Rolling Stones : The Joint was Rocking – Going Around and Around (Memories of Eel Pie Island )

‘Eel Pie Island was a big hang-out for me, an ancient damp ballroom stuck in the middle of the River Thames reached by a rickety wooden footbridge. But you felt that you were heading somewhere truly exotic.

It was the place where I began to understand the power of Rhythm & Blues.’ (Rod Stewart)

Last week was a big week.

My daughter started at University.

I drove her there with a knotted stomach – hoping, praying, that these next years would be all that she hoped – the time of her life.

On the way I ceded control of the CD Player – she’s not exactly a fan of the usual fare I play – Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Arthur Alexander.

First up was an Elton John compilation.

‘Crocodile Rock’ blasted out and suddenly these lines really hit home :

’I never had me a better time and I guess I never will’.

Proust had his Madeleine – I have Music.

As soon as I heard those lines I was beamed back there.

To The Island.

Eel Pie Island to give it its full cartographical title.

But, for us .. a raggle taggle band of would be anarchists and bohemians (in reality grammar school boys and girls, art school students and other assorted refugees from the ‘straight world’) it was always just The Island.

The Island.

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Spring and Summer of 1963.

The Time of My Life.

Crossing The River in the Moonlight by the Footbridge.

Crossing to a mysterious land where magic scenes and sounds were all around.

Arthur Chisnall’s Magic Kingdom where Music and Ideas and glorious youthful exuberance and madness reigned, unrestrained.

Blues, Ban The Bomb, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Pop Art …

Queueing up to get my hand stamped by Stan- usually with the name of an obscure African Country.

Clutching my Island Passport :

‘We request and require, in the name of His Excellency Prince Pan, all those whom it may concern to give the bearer of this passport any assistance he/she may require in his/her lawful business of jiving and generally cutting a rug.’

Drinking as much Newcastle Brown Ale as my belly could hold.

Escaping gravity as the sprung Ballroom floor of The Island Hotel see sawed up and down as we danced to Cyril Davies’ All Stars, The Tridents (with Jeff Beck), John Mayall’s Blues Breakers (with Eric Clapton) and Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men (with Rod Stewart).

Trying, desperately, to impress the impossibly glamorous girls in their sixties finery.

Someone said later that on The Island you could feel sex rising from The Island like steam from a kettle.

I certainly got burned.

I loved all those Bands – and The Artwoods and The Yardbirds and Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames.

But, But, from the first time I saw them, April 24th 1963, there was only one Band which commanded my total allegiance – The Rolling Stones.

Bear in mind they hadn’t yet made any records.

These Rolling Stones could be found, honing their chops, at The Station Hotel in Richmond or The Crawdaddy.

You might come across Keith or Mick or Brian shopping for Blues and R & B obscurities at Gerry Potter’s Record Shop on Richmond Hill.

These were The Rolling Stones before the legend.

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Before the national and international tours.

Before the Record Contract and the TV Shows.

These Rolling Stones were our secret.

Our Band.

And, Long before it became a slogan I was telling anyone who would listen (of course, there were precious few of those) that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts (not forgetting Stu) were not only the greatest R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in The Thames Delta but very possibly, very probably, Hell … 100% for certain the finest in the entire world!

I knew that because I saw them play two dozen times on The Island between April and the end of September 1963.

Two dozen times I felt their growing power as a unit.

Their ability to play hot and cool at the same time.

Their ability to Roll and and Sway as well as Rock.

Their ability to lock into the Rhythm and ease into The Blues.

Their ability to get the joint absolutely rocking – Going Around and Around.

I knew because as soon as they hit the first note of Route 66 the floor became a trampoline!

 

 

Now, anyone could see that going on stage in front of an audience put 50,000 Watts of energy through Mick Jagger.

Energy he learned to control and channel – to light like a fuse to send that audience into blissful explosion.

Bill Wyman didn’t move much but his Bass held that energy in tension.

Brian Jones looked great and added the instrumental flourishes.

