A Commander of an intergalactic Starship looking at the map of our Solar System would probable observe that there was one major Planet – Jupiter – accompanied by 7 minor ones.
Jupiter is immense.
The Earth would fit into Jupiter some three hundred times.
And, while we delight in a single Moon to light our nights Jupiter holds over 60 Moons in thrall.
Now some of the Moons of Jupiter, though small in comparison to their parent Planet, are fascinating worlds in their own right.
Galileo discovered the four major Moons of Jupiter in 1610 and ever since we have yearned to know more about Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
The satellites of a Planet as important as Jupiter merit close attention and analysis.
As in Astronomy so in Musicology!
In New Orleans in the 1950s there was one giant presence dominating the musical universe – Antoine Fats Domino!
Fats was universally loved.
While he was the Pharoah of his Hometown scene he was also musical royalty from Alaska to Albuquerque from Lima to Liverpool.
In his 1950s heyday he sold records not just in the millions but in the tens of millions.
While Fats’ sound conquered the known world back home in New Orleans a series of lesser lights, satellite talents, made their own distinctive and impressive contributions to the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Preeminent, to my mind, amongst these Moons to Fats’ Jupiter, was Overton Amos Lemons known to the wide world as Smiley Lewis.
Smiley, who got his monicker due to two missing front teeth, was born near Lake Charles Louisina in 1913.
As a teenager he hopped a freight train and made his way to the Crescent City where he knew all the action was for someone ambitious to make a career in Music.
Smiley knew he could really play the guitar and he just knew that put before a microphone he had a voice that could seduce, serenade and stir an audience until they screamed for more!
Serving an apprenticeship with Tuts Washington he honed his performing skills in the clubs of the French Quarter.
With Tuts he played in the House Band at the Boogie Woogie Club for WW2 troops stationed at Fort Polk.
When the War ended Smiley, Tuts and drummer Herman Seals formed a trio that went down a storm in New Orleans.
Starting out with Deluxe records Smiley found his recording stride when he hooked up in 1950 with the multi talented Kingpin of New Orleans music – Dave Bartholomew at Imperial Records.
From then on throughout the decade Smiley Smiley produced a series of influential, superbly sung and played Rhythm and Blues and Rock ‘n Roll records.
While he never sold more than 100,00 copies on any any of these fine records he was listened to closely by Fats himself as well as Elvis Presley and the sharp eared Rock ‘n’ Roll fanatics in Britain like Paul McCartney and Dave Edmunds.
Smiley made a lot of records everyone should know.
At a minimum everyone should know his, ‘Tee-Nah-Nah’, ‘Bells Are Ringing’, ‘One Night (Of Sin)’ and ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’.
But, he made only one record that Everyone Knows.
From 1955 The Immortal, ‘I Hear You Knocking’.
The terrific triplet piano comes courtesy of another Fats Domino satellite – Huey Smith.
Dave Bartholomew claimed the writing credit and supplied production smarts and the studio band.
Get ready to sing a long … ‘You went away and left me long time ago ..’
The one and only Smiley Lewis!
Confession – I’ve been known to pump fistfuls of coins into a Jukebox to ensure this plays 10 times in a row so everybody, everybody, knows how great Smiley Lewis was!
I love the stately tempo here and the supreme relaxed authority of Smiley’s vocal which seems to draw us after him like tugboats in the wake of a mighty steamer.
The Rhythm Section and the Horns mesh perfectly with Huey’s stellar piano and provide the perfect platform for Smiley to glide over.
This record sounded glorious in 1955 and it will always do so.
Fifteen years after Smiley recorded it another true Rocker, Dave Edmunds, was casting about for a classic from the 50s that he could turbo charge with his blistering guitar and scintillating production skills.
His first thought was Wilbert Harrison’s ‘Let’s Work Together but he found himself beaten to the shellac by Canned Heat.
