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Remembering Laura Nyro

Laura Nyro 1Laura Nyro had missed her intended flight from New York to London, forcing her to take a plane that arrived at six o’clock in the morning. Now here she was, barely 12 hours later, warming up before recording a performance before an invited audience in a small auditorium at the BBC’s Television Centre, for a series called In Concert.

This was in May 1971, three months after she had made her British debut at the Royal Festival Hall, giving a solo concert in which the first set was performed by her then boyfriend, Jackson Browne, who was also appearing in the UK for the first time. It had been a wonderful recital: she started with “Stoney End”, included “Timer”, “Been on a Train”, “Emmie”, “Map to the Treasure” and “Christmas in My Soul”, read a poem called “Coal Truck”, and finished with a lovely medley of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Spanish Harlem”. Such range, such composure, such deep connection with her audience seemed exceptional in one who was still only 23 years old.

Now here she was, getting ready for the BBC’s cameras, in a voluptuously flowing mauve and lilac dress with lace half-sleeves: a typically dramatic costume. As she sat at the piano, I was struck by the way that she could turn her head to look like at one moment like a exquisitely soulful contessa from a Velasquez painting and at the next like a lusty young maid from one of Chaucer’s tales.

As well as her manager of the time, Richard Chiaro, there was a new boyfriend along for the ride. “You’ve got to sit somewhere I can see you,” she told him. But a few minutes later she was scolding him for singing along while she ran through some of her numbers.

In such an intimate setting, the evening was unforgettable: opening with a medley in which “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” sandwiched “Natural Woman”, she sang “Buy and Sell”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, the then-unrecorded “I Am the Blues”, “Christmas in My Soul”, a medley of “Timer”, “Ooo Child” and “Up on the Roof”, and “Mother Earth”; she delivered “Stoney End” as an encore. It was transmitted on BBC2, but in the intervening years it seems to have vanished. Long ago I asked Alan Yentob, a senior arts person at the corporation, to see if he could unearth it, but there was no trace.

It was 23 years later, in November 1994, that Laura made her final British appearance, accompanied by her three backing singers in the ideal 19th century Gothic environment of the Union Chapel in Islington. The set finished with her lovely version of “Walk on By”. And then she was gone, to be carried away by ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49.

She remains a powerful and enduring presence among those who fell under the spell of her extraordinary talent. One of those fans is Billy Childs, an American jazz pianist — known for his work with Freddie Hubbard and Dianne Reeves, among others — who has just released an album called Map to the Treasure, on Sony’s Masterworks label, in which his arrangements of 10 Nyro songs are delivered by different singers.

It’s a risky undertaking. Nyro’s first success came with other people’s versions of her songs (the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues”, Blood Sweat & Tears’ “And When I Die”, Barbra Streisand’s “Stoney End”, Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”), but it didn’t take long for her listeners to realise that the composer’s own versions far outstripped those of her interpreters. Nyro’s full-strength personality suffused her writing, as became apparent in her two masterpiece albums, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969), and their successors. Only she could properly explore the duality of the Madonna/streetchild persona (which she encouraged through her choice of jacket photos for those two albums). So to attempt cover versions at this stage of the game might seem otiose. Who, after all, can add anything new to such cherished pieces as “The Confession” and “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”?

Amazingly, Childs manages it — not by attempting to match or emulate the raw, romantic power of the originals, but by looking for facets of the songs to which he can apply his considerable resources, and by recruiting a group of singers who do not set out to sound like Nyro but bring their own voices, along with an unmistakeable admiration for the source of the material.

A string quartet appears on every track, with guests soloists featured alongside the singers: Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone with Esperanza Spalding on “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”, Chris Botti’s trumpet with Shawn Colvin on “Save the Country”, Steve Wilson’s alto saxophone with Susan Tedeschi on “Gibsom Street”, and Jerry Douglas’s dobro with Alison Krauss on “And When I Die”. Childs is the pianist throughout, supported by the impeccable rhythm team of Scott Colley (double bass) and Brian Blade (drums).

