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Posts from the ‘R&B’ Category

The real rhythm and blues

ChessWilko Johnson’s new autobiography, Don’t You Leave Me Here, received an eloquent recommendation from Mark Ellen in the Sunday Times at the weekend. To coincide with its publication, Universal’s Spectrum imprint is issuing a 40-track double CD set compiled by the former Dr Feelgood guitarist called The First Time I Met the Blues: Essential Chess Masters. Its appearance prompted me to dig out the records you see above: three 45s from my all-time Top 100 box, plus two magnificent albums, all licensed for release in the UK on the Pye International label in the early ’60s.

That red and yellow label still triggers an emotional response, particularly when the centre and the paper sleeve carry the “R&B Series” logo, as the copy of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” pictured above does. Why it didn’t also appear on records like Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and Bo Diddley’s “Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut” is a question that someone out there might be able to answer.

It’s a good compilation, equally valuable to those who no longer have their original copies and to newcomers who would like a compact introduction to a golden age of Chicago rhythm and blues. There are masterpieces here: Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”, Little Walter’s “My Babe”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “Goin’ Down Slow”, Sonny Boy’s “Don’t Start Me to Talkin'”, John Lee Hooker’s “I’m in the Mood”, Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” — the songs that those of us who were in British R&B groups in 1963-65 were required to know.

Muddy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” — recorded in 1948 with Ernest “Big” Crawford’s stand-up bass accompanying the singer’s bottleneck guitar, the two of them sounding like the whole band Waters was soon to assemble — remains one of the great moments in American popular music: magical and mysterious, a perfect integration of voice and instruments, an endlessly fascinating essay in rhythmic subtlety. “Louisiana Blues”, from a band session two years later, runs it close in that respect. It’s interesting to think about the way these particular tracks sounded before a drummer came in to tie down the beat: they float so loose and free (Elgin Evans is credited on “Louisiana Blues”, but his contribution is practically subliminal).

In some ways, however, my favourite among the 40 tracks has to be “Hi-Heel Sneakers”: a record that, in the early weeks of 1964, any young person with the slightest pretension to coolness simply had to own. It amazes me now that this modest little 12-bar blues could become not just a mod classic in the UK but such a big hit on the pop charts: No 11 in the US (Billboard), where it had the benefit of a huge number of black record-buyers, and No 23 in Britain (Record Retailer), where it didn’t.

Tucker (born Robert Higginbotham in Springfield, Ohio) sang and played organ on his own song. That exquisite and unforgettable guitar intro seems to have been played by Dean Young from Ripley, Tennessee — a member, along with bassist Brenda Jones and drummer Bo Tolliver, of Tucker’s regular band, who negotiated a then-fashionable chord pattern that echoed Jimmy Reed’s “Shame Shame Shame” and Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness”. The producer, Herb Abramson (an original co-founder of Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun), wisely left them to get on with it. They cannot have dreamed for a single instant that it would still be listened to and loved more than half a century later.

* This post originally credited the new compilation to the Ace label. Once the error was pointed out, I corrected it. The relevant label is Spectrum.

Cheering for Little Richard

Little RichardLittle Richard is said by his attorney to be “annoyed” at the rumours of his death which spread this week. He survived a heart attack in 2013 and underwent a hip replacement operation more recently, but apparently he’s otherwise fine at 83. Let’s hope so.

Let’s also take the chance to remind ourselves of one of his finest recordings: “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me, Parts 1 & 2”, a deep-soul ballad written by Don Covay and cut for Vee-Jay in the blessed year of 1965, apparently during a touring stopover in Los Angeles. Richard’s gospel roots have never been more apparent than here, accompanied by a version of the Upsetters featuring Jimi Hendrix (who had played on Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” the previous year) on guitar and Billy Preston on organ, both clearly audible. It was produced by Calvin Carter, whose sister Vivian was the “V” in Vee-Jay; he probably didn’t have to do much more on this session than give the engineer the signal to roll the tape.

A girlfriend introduced me to this one soon after its UK release, and the US copy pictured above has a permanent place in the box that holds my all-time Top Hundred 45s. If you don’t know it, you should.

