The other day I went to hear some tracks from the new album created by T Bone Burnett from a set of lyrics abandoned by Bob Dylan in 1967. Invited to do whatever he wanted with Dylan’s words, Burnett got together a group of songwriters — Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello — and asked them to turn the lyrics into songs. You can read what I thought of the results here, on the Guardian‘s music blog.
It reminded me of another time someone turned a Dylan lyric into a song, to very good effect. One of my favourite records of the summer of 1965 was “Jack o’ Diamonds” by Ben Carruthers and the Deep, produced by Shel Talmy and released that June on Parlophone. The songwriting credit on the label read “Dylan-Carruthers”. This is it.
It’s a terrific piece of work, perfectly pitched between the exhilarating modernist Anglo-R&B sound of the early Animals, Kinks and Who and Dylan’s intense, inventive folk-rock. Great guitars — heavily reverbed arpeggios, slashing rhythm — with watery organ fills and solo, no nonsense from the bass and drums, and an urgent post-Dylan vocal. A beautifully constructed two minutes and 50 seconds. And a wonderful final chord.
The story is that Carruthers, an American actor who had appeared six years earlier in John Cassavetes’ great Shadows, was in London that summer to appear in a BBC-TV Wednesday Play, Troy Kennedy Martin’s A Man Without Papers, playing the lead opposite Geraldine McEwan. He visited Dylan at the Savoy hotel (a sojourn immortalised, of course, in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back), and when he asked him for a lyric he was rewarded with a piece of paper on which Dylan scrawled a version of the poem that had appeared the previous year on the sleeve of Another Side of Bob Dylan, where it began: “jack o’ diamonds / jack o’ diamonds / one eyed knave / on the move / hits the street / sneaks, leaps / between pillars of chips / springs on them like samson / thumps thumps / strikes / is on the prowl / you’ll only lose / shouldn’t stay / jack o’ diamonds / is a hard card t play.”
No wonder the backing track is so sharp: the band, created by Talmy for the session at IBC Studios in Portland Place, included two of the sharpest 21-year-old session musicians in London, Jimmy Page on guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano, along with a bunch of students from the Architectural Association: Benny Kern on guitar, Ian Whiteman on Lowrey organ, Pete Hodgkinson on drums and a bass player remember only as John. Whiteman later joined the Action, who became Mighty Baby. According to him (on the 45cat website here), it was Kern as much as Carruthers who put the music to Dylan’s lyrics. They also cut a B-side, a Carruthers song called “Right Behind You”, which sounds like Mose Allison taking a stroll down Carnaby Street: here it is.
Benito Carruthers (which is how he was credited on some of his early films) was born in Illinois in 1936, so he was already 29 when he made “Jack o’ Diamonds”. He didn’t make any more records, but there were several further appearances on TV and in movies, including The Dirty Dozen in 1967. He came to see me at the Melody Maker‘s Fleet Street office one day in the early ’70s, and we went to the pub for a conversation of which, regrettably, I kept no record. He died of liver failure in Los Angeles in 1983, aged 47.
I’m biased towards 1965, which I think of as a year of wonders without compare. If you weren’t around then but wanted to know what it felt like, you could do a lot worse than put on “Jack o’ Diamonds”.
* The photograph of Ben Carruthers is a still from Shadows.