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Posts from the ‘R&B’ Category

The parable of the credits

It would be an understatement to say that I didn’t get on well with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. But I did stay until the end of the film, all the way to the credits, at which point I was unexpectedly rewarded by the sound of a record that I sometimes think would be the one I’d save from a burning house: Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)”.

For me this record, a US Top 40 hit in the summer of 1962, is Burt Bacharach’s finest hour as a writer of melodies and arrangements. His creation finds its perfect match in Bob Hilliard’s poetic words, with their gloriously gloomy prediction that “those blue shadows will fall over town” when the singer’s lover leaves, as he is convinced she will. Jackson, one of the best singers of his type and era, does the song full justice: of all the many artists who later covered it, none ever improved on this original version. In the lovely clip above, Bacharach mimes the distinctive organ intro; it was actually played in the studio by the great Paul Griffin.

Hearing it at the very end of a film I disliked was a reminder of sitting through Wim Wenders’s three-hour 1991 film Until the End of the World, until the moment when, after what felt like several weeks, the credits rolled and a half-familiar voice croaked: “I tried to reach you… on Valentine’s Day…”. Thus I was introduced to Robbie Robertson’s “Breakin’ the Rules”, a track from the 1991 album Storyville which — thanks not least to the understated nobility of its horn arrangement by the late Wardell Quezergue, as well as the achingly soulful vocals shared by Robertson with the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan — has existed for me ever since on a plane only half a notch below “Any Day Now”, which is to say within touching distance of heaven.

So the moral must be: whatever your opinion of the film, don’t leave your seat until you’ve see the line about no animals being harmed and the lights have come up.

Valentinos’ day

Valentinos laterLike its founder, Sam Cooke’s SAR label was marinated in gospel music. Cooke himself had come to prominence as the charismatic young lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, taking over from the great R.H. Harris in 1951 and staying for six years until leaving to embark on a spectacular career on the R&B and pop charts.

Of his two partners in the SAR project, one was J.W. Alexander, a former member of the Pilgrim Travelers who had introduced the Soul Stirrers to Art Rupe of the Specialty label, for whom they made their finest records. The other, Roy Crain, had actually founded the Soul Stirrers, first in Trinity, Texas in 1926 and then, with a different group of singers, in Houston in 1933. That was the start of an institution that outlived all its most celebrated members — including Johnnie Taylor, who succeeded Cooke — and appears to be still active today.

SAR was founded in 1961, the initials signifying Sam, Alex and Roy, but lasted only until Cooke’s death 50 years ago last month. During that time its biggest hit, the Valentinos’ “It’s All Over Now”, came from a converted gospel group, and the signs of that heritage were very clear.

The Valentinos had formerly been the Womack Brothers: five young men who had inherited the name, and the sacred-music vocation, from a group including their father, Friendly Womack Sr. They started performing at a church in Cleveland, their home town, in 1951, and made their first recordings three years later. When Cooke heard them while on tour, he invited them to Los Angeles, where they made a pair of gospel singles.

The four sides of those singles top and tail a new collection of their recordings for SAR, compiled by the ABKCO company — founded by the music business lawyer Allen Klein, who also owns the Rolling Stones’ early material. Titled Lookin’ For a Love, after another of their finest songs, it is released in association with Ace Records of London, the world’s most diligent and meticulous reissuers of early rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and soul recordings.

What always struck me about the Valentinos was how, at a time when most soul hits — even the most gospel-flavoured, like Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” or Garnet Mimms’s “Cry Baby” — gave the impression of having been moulded in a studio, the Womack brothers sounded like a band playing together on stage in front of an audience. There was an R&B-style rawness and immediacy about their records, a sense of rough edges left unpolished. It was probably that quality to which the Rolling Stones were responding when they heard the group’s record of “It’s All Over Now”, written by Bobby and Shirley Womack, and swiftly covered it, making it their first UK No 1 in July 1964, only a few weeks after the release of the original version in the US.