Motown part 2 (of 3): The white guy’s story

Motown Barney AlesThe name of Barney Ales became a familiar one to those who took a close interest in the evolution of Motown Records in the 1960s. Ales didn’t sing, or write songs, or produce sessions. He wasn’t a musician or a choreographer or a voice coach. He was the guy hired by Berry Gordy Jr in 1961 as national sales manager and promotion director. And now he is the co-author, with the music historian Adam White, of Motown: The Sound of Young America, a lavishly produced history of the label.

Ales had worked for Capitol Records before joining Motown at the age of 27. His job was to get the records played on the radio and to ensure not just that they were distributed efficiently to record stores around the country but that the invoices got paid. Almost as much as the quality of the music, that was the secret of Gordy’s operation: business had to be taken care of with a different attitude from that of most black-owned labels. He needed someone who could talk to white disc jockeys and record distributors without the barrier, conscious or unconscious, of race.

One can assume that, having worked with the founder almost from the beginning and ending up as a vice-president before leaving in 1978, Ales knows a few secrets behind Gordy’s struggle to establish the label and extend its success beyond the boundaries of black America. Perhaps those with fond memories of Number One With a Bullet, the novelised version of the Motown story written by Elaine Jesmer, a former publicist, and never republished after its original appearance in 1974, will come to Ales’s memoir hoping for true-life confessions. That would be a mistake. This is a version of the tale that passes lightly over the darker episodes, while containing much detail that will be useful to those wanting to know more about Gordy’s triumph.

There are many books about Motown, including the autobiographies of Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Otis Williams and Mary Wilson. My own favourite is one of the more modest efforts: Susan Whitall’s Women of Motown, an oral history based on interviews with Martha Reeves, Claudette Robinson, Kim Weston, Brenda Holloway, Mable John, Carolyn “Cal” Gill and others, published in the US by Avon Books in 1998. White and Ales give us a view from a different perspective, and a valuable one.

The narrative begins in an interestingly unorthodox way with a long and well illustrated account of the Detroit riot of 1967, which devastated clubs and record stores as well as homes and other businesses. It came perilously close to the Motown headquarters on West Grand Boulevard, where bullet holes in the flower pots outside the entrance were the only sign of damage to what, with gross income of $20m the previous year, was on the way to becoming America’s biggest black-owned business. The significance is that, only a month after the fires in the ghetto had finally been extinguished, Gordy and Ales had the courage to go ahead with Motown’s first-ever national sales conference, with a gala concert at the Roostertail Club on the banks of the Detroit River featuring the Supremes, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Chris Clark and the Spinners. Fifteen new albums were announced at the conference; on the day of the launch, the sales department was able to count a record $4m in orders, or 20 per cent of the preceding year’s revenue.

That’s typical of the kind of detail Ales provides. His description of his dealings with Morris Levy, the heavily Mob-connected boss of Roulette Records, contains the fascinating story of how Mary Wells’ “My Guy” was bootlegged in the New York area by Gordy’s ex-wife, Raynoma Liles, who had moved to the city to open an office for the company’s song-publishing division, only to have the funding cut off by her former husband. As she told it in her own autobiography (Berry, Me and Motown, published in the US by Contemporary Books in 1990), she had 5,000 copies pressed up and sold them to a distributor for 50 cents apiece in order to raise the money to keep the office open. It was unfortunate for Liles — an important figure in the early days of the company, as an arranger and musical director — that by selling counterfeit copies of the Wells hit, she was depriving Levy of income. Her own account does not mention him, perhaps because he was still alive when she wrote it.

All this, and much more, is extremely well told and to be enjoyed alongside the wonderful illustrations, including contact sheets, album jackets, picture sleeves and advertising material in this large-format publication. My favourite of the many fabulous photographs is one by Bruce Davidson, the great Magnum photographer, who catches the Supremes backstage in New York in 1965, sitting alongside each other in their dressing room, bathed in pink light, surrounded by make-up pots, perfume bottles and ashtrays. Davidson shoots from above and behind the three women, catching their reflections: Flo Ballard using a tissue to blot her mascara and Mary Wilson touching up her hair, both sharing a single mirror, while Diana Ross, with her own individual mirror, stares straight into his lens.

