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Motown part 2 (of 3): The white guy’s story

Motown Barney AlesThe name of Barney Ales became a familiar one to those who took a close interest in the evolution of Motown Records in the 1960s. Ales didn’t sing, or write songs, or produce sessions. He wasn’t a musician or a choreographer or a voice coach. He was the guy hired by Berry Gordy Jr in 1961 as national sales manager and promotion director. And now he is the co-author, with the music historian Adam White, of Motown: The Sound of Young America, a lavishly produced history of the label.

Ales had worked for Capitol Records before joining Motown at the age of 27. His job was to get the records played on the radio and to ensure not just that they were distributed efficiently to record stores around the country but that the invoices got paid. Almost as much as the quality of the music, that was the secret of Gordy’s operation: business had to be taken care of with a different attitude from that of most black-owned labels. He needed someone who could talk to white disc jockeys and record distributors without the barrier, conscious or unconscious, of race.

One can assume that, having worked with the founder almost from the beginning and ending up as a vice-president before leaving in 1978, Ales knows a few secrets behind Gordy’s struggle to establish the label and extend its success beyond the boundaries of black America. Perhaps those with fond memories of Number One With a Bullet, the novelised version of the Motown story written by Elaine Jesmer, a former publicist, and never republished after its original appearance in 1974, will come to Ales’s memoir hoping for true-life confessions. That would be a mistake. This is a version of the tale that passes lightly over the darker episodes, while containing much detail that will be useful to those wanting to know more about Gordy’s triumph.

There are many books about Motown, including the autobiographies of Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Otis Williams and Mary Wilson. My own favourite is one of the more modest efforts: Susan Whitall’s Women of Motown, an oral history based on interviews with Martha Reeves, Claudette Robinson, Kim Weston, Brenda Holloway, Mable John, Carolyn “Cal” Gill and others, published in the US by Avon Books in 1998. White and Ales give us a view from a different perspective, and a valuable one.

The narrative begins in an interestingly unorthodox way with a long and well illustrated account of the Detroit riot of 1967, which devastated clubs and record stores as well as homes and other businesses. It came perilously close to the Motown headquarters on West Grand Boulevard, where bullet holes in the flower pots outside the entrance were the only sign of damage to what, with gross income of $20m the previous year, was on the way to becoming America’s biggest black-owned business. The significance is that, only a month after the fires in the ghetto had finally been extinguished, Gordy and Ales had the courage to go ahead with Motown’s first-ever national sales conference, with a gala concert at the Roostertail Club on the banks of the Detroit River featuring the Supremes, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Chris Clark and the Spinners. Fifteen new albums were announced at the conference; on the day of the launch, the sales department was able to count a record $4m in orders, or 20 per cent of the preceding year’s revenue.

That’s typical of the kind of detail Ales provides. His description of his dealings with Morris Levy, the heavily Mob-connected boss of Roulette Records, contains the fascinating story of how Mary Wells’ “My Guy” was bootlegged in the New York area by Gordy’s ex-wife, Raynoma Liles, who had moved to the city to open an office for the company’s song-publishing division, only to have the funding cut off by her former husband. As she told it in her own autobiography (Berry, Me and Motown, published in the US by Contemporary Books in 1990), she had 5,000 copies pressed up and sold them to a distributor for 50 cents apiece in order to raise the money to keep the office open. It was unfortunate for Liles — an important figure in the early days of the company, as an arranger and musical director — that by selling counterfeit copies of the Wells hit, she was depriving Levy of income. Her own account does not mention him, perhaps because he was still alive when she wrote it.

All this, and much more, is extremely well told and to be enjoyed alongside the wonderful illustrations, including contact sheets, album jackets, picture sleeves and advertising material in this large-format publication. My favourite of the many fabulous photographs is one by Bruce Davidson, the great Magnum photographer, who catches the Supremes backstage in New York in 1965, sitting alongside each other in their dressing room, bathed in pink light, surrounded by make-up pots, perfume bottles and ashtrays. Davidson shoots from above and behind the three women, catching their reflections: Flo Ballard using a tissue to blot her mascara and Mary Wilson touching up her hair, both sharing a single mirror, while Diana Ross, with her own individual mirror, stares straight into his lens.