Childs jumps in straight at the deep end by opening the album with “New York Tendaberry”, one of Nyro’s most personal songs, delivered by the operatic soprano Renée Fleming and the cellist Yo Yo Ma. So right away you know we’re not in for a set of mere recreations. The beauty of Fleming’s tone and the sensitive formality of her phrasing takes the piece away from Nyro’s uptown-soul sensibility and into a different dimension.

That’s one of the highlights. Another comes straight afterwards, with Becca Stevens’s equally poised but comparatively uncorseted tilt at “The Confession”. At the centre of the whole thing, in structural and emotional terms, is Rickie Lee Jones: out of all the singers in the project, she is the one who most resembles Nyro in style and delivery (and, as she has often said, is most influenced by her), making her perfectly suited to bring out the tragedy of “Been on a Train”, helped by a most imaginative arrangement for the string quartet. Her presence makes me wish Childs had also called upon Mary Margaret O’Hara, the other singer I think of as an heir to Nyro’s legacy.

But once you get the measure of what Childs is up to, there isn’t a bad track here. What he gives us is a beautifully conceived and meticulously executed song cycle, a fitting tribute to one of the most original and gifted artists of our time. Yes, it’s polished thing, far more polished than Nyro’s own records ever were, but that polish is no superficial gloss: it’s the patina of a profound respect. And beneath it beats the heart of an extraordinary woman.

Laura Nyro BBC ticket

* The photograph of Laura Nyro comes from the cover of her 1984 album Mother’s Spiritual and was taken by Irene Young. The ticket for the 1971 BBC TV concert is mine. Anyone who loves Nyro’s music and hasn’t already read Michele Kort’s excellent biography — Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, published by Thomas Dunne Books in the US in 2002 — should do so. And here, for free, is a link to an interesting piece by an academic, Patricia S. Rudden, from a 2006 edition of the newsletter of the Emily Dickinson Society (you’ll need to scroll down to the third page). Clips of Nyro on YouTube tend to get taken down quickly, but here’s a beauty: her performance of “Poverty Train” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, giving the lie (despite a lame band of session men) to the myth that it was a total disaster. And here’s a real oddity from 1969.

Girl on the beach

Marilyn & Brian Wilson

It’s 26 years since a few dozen people in a humble church hall in an unfavoured West London suburb — the readers of Beach Boys Stomp, a British fanzine, assembled for their annual convention — were given the biggest and best surprise of their lives when Brian Wilson himself stepped on to the stage and sat down at an electric keyboard. This was 1988, and Brian had been in semi-seclusion for years. He was in the process of re-emerging with his first solo album, but his extreme nervousness was apparent that afternoon, even in front of probably the smallest audience he had faced since the Beach Boys turned professional.

To his listeners’ astonishment and delight, Brian performed three songs: “Night Time” and “Love and Mercy”, from the new album, and “Surfer Girl”, which would have been high on any true fan’s list of requests. Moved by the warmth of the response, he signed autographs for practically everyone before taking his leave. The triumphant Pet Sounds tour of 2000, the Queen’s golden jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace in 2002 and the amazing premiere of Smile in 2004 lay far ahead in an unimaginable future.

Marilyn Rovell was the girl whom he was dating when “Surfer Girl” was still a brand-new song, and who was with him when he wrote all the rest of the great stuff. They started going out in 1962 and married two years later. She and her sister Diane and their cousin Ginger Blake became the Honeys, then Spring (without Ginger); both groups were produced by Brian. She kept the famous house on Bellagio Road in Bel-Air, where a sandbox surrounded the piano on which her husband created his masterpieces. They were divorced in 1979, but their daughters, Carnie and Wendy, had hits with their group Wilson Phillips, in which they were joined by Chynna Phillips, the daughter of John and Michelle Phillips; they sold eight million copies of their debut album in 1990.