Charlie Watts and Keith Richards were the masters of Rhythm – born to play this Music.

Together they found gears unknown to their contemporaries.

And, they knew that you can’t exhaust your audience (and yourselves) by playing flat out all night long.

You have to be able to take the tempo down and cast a romantic spell.

You have to learn from the great Arthur Alexander about playing and pacing an R & B Ballad.

 

 

Through and with The Rolling Stones we became R&B and Blues afficianados.

We knew that there was a deep knowing in the seeming simplistic works of Jimmy Reed.

A deep knowing that most Bands either didn’t recognise or couldn’t find within themselves  when they took on a Jimmy Reed tune.

The Rolling Stones knew.

And, listening to them we could feel in our guts that they knew.

 

 

One night they played a song I didn’t recognise.

Turned out it was one that Mick and Keith wrote together.

I thought – if they get the hang of writing given how great they are as a live band they might be able to expand their reach far beyond the Bluesniks like me.

Who knows?

They might even end up being damn near enough as big as The Beatles!

 

Somethings you never forget.

Never.

24 nights on The Island.

The place was packed.

Reeling and Rocking.

Sounds that sent us divinely crazy.

Reeling and Rocking until the Moon went down.

Ah … ah … that Joint was Rocking.

And so were we.

Reeling and Rocking through the Time of Our Lives.

On The Island.

Going Around and Around.

 

 

When I got back Home from dropping my Daughter off I looked through my old files and found this.

The Rolling Stones Ad

I laughed and took down my vinyl copies of The Rolling Stones debut LP and their first two  EPs and played them as loud as my system would allow.

I tell you my Joint was really Rocking.

Notes :

There’s an excellent Book on Eel Pie Island by Dan Van der Vat and Michele Whitby.

I also recommend the Oral History edited by JC Wheatley – ‘British Beat Explosion – Rock ‘n’ Roll Island’

There are 2 worthwhile DVDs – ‘Clinging To A Mudflat’ and, ‘Eel Pie and Blues’

A search of YouTube will yield other fascinating clips.

The Rolling Stones & J Geils cover The Valentinos: (Looking For A Love/It’s All Over Now)

William Goldman, the screenwriter of Hollywood boffo smashes such as, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, ‘All the President’s Men’ was a highly intelligent and perspicacious observer of the cultural scene.

It seems to me he was speaking the plain truth when he observed that when it comes to predicting success in any artistic enterprise, ‘Nobody knows anything … Not one person knows for a certainty what is going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one’.

That certainly holds true for writing and recording hit songs; especially songs which endure not for five or ten or twenty-five years but for 50 years and more.

Nobody has a guaranteed formula for producing songs that can get up and walk on their own, songs with the mysteriously vitality and stickability which lodges them deep in our consciousness. Songs which manage to mark our personal and collective times.

But, if you write such songs you can be sure of one thing. People, other artists, will sit up and take notice and they will want to perform and record your songs because such songs are rare beasts.

Today on The Immortal Jukebox I’m going to celebrate two of those songs, written by the teenage Bobby Womack, which he recorded with his four brothers in their group, The Valentinos, in 1962 and 1964.

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‘Looking For A Love’ and, ‘It’s All Over Now’ were from the get go songs fizzing with life; songs that made you want to get up and dance, songs that made you smile whatever mood you were in before they came on, songs that you instantly fell in love with, songs that made you ring up your friends to say, ‘have you heard…’, songs that you sang under your breath invoking the warmth and light of the sun as you faced another grey school or work morning. That’ll do for me as the definition of a hit!

Everyone, especially when they’re young, is looking for a love, searching, looking here and there, looking for the love they know must be there, somewhere!

Let Bobby and The Valentinos remind you of those searching days!

Listening to The Valentinos here I feel as if I could jump a wall ten feet high! Lots of people agreed at the time as the song was a top 10 R&B hit as well as breaking into the Billboard Hot 100.

