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Dyan Birch 1949-2020

Dyan Birch was something special. Her presence on a stage drew the eye and the ear. And now she’s gone, leaving the memory of a soulful essence that was hers alone, however big or small the stage.

She was a teenager working in Brian Epstein’s NEMS record shop in Liverpool when she met the people who shared her love of soul music and with whom she would form the group Arrival: her fellow singers Frank Collins, Paddie McHugh and Carroll Carter. In 1969 they went to London, where they were signed by the Gunnell agency, who put them together with a keyboard player and singer called Tony O’Malley. They were managed by the savvy hipster Tony Hall, and they had chart hits with “Friends”, a Terry Reid song, and “I Will Survive”, written by Collins and arranged by Paul Buckmaster.

I met them en route to the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, in a helicopter chartered by Hall. They played on the Friday bill, which also included Taste, Tony Joe White, Chicago, Family, Procol Harum and the Voices of East Harlem. Curiously, although the festival was being filmed, no footage of their set survives.

Five years later Arrival were no more. Dyan, Frank, Paddie and Tony had been joined by the guitarists Neil Hubbard and Jim Mullen, the saxophonist Mel Collins, the bassist Alan Spenner, the drummer Terry Stannard and the percussionist Jody Linscott. Now they were known as Kokomo, and they became fixtures in London pubs and clubs from the Hope & Anchor in Islington to the Half Moon in Putney and Dingwalls in Camden. Their management was in the hands of Steve O’Rourke, who signed them to CBS.

Sadly, the reaction to their records never lived up to the promise of their live appearances. Here’s a beauty from Rise and Shine, their second album: “Without Me”, written by Dyan, Tony and Frank and produced by Brad Shapiro. Many, including me, believed them to be the best of all the British club and pub bands of the 1970s.

They were much in demand by other artists; you could hear the whole band, half-submerged among a couple of dozen musicians on Bob Dylan’s “Romance in Durango”, from Desire, and on Bryan Ferry’s In Your Mind. Here they are, minus only Hubbard, backing the singer and guitarist Bryn Haworth in 1975, on a track from his second Island album, Sunny Side of the Street; it’s always been a favourite of mine for the way it highlights the special vocal blend that Dyan, Frank and Paddie conjured with so little apparent effort.

Dyan was never a diva, but always a member of the band. There were serious health problems later in her life, affecting her ability to take a full part in the very welcome Kokomo reunions; the last time I saw her, at Richmond Athletic Club four or five years ago, she couldn’t complete the set, greatly to her distress. She always seemed like a lovely person. “Spread your wings,” she and the others sang with Bryn Haworth, “and fly right out of here.” And now she has.

* The photograph of Dyan Birch on stage with Kokomo at the 100 Club in 2014 was taken by Neil Holmes and is used by his kind permission.

The news from Keith Jarrett

Many people around the world will be profoundly saddened by the announcement, made today in an interview with the New York Times, that a pair of strokes in the early months of 2018 are likely to have ended Keith Jarrett’s career as a public performer. The journalist Nate Chinen elicited the information that, after the second of those attacks, Jarrett spent the period from July 2018 to May this year in a nursing facility.

The pianist is back home now but the use of his left arm and hand have been lost, perhaps permanently. Just learning to pick up a cup again is a challenge. There have been memory issues, too: while trying to play long-familiar bebop tunes with his right hand, he finds he has forgotten them. It seems likely that his solo concert at Carnegie Hall in February 2017, during which he spoke out against a newly elected US president, will turn out to have been his last.

This is not the first time Jarrett’s career has been interrupted by a serious health problem: a long bout of chronic fatigue syndrome put him out of action for much of the second half of the 1990s. Its effects were apparent in The Melody at Night, with You, a home-recorded solo recital of restrained and quietly luminous versions of familiar tunes that constitutes one of the most cherished items in his extensive discography. He told me about the illness and his return to activity in a Guardian interview preceding a London concert 20 years ago. From what he says now, his recent problems are unlikely to reach such a welcome resolution.

The famous Köln Concert of 1975 doesn’t have the place in my heart that it occupies in those of many others, and I’ve sometimes grown exasperated with his solo recordings (two listens to the 10 LPs of the Sun Bear Concerts, recorded in Tokyo in 1976 and released a couple of years later, felt like more than enough). His self-belief has sometimes felt overpowering. But I loved Facing You, the first of his solo albums, on its appearance in 1972, and the Standards Trio (as the group with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette became known) could perform miracles.

Coinciding with this week’s announcement is the release of a recording of the first date from his last European tour in the summer of 2016. The two-CD Budapest Concert presents 90 minutes of free improvisation (divided into 12 units) ranging from high-tension explorations of contemporary-classical techniques, pounding grooves, elegant extemporised balladry, refined but exuberant gospel-inflected outbursts, an astonishing two-part invention (Part VI) and, in the form of encores, romantic variations on two standards, “It’s A Lonesome Old Town” and “Answer Me, My Love”.

The repertoire strongly resembles that of Munich 2016, the set released last year, taken from the tour’s last concert. His devotees will want to explore the contrasts between the two, recorded a fortnight apart; for me, it’s a wholly satisfying summary of all the finest aspects of his playing.

Once can only wish Jarrett, who is now 75, the best of luck with his health, in the hope that his powers return — for his own sake, rather than for the benefit of an audience to whom he has already given the fruit of a lifetime’s work, and then some.

* Keith Jarrett’s Budapest Concert is released on the ECM label. The photograph, from the sleeve, is by Daniela Yohannes.

The First Daughter

Even after she stopped singing duets with her dad and began sharing a studio microphone instead with a man of her own age, Carla Thomas somehow remained the First Daughter of Soul. Maybe it was something to do with the lingering echoes of her first big hit, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)”, in which she was cast as the sort of perky ingenue to be found in the pop charts in 1961 rather than the mature soul singer she would eventually become.

As the offspring of Rufus Thomas, whose roles as club MC and radio DJ and recording artist made him an important figure on the Memphis music scene in the post-war decades, Carla was born to the calling. Perhaps that, too, was why she was always a little bit taken for granted, even when she and Otis Redding had a hit with Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin’s “Tramp” in 1967, a few months after her second big solo success with Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “B-A-B-Y”.

She had written “Gee Whiz” when she was 15 and recorded it, under her father’s supervision, two years later. Released on the Satellite label, the precursor of Stax, it was noticed by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, who picked it up for national distribution and saw it become a top 10 pop hit. Not even “B-A-B-Y” or “Tramp” could quite match that success.

She made many good records in Memphis during her brief heyday, however, and her story is well told in Let Me Be Good to You, a four-CD box subtitled “The Atlantic & Stax Recordings 1960-68”. Apart from anything else, it functions as a chronicle of a record company’s attempt to find a niche for a talent artist, their solutions ranging from slightly disengaged treatments of country songs like “I Fall to Pieces” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to solid blues performances of “Red Rooster” and “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and covers of current pop-soul hits like “Yes I’m Ready” and “Any Day Now”, girl-group tunes such as “A Lover’s Concerto” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and standards like “The Masquerade Is Over”. The set also features five tracks from the 1967 Stax/Volt European tour, three from the Olympia in Paris, including a driving “Got My Mojo Workin'”, and two from the Astoria in London, including a version of “Yesterday” which, with the aid of Booker T Jones’s Hammond organ, takes Paul McCartney to church.

Three of my favourites can be found in the anthology. One is “Something Good (Is Going to Happen to You”, a Hayes/Porter stomper from 1967 with a Motown-influenced 12-bar bridge. Another, from the same year, is the medium-tempo “When Tomorrow Comes”, which evokes her enduring ability to conjure a special pop-soul charm. Third, and best of all, is “I’m For You”, a 1965 Hayes/Porter ballad of spellbinding poise and quiet intensity. More than half a century later, it may be hard to defend a lyric that begins “My job is to please my man / To make him happy, any way I can.” Despite that, it’s a glorious record, summoning the ambiance of old Stax studio down to the vibrato from Steve Cropper’s Fender Esquire/Vibralux combo, the always-slightly-out-of-tune piano and the beautifully economical horn arrangement.

Throughout her career, Carla Thomas succeeded in projecting an engaging vocal personality that perhaps lacked only the tragic dimension lurking just below the surface in such contemporaries as Candi Staton, Dee Dee Warwick and Irma Thomas. Possibly, too, she lacked the hard edge of real ambition: once Stax had gone down the tubes in the mid-’70s, she did not do what others might have done and seek a home elsewhere. Now aged 77, she lives in retirement. Let Me Be Good to You, compiled by David Nathan and scrupulously annotated by Charles Waring, is a fine and warmly recommended tribute to a singer who was always true to herself.

* Let Me Be Good to You is released on October 23 on the SoulMusic label, via Cherry Red.