Marilyn remarried 15 years ago and still lives in Los Angeles, where she works part-time selling real estate. Yesterday she and her second husband, Daniel Rutherford, arrived at the parish hall of Our Lady of the Visitation in Greenford, Middlesex, as the guests of honour at Beach Boys Stomp‘s’s 35th annual convention. Marilyn answered questions, signed autographs, posed for photographs, and made sure she said hello to every single one of those present.

This was her second visit to the convention (the first was in 2005) and it was apparent that she keeps her memories of the time she spent with Brian in clear perspective. Most of those memories, of course, are warm. “Everything was always exciting,” she said when talking about the pre-Pet Sounds era. “He’d wake up every morning with a new idea of what to do next. He was a remarkable man — inspired and inspiring.”

She loved singing backgrounds on some of the Beach Boys’ later records, particularly Carl Wilson’s songs, such as “Feel Flows” and “The Trader”. She also mentioned “Funky Pretty”, which was written by Brian with Mike Love and Jack Rieley . “It wasn’t because I was great or anything,” she said. “It would be when they needed a part.”

But she doesn’t try to pretend that those years were one long beach party. When she talked about Spring’s 1973 United Artists album (here is its best and strangest track, Brian’s “Sweet Mountain”, and here is its sweetest, Marilyn singing lead on Carole King’s “Now That Everything’s Been Said”), the mention of its co-producer, David Sandler, a friend of Brian’s, hinted at the problems she confronted in her day-to-day life with a troubled genius. “I liked David a lot,” she said, “because I didn’t have to worry about him giving drugs to Brian.”

I hadn’t seen Marilyn since the spring of 1973, when she invited me to the Bel-Air house to spend an afternoon with Brian. The sandbox had gone by then and he wasn’t in great shape (there was a large dollop of what I recall as being raspberry Reddi-whip on his tea-time ice cream), but he sat down at the piano and sang the full version of “Heroes and Villains”, which was a revelation, and a funky arrangement of the semi-traditional “Shortnin’ Bread”. That song turned up a few years later on the group’s L.A. (Light Album) but the version Brian recorded for the unreleased Adult Child project (it’s here) is closer to the sound I remember from that day. And, of course, he wanted to talk about Phil Spector, and to make sure I heard “Be My Baby” a few times before I left.

Marilyn was invited to be become involved in Love and Mercy, the new biopic starring Paul Dano as the young BW and John Cusack as the older version, which recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. She declined, as she declines most such requests. Not because she’s hoarding her memories for her own purposes — although there might be a book one day — but because experience tells her that these projects tend to deliver 50 per cent of what really happened and 50 per cent of what some outsider wants to think happened.

“Who knows what’s real and what’s not real?” she said. “I know.”

* The photograph of Marilyn and Brian Wilson in 1965 is from the cover of the Beach Boys Party! album.

Bob Crewe 1930-2014

Bob CreweBob Crewe, who died last week aged 83, was one of the architects of 1960s pop music. Here’s my Guardian obituary. It’s interesting that of all the records he made, among his favourites was one that, from the outside, must have looked highly unpromising: the Four Seasons’ 1966 version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”.

Written in 1936 for the musical Born to Dance, the song received its definitive reading 20 years later, when Frank Sinatra included it on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, a hugely successful album. Sinatra had been featuring it in concert for a decade, but the recorded version benefited from Nelson Riddle’s finger-snapping arrangement, which builds up to Milt Bernhart’s wild trombone solo. It catches Sinatra at the very zenith of his ring-a-ding-dingness.

So it was brave of Bob Gaudio, a member of the Four Seasons and Crewe’s songwriting and production partner, to suggest that they risk a charge of sacrilege by giving it a whirl. The key to the triumphant success of their version might have been the decision to assign the job of arranging it not to one of their regular collaborators, such as the great Charlie Calello, but to the comparatively unfamiliar Artie Schroeck, who had been given his first breaks in the business by Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton and whose background was in big-band music.

Was it Gaudio, Crewe or Schroeck who made the crucial decision to switch the basic rhythm from a swinging 4/4 to straight eights, thus transforming the song from semi-jazz to pure pop? My guess would be Gaudio. But it’s the arranger who finds a way to integrate the tempo changes, the pauses and the rubato passages, to blend the strings and the tubular bells, to marshal the dynamic shifts, to make a sudden switch to the minor key, and to emphasise the drum fills — probably played by Buddy Salzmann — in a way that evokes the group’s earlier hits. And whoever came up with the repeated “Never win… never win…” in the backing vocals was a man who knew how to craft a hook.

It was a huge hit, of course. No wonder Bob Crewe was so proud of it. Here it is.

* The photograph above, which appears in the booklet accompanying the Four Seasons/Frankie Valli box set Jersey Beat, released on the Rhino label in 2007, was taken during the session at which “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was recorded in 1966. Left to right: Joe Long, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Artie Schroeck and Tommy DeVito.

 

 

“The world is in an uproar…”

Sad and lonely, all the time

That’s because I’ve got a worried mind

You know the world is in an uproar

The danger zone is everywhere, everywhere

When Ray Charles recorded Percy Mayfield’s “The Danger Zone” in New York on the afternoon of the 4th of July, 1961, a few hours before a gig in Atlantic City, the world was indeed in an uproar. In the Congo, Patrice Lumumba had just been assassinated. Paris’s two commercial airports had recently been closed for fear of airborne attacks by Algerian rebels. In Cuba, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion had failed to topple the Castro regime. Black and white “freedom riders” had been attacked by racists in Montgomery, Alabama. The anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem had won a presidential election in South Vietnam, where the US government was planning to send thousands more “military advisers”. Rhodesia had just refused to give blacks a bigger say in government. A month later, the Berlin Wall would go up overnight.

I have a long list of favourite Ray Charles records, and “The Danger Zone”, with its perfectly judged vocal and gorgeous small-band arrangement, might just be first among equals. I encountered it on the B-side of “Hit the Road, Jack”, recorded that same afternoon. The words of Mayfield, a great writer, lose no power as the decades go by, and they came to mind yesterday when a track from Leonard Cohen’s forthcoming album, Popular Problems, appeared on YouTube.

I was guided to it by an item on my friend Martin Colyer’s excellent blog, Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week. It’s called “Almost Like the Blues”, and here it is. An unadorned 12-bar sequence, a simple bass-guitar, ticking hand-drums, discreet acoustic and electric keys, a female chorale, a sudden wash of synthetic strings, a distant horn section, and this, delivered as a semi-recitative by a man nearing the end of his 80th year on earth:

I saw some people starving, there was murder, there was rape

Their villages were burning, they were trying to escape

I couldn’t meet their glances, I was staring at my shoes

It was acid, it was tragic, it was almost like the blues

Like the poet Mayfield, the poet Cohen is doing what a poet does: blending the personal and the universal, the great and the small, for an audience waking up each day to the news from Iraq and Syria, Gaza, Ukraine, and Ferguson, Missouri. He doesn’t try to make sense of it. No one could do that. But he leaves us thinking.

There is no god in heaven and there is no hell below

So says the great professor of all there is to know

But I’ve had the invitation that a sinner can’t refuse

And it’s almost like salvation, it’s almost like the blues…

 

Jersey Boys

Four SeasonsThere were only two other people in the cinema when I went to see Jersey Boys this week, a mere five days after its UK opening. Having received reviews ranging from cool to lukewarm, Clint Eastwood’s transfer of the Four Seasons musical from stage to screen has clearly failed to capture the public imagination — unlike the original, which is still running on Broadway and in the West End.

I belong to a generation that didn’t have much time for musicals, generally speaking, but I loved the theatrical version of Jersey Boys when I saw it a couple of years ago. The music sounded as good as the records and the staging was genuinely exhilarating. So the film’s first surprise is that Eastwood hasn’t simply tried to replicate the factors that made the stage show a success: he’s gone for something halfway between a musical and a conventional biopic, which is hard to pull off.