With its 23 tracks, Lookin’ For a Love is said to contain everything the group recorded for SAR before the label folded. There’s a lovely Sam Cooke song called “Tired of Livin’ in the Country”, recorded at United Recording in Hollywood on March 24, 1964, at the same session as “It’s All Over Now”, with a pair of transplanted New Orleans greats, Harold Battiste and John Boudreaux, on piano and drums respectively, augmenting the guitars of Bobby and Cecil Womack and Harry Womack’s bass guitar.

That day’s work also threw up a track which has remained unreleased until now: a Bobby Womack ballad called “Don’t Go Away” which blends R&B and doo-wop in perfect proportions. Bobby wails his lead vocal — “The birds on high, the stars in the sky / Are the same as they were before / But the joy they bring don’t mean one little thing / Because they just don’t seem to reach me no more” — over a goofy bass voice, wah-ooh harmonies and a classic four-chord cycle straight off the street corner. It’s this track for which I’ll cherish a compilation that provides a fine reminder of a group whose significance far outweighed their moderate commercial success.

* The photograph of the Valentinos is from the sleeve of Lookin’ For a Love. Left to right: Cecil, Henry, Friendly Jr,Curtis and Bobby Womack.

Ronnie Milsap says goodbye

Ronnie MilsapIf you’re lucky enough to be in Nashville this Saturday night, go and see Ronnie Milsap at the Ryman Auditorium. He’s one of the great singers of the past half-century’s popular music, even though no one talks about him much any more. And, at the age of 71, he’s in the middle of what he’s decided will be his farewell tour.

Sadly, I’ll be 3,000 miles away. But I’m so glad I saw Milsap before his famous run of 40 No 1 country hits, which started in 1974. Nothing against his country records, of course. Some of them still sound great. But the night in 1971 when I saw him at TJ’s in Memphis, Tennessee, a musicians’ bar to which, at that time, you had to take your liquor in a brown bag, he was still in that state of grace to be found somewhere between country and southern R&B, with the balance tilted in favour of R&B.

It was a late night at the end of a long day, and I had a brown bag with me, so I don’t remember the details. But I do remember that he had a terrific little four-piece band — what else, in a musicians’ hangout in Memphis 40-odd years ago? — including himself on piano. He also had, when heard in person, one of the great white soul voices, in a line of devout Ray Charles worshippers including Charlie Rich, Dan Penn and Troy Seals. The only specific song that I remember from the set is the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, which was on the charts at the time, because it seemed such an improbable choice but worked so brilliantly.

As far as I can tell, he made no records that sounded much like the set he played that night. In 1966 he’d cut  “Ain’t No Soul Left in These Old Shoes” with the producer Huey P. Meaux for the Scepter label; released on Pye in the UK, it became a Northern Soul favourite. From the same year there’s a very nice version of an early Ashford and Simpson song, “When It Comes to My Baby”, produced by Stan Green.

All that later success on the country charts seemed to take the R&B edge off his voice, but he could still sing beautifully. Here’s an example: his smooth version of “Any Day Now”, one of Burt Bacharach’s finest. My favourite of his later recordings is the Grammy-winning “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)”, which I love no doubt partly because I was in the USA when it came out in the summer of 1985, cruising the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Washington DC  in a rented Buick.

* The picture — uncredited  sadly — is taken from a very interesting 2009 interview with Ronnie Milsap by Ken Norton Jr on Engine 145, a roots music blog (www.engine145.com).

Elvis at 80

ElvisHad he lived, Elvis Presley would have been 80 on Thursday, January 8, 2015. I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel” when I was at boarding school, aged nine, in 1956. I understand what John Lennon meant when he said that Elvis died the day he had his hair cut and put on a military uniform, but I never believed it. All but one of my 10 Elvis favourites come from the post-army period. Here they are. You might find the choice a little eccentric. Baby, I don’t care…

1. “Beyond the Reef”

Written by Jack Pitman, a Canadian songwriter, during a visit to Hawaii in 1946, “Beyond the Reef” was covered by Bing Crosby in 1950 and by the Ventures (as an instrumental) in 1961. Elvis recorded it on May 27, 1966 at RCA Studios in Nashville, during the sessions that produced the sacred album How Great Thou Art (as well as his cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, which almost made this list). It remained unreleased until 1971, when it surfaced as the B-side of “It’s Only Love”;  in 1980 it appeared on a four-CD set titled Elvis Aron Presley. Elvis sings the verses as an extra member of the Jordanaires, emerging to sing lead only on the bridge. On the surface it’s a bit of Polynesian-style kitsch. A little deeper down, it’s a singularly beautiful record of which Ry Cooder would have been proud.

