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A talk with Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield

Thirty years ago, on September 13, 1990, during an open-air concert at Wingate Field in Brooklyn, Curtis Mayfield suffered the accident that left him paralysed from the neck down. Just over three years later I went to his home in Atlanta, Georgia to conduct an interview that I’ll never forget. Here it is.

“There’s not really much to talk about,” Curtis Mayfield said. “It happened, and it happened fast. I never even saw it coming.” And then, gathering momentum, he started to describe the events of a late-summer day in 1990.

“It was the 13th of September,” he began. “I think it was a Monday. I flew into New York from Long Beach, California. I had my driver come and meet us at La Guardia. Everybody was in good shape. We went over to New Jersey. I had decided to stay in a hotel over there — it was a little cheaper. I got on the phone, called my promoter at about eleven o’clock to tell him we were here. He told me he’d call me back, which he did a little later, and he gave me directions to come out to Queens.

“We arrived there at about eight-thirty or nine. It was bigger than I thought — about 10,000 people right out in the park. We pulled up behind the stage. I met a few people, shook a few hands, got my money — my balance in advance. All the normal things. I’m in the safest place in my life, doing my work.

“I was to close the show, but it was running a little late, and I was asked to go on stage a little early so people who were there to see me wouldn’t be disappointed. No problem. I was happy to do that. I tuned my guitar and jumped into my stage clothes. The promoter’s son came out and said, ‘We’re ready for you.’ I sent my band out and they hit the opening number. It was ‘Superfly’.

“I had my guitar on and I’m walking up these sort of ladder steps, a little bit steep but not so steep you couldn’t walk up them. I get to the top of the back of the stage, I take two or three steps, and… I don’t remember anything. I don’t even remember falling.

“The next thing I know, I was lying on my back. So I must have went out for a moment. And then I discovered that neither my hands nor my arms were where I thought they were, and I couldn’t move. I looked about me lying there. I saw myself totally splattered all over the stage.

“Then it began to rain. Big drops. I could hear people screaming and hollering. From what I could observe, all of everything above us had come out of the sky. I chose not to shut my eyes, for fear of dying. The rain was falling. Some of the fellows found me and saw that I was paralysed, so they went and found a big piece of plastic sheeting to protect me in the rain until the paramedics arrived. Luckily, the hospital was right around the corner. Everything else is history.”

And then, lying in the large bed in the front room of his house, Curtis Mayfield fell silent. His brown eyes peered over the top of the white sheet. The tape recorder, propped on the pillow case close to his mouth, turned noiselessly. Nothing else moved. For Mayfield, nothing had moved since that humid night three and a half years earlier when he took the stage, just as he had done countless times throughout a thirty-year performing career, and a lighting rig toppled, paralysing him from the neck down and silencing one of the great poetic voices of post-war America.

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He was born in 1942 and grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects on Chicago’s Near North Side. His father left home when he was four years old and he was raised by his mother. But when he talked about where he had acquired his view of the world, and his means of expressing that view, he kept returning to memories of his grandmother.

“I used to be back and forth between my mother and my grandmother,” he said. “She was the Reverend Annie Bell Mayfield, and she had a little storefront church — the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church. We’d have Bible classes there early on Sunday mornings before my grandmother’s sermons, which would go on from nine o’clock in the morning until noon.” Annie Bell Mayfield died some years ago, leaving no evidence of her prowess as a preacher, but it’s easy to believe that, if we were somehow able to retrieve an replay her Sunday morning marathons, we would hear the distinctive patterns that distinguish not only her grandson’s lyrics but also, from time to time, his conversation, in which ghetto vernacular is articulated with a graceful formality that can only have come from early and prolonged exposure to the King James Bible.