* In the photograph above, Barney Ales (standing, extreme left) is hosting a group of Detroit radio personalities at the Roostertail Club. It can be found in Motown: The Sound of Young America, which is published by Thames & Hudson, price £39.95.

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Motown part 1 (of 3): The B-sides

Motown B-sidesOn its opening in London last week, Berry Gordy Jr’s Motown: The Musical drew this comment from the Independent‘s reviewer: “As for the occasional new numbers written to plug emotional gaps — they’re cheesy, clichéd affairs, which wouldn’t pass muster as B-sides.” It reminded me of the endless pleasure afforded in the 1960s by the discovery that on the B-side of the latest Motown purchase could often be found a track just as good as the designated A-side.

What the great B-sides of the 1960s often did was show you another dimension of the featured artist. In the case of Motown, whose A-sides were usually aimed at dancers, the songs on the flip were frequently ballads. The work ethic of Gordy’s songwriters, producers, musicians and singers meant that they were often every bit as good as the “plug sides”. Here are half a dozen of my favourites.

The Miracles: “A Fork in the Road” (1965)  What are the chances of the greatest record ever made — “The Tracks of My Tears”, of course — having an almost equally distinguished B-side? This is one of Smokey Robinson’s deepest ballads: “Seems like love should be easier to bear / But it’s such a heavy load / Worldwide traveller, you ain’t been nowhere / Till you’ve travelled down love’s road.” Voices, strings, vibes and Marvin Tarplin’s liquid guitar set up a mood of entrancement. But beware, danger’s there. Midway there’s a pause, while Smokey gathers himself in preparation for these lines of warning: “If there is something that you don’t see eye-to-eye / You’d better think before you tell your love goodbye / ‘Cause your paths may never cross again / Make sure you take the same bend / At the fork in love’s road…” Just listen to the way he delivers the word “’cause” at 2:41, with an ascending four-note phrase that is a lesson in the proper deployment of vocal virtuosity.

Kim Weston: “Don’t Compare Me With Her” (1965)  If I had too choose one record to represent Motown’s dancefloor magic, it would probably be Kim Weston’s “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)”. And here on the B-side is an utterly glorious ballad from Eddie Holland, Lamond Dozier and James Bradford. Apparently Kim didn’t like being given sad songs all the time, even when the tempo was up. But that bitter-sweetness was a Motown speciality.

The Temptations: “You’ll Lose a Precious Love” (1966)  Released on the flip of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, this gorgeous Smokey Robinson ballad was cut in 1964 and harks back to the streetcorner doo-wop roots of the composer and the group. David Ruffin reins in his customary gospel rasp to make a delicate job of the lead vocal, with bassman Melvin Franklin stepping forward for a brief solo contribution.

The Supremes: “Remove This Doubt” (1966)  Another B-side from 1964 coupled to a ’66 hit, this time “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. Here’s the sweeter side of Holland-Dozier-Holland: a proper swoonerama for Diane Ross to get her teeth into. “Be more tender / Completely surrender your love to me / Be sweet and not discreet…” The swirly sound works better on a battered mono 45 than on this remastered stereo version.

The Isley Brothers: “There’s No Love Left” (1966)  The B-side of the floor-filling “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)”, and I always preferred its combination of a heartbroken song with a deliberate mid-tempo 4/4, a small half-hidden masterpiece of the H-D-H oeuvre. Hear Ronald Isley cry as the melody hauls itself upwards: “Wondering what am I gonna do? Where can I go?” Answer came there none.

Four Tops: “If You Don’t Want My Love” (1967)  The flip of “You Keep Running Away”, the last of the their great run of hits penned by the H-D-H team before the producers turned to brilliant covers of Tim Hardin and the Left Banke. This one isn’t quite like anything else: it’s a gospel take on doo-wop, with Levi Stubbs wailing over a short chord cycle. Brilliant use of harpsichord to italicise the changes, too. And it has one of the great trademarks of the Tops’ hits: the keening sound of the Andantes (Louvain Demps, Jackie Hicks and Marlene Barrow), Motown’s regular female session singers, layered above the male voices: somehow, the pure sound of love in despair.

