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Posts from the ‘Pop’ Category

(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.

Phil Everly 1939-2014

It was thanks to Perry Como that I first glimpsed the Everly Brothers, singing “Bird Dog” on his TV show in 1959. Matching suits and ties, the kind of perfect quiffs a schoolboy in England could only dream of achieving, and those magnificent Gibson J-180 jumbos. That riff, those voices. They seemed to have come from outer space.

In 1983 I was at the Albert Hall to see them reunite after 10 years of estrangement. It was a famous occasion, and you can find bits of the film on YouTube. Just watch them sing “Let It Be Me”, the final song, to each other. It was, and is, spine-tingling.

Phil died yesterday, aged 74. Don, two years older, has been quoted as saying that he had expected to go first. So another great figure from rock and roll’s early days has left the scene, and there won’t be any more of those glorious two-part harmonies.

I met Phil in the early Seventies, around the time of Pass the Chicken and Listen, the last album the brothers made before falling out, at a time when when they were hopelessly unfashionable. He was friendly and open and I liked him a lot. A few years later he made a single in London with Cliff Richard called “She Means Nothing to Me”, produced by Stuart Colman and with Mark Knopfler on guitar. It’s a record I’ve always loved, and another great way to remember him.

Christmas with Sgt Pepper, Lovely Rita etc

Sgt Pepper 1For some weeks now Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first part of his epic three-volume history of the Beatles, has been staring reproachfully at me from the top of the to-be-read pile. The time to absorb its 900-odd pages will come soon. Meanwhile on Saturday night I took the opportunity to listen to its author give an illustrated talk on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the Centenary Theatre in Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire, during an evening in aid of the Pepper Foundation, a locally based charity which provides specialised nursing care for children with life-limiting or terminal illnesses.

As it happens, Sgt Pepper is not in my top half-dozen Beatles albums, but the extent of Mark’s erudition and the depth of his engagement are such that I was fascinated by both the background detail and the close analysis he provided while showing related film clips and playing snatches of tapes from the sessions to show how the songs were built up.

It was an absorbing 45 minutes, and a perfect preparation to what happened after a short interval, when the charity’s founder, Robert Breakwell, took his place on a suddenly very crowded stage as the director of a troupe of dozens of musicians and singers, mostly amateurs, all primed to perform the album from beginning to end.

How bad an idea does that sound? How easy was it at that moment to exchange sardonic glances and make mental plans for an early exit and a quick drive back to London? All I can tell you is that the next hour passed in a whirl of surprise and enchantment as performers of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes tackled the challenge not just with enthusiasm and energy but with a wonderful degree of imagination.

For the opening “Sgt Pepper” song itself, two cheerleaders held up cue cards — “LAUGH”, “CHEER” etc — to enable us to replicate the sounds borrowed by the Beatles and George Martin from Abbey Road’s library of sound effects. As it turned out, however, this wasn’t going to be an attempt to imitate the original. Each song was interpreted in a way appropriate to the material, the talents of the performers and the resources available on stage, and often given a creative twist.

So we heard “Getting Better” done by five young women in a Spice Girls sort of way, “When I’m 64″ sung by a group of children and “Good Morning, Good Morning” subjected to a delightfully scatty acappella arrangement. “Within You, Without You” featured not just the sound of a sitar but a haunting snatch of “Tomorrow Never Knows”.  “Fixing a Hole” was sung by Mike Burnett in folk-music style to the accompaniment of his own acoustic guitar, a double bass and two backing singers. Claire Boulter’s trained voice was applied with exquisitely transfixing effect to “She’s Leaving Home”, accompanied by a string quartet, a pianist and a choir including many of the night’s performers (a clearly overjoyed Lewisohn among them).

And then came the moment when one or two of us were thinking, “Are they really going to have a go at ‘A Day in the Life’?” How on earth would they cope with the ambition of the album’s concluding track, a towering moment in the Beatles’ musical history? Blow me down if they didn’t succeed quite brilliantly, finding ways to emulate the orchestral glissandi and the final piano chord that fades away into an echoing silence.

It was an amazing thing to hear and feel, and it was one of several moments at which Breakwell and his troupe were able to remind us of the Beatles’ special magic, the quality that will surely persuade history that the benign spell they cast over us was the result not just of some sort of passing pop phenomenon, writ extra-large.

Dionne Warwick: the lost years…

Dionne WarwickThere are days, even now, when only the sound of Dionne Warwick will do. How strange, then, that between 1972 and 1978, when she was in her prime and had the strength of a major record company behind her for the first time, she couldn’t buy a hit.

