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Remembering Laura Nyro

Laura Nyro 1Laura Nyro had missed her intended flight from New York to London, forcing her to take a plane that arrived at six o’clock in the morning. Now here she was, barely 12 hours later, warming up before recording a performance before an invited audience in a small auditorium at the BBC’s Television Centre, for a series called In Concert.

This was in May 1971, three months after she had made her British debut at the Royal Festival Hall, giving a solo concert in which the first set was performed by her then boyfriend, Jackson Browne, who was also appearing in the UK for the first time. It had been a wonderful recital: she started with “Stoney End”, included “Timer”, “Been on a Train”, “Emmie”, “Map to the Treasure” and “Christmas in My Soul”, read a poem called “Coal Truck”, and finished with a lovely medley of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Spanish Harlem”. Such range, such composure, such deep connection with her audience seemed exceptional in one who was still only 23 years old.

She readied herself for the BBC’s cameras in a voluptuously flowing mauve and lilac dress with lace half-sleeves: a typically dramatic costume. As she sat at the piano, I was struck by the way that she could turn her head to look like at one moment like a exquisitely soulful contessa from a Velasquez painting and at the next like a lusty young maid from one of Chaucer’s tales.

As well as her manager of the time, Richard Chiaro, there was a new boyfriend along for the ride. “You’ve got to sit somewhere I can see you,” she told him. But a few minutes later she was scolding him for singing along while she ran through some of her numbers.

In such an intimate setting, the evening was unforgettable: opening with a medley in which “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” sandwiched “Natural Woman”, she sang “Buy and Sell”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, the then-unrecorded “I Am the Blues”, “Christmas in My Soul”, a medley of “Timer”, “Ooo Child” and “Up on the Roof”, and “Mother Earth”; she delivered “Stoney End” as an encore. It was transmitted on BBC2, but in the intervening years it seems to have vanished. Long ago I asked Alan Yentob, a senior arts person at the corporation, to see if he could unearth it, but there was no trace.

It was 23 years later, in November 1994, that Laura made her final British appearance, accompanied by her three backing singers in the ideal 19th century Gothic environment of the Union Chapel in Islington. The set finished with her lovely version of “Walk on By”. And then she was gone, to be carried away by ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49.

She remains a powerful and enduring presence among those who fell under the spell of her extraordinary talent. One of those fans is Billy Childs, an American jazz pianist — known for his work with Freddie Hubbard and Dianne Reeves, among others — who has just released an album called Map to the Treasure, on Sony’s Masterworks label, in which his arrangements of 10 Nyro songs are delivered by different singers.

It’s a risky undertaking. Nyro’s first success came with other people’s versions of her songs (the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues”, Blood Sweat & Tears’ “And When I Die”, Barbra Streisand’s “Stoney End”, Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”), but it didn’t take long for her listeners to realise that the composer’s own versions far outstripped those of her interpreters. Nyro’s full-strength personality suffused her writing, as became apparent in her two masterpiece albums, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969), and their successors. Only she could properly explore the duality of the Madonna/streetchild persona (which she encouraged through her choice of jacket photos for those two albums). So to attempt cover versions at this stage of the game might seem otiose. Who, after all, can add anything new to such cherished pieces as “The Confession” and “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”?

Amazingly, Childs manages it — not by attempting to match or emulate the raw, romantic power of the originals, but by looking for facets of the songs to which he can apply his considerable resources, and by recruiting a group of singers who do not set out to sound like Nyro but bring their own voices, along with an unmistakeable admiration for the source of the material.

A string quartet appears on every track, with guests soloists featured alongside the singers: Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone with Esperanza Spalding on “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”, Chris Botti’s trumpet with Shawn Colvin on “Save the Country”, Steve Wilson’s alto saxophone with Susan Tedeschi on “Gibsom Street”, and Jerry Douglas’s dobro with Alison Krauss on “And When I Die”. Childs is the pianist throughout, supported by the impeccable rhythm team of Scott Colley (double bass) and Brian Blade (drums).