Here are the two main drawbacks: it still feels unmistakeably theatrical, and there’s surprisingly little music. Great trouble has obviously been taken over the design of the costumes, the sets and the props, and the film’s colours and textures are carefully graded to match the period, but it hardly ever feels real. And in an effort, I guess, to avoid the accusation of having simply reproduced a jukebox musical, the director has used the music only when it functions as part of the narrative (e.g. when they’re performing “Sherry” on American Bandstand or Valli makes his comeback, singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” with a big band in a plush nightclub). Unlike Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles film, Eastwood doesn’t rely on enhanced versions of the original recordings to underdub the actors when the group are seen performing in a club or a theatre: the performances sound as unpolished and sometimes as weedy as they would have done in real life, deprived of the support of session musicians and studio technology. I ended up quite liking that, although I suppose I’d gone in hoping for the sensation of the original mixes of “C’mon Marianne”, “Beggin'”, “Beggars Parade”, “Tell It to the Rain” or “Dawn (Go Away)” thumping out through a cinema sound system.

In its treatment of the group’s early connections to New Jersey mobsters the film is grittier than I remember the stage version being. It’s still hardly Goodfellas, and it frequently lapses into cliché and caricature, but it does have a genuinely outstanding central scene in which the rest of the group discover the extent of the tax and gambling debts they’ve been landed with by Tommy DeVito, their founding member; he is forced out by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, while Nick Massi quits in disgust. In reality Massi left in 1965, after their first run of chart success, while DeVito’s ousting came six years later, at around the time they were dropped by Philips, when the hits had dried up. But it works in terms of dramatic truth, and the showdown exposes the sort of conflicts that anyone who has ever been in a band, at whatever level, will probably recognise. That scene also highlights the real excellence of the central performances by Vincent Piazza (DeVito), Michael Lomenda (Massi), Erich Bergen (Gaudio) and especially by John Lloyd Young, who delivers a nuanced and mostly sympathetic portrayal of Valli.

After DeVito’s departure, Valli and Gaudio took shared ownership of the group; the fact that they are named as the film’s executive producers probably guarantees a degree of both authenticity and airbrushing. There is no mention of the line-up (featuring the gifted lead singer/drummer Gerry Polci) that joined Valli for the chart rebirth with “Who Loves You”, “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” and “Silver Star” in the mid-70s (and it’s a bit dismaying that the first thing the audiences hears, before the titles, is a pianist infuriatingly misvoicing a vital chord in the great intro to “December 1963″).

If you’re a fan of the group, the film worth catching while it’s still around, which probably won’t be long. It’s hardly Eastwood’s finest hour as a director, and he doesn’t quite find the thing that would compensate for the missing vibrancy of the stage show, but of course it will send you back home to listen to some enduringly great records.

* The photograph of (left to right) Tommy DeVito, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi is taken from the booklet to Jersey Beat: The Music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, compiled by Bill Inglot and released by Rhino in 2007.

 

Far from dumb

Russ TitelmanGerry Goffin, whose death was announced yesterday, didn’t just write songs with Carole King. Even during their most successful and prolific time together in the mid-’60s he was collaborating with other writers, as I point out here, in my tribute to his lyric-writing genius for the Guardian’s music blog. The one that comes most readily to my mind is Russ Titelman (pictured above), later a staff producer for Warner Brothers and now best known for his work in the studio with Little Feat, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Steve Winwood and others.

Goffin and Titelman wrote two wonderful songs together. First, in 1964, came “I Never Dreamed” for the Cookies, a fabulous girl-group record which they produced together, with King providing the arrangement. Goodness knows how it didn’t follow the group’s other songs into the charts. A year later they wrote “What Am I Gonna Do With You (Hey Baby)“, recorded by the Chiffons, Skeeter Davis, Lesley Gore and finally, in 1967, by the Inspirations on the obscure Black Pearl label. Each of these versions has its fans, but mine is the last of them, in which the echo-heavy production and the lead singer’s delivery mirror the plaintive mood of Goffin’s lyric.

