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Posts from the ‘R&B’ Category

Love Motown

Love Motown“My Cherie Amour” has never been a favourite song of mine. In terms of the Motown catalogue alone, there are scores, probably hundreds, I think of with greater fondness. But Beverley Skeete and Noel McKoy changed that at the Festival Hall on Saturday night, when the Stevie Wonder chestnut was sung by the duo in a captivatingly elaborate arrangement that featured Gary Crosby’s Jazz Jamaica All-Stars augmented by 15 horns and a dozen strings.

The occasion was a concert titled Love Motown, a follow-up both to Jazz Jamaica’s Motorcity Roots album of 2008 and last year’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Wailers’ Catch a Fire. Like the latter event, it featured the big band — mostly drawn from Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors project — plus the 200-member Voicelab choir, whose enthusiasm was channelled to good effect.

This was not about cover versions. It was about creative reinterpretation through the lens of an Anglo-Caribbean sensibility, using the special qualities of the Jazz Jamaica musicians. So Crosby’s bass and Rod Youngs’ excellent drumming evoked Aston and Carlton Barrett rather than James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, often jettisoning the factor that distinguished the original — the riff on which Holland, Dozier and Holland built “This Old Heart of Mine”, for example — and setting the song free.

Bobby Womack 1944-2014

Bobby WomackBy and large, I love the same Bobby Womack songs as everybody else: “Across 110th Street”, of course, and “I Can Understand It”, “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha”, “Woman’s Gotta Have It”, “I’m in Love”, “(You’re Welcome) Stop on By”, “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”, “Secrets”, “Surprise, Surprise” and so on. But there’s also a kind of secret favourite: a song called “Cousin Henry”, from an album titled Resurrection.

It’s one of those soul songs written in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. Like Curtis Mayfield’s epic “Back to the World”, it opens and closes with the ambient sound of the battlefield, as if the listener is being dragged into a recurring nightmare. It tells the story of a veteran who, on his return home, finds no honour or solace: an individual life twisted and destroyed by history. Womack’s sandpaper baritone is at its most affecting, echoed by Stevie Wonder’s typically melodic harmonica solo. An uncredited banjo frails away in the background, rooting the story in the memory of a different and more innocent world, contrasting with the martial chorus of “Hup-two-three-four” punctuating the verses.

Maybe you know it. If you don’t, it’s here. When I think of Bobby Womack, it’s what runs through my head.

* The portrait of Bobby Womack is from the insert to Resurrection, which was released in 1994 on the Continuum label. The photographer is not credited.

 

Two gentlemen of soul

Lou JohnsonWhile I was interviewing Allen Toussaint at length recently, for a piece published in the current (July 2014) issue of Uncut, I asked the great man which of his many songs was his favourite. Well, he replied, he’d have to say “Southern Nights”: “It’s like a little movie to me, every person in it is a real story of what happened then, when I was six or seven years old.” Then, after a pause, he added: “If I have a song that I consider more of a serious song, there’s one that no one would know but me called ‘Transition’. No one would ever know that, but it’s the most serious. If I was going to grade myself on how did you do as a songwriter, I would probably put that down.”

I told him that I’d be looking for it. He shrugged, as if to say, “Don’t bother.” Which, of course, made me all the keener to find it.

The version I discovered — there may be others — is hidden away on an album by Lou Johnson called With You in Mind, released on the Volt label, a Stax subsidiary, in 1970. That made me particularly happy since Johnson has been one of my favourite singers since I first heard his original versions of “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me”, “The Last One to Be Loved”“Reach Out for Me” and “Kentucky Bluebird (A Message to Martha)” in the early ’60s. He’s one of that breed of smooth-but-gritty uptown soul singers — also including Chuck Jackson, Jerry Butler and Jimmy Radcliffe — who could slip into a Bacharach-David song as if it were a made-to-measure suit.

Born in New York City in 1941, Lou Johnson should have been the male Dionne Warwick. He had Bacharach’s songwriting, arranging and producing genius on his side at exactly the right moment. Somehow it didn’t happen, and he remained in relative obscurity. A couple of years ago Ace Records collected his Big Hill/Big Top sides — the Bacharach material and much more, including a stunningly different version of “Walk On By” produced by Toussaint in 1966 — on a CD titled Incomparable Soul Vocalist, and his 1968 album for Atlantic’s Cotillion subsidiary, Sweet Southern Soul, produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd at Muscle Shoals (with arrangements by Arif Mardin), was reissued in 2004 on the Water label. It’s all worth hearing.

