Immortal Jukebox : The Story So Far (with some vintage Van Morrison as a bonus!)

When I launched The Immortal Jukebox in March 2014 I had, as they say, no expectations.

I just knew that it was time to find out if I could think on the page with the same fluency I could talk about the music I loved.

My readers are of course the judge and jury as to whether I have managed in my writing to convey the depth of my passion for the music and musicians from the golden age of recording – by which I mean the late 1920s to the late 1970s.

It seems I have now written some 200 Posts here on The Jukebox – each one a letter from the heart.

Starting out with just my family and a handful of loyal friends I now see, with some amazement, that my combined WordPress, Twitter and Email followers are now approaching the 10,000 mark!

I determined from the beginning of this adventure that all my posts would read as if no one else could possibly have written them and that no matter how well known the record or artist featured I would illuminate their particular merits from my own unique angle.

I also decided, as time went on, to risk inserting fictional elements and personal anecdotes and reflections into the mix.

It’s my Blog and I’ll rant, rave, laugh and cry if I want to!

Heartfelt thanks to my readers who have produced so many intelligent and inspiring comments and so much warm encouragement.

Remember a handful of Nickels and The Jukebox is a cure for all your ills.

In reflective mode, I’ve been reviewing my Stats and thought I would share some of my discoveries with you.

Top 5 Posts :

1. ‘Ordinary (Extraordinary Stories) featuring Mary Gauthier & Iris Dement

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-3M

2. Van Morrison ‘In The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll’

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-bi

3. ‘An Archangel, A Journey, A Sacred River, The Folk Process & A Spiritual’

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4. ‘Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow!’ – Train songs featuring Bob Marley & The Wailers, Hank Williams, Curtis Mayfield and John Stewart.

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5. ‘John Lennon loved ‘Angel Baby’ by Rosie Hamlin (RIP) – Here’s Why!

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Thom’s Top 5 (the Posts that gave me the most pleasure to write)

1. ‘Bob Dylan : The Nobel Prize, One Too Many Mornings, The Albert Hall & Me.

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-AL

2. Van Morrison : Carrickfergus (Elegy for Vincent)

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-7J

3. ‘Walk Away Renee – The Lost Love That Haunts The Heart’

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-sQ

4. ‘Dolores Keane : Voice and Vision from Ireland’

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-Lb

5. ‘A Poem for All Ireland Sunday – Up Tipp!’

http://wp.me/p4pE0N-w9

If you’ve missed out on any of these – catch up now!

I would be fascinated to know which Posts make your own Top 5 – set the Comments section ablaze!

To conclude let me thank every one of my readers for supporting The Jukebox.

I’ll sign off now with a song from the Patron Saint of The Immortal Jukebox – Van Morrison.

Heart stopping. Spirit lifting.

Hey Girl! Hey Girl!

An eerily beautiful prefigurement of Astral Weeks dreamlike mood.

Van takes a walk and watches the boats go by in the early morning light.

A spectral flute welcomes the wind and sun as Van’s vocal caresses each word of the lyric in which once again he encounters the young girl, his Beatrice figure, who will almost make him lose his mind.

The track is only three minutes and ten seconds long yet seems to last much longer – indeed seems to have stopped the flow of Time itself.

Time itself.

John Lennon loved ‘Angel Baby’ by Rosie Hamlin (RIP) – here’s why!

‘[Angel Baby] … This is by a 15 year old girl from National City California named Rosie. This is going to be a hit Guys and Gals’ – DJ Alan Freed on K-Day Radio, November 1960.

‘This here is one of my all time favourite songs. Send my love to Rosie – wherever she may be’ (John Lennon)

I was saddened today to learn of the death of Rosie Hamlin at the age of 71.

In tribute I am reblogging my post on her classic song, ‘Angel Baby’.

Sometimes when the stars and tides are in perfect alignment and the Muses are indulgent a moment of inspiration can visit an artist who may never be granted such a blessing again.

So it was with Rosie.

Yet, we cannot live on Bach, Bob Dylan and The Beatles alone!

Rosie’s moment of glory will live forever because it captures an eternal yearning in all of us.