2. “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”

I love Elvis when he finds the spaces between genres. This great UK No 1 hit from 1961 takes the Bo Diddley beat and turns it into pure pop music, just like Buddy Holly did with “Not Fade Away”. Acoustic rhythm guitars, what might be a stand-up bass, the drummer using brushes — and, in the bridge, a switch to a fast shuffle, with Floyd Cramer pounding an eight-to-the-bar piano figure. And a tragic little story of heartbreak in the lyric. The song is by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, who also wrote the other side of the 45: “Little Sister”. Along with “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”, it’s the greatest double A-side in history.

3. “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care”

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote this for Jailhouse Rock in 1957. I imagine they borrowed the title from Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 classic film noir, in which Robert Mitchum, in a clinch with Jane Greer, is reminded of her relationship with a powerful mobster and the trouble that might ensue. “Baby,” he drawls, “I don’t care…” As told by Elvis, the story is very different: “You don’t like crazy music, you don’t like rockin’ bands / You just want to go to a picture show and sit there holding hands…” But the teenage soap-opera words are undercut by the backing, which exemplifies that “crazy music” to the max, with an ominously throbbing intro and the most brutally abrupt ending ever.

4. “The Promised Land”

I’ve talked about this song, and Elvis’s great version of it, here (and elsewhere). Written by Chuck Berry in 1964 and recorded by Presley at the Stax studio in Memphis in 1973, it was perhaps the last genuinely creative act of his life, brilliantly abetted by James Burton and Johnny Christopher on guitars, David Briggs on piano, Per Erik Hallin on electric keyboard, Norbert Putnam on bass guitar and Ronnie Tutt on drums.

5. “Sweet Angeline”

Another from the Stax sessions, with a slightly different line-up (including the MGs’ Duck Dunn on bass guitar and Al Jackson Jr on drums), this ballad was written by Chris Arnold, David Martin and Geoff Morrow: three British songwriters. I love the song, for the way it brings the best out of Elvis and for the way the bass fill towards the end of the second bar gives it the hook that makes you play it over and over again.

6. “The Girl of My Best Friend”

More pure pop, this time from 1960 and the pens of Sam Bobrick and Beverley Ross. Not released as a single by Elvis until 1976, when it made the UK top 10. Ral Donner had the US hit.

7. “Reconsider, Baby”

A very nice version of Lowell Fulson’s classic blues, from the Elvis is Back! album in 1960, with the singer on rhythm guitar.

8. “Dark Moon”

I’ve got this on a 1999 RCA CD called Elvis: The Home Recordings. The song was written in 1957 by Ned Miller (later famous for “From a Jack to a King”), and was recorded in a country version by Bonnie Guitar and a poppier rendition by Gale Storm. Singing with his pals to the accompaniment of his own guitar, apparently in his LA house in Bel Air in 1966 or ’67, Elvis finds an irresistible groove.

9. “It’s Now or Never”

All the bells and whistles — the full Neapolitan, in fact — on this remake of Eduardo di Capua’s “O Sole Mio”, the new English lyric written by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold and recorded on April 3, 1960, the day before “The Girl of My Best Friend”. If you agree with Lennon, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’ll hate. Those were the days when I used to write the week’s No 1 in my diary every Saturday night, and I’m not going to apologise.

10. “A Mess of Blues”

From the same session as “It’s Now or Never”, and a No 2 hit in the UK in 1960. Another Pomus/Shuman classic and an early reminder that, even with his hair still shaved army-style, the King still had it.

Happy birthday, Elvis.

* The fine photograph was taken by Lloyd Russell Sherman and appeared on the cover of the 1985 LP Reconsider, Baby.