With You in Mind was his last recording. It has never been reissued, either on vinyl or CD, for reasons that — according to Tony Rounce, the world expert on matters pertaining to Lou Johnson — are to do with a dispute over ownership of the tapes. I’d guess that argument has its roots in the original release, which came at a time when Stax had lost its entire back-catalogue to Atlantic Records and was desperate to rebuild. Presumably they leased the master from Sansu Enterprises, the production company Toussaint ran with his partner, Marshall Sehorn, who gets a co-production credit. It would be interesting to see what the contract said.

The first surprise was that “Transition” is eight minutes and 19 seconds long: an unusually epic scale for a songwriter associated throughout his hit-making career, from “Mother-in-Law” to “Lady Marmalade”, with three-minute miracles. It’s a multi-part song, quite heavily arranged and orchestrated, beginning with Toussaint’s solo piano (which shadows Johnson’s voice throughout) but evolving to include elaborate scoring for horns, strings and a backing choir as well as a full rhythm section (including that infallible trademark of quality, the electric sitar). With all its tempo and dynamic changes, it reminds me of a Broadway musical — in a good way, I hasten to add. It’s a song of self-discovery and redemption with the occasional touch of great soul-music lyric-writing: “Can we take the bad times / Just like the glad times / Can we take the bitter with the sweet / In the house on the street of love.” It finishes with an intriguingly enigmatic climax, Johnson in full bebop scat-flow while a trumpeter and the electric sitarist develop a free-jazz jam, leading to a strings-only fade pitched somewhere between Gyorgy Ligeti and “I Am the Walrus”.

The other nine tracks are less ambitious but equally congenial, driven along by Toussaint’s expert house rhythm section (the Meters, basically) and horns. At the other end of the extreme from “Transition” is a tight little song called “Crazy About You” written by the Meters’ guitarist, Leo Nocentelli, a bit of classic ’70s pre-disco soul with fantastic bass-playing (take a bow, George Porter) and a horn-driven breakdown that I’d describe as beautifully reminiscent of Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” were it not for the fact that Kendricks’s dancefloor classic lay a couple of years into the future. Toussaint’s “Who Am I?” is another beauty, sung against a fine New Orleans groove, as is “The Beat”, a laconically funky piece on which the writer/pianist/arranger/co-producer can also be heard double-tracking the backing vocals. The best of the lot might be a tortured southern-style ballad called “Nearer”, which would have been worth a place on one of the late Dave Godin’s Deep Soul anthologies.

Toussaint and the Meters, Bacharach and David, Wexler and Mardin: no one can say that Johnson wasn’t given the platform for a successful career. It just didn’t happen. Apparently he’s spent the last few decades living in Los Angeles, not far from the airport, occasionally playing piano in clubs but refusing all invitations to perform for his fans in Europe (the hip-swivelling “Unsatisfied”, a 1965 Big Top recording, is a Northern Soul favourite).

A peculiarity of With You in Mind is that no one seems to have tuned the piano, which sounds a fraction out. In fact that may be a fault of the vinyl pressing, both of the one I acquired on eBay and of those that people have used to upload on to YouTube. It certainly seems unlikely that Toussaint, such a meticulous man, would have put up with a slightly desafinado instrument on one of his own productions. In my view, however, it only adds to the character of the recording. If I ever have the good fortune to meet him again, I’ll ask him about it.

It’s not at all hard to imagine Toussaint and Johnson getting on well together. The former is a gentleman, and the latter sings like one. It would be great if someone could sort out the legal problems and make their fine and overlooked collaboration available once again.

 

The soul of the disco machine

Eveelyn %22Champagne%22 KingA certain machine-like quality was one of the things that people liked about some of the best records of the disco era. Exemplified by Giorgio Moroder’s Munich-manufactured four-on-the-floor, it gave you a beat that was never going to quit. But the release of Action: The Evelyn “Champagne” King Anthology 1977-1986 provides me with an excuse to listen to the record I treasure most from that period, one most notable for its human qualities.