Try to put yourself in her shoes on the day in 1977 when she sat in the control room of A&R Studios in New York City with her new producers, Steve Barri and Michael Omartian, listening to this final mix. There would have been just a single thought in your head: whatever it is that makes a hit, this one’s got it.

Dionne had already been with Warner Bros for five years, after leaving the independent Scepter Records, where she had spent a decade and enjoyed that astonishing string of hits with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, to sign a $3m contract with a major label in the clear and reasonable expectation of further and even greater success. But her move coincided with the acrimonious sundering of the Bacharach/David partnership, which gave her new label a very nasty shock. The trio made one more album together — Just By Myself, released in 1973 — before a row between the two songwriters resulted in a prolonged series of lawsuits all round.

The hasty search to find new collaborators saw her shuffled, over the next six years, between Holland-Dozier-Holland, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Jerry Ragovoy, Thom Bell, Randy Edelman and Joe Porter. Amazingly, none of them could come up with the hit for which she was so anxiously waiting in order to prove that her early success had not been completely dependent on her original Svengalis. The sessions with the Barri-Omartian team represented the last throw of the dice.

“Do You Believe in Love at First Sight” — which you’ll have heard if you clicked on the first link — is included in a compilation called The Complete Warner Bros Singles, which came out earlier this year on the Real Gone Music label, a Warner/Rhino offshoot. It astonishes me now, as it did then, that it failed to give her another  hit. Curiously, the song — written by Frank McDonald, Chris Rae, Ron Roker and Gerry Shury — had been Britain’s entry in the previous year’s Eurovision Song Contest, when Polly Brown, late of Pickettywitch, brought it home in 10th place.

Polly Brown was a pretty good pop singer, but she wasn’t Dionne Warwick. This version of “Do You Believe in Love at First Sight” is irresistible: three minutes of pop perfection. If it lacks the emotional depth and musical inventiveness of a great Bacharach/David song, it is nevertheless beautifully constructed and performed, full of good things like a great hook, a bubbling bass line, an exultant lead vocal.

The earlier sessions with Jerry Ragovoy produced a track that is among my all-time Dionne favourites: in my view, her exquisitely sultry version of “I Can’t Wait to See My Baby’s Face” shades earlier treatments of this fine song by Baby Washington, Pat Thomas, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and even Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister — all of them terrific in their own right, with Dee Dee’s being the closest contender.

Dionne’s album with Thom Bell, Track of the Cat, contained some piercingly lovely songs, such as “His House and Me”, “Ronnie Lee”, “Love Me One More Time” and “Once You Hit the Road”, exposing the incomparable Philadelphia producer/arranger/composer’s debt to Bacharach, in particular the use of syncopation to create hooks. But Bell couldn’t repeat the formula that delivered “Then Came You”, with which he had given Warwick a No 1 in collaboration with the Spinners.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the the story. After Dionne and Warner Bros parted company in 1978, a move to Arista and collaborations with Barry Manilow and Barry Gibb propelled her back into the charts. The preceding period was quietly forgotten as the Manilow-produced “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and the Gibb-composed “Heartbreaker” lengthened the list of her greatest hits.

Now, in addition to the complete Warners singles collection, Dionne’s unhappy time with the Burbank label is commemorated by We’ve Got to Go Back, a new Real Gone Music compilation containing 19 songs that never found their way on to the release schedule. It’s aimed at completists and obsessives like me, I suppose, but the Holland-Dozier tracks “Too Far Out of Reach” and “It Hurts Me So” are fine examples of early-70s soul, and “Am I Too Late” and “I’ll Never Make It Easy (To Say Goodbye)”, supervised by Joe Porter, are gorgeous grown-up ballads. I wouldn’t want to be without them.

It was sad to read about the financial problems that drove her to declare bankruptcy earlier this year. She deserves better than that.

* The photograph of Dionne Warwick is from the sleeve of We Need to Go Back: The Unissued Warner Bros Masters and is uncredited.

Making the wiseguys dance

Peppermint TwistWas Ringo Starr genuinely lucky not to get whacked by a Mafia hitman named Romeo “Scarface” Martin when the Beatles visited the Miami branch of the Peppermint Lounge in 1964? That’s what John Johnson Jr and Joel Selvin, the authors of Peppermint Twist, would like you to believe.  Their new book, which tells the story behind the club where the Twist first became a sensation, comes complete with a colourful endorsement from Ronnie Spector, who danced there before she became a Ronette: “The Sopranos meets American Bandstand!”

