fine’, ‘I Want to Be with You’ and, ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ attest.

But it was the younger sister, Dionne, who caught the ear of Burt Bacharach. He recognised that her voice had an airy pellucid quality which would make her perfect for a new batch of songs incubating in his imagination.

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During the session for, ‘Mexican Divorce’ Burt asked Dionne if she would like to sing some demos for him.

And, the rest, as they say, is History!

Providing the arrangement ( no doubt head to head with Burt) and conducting the strings was Claus Ogerman.

Claus was a deeply schooled Jazzman who had found a niche for himself at Verve records working with major artists like Bill Evans, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Wes Montgomery.

On the Pop front he arranged, Leslie Gore’s ‘Its My Party’, ‘Cry To Me’ for Solomon Burke and ‘Don’t Play That Song’ for ex Drifter Ben E King.

Manning the Desk were the legendary duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who always wanted to make sure a great song became a great Record.

Bacharach, Ogerman and Leiber & Stoller all loved the Cuban and Latin musical accents rife in New York City Dancehalls and on the airwaves.

Together they gave, ‘Mexican Divorce’ a flavour of the exotic.

Mexico is different and the song reflected that.

Scroll forward a decade or so and much nearer Mexico Ry Cooder brought his own unerring instinct for finding the heart of a song to, ‘Mexican Divorce’.

Ry and his superb Band take the song at a languorous tempo like a lonely sleepwalker on a hot night finding his way back to the house where he was once happy.

Plas Johnson plays the all hope is fading heart rending Sax.

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Jim Keltner, always the first call on the West Coast, plays the gorgeous sashaying drum part.
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Bobby King adds a sad sweetness with his harmony vocals.

And Ry Cooder?

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Ry plays the guitar and the mandolin with a riveting tenderness reminiscent of the great Mississippi John Hurt.

And sings like a man who is at the end of his rope.

The end of his rope.

For now, of course, there’s no welcoming light in any window.

Empty darkness all around.

Empty hangers twisting in the wardrobe.

Dust settling on the doors.

The road to Mexico unwinds.

Down below El Paso.

Across the borderline.

Where identities and statuses change.

One day married.

Next day free.

Broken hearts.

Broken hearts.

George Harrison produced her, She backed up Pink Floyd & The Stones – Doris Troy!

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If like me you’re an assiduous reader of the indexes of reference works and biographies concerning gospel, soul and pop music in the 1960s the name of Doris Troy will certainly be familiar as she features in the histories of some of the most famous and successful acts of the era.

And, I do mean famous and successful for Doris a gifted songwriter and singer in her own right worked as a backup vocalist with; The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Dusty Springfield, George Harrison, Carly Simon, The Drifters, Solomon Burke and Chuck Jackson and that’s by no means an exhaustive list.

Consciously or not you will have listened to Doris’ rich and vibrant tones as the radio played such classics as ‘My Sweet Lord’, ‘You’re So Vain’, ‘In The Middle of Nowhere’, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ or ‘Tell Him I’m Not Home’ all of which were all the better for her contributions.

The latter song, one of the powerhouse singer Chuck Jackson’s finest, shows the uncredited Doris making a major contribution to a considerable hit through the clarity and charm of her answer/commentary vocal.

As an excellent recent music documentary directed by Morgan Neville, ‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’ has shown there is an enormous wealth of talent and fascinating life stories to be discovered within the ranks of the backup singers who ensure that the spotlit stars’ vocals are carefully framed and supported to emphasise their strengths and minimise their weaknesses.

Doris, along with colleagues such as sisters Dionne and Dee Warwick and Cissie Houston (mother of Whitney) in America and Madeline Bell in Britain used their grounding in the disciplines of singing in gospel choirs to know when to swell the sound and when to lay back to feature the lead vocalist to best effect.

From a record producers point of view such talents are invaluable as their versatility, modesty and ability to work accurately and quickly in the studio saved time and money and left the studio crew free to concentrate (if necessary) on encouraging or handhiolding the sometimes fractious stars whose names would grace the resultant record and hopefully the charts.

Doris was the New York city born child of a Baptist preacher who loved to sing from her toddling days. Though her family wanted her to use her obvious talents solely in the service of the church Doris could not help but to also want to sing the kind of rhythm and blues and soul songs she heard on the radio as she grew up in the 1940s and 1950s.

Moreover, when Doris was only 16 she got a job as an usherette at the high temple of black music in New York, the Apollo Theatre, where luminaries like Ray Charles and James Brown gave masterclasses in singing and the art of winning and holding an audience.

Doris was an avid listener and a quick learner. Soon she was singing with a jazz tinged group, ‘The Halos’ and trying out her hand as a songwriter. In 1960 Dee Clark provided Doris with her first vinyl credit and top 40 hit when he sang the breezy,’ How About That’ on the Vee Jay label.