The Womack Brothers, in birth order, were : Friendly, Curtis, Bobby, Harry and Cecil. They were the sons of Friendly Senior, a pastor who had moved from the mines of West Virginia to Cleveland. Friendly Senior was a gospel singing pastor so it was little surprise that his sons followed in his footsteps performing in church.

In 1953 they got a big break when, in their home town, they opened up for the premier church-wrecking Gospel group of the day, The Soul Stirrers featuring the Immortal Sam Cooke. Sam was struck by the boys potential and noted that Bobby in particular, had something about him that presaged stardom.

Soon the brothers were working the Gospel circuit with luminaries like The Staple Singers and The Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi learning stagecraft. This would be redoubled after they went on the road with the ultimate stern taskmaster, James Brown!

Sam Cooke, ever prescient, decided that the Brothers future lay in secular pop rather than the Gospel world. So Bobby’s gospel song, ‘Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray’ was fine tuned by J W Alexander and Zelda Samuels for Sam’s record label SAR to become, ‘Looking For A Love’ and The Womack Brothers became The Valentinos. The rest as they say is history.

I’m sure the feeling of elation produced by, ‘Looking For A Love’ was also experienced by six super energetic white northern boys who came together as The J Geils Band in the mid 60s determined to blast white hot rhythm and blues at the citizens of Boston and Detroit.

The key figure here is singer Peter Wolf, a legendary DJ and record collector who on Boston station WBCN took late night calls from Van Morrison begging to hear some real rhythm and blues on the radio!

Peter was a song collector and he knew that an amped up, turbo charged version of, ‘Looking For A Love’ would be a show stopper for the band and prove that they could justifiably be called the Detroit Demolition!

Listen here to Peter on vocals, J Geils on guitar, Seth Justman on the organ, Danny Klein on bass, Stephen Bladd on drums and Magic Dick on the lickin’ stick as they demolish Detroit’s Cinderella Ballroom in 1972 with the force of a division of Panzers!

I confess I used to test the patience of the students in my residential block and the sturdiness of the window frames of my room as I played this version at stun volume over and over again in 1973 when I discovered it. Turn your dials up to 11 now!

Early in 1964 Bobby collaborated with sister in law, Shirley Womack, to write another slice of eternity shale, ‘It’s All Over Now’ a song which might be seen by the cynics among us as the inevitable second act to the youthful carefree optimism of, ‘Looking For A Love’.

I prefer to think of it as another example of Bobby Womack’s great gift for crafting a melodic story that we can all relate to wherever we are in love’s endless carousel. What Bobby Womack always had was the ability to write songs which had an irresistible rhythmic flow which defied you to sit still once they started.

Try as I might I couldn’t find an acceptable video clip of The Valentinos original of, ‘All Over Now’ but my search did uncover a glorious take on the song featuring Bobby performing with the redoubtable David Letterman Show House Band.

As you will see Bobby was a natural storyteller, a musician and performer to his fingertips and one cool dude!

As, ‘It’s All Over Now’ debuted on the American radio waves listening with keen interest were a heavy with attitude and talent bunch of Blues and R&B aficionados all the way from Britain, The Rolling Stones!

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Alerted to The Valentinos’ original by DJ Murray the K, self appointed US Ambassador to the British Invasion bands, The Stones decided that the song would be ideal material for them to record when they visited Chicago’s Chess Studios where so many of their idols like Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry had wrought the miraculous records they had played until they disintegrated.

Keith Richards recalls that on entering Chess it felt as if they had died and gone to heaven! Absorbing the magic ambience and benefitting from the well honed craft of the Chess engineers The Stones were inspired to produce a performance of, ‘It’s All Over Now’ which gave them their first substantial US hit and their first UK Number 1 record.

There’s no doubt that The Stones version is a wonderfully atmospheric and dramatic demonstration of their prowess as a rhythm and blues band. As always the peerless Charlie Watts drives them along at just the right tempo, not too fast, not too slow, while Bill Wyman keeps everything anchored. Brian Jones plays nice chiming lines leaving it to the inimitable Keith to provide a master class in surging guitar energy that sweeps all before it.