Many others could be added to that list. The Miracles’ sublime “(You Can) Depend on Me”, for instance, which appeared on the flip first of the unsuccessful “The Feeling Is So Fine” in 1959 and then coupled with the local hit “Way Over There” the following year. The Supremes’ delightfully winsome “He Holds His Own”. The Temptations’ Smokey-penned tragedies “Fading Away” and “Don’t Look Back” (on which Paul Williams sang lead). Martha and the Vandellas’ “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday)”. Brenda Holloway’s “I’ve Been Good to You” and “Starting the Hurt All Over Again”. The Elgins’ “Darling Baby”. Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Stepping Closer to Your Heart”. In those days at Hitsville USA, they really did have songs to burn.

* Parts 2 and 3 will look at Adam White’s new book, Motown: The Sound of Young America, and at One Track Mind, a new Ace Records compilation of material from the Motown vaults.

Finding Bob Campbell, photographer

Robert Campbell Son House John HammondIt’s 14 years since Jessica Ferber, who had just graduated in sociology and photography from the University of Vermont, was handed a few boxes of photographic prints and negatives and other bits and pieces left by a recently deceased resident of a homeless shelter. She was asked if she wanted to do something with them. They would occupy much of her time for the next decade as she sorted through the material, began the painstaking process of restoration, and then raised funds via Kickstarter to complete the work and to secure publication in book form.

The battered prints, negs, postcards, receipts, letters, cassette tapes and a journal were all that remained of the life of Robert James Campbell, who had died at the age of 65 of accumulated symptoms, including heart and kidney disease, more than 30 years after his career as a photographer had petered out. But what Ferber saw convinced her that here was something worth preserving.

Bob Campbell was born in New York into a wealthy family, and grew up in homes in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Burlington, Vermont. He was interested in cameras from an early age, and he also played the double bass. He dropped out of college after a year and his first photographs of jazz musicians seem to have been taken when he served in the US Army in the 1950s. When he moved to New York on his 25th birthday in 1961, taking a studio in the West Village, he gravitated towards clubs like the Village Vanguard.

Rebirth of the Cool is the product of Ferber’s 10-year obsession, a handsome large-format book that chronicles not just Campbell’s work but his life, mainly through family photographs from his childhood. It includes impressive black and white studies of many important musicians, among them Bud Powell (at the recording session for The Return of Bud Powell in 1964), Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, the MJQ (shot during a trip to Germany in 1958), Tommy Turrentine, Philly Joe Jones, the Adderley brothers, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and Warne Marsh with Lee Konitz.

Campbell was also taken with Bob Dylan; although there are no shots to document that specific interest, his involvement in the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk and blues scene is reflected in photographs of Son House with the great A&R man John Hammond (see above), Mississippi John Hurt, Miriam Makeba (with Sivuca, the Brazilian accordionist), Richie Havens, Bill Monroe, the Staple Singers and the duo Jim & Jean — Jim Glover and Jean Ray (below), the models for the characters played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis.

Robert Campbell Jim and Jean

The influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson is pretty clear in these photographs, particularly when Campbell moves outside to shoot scenes in Washington Square and the streets of the Village. He didn’t make stylised images of smoke-wreathed musicians, as Herman Leonard had done. He was after the informality of an emerging counterculture, more in the manner of Carole Reiff or Ed van der Elsken. One shot from a party in a Village apartment is so cool that it makes me wish it were 1964 all over again. He seems to have tried fashion work, but he needed to take other jobs, such as building sets for theatre companies, to keep going.

I’d come across him once before, in the pages of Blue Melody, the excellent memoir of Tim Buckley by Lee Underwood, Buckley’s friend and guitarist. Campbell met Buckley and Underwood at the Tin Angel, a Village club, and moved with them to California in 1967 before drifting out of sight. “Bob was in his early thirties, bearded, very bright, well-read, a musically literate fellow who did not graduate from college,” Underwood writes. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘I like books and I read a lot, but I don’t study. When reading becomes work, a task, then that’s it. My seventh- and eighth-grade guidance counsellor accused me of learning by osmosis. My mother got burned up at my motto in the yearbook: I’m not lazy, I’m just tired.'”