Childs jumps in straight at the deep end by opening the album with “New York Tendaberry”, one of Nyro’s most personal songs, delivered by the operatic soprano Renée Fleming and the cellist Yo Yo Ma. So right away you know we’re not in for a set of mere recreations. The beauty of Fleming’s tone and the sensitive formality of her phrasing takes the piece away from Nyro’s uptown-soul sensibility and into a different dimension.

That’s one of the highlights. Another comes straight afterwards, with Becca Stevens’s equally poised but comparatively uncorseted tilt at “The Confession”. At the centre of the whole thing, in structural and emotional terms, is Rickie Lee Jones: out of all the singers in the project, she is the one who most resembles Nyro in style and delivery (and, as she has often said, is most influenced by her), making her perfectly suited to bring out the tragedy of “Been on a Train”, helped by a most imaginative arrangement for the string quartet. Her presence makes me wish Childs had also called upon Mary Margaret O’Hara, the other singer I think of as an heir to Nyro’s legacy.

But once you get the measure of what Childs is up to, there isn’t a bad track here. What he gives us is a beautifully conceived and meticulously executed song cycle, a fitting tribute to one of the most original and gifted artists of our time. Yes, it’s polished thing, far more polished than Nyro’s own records ever were, but that polish is no superficial gloss: it’s the patina of a profound respect. And beneath it beats the heart of an extraordinary woman.

Laura Nyro BBC ticket

* The photograph of Laura Nyro comes from the cover of her 1984 album Mother’s Spiritual and was taken by Irene Young. The ticket for the 1971 BBC TV concert is mine. Anyone who loves Nyro’s music and hasn’t already read Michele Kort’s excellent biography — Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, published by Thomas Dunne Books in the US in 2002 — should do so. And here, for free, is a link to an interesting piece by an academic, Patricia S. Rudden, from a 2006 edition of the newsletter of the Emily Dickinson Society (you’ll need to scroll down to the third page). Clips of Nyro on YouTube tend to get taken down quickly, but here’s a beauty: her performance of “Poverty Train” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, giving the lie (despite a lame band of session men) to the myth that it was a total disaster. And here’s a real oddity from 1969.

Behind the Curtain of Sound

“Too much reporting on the Wall of Sound this morning — #RememberTheVictim,” a Radio 4 listener tweeted today while Emma Barnett, the presenter of Woman’s Hour, was interviewing Mick Brown, one of Phil Spector’s biographers. The interview was, in any case, mostly about Lana Clarkson, the victim of the fatal shooting in the Pyrenees Castle in Los Angeles on February 3, 2003, and the darker sides of Spector’s character.

Fair enough. In the end, Clarkson’s death was why Spector made headlines throughout the last 18 years of his life. Whatever actually occurred in his mansion that night, the gun was his and if he had not persuaded her to go home with him then she would have woken up the next morning as usual. Probably she would still be alive today, approaching her 60th birthday.

There’s no shortage of figures in every branch of the arts whose private lives would be considered deplorable by a majority of people. Their admirers are left with the problem of how to deal with it. I can understand why some now find it impossible to listen to Spector’s records, although I don’t feel that way myself.

I met him four or five times in the early ’70s, mostly for interviews and once in New York for the three days in late 1971 during which he, John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” at the Record Plant. The most curious of those occasions was an evening in London at the Inn on the Park, a hotel at the bottom of Park Lane, where my friend Penny Valentine, then of Disc & Music Echo, and I were scheduled to share an hour of interview time with him. Two days earlier I’d interviewed his wife, Ronnie, at the same location; she was promoting the release of a single, “Try Some, Buy Some”, on the Apple label, written by George Harrison and produced by her husband.

The interview with Phil began in the late afternoon of an April day, at about five o’clock. We were met in the lobby and shown up to his suite by his long-serving bodyguard, George Brand, a large, dark-suited, near-silent former cop. If the curtains in the suite weren’t already closed, that’s certainly how it felt. Penny and I sat down and Phil began to talk: an almost unbroken monologue in which he told stories and boasted about the number of hits in which he’d played a vital but unacknowledged role. They included Richie Valens’s “Donna” and practically everything Elvis recorded after leaving the army. These claims were clearly baseless, although he did have a tenuous connection with both, just enough to make you wonder. “Donna” was recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, where Spector refined his signature sound and recorded most of his hits. Elvis’s post-army recordings often involved input from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, to whom Spector was apprenticed when he moved to New York in 1960.

