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.

Ry Cooder, Captain Beefheart, John Handy, Hard Work!

Hard Work. Hard Work.

Never killed anyone.

Or so the sages say.

But, Lord, Lord, it sure can make you dog tired.

What brought me to these thoughts?

Moving House.

Moving up into the hills.

Farming country criss crossed with ancient footpaths.

Moving all our stuff.

All our stuff.

All the Books!

All the Vinyl!

All the DVDs and CDs.

All the accumulated treasures and trifles of a lifetime to be boxed, bagged and loaded.

Now that is hard work!

Hard Work.

So, Dear Readers, precious little time to research and ponder deeply before writing.

So, so, I set the numbskulls free to roam in my brain’s music data base with ‘Hard Work’ as the search tag.

And, look what emerged!

From the 1970s two paens to the Working Life.

First up Saxophonist John Handy.

An alumnus of the Great Charles Mingus Band.

Classic solo on, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’

Here, he digs in and you just gotta go with the groove.

Hard Work. Hard Work.

Next. From the Soundtrack of Paul Schrader’s, directorial debut, ‘Blue Collar’ the one and only Captain Beefheart in the guise of a classic Blues Singer with, ‘Hard Working Man’.

Can’t you feel the gears grinding and the metal shuddering!

A constellation of talent on show.

Written and produced by Jack Nitzsche a shadowy guiding hand and presence involved with many great records for decades.

Guitar by Ry Cooder.

Ry has impact whenever he plays.

Hard Work! Hard Work!

Ry Cooder, Elton John, Solomon Burke & Jim Reeves: ‘He’ll Have To Go’

Christmas Cracker 6

Oceans and oceans of emotion have flowed through the telephone wires buzzing above your head. Think of all the announcements.

I’ve passed my exams!

I’ll be home for Christmas!

We are going to get married!

It’s a Girl!

We did all we could but I’m sorry to tell you that …..

There was a time, centuries and centuries, when announcements like that came by letter or were delivered face to face. The invention of the telephone allowed direct personal communication at great distance bringing the disembodied voice right into your ear and mind.

And, humans being human the telephone has been used for every virtuous and nefarious purpose imaginable.

Right now someone is planning to call you with the aim of draining your bank account.

Right now someone is patiently listening to a tortured soul who thinks life isn’t worth living anymore and assuring them that there is at least one person who will answer when they call again.

Right now some poor sap is reeling as he learns that the party’s over; that love can lie, that the love still burning so bright for him is naught but cold, cold ashes for her. And, you know what? He still won’t believe it!

Slumped on his bar stool with the jukebox blaring he tries to clear the fog in his head to summon up all his persuasive powers for one last, ‘Don’t Go!’ plea.

Surely, if he can only find the right words, he can reignite those hot flames and they will be together again:

‘Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone
Let’s pretend that we’re together all alone
I’ll tell the man to turn the Jukebox way down low
And you can tell your friend there with you he’ll have to go’

Ah, Jim Reeves, Gentleman Jim, the Prince, the peerless Potentate of three in the morning melancholia! I’ve spent many a night drinking deep with that velvet voice.

Many a night his oracular tones have echoed and reechoed in my mind and heart as I battled to accept the unacceptable, searching to find reasons, answers, and eventually a way out.

Mostly Jim taught me that there was no easy way out – some things can’t be worked round. No, they have to be got through, endured.

And if you need a companion on your exhausting, perilous progress back to sanity and some vestige of normality you won’t find one better than Jim Reeves.

You wont be surprised at Jim’s popularity in the Americas and in Europe. But, you might be a little taken aback to learn of his immense popularity in Jamaica and that in India and Sri Lanka he is enormously admired and revered by many as a, ‘Gandharva’ an earth born singer in tune with the heavens.

Jim’s, ‘I’m speaking directly to you, just you, in all your pain’ confiding vocals cut through barriers of race and culture.