A yearning that stays within you no matter your age.

Nine or Ninety your heart your heart still yearns to skip a beat.

No one wants to be blue and alone.

Some part of us always believes in Angels.

Especially if they sing like Rosie Hamlin …. ooooh … oooh …oooh …

Angel Baby will always have pride of place on my Jukebox.

May she rest in peace.

1960 was a momentous year. In Greensboro, North Carolina four black students are refused service at a segregated lunch counter in Woolworth’s. They begin a sit in protest that is repeated throughout Southern States that summer as Civil Rights protests become a powerful political, social and cultural movement.

High over the vast territory of the Soviet Union a U2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers is shot down triggering a rapid rise in the temperature of the Cold War.

In November John Fitzgerald Kennedy becomes the 35th President of The United States seeming to symbolise a new era of optimism – Camelot on the Potomac.

Meanwhile in a former aircraft hanger in San Marcos California, on 2 track machine, a 15 year old Mexican-American girl called Rosalie (Rosie) Hamlin lays down a song she had written a year earlier to celebrate her first love.

A song that John Lennon then an unreconstructed leather clad Rock ‘n’ Roller with a scarifying, scabrous, Scouse wit will remember, with love, to the end of his days.

That song, ‘Angel Baby’ features an ethereal vocal by Rosie that will never be forgotten by anyone who hears it. It’s the sound of a true, innocent heart filled, full to bursting, with delirious youthful passion.

It’s the sound of the children of Neverland wheeling in the heavens as they fly straight on to another rosy morning.

And, if in your venerable age and wisdom you shake your head at such simple feeling I’m here to tell you that you are too old brother, too old sister.

Every time I hear, ‘Angel Baby’ I’m teleported back to my 14 year old self when there were as many possibilities of love and longing for love as there were stars in the night sky.

Sing it Rosie, sing it for the 14 year still living somewhere inside us all.

I love the Sputnik guitar intro to Angel Baby. I love the sense that there is no artifice at all here – nothing getting in the way of a distillation of a pure oceanic feeling.

It doesn’t matter a hoot that the bass player, Tony Gomez, had to play an untutored plodding sax solo because the regular saxman Al Barrett had to stay home because his mother wouldn’t let him out until he’d mowed the lawn (!)

What matters is that Rosie with David Ponci, Noah Tafolla and Carl Von Goodat made a record that hummed and crackled with the music of the spheres.

At first Rosie couldn’t get anyone in the music business to be interested in her record. Then she had the bright idea of getting Kresge’s department store in San Diego to play the record in their listening booths (remember listening booths?) and lo and behold the kids of San Diego found that they knew exactly, exactly, what Rosie was singing about.

They began clamouring to buy Angel Baby so that they could call up it’s magic anytime they wanted. In the event, ‘Angel Baby’ was issued by Highland Records in November 1960 and went on to hit the top 5 in the Billboard charts.

In a tale too tawdry for the telling Rosie was denied composer credit and royalties for decades. She went on to record an early 60s LP for Brunswick Records before slipping out of the limelight into family life with only brief, subsequent forays into the nostalgia circuit.

Yet, every time she steps up to a microphone or is heard on the radio crooning, ‘Its just like heaven being here with you, You’re like an angel, too good to be true’ she conjures up a miracle.

In late 1973 John Lennon was in a bad way. It seemed everything was broken. He sought oblivion in drug and alcohol fuelled binges that became the stuff of legend. Groping towards a way out he decided to record an album of songs from his youth, songs that had been favourites of his before the fame and the madness took over.

Songs from the days when John Lennon was above all else a man who loved songs and singers. A man who longed to write, perform and record songs of his own which could be set alongside the original mother lode of Rock ‘n’ Roll classics.

It’s no surprise that the album features songs by Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Little Richardand Fats Domino – these were the songs the Hamburg Beatles had played and played untilthey were second nature.

Yet, Lennon the leather throated rocker always had a softer aspect reflected in his love for the stoic, broken hearted ballads of Arthur Alexander.

And, in his, ‘lost weekend’ amid the too many musicians, too many producers and engineers chaos of the, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ sessions he reached back for an artless song that expressed something beyond the ability of words to fully express.