So…? But no. He had to have been fibbing, even though he had an acoustic guitar in his lap and every now and then played a snatch of a song he said he’d written. Why on earth would you need to do that, if you’d been responsible for “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Be My Baby”, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'” and “River Deep — Mountain High”? Every now and then Penny and I glanced at each other in the near-darkness, silently registering a mutual astonishment.

But that wasn’t the strangest aspect of the encounter. The scheduled hour of our time together bled into a second hour, and then a third, entirely at Spector’s behest. He needed company, or so it seemed. At one stage he broke off to take a transatlantic call from Bundini Brown, Muhammad Ali’s cornerman. Then he went back to telling his tales.

I’ve no idea of exactly what time we managed to get away, but it was certainly late. Nothing remotely untoward happened — he was courteous and amusing and in most discernible respects it was a very civilised evening — but I got the impression that although Penny was as mesmerised as I was by his performance, she was grateful that we could leave together.

In later years I heard several such stories from people who had visited his LA mansion: descriptions of the darkness, of the obsessive need for company, of the increasing presence of bodyguards and the sense of paranoia it all conveyed. Some people thought he was an arrogant jerk. But I also spoke to people in the music business who’d known him for many years and liked him enormously despite all that. They were people like the veteran music publisher Paul Case, who befriended him on his arrival in New York and later told me the important story of how, when the teenaged Spector was doing a show with the Teddy Bears right at the beginning of his career, he was cornered in a restroom by four young toughs who urinated on him. Lou Adler met him in those days and thought him “obnoxious”; later they established a good rapport. He could be enormously sentimental, which is not always a good sign. And of course we eventually learnt from Ronnie’s autobiography what was going on behind the façade of his marriage, and what it was like being married to him.

Anyway, Gold Star may have been razed many years ago — the site on Santa Monica Blvd is now a parking lot for a mini-mall — but the Wall of Sound still stands, and despite it all I found myself listening to my favourite Spector productions after hearing of his death today. Here are five of them:

1 The Righteous Brothers: “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'” (1964) Unmatchable, of course. Gene Page’s arrangement, Earl Palmer’s drums, the basses of Ray Pohlman (acoustic) and Carole Kaye (electric), the guitars of Barney Kessel and Tommy Tedesco, probably Julius Wechter on vibes, the Blossoms and Cher on backing vocals, and Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield tearing the heart out of the song Spector wrote with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and holding it up for our inspection. (It’s worth pointing out that Spector never just added his name to the songwriting credits to grab some extra cash; among his contributions to this one was the addition of the section based on the I-IV-V “La Bamba” chords.)

2 The Ronettes: “Born to Be Together” (1965) Maybe the most perfect representation of the Spector sound, its expression of romantic ecstasy enhanced by his favourite trick of recording the echo of the strings on a separate track and then using that instead of the primary signal, providing an ethereal effect above the boiling, pounding rhythm section and the chanting voices. This arrangement on this Spector-Mann-Weil song is by Jack “Specs” Nitzsche. The drums are by Hal Blaine.

3 The Crystals: “Oh Yeah Maybe Baby” (1961) The B-side of the first Crystals single, Philles 100, the glorious almost pure gospel “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)”. Recorded at Mirasound in New York, “Oh Yeah Maybe Baby” is a lovely slice of Brill Building teenage pop, set to the baion rhythm — bom bom-bom — loved by Mike Stoller, Bert Berns and others: “Got the heebie jeebies, got the shakes / And I’ve got a funny feeling that you’ve got just what it takes…” Co-written by Hank Hunter, with whom Phil also composed “Second Hand Love” for Connie Francis. Laura Nyro loved this one enough to include it in her solo shows.