* In the photograph above, Barney Ales (standing, extreme left) is hosting a group of Detroit radio personalities at the Roostertail Club. It can be found in Motown: The Sound of Young America, which is published by Thames & Hudson, price £39.95.

R&B in Chinatown

Mar-Keys 1The next piece of central London to be threatened by homogenisation and/or development, according to last Sunday’s Observer, is Chinatown. It’s a small area bounded by Gerrard Street to the north, a short section of Wardour Street to the west (including the bit that once housed the Flamingo), Lisle Street to the south and Newport Place to the east. The original Ronnie Scott’s Club was housed from 1959 to 1965 in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street; after the move to Wardour Street, it was kept open for a while as the Old Place.

My fondest memory of Chinatown comes from the time when Lisle Street still mostly consisted of shops selling electrical equipment. In the 1970s it would become — and still is — the location of restaurants favoured by those who were really knowledgeable about Chinese food and followed the best chefs from kitchen to kitchen. But in the mid-’60s the basement of No 27 opened on Saturday mornings to sell American soul and R&B records.

The shop was called Transat Imports, and there are some nice reminiscences of it here on the British Record Shop Archive. You have to remember that back then British fans of black American popular music still felt like members of a secret society. On a visit in 1964, during a day trip down to London, I remember seeing boxes full of stuff I wanted so badly that I could hardly breathe. I could only afford one 45, so I bought the Mar-Keys’ “Bush Bash”.

Following their huge success with “Last Night” in 1961, the Mar-Keys had stopped having hits, which meant that “Bush Bash” was unlikely to get a British release. That’s almost certainly why I chose it. It’s a minor but nevertheless snappy example of how good the Stax rhythm section (the MGs) and their friends sounded, with a particularly crisp Latin beat from Al Jackson Jr’s drums. There’s a short but pungently soulful tenor saxophone solo — probably by Gilbert Caple, who is listed as a co-writer, along with Booker T. Jones and Floyd Newman, who more usually played tenor but is probably on baritone on this tune.

(Three years earlier Caple and Newman, who were friends, had come up with the riff for “Last Night”, Stax’s first big hit and one of the all-time great instrumentals, but found themselves sharing the publishing with three others, including the producer and the record company owner’s son. When a band called the Mar-Keys went out on the road to promote it, neither of them was included. “I never thought that fair, not at all,” Newman said in Respect Yourself, Robert Gordon’s history of Stax, “because Gilbert and I was a part of that group, but we were black.”)

Maybe “Bush Bash” wasn’t the best record I bought in 1964, which was, after all, a very good year. But I liked it enough — and the memory of visiting Transat Imports — to have kept it with me all these years, in its original brown paper sleeve, just the way it came from the US.

The parable of the credits

It would be an understatement to say that I didn’t get on well with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. But I did stay until the end of the film, all the way to the credits, at which point I was unexpectedly rewarded by the sound of a record that I sometimes think would be the one I’d save from a burning house: Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)”.

For me this record, a US Top 40 hit in the summer of 1962, is Burt Bacharach’s finest hour as a writer of melodies and arrangements. His creation finds its perfect match in Bob Hilliard’s poetic words, with their gloriously gloomy prediction that “those blue shadows will fall over town” when the singer’s lover leaves, as he is convinced she will. Jackson, one of the best singers of his type and era, does the song full justice: of all the many artists who later covered it, none ever improved on this original version. In the lovely clip above, Bacharach mimes the distinctive organ intro; it was actually played in the studio by the great Paul Griffin.

Hearing it at the very end of a film I disliked was a reminder of sitting through Wim Wenders’s three-hour 1991 film Until the End of the World, until the moment when, after what felt like several weeks, the credits rolled and a half-familiar voice croaked: “I tried to reach you… on Valentine’s Day…”. Thus I was introduced to Robbie Robertson’s “Breakin’ the Rules”, a track from the 1991 album Storyville which — thanks not least to the understated nobility of its horn arrangement by the late Wardell Quezergue, as well as the achingly soulful vocals shared by Robertson with the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan — has existed for me ever since on a plane only half a notch below “Any Day Now”, which is to say within touching distance of heaven.

