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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.

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The trouble with Whiplash

Whiplash-PosterI have very mixed feelings, to say the least, about Whiplash. As a former drummer and a jazz fan, I’m delighted by the existence of a feature film about jazz drumming, particularly one that attracts Academy Award nominations. But I hated reading the newspaper and magazine features that rehearsed all the tired old jokes and generalisations about drummers before going on to describe the film. And there’s a much more profound and serious reservation.

Perhaps I can explain it by going back 40-odd years to the time when I and a colleague at the Melody Maker, both of us drummers, although in my case no longer active, maintained a state of polite hostility over — to put it crudely — his preference for Buddy Rich and Ginger Baker and mine for Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. I’d grown up believing that jazz was music originated by African Americans and that Baby Dodds was a better drummer, and more significant to the history of jazz, than Gene Krupa, although much less celebrated, just as Duke Ellington was more important than Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie was more important than Harry James. Ditto Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. Although my colleague certainly wasn’t a racist — anything but, in fact — we found ourselves on opposite sides of a divide.

I think it was after I’d interviewed Elvin Jones for the paper in 1971 that the great man — and his wife, Keiko — read a dismissive remark Ginger Baker had made about him and issued a challenge to an old-fashioned drum battle, via the front page of the MM. It took place at the Lyceum, as part of a gig featuring Baker’s Air Force, but I didn’t go. I could understand Elvin’s motive — quite properly, he felt he deserved to be at least as famous as Baker — but I thought it was somehow demeaning for the man who played on “Chasin’ the Trane” to invite public measurement against the author of “Toad”.

Anyway, Whiplash reminded me of this because it is about the education of a young jazz drummer. And my problem is that the student drummer in question — like his brutally demanding teacher, the part for which J.K. Simmons is up for a best-supporting Oscar — is white, and idolises Buddy Rich. He is also being taught to play a cold, unfeeling kind of music that has nothing to do with jazz as I understand it — and reminds me very much of the sort of stuff the members of Rich’s own big band were trained to play.

The college band in which the young drummer tries to establish himself contains plenty of black musicians — trumpeters, trombonists, saxophonists, a guitarist and a bassist. But it seems very strange to me that the four young men competing for the drum stool, the struggle around which the film revolves, are all white. (Just as strange is the fact that there are no women in the band — probably out of dramatic necessity, since otherwise the writer could not have given such foul-mouthed homophobic rantings to Simmons’s character.**)

Of course white drummers can play jazz with feeling and originality. I’ve always loved the work of Stan Levey, Shelly Manne, Phil Seamen, Paul Motian, Han Bennink and John Stevens, and that wholehearted admiration continues to be extended to the likes of Matt Wilson, Joey Baron, Steve Noble, Jeff Williams, Tom Skinner and others. They’re as far away from the template of Buddy Rich, a boorish show-off to whom technique was everything, as you could get.

It’s nice to think of today’s jazz world as being colour-blind. But I always felt that my inquiries had taught me where this music originated, and the answer was in the African diaspora, most particularly and obviously — although not at all exclusively — in the area of rhythm. So Elvin Jones and Tony Williams symbolised the kind of drumming I most admired, along with Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Frank Butler, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Pete La Roca and Sunny Murray. There was a principle involved, and an issue of authenticity.

We could argue about this, politely or rancorously, for a very long time. But to present jazz drumming to a cinema audience in the way Whiplash does seems to me implicitly regressive. It’s an affront to a continuing tradition embodied today by such brilliant African American players as Clarence Penn, Tyshawn Sorey, Marcus Gilmore, Brian Blade, Gerald Cleaver, Eric Harland and Jonathan Barber.

Damien Chazelle, the 29-year-old writer and director of Whiplash, studied drumming at a music college in an earlier phase of his life. Miles Teller, who plays the student, is a drummer. J.K. Simmons is also a musician, as we see in the film’s only musically satisfying sequence, when he plays piano with a rhythm section in a small club (making this viewer think: “Ah — some real jazz at last!”). So it gets most of the stuff right on a technical and atmospheric level. But Chazelle inserts so many absurd melodramatic twists into his plot — which, as others have said, closely resembles a jazz version of An Officer and a Gentleman and Rocky — that I couldn’t begin to take it seriously as a story. I could, however, take it seriously in the way it presents jazz to a general cinema audience.