4 Ike & Tina Turner: “I’ll Never Need More Than This” (1967) The last but one Philles single, co-written with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, given only a limited US release after the failure of “River Deep”. Arranged by Jack Nitzsche and perhaps the most tumultuous of all Spector’s recordings: the sound of thunderbolts, crashing ocean waves, cliffs crumbling into valleys, with Tina as the lone figure in this Caspar David Friedrich landscape.

5 Darlene Love: “Lord, If You’re a Woman” (1977) A short-lived comeback with his new label — Warner-Spector in the US, Phil Spector International in the UK — and two classic 45s, both calling on the Almighty for assistance: Dion’s “Make the Woman Love Me” and this astonishing thing, an extraordinary concatention of noise arranged by Nino Tempo. A song that could almost be mistaken for a feminist anthem is credited on the UK 45 to “Spector”. The US version credits it to “Mann-Weil”. The riff on the bridge, from “Then He Kissed Me”, has only one author. And Love, who had provided the uncredited lead vocal on the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” in 1963, returned as a star in her own right. (In 1993 she sued Spector for unpaid royalties and was awarded a quarter of a million dollars; did she think fondly of him every time she was invited to perform “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” for David Letterman on TV, or revived it at her own annual holiday-time show? Mixed feelings, I expect, like most of us.)

* My biography of Phil Spector, titled Out of His Head and first published in 1972, was revised, updated and republished in paperback in 2003 by Omnibus Press.

Flutter and wow

toop-guitar.b66383ff

After several books in which he perceptively explored the place and meaning of sound in our lives — including Oceans of Sound, Exotica, Haunted Weather, Sinister Resonance and Into the Maelstrom — now David Toop tells us how he came by his deep love and remarkable understanding of music. Flutter Echo: Living Within Sound, first published two years ago in Japan, where he has a devoted following, is now available in an English edition, and will provide valuable reading for anyone interested in the breadth of Toop’s interests.

That certainly includes me. If Toop is interested in something, the chances are that I will be, too. As signposts to the journey he describes, he appends a list of stuff he liked at the time. The period 1967-70, for instance, when he was in his late teens, includes Junior Wells’s Hoodoo Man Blues, Nico’s The Marble Index, the SME’s Karyobin, and Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. Ten years later he was listening to Little Beaver’s “Party Down”, Cachao y su Descarga, Dr Alimentado’s “Ride on Brother”, Walt Dickerson’s Peace and Evelyn Champagne King’s “Shame”. And so on. Our kind of person, I think.

His book is the story of how a boy from London’s northern suburbs found the music that gave volume, depth and direction to his life. Because his story parallels the experience of so many, and because Toop writes equally well about epiphanies and tragedies, it invites and secures the reader’s empathy.

As a journalist, Toop wrote for many publications (The Face, The Wire and others) and was heavily involved in two magazines, Musics and Collusion, that — among other things — chronicled the activities in the 1970s and early ’80s of the “second generation” of British free improvisers, of whom he was a prominent member, along with his frequent collaborators Steve Beresford, Paul Burwell, Max Eastley, Peter Cusack and others.

Their work is featured in Further Perspectives and Distortions, an excellent three-CD box subtitled “An Encyclopedia of British Experimental and Avant-Garde Music 1976-1984”. Its time-frame means that it includes the wilder work of people associated with jazz-rooted free improvisation, contemporary classical, punk rock and post-punk, from AMM through Gavin Bryars and Alternative TV to This Heat, the Pop Group and Henry Cow. Other mavericks include the Roberts Wyatt and Fripp, Bob Cobbing, Ron Geesin, David Cunningham and Fred Frith.

The way I’ve listened to it is mostly to let each disc run — the tracks are sequenced alphabetically, by artist — and not to bother with checking the origin of each item. Sometimes I couldn’t help myself from wanting to know that a brilliant drum solo was from a Soft Machine track (John Marshall, presumably), or that an irresistible electro-groove was This Hear’s “24 Track Loop”. I enjoyed the 4min 28sec of silence halfway through the second disc, titled “(Extract from) The Compassion and Humanity of Margaret Thatcher” and credited to No Artist.