Some, notably John Lennon, thought that Keith’s guitar solo was something of an untutored mess. Well, I hear the unmistakeable sound of the never to be stilled beating heart of Rhythm and Blues from someone who had, in his bones, knowledge that no amount of tutoring can ever provide.

The torch was passed on as in Freehold, New Jersey the young Bruce Springsteen bruised and bloodied his fingers until he could say, ‘Yeh, I know how to play, ‘Its All Over Now’ on the guitar – listen up!’

‘It’s All Over Now’ whether learned from The Valentinos or The Rolling Stones became a staple in the repertoire of bands wanting to show they could sway and strut like the masters.

My favourite versions are by Ry Cooder (an elegant sashay), Rod Stewart and The Faces (a bacchanalian feast), Johnny Winters (Texas Twister style) and Nils Lofgren (Twangtastic!).

When you can write songs like Bobby Womack you’ll never go out of style. People are always out there looking for a love and often later reflecting that it really is all over now. And, if you can incarnate those eternal emotional states in songs that just beg to be played you’re one of the greats. As Bobby Womack surely was.

This post dedicated to the memory of the deceased Valentinos:

Bobby Womack (1944-2014), Harry Womack (1945-1974) and Cecil Womack (1947-2013).

Notes:

There’s a lovely, poignant version of, ‘ Looking For A Love’ recorded in 1974 by Bobby Womack with his brothers, just before Harry Womack’s death which is a wonderful swan-song for The Valentinos. Have a handkerchief handy.

Ace Records has issued an excellent 23 track Valentinos set called, ‘Looking For A Love’.

On Drums: Charlie Watts !! (Get off of my cloud)

Charlie Watts, gentleman, scholar and drummer at large was 73 this year. Here’s a short tribute.

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Famously, at the live show captured on Get Your Ya Yas Out Mick Jagger informs the patrons that,’Charlie’s good tonight ain’t he!’. Well yes Mick he certainly was and then some.

Charlie Watts has been the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones for half a century and more providing calm craft in the midst of all the hoopla and madness.

While he has surely seen about everything a man can see he has remained steadfastly and stoically himself.

A wry, unimpressable observer who loves to listen to his beloved jazz and play the drums with the scratchy rhythm and blues band who somewhat to his amazement transformed themselves into the greatest rock and roll band the planet has ever produced.

Charlie’s role in the band is crucial to the DNA of the band’s unique sound. Keith is released to sway and swagger to his heart’s content because Charlie is always there behind him urging him on and on while being ready to catch him if like an over ambitious trapeze flyer it looks like he might fall.

Whatever else has changed that partnership has endured and thrived through the years ensuring the distinctive leery vitality of the band remains in rude good health

One of the many glories of the Stones is the majestic way in which they build and hold tension in their rockers – say Tumbling Dice or Brown Sugar. You’ll notice how groups covering the Stones almost always rush and ruin the songs because they can’t match the rhythmic control marshalled by Charlie.

While he is the engineer driving the awesome power of the Stones streamliner in full flight he is also the brakeman making sure they make it round the sharp turns safely and arrive on time at their destination.

The listening audience are taken up, held and thrilled as the band, anchored by Charlie, progress through their set taking care to pace themselves – allowing ballad breaks before the celebrated avalanche ending sends everybody home exhausted and elated.

Charlie Watts is the zen master of rock drumming. His inherent restraint, informed by the jazz heritage he so treasures, allows him to play what needs to be played and nothing more.

He is at the service of the music, the sound and the dynamic shape of the individual song. No band has been better served by its drummer than the Rolling Stones.

So, as the Rolling Stones embark on one more last hurrah Charlie will endure the travelling, the media and the endless waiting for the wonderful pleasures of those few hours on stage when he can just play the music along with his faithful companions of so many years.

Charlie was fabulous in 1964, fantastic in 1974, fervour filled in 1984 and 1994 and remained unflashily fluent in 2004. Things will be no different in 2014.

So, if you’re in the audience make sure that you really put your hands together for the drummer!