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Ben Carruthers and the Deep

Ben Carruthers2The other day I went to hear some tracks from the new album created by T Bone Burnett from a set of lyrics abandoned by Bob Dylan in 1967. Invited to do whatever he wanted with Dylan’s words, Burnett got together a group of songwriters — Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello — and asked them to turn the lyrics into songs. You can read what I thought of the results here, on the Guardian‘s music blog.

It reminded me of another time someone turned a Dylan lyric into a song, to very good effect. One of my favourite records of the summer of 1965 was “Jack o’ Diamonds” by Ben Carruthers and the Deep, produced by Shel Talmy and released that June on Parlophone. The songwriting credit on the label read “Dylan-Carruthers”. This is it.

It’s a terrific piece of work, perfectly pitched between the exhilarating modernist Anglo-R&B sound of the early Animals, Kinks and Who and Dylan’s intense, inventive folk-rock. Great guitars — heavily reverbed arpeggios, slashing rhythm — with watery organ fills and solo, no nonsense from the bass and drums, and an urgent post-Dylan vocal. A beautifully constructed two minutes and 50 seconds. And a wonderful final chord.

The story is that Carruthers, an American actor who had appeared six years earlier in John Cassavetes’ great Shadows, was in London that summer to appear in a BBC-TV Wednesday Play, Troy Kennedy Martin’s A Man Without Papers, playing the lead opposite Geraldine McEwan. He visited Dylan at the Savoy hotel (a sojourn immortalised, of course, in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back), and when he asked him for  a lyric he was rewarded with a piece of paper on which Dylan scrawled a version of the poem that had appeared the previous year on the sleeve of Another Side of Bob Dylan, where it began: “jack o’ diamonds / jack o’ diamonds / one eyed knave / on the move / hits the street / sneaks, leaps / between pillars of chips / springs on them like samson / thumps thumps / strikes / is on the prowl / you’ll only lose / shouldn’t stay / jack o’ diamonds / is a hard card t play.”

No wonder the backing track is so sharp: the band, created by Talmy for the session at IBC Studios in Portland Place, included two of the sharpest 21-year-old session musicians in London, Jimmy Page on guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano, along with a bunch of students from the Architectural Association: Benny Kern on guitar, Ian Whiteman on Lowrey organ, Pete Hodgkinson on drums and a bass player remember only as John. Whiteman later joined the Action, who became Mighty Baby. According to him (on the 45cat website here), it was Kern as much as Carruthers who put the music to Dylan’s lyrics. They also cut a B-side, a Carruthers song called “Right Behind You”, which sounds like Mose Allison taking a stroll down Carnaby Street: here it is.

Benito Carruthers (which is how he was credited on some of his early films) was born in Illinois in 1936, so he was already 29 when he made “Jack o’ Diamonds”. He didn’t make any more records, but there were several further appearances on TV and in movies, including The Dirty Dozen in 1967. He came to see me at the Melody Maker‘s Fleet Street office one day in the early ’70s, and we went to the pub for a conversation of which, regrettably, I kept no record. He died of liver failure in Los Angeles in 1983, aged 47.

I’m biased towards 1965, which I think of as a year of wonders without compare. If you weren’t around then but wanted to know what it felt like, you could do a lot worse than put on “Jack o’ Diamonds”.

* The photograph of Ben Carruthers is a still from Shadows.

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19 Comments Post a comment
  1. 1965 ‘a year of wonders without compare’ indeed – the year i went ‘professional’ as a musician – didn’t look back.

    July 31, 2014
  2. Very good to hear from you, Mike. I hope all is well.

    July 31, 2014
  3. Phil Shaw #

    I share your view on 1965 as the annus mirabilis of ‘pop’, Richard. And I like greatly the Ben Carruthers single of ‘Jack O’Diamonds’, a song I previously knew only by an excellent version by the original line-up of Fairport from the first album.

    But I was less than impressed by Dylan’s ‘thousand doors’ line which seemed to have so excited Elvis Costello, so it’ll be intriguing to discover whether this project has the merit one has come to expect of anything T Bone Burnett touches…..

    July 31, 2014
  4. Totally unaware of the Carruthers track – a fascinating slice of the 60’s indeed!

    July 31, 2014
  5. Yet another informative piece, Richard – becoming to be the standard response to your terrific articles.

    I still have fond memories of the first Fairport album which, as with Phil Shaw, was my intro to “Jack O’Diamonds”.

    July 31, 2014
  6. deepindercheema #

    The last I heard Ian Whiteman is still looking for the disc. RW visited this subject in ‘Finders Keepers’ I only have the clipping when I bought a copy of the record so don’t know when and where it came from ( assuming it was the MM)

    July 31, 2014
    • It was the MM, but I don’t have the cutting.

      July 31, 2014
      • deepindercheema #

        I’ll post a scan of the cutting on 45cat under the Ben C listing when I locate it. Can you remember when the MM published it?

        August 1, 2014
  7. I have a record label called 1965 records….

    July 31, 2014
  8. For a long time I had the actual piece of paper with the poem typed on it as well as a photo of Dylan typing it in the Savoy. All gone, washed away in the tide of time, along with Benny.

    August 2, 2014
  9. Fantastic track … great vocal, brittle guitar to kill over swinging rhythm … one to find for my collection … thanks for turning me on …

    August 4, 2014
  10. twm909 #

    The “Finders Keepers” piece on “Jack O’Diamonds” by Ben Carruthers & The Deep was in the 5 May 1973 issue of MELODY MAKER and there was a follow-up piece two weeks later (on 19 May 1973).

    The latter revealed that The Deep had previously been The Seeds and that, with Carruthers, they had provided the music for the BBC-TV play that you mention and had also played one live gig (at the Pontiac Club in Putney)..

    September 15, 2014
    • Thanks, Ian. Much appreciated. I’ll look them up the next time I’m in the British Library.

      September 15, 2014
  11. Simon Champion #

    A very spirited rendition of this terrific track can be found on Fairport Convention Cropredy 2002 with Richard Thompson in fine vocal/guitar form.

    September 20, 2014
  12. Arie Euwijk #

    Apart from that first Fairport album and from Cropredy 2002, you’ll hear this song on FC Live at the BBC, track 8 of the first disc from David Symonds, 14th June 1968.
    This one loses the recorder by Judy Dyble, but gains more of RT on guitar.

    They did it earlier at Cropredy as well, in 1997, that version was released a year later on the 3CD Cropredy Box
    Richard Thompson did a solo version on his “A Chronological Evening” concerts in 2003/2004. One of these was released on The Chrono Show (Beeswing Records BSW006)

    Best of all, but unreleased, was a blistering version with FC at the Warm Up gig at The Mill in Banburry on Tuesday 6 August 2002.
    Seeing FC -the Early Years playing just a few meters away was fantastic.
    Richard, Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings, Iain Matthews, Judy Dyble joined by Gerry Conway!

    vriendelijke groeten
    Arie Euwijk
    (PS all the best to Deepinder and Ian Whiteman, both very kind and helpful in my search for all things Action/Mighty Baby and -not least- Habibiyya)

    November 14, 2014
  13. The latest incarnation of DONT LOOK BACK on DVD (The Criterion Collection VFE09618)) includes some new out-takes from the film, including a scene with Ben Carruthers and at the Savoy, working on “Jack O’Diamonds”..

    A brief synopsis: it starts with Dylan typing up the lyrics, as Carruthers and Benny Kearn work on the song. Dylan finishes typing and hands the “last sheet” (and an ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN album) to Carruthers, who continues working on the song with Kearn.

    The sequence lasts just over two minutes.

    November 7, 2016

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