Hooking up with the Warwicks and Cissy Houston she became a regular in the New York recording studios working with the cream of the instrumental and vocal talents of the time. She helped to create the sophisticated yet passionate sound mixing the gospel and soul traditions with added latino and broadway seasonings which distinguished early 60s records created in the Big Apple.

All the while Doris was writing her own songs seeking to find her own artistic voice and bag a hit of her own. In 1963 she gloriously achieved this ambition when she wrote and recorded the song most people will always associate with her, ‘Just One Look’.

Doris had taken the song demo (produced by Halo colleague Gregory Carroll) to Atlantic Records where the ever canny Jerry Wexler immediately issued the demo unaltered recognising a sure fire hit when he heard one! The song was a top 10 hit in America and a top 40 hit in the UK (the springy beat group cover by The Hollies made it to the dizzying heights of Number 2).

‘Just One Look’ is one of those soul/pop songs that just fizzes with life. Doris’ vocal and the ebullient production are irresistible to these ears. Doris deliriously summons up the the fast heart beating, head swirling, I want to shout it from the rooftops! sensation of having fallen irrevocably in love. That’s a story that can never grow old and Doris’ song will always tell a lovely truth reminding us anew of the joys of life and love.

Doris was especially beloved by the fanatical supporters of soul music in the UK – a group which in the mid to late 1960s often seemed to take on the devout dedication of a religious fraternity obsessively seeking out icons and relics of their faith in the form of black vinyl 7 inch 45rpm records. Enough of these devotees bought another of her self-penned songs, ‘What’ cha Gonna Do About It’ for it to scrape into the top 40 in 1964.

Here, in under two minutes, Doris gives a virtuoso display of pop soul singing sliding through her vocal gears as she cajoles, castigates and charms her surprisingly reluctant lover. Surely no one could resist such an appeal! I also love the rare use of the legal term, ‘Double Jepoardy’ in the lyric.

Doris found London of the swinging sixties very much to her taste finding a well informed musical community which fully appreciated the depth of her talent and her easy charm and affability.

Musicians and producers simply loved working with a woman who made performing and recording a delight. She was one of those people who took a genuine interest in the people she came across whether they were superstars or the studio janitor.

She was admiringly referred to as Mama Soul and soon became a fixture in the London clubs and recording studios. She struck up a particularly close friendship with Madeline Bell and together they sang soulfully on many of the great 60s hits of Britain’s finest ever female vocalist, Dusty Springfield.

They collaborated with Dusty to sublime effect on, ‘In The Middle Of Nowhere’ and, ‘Little By Little’. Together they produced records that were every bit as soulful as anything coming out of Motown in the same era (something freely acknowledged by Detroit’s finest when they toured Britain).

The final recording of Doris I’ve chosen to showcase here is a particular favourite the wonderfully swinging, stinging and bluesy, ‘He’s Qualified’ from 1967 on Capitol which goes some way to prove the old record collectors adage that it’s on the ‘B’ side of singles that some of the finest 60s gems are to be found.

 

As the 60s drew to a close Doris found herself in the improbable position of occupying an office in the headquarters of the Beatles Record Company and counter cultural fairground, Apple Records.

The Fab Four had always been afficianados of the vocal stylings of black pop and soul singers and like everyone else they were won over by the Doris’ generous and caring personality.

George Harrison produced an LP on Apple by Doris and recruited a veritable who’s who of musical movers and shakers including Eric Clapton to play on the album. To my mind the result shows too many head chefs overwhelming the songs but the record still repays a listen – especially the songs co-written with another secret hero of the 60s Klaus Voorman.

Actually Doris was involved in one great record during her period at Apple: Billy Preston’s magisterial, ‘That’s The Way God Planned It’ which for Billy and Doris must have brought back wonderful memories of their gospel roots. I defy anyone not to get out of their chair and testify along to this one!

Doris’ continued to record and perform in the 70s and 80s though now largely limited to an audience of appreciative long time fans. Her life and career took another extraordinary turn in the mid 1980s when her sister Vy and brother in law Ken Whydro wrote a musical based on Doris’ life titled, ‘Mama I Want To Sing’.

The show was a celebrated long running triumph for its composers and for Doris who took on the role of her own mother for over a decade raising the roof of theatres all over the globe.

Doris died on February 16 2004. The affection she was held in within the music world was demonstrated by the reminiscences offered by Dionne Warwick, Valerie Simpson and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun at her funeral.

I Imagine there cannot have been a dry eye in the church when her companion in the chorus on so many great records, Cissy Houston summed up Doris’ soul and character by singing, ‘If I Can Help Somebody’.

Back in the early 1940s a young girl declared what she wanted to do with her god given gifts – ‘Mama I Want To Sing’. I think we can safely say that Doris Troy kept her promise to herself and did her Mama proud.

Note: The best starting point to appreciate the treasures in Doris’ career is the Kent Records compilation, ”The Doris Troy Anthology 1960 – 1996′.