Titelman was born in Los Angeles in 1944. I’m indebted to an interview in Harvey Kubernik’s Turn Up the Radio! for the information that his older sister, Susan (later to marry Cooder), was the girlfriend of Marshall Lieb, a member of the Teddy Bears, who rehearsed in the Titelmans’ lounge on their way to stardom. Phil Spector, their leader, was going out with Susan’s best friend, and young Russ fell under his spell: “He was so smart, and so funny, and so charming, and so incredibly charismatic, and so you were sort of charmed by it all. Then there was the other side of him, which was this dark, murky, scary person, you know, who made shit up.”

He went to work as a songwriter for Lou Adler and Don Kirshner at Screen Gems-Columbia Music, in whose LA offices he met Brian Wilson. Together they wrote “Guess I’m Dumb”, which would have made a great track for Pet Sounds but was instead recorded by Glen Campbell, a future Beach Boy. Wilson is credited as the arranger, conductor and producer of what remains one of his very finest efforts.

Titelman’s early adventures in the LA pop business also included collaborations with the young David Gates (later the founder of Bread), who produced Margaret Mandolph’s utterly sublime version of a Titelman co-composition (with Cynthia Weil) called “I Wanna Make You Happy”. The Titelman/Gates partnership was also responsible for Suzy Wallis’s delightful “Little Things Like That”

On all these records, Titelman’s involvement seemed to guarantee that they would somehow capture the very essence of teenage pop music. They have great hooks and an understanding of how a simple chord change can sell a song. Eventually, of course, he had to grow up, as did his friends and accomplices, including Goffin and Gates. But the stuff they left us from that time continues to give undiminished pleasure decades after its supposed expiry date.

French cool

Salut les CopainsThis is a magazine I bought a couple of weeks ago from one of those second-hand book and magazine stalls on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Louvre. Salut les copains was a magazine I read quite regularly in the early to middle ’60s, and I recognised the cover of this issue, which is from September 1965.

The magazine was the invention of Daniel Filipacchi, as was the hugely popular early-evening radio programme of the same name, which went out on Europe 1 and featured good American records as well as a mixed bag of French pop. I was a fan of that, too — the signal was quite audible in the middle of England — and three or four years ago I was delighted to find two nicely packaged four-CD boxes containing music featured on the show between 1959 and 1969, with station ads and idents thrown in: lots of Johnny Hallyday, Françoise Hardy, Richard Anthony (whose EP containing “J’entends siffler le train” was a fixture next to the Dansettes of most of the nice girls I knew), Claude François, France Gall, Eddy Mitchell, Les Surfs, Jacques Dutronc and so on.

You can usually find something interesting in an old magazine, and in September 1965 the editors of Salut les copains had a mixed bag of preoccupations, including the aspirations of a bunch of new French artists: now you think, whatever happened to Muriel Bianchi (debut disc: “Les Jaloux”), Thierry Vincent (“artistes préferés: Johnny Hallyday, les Coasters, Nina Simone”), Michele Sarna (inspired by “le folklore canadien”), Jacky Gordon (“un fan de jazz et son style s’apparente donc fortement au rhythm and blues”), Willy Lewis (“many think of him as one of the best drummers in France”),  Mick Shannon (“the young singer who, in 1962, took the place of Dick Rivers with les Chats Sauvages”), Bernadette Grimm (“son idole: Edith Piaf”) and Laura Ulmer, a fresh-faced 17-year-old spotted by the impresario Eddie Barclay when her photograph appeared on the front page of Nice-Matin?