 

Mr Brown, Mr Bart and Mr Byrd

Get On UpOn the way to see Get On Up, Tate Taylor’s new James Brown biopic, in a cinema in Victoria this week, I realised that I was walking past a construction site where once had stood the last place where I saw a performance by the film’s subject. It was the end of the 1970s, and the place was the Venue, a medium-sized joint with an uninspiring name but an excellent atmosphere. I saw all kinds of people there, from the McGarrigle sisters to Sun Ra, via Gary U.S. Bonds and Joe Ely. And the Godfather of Soul was in terrific form that night, not far past his untouchable prime.

Taylor’s movie features a fine central performance by Chadwick Boseman. He doesn’t become his character in the way Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles a few years ago, but you can’t take your eyes off him. He and the brothers Jamarion and Jordan Scott, eight-year-old twins from Mississippi who play Brown at various stages of his childhood, are tackling the story of a complex man.

There are too many artful devices — Brown talking directly to the camera, the boy suddenly appearing in place of the man in a scene from his adult life, various games with flashbacks and original footage — to make it work as a straightforward narrative. At times it seems as though the scriptwriters, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, were influenced more by the multi-faceted approach of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There than by traditional modes of storytelling, but they don’t go the whole way.

Like Taylor Hackford with Ray, the director of Get On Up makes the sensible decision to stick with the original music: what you see is actor-musicians miming, very convincingly, to the real tracks, from “Please Please Please” to “The Payback”. And on a cinema sound system it sounds great, particularly in a reconstruction of the scene from the 1965 teen flick Ski Party where he debuts “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (here’s the original), and in a great recreation of a Paris concert in, I think, 1971 (original here).

It’s a long film at two and a quarter hours, but even that isn’t enough in which to tell the story properly. Give the great documentary maker Ken Burns 1o hours of television time and there might be a chance. Whether or not it works in every dimension, however, Taylor’s film certainly succeeds in two areas. There’s a fruitful concentration on Brown’s relationships with Bobby Byrd, an original member of the Famous Flames who became his right-hand man, and with Ben Bart, his trusted (white) agent, who dropped dead on a golf course in 1968. And the early scenes of Brown’s life as a child — first in a shack in the Georgia pines while his parents’ relationship was falling apart, and then as a kind of mascot in a brothel — make us think about what he endured on the way to becoming one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

In September 1969, 10 years before that gig at the Venue, Charlie Gillett and I interviewed him (for the Record Mirror and the Melody Maker, respectively). We asked him if, at a time of continuing racial unrest in the United States, with the echoes of the shots that killed Martin Luther King still reverberating, he believed that he had some role and influence as a leader.

“If I can use my position to bring about better understanding,” he told us, “I should take advantage of the opportunity. I want people to respect other people, to see that all kinds of different people, yellow, black, are people! To see that there are all ways of living, and they can exist side by side. I hope I can help to bring people closer together.”

The day after I saw the film, riots broke out again in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere across the USA in response to the decision not to prosecute the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man. For all its frequent moments of exhilaration, Get On Up is also a reminder that, beneath the surface, not much has really changed. Or at least much less than we might have hoped.

* The photograph is of Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get On Up.

The Promised Land calling…

Fifty years ago this month the folks at Chess Records were preparing the release of a new Chuck Berry album called St Louis to Liverpool, containing the first new recordings since his release from jail a few months earlier. The album’s title, of course, acknowledged the effect of the British Invasion: the sudden takeover of the US charts by the Beatles, the Dave Clark 5, Freddie and the Dreamers, and others. Berry could hardly fail to have taken notice, since most of them were playing his songs.

Among the new numbers on the album was one I believe to be among his half-dozen finest: “The Promised Land”, the story of a poor boy making the trip from his home in Norfolk, Virginia to a new life in Southern California. The journey takes him through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, where — in Houston, with the aid of friends — he’s put on a jet plane for the final leg of the journey, over New Mexico and on to touchdown in Los Angeles.

The form of it is inspired by Bobby Troup’s “Route 66″, made famous by Nat King Cole but chopped and channeled by Berry into a beat-group classic. He wrote his new song in prison, and was initially turned down when he asked for a road atlas of the US to help him with the geography, on the grounds that it might help him escape. After an appeal to the governor, the request was eventually granted.