“Shame”, King’s first big hit, was a great dance record to which you could — and can — sit down and listen for hours. It’s one of those records whose inner construction is endlessly fascinating. There’s the subtle contrast between touches of acoustic and Rhodes piano, the way the mobile bass line pushes against the almost laconic feeling of the drums (with a “wet” tom-tom backbeat on the bridge, à la Willie Mitchell), the extra urgency provided by the congas, the keening, raw-toned alto saxophone — and most of all the two rhythm guitars, their insistent background flickering and chattering behind Ms King’s assured vocal.

She was 14 years old when the producer Theodore “T.” Life heard her singing while she was helping her mother clean the restrooms at the Philadelphia International studios. Two years later, signed to RCA, she had her hit. The song was written by John Fitch and Reuben Cross, and it tapped into a combination of sadness and defiance in the teenager’s voice.

I’ve been listening to it regularly for the best part of 40 years without knowing the identity of the musicians responsible for that wonderful rhythm track. Reading the anthology’s excellent sleeve notes, I started to do a bit of research. The producer Theodore “T.” Life used the New Jersey band Instant Funk, who had been discovered by Bunny Sigler and would have their own hit a couple of years later with “I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)”. As far as I can work it out, at the time they recorded “Shame” they were Dennis Richardson (keyboards), Kim Miller and possibly George Bell (guitars), Raymond Earl (bass guitar), Scotty Miller (drums) and Charles Williams (congas), with Johnny Onderlinde on alto saxophone. Let’s give them some.

King had a few more hits during her decade with RCA, but there would never be anything else quite like “Shame”. The anthology contains the 6:33 12-inch mix, which is how this classic is best appreciated. Here it is. Clear the floor and clear your mind.

* The uncredited photograph of Evelyn “Champagne” King is from the booklet accompanying Action, which is released on Big Break Records.

Allen Toussaint takes requests

Allen ToussaintSomething magical happened at the very end of Allen Toussaint’s solo show at Ronnie Scott’s last night. A very enthusiastic fan in the front row, who had been permitted to sing most of the lead vocal on “Brickyard Blues” earlier in the set, invited Toussaint to play “On Your Way Down” — a song that appeared on his album Life Love & Faith in 1972 and was unforgettably covered by Little Feat on Dixie Chicken a year later — as his encore. The great man complied, and immediately led us into territory we had not visited in the preceding hour and a half.

Much of his performance — including a medley of the hits he wrote for Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman and Lee Dorsey in the early ’60s, and other classics such as “Shoorah, Shoorah”, “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley”, “Yes We Can”, “Southern Nights” and “What Do You Want the Girl to Do” — had been genial, expansive, discursive, showcasing his wonderfully witty and flexible New Orleans-bred piano playing. There was also a sweetly elegiac rendering of Jesse Winchester’s heartbreaking “I Wave Bye Bye”, which Toussaint recorded for the tribute album to the singer-songwriter last year, and a gorgeously plain “St James Infirmary”, as heard on his most recent album, The Bright Mississippi (2009).

But the encore was something different. For a couple of minutes we were transfixed by a 76-year-old master’s journey to the essence of the music with which he has lived his life: to the heart of the blues, of which “On Your Way Down”, with the sober elegance of its contours and its wry reflection on the human condition, is one of the very greatest examples.

Georgie Fame: back home in Soho

Georgie Fame 1“I never thought I’d get to sing a Bob Dylan song in Ronnie Scott’s jazz club,” George Fame said tonight, and proceeded to dedicate “Everything Is Broken” to David Cameron’s cabinet. He and his Blue Flames made it sound like a Mose Allison song set to a Horace Silver boogaloo rhythm, an arrangement that worked quite beautifully.

This was the first night of a week’s sold-out residency on Frith Street, and Fame’s serious illness last year meant that it was the first time he and the modern Blue Flames — Guy Barker (trumpet), Alan Skidmore (tenor), Anthony Kerr (vibes), Tristan Powell (guitar), Alec Dankworth (double bass) and James Powell (drums) — had played together in many months. The good news is that the leader was in great form, and that the reunion seemed to have infused the band, which includes his two sons, with a terrific freshness.