So the moral must be: whatever your opinion of the film, don’t leave your seat until you’ve see the line about no animals being harmed and the lights have come up.

Valentinos’ day

Valentinos laterLike its founder, Sam Cooke’s SAR label was marinated in gospel music. Cooke himself had come to prominence as the charismatic young lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, taking over from the great R.H. Harris in 1951 and staying for six years until leaving to embark on a spectacular career on the R&B and pop charts.

Of his two partners in the SAR project, one was J.W. Alexander, a former member of the Pilgrim Travelers who had introduced the Soul Stirrers to Art Rupe of the Specialty label, for whom they made their finest records. The other, Roy Crain, had actually founded the Soul Stirrers, first in Trinity, Texas in 1926 and then, with a different group of singers, in Houston in 1933. That was the start of an institution that outlived all its most celebrated members — including Johnnie Taylor, who succeeded Cooke — and appears to be still active today.

SAR was founded in 1961, the initials signifying Sam, Alex and Roy, but lasted only until Cooke’s death 50 years ago last month. During that time its biggest hit, the Valentinos’ “It’s All Over Now”, came from a converted gospel group, and the signs of that heritage were very clear.

The Valentinos had formerly been the Womack Brothers: five young men who had inherited the name, and the sacred-music vocation, from a group including their father, Friendly Womack Sr. They started performing at a church in Cleveland, their home town, in 1951, and made their first recordings three years later. When Cooke heard them while on tour, he invited them to Los Angeles, where they made a pair of gospel singles.

The four sides of those singles top and tail a new collection of their recordings for SAR, compiled by the ABKCO company — founded by the music business lawyer Allen Klein, who also owns the Rolling Stones’ early material. Titled Lookin’ For a Love, after another of their finest songs, it is released in association with Ace Records of London, the world’s most diligent and meticulous reissuers of early rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and soul recordings.

What always struck me about the Valentinos was how, at a time when most soul hits — even the most gospel-flavoured, like Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” or Garnet Mimms’s “Cry Baby” — gave the impression of having been moulded in a studio, the Womack brothers sounded like a band playing together on stage in front of an audience. There was an R&B-style rawness and immediacy about their records, a sense of rough edges left unpolished. It was probably that quality to which the Rolling Stones were responding when they heard the group’s record of “It’s All Over Now”, written by Bobby and Shirley Womack, and swiftly covered it, making it their first UK No 1 in July 1964, only a few weeks after the release of the original version in the US.

With its 23 tracks, Lookin’ For a Love is said to contain everything the group recorded for SAR before the label folded. There’s a lovely Sam Cooke song called “Tired of Livin’ in the Country”, recorded at United Recording in Hollywood on March 24, 1964, at the same session as “It’s All Over Now”, with a pair of transplanted New Orleans greats, Harold Battiste and John Boudreaux, on piano and drums respectively, augmenting the guitars of Bobby and Cecil Womack and Harry Womack’s bass guitar.

That day’s work also threw up a track which has remained unreleased until now: a Bobby Womack ballad called “Don’t Go Away” which blends R&B and doo-wop in perfect proportions. Bobby wails his lead vocal — “The birds on high, the stars in the sky / Are the same as they were before / But the joy they bring don’t mean one little thing / Because they just don’t seem to reach me no more” — over a goofy bass voice, wah-ooh harmonies and a classic four-chord cycle straight off the street corner. It’s this track for which I’ll cherish a compilation that provides a fine reminder of a group whose significance far outweighed their moderate commercial success.

* The photograph of the Valentinos is from the sleeve of Lookin’ For a Love. Left to right: Cecil, Henry, Friendly Jr,Curtis and Bobby Womack.

Ronnie Milsap says goodbye

Ronnie MilsapIf you’re lucky enough to be in Nashville this Saturday night, go and see Ronnie Milsap at the Ryman Auditorium. He’s one of the great singers of the past half-century’s popular music, even though no one talks about him much any more. And, at the age of 71, he’s in the middle of what he’s decided will be his farewell tour.