Out of two dozen candidates, the only name I recognise almost 50 years later is that of Pierre Barouh, already 31 years old and a fan of Georges Brassens and Billie Holiday; a couple of years later he would be playing Anouk Aimée’s husband — an ill-fated film stunt man who strums a guitar and sings Brazilian songs — in Claude Lelouch’s hugely successful Un homme et une femme (A Man and a Woman). Later, in real life, Barouh and Aimée were briefly married; he used his earnings from the film to buy an old mill in the Vendée, where he founded the Saravah label, which released recordings by French and Brazilian artists.

Salut les copains and its short-lived stablemate, Mademoiselle age tendre, provide a great deal of the material contained in a very entertaining new book called Yé-yé Girls of ’60s French Pop, compiled by Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe. It’s published in the US by Feral House, and there are copies in London shops (I got mine at Foyle’s). It’s mostly visual: page after page of Françoise H, Sylvie Vartan, Sheila, France Gall, Jane Birkin and Chantal Goya. There’s also an informative commentary, and good stuff on more obscure girls. It’s a weakness of mine to like this sort of thing, I know, but there you go.

(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet

I remember John Lennon remarking on his affection for songs with brackets in the title. It’s a pure-pop thing, and it was a regular feature of the charts from the late ’50s to the mid-’60s. I like them, too: “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, “Nothin’ Shakin’ (But the Leaves on the Trees)”, “(‘Til) I Kissed You”, “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”, “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)”, “Kentucky Bluebird (Message to Martha)”, “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave”, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)”, “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” and so on.

My favourite brackets belong to a song released 50 years ago this month: “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” by the Reflections, which reached No 6 in the Billboard Hot 100 and, amazingly, No 3 in the Cashbox R&B chart. Amazing, that is, because the Reflections were a white vocal quintet — Tony Micale (lead), Phil Castrodale (first tenor), Dan Bennie (second tenor), Ray Steinberg (baritone) and John Dean (bass) — whose doowop-based style was closely modelled on that of the Four Seasons.

It’s a fabulous record, quite the equal of any of the Seasons’ hits. Written by Bob Hamilton and Freddie Gorman and produced by Rob Reeco for the Detroit-based Golden World label, it has a lyric as great as its title (“I’m gonna buy her pretty presents / Just like the ones in the catalogue” — but only, he reveals in the last verse, if he can find a job), a strong pop melody, great lead and backing vocals, and a driving rhythm track: just listen to the way the handclaps carry the beat while the drummer provides a brilliantly syncopated running commentary on his snare. Here’s a sound-only link of much better quality, recorded from an original Golden World 45 (and sounding a little sharper than my UK copy, released on the Stateside label), in which all the elements are clearly audible.

The baritone sax solo gives a clue to where and when it was made. It’s surely the work of Mike Terry, moonlighting from the Motown studios, where he had already provided a similar service on Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” and Mary Wells’ “You Lost the Sweetest Boy”. Which means that the bassist and drummer are very probably James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, also on surreptitious leave from Berry Gordy’s empire. That would explain a great deal about the quality of the track.

Golden World, founded in 1963 by Ed Wingate and Joanne Bratton, failed to match the achievements of its local rival, although some great records were made in its studio. Gordy bought up the company, including the sister label, Ric Tic Records (J.J.Barnes, Edwin Starr etc), in 1966. By that time the Reflections had failed to find a successful follow-up to their great hit, despite trying to recreate the musical formula with “Like Columbus Did” and “Comin’ At You”. But 50 years later they’re still performing, with Micale and Dean now joined by three singers formerly with other Detroit groups, and “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” still lives up to its title.

And it you want to know how to dance to it (and how to dress for the occasion), watch this delightful clip from Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, dated May 30, 1964, when the Reflections were high in the charts:

Give the session drummer some

If they still awarded grants for projects of genuine cultural significance, I’d want one for research into the great American session drummers of the 1960s. Which Motown records featured the playing of Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen or Uriel Jones? Exactly when did Al Duncan gave way to Maurice White on all those great Chicago sessions (Impressions, Major Lance, etc)? Precisely how did Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine divide the work-load in the Hollywood studios? I’d uncover the answers, and the world would be a better place.