He reached back for the sound of:’Ooh, ooh, I love you, oh ooh I do, No one could love you like I do, Oooh, ooh, Oooh, Oooh, ooh, ooh , ooh, ooh, ooh …………. ‘

He reached back for, ‘Angel Baby’. And he sang it with all his heart.

Thanks to Rosie for the lightning strike that set a match to many a heart.

This post written on December 8 2015 – the 35th Anniversary of the death of John Lennon.

Thanks to John for the meteor shower of genius that lit up the entire world. Roll on John, Roll on John, Roll on John. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam

 

Do You, Do You, Do You, Do You Want to Dance? John Lennon, The Beach Boys, The Ramones & Bobby Freeman do!

The Sages tell us that when you really get down to it there are only seven stories in the world.

And, that these are endlessly retold and recast so that the human race can come to terms with the otherwise incomprehensible complexity of our lives.

So everyone from Homer to Tex Avery (not excluding Dante, Shakespeare and Emily Bronte) has expounded with greater or lesser wisdom on the eternal themes.

My own midnight reflections have led me to identify that what holds good for Story also holds good for Questions.

After deep contemplation I have discovered that there are only five Questions underpinning all human enquiry.

For four of them you’ll have to wait for the publication of:

‘The Five Questions every life must answer’ (pre-orders accepted now).

But, exclusively, for readers of The Immortal Jukebox, I can reveal that one of the Questions is:

‘Do You Want To Dance?’

It’s a profound question.

Especially if you regard it not solely as a question you ask another but as a question you should address to your innermost self every day if you want to live a fully engaged life.

So, ‘Do you want to dance?’

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Bobby Freeman a 17 year old from San Francisco, thought it was such an important question that he had no hesitation in asking it 19 times during the 164 second course of his classic recording from 1958.

Yowsa! Yowsa! Yowsa!

Now Bobby’s demo with him on piano and vocals and a friend on echoing bongos/congas seems to have been taped in a deep, dark hollow before New York musos like Billy Mure with a glittering guitar break added some semblance of professionalism so that the record could be commercially released

Of course, the circumstances of a record’s genesis don’t matter a hoot if, instantly, as it blooms from your radio or neighbourhood Jukebox you just know that it has uttered a profound truth as you obey its command to shake a tail feather.

It was thus no surprise that, ‘Do You Want To Dance’ was a top 5 hit on the Billboard Chart.

There’s a hypnotic charm about the latin beat, ascending melody, false ending and the artless vocal’s increasingly insistent expression of the central question.

Resistance is useless – surrender!

Do You, Do You, Do You, Do you Want to Dance?
Do You, Do You, Do You, Do You Want to Dance?

The song, easy to learn and easy to extend vocally and instrumentally if the audience fell under its spell, became a fixture of many a group repertoire.

In Britain it was a notable success for Cliff Richard (1962) and in the US it attracted the attention of Del Shannon and The Four Seasons (1964) before the startling genius of Brian Wilson took into into realms undreamed of by Bobby Freeman.

Embed from Getty Images

The relationship between original and The Beach Boys version might be compared to that of a Lascaux cave painting and a high Renaissance masterpiece by Raphael.

Brian Wilson with his multi dimensional musical intelligence added structure and sophistication to Bobby Freeman’s sketch.

So we have three part harmony, vocal chanting, an instrumental ensemble of saxophones, timpani, massed guitars and organ seamlessly integrated into a sweeping wide screen orchestration which also features subtle key changes.

On the top Dennis Wilson, with his first lead vocal for the group, provided glowing warmth and drive.

A singular aspect of Brian Wilson’s talent in his mid 60s pomp was his ability to to create complex arrangements which though capable of endless analysis by musicians and critics flowed with what seemed complete naturalness into the hearts of his listeners.

Under Brian’s baton Pop Music had a cathedral like architectural glory it has rarely ever attained.

Success and sophistication went hand in hand as Brian and The Beach Boys had hit after hit.

John Lennon was another who knew a thing or two about marrying art and popularity in song.

He would have heard Bobby Freeman’s version in Liverpool as a teenager. The Rocker in John, a defining aspect of his character, must have been taken by its sensual sway and swoon.