Those highlights aside (and there are, of course, others), the way I’ve chosen to listen means that the rustlings and bangings and jagged guitars and squeals and howls and pneumatic drilling and rantings and mutterings blend into each other like a mosaic-portrait of an edgy, difficult and often stimulating time, when almost everything was political. Maybe we’re heading that way again.

* The photograph of David Toop is by Fabio Lugaro, and is on the cover of Flutter Echo, which is published by Ecstatic Peace Library. The box set Further Perspectives and Distortions is on the Cherry Red label.

A Christmas song

The last time I did a Christmas post on this blog, in which I listed my seasonal favourites, William Brown wrote in to mention his choice, which comes from a live radio concert by Laura Nyro in 1990. I’ve been listening to Laura for 50 years, since the release of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession in 1968, and she’s more important to me with each passing year. Since I’ve written about her before, at some length, I won’t repeat my thoughts. I’ll just let her wish everybody reading this, on my behalf, a merry Christmas — and, although she doesn’t mention it, a happy new year.

Swing Out Sister in Islington

Swing Out Sister 3

Since they made one of my favourite albums of the year so far, I was keen to see Swing Out Sister at Islington Assembly Hall last night. It turned out to be just what I needed: an hour combining the exhilarating grooves of soul music with the warmth of something home-spun and hand-finished, made by enthusiasts.

I’d expected to hear a higher proportion of songs from the new album, Almost Persuaded, but this was more of a greatest-hits night, which certainly suited the capacity crowd. It suited me, too, when they fired up their lovely version of Barbara Acklin’s “Am I the Same Girl”, which could have gone on all night. The arrangement of “Stoned Soul Picnic” was quite beautifully conceived and executed, Corinne Drewery sharing the lead vocals with Gina Michele in a rare example of a Laura Nyro cover not paling by comparison with the composer’s original.

There was a lot to enjoy, notably the guitarist Tim Cansfield’s discreet Philly-style octave riffs and fills, the presence of the wonderful Jody Linscott on congas, tambourine and other percussion (if I were ever putting together a soul band, Jody would be my first call), and the way Andy Connell integrates quotes from Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder into the backgrounds. When they finished off with “Breakout”, most of the audience — particularly the women – sang along with what had clearly been a personal dancefloor anthem.

The merchandise stall was selling an instrumental-only remix of Almost Persuaded, an album-length exclusive for the people who attended the gig. It’s a great companion piece to the original album. I don’t know how you’d get your hands on a copy, but it’s certainly worth a try.

Looking into Jackson Browne

Jackson BrowneIt’s not really worth a special trip, but anyone visiting London’s South Bank arts complex between now and June 14 will find an exhibition of photographs by Henry Diltz and Chuck Pulin, titled Both Sides Now: Moments in American Music, in the foyer of the National Theatre, organised by the Corbis picture agency. Diltz, a former member of the Modern Folk Quartet, took mellow colour photos of Laurel Canyon aristocracy in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Pulin took raw black and white snaps of the new-wavers and no-wavers of downtown New York City in the late ’70s. The contrast speaks for itself.

Among Diltz’s contributions are a couple of pictures of Jackson Browne, one of which you can see above. The first time I saw Browne on stage was at the South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall in February 1971, when he and his guitar supported Laura Nyro and her piano. He was aged 22 and his first album was awaited, containing songs of astonishing maturity that he’d written when in his mid-teens; he performed them impressively. Now there’s a new 2CD set called Looking into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne, on the Music Road label, which features a couple of dozen people interpreting his songs, and I enjoyed it enough to set aside the wariness with which one has grown used to approaching such projects.

It starts with Don Henley treating “These Days” very well and continues with Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley doing “Everywhere I Go” beautifully before moving on to some names less familiar to me, including Bob Schneider (“Running on Empty”), Paul Thorn (“Doctor My Eyes”), Griffin House (“Barricades of Heaven”) and Venice (“For a Dancer”). Jimmy LaFave’s version of “For Everyman” is good enough to have made me order his latest album (Depending on the Distance) straight away.

You also get Lucinda Williams (a wild-eyed “The Pretender”), Lyle Lovett (“Our Lady of the Well” and “Rosie”), Ben Harper (“Jamaica Say You Will”), Bruce Hornsby (“I’m Alive”), Keb’ Mo’ with “Rock Me on the Water”, the wonderful Karla Bonoff with “Something Fine”, the unlikely pairing of the underrated Marc Cohn and Joan as Police Woman with “Too Many Angels”, another Joan — Osborne — with “Late for the Sky”, J.D. Souther with “My Opening Farewell”, Shawn Colvin with “Call It a Loan”, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa with a sensual “Linda Paloma”, and the Indigo Girls’ lovely version  of “Fountain of Sorrow”, which contains some of my favourite Browne lines, about coming across a photograph of an old lover: You were turning ’round to see who was behind you / And I took your childish laughter by surprise / And at the moment that my camera happened to find you / There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes.

Many excellent musicians make their appearance in the various backing bands — the guitarist Marc Ribot with Springsteen and Scialfa, the bassist Victor Krauss with Souther, the Parks/Sklar/Kunkel rhythm section with Lovett, the pianist Chuck Leavell with the Indigo Girls — and I can’t imagine anyone who likes Browne not enjoying this. I was left wondering that no one chose “The Naked Ride Home”, “In the Shape of a Heart” or “Sky Blue and Black”, which only goes to show how many fine songs he’s written.

Eliza Gilkyson sings another of his best, and I like what she has to say about it: “I don’t think anyone has ever told the story of our generation — our ideals, illusions and spectacular fall from grace — better than Jackson does in ‘Before the Deluge’. It is forgiving and tender, sad and hopeful, and ultimately prophetic as we now face the very future he predicted when he wrote it in 1974. I wish he had gotten it wrong.”

 

Give the session drummer some

If they still awarded grants for projects of genuine cultural significance, I’d want one for research into the great American session drummers of the 1960s. Which Motown records featured the playing of Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen or Uriel Jones? Exactly when did Al Duncan gave way to Maurice White on all those great Chicago sessions (Impressions, Major Lance, etc)? Precisely how did Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine divide the work-load in the Hollywood studios? I’d uncover the answers, and the world would be a better place.

Those questions came to mind when I found myself listening to Chuck Jackson’s “I Need You” a few nights ago. It’s a Goffin/King song (in fact you can find it on Honey & Wine, the second volume of Ace Records’ series of CDs devoted to their compositions), and it’s a beauty. Cover versions would come from the Walker Brothers and the young Wailers, but  none could match the performance of Jackson, one of the greatest of a generation of uptown soul singers that included Lou Johnson, Jimmy Radcliffe and Jerry Butler. Recorded for the Wand label in 1965, it was arranged by Ed Martin and produced by Stan Green and Steve Tyrell. In the hit parade, it made No 75 on the US Hot 100 and No 22 on the R&B chart, which was a disappointment for the singer after the success of “I Don’t Want to Cry”, “I Wake Up Crying” and “Any Day Now”.

What stuck out as I listened to this stately deep-soul ballad, however, was not the wonderful lead vocal. It was the arrangement, featuring strings, acoustic guitar and female vocals — and particularly the drumming, which makes use of the sort of emphatic tom-tom fills that Blaine brought to Phil Spector’s records, and Duncan (or possibly White) to those of the Impressions. And something about their architectural precision made me think of one name: Gary Chester.

Chester was the first-call session drummer in New York during those years. He’s the guy you can hear on the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “On Broadway”, the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take”, the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”, Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Walk On By”, Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party”, the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” and many, many others. He was born in Sicily in 1924 (as Cesario Gurciollo) and died in New York 62 years later, having played, by his own account, on some 15,000 sessions.

He wasn’t the only session drummer in New York  in 1960s, of course, but something about the playing on “I Need You” sounded familiar. So I dug around on the internet, and found an email address for one of the producers. I sent a message to his assistant. Sorry to bother you with such a bizarre request after almost 50 years, I said, but could you ask Steve Tyrell if it was indeed Gary Chester on that record — and by the way, were the backing singers Cissy Houston and her nieces, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, which was how it sounded to me?

Forty eight hours later, quite miraculously, the reply arrived, short but very sweet: “Showed this to Steve and he said: Dee Dee and Cissy. Probably on the same session as ‘Since I Don’t Have You’. And it was definitely Gary Chester playing drums. Could have been Dionne as well but he doesn’t remember that.”

I don’t know why it gives me such satisfaction to pass that information out into the world, but it does.

For more great New York session drumming from the mid-’60s, listen to the Four Seasons’ “Dawn”. I used to think that was Gary Chester, too, but it isn’t. It’s Buddy Saltzmann, who also played on Little Eva’s “The Locomotion”, Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes”, the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. And, of course, countless others. In the drum booths of the New York studios, he, Chester and Panama Francis were the men.

Now, about that grant…

Session man

Hugh McCrackenHugh McCracken, the great New York session guitarist who contributed to recordings by Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Laura Nyro, Aretha Franklin, the Monkees and countless others, including all four Beatles, died on March 28, aged 70. Most of the obituaries, including this one in the New York Times, carried the anecdote about John Lennon meeting McCracken for the first time at the “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” session in October 1971 and, on learning that he’d played on Paul McCartney’s Ram earlier that year, telling him: “You know that was just an audition to get to play with me.”

The quote came directly from an interview with McCracken himself, but he didn’t get it exactly right. What happened that evening at the Record Plant was that Lennon was introduced to the group of guitarists who, playing acoustic instruments, were going to lay down the basic track for the song, according to the formula required by Phil Spector. All but one of them were young and inexperienced.

He asked them for their names. “Chris.” “Stu.” “Teddy.” “Hugh.” Lennon turned to Yoko Ono and said, “Hey, Yoko, doesn’t Hugh look just like Ivan?” Yoko didn’t respond. “Hugh, you look just like a mate of mine from school. A cross between him and Paul.”

He was referring to Ivan Vaughan, the friend who played bass guitar with the Quarrymen and introduced Lennon to McCartney at Woolton village fete that famous July day in 1957. Vaughan had known Lennon since childhood and had gone to school with McCartney, with whom he shared a birthdate. He studied classics at university, became a teacher, and was later engaged by the Beatles to develop an education project on Apple’s behalf. He was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease in 1977 and died in 1993.

A little later, during a break, someone told Lennon about McCracken’s impressive record as a session man, including his contribution to McCartney’s second solo album a few months earlier.

“Oh,” Lennon responded. “So you were just auditioning on Ram, were you?”

If you think I’m splitting hairs here, you’re probably correct. But we might as well get the verbatim right for posterity’s benefit, if there’s going to be a posterity.

McCracken was a first-choice session man who could nevertheless often be found playing the less glamorous rhythm parts behind guitarists with bigger reputations. But if I had to pick a highlight from his career in the studio, it would probably be Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”, a track from Gaucho (1980), to which he contributes a startling intro and a discreet but beautifully shaped short solo.

* The photograph of McCracken is taken from http://www.jimmyvivino.com — the website of the guitarist who leads the house band on Conan O’Brien’s late-night chat show on TBS, the US cable channel.

About the author

Richard WilliamsSince the late 1960s I’ve written about music for the Melody Maker, the (London) Times, the Independent on Sunday, the Guardian, Down Beat, Jazz Journal, Mojo, the TLS, Granta, Uncut and other publications. A list of the people I’ve most enjoyed interviewing during that time would include Marvin Gaye, Laura Nyro, Booker T. Jones, Miles Davis, Curtis Mayfield, Charles Mingus, Brian and Dennis Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Terry Riley, Max Roach, Mable John, Ornette Coleman, Steve Cropper, Chet Baker, Isaac Hayes, Mac Rebennack, Phil Spector, Ry Cooder, Gladys Knight, Lou Reed, Bob Marley, Ellie Greenwich, John Lennon, Allen Toussaint, Elvin Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Stan Getz, Boz Scaggs, Nico and Martha Reeves. My books on music include Out of His Head: The Sound of Phil Spector (1972), Bob Dylan: A Man Called Alias (1990), Long Distance Call: Writings on Music (2000) and The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music (2009). Served a very happy three-year term as artistic director of the Berlin jazz festival from 2015-2017.