Nowadays we look back at Hollywood’s earlier attempt to make a film about a jazz drummer, when Sal Mineo played the lead in The Gene Krupa Story in 1959, and think what crime it was that Max Roach and Art Blakey stood no chance of such recognition. It seems to me that with Whiplash, more than half a century later, we’re doing no better.

** Correction: Since I posted this blog, it’s been pointed out to me that a female musician does make a brief appearance in the college band.

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 — 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).

Chris Spedding at the 100 Club

Chris Spedding“The first time I played here, the stage was over there,” Chris Spedding said, pointing to his right. “Anyone else here old enough to remember that?” None of Saturday night’s audience at the 100 Club put their hands up, but you can bet there were one or two who qualified.

I certainly did. In fact the first time I saw Chris Spedding was at 100 Oxford Street — the address from which the club drew its name — on the evening of my first day working for the Melody Maker in London, in September 1969. He was a new addition to the Mike Westbrook band, a cool guitarist with floppy black hair surrounded by a crew of variously dishevelled free-jazzers. He was 24 then, and looked about 16. Now he’s 70 and looks 50.

Saturday night’s gig was arranged as a launch of Joyland, his thirteenth solo album, in which he appears with a bunch of guests. The cast list gives an idea of the range of Spedding’s activities over the years: the actor Ian McShane (narrating the title track), Arthur Brown, Bryan Ferry, Johnny Marr, Robert Gordon, Andy Fraser, Glen Matlock and others.

I can’t think of another musician whose career could have gone in so many directions. His early bands included Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments, Ian Carr’s Nucleus, the Mike Gibbs Orchestra, the Jack Bruce Band and Sharks. Later he produced the Sex Pistols’ first demos, backed John Cale and Johnny Hallyday, and guested with the reformed Roxy Music. He was on Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and appeared on Top of the Pops as a Womble, in costume. His playing that night with Mike Westbrook 45 years ago suggested that he might have an important part to play in the evolution of jazz guitar, in parallel with Sonny Sharrock and Derek Bailey. But when he had a hit single, it was with “Motorbikin'”, as traditional a slice of rock ‘n’ roll as you could find.

Saturday’s gig contained only one song from Joyland: “Message for Stella”, on which he was joined by the album’s co-producer: Steve Parsons, the elfin character known as Mr Snips in the days when they co-led Sharks. Back in the summer of 1974 Snips and Spedding asked me to produce their third album, but the band was already starting to disintegrate and I didn’t have the skills to hold them together during a series of fretful nights at Olympic Studios in Barnes. It was good to see Steve for the first time since then, his huge reserves of energy and enthusiasm intact: a proper English lead singer, ’70s-style.

For the rest of the set we heard Spedding with Malcolm Bruce — son of the late Jack — on bass guitar and Chris Page on drums, both of whom are members of Sons of Cream. The stripped-down trio lineup allowed plenty of room for the leader to demonstrate his mastery of an interesting custom-built guitar which looked like a Les Paul made out of distressed carbon-fire mesh, put through an old Fender amp, with no effects pedals and no bullshit involved.

Spedding always seemed to me a modest man, devoid of the rampant ego that distinguishes most guitar heroes. He never shows off but there’s always something worth hearing, often half-hidden in the folds and creases of the songs: a little train riff dying away on the fade of “Hey Porter”, or the pretty passing chords he inserted in the chorus of an otherwise straight reading of “Summertime Blues”. The most striking of the cover versions was a radically syncopated version of “Rip It Up”, and elsewhere he put the lightest of spin on classic rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll guitar stylings. His performance of the anthemic “Motorbikin'” sent a couple of leathered-up Ace Café types in the front row into ecstasies.

The new album is a different thing altogether, a potpourri of pop styles and ambiances, from a great spaghetti western instrumental with Johnny Marr (“Heisenberg”) to a subtle Lana Del Rey-style noir ballad called “I’m Your Sin”, performed with a new female singer from Los Angeles called Lane. He gets Ferry to whisper-croon a spooky unreleased Erasers song called “Gun Shaft City”, and there’s a version of Crispian St Peters’ “The Pied Piper”, with Andy Mackay on oboe and saxophones, that brings out the song’s inherent creepiness. “Shock Treatment”, with Andy Fraser on bass, has a great Parsons lyric — “Shame, shame, such adolescent behaviour / Listenin’ to the B-52s sure ain’t gonna save yer” — and the closing “Boom Shakka Boom” is distinguished by a greasy-quiffed guitar-and-bass sound that defines a certain kind of unreconstructed rock ‘n’ roll.

Like Spedding’s entire career, the record slides all over the place without making a permanent landing anywhere, and is the more interesting for that. When the stage moves, he moves with it, while remaining himself. He was always something different, and he still is.

The last of Kenny

Kenny Wheeler Songs for QuintetFor a while, at the beginning, I was put off by the seemingly flawless surface of Kenny Wheeler’s music. That swooping, soaring, almost frictionless lyricism that poured from his trumpet seemed too good to be true, and I couldn’t find the humanity in it. Eventually I began to comprehend the subtle nature of Kenny’s very personal conception and, having finally got the point, joined the many who admired him so greatly.

His death last September, at the age of 84, provoked mourning and tributes around the world. Then came the news that, nine months earlier, and already ailing, he had gone into a London studio to record a last album with four of his regular musical companions: the tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, the guitarist John Parricelli, the bassist Chris Laurence and the drummer Martin France.

That album, Songs for Quintet, is released this month on the ECM label, for whom he recorded on and off for 40 years, and we must thank the producers of the session, Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake, for the decision to take this final opportunity to capture Kenny’s spirit on record.

His strength was beginning to go, but the unfamiliar sense of vulnerability that occasionally shows in his work — on flugelhorn only throughout the album’s nine pieces — never obstructs the music’s clarity or emotional impact. You would not want to miss his opening statement on “The Long Waiting”, a most elegant ballad, or the way he vaults into the theme of “Sly Eyes” over France’s parade-ground snare drum.

In any case, this is a record of a group playing Kenny’s tunes, so gorgeously stimulating for improvisers, rather than a showcase for the leader’s playing. One or two are familiar from earlier records, but all confirm the impression that other musicians will be exploring their glowing contours for many years to come. Here they draw a wonderful response from each of the musicians but in particular from Sulzmann, a collaborator for many years: a quiet presence with a gift for locating the essence of each composition and never playing a wasted note, he supports and sometimes takes the initiative in what may be a career-best performance.

As a graceful coda to a wonderful career, Songs for Quintet is not to be missed by anyone who ever fell under Kenny’s spell, however belatedly.

* The photograph of Kenny Wheeler was taken by Caroline Forbes at the Abbey Road studios during the Songs for Quintet sessions in December 2013 and appears in the album insert.

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.

 

In the land of Sinatra and Dylan

In the early days of The Blue Moment, I published a poem called “The Cool School”. Roy Kelly, the poet in question, wrote this new one in San Francisco last summer, several months before the announcement that, on February 2, Bob Dylan will release an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra, called Shadows in the Night, previewed on bobdylan.com by a version of “Full Moon and Empty Arms”.

 

AT THE END OF AMERICA

By Roy Kelly

 

At the end of America looking west

and thinking east, surrounded by

the sadness of leaving, thinking of voices

under the vastness of the endless sky

 

that rolls back across days and nights,

successions of darkness and light, so strange

and so ordinary, all the hours and miles to home.

And here fallen cloud like a gorgeous mountain range

 

rearing and roiling on top of this one, its lower

reaches of plump softness already flowing

white and thin, dispersed and sparse down

gullies and ravines as we contemplate going,

 

brooding and musing on a world already gone,

and this one, always coming to pass,

the radio voices always alive in the whenever moment

of listening, even if high school class

 

was where they entered your heart and soul.

And now someone with silver hair

looks back from every reflective surface,

leaving you wondering how he arrived there.

 

Looking west and east, imagining those voices

that began with actual people and are now a myth

that conjures a country and time, the emotional history

of every age their records grew up with:

 

Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra, soundings from a cloud

that covers the waterfront of this and last century,

every past and every future in polar voices

that blow in the wind that comes to fly with me

 

at the end of America, looking forward

and back, remembering love’s strange rights and wrongs,

insignificant and wonderful under a continental sky,

and the blessed ordinary magic of songs.