He began to sing, too, in her church, where he also heard many styles of gospel music performed by visiting choirs, an experience that augmented a fondness for the recordings of the Sensational Nightingales and the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama — “on that black and white Specialty label, in the days when I had to stand on tiptoe to reach the Victrola.” At home, where his mother kept the family together through welfare payments, there was always a record on the Victrola or something playing on the radio, and he quickly learned to love the grown-up popular music of Billie Holiday as well as the teenage doo-wop of the Spaniels, the Cadillacs and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

At eight or nine he was singing alongside a young friend, Jerry Butler, in a gospel group called the Northern Jubilees. In his early teens, having picked up a rudimentary knowledge of the piano, he started fooling around a guitar that a friend had left at his grandmother’s house. Knowing nothing, he tuned it to the black keys of the piano. The result was an F-sharp open tuning which he discovered was incorrect, or at least unorthodox, when he and the Impressions made their first visit to the Apollo in Harlem and he tried playing along with the house orchestra. “No one else tunes that way,” he said with sadness, the arms that had cradled that guitar lying immobile under the bedsheet. “So it’s a lost art now, a lost tuning.” At eleven or twelve he was singing with schoolboy doo-wop quartets, using housing-project stairwells as echo chambers, and before long he was writing songs for them to sing. His guitar was the vehicle, and his imagination provided the material.

“Everything was a song,” he said. “Every conversation, every personal hurt, every observance of people in stress, happiness and love. If you could feel it, I could feel it. And if I could feel it, I could write a song about it. If you have a good imagination, you can go quite far.”

His mother encouraged him to read widely, and introduced him to the work of the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. “My teacher told me I’d never amount to anything,” he said. “I left high school at fifteen, after just one year. But my real teachers were the people around me. And I was a good listener. I used to love to sit and listen to the old people talk about yesterday. There’s a lot of good information there.”

The sharp awareness of social problems came, he said, simply from looking at the world around him. “I was a young black kid. One of the first things I remember, in the early ’50s, was the boy from the north who went to Mississippi to visit and happened to say something or whistle to a white woman. They came and got him out of the night and destroyed him.” He was referring to fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 by white racists for his alleged effrontery. “All of these things come into your head. And of course the popularity of the Reverend Martin Luther King instilled in me the need to join in, to speak in terms of we as a minority finding ways to be a bit more equal in this country.”

The record industry wasn’t exactly thrilled by the notion of a black entertainer trying to say something serious in songs with the Impressions like “We’re a Winner”, “Choice of Colours” and “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)”. “No, no. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t help myself for it. And it was also my own teachings, me talking to myself about my own moral standards. As a kid, sometimes you have nobody to turn to. I could always go back to some of the sermons and talk to myself in a righteous manner and put that in a song.”

I asked him where “People Get Ready” had come from, because it seemed to be one of those songs that had sprung not from a writer’s pen but from the collective unconsciousness. “I don’t know. I just wrote it. Lyrically you could tell it’s from parts of the Bible. ‘There’s no room for the hopeless sinner who would hurt all mankind just to save his own / Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner, for there’s no hiding place against the Kingdom’s throne.’ It’s an ideal. There’s a message there.”

Mayfield had hardly begun writing songs before he realised the value of owning the title to his own work. “My family had been quite poor. We had nothing, really, although I didn’t realise it when I was small. But once I came of an age to understand how little we had, it made me want to own as much of myself as possible.” And at the age of seventeen this Chicago ghetto child wrote off to the Library of Congress in Washington DC, asking how he could protect the rights to his own songs. Form a publishing company, they told him, and this is how you do it. So he did.

“During that time,” he said, “record companies were used to taking people off the street and giving them twenty five bucks for a song. Many a hit came off the street like that. But I was too stubborn, too strong-willed, which they didn’t care for. However, I also understood early on that it’s better to have fifty per cent of something than a hundred per cent of nothing. And at least I had it to bargain with.”

The business side didn’t come naturally to him. “I’m a creative person. And I was just too young. I didn’t have the knowledge. I’m sure that for every dollar I’ve earned, I’ve probably earned someone else ten or twenty dollars.”