No one is immune from Jim crooning, ‘Should I hang up or will you tell him he’ll have to go’ or, ‘Do you want me answer yes or no’.

And, tell me you don’t how the terrible cost of choking out the words, ‘Darling I will understand’.

Jim took Jim and Audrey Allison’s song which had done nothing in its first recording by Billy Brown and gave it a magic that endures. A magic that has won millions of listeners (14 weeks a country No 1 in 1960) and inspired hundreds of singers to seek out that magic too.

Jim Reeves life was cut short by a plane crash in 1964 but there can be doubt that as long as hearts get broken and people seek solace in music that Jim’s voice will live on.

Any Jukebox that I’ve got anything to do with will always have a copy of Jim Reeves ‘He’ll Have To Go’ ready to play for the lost and the lonely when they need it.

So, as sole proprietor of The Immortal Jukebox I’m announcing that, ‘He’ll Have To Go’ has been awarded the position of A13 on The Immortal Jukebox.

As its the season of goodwill and a time for generosity I’m donning my Santa Claus suit and bringing you several other versions of the song for you to digest with your drink of choice.

First up a rapturous, let’s turn the lights down and sway together in the cantina live version by Jukebox favourite, Ry Cooder, accompanied by Flaco Jimenez, the king of Conjunto, Norteno and Tejana accordion.

I think you’ll want a premium Tequila here.

‘He’ll Have To Go’ is always thought of a Country Pop song. However as the regal Solomon Burke definitively demonstrates below it works every bit as well as Country Soul.

Solomon has power in reserve as he cruises through his version suggesting depths of emotion by subtle shifts in tempo, accent and volume.

Solomon never lets you down.

I think a fine Tennessee sippin’ Whiskey will do the job here.

To conclude a version by one of the great rock/pop stars of the modern era, Elton John. At heart Elton has always been a huge music fan – someone who genuinely loves songs and singers.

As he says here he started out as the unregarded boy in the corner of the pub playing the piano. Since then, of course, he’s written more than a few songs himself that we all know by heart.

That’s how you become a huge star selling tens of millions of records. In addition he has been a relentlessly hard working performer and you can hear the fruits of all those hours on stage in this solo performance from 1992.

You’ll have to uncork the Champagne for this one.

Finally perhaps we should all close our eyes and sing our own a cappella version – remembering the time we all wished we could have said:

‘Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone
Let’s pretend that we’re together all alone
I’ll tell the man to turn the Jukebox way down low
And you can tell your friend there with you he’ll have to go’

This post dedicated to George who’ll be listening in his rural retreat – no doubt with a fine bottle at hand.

Notes:

I listened to a lot of versions of, ‘He’ll Have To Go’ preparing this post. A lot.

One I would definitely have included if Youtube would have cooperated was that by Glasgow’s great son, Frankie Miller (please look it up).

Frankie’s version is deeply heartfelt. In his 70s and 80s pomp Frankie could out write and out sing almost any singer you can think of.

Peers like Rod Stewart and Alan Toussaint recognised his special qulaities. Principally his ability to wring every blood drop of emotion from a song while carrying his audience with him through his beautiful rhythmic assurance.

If you do one thing this holiday season seek out Frankie Miller’s CD, ‘Highlife’ and then work your way through his catalogue. You won’t regret it.

I recommend a peaty single malt from Islay as your accompaniment.

Other versions I think you might profitably seek out include those from: Bryan Ferry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Rivers, UB 40, Brook Benton, Nat King Cole, Billy Joe Royal, Ronnie Milsap, Johnny Cash, Harry Dean Stanton, Jackie Edwards, Elvis Costello and Tom Jones.

Ry, Ray, Bobby, Hank, 5000 Country Music Songs (And Thank You 50,000 times!)

‘I wake up in the morning and I wonder,
Why everything’s the same as it was,
I can’t understand, No I can’t understand,
How life goes on the way it does’.