For it was this aspect of the song he chose to emphasise when he recorded it for his, ‘homage to leather jacketed youth’ album from 1975, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

It should never be forgotten that John Lennon was a great Rock ‘n’ Roll singer. I’d hazard the view that the true primal therapy for John was singing and that through singing he found balm for his own troubled soul as well as providing it for millions of others all over the globe.

The final version featuring on The Jukebox is a 1977 blitzkrieg New York City take by The Ramones.

We will have to call this the spray paint on the subway wall graffiti version!

I must admit that in my college days I did some very enthusiastic ‘pogoing’ to this one propelled by my love of high octane, eyeballs out Rock ‘n’ Roll and large quantities of cheap alcohol.

There’s no messing with The Ramones.

They set out in a cloud of dust like a drag racer and don’t let up – wholly careless as to whether the parachute will deploy!

So, whichever version you prefer the eternal Question remains which we will all have to answer in our own way – ‘Do You Want to Dance?’

For my part the answer is a resounding Yes!

Notes:

Bobby Freeman could never match, ‘Do You Want to Dance’ though he did have several other hits. He was a winning singer and I’m always pleased when one of his songs comes up under random play on my music player. A comprehensive collection of his 56-61 work can be found on Jasmine Records.

Other versions you might care to investigate:

The Mamas & Papas

Jan & Dean

T Rex

Dave Edmunds

David Lindley

John Lennon, Van Morrison, Ricky Nelson & Dr John follow Fats!

‘I said oh – ooh- oh Domino!

‘I said oh – ooh- oh Domino!’ (Van Morrison – Domino)

A true message always gets through. And, there was a powerful, danceable, message about common humanity and the joy of being alive in the music of Antoine Fats Domino.

Of course, it don’t hurt none if the message gets a push. And in 1950s America the best vehicle for spreading the message to the wider, white, public was national TV and the cinema.

So 19 November 1956 was a great day for spreading the good word from New Orleans. For, on that day, Fats Domino sang his glorious version of, ‘Blueberry Hill’ on show 9, Season 9 of the fabled Ed Sullivan Show.

The Sullivan Show broadcasting on Sunday Nights since 1948 had become an institution of American popular culture. Millions of Moms and Pops must have seen and heard Fats for the first time and concluded that this fellow with the broad beaming smile and the undeniable melodic gift wasn’t really one of those awful Rock ‘n’ Rollers like that hips swivellin’, lip curling, clear threat to civilisation Elvis Presley.

Their sons and daughters moving beyond their command weren’t interested in Fats’ position on the threat to civilisation spectrum (the Elvis Index!). No, they just felt in their guts that Fats with his sly N’Awlins tones and piano was talking directly to them and inviting them to come on over for one fine, fine time.

As 1956 closed the message was more than redoubled when the movie, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ opened. No one cared about the slight, hackneyed story and Jayne Mansfield’s impressive blonde pneumatic charms were only a mild diversion in an age of impressive pneumatic Blondes.

What really turned heads, upturned seats, launched careers and set the world ablaze was the Rock ‘n’ Roll! Little Richard did what only Little Richard can do with his crazed, don’t try to follow me buddy, assault on the movie’s title track. His later takes on, ‘Ready Teddy’ and, ‘She’s Got It’ proved beyond peradventure that the Quaser most definitely had got it!

Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps added a southern surreal touch simultaneously seductive and menacing as they cruised through, ‘Be Bop A Lula’. Eddie Cochran took no prisoners with his rythmic attack on ‘Twenty Flight Rock’.

And Fats? Fats just leaned into the piano, grinned mightily and permanently lodged, ‘Blue Monday’ into the memory of everyone fortunate enough to hear it. The Sullivan show was massive in America but movies travelled the globe!

So when in the summer of 1957, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ arrived in Liverpool it was a very big deal for Merseyside would be Rock ‘n’ Rollers – a chance to see and hear at high volume the real people behind the names inscribed on their treasured 45s.

Of course, one of these proto rockers was none other than the 16 year old John Lennon. Seeing his idols projected on the screen was an overwhelming experience crystalising his desire to join their company. Rock ‘n’ Roll for John Lennon was an anchor in his troubled life and a rope ladder of escape. Obsessively Listening to Rock ‘n’ Roll and daring to dream about about a future as a bona fide rocker who would write his own songs helped to forge his identity as he tested out a series of performance personas.

And, in a troubled time in the early 70s he went back to the persona of the slicked back rocker when he recorded his tribute record, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’. John’s memories of, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ were obviously deep and true because he set down versions of, ‘Ready Teddy’ and, ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ as well as honouring Fats with his version of, ‘Ain’t That A Shame’.

Now it would not be an overstatement to call the sessions which produced , ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll shambolic. Too many musicians, too many drugs, too much alcohol, too many egos in overdrive – not to mention Phil Spector firing his gun off in the studio to impose order!

Nevertheless! On, ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ I hear, poignantly, the shade of the unknown sixteen year in love with rebellion and Rock ‘n’ Roll music who was desperate to forge a new world sharing the microphone with the world weary superstar who had conquered every known world.

Maybe, all that held the two John’s together was his core deep love for the music of Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and Fats Domino. All I am sure of is that John Lennon lived and died as an unregenerate Rock ‘n’ Roller. Rock on John! Rock On!

Meanwhile on 10 April 1957; back in the good old USA not long after Fats appearances on Ed Sullivan and, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ a very handsome young man with perfect hair and a beguiling smile sang Fats’, ‘I’m Walkin’ on his parents TV show. The show was the wildly successful, ‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet’ and the young man was their son Ricky Nelson.

This was the first time that Ricky had sung on the show. It soon became obvious that the legions of young women who were already enamoured due to the show would have no hesitation in rushing to their local record store to buy any record that bore Ricky’s name.

While the above history might suggest that Ricky would turn out to be an ersatz rocker the glorious truth was that instead he turned out to not only to have perfect hair but also a seductive and surprisingly supple vocal style that beautifully blended country crooning with harder edged Rock ‘n’ Roll. He also surrounded himself with brilliant musicians like guitarist James Burton whose solos were pored over endlessly by six string scholars the world over.

I’m going to write much more extensively about Ricky here on The Jukebox later in the year. For now all I will say is that Ricky Nelson was a much more considerable figure than generally allowed and that at every stage of his career he made wonderful, heart-piercing records that continue to cast a spell decades after they were issued.

Now, if there’s one musician who is unimpressed by reputation and definitively knows, when it comes to music, the difference between the ersatz and the authentic that musician is George Ivan Morrison. So, when he records a tribute track to a master musician like Fats Domino you know he means it.

Of course, Van being Van, his tribute is not a recreation of Fats’ sound but rather a superbly played (listen to John Platania’s magical guitar and Jack Schorer’s scorching sax work) and sung celebration of the redemptive joy that music can make present in our hearts.

Oh, ooh, oh Domino! Oh, ooh, oh Domino. Dig it!

Bringing it all back home to the Crescent City my last example of the deep mark Fats has left on the musicians who followed him is a funkier than funky version of, ‘Walking to New Orleans’ by a true native son Mac Rebennack AKA Dr John.

You might well wear out two pair of shoes getting down to that one!

A true message always gets through.

Oh, ooh, oh Domino! Oh, ooh, oh Domino!

John Lennon & Rosie and The Originals – Angel Baby

‘[Angel Baby] … This is by a 15 year old girl from National City California named Rosie. This is going to be a hit Guys and Gals’ – DJ Alan Freed on K-Day Radio, November 1960.

‘This here is one of my all time favourite songs. Send my love to Rosie – wherever she may be’ (John Lennon)

Christmas Cracker 3

1960 was a momentous year. In Greensboro, North Carolina four black students are refused service at a segregated lunch counter in Woolworth’s. They begin a sit in protest that is repeated throughout Southern States that summer as Civil Rights protests become a powerful political, social and cultural movement.

High over the vast territory of the Soviet Union a U2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers is shot down triggering a rapid rise in the temperature of the Cold War.

In November John Fitzgerald Kennedy becomes the 35th President of The United States seeming to symbolise a new era of optimism – Camelot on the Potomac.

Meanwhile in a former aircraft hanger in San Marcos California, on 2 track machine, a 15 year old Mexican-American girl called Rosalie (Rosie) Hamlin lays down a song she had written a year earlier to celebrate her first love.

A song that John Lennon then an unreconstructed leather clad Rock ‘n’ Roller with a scarifying, scabrous, Scouse wit will remember, with love, to the end of his days.

That song, ‘Angel Baby’ features an ethereal vocal by Rosie that will never be forgotten by anyone who hears it. It’s the sound of a true, innocent heart filled, full to bursting, with delirious youthful passion.

It’s the sound of the children of Neverland wheeling in the heavens as they fly straight on to another rosy morning.

And, if in your venerable age and wisdom you shake your head at such simple feeling I’m here to tell you that you are too old brother, too old sister.

Every time I hear, ‘Angel Baby’ I’m teleported back to my 14 year old self when there were as many possibilities of love and longing for love as there were stars in the night sky.

Sing it Rosie, sing it for the 14 year still living somewhere inside us all.

I love the Sputnik guitar intro to Angel Baby. I love the sense that there is no artifice at all here – nothing getting in the way of a distillation of a pure oceanic feeling.

It doesn’t matter a hoot that the bass player, Tony Gomez, had to play an untutored plodding sax solo because the regular saxman Al Barrett had to stay home because his mother wouldn’t let him out until he’d mowed the lawn (!)

What matters is that Rosie with David Ponci, Noah Tafolla and Carl Von Goodat made a record that hummed and crackled with the music of the spheres.

At first Rosie couldn’t get anyone in the music business to be interested in her record. Then she had the bright idea of getting Kresge’s department store in San Diego to play the record in their listening booths (remember listening booths?) and lo and behold the kids of San Diego found that they knew exactly, exactly, what Rosie was singing about.

They began clamouring to buy Angel Baby so that they could call up it’s magic anytime they wanted. In the event, ‘Angel Baby’ was issued by Highland Records in November 1960 and went on to hit the top 5 in the Billboard charts.

In a tale too tawdry for the telling Rosie was denied composer credit and royalties for decades. She went on to record an early 60s LP for Brunswick Records before slipping out of the limelight into family life with only brief, subsequent forays into the nostalgia circuit.

Yet, every time she steps up to a microphone or is heard on the radio crooning, ‘Its just like heaven being here with you, You’re like an angel, too good to be true’ she conjures up a miracle.

In late 1973 John Lennon was in a bad way. It seemed everything was broken. He sought oblivion in drug and alcohol fuelled binges that became the stuff of legend. Groping towards a way out he decided to record an album of songs from his youth, songs that had been favourites of his before the fame and the madness took over.

Songs from the days when John Lennon was above all else a man who loved songs and singers. A man who longed to write, perform and record songs of his own which could be set alongside the original mother lode of Rock ‘n’ Roll classics.

It’s no surprise that the album features songs by Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Little Richardand Fats Domino – these were the songs the Hamburg Beatles had played and played untilthey were second nature.

Yet, Lennon the leather throated rocker always had a softer aspect reflected in his love for the stoic, broken hearted ballads of Arthur Alexander.

And, in his, ‘lost weekend’ amid the too many musicians, too many producers and engineers chaos of the, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ sessions he reached back for an artless song that expressed something beyond the ability of words to fully express.

He reached back for the sound of:’Ooh, ooh, I love you, oh ooh I do, No one could love you like I do, Oooh, ooh, Oooh, Oooh, ooh, ooh , ooh, ooh, ooh …………. ‘

He reached back for, ‘Angel Baby’. And he sang it with all his heart.

Thanks to Rosie for the lightning strike that set a match to many a heart.

This post written on December 8 2015 – the 35th Anniversary of the death of John Lennon.

Thanks to John for the meteor shower of genius that lit up the entire world. Roll on John, Roll on John, Roll on John. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam

John Lennon, Lauren Bacall & Otis : You Know How To Whistle Don’t You?

‘… You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow.’