The trick of the song is that, like the journey it describes, it never turns back on itself. There’s no chorus. Nothing is repeated. The title emerges only in the song’s very last thought. As well as precise geographical information, it’s full of beautiful details — the through-train ticket on the Midnight Flyer, the silk suit, the T-bone steak à la carte — and whole lines that, once you heard them, you never forgot, like that amazing penultimate verse: “Swing low, sweet chariot, come down easy / Taxi to the terminal zone / Cut your engines and cool your wings / And let me make it to the telephone…”

It’s a song that seems quintessentially American, perhaps especially to a non-American who fell in love with that culture when it was at its jet-engined, tail-finned, jukebox and blue jeans height. I happen to harbour a special reverence for the version Elvis cut at the Stax studio in Memphis in December 1973, because (as I wrote in a piece in my book Long Distance Call) the combination of singer and song seems to incorporate so many myths and legends, dreams and desires. And, of course, Elvis sings the hell out of the song, like he’d written it or lived it. He really is the boy whose first instinct, on arriving in the place where he plans to make a new life, is to call home.

At the top you’ll find a YouTube clip of the man who wrote the song delivering his masterpiece in a TV studio in Paris, I’d guess during his European tour in January 1965. The pick-up rhythm section would obviously rather be playing “How High the Moon”. There’s a lovely moment when the stand holding the vocal microphone collapses. Towards the end of the song the bass-player retunes his D and G strings in mid-flow with a rather unnecessary fastidiousness. And Mr Berry is, as ever, his own sweet-and-sour self, a true genius of rock and roll.

 

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.

She readied herself 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.

Sweet home Kokomo

Kokomo stage 2A Kokomo reunion would always have been high on the wants list of anyone who saw them in their 1970s heyday, when they were consistently the hottest live experience London’s small venues had to offer. This summer it turned into reality, and last night their short tour reached the Half Moon in Putney: just the sort of intimate, informal joint they once rocked, and which they can still sell out with ease.

It wasn’t quite the original line-up. Mel Collins is in the US with King Crimson, Jody Linscott is in Japan, Terry Stannard is long retired, Alan Spenner is no longer with us and, sadly, Dyan Birch was unwell. But Nigel Hitchcock, Frank Tontoh, Glen LeFleur and Jennifer Maidman took the places of Collins, Stannard, Linscott and Spenner on tenor saxophone, drums, congas and bass guitar respectively, while Helena-May Harrison, from the evening’s support band, Man May’d, stepped into the space left by the missing singer at a couple of hours’ notice to bring a fine voice and an irresistible vivacity to the show.

As with any classic vehicle, there were a few creaks and glitches along the way before the oil had fully circulated around the mechanism, but the storming two-hour set would have satisfied anyone’s expectations. The band warmed up with “Tee Time”, an old favourite instrumental, before the singers arrived for “Third Time Around”. Tony O’Malley took over Birch’s lead part on “Yes We Can”, Paddie McHugh stopped the show with “Angel” just as he used to do, and Frank Collins conducted the soul choir on “With Everything I Feel in Me”. Neil Hubbard and Jim Mullen supplied contrasting guitar solos of the highest quality, while Hitchcock did the Don Wilkerson/Fathead Newman thing to great effect. Maidman and Tontoh meshed beautifully on “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” and “I Can Understand It”. The audience needed no urging to join in on a celebratory new song called “Back at the Bag”.

They encored with a rolling “Sweet Home Kokomo” and a bit of crisp audience participation on “The Ghetto”. Two hours didn’t seem nearly enough for all the catching up they and we have to do.

* Left to right in the photograph: Tony O’Malley, Neil Hubbard, Helena-May Harrison, Paddie McHugh, Frank Collins, Jim Mullen and Nigel Hitchcock. At the gigs they’re selling a CD put together from a two-track tape recorded at the Venue in 1981: it’s a lovely souvenir and is downloadable at cdbaby.com.

 

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.

 

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