Sadly, I’ll be 3,000 miles away. But I’m so glad I saw Milsap before his famous run of 40 No 1 country hits, which started in 1974. Nothing against his country records, of course. Some of them still sound great. But the night in 1971 when I saw him at TJ’s in Memphis, Tennessee, a musicians’ bar to which, at that time, you had to take your liquor in a brown bag, he was still in that state of grace to be found somewhere between country and southern R&B, with the balance tilted in favour of R&B.

It was a late night at the end of a long day, and I had a brown bag with me, so I don’t remember the details. But I do remember that he had a terrific little four-piece band — what else, in a musicians’ hangout in Memphis 40-odd years ago? — including himself on piano. He also had, when heard in person, one of the great white soul voices, in a line of devout Ray Charles worshippers including Charlie Rich, Dan Penn and Troy Seals. The only specific song that I remember from the set is the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, which was on the charts at the time, because it seemed such an improbable choice but worked so brilliantly.

As far as I can tell, he made no records that sounded much like the set he played that night. In 1966 he’d cut  “Ain’t No Soul Left in These Old Shoes” with the producer Huey P. Meaux for the Scepter label; released on Pye in the UK, it became a Northern Soul favourite. From the same year there’s a very nice version of an early Ashford and Simpson song, “When It Comes to My Baby”, produced by Stan Green.

All that later success on the country charts seemed to take the R&B edge off his voice, but he could still sing beautifully. Here’s an example: his smooth version of “Any Day Now”, one of Burt Bacharach’s finest. My favourite of his later recordings is the Grammy-winning “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)”, which I love no doubt partly because I was in the USA when it came out in the summer of 1985, cruising the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Washington DC  in a rented Buick.

* The picture — uncredited — is taken from a very interesting 2009 interview with Ronnie Milsap by Ken Norton Jr on Engine 145, a roots music blog (

Elvis at 80

ElvisHad he lived, Elvis Presley would have been 80 on Thursday, January 8, 2015. I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel” when I was at boarding school, aged nine, in 1956. I understand what John Lennon meant when he said that Elvis died the day he had his hair cut and put on a military uniform, but I never believed it. All but one of my 10 Elvis favourites come from the post-army period. Here they are. You might find the choice a little eccentric. Baby, I don’t care…

1. “Beyond the Reef”

Written by Jack Pitman, a Canadian songwriter, during a visit to Hawaii in 1946, “Beyond the Reef” was covered by Bing Crosby in 1950 and by the Ventures (as an instrumental) in 1961. Elvis recorded it on May 27, 1966 at RCA Studios in Nashville, during the sessions that produced the sacred album How Great Thou Art (as well as his cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, which almost made this list). It remained unreleased until 1971, when it surfaced as the B-side of “It’s Only Love”;  in 1980 it appeared on a four-CD set titled Elvis Aron Presley. Elvis sings the verses as an extra member of the Jordanaires, emerging to sing lead only on the bridge. On the surface it’s a bit of Polynesian-style kitsch. A little deeper down, it’s a singularly beautiful record of which Ry Cooder would have been proud.

2. “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”

I love Elvis when he finds the spaces between genres. This great UK No 1 hit from 1961 takes the Bo Diddley beat and turns it into pure pop music, just like Buddy Holly did with “Not Fade Away”. Acoustic rhythm guitars, what might be a stand-up bass, the drummer using brushes — and, in the bridge, a switch to a fast shuffle, with Floyd Cramer pounding an eight-to-the-bar piano figure. And a tragic little story of heartbreak in the lyric. The song is by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, who also wrote the other side of the 45: “Little Sister”. Along with “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”, it’s the greatest double A-side in history.

3. “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care”

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote this for Jailhouse Rock in 1957. I imagine they borrowed the title from Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 classic film noir, in which Robert Mitchum, in a clinch with Jane Greer, is reminded of her relationship with a powerful mobster and the trouble that might ensue. “Baby,” he drawls, “I don’t care…” As told by Elvis, the story is very different: “You don’t like crazy music, you don’t like rockin’ bands / You just want to go to a picture show and sit there holding hands…” But the teenage soap-opera words are undercut by the backing, which exemplifies that “crazy music” to the max, with an ominously throbbing intro and the most brutally abrupt ending ever.