(Arthur Kent/Sylvia Dee ‘The End Of The World’)

‘Life has its little ups and downs
Like ponies on a merry-go-round.
And no one plants the green grass every time’

(Charlie Rich)

There will be no end to the making of country music songs. For the blood and guts themes real country songs deal with will remain central to our human experience until the sun’s light is finally dimmed some six billion years from now.

The winning, holding onto and losing of love – along with lust and the demands and urges of loyalty and longing are the currency of a genre which speaks to the hard grind of our daily existence and the dreams that carry us through the inevitable peaks and troughs of our passage through life. No one plants the green grass every time.

The protagonist of our anchor song today, ‘5000 Country Music Songs’ by Ry Cooder, believes in the power of the country song to connect with the truths of life and that one day Ray Price or Bobby Bare might just record one of his stack of returned to sender songs : ‘You’re bound to get you one just wait and see’ says the concerned rural route mailman.

Still he always had the support of the bride he married in 1963, ‘Honey I’m feelin’ something there’ and together they kept their dreams warmly alive in their old house trailer out in the countryside. In the country you can live free and as you sit in your rusty old Cadillac ideas for country songs will surely materialise just like they did to the greatest country songwriter of all – Hank Williams.

So week by week, month by month, year after year, the envelopes were mailed off to Nashvile town where country songs were sorted to separate the hit wheat from the unrecordable chaff. Despite his wife’s steadfast support he couldn’t quite work up the courage to approach the great Ray Price when he came through town. Sometimes we just can’t fill the shoes of our ambitions.

Now a song taken on by Bobby Bare would surely lead you somewhere but it seems Bobby never got to hear any of the 5000 songs – though not for want of trying. But, at home in the trailer love flourished so that his wife in a death bed scene worthy of a John Ford movie can make a last request – ‘Sing me something in your real old style, the one I like to hear Bobby Bare passed by, I’ll just close my eyes and rest a while’. And so, in the trailer in the shade of the big old tree amid the scent of the honeysuckle vine with tender harmony provided by the mockingbird he sings his heart out as her heart beats its last.

Now he wakes up in the morning to a world outside the window that looks the same but is now filtered with tears in the monochrome of grief. As the flies buzz around the rusty Cadillacs he knows that what made their home sweet home was not a building or classic cars but the love they shared throughout the years when 4999 country songs were sent back from Nashville town to gather dust. Now, it’s time to pack up those song words and the old guitar and throw away the key.

Of course, it turns out, as we hear above, that song number 5000 would be one that Ray Price would break your heart with. And, surely good old Bobby Bare, a man with a reputation for spotting songs that promise to be jukebox classics would have picked this one out of the pile and said, ‘This one’s a keeper!’

Ry Cooder gives the song a beautifully understated reading that allows all the emotion contained within the story to naturally present itself to the listener. Ry Cooder’s career has encompassed virtually every aspect of roots music, movie soundtracks and international collaborations. The connecting thread is a wonderfully sympathetic musicianship alert to and respectful of the demands of the song at hand.

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Ry Cooder records tell truthful human stories brought to life most thrillingly through his eloquent rhythm and slide guitar playing, which though capable of grandstanding, usually operates in a ruminative conversational tone which draws the audience in to savour all the song has to offer. Recently, he has added startling songwriting prowess to his instrumental virtuosity to round out an already very considerable talent.

Finally, as, ‘5000 Country Music Songs’ plays on the Immortal Jukebox, somewhere in the back seat of a celestial Cadillac the shade of Hank Williams will take his hat off and join in the chorus:

‘You can take what you want after I’m gone,
It’s only just a little place that we call home, sweet home
One old house trailer, two rusty Cadillacs and 5000 country music songs.’

Thank You 50,000 times:

I am amazed and delighted that the Immortal Jukebox has now had some 50,000 views since it began at the end of March last year. A huge thank you to every reader for taking the time to visit here. I hope checking out what’s new on the Jukebox has become a good habit!

There’s many, many more treats in store so as the great Hank said, ‘If the good Lord’s willin’ and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll see you soon’.