Between 1964 and 1966 there was no band I looked forward to seeing visit the Dungeon or the Beachcomber in Nottingham more than this one: the Blue Flames were the coolest of the cool. Put me near a Hammond organ — in my view, an invention to rank with moveable type and penicillin in the history of western civilisation — and I’m not going to stop smiling all night. Back then, the addition of musicians like Eddie Thornton, Mick Eve, Peter Coe, Glenn Hughes, Colin Green, Cliff Barton, Bill Eyden, Mitch Mitchell and Speedy Acquaye guaranteed a blissful experience.

Their successors live up to the legend, and so does Georgie, sprinkling his songs and introductions with anecdotes and references that illustrate his unflagging love of jazz and R&B. There were mentions of Count Suckle’s club on Carnaby Street and of Strickland’s, the jazz record shop on the corner of Old Compton and Dean Streets. Introducing “Preach and Teach” (the B-side of “Yeh Yeh”, the song with which he knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts in 1965), he mentioned its composer, the pianist Johnny Burch, whose wonderful octet — including Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker — happened to be the other featured attraction on the night Fame made his BBC radio debut on Jazz Club. When Dankworth took a lengthy and impassioned solo on the tune, his leader encouraged him with the famous utterances of Charles Mingus on “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me”: “Don’t let them drop it… stop it… bebop it!”

“Moondance”, in an arrangement borrowed from Van Morrison’s great 1993 live album A Night in San Francisco (on which Fame was the organist), cleverly adapted a chorus of “Blue Moon” to the song’s contours, while Barker’s solo made references to Johnny Coles and to Gil Evans’s arrangement of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” for Miles Davis, and Kerr showed how important he is to the band’s overall sound. Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'”, the battle hymn of the soul-jazz era, was given a first outing, with Georgie putting lyrics to Lee Morgan’s trumpet solo from the Jazz Messengers’ version and Barker responding with a dramatic solo of his own, and the singer also quoting from Nat Adderley’s “Work Song”. Introducing Willie Nelson’s “Funny (How Time Slips Away)”, a perennial Fame favourite and the last song of the night, he spoke fondly of the late Denny Cordell, who had produced the version on the 1966 album Sweet Things, the last real Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames album; the current arrangement gives it a mid-tempo Chicago soul feel, allowing the singer to namecheck Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, Billy Stewart, Phil Upchurch and other Windy City greats.

This was a great night on Frith Street, in the old style: a lesson in the kind of authentic hipster cool for which Soho was invented. If somebody were to record the show this week, in the spirit of Fame’s 1963 debut, Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo, they might find themselves with a candidate for the list of all-time great live albums.

* Quite properly, Ronnie Scott’s don’t allow photography while the musicians are performing, but they won’t mind this shot of the stage and Fame’s Hammond organ waiting for the band’s arrival.

Memphis in the meantime

stax-records-10The purple melamine egg chair, suspended on a chain from the ceiling, swung slowly around above the white shag-pile carpet, disclosing a first sight of its occupant. This was the shaven-headed Isaac Hayes, the recipient that very day in February 1971 of an award for the sales of Hot Buttered Soul, an album released two years earlier and something of a game-changer. Its success had announced a new era, one that promised undiminished creativity and infinite success.

Outside the building on East McLemore Avenue in Memphis, the sign that said SOULSVILLE U.S.A. was still to be seen above the entrance to the old cinema. The special magic, however, had left by the back door. Stax-Volt Records still made hits, and would make many more in the next three or four years, but no longer in the organic, all-for-one-and-one-for-all manner that had characterised the label’s true golden era in the 1960s.

Otis Redding was dead, along with four of the Bar-Kays. Sam & Dave had gone, whisked back to Atlantic Records by Jerry Wexler along with the entire Stax back catalogue upon the expiry of a distribution deal that ended in severe acrimony and tore the heart out of the company started by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in 1959. Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper, no longer wanted on the payroll, had decamped, in Booker’s case to Los Angeles and in Cropper’s to his own Memphis studio. Hayes and his erstwhile partner David Porter had ceased writing together.