Underwood records Campbell as having turned up at Buckley’s funeral in Santa Monica in 1975. “One true and trusted friend,” he calls him. By that time the photography was over and the set-building was how he earned his money. Ferber reconstructs the story of his last years from minimal evidence, telling us that in the early 1980s he returned to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he inherited the family home on his mother’s death in 1987. But it all disappeared, and so did he until 1995, when he was taken in by a homeless charity in Burlington until his death seven years later.

He wasn’t a genius, but the photographs show that there was certainly a measure of poetry in his soul, and Ferber’s devotion to the surviving fragments of his life adds an extra layer of it to this fine book.

* Rebirth of the Cool by Jessica Ferber, with a foreword by Marc Myers, is published by powerHouse Books of Brooklyn, NY. Blue Melody by Lee Underwood was published by Backbeat Books of San Francisco in 2002.

Keith Emerson 1944-2016

The NiceKeith Emerson died the other day, aged 71, apparently by his own hand. According to Mari Kawaguchi, his partner of more than 20 years, he had been thrown into a depression by the effect of nerve damage on his ability to play his keyboard instruments, with a series of concerts in prospect. Whatever one’s opinion of Emerson’s work, it is extraordinarily sad that his career should seemingly have ended in that particular form of defeat. Of one thing there was no doubt: his love of music.

I saw him first with the Nice at the Nottingham Boat Club in 1967, when they were a four-piece, with David O’List on guitar, Lee Jackson on bass and Brian Davison on drums. This was before they had made their first record. In a small room, in front of perhaps 100 people, they were exciting and stimulating; there was already a degree of showmanship emanating from Emerson, but not so much as to get in the way of the notes.

Two years later, in October 1969, I went on the road with them, on assignment for the Melody Maker: a three-day trip taking in Newcastle City Hall, the Essen Blues Festival in Germany and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. O’List had gone by then, and the remaining three were good company. In Newcastle, greeted by an ecstatic audience, they premiered sections of Emerson’s Five Bridges Suite, written in honour of Jackson’s home town. In Essen they followed Deep Purple and Amon Duul on stage, and were met by a muted reception. In Amsterdam’s beautiful 19th century concert hall the audience was respectfully enthusiastic; I recorded in my notebook that the applause for their version of Tim Hardin’s “Hang on to a Dream” seemed to go on for about five minutes.

This was a time when young British rock musicians, some of them with a grounding in classical music, were starting to stretch themselves in bands such as King Crimson, Soft Machine, Egg, Yes, Caravan and East of Eden. Emerson’s decision to leave the band and form a new trio with Greg Lake and Carl Palmer in 1970 represented a defining moment at which all that bright-eyed enthusiasm and musical adventurousness tipped over into excess. I saw ELP at close quarters during that year’s Isle of Wight Festival, their first large-scale gig, and I thought the whole experience was dreadful. Lake’s insistence on having a Persian rug to stand on while playing was just one of the factors that put them on their way to becoming a primary template for Spinal Tap.

But wind back a little, to a couple of months after I spent that long weekend in the company of the Nice. In December 1969 they played Fillmore West in San Francisco: here’s an audio recording of how they sounded back then. Surprisingly good, I think. When Emerson takes a long Hammond solo on “For Example”, they really hit a groove. The elements of the music are kept in reasonable proportions, with ambition and execution still in balance.

But you can sense where Emerson wanted his music to go, and why he felt he needed a different set of accomplices. To be brutal, Jackson and Davison weren’t cool enough. He needed a couple of guys who could play even faster and on whom long hair and twenty-guinea Anello & Davide stack-heeled snakeskin boots looked as natural as they did on him. For better or worse, he found them.

* The photograph of the Nice shows (clockwise from top): David O’List, Lee Jackson, Binky Davison, Keith Emerson.

George Martin’s Day in the Life

George MartinForty five summers ago, George Martin granted me a long interview for the Melody Maker. It was a very enjoyable experience: he was most courteous of men, and his answers were full of fascinating detail, with the occasional gentle indiscretion. He spoke in some depth about his experience of working with the Beatles, all the way from “Love Me Do” to Abbey Road, and the result was published in three parts, on August 21 and 28 and September 4, 1971. Lennon and McCartney were at war with each other that year, and some of what he said got up John’s sensitive nose, provoking a couple of letters from New York, the first of which you can see above. But when I asked Martin about the making of “A Day in the Life”, he responded with a very thorough and interesting description, giving a vivid snapshot of the creative relationship between the producer and the four young men he always referred to as “the boys”, a partnership based on his willingness to entertain their interest in taking risks and their respect for his experience and integrity. Had he, I asked, been responsible — as rumour then had it — for sweeping up several seemingly disconnected musical episodes from the studio floor and sticking them together to create a masterpiece?