The Impressions recorded first for the local Vee Jay label and then for the giant ABC corporation, where their hits ran from “Gypsy Woman” and “It’s All Right” through “I’m So Proud”, “Amen, “Keep on Pushing”, “Meeting over Yonder”, “You’ve Been Cheating” and “I Need You”. But in the late ’60s, inspired by Berry Gordy’s Motown enterprise, he and a partner, Eddie Thomas, who had been Jerry Butler’s chauffeur, formed their own label. Like the Isley Brothers’ T-Neck or James Brown’s People label, Mayfield’s Curtom Records never quite managed to outgrow its primary function as a vehicle for the founder’s musical output.

“We were all trying to survive in a big world of business and loopholes and record companies that weren’t giving you all you felt you’d earned,” he said. “I just admired what Berry was doing at Motown. I always had that dream. But it just never happened for me in that manner.” Why not? “I wore too many hats, for one thing. And my face during those days would not allow doors to open for me. As a black man, you don’t get an invitation.”

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Mayfield was in his prime in 1972, aged thirty, when he used the soundtrack to Superfly — one of a series of “blaxpolitation” movies — to deliver a warning against the increasingly violent drug culture of the projects in which he had grown up. I wondered whether it saddened him that although the songs were big hits, the warnings of “Freddie’s Dead” and “Pusherman” — like those contained in James Brown’s “King Heroin” or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On — had been so totally ignored by the people at whom they were aimed, even though they were also often the people who bought and danced to them.

“In some ways. Not really, because although sometimes all the bad things seem to be in a majority, it’s still really a small minority. The majority still has high hopes and reasons, and wants to do the right things and be about success stories. The poverty may hold them back, but the dreams are still there. People have reasons to be pessimistic, but this world is still of value.”

But wasn’t he nevertheless glad that he had grown up in the Chicago of the ’40s and ’50s, where black people were still streaming in from the South, fleeing the plantations in the hope of a better life, rather than the crack-culture Chicago of the ’90s, where the only solution to the hopelessness of the Cabrini-Green projects was to raze them to the ground? Weren’t things just getting worse?

“It’s hard to say who lived the better life. However, those who live today would probably prefer today’s life, and tomorrow’s beginning. We laid the ground, our sacrifices were big. But prior to that it was even worse. And look at the people who laid a platform for us. I understand what you’re saying. It seems that it’s not respected or appreciated by many of the young. But I still say it’s a minority of a minority. It’s not the majority.”

Mayfield has eleven children. Six of them were living with him and his wife, Altheida, in the big house in the Atlanta suburbs that he bought in 1980. What did he think of the music that had soundtracked the growing years of his own kids — the brutal frankness of hip-hop and gangsta rap?

“I listen to it, and it hurts me. A lot of the stuff, as a grown adult and a father… well, you do have to lay down your own laws and not allow too much of it to infiltrate the home and family.” Is it really corrupting? “Oh yeah. Children are very impressionable. You do have to set standards and lay a foundation of rights and wrongs, and then live a certain way so that they can see that what you say is also what you do. And if your children have any strength and an admiration for their parents, and if you teach them to be strong-willed, then maybe — just maybe — you have a chance. That is still not to say that as they leave this home and go out into the world they may not be smothered with all the negatives — knowing that black boys especially have less than a fighting chance to learn the things they need to make a livelihood. All that’s out there for them is jail.”

Lying there in his enforced silence, would he like to be writing about those matters today?

“No. It’s all been said. And I don’t like to repeat myself.”

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He had surgery straight after the accident, and again once he was back home in Atlanta. But nothing had improved his condition, which appeared like to be unchanged for the rest of his life. He relied on his wife and children to feed him, to fetch for him, and for every movement of his limbs. All he had left were his eyes, his speech, his brain, and his enormous spiritual and philosophical resources.

“We’re taught to keep high hopes,” he said when I asked him about a prognosis. “Which I have. But I must deal with the realities of today, and let tomorrow take care of itself. I’m lucky to still have my mind. Many things are possible. But if I have a thought, I can’t write it down. I even have a computer over there. But I can’t get up to use it. So there are those frustrations.”

Could he still sing? “Not in the manner as you once knew me. I’m strongest lying down like this. I don’t have a diaphragm any more. So when I sit up, I lose my voice. I have no strength, no volume, no falsetto voice, and I tire very fast.”