True, as I drove around Memphis that week on assignment for the Melody Maker I was listening to Johnnie Taylor’s “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” on WDIA, the great R&B station that had once numbered B.B.King and Rufus Thomas among its DJs. Here was a newly minted Stax classic in heavy rotation alongside Gladys Knight’s “If I Were Your Woman”, the Chairmen of the Board’s “Pay to the Piper”, Candi Staton’s “He Called Me Baby” and Diana Ross’s “Remember Me”. And back in the Stax offices all was brightness and optimism as I interviewed Hayes, Porter (then attempting to launch his own solo career) and others, watched the reconstituted Bar-Kays prepare a recording session in the studio, and met various members of the hierarchy, including Stewart, Al Bell and Deanie Parker.

But, as Robert Gordon describes in Respect Yourself, his new history of the label, just published in the US and the UK by Bloomsbury, bad things lay just around the corner. Bell, an energetic, charismatic, visionary wheeler-dealer brought in by Stewart to lengthen the company’s reach, had big plans for expansion, decentralisation and community involvement, which would eventually lead to the filming of the Wattstax movie in Los Angeles. But the Atlantic debacle — caused by Wexler’s lawyers inserting a clause that Stewart failed to read before signing — turned out to be the first of many reverses that led to the company’s closure in January 1976, under siege from a variety of creditors.

In the beginning Stax was a modest operation run by a core of perhaps a dozen enthusiastic and talented people to whom skin colour was never a consideration and who were surprised and delighted by their success. Then, having been screwed by the business, it decided it had to play by the business’s rules, which meant learning about payola and hiring men with guns. And there, with growth, was where it started to go wrong. “Employees wandered the halls not knowing each other’s names, even what their jobs were,” Gordon writes, and quotes Stewart: “I couldn’t go to the studio and solve people’s problems like had had before. Six people, eight people — you can do that.”

Gordon sets the story in the context of the civil rights struggle, including school busing, union activity, riots and the murder of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King in 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where Stax’s artists, writers and producers often hung out. It was at the Lorraine, two years earlier, that Hayes and Porter had got together with Mable John, who had just been signed to the label after an unsuccessful spell with Motown.

“Isaac and David said, ‘Did you bring anything with you to record?'” she told me a few years ago in an interview for the Guardian. “I said no. I didn’t take anything to Motown to record. Motown told you what they wanted you to do and how they wanted you to do it. That’s how Motown was created. So Isaac and David said, ‘We’ll get something together for you.’ Since I was only going to be there for four days, they would come over to the Lorraine Motel, where I was staying, and we would use it as a place to write.

“They had a piano brought up to my room, but by the end of the second day they still didn’t have anything for me. So I said to them, ‘There’s a story that I need to tell. It’s about a bad marriage.’ Isaac began to play. David had a pad and pencil and he was standing beside me, with the pad on top of the piano. As I talked, he’s day, ‘You could sing that. If you take the last thing you just said and we put that at the beginning of the verse, we could do it just like that.’ And Isaac carried on playing. I had no idea how the music or the melody should go. I just knew it was a story that was inside of me. It was a pain and it need to get out. And when we got finished that night, we had it.”

The next day, over at the converted cinema on East McLemore, in company with the A-team, they recorded it. And of all the great records Stax made, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” remains my favourite.

I had a great time in Memphis that week in 1971. There was an evening at a club called TJs, a musicians’ hangout where the blind singer-pianist Ronnie Milsap, some years before his move to Nashville and swift transformation into a country superstar, played a couple of sets of dynamite blue-eyed soul, including a version of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” that I can still hear today. Another night some college kids who were working at a hamburger joint took me to an after-hours bar in West Memphis, on the other side of the Mississippi, where the four-piece house band was good enough to have been the understudies to the MGs or the Hi rhythm section.

But at Stax, for all the cheerful sales patter, there was a sense of unease. It all seemed a little too bright, a little too brittle. Were Margie Joseph and Billy Eckstine, their latest signings, really the heirs to Carla Thomas and William Bell? I went to interview Cropper, who was at his new studio, TMI (Trans Maximus Inc), cutting tracks with his old friend Eddie Floyd. They were good to talk to — Cropper later wrote me the only thank-you note I’ve ever received from an interviewee — and the music sounded great, but you could tell nothing was quite the same as it had been only four or five years earlier.

Some people were willing to admit, although not on the record, that things had never been the same between black and white after Dr King’s murder. In Gordon’s view, race was certainly a significant factor in the tragedy that overwhelmed Stax: once Al Bell took effective control, there were plenty of powerful people in Memphis and elsewhere who did not want to see a black man running an operation that was making it possible for black artists to get rich and ride around in limousines.