Spoken by Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart in the 1944 film classic, ‘To Have and Have Not’ these words were delivered with an alluring yet cool erotic charge in Bacall’s wonderfully husky and earthy vocal tones. There isn’t a man alive hearing those words who didn’t immediately start practicing that whistle!

Just blow. What could be simpler? After all what is a whistle but a clear high pitched sound created by forcing your breath through a small opening between your partly closed lips and/or your teeth?

Yet, the humble whistle which must surely have been the earliest form of musical communication practiced by mankind along with the handclap can like all forms of human language be freighted and graced with multiple meanings.

There’s, as above, the whistle of erotic appreciation and invitation. There’s the whistle of almost subconscious reassurance when you summon that favourite tune (in my case Buddy Holly’s Everyday) as you are about to start or contemplate an especially difficult challenge or task. A whistle can also be an urgent signal – look out! Look out! As heard in a thousand war films as an opposing soldier looms into sight of the brave resistance band.

In sport the whistle is generally heard as the shrill admonishing marker of foul play – stop that now! Again, the whistle can be your charm against the creeping dread we feel when confronted by our mortality – we whistle past the graveyard to keep our spirits up and those of the clutching underworld away.

When you’re absolutely sure that no one can find any fault with the work you’ve completed you can say with studied calm, ‘Take a look – you’ll see its all clean as a whistle!’ Of course, if you find as an honest person that corruption is all around you have a duty to become a Whistle Blower to bring the forces of justice and retribution hurrying down to halt and clean up that corruption. If you don’t do that and just mutter about your outrage to yourself what are you doing but whistling in the wind!

Oh yes, the modest yet heartfelt whistle can communicate remarkably complex and subtle messages depending on the situations and characters of the whistler and the whistled to. Ruminating on the subject has for a music fanatic like me inevitably called to mind the use of whistling in numerous songs across many genres of popular music. So many indeed that I have painfully limited myself to only four examples from the score or so that immediately came to mind.

Let’s start with the use of the whistle from a man, John Lennon, who had no difficulty with finding words but who did have problems with acknowledging and dealing with the powerful, sometimes deliberately buried emotions swirling around his deep dramatic heart and soul. I can’t help hearing the whistle here in, ‘Jealous Guy’ as the sound of a man who has experienced too much and made too many mistakes reaching beyond words for the blessing and balm of forgiveness as much by himself as the lover he has wronged. We may feel, sometimes, that we have the world at our feet yet we know that there will always be a part of us, shivering inside, that needs comfort and care. Roll on John.

Next a record, ‘Handy Man’ by Jimmy Jones, that the teenage John Lennon would almost certainly have heard as he and Paul McCartney began to fashion songs and dreams of their own in Liverpool before setting out to conquer Hamburg and the known world.

Jimmy Jones, who possessed a fine high tenor voice, really only had two hits (the other being the charming and witty, ‘Good Timing’) but they were songs that still have an emotional heft beyond their undoubted power as vessels of nostalgia for the neon lit diner days of the 1950s. The whistling here is provided by a genuine giant of popular music, Otis Blackwell, who composed jukeboxfulls of fine songs including classics like, ‘Fever’, ‘Don’t be Cruel’ and, ‘Great Balls of Fire’.

In 1966 John Sebastian the leader of The Lovin’ Spoonful was at the top of his very considerable game. He had talent oozing from his fingertips and a sunny disposition that promised that the world was a wonderful playground where adventures a plenty were just waiting to be discovered. He manged to be both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and a songwriter of considerable range and sophistication moving from the euphoric attack of, ‘Do you Believe in Magic’ to the tenderest romantic lullaby of, ‘Darling Be Home Soon’.

Sebastian provides the lovely, easy, hammock swinging whistle here in the drowsily beautiful, ‘Daydream’. May you have such a day soon!

Finally, and poignantly, I have to conclude with one of the signature songs of the 1960s from a voice for the ages. Otis Redding with the first record released after his untimely death, ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’. The tide rolled away for Otis as it will for you and me but while we have breath this song will be his testament and our consolation. God Bless You Otis!

Immortal Jukebox: Arthur Alexander

A3:  Arthur Alexander: In The Middle Of It All 

‘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.