No, let’s explain that. John had this song, which started off with his observation, and his part was the beginning and the end, and Paul’s was the middle bit. We started recording it with Paul on piano and John on guitar, and we decided we needed another riff in it, and Paul said, “Well, I’ve got this other song — ‘Got up, got out of bed…'” — and he was going to make that a separate song. He said, “You can use it if you like, put it in your one. Will it fit?” They thought about it for a bit and decided it would work, and they wanted something different in it but they didn’t know what.

They decided that they were going to put a lot of just rhythm in it, and add something later. So I said, “Let’s make it a definite number of bars, let’s have 24 bars of just rhythm in two places, and we’ll decide what to do with them later.” They said, “How are we going to know it’s 24 bars, because it’s a long time?” So we had Mal (Evans) standing by the piano, counting “One… two… three…” and in fact he had an alarm clock, because he was timing the thing as well, and it actually went off. On the record you can hear Mal saying, “Twenty one… twenty two…” if you listen.

When they’d done it, I asked them what they were going to do with those bloody great gaps. Paul said he wanted a symphony orchestra, and I said, “Don’t be silly, Paul — it’s all right having 98 men, but you can do it just as well with a smaller amount.” He said, “I want a symphony orchestra to freak out.” So I said, “If you really want one, let me write something for it.” He said, “No, I don’t want you to. If you write it, it’ll be all you. Let’s have just something freaking out.” I said, “Let’s be practical. You can’t get an orchestra in there and say, ‘Freak out, fellers,’ because nothing would happen. They’d just look embarrassed and make a few funny noises.”

So I booked a 41-piece orchestra, half the normal symphony orchestra, and I spent some time with Paul and John. I wrote out the obvious underlying harmonies, and during the main 24-bar sections John and Paul suggested that we should have a tremendous shriek, starting out quietly and finishing up with a tremendous noise. So I took each instrument in the orchestra and at the beginning of the 24 bars I wrote down their lowest note, whatever it was, so that the cello, for instance, had a bottom C, and at the end of the 24 bars I gave them their highest note related to the chord of E. And throughout the 24 bars I just wrote “poco a poco gliss(ando)”, and when it came to the session I told the musicians that they had to slide very gradually up and those people in the woodwind who needed breaths should take them at random. It was just a general slither.

But when we came to do it, the boys said they wanted to make a real event of it. So they got all their friends to come along and dress up and at that time Mick (Jagger) and Marianne Faithfull came along and all their Apple shop friends — the Dutch people — and there must have been about 40 of them, all freaking out with joss sticks. Paul said, “We’re going to be in our flowers but we don’t expect you to do that because you’re not that kind of person.” I said, “Thank you very much.” He said, “But I want you to wear evening dress, and the orchestra, too.” So I booked the orchestra in evening dress, and when it came to the point Paul had brought a lot of carnival gear — funny hats and false noses — and I distributed them among the orchestra. I wore a Cyrano de Bergerac nose myself. Eddie Gruneberg, who is a great fiddle player, selected a gorilla’s paw for his bow-hand, which was lovely. It was great fun.

When Nashville took on Mad Men

Ray Stevens 3It’s pretty strange that the man best known for “Ahab the Arab”, “Bridget the Midget” and “Everything is Beautiful” should have written and recorded one of the most striking protest songs of the 1960s. That, at least, is how I’ve always thought of Ray Stevens’ “Mr Businessman”.