But did he still sing inside his own head? “Yes, I do. I still come up with ideas and melodies. But they’re like dreams. If you can’t jot them down immediately, they vanish.”

His medical bills had been horrendous. To help defray them, a tribute album featured performances of his songs by singers from Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen and Gladys Knight to Elton John, Rod Stewart, B. B. King and the Isley Brothers. He expressed gratitude to BMI, one of the two big US royalty-collection agencies, which helped out by paying him an advance against each year’s earnings. Surely, I suggested, they must have done pretty well out of him over the years? “I hope so. But, you know, people don’t have to. In my case lots of people have in their own ways been ready to come to my aid. I try not to ask. I don’t wish for charity. But I must still realise that I’m in need of everybody.”

A young man came into the room: Todd Mayfield, aged twenty seven, his second son, wanting to see if his father needed anything.

“My family has been fantastic,” said the quiet voice from the bed. “My son here is my legs and my arms and part of my mind as well.” A pause. “So… so far, so good.”

* Curtis Mayfield died on December 29, 1999, aged fifty seven. Three years earlier, helped by various musicians and producers, he had made one last album, the superb New World Order, released by Warner Brothers, from which the portrait photograph by Dana Lixenburg is borrowed. Traveling Soul, Todd Mayfield’s excellent biography of his father, was published in 2017 by the Chicago Review Press. My piece originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday and is slightly abridged from the version included in Long Distance Call, a collection of my music pieces, published in 2000 by Aurum Press.

Freedom songs

Wormwood Scrubs 2

The huge white chapel of HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs is cocooned in 20ft mesh fences topped with rolls of razor wire. Built along with the rest of the establishment in 1874, it is Grade II listed and, on the inside, very handsome. Last night it hosted a unique occasion: a concert at which Rhiannon Giddens and her partner Francesco Turrisi, the star attractions, were preceded by six men currently held in the facility, which is nowadays a place for about 1,200 held on remand from local and county courts, awaiting the next stage of their judicial procedure.

The project was organised by Koestler Arts, a charity which works with prisoners and has its HQ in a house next to the Scrubs, and Serious, the producers of (among other things) the EFG London Jazz Festival, as part of which 60 tickets for the event went on sale to the public. About 40 friends of the charity were invited. The remainder of the audience, about another 40, were men currently on remand.

We gave up our phones, keys and other prohibited items before passing through the security entrance beside the prison’s famous twin-towered main gate. Ushered through a yard and into the chapel, we were directed to sit to the right of the aisle. Shortly before the performance began, the men on remand took their places on the other side; later we would be asked to wait while they filed out and were checked back into their wings.

The Ensemble, as the group of six inmates were called, were introduced to us by Fusion, one of the hosts of the jazz festival. He named them as Dave, Vince, Archie, Mark, Roy and Dan. Fusion and another Serious-mandated person, Shelly Davis, had worked with them over the preceding two weeks, spending four two-hour sessions working from scratch on original songs, poems and raps that could be performed either unaccompanied or with the simplest backing track.

These were not professional performers, although one had an outstandingly soulful voice, another was nearly as good, and a third would undoubtedly have a future as a rapper. The music moved between modern R&B, rap and gospel, the words — inspired by works of art from the annual Koestler Awards — inevitably evoking yearnings for lost freedom and identity. One poem had the refrain: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder / I wonder what our life would have been like if our bond was stronger.” The rap went: “A tree without roots won’t stand in this land / You need the roots to become a man.”

It was extraordinarily moving, as was their visible reaction to the sincere ovations they received after each item in their half-hour performance. This, if you were in any doubt, was what music can do, what it can offer, not just as a way of transcending immediate circumstances but as a signpost to real hope.

Only something special could follow that. Rhiannon Giddens, the one-time opera student from North Carolina who embraced old-time music, is engaged on a mission of rediscovering and recombining the folk forms of the African diaspora with relevant collateral idioms; this could hardly have been more appropriate to the occasion, given that most of the Ensemble and a high proportion of the prison’s inmates share their origins in that historical phenomenon. Playing her minstrel banjo — a 19th century design whose own roots are in West Africa — and fiddle, with Turrisi on accordion, cello banjo and a variety of frame drums and tambourines, and with Jason Sypher on double bass, she presented a short version of the concert programme from their current British tour, including the song “I’m On My Way” (from her latest album, there is no Other), which received a Grammy nomination this week.