Music for absent dancers

In normal times, the vibraphonist, drummer and percussionist Martin Pyne is involved in collaborations with dancers. When the Covid-19 lockdown began, he compensated for the enforced halt in that activity by spending part of May and June in his home studio, recording music for imaginary choreography. The result is Spirit of Absent Dancers, an album of 19 short solo pieces ranging from Tibetan prayer bowls to a standard drum kit.

In terms of percussion improvisation, try to imagine something that runs from the Zen sound-painting of Frank Perry to the light swing of Billy Higgins. There’s nothing loud, nothing showy, nothing esoteric. Just a delight in the deft touch of a stick, a mallet, a finger or a wire brush on metal, skin or wood, and in the process of transforming sound into a sense of movement.

When he’d finished recording, he sent the results to Yorke Dance Project, a contemporary dance company based in south-west London. Here’s a clip of what the dancer and choreographer Laurel Dalley Smith did with a solo vibraphone piece called “Enchantment”. And here’s a piece for drum kit called “Eidolon”, interpreted by Abigail Attard Montalto. And another, titled “Banshee”, danced by Jordan Ajadi.

We’ve needed a lot of protest music this year, for obvious reasons. But during a period of general anxiety, there has also been a place for music offering a diversion into reflective tranquillity. Spirits of Absent Dancers takes its place among a group of recent albums — others include Pete Judge’s Piano 2, Mino Cinelu and Nils Petter Molvaer’s SullaMadiana, and Stillefelt, by Percy Pursglove, Thomas Seminar Ford and Chris Mapp — that I’ve found particularly valuable in that respect.

* Martin Pyne’s album is on the Discus label. He took the photograph while on tour with Images Ballet Company in 2019. His recordings with his various jazz groups can be found at martinpyne.bandcamp.com

John Lennon, b. 9 Oct 1940

John Lennon was born 80 years ago today. I interviewed him a few times for the Melody Maker at the Apple HQ in Savile Row, on the first occasion in the autumn of 1969. As many others did, I found him a thoroughly engaged and engaging interviewee — and, by the standards of the time, remarkably open.

One afternoon, when we’d been talking for a couple of hours, he took me with him in his car to the Thames TV studios on Euston Road, where he was being interviewed for the early-evening news show, so that we could carry on our conversation. These were the days when the names of John and Yoko regularly featured on evening-paper billboards. You knew they were around. At Thames that day he was due to talk about his decision to return his MBE in protest — as he had announced in a press release — “against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”

During that journey to the studios, I remember him expressing his enthusiasm for a recent Lee Dorsey 45, “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)” — he liked songs with brackets in the titles — and telling me a story about the early days.

“In the beginning,” he said, “it was a constant fight between Brian (Epstein) and Paul on one side, and me and George on the other. Brian put us in neat suits and shirts, and Paul was right behind him. I used to try and get George to rebel with me. I’d say to him: ‘Look, we don’t need these suits. Let’s chuck them out of the window.’ My little rebellion was to have my tie loose, with the top button of my shirt undone, but Paul’d always come up to me and put it straight.

“I saw a film the other night, the first television film we ever did. The Granada people came down to film us, and there we were in suits and everything – it just wasn’t us, and watching that film I knew that that was where we started to sell out. We had to do a lot of selling out then. Taking the MBE was a sell-out for me.

“You know, before you get an MBE the Palace writes to you to ask if you’re going to accept it, because you’re not supposed to reject it publicly and they sound you out first. I chucked the letter in with all the fan-mail, until Brian asked me if I had it. He and a few other people persuaded me that it was in our interests to take it, and it was hypocritical of me to accept it. But I’m glad, really, that I did accept it – because it meant that four years later I could use it to make a gesture.”

When he moved to New York in 1971, he liked to keep in touch with the UK, often through the music papers. The postcard above is typical of those he’d send from time to time. In October of that year, when I sent him a note to ask for an interview for a book I was writing a book about Phil Spector, he replied immediately. He could do better than that, he said. He was about to go into the studio with Spector. Within a day or two he’d arranged a return air ticket and a room at the St Regis Hotel, where he and Yoko were living. So I spent three days with them, watching John sort through Elvis 45s for his jukebox, attending the sessions for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” — those brackets — at the Record Plant, and going with them to look at a town house on Bank Street in the West Village, which they ended up renting from Joe Butler, the drummer with the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Lennon had a way of including people in whatever was going on, which is how come Spector’s chauffeur and I ended up in the group photo on the picture bag of “Happy Xmas”. When I read a piece in The Times this week blaming him — and particularly the song “Imagine” — for all the ills of the 21st century, I thought back to the man I knew briefly, to his warmth and enthusiasm and courageous refusal to be confined by the entertainer’s role. We know now, of course, that he was complicated and difficult and sometimes cruel, and there are aspects of his life that will always be difficult to explain and excuse. That’s true of most of us. In his case, I can only speak as I found — while wishing, of course, that he could have been here to celebrate his 80th, and to give us his thoughts on the state of things.

Living for the weekend

To understand the full impact of Ready Steady Go!, you really had to live through the succession of British TV pop shows that preceded it: 6.5 Special (BBC, Jan 57-Dec 58, 96 episodes), Oh Boy (ITV, Sept 58-May 59, 38 episodes), Drumbeat (BBC, April-Aug 59, 22 episodes), Boy Meets Girls (ITV, Sept 59-Feb 60, 26 episodes), and Thank Your Lucky Stars (ITV, April 1961-June 1966, 250 episodes). Each of those series had something to offer the pop-starved teenager, but all of them — even the ones created by the great Jack Good — felt essentially as though they were made by grown-ups. That’s where Ready Steady Go! was different.

From its debut on the ITV network on 9 August 1963, it made a direct connection with its audience. Its creator, Elkan Allan, was smart enough to trust the creative instincts of the people around him — particularly those of the young Vicki Wickham, who started as Allan’s secretary but whose instinctive love of black music, absorbed from friends such as Dusty Springfield and Madeline Bell, became the show’s guiding spirit. Without Wickham’s enthusiasm and energy there would have been no Motown special, no James Brown special, no Otis Redding special to go alongside the regular appearances by the Who, the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. In essence, you knew that the people who made this programme believed, as you did, that Cilla Black’s cover version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was not a patch on Dionne Warwick’s original.

If you lived the the provinces, as I did, RSG! was an essential guide to what was happening in inaccessible London clubs like the Scene, the Ad Lib and the Scotch of St James. The show’s directors, from Bill Turner through Daphne Shadwell, Robert Fleming and Rollo Gamble to the brilliantly innovative Michael Lindsay-Hogg, allowed the members of the audience to crowd around the stage as if they were in a club and took the radical step of treating the cameras as part of the set. Graphics by Clive Arrowsmith and Arnold Schwartzman set the tone in the title sequences, which made use of fast-cutting images from popular culture. Responsible for shaping the whole package was the programme’s editor, Francis Hitching.

The story of RSG! has been told many times before, most recently in a fine documentary shown on BBC4 earlier thus year, but never so thoroughly, informatively and entertainingly as in Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here, a large-format (12″x12″) history by Andy Neill, who has been everywhere one could possibly go to unearth every scrap of information on the show’s birth, life and death.

You want a list of the precise contents of every episode? It’s here. You want a fantastic assembly of ephemera, such as tickets for the recordings at the original Associated Rediffusion studios in Kingsway and the later venue in Wembley, and hundreds of newspaper clippings? Also here. You want the memories of dozens of participants, from Mick Jagger to the dancers Patrick Kerr and Sandy Serjeant to Barbara Hulanicki, the founder of Biba and a regular at Kingsway? You want to know more about the presenters Cathy McGowan and Michael Aldred and the members of the production staff? You want the stories behind Ready Steady Goes Live, Ready Steady Win (the talent competition won by the Bo Street Runners), the Mod Ball and Ready Steady Allez!, the show broadcast live from the Locomotive in Paris in March 1966, with the Yardbirds, the Who, Hugues Aufray, Mireille Mathieu and Eddy Mitchell? You want an informed history of British TV’s treatment of pop music, along with Dennis Potter’s Daily Herald review of an early Beatles appearance on RSG!? You want a detailed history of its ratings, as well as the stories about Françoise Hardy’s refusal to sit down while wearing her new trouser suit and the letters from viewers disgusted by James Brown’s show? All here, in a volume with a great anecdote on practically every page, along with a fantastic selection of photographs.

Jagger talks about how he used to go along even when the Stones weren’t on, just to be there. “RSG! wasn’t safe, it took risks,” he tells Neill. “It waded right into the wonderful chaos of the times. You always thought you were slightly on the edge there.” Pete Townshend agrees: “It reflected the colour and vivacity of the times better than almost any other medium.” He remembers how, for the first of the Who’s 16 appearances, performing “I Can’t Explain” in 1965, they were allowed to bring along their own fans from the Goldhawk Club in Shepherds Bush. Wickham and Lindsay-Hogg, he says, “conveyed the sense that we were, all of us, breaking every rule of television. I felt they were breaking societal rules as well.”