Then a bell rang – surely, ‘I Hear You Knocking’ had the same rhythm and making guitar the featured instrument instead of piano might make for an incendiary sound!
Once the idea hit home it was ‘just’ a matter of Dave putting in the hours playing all the instruments, piping his vocal down a telephone line and compressing the sound at his home from home Welsh studio – Rockfield – and Voila you have an unstoppable hit.
Let’s Do It!
Its very common for musicians to cover the classic works of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Forefathers like Smiley Lewis but the electric soul thrilling wonder of those records is very rarely captured decades later.
Dave Edmunds take on ‘I Hear You Knocking’ is the exception that proves the rule.
Having made such a record with evident love and devotion Dave had every right to namecheck Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Chuck Berry and Smiley Lewis and consider himself part of their lineage.
Don’t just take my word for it.
John Lennon was a Rocker to the tips of his Bootheels.
When he heard Dave Edmunds version he said, ‘I always liked simple Rock. There’s a great one in England now, ‘I Hear You Knocking’.
And, Praise Be! such a great song still finds a ready audience in musicians who have had that epiphany experience of truly encountering the treasures laid down by the 50s Pioneers.
I’m closing out with Jukebox favourites, The Strypes, who seem to have a direct line to the spirit of those Pioneers.
I hear you knocking … I hear you knocking ….
There are numerous compilations of Smiley Lewis’ hits.
As usual the best set for deep divers like myself is provided by Bear Family. Their superb, 4CD ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ is pure treasure.
Jeff Hannusch is a deeply knowledgeable writer on Smiley and the New Orleans scene. His book, ‘I Hear You Knocking’ is highly recommended.
As is John Broven’s ‘Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans’.
A true message, a strong signal always gets through. People are waiting. People are always waiting for a true message. And, especially when you are in your teens you seem to spend your life waiting. Waiting for the person, the thing, the sound which will release you from the prison you seem to have been entombed in for so long.
Oh, you don’t know what it is you are waiting for, exactly. How could you? You just know as you stare for hours and hours at the walls of your bedroom that something, something big, something important, something meant just for you, is on its way.
Something, out there somewhere, is coming. And, you know, you just know, that when it comes you will recognise it and fall upon it like a hungry wolf. It is bound to take you somewhere you’ve never been before opening up a whole new life. A whole new world.
There is always a Promised Land to long for, to believe in with all your heart. Whatever sensible people, older, wiser people tell you, YOU know that the Promised Land is real and just over the horizon.
In 1950s America the musical message, the true musical message came through the ether on radio waves. Border radio stations with 50,000 watts of power sent the message to distant parts of the land. And, in distant parts of the land people were waiting. People were waiting.
Sitting in his car, late at night, in Lubbock Texas with his friend Sonny Curtis, Charles Hardin Holly always and forever after to be known as Buddy Holly, tuned in to stations playing Blues and Rhythm and Blues music and had an epiphany.
‘Bo Diddley bought his babe a diamond ring …..’
And that was it! If a smart young musician who already knew his Hank Williams, Bob Wills and Louvin Brothers and who knew the young Elvis Presley could incorporate this thunderous rhythm into the songs he was writing (oh yes, this was a young man who was going to write and record his own songs and play the hell out of them on the Fender Stratocaster he had bought for the princely sum of $249.50) then surely the world beyond Lubbock would sit up and take notice.
So, when he got to Norman Petty’s Clovis, New Mexico studio in 1956,’Bo Diddley’ was one of the first songs he tried out with the ever faithful Jerry Allison on the drums.
That version didn’t see the light of day for many a year but Buddy now had THAT RHYTHM in his bones. And, so when he came up with a song called, ‘Not Fade Away’ it was pounded out to Bo’s immortal Rhythm.
Gathered, in Clovis, on May 27 1957, Buddy now a certified star, turned to the Rhythm and with Joe Maudlin on bass and Jerry Allison on cardboard box drums he laid down a record which was a great tribute to Bo and one which would perk up the waiting ears of Paul McCartney and John Lennon in Liverpool and in the outer reaches of London, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard (and we know what they then did!)