In between whirling jigs from Ireland and southern Italy, she applied her exquisite precision and full-throated power to “At the Purchaser’s Option”, the song (from Freedom Highway, her 2017 album) provoked by a newspaper advertisement offering a young female slave, surplus to the vendor’s requirements, with a nine-month-old baby that could be included if the buyer so desired. “Ten Thousand Voices”, the declamatory lead-off track from the new album, featured Turrisi’s cello banjo, creating a desert-blues plangency answered by Giddens’s ardent fiddling.

I was praying that she’d do her version of “Wayfaring Stranger”, also from the new album: a traditional song of hope in the midst of travail. As Turrisi’s accordion solo pierced the deliberate plucking of the banjo and Giddens’s voice soared up into the high vaulted wooden ceiling of the chapel, it felt like as timeless and universal a piece of music as can ever have existed.

* Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi are at the Royal Festival Hall tonight (Friday 22 November) and then on tour around the UK. there is no Other is on the Nonesuch label. 

Down Here Praying

Pure Heart Travelers

Apart from anything else, the release of Amazing Grace, the long-buried film of Aretha Franklin singing gospel songs in 1972, reminded us of the debt we all owe to the black church. African American gospel music explored and mapped the fastest route to the deepest emotions, whether in raw vocal inflections, heart-lifting harmonic changes or ecstatic choral vamping.

There are many fine gospel compilations, but few that I’ve found as fascinating and rewarding as Sacred Sounds, a new anthology of material recorded with various artists by the Detroit-based producer Dave Hamilton for his own labels between 1969 and 1974. Its two dozen tracks, selected by Ady Croasdell and Adam Stanfel, offer a cross-section of approaches to the idiom at a time when its performers were borrowing from R&B and pre-disco soul music.

Hamilton arrived in the Motor City from Savannah, Georgia in the 1940s and quickly established himself as a guitarist and vibraharpist on the local scene. A friend of Marvin Gaye, he played on “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”; his recordings for various labels under his own name included an album called Blue Vibrations for Berry Gordy’s Workshop Jazz label, an early Motown subsidiary (here’s the single, “Late Freight”, co-written with Clarence Paul). As a producer, his vast output yielded many tracks, such as Little Ann’s “Deep Shadows” and James Carpenter’s “(Marriage Is Only) A State of Mind”, which emerged from obscurity only decades later.

There’s a fair chance you won’t have heard any of these gospel tracks, or be familiar with such groups as the Sensational Sunset Paraders, the Detroit Silvertones, the Soul Inspirers and the National Independent Singers. All you need to know is that in other circumstances many of these singers could have turned into Motown superstars. The opening “Jesus Is With Me Pt 1” by Little Stevie and the Reynolds Singers sets the tone: had the Jackson 5 cut a gospel track in 1969 rather than “I Want You Back”, this is how it might have turned out. It’s followed by the Scott Singers’ “I’m Not Ready to Die”, with a house-wrecking female voice leading the group over lightly strummed rhythm guitar, walking bass and a woodblock on the backbeat.

The Reverend Samuel Barbee’s “(This Is) My Plea” opens with a heartfelt sermon on repentance over sepulchral organ, joined by a soulful guitar when the song kicks in and Barbee shows off his Sam Cooke chops. The Sensational Angelettes’ “I Heard a Voice Pt 1”, cheerfully borrows the melody of “Ain’t No Sunshine” for something that sounds like it belongs on one of Dave Godin’s old Deep Soul compilations. Mr Bo’s “Saviour on the Throne” is a genial altered blues in the B. B. King manner, while “Wrapped, Tied, Tangled Up in Jesus” shows the singer and guitarist Mary Ellen George to have been a spiritual cousin of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The Soul Inspirers’ “Grown Old and Feeble” sound like a natural for a Ry Cooder cover, the Detroit Silvertones’ “Down Here Praying” is a wild shout-up, and the rocking vamp of “I Need Your Power” suggests how compelling the Pure Heart Travelers — that’s them in the photograph at the top — must have been in their prime.