That’s not an entirely misleading summary. In the end Romeo Martin, despite being infuriated by his girlfriend’s crush on Ringo, didn’t try to whack the mop-topped drummer. But plenty of others meet an unpleasant end in the course of the story, not least Johnny Biello, a caporegime with the Genovese crime family. Biello was the undeclared owner of the Peppermint Lounges in New York and Miami and the father-in-law of Dick Cami, who managed the two clubs during their heyday, before they were sold in the mid-60s. It is Cami (born Camillucci) whose testimony provides the authors with the bulk of their material. He, of course, never whacked anyone, although he considered it once or twice.

A couple of years ago I had some fun marking the 50th anniversary of the Twist’s rise to prominence by writing this feature for the Guardian‘s Weekend magazine. I can remember back in 1962 going to see the exploitation film Hey, Let’s Twist, which featured Joey Dee and the Starliters performing the hit that made the 45th Street club famous – or, rather, even more famous, since it had already acquired gossip-column notoriety for attracting an A-list clientele including Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Greta Garbo and Norman Mailer to a joint that could accommodate fewer than 200 people and had formerly doubled as a leather bar and Mob meeting place. The book’s authors add as much detail as they can unearth to a rather slender story, fleshing it out with a lot of true-crime material gleaned from Cami.

Interesting musical figures flit in and out, including Hank Ballard, the first man to record “The Twist”; Chubby Checker, who had the hits; the great guitarist Lonnie Mack, who backed the singer Troy Seals at the Miami club; Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, unsuccessfully trying to replace the fading Twist with a Ska craze in 1964; and Nat King Cole — who, according to the authors, spent a week sitting in on keyboards with the Peppermint Lounge house band in Florida in order to learn how to play rock and roll.  But they are seriously outnumbered by the wiseguys.

* Peppermint Twist is published in the US by Thomas Dunne Books/St Martin’s Press. The title of this piece is adapted from Making the Wiseguys Weep, David Evanier’s excellent biography of the New Jersey-born singer Jimmy Roselli (1925-2011), a perennial favourite with mobsters. The copy of “Peppermint Twist Pts 1 and 2″ is from the author’s collection.

Where the Stones were fourth on the bill

Odeon, NottinghamIf you look carefully at the top of the building in the photograph, you’ll see the faintest shadow of the long-gone neon sign that read ODEON. I took the picture on a raindy day a couple of winters ago, while passing through Nottingham, my old home town. How many of the hundreds of people walking along this pavement every day know that it was here, in this cinema on Angel Row, a hundred yards or so up from the Old Market Square, that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones played, in 1963 and ’64? And now it’s finally vanished. The demolition crew have done their job and the construction workers are in, filling the space with a building apparently intended to provide housing for students.

Buddy Holly played the Odeon in 1958: three shows on the night of March 8, during his only UK tour. I missed that one, being only 10 at the time (although I’d already saved up to buy the Crickets’ “That’ll Be the Day” on 78), but three years later I saw Cliff Richard and the Shadows, just after Brian Bennett took over from Tony Meehan on drums — a source of some regret, since Meehan was my first drumming hero. The screaming meant that not much could be heard. But at least Hank Marvin gave me my first sight of a Fender Stratocaster in action, and they were still doing the famous Shadows walk, much copied by we schoolboys in front of bedroom mirrors.

OK, I’ll own up: I missed the Beatles there — three times, on the first occasion with Roy Orbison — and the Stones. Absence of cash, I expect. I wouldn’t have been able to hear them above the hysteria anyway, although I’ve always kicked myself for not making it to the Stones’ show in October 1963, since it also featured the Everly Brothers, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, all of them above the Stones on the bill when the tour started. My friend Phil Long remembers Little Richard’s set: “One of the best I’ve ever seen. He jumped off the stage, ran all the way round the theatre, then got back on the stage and started taking his clothes off and throwing them to the audience… there was a riot.”

The most memorable concert I did manage to attend at the Odeon was on May 12, 1964, the fourth date of a 22-night package tour headlined by Chuck Berry, with support from Carl Perkins, the Animals, the Nashville Teens and King Size Taylor and the Dominos. It was great merely to see Chuck, who provided so many of us with the inspiration for our own bands, but he gave a pretty uninterested performance — as indeed he would do on every subsequent occasion I saw him. He was accompanied by King Size Taylor’s excellent band, and I seem to remember that about half the set consisted of throwaway instrumentals; has any great songwriter ever taken a less obvious pride in his achievements? But it was enough to hear those guitar intros ringing out, and to witness his perfunctory demonstration of the duck walk.

