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Posts from the ‘Pop music’ Category

Little Jimmy & Little Joe

jimmy-scott-joe-pesciWhen the great ballad singer Jimmy Scott returned to action in the early ’90s, in a rediscovery primed by appearances on Lou Reed’s Magic & Loss and in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the surge of interest resulted in his recordings becoming widely available. They ranged from carefully curated collections of his work for Decca and Savoy in the 1950s (when he was known as Little Jimmy Scott) to new albums produced for Sire and Milestone by Tommy LiPuma, Mitchell Froom, Todd Barkan and others. There was also, finally, the reappearance of two legendary albums from the 1960s suppressed when Herman Lubinsky, the notoriously vindictive owner of Savoy, claimed that Scott had recorded them in breach of an existing contract: Falling in Love is Wonderful, produced in 1962 by Ray Charles for his own Tangerine label, and The Source, supervised by Joel Dorn for Atlantic in 1969.

Lubinsky’s action cost the singer what should have been the prime years of his career, but we were lucky to have him for the last 20 years of his life, until his death in 2014 at the age of 88. In that final phase, hardly surprisingly, his pipes were not what they had once been, but it wasn’t mawkish to feel that the signs of ageing added an extra poignancy to his interpretations. His marvellous phrasing was certainly unimpaired, and the wide vibrato still touched the heart.

Now, three years after his death, comes an album called I Go Back Home, the fruit of his final recording sessions, held in 2009, in which the German producer Ralf Kemper surrounded him with sympathetic musicians, arrangements, and guests. Sometimes, as in “Poor Butterfly”, Scott speaks the lyric, allowing the French harmonica player Grégoire Maret to add melodic decoration. Elsewhere, as on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “How Deep is the Ocean”, his singing has a surprising strength. There are duets with Dee Dee Bridgewater on “For Once in My Life”, with Oscar Castro Neves on “Love Letters”, and with Renee Olstead on “Someone to Watch over Me”. There are tracks featuring other distinguished instrumentalists: the pianist Kenny Barron, the organist Joey DeFrancesco, the tenorist James Moody, and the trumpeter Till Brönner (who displays a delicate lyricism on “If I Ever Lost You”). There are gentle and wholly appropriate string and woodwind arrangements by Mark Joggerst. There is a beautifully warm and clear mix by Phil Ramone.

The big surprise, however, comes in one of the two songs that do not feature Scott at all but are billed as “tributes” by other singers. It’s a version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, the Kern/Hammerstein song that Scott recorded — featuring the seldom-sung introduction — during a 1972 Dorn-produced session which remained unheard until the release of a Rhino/Atlantic album titled Lost and Found in 1993. But this time the singer, paying tribute to his old friend and influence, is the actor Joe Pesci.

We know that Pesci grew up in New Jersey alongside Frankie Valli, and that he had early ambitions as a singer. In 1968 he released an album under the name Joe Ritchie titled Little Joe Sure Can Sing! on the Brunswick label, produced by Artie Schroeck (who arranged Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”), featuring covers of things like the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”. When it didn’t make waves he switched first to stand-up comedy and then to an acting career that took him to the heights of Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino.

His dead-slow version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” — one of my very favourite ballads — is good enough to make you wonder what might have happened had he stuck with the singing thing. His delivery is very much in Scott’s pleading high-tenor register, with subtle echoes of that distinctive vibrato, and occasional manipulations of timbre that seemed to echo the muted-trumpet obligato provided on the track by DeFrancesco, switching to his second instrument. Joggerst’s arrangement exudes a glowing serenity, particularly when the rhythm section lays out for a rubato statement of the six-bar bridge before Barron’s piano, the bass of Michael Valerio and Peter Erskine’s brushes pick it up for the final 12 bars.

I never thought I’d hear a treatment of this song to rival the enchanting version recorded by Peggy Lee with Nelson Riddle in 1957. This one does. I’ve been playing it for friends, without divulging the identity of the singer. They’ve all been amazed.

Pesci also appears in a duet with Scott on “The Nearness of You”, and if you’re only half-listening you might not even notice where one begins and the other ends. So that’s an unexpected reason for investigating I Go Back Home, which stitches the final notes of a fabulously gifted and original singer, one matched as an interpreter of torch songs only by Billie Holiday and Shirley Horn, with tender care into a loving hour-long tapestry of sound.

* The photograph of Joe Pesci and Jimmy Scott together in the studio is from the booklet accompanying I Go Back Home, which is released on January 27 on the Eden River label.

A Christmas No 1

Some strange magic makes Davitt Sigerson’s “It’s a Big Country” my favourite Christmas record, narrowly ahead of Booker T and the MGs’ “Winter Wonderland”, Elvis’s “Merry Christmas Baby”, Leon Russell’s “Slipping Into Christmas” and James Brown’s “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto”.

I met Davitt in 1977, when he was a charming 20-year-old New Yorker just down from Oxford University and deeply immersed in soul music, and I was editing Time Out. He suggesting contributing a weekly column of disco listings: a great idea, although there was stern resistance from a majority of the rest of the editorial staff, who were basically into pub-rock and a bit of punk. Anyway, we went ahead. The following year I moved to the Melody Maker and he wrote pieces for me there, too, including a terrific early piece on Chic, for whom we shared a great admiration.

In 1980 he started making records himself, for Michael Zilkha’s Ze label. His first single, “I Never Fall in Love”, seemed bound to be a hit, and I’m not the only one who still finds himself humming it, savouring the witty lyric, and wondering why the hell it wasn’t. (And somewhere I think I’ve still got a box of the 45s, just in case its time comes around.)

What neither “I Never Fall in Love” nor “It’s a Big Country” — which was featured (alongside the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping”, Alan Vega’s “No More Christmas Blues” and Cristina’s “Things Fall Apart) on The Ze Christmas Record in 1981 — shows is that he had a great feel for a white-boy version of street-funk. When he didn’t get a hit he moved on to writing songs for other artists and to producing, his credits including the Bangles’ third album, Everything, which included the hit “Eternal Flame”. In the ’90s he served briefly as president of Polydor and EMI/Chrysalis, and as chairman of Island in the US.

At some point I remember him telling me that he was writing speeches for politicians, and in 2004 he published a novel called Faithful, which was probably intended to make him the successor to Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis. That was the last I heard of him.

So what is it that I like so much about “It’s a Big Country”? It’s the way the writer, like Chuck Berry and Hal David, uses American place-names to signpost the narrative, which is then guided by a very nice jangling rhythm track at a tempo that is not exactly hurried but suggests that the protagonist might still have more cards to write and calls to make. It’s the conversational tone, and the mention of “me and Ann” (I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the years trying to decide whether she should have an e, like L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, or not, like Ann Sevier in Hans Koningsberger’s An American Romance). And it’s the fact that whenever I hear “Got an uncle in Los Angeles / Beverly Hills, to be precise,” it makes me smile.

If you’re out there, Davitt, merry Christmas. And to everyone else, as well.

Bob Dylan’s ‘Fallen Angels’

Bob Dylan walking stickWhen the Great Director pulls back to frame the ultimate long shot of Bob Dylan’s career from start to finish, it will be interesting to see what the perspective tells us about his two albums of standards associated with Frank Sinatra. My suspicion is that last year’s Shadows in the Night and the new Fallen Angels will be seen as parallel works to the pair of albums, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, with which, in the early 1990s, he revisited the blues.

Those sessions, recorded in the simple solo acoustic format of his first four albums, seemed to declutter his mind. They were followed by Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times, which contained some of his most creative post-’60s work. And I was struck, listening to him at the Albert Hall last October, by how the decision to deal with songs written by the likes of Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin appeared to have influenced his attitude to the business of singing itself.

You don’t mess around with “Autumn Leaves” or “I’m a Fool to Want You”. You sing them properly or you don’t sing them at all. Dylan seemed to accept that imperative, and to be using it to refine his own delivery. His phrasing has always been exceptionally inventive, but he took the opportunity offered by these old songs to concentrate equally on tonal inflection and the meaning of the lyrics. The effect could be heard in concert when he included a handful of his own songs: “Blowing in the Wind”, “She Belongs to Me” and “Tangled Up in Blue” were treated by their author with a new respect for their original characteristics.

Fallen Angels follows the format of Shadows in the Night, employing his regular small band to create a gentle matrix of guitars and double bass plus brushes. With echoes of Western Swing, the Hot Club of France and Hollywood noir, the format allows Dylan to present these songs from an original point of view. If the new album doesn’t quite match the impact of its predecessor, if it feels a little lacklustre by comparison, that may be something to do with the loss of the element of surprise. But in the greater scheme of things, its significance may not be apparent until we see what he does next.

* A note on the packaging: Ever since Columbia’s art department stopped being in charge of the way Dylan’s new releases look, his albums have been characterised by their shoddy appearance and careless annotation (by contrast with the fastidious approach to the Bootleg Series, of course). Fallen Angels is typical in that respect. It’s all very well being a law unto yourself, but it’s impossible to forgive the failure to credit the composers of such jewels as “Come Rain or Come Shine” (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer), “All or Nothing at All” (Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence),  or “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke).

George Martin’s Day in the Life

George MartinForty five summers ago, George Martin granted me a long interview for the Melody Maker. It was a very enjoyable experience: he was most courteous of men, and his answers were full of fascinating detail, with the occasional gentle indiscretion. He spoke in some depth about his experience of working with the Beatles, all the way from “Love Me Do” to Abbey Road, and the result was published in three parts, on August 21 and 28 and September 4, 1971. Lennon and McCartney were at war with each other that year, and some of what he said got up John’s sensitive nose, provoking a couple of letters from New York, the first of which you can see above. But when I asked Martin about the making of “A Day in the Life”, he responded with a very thorough and interesting description, giving a vivid snapshot of the creative relationship between the producer and the four young men he always referred to as “the boys”, a partnership based on his willingness to entertain their interest in taking risks and their respect for his experience and integrity. Had he, I asked, been responsible — as rumour then had it — for sweeping up several seemingly disconnected musical episodes from the studio floor and sticking them together to create a masterpiece?

No, let’s explain that. John had this song, which started off with his observation, and his part was the beginning and the end, and Paul’s was the middle bit. We started recording it with Paul on piano and John on guitar, and we decided we needed another riff in it, and Paul said, “Well, I’ve got this other song — ‘Got up, got out of bed…'” — and he was going to make that a separate song. He said, “You can use it if you like, put it in your one. Will it fit?” They thought about it for a bit and decided it would work, and they wanted something different in it but they didn’t know what.

They decided that they were going to put a lot of just rhythm in it, and add something later. So I said, “Let’s make it a definite number of bars, let’s have 24 bars of just rhythm in two places, and we’ll decide what to do with them later.” They said, “How are we going to know it’s 24 bars, because it’s a long time?” So we had Mal (Evans) standing by the piano, counting “One… two… three…” and in fact he had an alarm clock, because he was timing the thing as well, and it actually went off. On the record you can hear Mal saying, “Twenty one… twenty two…” if you listen.

When they’d done it, I asked them what they were going to do with those bloody great gaps. Paul said he wanted a symphony orchestra, and I said, “Don’t be silly, Paul — it’s all right having 98 men, but you can do it just as well with a smaller amount.” He said, “I want a symphony orchestra to freak out.” So I said, “If you really want one, let me write something for it.” He said, “No, I don’t want you to. If you write it, it’ll be all you. Let’s have just something freaking out.” I said, “Let’s be practical. You can’t get an orchestra in there and say, ‘Freak out, fellers,’ because nothing would happen. They’d just look embarrassed and make a few funny noises.”

So I booked a 41-piece orchestra, half the normal symphony orchestra, and I spent some time with Paul and John. I wrote out the obvious underlying harmonies, and during the main 24-bar sections John and Paul suggested that we should have a tremendous shriek, starting out quietly and finishing up with a tremendous noise. So I took each instrument in the orchestra and at the beginning of the 24 bars I wrote down their lowest note, whatever it was, so that the cello, for instance, had a bottom C, and at the end of the 24 bars I gave them their highest note related to the chord of E. And throughout the 24 bars I just wrote “poco a poco gliss(ando)”, and when it came to the session I told the musicians that they had to slide very gradually up and those people in the woodwind who needed breaths should take them at random. It was just a general slither.

But when we came to do it, the boys said they wanted to make a real event of it. So they got all their friends to come along and dress up and at that time Mick (Jagger) and Marianne Faithfull came along and all their Apple shop friends — the Dutch people — and there must have been about 40 of them, all freaking out with joss sticks. Paul said, “We’re going to be in our flowers but we don’t expect you to do that because you’re not that kind of person.” I said, “Thank you very much.” He said, “But I want you to wear evening dress, and the orchestra, too.” So I booked the orchestra in evening dress, and when it came to the point Paul had brought a lot of carnival gear — funny hats and false noses — and I distributed them among the orchestra. I wore a Cyrano de Bergerac nose myself. Eddie Gruneberg, who is a great fiddle player, selected a gorilla’s paw for his bow-hand, which was lovely. It was great fun.

When Nashville took on Mad Men

Ray Stevens 3It’s pretty strange that the man best known for “Ahab the Arab”, “Bridget the Midget” and “Everything is Beautiful” should have written and recorded one of the most striking protest songs of the 1960s. That, at least, is how I’ve always thought of Ray Stevens’ “Mr Businessman”.