Released in 1968, it deploys a great pop structure — a melody and a chord sequence that descend at different rates, and a brilliant kitchen-sink arrangement — to mount a blazing attack on the amorality of corporate America. Listen to the lyric today, and Stevens could be writing about the world of Donald Trump: “Spending counterfeit incentive / Wasting precious time and health / Placing value on the worthless / Disregarding priceless wealth / You can wheel and deal the best of them / And steal it from the rest of them / You know the score / Their ethics are a bore…”

Not exactly your standard Nashville confection. If we go back and look at the song from the perspective of its own time, it’s clear that he’s attacking the Mad Men culture: “Eighty-six proof anaesthetic crutches prop you to the top / Where the smiles are all synthetic and the ulcers never stop…” He finishes with a lacerating payoff worthy of Dylan at his most vituperative: “No one more lonely than / This rich important man / Let’s have your autograph / Endorse your epitaph…”

The weird thing is that in 1968 Stevens looked exactly like the people he skewered in this song: ready for an afternoon on the country-club golf course. Did he mean the words, or was he just coming up with something that suited the market? A year later he released “The Minority”, a strange little song which comes down on the side of the policeman earning $130 a week for risking his life and the man who takes his children to Sunday School, pays his bills and is faithful to his wife. The silent minority, in  fact: “But the majority rules / While a stampede of fools / Marches over them / Singing a pious hymn.”

It’s included in a new Ace Records anthology, called Face the Music, of the singles Stevens released on the Monument label between 1965 and 1970, also including “Mr Businessman” (and “Freddie Feelgood and his Funky Little Five Piece Band”, “Mary My Secretary” and the first recorded version of Kris Kristofferson’s classic “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”). The compiler, Tony Rounce, mentions in his sleeve notes that the singer, still active in the recording and television studios at 77 years of age, now supports the Tea Party, the far-right faction of the bunch that seems ready to nominate Trump for leader of the free world.

Tales of Woodstock

Richard ManuelIt’s 30 years today since Richard Manuel took his own life in his room at the Quality Inn motel, Winter Park, Florida, a few hours after a gig. Born 42 years earlier in Stratford, Ontario, Manuel was both the owner of one of the most emotionally direct and affecting voices in the history of rock and roll and a member of what had been, by common agreement of most of the people I know, its finest band.

Last night a crowd of people gathered at Rough Trade East in Brick Lane to celebrate the publication of Small Town Talk, Barney Hoskyns’ new book about Woodstock’s musical history. Graham Parker, long a resident of upstate New York, and Sid Griffin talked and played. The atmosphere was warm and the anecdotes amusing, but there was no disguising the fact that the lives of a lot of the people we were hearing about had ended prematurely.

In one of his earlier books, Across the Great Divide, Barney told the story of the incarnation of five men — Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson — first as the Hawks and then as the Band; it remains, in my opinion, the finest single account of what compelled young white boys in the 1950s and ’60s to adopt the musical language of black people as their own, with world-altering consequences. It is also the story of a slow-motion tragedy.

There was a lot about Manuel in that first book, of course, and the new one — which is fascinating, and ranges far and wide — contains plenty of reminders of how brightly the fire burned before it began to consume him. His last gig was with Danko, Helm and Hudson in the reformed version of the Band at Winter Park’s Cheek-to-Cheek Lounge, quite a fall from places such as the Royal Albert Hall and the Academy of Music, where the full five of them had played to such unforgettable effect in their heyday.

Back in 1967/68 Richard co-wrote “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall be Released” with Bob Dylan and sang them on Music from Big Pink. He also wrote that album’s “In a Station”, “We Can Talk” and “Lonesome Suzie”.  On its successor, The Band, he co-wrote “When You Awake”, “Whispering Pines” and “Jawbone” with Robertson. There were two co-writes on Stage Fright (“Sleeping” and “Just Another Whistle Stop”), and no compositional contribution at all to Cahoots, the fourth album. And that, in miniature, is the story of the Band: the slow disintegration of a sense of communal purpose, eroded by distractions and asymmetrical ambitions.

Eric Clapton once wrote this about Richard: “I wanted so much to be like him, to be able to express with such power and frailty.” Beneath the party-animal exterior, Clapton had spotted “an incredible vulnerability”.

I’m listening to an album called Whispering Pines: Live at the Getaway, Saugerties, NY, recorded on October 12, 1985, five months before Richard’s death. By that time he had ended an unhappy stay in Malibu and relocated to the more familiar and congenial surroundings of Woodstock. “I love it here,” he said in this interview conducted by Ruth Albert Spencer in March 1985. “I love the season changes. I love to see all that. California is just like one season with the weather changing.”