Those questions came to mind when I found myself listening to Chuck Jackson’s “I Need You” a few nights ago. It’s a Goffin/King song (in fact you can find it on Honey & Wine, the second volume of Ace Records’ series of CDs devoted to their compositions), and it’s a beauty. Cover versions would come from the Walker Brothers and the young Wailers, but  none could match the performance of Jackson, one of the greatest of a generation of uptown soul singers that included Lou Johnson, Jimmy Radcliffe and Jerry Butler. Recorded for the Wand label in 1965, it was arranged by Ed Martin and produced by Stan Green and Steve Tyrell. In the hit parade, it made No 75 on the US Hot 100 and No 22 on the R&B chart, which was a disappointment for the singer after the success of “I Don’t Want to Cry”, “I Wake Up Crying” and “Any Day Now”.

What stuck out as I listened to this stately deep-soul ballad, however, was not the wonderful lead vocal. It was the arrangement, featuring strings, acoustic guitar and female vocals — and particularly the drumming, which makes use of the sort of emphatic tom-tom fills that Blaine brought to Phil Spector’s records, and Duncan (or possibly White) to those of the Impressions. And something about their architectural precision made me think of one name: Gary Chester.

Chester was the first-call session drummer in New York during those years. He’s the guy you can hear on the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “On Broadway”, the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take”, the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”, Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Walk On By”, Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party”, the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” and many, many others. He was born in Sicily in 1924 (as Cesario Gurciollo) and died in New York 62 years later, having played, by his own account, on some 15,000 sessions.

He wasn’t the only session drummer in New York  in 1960s, of course, but something about the playing on “I Need You” sounded familiar. So I dug around on the internet, and found an email address for one of the producers. I sent a message to his assistant. Sorry to bother you with such a bizarre request after almost 50 years, I said, but could you ask Steve Tyrell if it was indeed Gary Chester on that record — and by the way, were the backing singers Cissy Houston and her nieces, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, which was how it sounded to me?

Forty eight hours later, quite miraculously, the reply arrived, short but very sweet: “Showed this to Steve and he said: Dee Dee and Cissy. Probably on the same session as ‘Since I Don’t Have You’. And it was definitely Gary Chester playing drums. Could have been Dionne as well but he doesn’t remember that.”

I don’t know why it gives me such satisfaction to pass that information out into the world, but it does.

For more great New York session drumming from the mid-’60s, listen to the Four Seasons’ “Dawn”. I used to think that was Gary Chester, too, but it isn’t. It’s Buddy Saltzmann, who also played on Little Eva’s “The Locomotion”, Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes”, the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. And, of course, countless others. In the drum booths of the New York studios, he, Chester and Panama Francis were the men.

Now, about that grant…

The Rainy Day Medley

Medleys used to have a bad name. I could forgive Duke Ellington the habit because he had so much music to get into any given concert (and because he was Duke Ellington), while Dionne Warwick’s 20-song Bacharach/David selection was an exhilarating marathon, particularly when she had a proper orchestra behind her. But not many medleys manage to assemble their component parts in a way that creates a greater meaning.

Here’s one that does. It’s Frank Sinatra, with the help of Nelson Riddle, plaiting together a trio of classic saloon ballads — “Last Night When We Were Young” (music: Harold Arlen/words: Yip Harburg), “Violets For Your Furs” (music: Matt Dennis/words: Tom Adair) and “Here’s That Rainy Day” (music: Jimmy Van Heusen/words: Johnny Burke) — into something that describes the full emotional arc of a love affair. It couldn’t have worked better if the three composers and their lyricists had got their heads together for that express purpose.

I first heard it three or four years ago on the Sinatra: New York  box set, taken from a 1974 concert at Carnegie Hall. This filmed performance seems to have been made the year before, presumably in a television studio. It’s not quite as wonderful in terms of singing and orchestral blend as the version on the CD (although this one benefits from not having a corny spoken introduction), but it’s a precious reminder  of what he could do with songs as sophisticated and timeless as these.

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