4. “The Promised Land”

I’ve talked about this song, and Elvis’s great version of it, here (and elsewhere). Written by Chuck Berry in 1964 and recorded by Presley at the Stax studio in Memphis in 1973, it was perhaps the last genuinely creative act of his life, brilliantly abetted by James Burton and Johnny Christopher on guitars, David Briggs on piano, Per Erik Hallin on electric keyboard, Norbert Putnam on bass guitar and Ronnie Tutt on drums.

5. “Sweet Angeline”

Another from the Stax sessions, with a slightly different line-up (including the MGs’ Duck Dunn on bass guitar and Al Jackson Jr on drums), this ballad was written by Chris Arnold, David Martin and Geoff Morrow: three British songwriters. I love the song, for the way it brings the best out of Elvis and for the way the bass fill towards the end of the second bar gives it the hook that makes you play it over and over again.

6. “The Girl of My Best Friend”

More pure pop, this time from 1960 and the pens of Sam Bobrick and Beverley Ross. Not released as a single by Elvis until 1976, when it made the UK top 10. Ral Donner had the US hit.

7. “Reconsider, Baby”

A very nice version of Lowell Fulson’s classic blues, from the Elvis is Back! album in 1960, with the singer on rhythm guitar.

8. “Dark Moon”

I’ve got this on a 1999 RCA CD called Elvis: The Home Recordings. The song was written in 1957 by Ned Miller (later famous for “From a Jack to a King”), and was recorded in a country version by Bonnie Guitar and a poppier rendition by Gale Storm. Singing with his pals to the accompaniment of his own guitar, apparently in his LA house in Bel Air in 1966 or ’67, Elvis finds an irresistible groove.

9. “It’s Now or Never”

All the bells and whistles — the full Neapolitan, in fact — on this remake of Eduardo di Capua’s “O Sole Mio”, the new English lyric written by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold and recorded on April 3, 1960, the day before “The Girl of My Best Friend”. If you agree with Lennon, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’ll hate. Those were the days when I used to write the week’s No 1 in my diary every Saturday night, and I’m not going to apologise.

10. “A Mess of Blues”

From the same session as “It’s Now or Never”, and a No 2 hit in the UK in 1960. Another Pomus/Shuman classic and an early reminder that, even with his hair still shaved army-style, the King still had it.

Happy birthday, Elvis.

* The fine photograph was taken by Lloyd Russell Sherman and appeared on the cover of the 1985 LP Reconsider, Baby.


Mr Brown, Mr Bart and Mr Byrd

Get On UpOn the way to see Get On Up, Tate Taylor’s new James Brown biopic, in a cinema in Victoria this week, I realised that I was walking past a construction site where once had stood the last place where I saw a performance by the film’s subject. It was the end of the 1970s, and the place was the Venue, a medium-sized joint with an uninspiring name but an excellent atmosphere. I saw all kinds of people there, from the McGarrigle sisters to Sun Ra, via Gary U.S. Bonds and Joe Ely. And the Godfather of Soul was in terrific form that night, not far past his untouchable prime.

Taylor’s movie features a fine central performance by Chadwick Boseman. He doesn’t become his character in the way Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles a few years ago, but you can’t take your eyes off him. He and the brothers Jamarion and Jordan Scott, eight-year-old twins from Mississippi who play Brown at various stages of his childhood, are tackling the story of a complex man.

There are too many artful devices — Brown talking directly to the camera, the boy suddenly appearing in place of the man in a scene from his adult life, various games with flashbacks and original footage — to make it work as a straightforward narrative. At times it seems as though the scriptwriters, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, were influenced more by the multi-faceted approach of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There than by traditional modes of storytelling, but they don’t go the whole way.

Like Taylor Hackford with Ray, the director of Get On Up makes the sensible decision to stick with the original music: what you see is actor-musicians miming, very convincingly, to the real tracks, from “Please Please Please” to “The Payback”. And on a cinema sound system it sounds great, particularly in a reconstruction of the scene from the 1965 teen flick Ski Party where he debuts “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (here’s the original), and in a great recreation of a Paris concert in, I think, 1971 (original here).

It’s a long film at two and a quarter hours, but even that isn’t enough in which to tell the story properly. Give the great documentary maker Ken Burns 1o hours of television time and there might be a chance. Whether or not it works in every dimension, however, Taylor’s film certainly succeeds in two areas. There’s a fruitful concentration on Brown’s relationships with Bobby Byrd, an original member of the Famous Flames who became his right-hand man, and with Ben Bart, his trusted (white) agent, who dropped dead on a golf course in 1968. And the early scenes of Brown’s life as a child — first in a shack in the Georgia pines while his parents’ relationship was falling apart, and then as a kind of mascot in a brothel — make us think about what he endured on the way to becoming one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

In September 1969, 10 years before that gig at the Venue, Charlie Gillett and I interviewed him (for the Record Mirror and the Melody Maker, respectively). We asked him if, at a time of continuing racial unrest in the United States, with the echoes of the shots that killed Martin Luther King still reverberating, he believed that he had some role and influence as a leader.

“If I can use my position to bring about better understanding,” he told us, “I should take advantage of the opportunity. I want people to respect other people, to see that all kinds of different people, yellow, black, are people! To see that there are all ways of living, and they can exist side by side. I hope I can help to bring people closer together.”

The day after I saw the film, riots broke out again in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere across the USA in response to the decision not to prosecute the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man. For all its frequent moments of exhilaration, Get On Up is also a reminder that, beneath the surface, not much has really changed. Or at least much less than we might have hoped.

* The photograph is of Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get On Up.

The Promised Land calling…

Fifty years ago this month the folks at Chess Records were preparing the release of a new Chuck Berry album called St Louis to Liverpool, containing the first new recordings since his release from jail a few months earlier. The album’s title, of course, acknowledged the effect of the British Invasion: the sudden takeover of the US charts by the Beatles, the Dave Clark 5, Freddie and the Dreamers, and others. Berry could hardly fail to have taken notice, since most of them were playing his songs.

Among the new numbers on the album was one I believe to be among his half-dozen finest: “The Promised Land”, the story of a poor boy making the trip from his home in Norfolk, Virginia to a new life in Southern California. The journey takes him through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, where — in Houston, with the aid of friends — he’s put on a jet plane for the final leg of the journey, over New Mexico and on to touchdown in Los Angeles.

The form of it is inspired by Bobby Troup’s “Route 66”, made famous by Nat King Cole but chopped and channeled by Berry into a beat-group classic. He wrote his new song in prison, and was initially turned down when he asked for a road atlas of the US to help him with the geography, on the grounds that it might help him escape. After an appeal to the governor, the request was eventually granted.

The trick of the song is that, like the journey it describes, it never turns back on itself. There’s no chorus. Nothing is repeated. The title emerges only in the song’s very last thought. As well as precise geographical information, it’s full of beautiful details — the through-train ticket on the Midnight Flyer, the silk suit, the T-bone steak à la carte — and whole lines that, once you heard them, you never forgot, like that amazing penultimate verse: “Swing low, sweet chariot, come down easy / Taxi to the terminal zone / Cut your engines and cool your wings / And let me make it to the telephone…”

It’s a song that seems quintessentially American, perhaps especially to a non-American who fell in love with that culture when it was at its jet-engined, tail-finned, jukebox and blue jeans height. I happen to harbour a special reverence for the version Elvis cut at the Stax studio in Memphis in December 1973, because (as I wrote in a piece in my book Long Distance Call) the combination of singer and song seems to incorporate so many myths and legends, dreams and desires. And, of course, Elvis sings the hell out of the song, like he’d written it or lived it. He really is the boy whose first instinct, on arriving in the place where he plans to make a new life, is to call home.

At the top you’ll find a YouTube clip of the man who wrote the song delivering his masterpiece in a TV studio in Paris, I’d guess during his European tour in January 1965. The pick-up rhythm section would obviously rather be playing “How High the Moon”. There’s a lovely moment when the stand holding the vocal microphone collapses. Towards the end of the song the bass-player retunes his D and G strings in mid-flow with a rather unnecessary fastidiousness. And Mr Berry is, as ever, his own sweet-and-sour self, a true genius of rock and roll.