It’s an informal club session and he sings Band songs and a handful of standards: “Grow Too Old”, “You Don’t Know Me”, “Georgia on My Mind” (which the Band had recorded and released as a single to support Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign) and “Miss Otis Regrets”, plus J.J. Cale’s “Crazy Mama” and Ray Charles’s “Hard Times”. The album was not released until 2002, three years after the passing of Danko, who joins his old friend on four of the 17 songs. Those two voices, seriously ravaged now by comparison with their youth (and “struggling”, as Hoskyns puts it, with heroin habits), nevertheless combine on “Tears of Rage” to summon an echo of that old heart-piercing impact, the sound of two gifted, wayward boys who never quite grew up.

Finally, here’s a sweet, sad thing you might not know: a modest and tender version of “Country Boy” that Richard also recorded in October 1985 and which turned up, elaborately arranged in post-production, on the Band’s 1993 album, Jericho. His final time in a studio, I’d guess.

* The illustration of Richard Manuel is by Jack Dutieux and is taken from the cover of Whispering Pines, as is the quote from Eric Clapton’s sleeve note. Small Town Talk is published by Faber & Faber.

Jazz in the Round

Jazz in the Round 1Jez Nelson’s monthly Jazz in the Round nights at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone are as good a way to hear improvised music in London as anyone has yet devised. A couple of hundred listeners settle themselves down in mini-bleachers on all four sides of the floor, where the musicians set up to face each other, creating an unusual degree of intimacy radiating through 360 degrees. As a member of Empirical — I think it was Nathaniel Facey, the alto saxophonist — told last night’s audience, it makes you play differently. In a good way.

Facey and his colleagues kicked off what turned out to be a special night even by the standards of this excellent series. The evening was being recorded for transmission (on March 28) as the last-ever Jazz on 3, which Nelson presents, and after 18 years he was understandably emotional as he introduced a bill handpicked to represent the programme’s philosophy over the years. After Empirical came Django Bates, who gave the solo performance that traditionally separates the evening’s two bands, followed by a set of free improvisation from a multi-generational quartet assembled specially for this event: Laura Jurd (trumpet), Alexander Hawkins (piano), Orphy Robinson (marimba) and Evan Parker (tenor saxophone).

Empirical were coming off a week of thrice-daily gigs in a pop-up revue at Old Street tube station: a wheeze that apparently worked as well as it deserved to, attracting crowds of passers-by intrigued by what they heard. They’re an exceptional band and they played a fine set of striking new compositions by each of the four members, ending with “Lethe”, a quietly beautiful slow tune by the vibraphonist Lewis Wright. I’ve heard them play it before, and it stuck in my head. I was delighted to hear it again, and to discover that it’s on their new album, Connection.

Bates had just arrived from Switzerland, where he is a professor of jazz at Bern’s University of the Arts. He began by singing, to his own deft kalimba accompaniment, a little song about the anxiety of a man introducing himself to a piano (which turns out to be female). Then he sat down at the keyboard to play a piece in which he doubled his improvised single-note lines in the treble register with whistling of virtuoso standard. A tenor horn solo preceded a final stint at the keyboard, which included some gorgeous gospel figurations and a song about a London pub transformed by a developer into empty luxury apartments. “Empty luxury,” he repeated, sotto voce but with emphasis.

The members of the final improvising group were chosen to show how Jazz on 3 has always reflected the way this music spans the generations, with the accent on new developments. They had never played together as a unit, but the shared qualities of musicianship and sensitivity ensured that they created a genuine conversation that not only gripped their listeners but enfolded them in the act of creation. It was, as Nelson pointed out, the best possible way to demonstrate that, in the hands of such people, the music’s future is safe.

* The photograph of Empirical at the Cockpit Theatre was taken by Steven Cropper, and is used by kind permission. His blog, with more of his fine images, is at http://www.transientlife.uk. Jazz on 3 will be replaced on BBC Radio 3 by Jazz Now, presented by Soweto Kinch. Jez Nelson’s Somethin’ Else will be on Jazz FM on Saturday nights from April 2. Jazz in the Round takes place on the last Monday of each month: http://www.thecockpit.org.uk/show/jazz_in_the_round_0.