Listening to Buddy here you hear the sound of someone entirely present in their work. Present in the mixture of choppy propulsion and gleeful, aint it grand to be alive lyricism of his guitar work. Present in the distinctive alluring timbre of his vocal style.
Present in the easeful assurance of his lyric which characteristically combines assertiveness and romantic sweetness. Buddy Holly had one of the most vivacious sounds ever achieved in Rock n’ Roll and his blend of instrumental flow and aggression with tough yet tender songs set a template for generations of musicians that followed him. Few have ever caught up with Buddy.
Fast forward to 1963. Up in Canada, the big lonely, Arkansas native Ronnie Hawkins has found his niche purveying prime rockabilly and rock ‘n ‘ roll to the denizens of the toughest bars in Toronto and any other town where there’s an audience ready for a band filled with crack musicians led by a natural showman.
Ronnie Hawkins is a figure out of myth. A bear of a man, a larger than life hustler, a supreme tall tale teller some of whose juiciest takes may even be true no matter how outrageous they seem. Ronnie has been down all the blue highways and seen just about everything a man can see and not go blind.
One thing about Ol’ Ronnie; he may not be even close to being a great musician himself but he sure as hell can spot one when he hears one. And, given that Ronnie helmed the hottest band in Canada which offered a young musician a full date book, the opportunity to hone their musical skills and the promise of unlimited carnal delights, there was no shortage of would be members of The Hawks.
Joining The Hawks was like a raw recruit being sent to the toughest possible military base for intensive training. If you survived there was no other band’s ass you couldn’t kick to kingdoms come.
And, by 1963 when Ronnie and the latest vintage went into the studio to record Bo’s classic, ‘Who Do You Love’ Ronnie had assembled the best band he would ever have. A band that had talent to burn, fire and finesse and the stamina to play all night long, night after night after night.
On drums and vocals the only American in the troupe, Levon Helm (the eldest at 23). On rhythm guitar (soon to switch to bass) and vocals Rick Danko, on piano and vocals Richard Manuel and on guitar, a prodigy, Robbie Robertson. Completing the line up for this record was another stellar axeman, Roy Buchanan, here on bass.
Waiting in the wings was the greatest musician of them all the mighty Garth Hudson who was a revelatory master of the organ, the accordion and a bunch of saxophones. On that day in 1963 as they launched into, ‘Who Do You Love’ they brought all Bo’s ominous pealing thunder to the song while adding strike after strike of earth scorching lightning which lit an unquenchable match in the hearts of anyone who ever heard it.
This set of Hawks, as we know, would go on to collaborate with the greatest popular music artist of the 20th Century, Bob Dylan, accompanying him on epochal tours and making distinguished contributions to his recordings.
As, ‘The Band’ their first two albums would be certified masterpieces melding all the traditions of American music into a glorious seamless whole in songs of depth and fervour. The whole project of Americana music might be seen as trying to explore the territory opened by The Band.
But, in 1963 they were not Rock aristocrats – they were hot as hell sons of guns and their playing on, ‘Who Do You Love’ has rarely, if ever, been matched for incendiary passion. Robbie Robertson’s guitar playing here is simply astounding.
It’s as if Ronnie Hawkins had chained him up for a month, without his beloved guitar and then given it back saying, ‘You don’t get to keep it unless you set this studio ablaze!’
Robbie Robertson conjures more magic out of his guitar here in under three minutes than most guitarists manage in a lifetime. Out front Ronnie intones Bo’s lyric with lip smacking relish conscious that this record must be his finest hour.
The message certainly got through to a kid growing up in Freehold, New Jersey. The songs Bruce was drawn to, enraptured by, were songs filled with drama. Songs that swept you up and away with their passion. Songs that were emotional twisters. Bruce got Bo.