Hamilton built his own studio and subjected his gospel artists to the minimum of interference and no sweetening, aiming to do nothing more or less than capture the singers and musicians au naturel. The result is a vibrant authenticity that leaps out of the grooves.

* Sacred Sounds: Dave Hamilton’s Raw Detroit Gospel 1969-74 is released on the Kent label. His secular productions are available in three volumes of Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Dancers and one each of Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Soul, Dave Hamilton’s Detroit City Grooves and Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Funk.

Aretha in church

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What I can tell you about going to see Amazing Grace is that from start to finish I couldn’t keep a dry eye. Getting old and sentimental, maybe. But that’s the power of African American gospel music, supercharged in this case by the presence of Aretha Franklin, whose career reached its apogee on the two specially arranged evenings — January 13 and 14, 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts — that the film documents.

The story behind its release is a long and tangled one, starting with the disastrous failure of the originally designated director, Sydney Pollack (who was in between They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and The Way We Were), to ensure that sound and visuals were properly synched. But it’s here now, finally pieced together, not too late to thrill us to our bones for 87 minutes while casting light on the artistry of one of the great musicians of the 20th century.

After decades of familiarity with the album containing the music from these evenings, for me the film’s biggest revelation was the unstructured nature of the event. Aretha wears a gown each night and the Southern California Community Choir are in their glittering silver and black uniforms, but there’s no serious attempt to dress up the setting or the presentation. The Reverend James Cleveland acts as MC, also playing piano and duetting with the star, but the ambiance is less like a formal service than I had anticipated, although of course the active relationship between singer and congregation is entirely that of a black Baptist church.

A few things crossed my mind while immersed in this remarkable film. The first was the impression made by Aretha’s absolute absorption in her music: to watch her sing with eyes closed in concentration, to see how the sound comes out of her mouth, adds a whole dimension to the experience of simply listening to her records. She was a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday, and we know that she had already lived a complicated life, but at times as she sings her face is movingly irradiated with a kind of innocence.

The second thing was the looming presence of two men, one of them her father and the other her mentor. The Rev C. L. Franklin is in attendance on the second night, sitting in the front row, next to his long-time lover, the regal Clara Ward, who was one of Aretha’s idols. He walks to the lectern to give a little speech, and later takes out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his daughter’s face as she begins “Never Grow Old”. It’s a tender gesture, but also a rather ostentatious one. James Cleveland’s quasi-proprietorial moment comes when there’s a kerfuffle in the audience — a woman, perhaps possessed by an excess of the divine spirit, is hustled away — and he moves to sit close by Aretha, above and behind her, positioning himself to protect her against the possibility of further disturbance.

The third was the importance of her piano-playing. She accompanies herself on only two of the pieces, “Never Too Old” and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy”, but the difference between her playing and that of Cleveland — who knows all the required licks, of course — is marked. Jerry Wexler always said that it was essential to have her playing on her records, and he was right. (Think how her piano reshaped “I Say a Little Prayer” or “You Send Me”, for example.) She first recorded “Never Too Old” at the age of 15; this version, stretched over a quarter of an hour without ever going into tempo, is one of the finest, purest, deepest things she ever did.

The fourth thing was how little we see of the band on screen. The contribution of Ken Lupper on Hammond organ, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on bass guitar, Pretty Purdie on drums and Pancho Morales on congas is vital to things like the slow 12/8 rock of the epic “Mary, Don’t You Weep”, but the musicians don’t seem to have been of much interest to Pollack. (The sound mix, too, is not as pristine as it was in the Complete Recordings edition released in 1999, where we hear them hitting a perfect groove on the instrumental riff from “My Sweet Lord” at the end of each performance.) Lupper, a local church organist, uses his B3 to support the piano with an exquisite touch and is one of the unsung stars of the night; the other is Alexander Hamilton, the choirmaster, whose lithe conducting encourages the massed voices to answer Aretha with such electrifying passion and precision.