Released in 1968, it deploys a great pop structure — a melody and a chord sequence that descend at different rates, and a brilliant kitchen-sink arrangement — to mount a blazing attack on the amorality of corporate America. Listen to the lyric today, and Stevens could be writing about the world of Donald Trump: “Spending counterfeit incentive / Wasting precious time and health / Placing value on the worthless / Disregarding priceless wealth / You can wheel and deal the best of them / And steal it from the rest of them / You know the score / Their ethics are a bore…”

Not exactly your standard Nashville confection. If we go back and look at the song from the perspective of its own time, it’s clear that he’s attacking the Mad Men culture: “Eighty-six proof anaesthetic crutches prop you to the top / Where the smiles are all synthetic and the ulcers never stop…” He finishes with a lacerating payoff worthy of Dylan at his most vituperative: “No one more lonely than / This rich important man / Let’s have your autograph / Endorse your epitaph…”

The weird thing is that in 1968 Stevens looked exactly like the people he skewered in this song: ready for an afternoon on the country-club golf course. Did he mean the words, or was he just coming up with something that suited the market? A year later he released “The Minority”, a strange little song which comes down on the side of the policeman earning $130 a week for risking his life and the man who takes his children to Sunday School, pays his bills and is faithful to his wife. The silent minority, in  fact: “But the majority rules / While a stampede of fools / Marches over them / Singing a pious hymn.”

It’s included in a new Ace Records anthology, called Face the Music, of the singles Stevens released on the Monument label between 1965 and 1970, also including “Mr Businessman” (and “Freddie Feelgood and his Funky Little Five Piece Band”, “Mary My Secretary” and the first recorded version of Kris Kristofferson’s classic “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”). The compiler, Tony Rounce, mentions in his sleeve notes that the singer, still active in the recording and television studios at 77 years of age, now supports the Tea Party, the far-right faction of the bunch that seems ready to nominate Trump for leader of the free world.

A song for a friend

Paul McCartneyPaul McCartney has a new album out. I was shut in a room with it for a morning the other week, in order to write a review for Uncut magazine, and I came out feeling it contains five songs — “Early Days”, “On My Way to Work”, “Looking at Her”, “Scared” and the title track, “New” — that would make a fabulous EP, if such things still existed. Five really good new songs: not a bad return at this stage of the game.

None of them, however, comes within a mile of matching my favourite McCartney track, which is one that hardly anybody, outside the realm of the fanatics, seems to have heard, or at least to remember. Perhaps that’s because it’s hidden away on Wings’ Wild Life, one of his least memorable albums, recorded in 1971, when his credibility was not exactly at its apogee.

It’s called “Dear Friend“. It’s a six-minute ballad with a simple but beautifully contoured melody: two four-line verses, repeated in sequence to make four verses in all, each 12 bars long and each separated by a pause or a moment’s hesitation. No chorus. A haunting lyric: “Dear friend, what’s the time? / Is this really the borderline? / Does it really mean so much to you? / Are you afraid, or is it true?” — and then: “Dear friend, throw the wine / I’m in love with a friend of mine / Really, truly, young and newly wed / Are you a fool, or is it true?” And the most gloriously subtle arrangement, based on a laconic piano, a bass guitar, minimal drumming and the dark glimmer of a vibraphone (all of which I imagine he played himself), each verse individually coloured by a small string orchestra, a couple of oboes, or briefly, in the final minute, a gorgeously grainy horn section that sounds like a brass band who’ve walked in off the street.

The whole thing is so plain, so underplayed, so brilliantly understated by whoever worked with him on the arrangement, that you can hardly believe it’s Paul McCartney in his solo guise at all. His singing, some of it in his falsetto register, is perfectly attuned to the sobriety of the arrangement, not least when he introduces a dozen bars of scat-singing in which his tone and note-choice are as eloquent as words. I don’t think he’s ever sounded so unselfconsciously introspective.

You only have to read the lyric to see why most people assume the song is about John Lennon, with whom his relationship was then at its most difficult. Perhaps that’s true. I prefer to take the Bob Dylan line, which is that it’s an artist’s job to take the particular and turn it into the universal, to play fast and loose with the truth in order to create a new and greater one. So when I hear “Dear Friend”, I encounter an emotion that isn’t tied to whatever its factual origin may or may not have been, and which somehow illuminates and expands feelings of my own. That’s art for you.

And for some reason he chose to hide it away towards the end of the second side of a mediocre LP. You can’t believe he wasn’t proud of it. If I had to take a Beatle-related record to a desert island, it wouldn’t be “I’ll Be Back” or “In My Life”: it would be this.

* The photograph of Wings — Denny Seiwell, Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney and Denny Laine — is from the cover of Wild Life and was taken by Barry Lategan.