The other day I read somewhere that they’re going to turn Johnny Cash’s home into a Graceland-style museum. Here’s a picture I took from outside Cash’s front gate in Hendersonville one day in 1970, during a visit to Nashville.
The purpose of the trip was to interview the members of Area Code 615, the Nashville session musicians whose “Stone Fox Chase” later became the theme tune of a TV programme with which I was associated. I talked to the bass player, Norbert Putnam, and the drummer, Kenny Buttrey, at the then-new Quadrafonic Studios, which Putnam had started with the pianist David Briggs and the producer Elliot Mazer. Neil Young recorded “Heart of Gold” there. Here it is, at 1802 Grand Avenue.
I was shown round town by a friend of theirs, Troy Seals, a singer and songwriter who would later share the composing credit on Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” with Mentor Williams. Troy is a distant cousin of Dan Seals (of England Dan and John Ford Coley) and Jim Seals (of Seals and Crofts). He never managed to match their fame as a singer, which is a shame; he gave me an acetate of his version of “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” that puts him close to the class of Ronnie Milsap and Charlie Rich. But he’s had plenty of songs recorded by some of the big country stars, and he’s a member of the Nashville Hall of Fame, so I guess he’s done all right.
It was Troy who took me to shake the hand of Scotty Moore at Moore’s own studio and then drove me out to Hendersonville. There was no sign of Cash that day, so after I took a couple of pictures we drove back to town and he dropped me at the place where I was staying, Roger Miller’s King of the Road Motel. Here’s a picture of my room, too, with its ultra-modern (for 1970) decor.
I remember going down to the bar late one night and hearing a young man with a guitar singing Kris Kristofferson’s great “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” as though he meant it. As John Sebastian had written a year or two earlier, “There’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville / And they can pick more notes than the number of ants in a Tennessee ant hill.” I’ve often wondered what happened to that guy.
* This post has been corrected in the light of a reply from Troy Seals’ great-niece, who tells me that Troy is not the brother of Jim and Dan Seals, as I had believed, but their distant cousin.
Back in 1985 the producer Joel Dorn took Aaron Neville into a New Orleans studio to record the five tracks that became a mini-album titled Orchid in the Storm. The chosen songs – and there were six of them, since two were conjoined in a medley – were all drawn from the classic repertoire of 1950s and early ’60s doo-wop and early R&B, giving the third of the four Neville brothers, who was born in 1941, a chance to revisit the sounds of his youth.
First issued on vinyl by A&M and repackaged as a CD by Rhino five years later, Orchid in the Storm remains an absolute beauty: the tremulous purity of Aaron’s voice is exposed to its very best advantage on tender treatments of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love”, the Impressions’ “For Your Precious Love”, the medley of Gene and Eunice’s “This Is My Story” and Robert and Johnny’s “We Belong Together”, and the Penguins’ “Earth Angel”. Dorn’s sparing use of modern instrumental textures – a Fender-Rhodes piano, a lightly flanged electric guitar – is beautifully judged, providing a platform over which that unearthly falsetto voice floats with wonderful grace.
The best part of two decades later, can Don Was and Keith Richards pull off the same trick? At the beginning of his eighth decade, does Aaron still have the vocal chops to do anything more than remind us of former glories? Like its predecessor, My True Story assembles a bunch of classic songs from the same time period, this time arranged and performed more or less in the style of the originals, with Richards playing rhythm guitar in a band that also includes Benmont Tench, a vital ingredient in these projects, on Hammond organ.
For me, it doesn’t have the magic of the earlier recording, perhaps partly because the material is more varied. the album begins with the brusque swing of “Money Honey” – the first of four songs associated with the Drifters — before switching to the tearstained doo-wop of the Jive Five’s “My True Story” (possibly my all-time favourite doo-wop song) and then to a version of “Ruby Baby” closer to Dion’s than to the Drifters’ original. That’s how it continues, and it’s all very nicely done, from the Impressions’ “Gypsy Woman” through Little Anthony’s “Tears on My Pillow” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” to a lovely all-Drifters medley of “This Magic Moment” and “True Love”.
No, Aaron’s voice doesn’t quite soar as it once did. But he and the band and the material are more than good enough to make you feel that if you walked into a bar one night and this was what the house band sounded like, you might never want to leave.
For the past couple of years the pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins has been fêted as one of the most interesting young musicians on the London improvsed music scene. I first heard him playing very unorthodox Hammond organ in a free-jazz trio called Decoy, with the bass player John Edwards and the drummer Steve Noble, who occasionally appear with guest soloists. One particularly good night at the Café OTO with the veteran saxophonist Joe McPhee was released by the Bo’Weavil label, and I can recommend it despite the fact that I wrote the sleeve note.
A couple of weeks ago I went back to the same East London venue to hear Hawkins in a trio context, this time playing piano with the bassist Neil Charles and the drummer Tom Skinner. It was only their second gig together, and the rough edges were evident as they worked through a series of angular, unpredictable tunes, but it was also clear that, given time, they could develop something linking them to the special strand of piano-trio jazz associated with Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk, Elmo Hope and Andrew Hill (a couple of whose tunes they included).
Hawkins works with all kinds of units and he is back at the Café OTO twice in February: on the 24th in a trio with the bassist Guillaume Viltard and the former People Band percussionist Terry Day, and on the 26th with his own octet, featuring compositions for a line-up of brass, strings and woodwind. This is a good time to catch him.