Bruce Springsteen has always understood that it’s essential power of rhythm that holds a song together. And as a writer and performer he has always understood, in a way that few others have, that a great artist performing on stage is invoking timeless ritual energies that have to have their being confirmed and released through rhythm now controlled, now unleashed, now controlled, now unleashed until the ritual is complete and artist and audience are elated, exhausted and free.
Bruce gets Bo. In particular he gets, the howling past the graveyard depths of ‘Mona’ which in some mysterious fashion called forth his own song, ‘She’s The One’. So often in concert he runs the two songs together doffing his cap to Bo and proving his devotion to tradition by adding to it not merely copying it.
The version I’m featuring here is from a spectacularly intense concert he and The E Street Band gave at LA’s Roxy in July 1978.
You’d think Bruce and the band would have needed to take an ice bath to recover after that! This is Bruce using every muscle and sinew to inhabit the spooked landscape of Bo’s song. Bruce shape shifts to become a shamanistic vessel for THE RHYTHM. Listening to this I would never quibble with his honorary title as, ‘The Boss’.
Over in Britain and Ireland in the 1950s and early 60s just knowing the name of Bo Diddley showed that you were one of the musical elect. He wasn’t exactly a household name and was very rarely played on the radio.
His records had to be tracked down in record shops like Dobells in London, NEMS in Liverpool or Belfast’s Atlantic Records who might stock or might order for you those precious 45s of Bo Diddley or Mona.
These singles issued on the black and silver London label and later on the yellow and red Pye label were fetishistic objects for a core group of fanatical rhythm and blues fans who included such future luminaries as Dick Taylor of The Pretty Things (named after a Bo Diddley song), Eric Burdon of The Animals and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. Being an R&B devotee was akin to joining a secret confraternity. Once you had heard Bo you were a changed being.
The hallmark of being an R&B band that really knew their stuff was that you could lock into THE RHYTHM you had learned from Bo and through ecstatic dance take your audience to a whole new level of consciousness. So, if you were in the know and danced at The Cavern, The Marquee, The Flamingo or Club A Go Go you wouldn’t go long without that Bo Diddley Rhythm starting to take you over.
Now, it’s undoubtedly the case that the 1960s represents the high water mark of the Blues Boom in Britain and Ireland. But, the signal, the Rhythm never went away. The signal continued to be sent and received.
In the 1970s out of the Thames Delta and the extraordinary landscape of Canvey Island came a cutthroat crew, Dr Feelgood, who committed themselves 100% to the rhythm every time they launched into their tempestuous version of Bo’s I Can Tell.
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen lead singer Lee Brilleaux’s eyeballs out attack on the song or stood open mouthed in amazement as Guitarist Wilko Johnson ricocheted across the stage strafing everyone with machine gun lead and rhythm licks.
As the 20th Century came to a close far from hip metropolitan Dublin four boys were born in Cavan who destined to be nothing less than mojo men.
By 2012, while still schoolboys, Ross Farrelly (harmonica, vocals), Josh McClorey (lead guitar/vocals), Peter O’Hanlon (bass, vocals) and Evan Walsh (drums), bursting with energy, home recorded a debut EP which featured a series of R&B rave-ups on songs by Billy Boy Arnold and Slim Harpo.
The killer cut being their 100 miles an hour down a dead end street take on Bo’s, ‘You Can’t Judge A Book ..’
The Strypes get Bo.
You can see that as they strut their stuff on stage.
You can hear it in every note they play.
When you get down to it, when you really get down to it, Rhythm rules.
And you either get the rhythm or you don’t. You’ve either got it or you haven’t got it.
The Strypes have definitely got it!
If you get a chance to go and see them Go!
A true message, a strong signal always gets through. People are waiting. They will always be waiting. And, Bo Diddley’s message and signal will always be out there – waiting to be picked up.
Hey, Bo Diddley!
P.S. If you havent read the previous post on Bo himself – what are you waiting for!