Carl Perkins was not exactly spectacular, either, in his very short set. And so, curiously, the musical highlights were provided by two English bands. The Animals, of course, were excellent. “Baby Let Me Take You Home”, copied from “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” on Bob Dylan’s first album, was nudging the Top 20, and their act still had the R&B edge honed in Newcastle’s Club A Go-Go. But they also played their epic four and a half minute version of another song from Dylan’s debut: “House of the Rising Sun”. It hadn’t yet been released, or heard on the radio, and its arrangement — featuring Hilton Valentine’s arpeggiated guitar, Alan Price’s wailing Vox Continental organ and Eric Burdon’s baleful vocal — was nothing short of stunning. Five weeks later it would enter the charts, on its way to No 1.

It was the same with the Nashville Teens, whose set included John D Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road”: another dramatic song, its structure and mood inspired by the compositions Willie Dixon provided for Muddy Waters and other blues stars. The group, from the Surrey stockbroker belt, did an enthusiastic job of impersonating the sound of the Chicago stockyards, and by July they were on their way to the UK Top 10. By August “The House of the Rising Sun” was on its way to No 1 in Billboard‘s Hot 100, while “Tobacco Road” topped out at No 14 in the US a month later. Heard for the first time in live performance, both made an immediate impression.

And now the Odeon has disappeared. I suppose it’s not exactly like losing the Cavern or the Marquee. But it would be nice, when they finished its replacement, if someone thought it worth putting up a plaque to remind passers-by of former glories. Buddy Holly, The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Everly Brothers. Little Richard. Bo Diddley. Chuck Berry. Not bad, eh?

Tandyn Almer: sunshine and psychodramas

Tandyn AlmerAs far as I’m concerned, Tandyn Almer deserves a place in the history of rock and roll simply on the basis of “Along Comes Mary”, the song he wrote for the Association in 1966. Together with Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog”, the Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreamin’” and a couple of others, it was one of a small group of unmistakeably white pop records that managed to infiltrate themselves between the latest from Motown and Stax in the clubs I was attending at the time. This was music that hinted at the psychedelic revolution to come, while still working within the disciplines of conventional pop music. “Along Comes Mary” had a lovely light and highly danceable groove created by an acoustic guitar and what sounds like an electric harpsichord, intelligent bass playing, pushing drums and party handclaps on the backbeat, with fine group vocals, a baritone saxophone almost buried in the background, the flute/recorder/ocarina solo that seemed to be obligatory that season (e.g. “California Dreamin’” and the Troggs’ “Wild Thing”), a half-hidden reference to marijuana in the title and a tumbling, bewildering lyric: “And when the morning / Of the warning’s past / The gassed and flaccid kids / Are flung across the stars / The psychodramas and the traumas gone / The songs have all been sung/And hung upon the scars.” It was, I believe, the first time I had encountered the term “psychodrama”.

Tandyn Almer was born in Minneapolis in 1942, studied music there, spent his teenage years listening to John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, harboured ambitions to become a jazz pianist, and moved to California in the early 1960s, attending Los Angeles City College before striking out as a songwriter and record producer. He smoked dope, took acid, and became a member of the interesting clique that included Curt Boettcher (who arranged “Along Comes Mary”), Mason Williams, Van Dyke Parks, John Phillips and Brian Wilson, with whom he co-wrote “Marcella” for the Beach Boys’ Carl & The Passions — So Tough in 1972 and “Sail On, Sailor” for Holland the following year. He was a regular scenemaker at Doug Weston’s Troubadour club in West Hollywood and wrote and/or produced records with obscure outfits such as the Paper Fortress, the Garden Club and Pleasure.

Around the time of “Along Comes Mary” he was signed to a small LA publishing company, Davon Music, whose owner had demos of his compositions made by studio singers and musicians (a common practice in those days: remember those demos of songs by Nick Drake, John Martyn and Mike Heron made by the pre-fame Elton John at his publisher’s studio in 1968?). A number of the resulting tracks were compiled into an album to be sent to artists and producers who might have been interested in recording them. The output from that period has now been lovingly reassembled by Parke Puterbaugh, a former Rolling Stone journalist, and released by the Sundazed label, specialists in the “sunshine pop” of the middle and late ’60s. And the 15 songs on Along Comes Tandyn are enough to prompt a serious reassessment of the composer’s talent.

I don’t want to overrate Almer’s music by proclaiming it to be the fruit of genius, but it’s full of interest. His tunes are ingenious yet memorable, their structures quite intricate, and the lyrics are always literate and sometimes amusing in the rather fey manner of the time, frequently demonstrating an urge to break away from traditional pop themes: “psychodramas and traumas” indeed. The tumble of words in “Anything You Want” is strongly reminiscent of Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma”. “Victims of Chance” could have been recorded by Harpers Bizarre. “Where Will They Go” is a protest song in an style that might be called sunshine punk. At times there’s some sort of a coincidental affinity with the very early Pink Floyd, perhaps most obviously in the coyly titled “Alice Designs” (try saying it in an LA drawl). Even the inevitably anonymous — although generally adequate — contributions of the hired singers and backing musicians cannot dim the songs’ merits, although the one truly committed performance comes in the only non-demo, a version of the driving “Bring Your Own Self Down” released on the MGM label by the Purple Gang, an LA band. The most adventurous song of the set is the cool, jazzy “I Get High”, which is not unlike the Doors in “Riders on the Storm” mode and reverses Almer’s normal practice by using druggy terms to describe conventional emotions. The most ambitious is “Sunset Strip Soliloquy”, a Hollywood protest song in the form of a mid-tempo narrative ballad occupying the space between Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, P.F. Sloan’s “The Sins of the Family” and Sonny Bono’s “I Just Sit There”: not a bad place to be.

He left Los Angeles in the mid-’70s and disappeared to northern Virginia, where he seems to have spent the rest of his life. (Puterbaugh fills in as many biographical gaps as possible in his very comprehensive sleeve essay.) I followed an internet lead a few years ago — prompted, I think, by the Spectropop website — and found some very strange pages. His Wikipedia entry says that he invented a high-tech bong called the Slave-Master. At any rate, having given permission for these tracks to be assembled and released, and after a period of poor health, he died last January, aged 70. Maybe “Along Comes Mary”, “Marcella” and “Sail On, Sailor” — three exceptionally beautiful songs — will be enough for most people to remember him by. But the demos show that they were no accidents.

* The photograph of Tandyn Almer is taken from the cover of Along Comes Tandyn.

The art of the songwriter

Bacharach 1The biggest mistake Burt Bacharach ever made was to place an international call to Hal David one day in 1972 and tell him he wanted a bigger share of the five per cent royalty due to the pair from their songs for the film Lost Horizon, a misbegotten musical remake of Frank Capra’s pre-war classic. Until that point the composers of “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” and so many others had split the proceeds of their work straight down the middle. But suddenly it occurred to Bacharach that here he was, working himself to the bone in the studio on the arduous task of recording the songs and the background score, while David, having done his job by furnishing the lyrics, was down in Mexico, playing tennis. In Bacharach’s view, a 3:2 split would more accurately reflect the relative amounts of effort involved.

David’s answer, quite understandably, was a brusque negative. From the lyricist’s standpoint, it was the suavely handsome and charismatic Bacharach who had already been attracting the lion’s share of the personal publicity accruing from their success; he was the one who appeared in concerts and on television and made his own albums devoted to instrumental albums of their songs. By contrast, David was a charisma-free zone, but the words he provided were certainly as important as the music in what had become known, to his quiet chagrin, as “Bacharach songs”. And that dispute marked, to all intents and purposes, the end of one of the greatest songwriting partnerships in the history of 20th century popular music.

Bacharach tells the story in Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music, an autobiography ghosted by Robert Greenfield and just published by Atlantic Books. He’s a classic unreliable narrator, a fact tacitly acknowledged by the inclusion of sometimes corrective first-person testimony from ex-wives, lovers and former collaborators, but he leaves us in no doubt that he rues his hot-headed decision to reply to David’s refusal with these words: “Fuck you and fuck the picture.” In the short term, it led to Dionne Warwick suing both of them for their failure to come up with the songs promised for her next album, her first for Warner Brothers; there were countersuits, and the three of them didn’t speak to each other, let alone work together, for 10 years. “It was stupid, foolish behaviour on my part and I take all the blame for it,” Bacharach says now. Later in the book he ruminates on how many great songs might have been lost to that sudden rupture.

Ah well, the years of full production were wonderful while they lasted. It would be impossible to  convey to a young person the shock and awe one felt on hearing Dionne’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” for the first time in 1963: it sounded like a completely new form of music, something that blended the grown-up sophistication of the great Broadway songwriters with the emotional directness and urgency of the combination of R&B and gospel that was at that moment giving birth to soul music. Bacharach recognises how fortunate he was to find Warwick, the perfect interpreter of their songs, but if there is one thing missing from the book, it is his considered analysis of why black voices were in general so much more effective that white ones on the songs he and David wrote. There were exceptions, of course (one thinks of Dusty Springfield’s versions of their early songs, particularly “The Look of Love”, Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love With You” or Gene Pitney’s “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart”), but Warwick, the Shirelles, Lou Johnson, Chuck Jackson and Jimmy Radcliffe added an uptown quality that gave the material a priceless extra dimension.

There’s interesting stuff in the book about Bacharach’s childhood and apprentice years, about his time spent as Marlene Dietrich’s musical director, and a great deal about his four wives — including the actress Angie Dickinson, the second, and the songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, the third — and his many lovers. It’s seldom less than interesting, and when it comes to the description of the life and tragic death of Nikki, his daughter with Dickinson, who was born and lived most of her 30 years with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, it is deeply upsetting.

The stuff about the music is less detailed. I’d have liked much more about the thinking behind, say, his preference for legit-toned rather than jazz-toned saxophones and his liking for twangy guitars, but there are still plenty of nuggets about such topics as his fondness for using a pair of flugelhorns (e.g. on Dionne’s “Walk On By”, which also has a pair of pianos, played by Paul Griffin and Artie Butler), a few enlightening bits and bobs about the sessions in New York and London, and some insights into the variety of approaches he and David employed in order to dovetail their contributions. There doesn’t seem to have been a strict music-first or words-first formula; the constant, we are led to believe, was Bacharach’s insistence on finding the right note and harmonic colouration for each word. It’s a shame they got sidetracked by the lure of Broadway musicals and the movies, a temptation which eventually did for them. The business of crafting their jewel-like individual songs should have been enough, as Bacharach now seems to recognise.

I’m pleased that he devotes a couple of pages to the album he made with Ronald Isley in 2003 for the DreamWorks label. Here I Am, which borrows its title and its lovely title song from my favourite Dionne Warwick LP, is a magnificent recital of mostly familiar material, with quite startlingly exquisite versions of “Alfie” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart” in particular, all recorded live in the studio — vocals and orchestra at the same time, with only the tiniest bits of vocal patching required. Listen to “Alfie”: you won’t hear better singing anywhere, and it was a first take. Unfortunately, as Bacharach relates, the album came out just as DreamWorks was being bought by Universal and got lost in the shuffle. It’s a half-buried classic.

Probably even fewer people heard Bacharach’s last solo album, At This Time, released in 2005. Most of the lyrics were written by Tonio K, and some by Bacharach himself. Interestingly, they express his anger at the crimes of George W. Bush’s neo-con gang. It’s a reminder that he and David also produced a couple of the Sixties’ gentlest protest songs: “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “The Windows of the World”. What a pity circumstances conspired to silence their collaboration.

Just about to start a short tour of the UK, Bacharach is promoting the book and a new six-CD box called The Art of the Songwriter, whose compilers have made some pretty strange choices, such as the complete absence of anything by Lou Johnson, who came close to becoming the male equivalent of Dionne Warwick, and whose early work with Bacharach and David is compiled on a fine Ace disc titled Incomparable Soul Vocalist. Bacharach is appearing in concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Wednesday, Glasgow on Friday, Edinburgh on Saturday, Bournemouth on July 5 and the Festival Hall again on July 7, which is when I hope to hear him.

In the meantime, here’s my all-time Bacharach top 10: 1 Chuck Jackson: “Any Day Now” 2 Dionne Warwick: “(Here I Go Again) Looking With My Eyes (Seeing With My Heart)” 3 Ronald Isley: “Alfie” 4 Burt Bacharach Orchestra: “Wives and Lovers” 5 Fifth Dimension: “One Less Bell to Answer” 6 Dionne Warwick: “If I Ever Make You Cry” 7 Lou Johnson: “Kentucky Bluebird (Message to Martha)” 8 Herb Alpert: “This Guy’s in Love With You” 9 Dusty Springfield: “The Look of Love” 10 Jimmy Radcliffe: “Long After Tonight is All Over”.

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