The fifth and last thought concerned the air of semi-chaos caught by the cameras, and how important its effect seems now. Imagine what would happen if a 21st-century soul diva of comparable eminence — Beyoncé, say — were to undertake a similar project today. There would be no mildly dishevelled camera operators in shot, no moments of on-screen uncertainty over the running order, no empty chairs, no grain in the image — yet those are among the factors that, like the slightly rough sound, make Amazing Grace feel so real.

Joe Boyd, who worked for several years with Alan Elliott on getting the film into shape for general release, calls it “the final bow of a way of making music perfected by an extraordinary generation of music-makers with the skills and influences that bounced back and forth between African American secular and religious music.” No one, he says, makes music like this any more. It’s tempting to endorse that judgment, although I can’t go along with the way it seems to disparage the creativity and spontaneity of more recent generations. Times change, and ways of making music change with them. But I will say that, without question, Amazing Grace is one of the greatest expositions of African American music ever committed to film. Those who laboured to bring it out of the darkness of the vaults, turning cinemas around the world into sanctified churches in the process, deserve our profound gratitude.

* The film is in British cinemas now. The Complete Recordings 2-CD set is still available on Rhino/Atlantic. Aaron Cohen’s book Amazing Grace, in the 33 1/3 series, contains a great deal of valuable background and testimony, as does Respect, David Ritz’s biography of Aretha, published by Little, Brown.

Ry Cooder at Cadogan Hall

Ry Cooder Cadogan Hall

It was quite enough of a thrill to hear Ry Cooder, having temporarily banished his excellent band, singing Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man”, long a staple of his repertoire, at Cadogan Hall last night. But a couple of minutes in, he took a left turn with some new words:

Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old when he took a little trip down to the grocery store / Well, he might have gone on to be President / But that’s something we’ll never know / Because he ran into a vigilante man…

In the handful of seconds that it took to sing those words, the temperature of the room changed. Channeling the menacing throb of one of John Lee Hooker’s talking blues, Cooder sang about the killing of Trayvon Martin and followed the thought into a rap about Brett Kavanaugh, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. And the audience went with him, all the way.

Once upon a time, Cooder could fill Hammersmith Odeon eight nights in a row. Enough of us are left to have filled Cadogan Hall at least as many times. This, however, was the only show, and I was lucky to get a ticket at the last moment. And how glad I was to be given the chance to hear him, in his 72nd year, singing and playing and organising musicians with as much zest and enthusiasm as you could wish for.

The band featured his son Joachim on drums, Mark Fain on bass guitar, Sam Gandell on alto and bass saxophones, and three singers known as the Hamiltones, from North Carolina: Toni Lelo, 2E and J. Vito. The material was a combination of old favourites — “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”, “Jesus on the Mainline”, “Go on Home, Girl”, “Down in the Boondocks”, “Little Sister” — and songs from his new gospel-based album, The Prodigal Son.

That emphasis thrust the singers into the spotlight, and they thrived in it. Their own featured spot included a song called “Highway 74” (with Lelo on Mayfield-style guitar)  that showed them to be in the tradition of groups like the Spinners and the Manhattans. The gospel power was turned to full beam for “99 and a Half” and a gorgeous treatment of Carter Stanley’s “Harbour of Love”, much richer and more resonant than the album version.

Cooder played some fine solos on a number of instruments, including an electric mandolin. He gave several spots to Gandell, who produced a house-wrecking bass sax solo on “The Very Thing That Made You Rich” as well as using a harmoniser and other effects on his alto — its bell muted with a cloth — to provide atmospheric backgrounds.

“See you next time or in heaven, whichever comes first,” Ry said at the end. For the final encore, concluding a two-hour show, he wisely shone the light back on to the singers, inviting them to deliver “I Can’t Win” with an intensity that left the hall drained. As long as there are still people who can sing like that, all is not lost.

* If anyone knows who took the very nice photograph above, which comes from the promotional material, I’ll add a credit.

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: