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Posts from the ‘Gospel’ Category

Ry Cooder’s ‘The Prodigal Son’

RyCooder_PublicityPhoto_Credit_Joachim_Cooder_GeneralUse22-768x576

The Prodigal Son, Ry Cooder’s first studio album in six years, arrived the other day, and I’ve been playing it non-stop. Following the political and social commentaries of Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and Election Special, this is his gospel album: the music of the church, black and white, filtered through his own approach, with Cooder playing guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and keyboards as well as singing, his son Joachim playing drums and percussion, and three of his regular singers, Bobby King, Arnold McCuller and Terry Evans (who died earlier this year), providing the necessary chorus here and there.

A gospel influence has been present in Cooder’s music all along, of course, from Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” on his debut album in 1970, Joseph Spence’s “Great Dream of Heaven” on Into the Purple Valley and “Jesus on the Main Line” on Paradise and Lunch. But this time it’s allowed to filter to the surface and stay there in a mixture of originals and songs borrowed from the Pilgrim Travelers, the Stanley Brothers, Blind Alfred Reed and others, including two more from Blind Willie Johnson. He was trying, he says in a little promo film for the album, not to make it heavy or preachy. It’s clear that what he was after was the spirit of the people who originally made this music, and of the timeless relevance of their hopes and yearnings.

If you already know Cooder’s music, you’ll know the way this album sounds, although Joachim’s interest in creating new percussion instruments subtly expands the palette of colours and textures. The most obviously appealing track is the version of the Pilgrim Travelers’ “Straight Street”, a redemption song with a chorus begging the listener to add her or his own harmonies, at least in the privacy of their own home, buoyed by Joachim’s electric mbira — a sound “like slow water”, in his father’s phrase — and Ry’s mandolin.

Of the original tunes, the most striking is “Jesus and Woody”, a plain ballad in which Cooder imagines the Lord inviting Woody Guthrie to bring his guitar and sit down next to the heavenly throne and “drag out your Oklahoma poetry, ’cause it looks like the war is on.” It’s the nearest the album gets to an outright declaration on the current state of the world: “Well, I’ve been the Saviour now for such a long time / And I’ve seen it all before / You good people better get together / Or you ain’t got a chance any more.”

When I interviewed Ry for The Times in 1982, he used an interesting word to describe a certain quality inherent in the voices of the early soul singers he so much admired. That word was “unbought”, and it stuck with me. It could equally well be applied to his own music.

At the time of the interview he was probably at the peak of his popularity as a performer, having arrived in London for a run of eight consecutive nights at the Hammersmith Odeon. Still, he was remarking drily that his records “end up in the disc jockeys’ homes, not on their studio turntables.” And he was not enamoured of the art of live performance: “The music should speak for itself, but you have to illustrate it and dramatise it in some way.” Which was not really his thing at all.

He remains a musician as loved as he is admired, the arrival of each new album eagerly anticipated. And when I tried to buy tickets for his October concert at Cadogan Hall the other day, they were all gone. The Prodigal Son, with its theme of consolation, will have to console me, too.

* The photograph of Ry Cooder was taken by Joachim Cooder.

Natalie Cole 1950-2015

Natalie Cole’s death last week, at the age of 65, reminded me of her part in one of the most surreal and exhilarating evenings of my life, when she joined a company of distinguished American gospel singers and musicians for a performance in a 17th century church in the English Midlands.

The date was November 27, 1980, and the place was All Saints’ Church in Northampton, rebuilt with 1,000 tons of timber donated by King Charles II after a fire had laid waste to the town centre in 1675. It made an interesting environment not just for the performers but the congregation, consisting of personnel from the various US Air Force bases dotted around that part of England in the Cold War era.

Invited by the producers of a TV programme called In the Spirit, these men and women played an important role in an event that also featured the Reverend James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir and the soloists Dorothy Norwood and Marion Williams, plus a first-class rhythm section: organ, piano, guitar, bass and drums. I took my father — a Church of England parson, and a music lover, who I correctly thought would be intrigued by the experience — and my friend and colleague Simon Frith. Apart from the TV crew, we were probably the only white faces in the place.

As you can hear from the nine-minute clip, Cole’s rendering of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” was well received. She was, after all, still basking in the glow of her 1975 dancefloor hit, “This Will Be”. On the night, however, I remember thinking that she didn’t seem entirely natural in this context: by comparison with the great female gospel singers, she sounded a little shrill and insubstantial. But she certainly gave it what she had, and you can watch the beautiful sway of the robed choir to the band’s 12/8 rhythm.

To see and hear James Cleveland — one of the founding fathers of modern gospel music — was to witness a masterclass in the manipulation of a willing congregation. When he delivered his purring rewrite of Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs”, featured three years earlier on his Grammy-winning Live at Carnegie Hall album, he wrecked the house almost as comprehensively as the Great Fire of Northampton 305 years earlier.

Uncloudy day

Pop Staples 3Now I think about it, interviewing Roebuck “Pops” Staples 21 years ago was one of the great moments of my life. How could anyone not feel that way about shaking the hand of a man who, while growing up on a Mississippi plantation, had learnt to play guitar from listening to Charley Patton and Son House?

When Pops Staples and his wife Oceola joined the great northwards migration to Chicago in 1936, they took with them a two-year-old girl who was then their only child: Cleotha Staples, who died last week, aged 78 (here is Dave Laing’s very nice Guardian obituary). Later Cleotha, her brother Pervis and a younger sister, Mavis, would join their father in the Staple Singers, one of the all-time great gospel groups — and one which crossed over to the pop charts with remarkable success.

My favourite of their recordings is their first big hit, the majestic “Uncloudy Day”. Released on Vee-Jay in 1956, with a 15-year-old Mavis taking a spine-tingling solo chorus and only Roebuck’s shivering guitar in support of the singers, it supports Richard Thompson’s theory about the special quality of the vocal blend achieved by blood relatives:

And here, shortly after Pervis left to become a record producer and was replaced by a third sister, Yvonne, is an imperfect but nevertheless wonderful clip of them talking to Don Cornelius and performing their great Stax hit “Respect Yourself” on Soul Train in 1971: