The return of Shakin’ Stevens
The first time I was impressed by Shakin’ Stevens was in 1970, while idly playing through his debut album with his group, the Sunsets, a bunch of rockabilly hounds from Cardiff, on the cheap sound system in the listening room at the Melody Maker‘s old Fleet Street office. Called A Legend, produced by Dave Edmunds and released on the Parlophone label, it contained one track that I found I needed to hear over and over again: a wild version of “The Train Kept A-Rollin'”, originally written and recorded by the bandleader Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, in the idiom of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway, and given a definitive rockabilly restyling five years later by Johnny Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio, with the great Paul Burlison on guitar. It might be a heretical view, but I found the lubricious pounding of Stevens’ version even more powerful than Burnette’s hallowed recording.
Seven years later, while casting his musical Elvis!, the great Jack Good — creator of Six-Five Special, Oh Boy! and Shindig! — selected Stevens to play one of the show’s three incarnations of Presley. Tim Whitnall played the boy Elvis, Stevens played the “perfect” Elvis of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”, and P. J. Proby played the late Elvis. Each of them fitted his role perfectly, and I’ll never forget the impact of the finale, when Whitnall and Stevens stood with heads bowed as Proby, in full Elvis-in-Vegas costume, sang “American Trilogy” from a pulpit against a backdrop of the film of the endless motorcade of white Cadillacs at Presley’s funeral.
At that time Stevens was still virtually unknown to the general public. But the show was a success, running for two years at the (now demolished) Astoria on Charing Cross Road, and soon afterwards he finally made his breakthrough as a solo artist, exploiting his voice and his looks — a cross between Ricky Nelson and Chris Isaak — with a string of pop hits including “This Ole House” and “Green Door”. Since then he’s been seen on reality shows, oldies packages and charity galas. In 2010 he was in hospital for several weeks after suffering a heart attack while gardening.
When I saw that he had a new album out last month, I was reminded of how much I liked that “Train Kept A-Rollin'” and his performance as Elvis. So I listened to it, and was pleasantly surprised. Echoes of Our Times is, at least in part, an attempt to write songs inspired by his family history, which he traces back to Cornish copper miners. That’s how the album begins, and other songs refer to the experience of family members — including his father — in the First World War, to a great-grandfather’s vocation as a Primitive Methodist minister in Wales, and to a grandmother’s work with the Salvation Army.
It’s as if, back at the very start of his career, he’d heard Music from Big Pink and decided to take that route. An excellent band features banjos and harmonicas and mandolins and a harmonium and a general feeling of handmade quality, occasionally broadening to include a small horn section and a cello. Shaky sings very well, with great conviction. Time has abraded his tone a little, which is no bad thing; curiously, on different songs he reminded of both Lennon (“To Spread the Word”) and McCartney (“The Fire in Her Blood”), but mostly he sounds like himself. Not all the material is great, but “Suffer Little Children” is a really fine southern-style blues-ballad, on which his voice has something of the strained urgency of Don Henley. “Train of Time”, all hurtling rockabilly twang and slap, is another great railroad song to put alongside the one I still cherish from his very first recording session.
So has Shakin’ Stevens, at the age of 68, transformed himself into the Welsh Robbie Robertson? That might be putting it a bit strongly. But Echoes of Our Times is thoughtful, enjoyable and substantial enough to make posterity significantly modify its judgement of the nature and scale of his talent.
* Photograph: HEC Records
Stevens’ bands included the remarkable Mickey Gee, who was one of the relatively unsung great country-rock guitarists. A very authentic sound achieved on those recordings
The Great Grady Martin played lead guitar with the Rock’n’Roll Trio, not Paul Burlison as many think. The late Grady said so.
Well, now, Dennis, I’m not sure I want to get into that one. I’ve always believed it to be Burlison.
Burlinson played with them live, I saw them at SXSW one year. He’s not in the same league as Grady Martin. But Grady Martin on the recordings. He confirmed this to Stuart Colman.
Well this is a revelation; I’ve always believed Paul Burlison played on the Rock’n’Roll Trio record, perhaps because June Bundy’s sleeve note on the Coral LP sleeve note says so.
However this string discusses the topic in detail: http://www.the-jime.dk/Rockabilly_Guitar/Johnny_Burnette_The_Rock-n-Roll_Trio.htm
I’ve read with great enjoyment (and a certain amount of admiring flabbergastment at the sheer obsessive expertise of it) the stuff Will links to — and I’m convinced. No more crediting of Paul Burlison for that one.
That’s ok Richard. You know far more about jazz and popular music than I do. Keep soaking it up.
Thanks for the tip. Another point in his favour was that he covered the Blasters (or specifically Dave Alvin’s) “Marie Marie”. Saw him live round about 1975 when he seemed to have a fairly large 70’s Teddy Boy following. There was something of a Rockabilly revival at the time. Perhaps we’re due another one soon.
Thanks for the tip. I kept on wondering how this record is.
And we mustn’t forget Stuart Colman who produced all those Skakin’ Steven’s hits.
It’s fascinating how Shaky seemed to come along – in terms of the TOTP audience, anyway – at the same time as various other British rockabilly or doo-wop revivalists, like Matchbox (in the former bracket), yet seemed separate from them and not in quite the same ‘novelty’ bag. I don’t know quite how he did that, but I suspect his label’s marketing was very good and it’s interesting that, after his first hit or two, he never appeared on TV with a band, and increasingly did so in ‘non-1950s homage’ gear (e.g. that denim jacket), unlike Rocky Sharpe, Darts, Matchbox, the Jets, Polecats, etc. His material was mostly 50s/early 60s, but his look was neutral/timeless. I was stunned to find out recently (I forget how this came up in conversation!) that my wife had no idea that Shaky was singing 50s/60s material during his hits era – as far as she was concerned he was an 80s pop star. I guess that must have been the context for millions of people who bought his records – people who had no real idea he had begun as a rock revivalist with the Sunsets in 1969.
There’s a terrific BBC Wales documentary on him on YouTube, from 5-6 years back, and some wonderful c.1972 foreign TV clips of the Sunsets – they really do rock, and had a star quality even then that surely set them apart from the Wild Angels, Crazy Cavan and whatever act Graham Fenton was fronting at the time.
I wish Shaky well with his new record/new direction, though I have a feeling his ‘brand’ is far too well established for him ever to make much headway away from the pink jacket/denims look and his 80s hit sounds. A victim, musically, of his own success.