My old friend Keith Altham, then a journalist on Fabulous magazine, remembers it as a meeting place for young people starting out in the music business. “It was like a glorified youth club where your mates played guitars or drums or were in the business of reporting on the beat phenomenon. The writers and musicians were all contemporaries.” And afterwards there would be parties for the in-crowd, maybe at Tony Hall’s flat in Mayfair, with a Beatle and a Ronette and a Stone in attendance.

The programme was killed in December 1966 after 173 episodes. Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan were featured in the penultimate show and Chris Farlowe duetted with Jagger on “Out of Time” and “Satisfaction” in the final episode, two days before Christmas. Times and tastes were changing, and the sense of novelty and excitement had dulled. The mainstream audience was getting its fix of chart music from Top of the Pops (BBC, January 1964-July 2006, 2,267 episodes) while the mods were turning into hippies and no longer looked for guidance from television programmes. But it would be a long time before anything came along to replace it.

I can’t think of anything I’d want this book to have that it doesn’t include. As a thoroughly comprehensive and endlessly entertaining time-capsule, put together in exactly the spirit that the show was made, it’s something to cherish. The story of what Elkan Allan, Vicki Wickham and their friends and colleagues created will never be better told.

* Andy Neill’s Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here is published by BMG (£39.99). Recommended listening: The ‘Sound’ of the R&B Hits, the first anthology of Motown tracks released in Britain back in 1964, now expanded from 14 to 28 tracks and released by Ace Records. For more about pop and rock on the small and large screen, there’s Docs That Rock, Music That Matters by Harvey Kubernik, published in the US by Otherworld Cottage (about £35), including chapters on American Bandstand, D. A. Pennebaker, Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling, Concert for Bangladesh and many other subjects. The sequence of images at the top of this piece was created by Clive Arrowsmith for RSG!‘s title sequence in December 1964.

Relighting the torch

Torch singing wore thin for me a long time ago, around the time when all young female singers suddenly wanted to sound like Julie London and look like Rita Hayworth. Charlie Haden briefly rekindled the flame when he embedded Jo Stafford’s 1944 recording of “Alone Together” in his Quartet West album Always Say Goodbye in the early ’90s, and then did the job more thoroughly in a 2010 album called Sophisticated Ladies, for which invited a group of well known female singers to perform standards with the quartet plus strings. In the meantime I’d also fallen for Shirley Horn’s version of Tom Jobim’s “Once I Loved, included by the film director Pedro Almodóvar on a compilation album called Viva La Tristeza.

Among Haden’s sophisticated ladies was Diana Krall, chosen by Haden to sing Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye”, one of my favourite ballads. I knew who she was, of course, but I always thought that if I needed what she did, I’d turn to Ms Horn. Now she’s proved me completely wrong with a new self-produced album called This Dream of You, consisting of 11 standards plus the title song, which is by Bob Dylan: pure torch singing in all its sloe-eyed sultriness, but controlled by an intelligence that knows how to turn its facets to catch the flickers of candlelight.

Krall has the regulation come-hitherness, but she also has the musicianship that inspired her to call on the services of several different musical units to join her own piano and voice: the guitarist Anthony Wilson, the bassist John Clayton Jr and the drummer Jeff Hamilton for lovely versions of “But Beautiful” and “Almost Like Being in Love”, Christian McBride’s bass and Russell Malone’s guitar for “Autumn in New York” and “There’s No You”, and the piano of Alan Broadbent (who arranged Sophisticated Ladies) to accompany her singing on “More Than You Know” and “Don’t Smoke in Bed”.

The most intriguing group, however, consists of Marc Ribot (guitar), Stuart Duncan (violin), Randall Krall (accordion), Tony Garnier (bass) and Karriem Riggins (drums). Together they’re heard on a light-fingered “Just You, Just Me”, the lovely Tex-Mex-tinged title track (plucked from Dylan’s Together Through Life), and “How Deep Is the Ocean”. The last of those, which you can click on above, is — as I’m sure you’ll agree — a complete stunner, Irving Berlin’s blithe love song transformed into a blues aria and perfect in every respect, particularly the short piano improvisation preceding the final chorus: 10 exquisitely funky bars of which Ray Charles or Bobby Timmons would be proud. Compliments to Ms Krall on that, and on everything else making up a quietly outstanding album.