Gordon relates how in 1981, after lying derelict for several years, the Stax building was sold to a church for $10 (that’s right: ten dollars). They demolished it in 1989. A decade later, realising what had been done, the city rebuilt it to the original specification as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, under the guidance of Deanie Parker. Respect Yourself is a terrific book, and a reminder of some wonderful, timeless music, but it’s a sad, sad story.

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…

Anna Gordy Gaye 1922-2014

The Originals — I’m pretty sure it’s Freddie Gorman, Walter Gaines, Hank Dixon and a replacement member, Dixon’s daughter Terrie — singing “Baby I’m For Real” in Pittsburgh in 2003, reprising their No 1 R&B hit of 1969. What a great record that was, and here given a performance epitomising the art of growing older with dignity utterly undiminished. This stuff just doesn’t get weary. And, like “The Bells”, its successor, it was co-written by Marvin Gaye with his first wife, Anna Gordy, whose death at the age of 92 has just been announced.

Every time I find myself writing the obituary of one of the great women of Motown, particularly those who existed in the background, such as Esther Gordy Edwards, Maxine Powell or now Anna Gordy Gaye, I’m reminded of what an extraordinary story it all was, from the moment in 1959 when, at a meeting to listen to Berry Jr asking to be given seed money from the family start-up fund, Anna and her sister Gwen sided with their brother, pleading his case so effectively that eventually Esther, the eldest sister, whose scepticism of his ability to get a business going made her the last obstacle, finally gave way.

As anyone who’s read a biography of Marvin Gaye or listened to Here, My Dear will know, Anna Gordy’s story wasn’t one of unrelieved happiness. But she was part of something which left us music, like “Baby I’m For Real”, that will be cherished for a long, long time.

The groove abides

Tony O'MalleyOf all the British bands I went out to hear during my time as an A&R man in the mid-1970s, the one I really ached to sign was Kokomo, a 10-piece soul outfit who played the clubs at the time when pub rock was about to give way to punk rock. Unhappily for me, they had already fallen into the clutches of Steve O’Rourke, Pink Floyd’s manager, who secured them the sort of deal with CBS, a major label, that must have looked like a guarantee of fame and fortune. My souvenir of the nights I heard them play is a cassette tape that includes a live recording of their sublime version of Bobby Womack’s “I Can Understand It”, a great song to which they always did justice.

The tape captures them in their full glory: Tony O’Malley playing keyboards and singing lead, Dyan Birch, Frank Collins and Paddy McHugh singing back-up, Mel Collins on saxophones, Jim Mullen and Neil Hubbard on guitars, Alan Spenner on bass, Terry Stannard on drums and Jody Linscott on congas. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I went to see three of them — O’Malley, Collins and Hubbard — at the 606 Club in a Chelsea basement the other night. I don’t believe in making requests because I think that musicians should be allowed to play exactly what they most feel like playing, but I had my fingers crossed that, almost 40 years later, Womack’s song would still be in the repertoire.

The first reassurance was that, reunited on this occasion under O’Malley’s leadership, the three of them retain all the qualities that made them outstanding almost 40 years ago. The brilliant Collins does the Texas tenor thing, when the circumstances are appropriate, so convincingly that you wouldn’t be surprised if his passport gave his place of birth as Fort Worth rather than the Isle of Man. Hubbard brings the understated soulfulness of Cornell Dupree to any band he’s in. And O’Malley’s lovely warm-hearted Ray Charles growl makes him one of the great blue-eyed soul singers. With Jennifer Maidman on bass guitar and Brad Webb on drums, they blew up a storm.

And, to my joy, they did “I Can’t Understand It”, giving it full value. If you want a taste of it, here and here are clips of a Kokomo reunion at the Sheen Club in Barnes five years ago, Parts 1 & 2 of that very song. And here is a version with a slightly different band at the 606 a year later. You don’t quite get the impact of the way they sounded amid the steaming ambience of the Hope & Anchor on a hot night in 1974, but you get the idea. And, as I was shown on Friday night, the groove abides.

* The photograph of Tony O’Malley, Brad Webb, Jennifer Maidment and Neil Hubbard was taken by Graham Webb, to whom many thanks.

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