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Posts from the ‘R&B’ Category

Living for the weekend

To understand the full impact of Ready Steady Go!, you really had to live through the succession of British TV pop shows that preceded it: 6.5 Special (BBC, Jan 57-Dec 58, 96 episodes), Oh Boy (ITV, Sept 58-May 59, 38 episodes), Drumbeat (BBC, April-Aug 59, 22 episodes), Boy Meets Girls (ITV, Sept 59-Feb 60, 26 episodes), and Thank Your Lucky Stars (ITV, April 1961-June 1966, 250 episodes). Each of those series had something to offer the pop-starved teenager, but all of them — even the ones created by the great Jack Good — felt essentially as though they were made by grown-ups. That’s where Ready Steady Go! was different.

From its debut on the ITV network on 9 August 1963, it made a direct connection with its audience. Its creator, Elkan Allan, was smart enough to trust the creative instincts of the people around him — particularly those of the young Vicki Wickham, who started as Allan’s secretary but whose instinctive love of black music, absorbed from friends such as Dusty Springfield and Madeline Bell, became the show’s guiding spirit. Without Wickham’s enthusiasm and energy there would have been no Motown special, no James Brown special, no Otis Redding special to go alongside the regular appearances by the Who, the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. In essence, you knew that the people who made this programme believed, as you did, that Cilla Black’s cover version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was not a patch on Dionne Warwick’s original.

If you lived the the provinces, as I did, RSG! was an essential guide to what was happening in inaccessible London clubs like the Scene, the Ad Lib and the Scotch of St James. The show’s directors, from Bill Turner through Daphne Shadwell, Robert Fleming and Rollo Gamble to the brilliantly innovative Michael Lindsay-Hogg, allowed the members of the audience to crowd around the stage as if they were in a club and took the radical step of treating the cameras as part of the set. Graphics by Clive Arrowsmith and Arnold Schwartzman set the tone in the title sequences, which made use of fast-cutting images from popular culture. Responsible for shaping the whole package was the programme’s editor, Francis Hitching.

The story of RSG! has been told many times before, most recently in a fine documentary shown on BBC4 earlier thus year, but never so thoroughly, informatively and entertainingly as in Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here, a large-format (12″x12″) history by Andy Neill, who has been everywhere one could possibly go to unearth every scrap of information on the show’s birth, life and death.

You want a list of the precise contents of every episode? It’s here. You want a fantastic assembly of ephemera, such as tickets for the recordings at the original Associated Rediffusion studios in Kingsway and the later venue in Wembley, and hundreds of newspaper clippings? Also here. You want the memories of dozens of participants, from Mick Jagger to the dancers Patrick Kerr and Sandy Serjeant to Barbara Hulanicki, the founder of Biba and a regular at Kingsway? You want to know more about the presenters Cathy McGowan and Michael Aldred and the members of the production staff? You want the stories behind Ready Steady Goes Live, Ready Steady Win (the talent competition won by the Bo Street Runners), the Mod Ball and Ready Steady Allez!, the show broadcast live from the Locomotive in Paris in March 1966, with the Yardbirds, the Who, Hugues Aufray, Mireille Mathieu and Eddy Mitchell? You want an informed history of British TV’s treatment of pop music, along with Dennis Potter’s Daily Herald review of an early Beatles appearance on RSG!? You want a detailed history of its ratings, as well as the stories about Françoise Hardy’s refusal to sit down while wearing her new trouser suit and the letters from viewers disgusted by James Brown’s show? All here, in a volume with a great anecdote on practically every page, along with a fantastic selection of photographs.

Jagger talks about how he used to go along even when the Stones weren’t on, just to be there. “RSG! wasn’t safe, it took risks,” he tells Neill. “It waded right into the wonderful chaos of the times. You always thought you were slightly on the edge there.” Pete Townshend agrees: “It reflected the colour and vivacity of the times better than almost any other medium.” He remembers how, for the first of the Who’s 16 appearances, performing “I Can’t Explain” in 1965, they were allowed to bring along their own fans from the Goldhawk Club in Shepherds Bush. Wickham and Lindsay-Hogg, he says, “conveyed the sense that we were, all of us, breaking every rule of television. I felt they were breaking societal rules as well.”

My old friend Keith Altham, then a journalist on Fabulous magazine, remembers it as a meeting place for young people starting out in the music business. “It was like a glorified youth club where your mates played guitars or drums or were in the business of reporting on the beat phenomenon. The writers and musicians were all contemporaries.” And afterwards there would be parties for the in-crowd, maybe at Tony Hall’s flat in Mayfair, with a Beatle and a Ronette and a Stone in attendance.

The programme was killed in December 1966 after 173 episodes. Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan were featured in the penultimate show and Chris Farlowe duetted with Jagger on “Out of Time” and “Satisfaction” in the final episode, two days before Christmas. Times and tastes were changing, and the sense of novelty and excitement had dulled. The mainstream audience was getting its fix of chart music from Top of the Pops (BBC, January 1964-July 2006, 2,267 episodes) while the mods were turning into hippies and no longer looked for guidance from television programmes. But it would be a long time before anything came along to replace it.

I can’t think of anything I’d want this book to have that it doesn’t include. As a thoroughly comprehensive and endlessly entertaining time-capsule, put together in exactly the spirit that the show was made, it’s something to cherish. The story of what Elkan Allan, Vicki Wickham and their friends and colleagues created will never be better told.

* Andy Neill’s Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here is published by BMG (£39.99). Recommended listening: The ‘Sound’ of the R&B Hits, the first anthology of Motown tracks released in Britain back in 1964, now expanded from 14 to 28 tracks and released by Ace Records. For more about pop and rock on the small and large screen, there’s Docs That Rock, Music That Matters by Harvey Kubernik, published in the US by Otherworld Cottage (about £35), including chapters on American Bandstand, D. A. Pennebaker, Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling, Concert for Bangladesh and many other subjects. The sequence of images at the top of this piece was created by Clive Arrowsmith for RSG!‘s title sequence in December 1964.

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.

Stepping out with Bobby Parker

Bobby Parker

The blues singer and guitarist Bobby Parker’s fame rests on a single record: the 1961 classic “Watch Your Step”, whose driving riff inspired the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and Bob Dylan’s “Tell Me, Momma”. I wrote about it here when he died seven years ago. Now there’s a 2-CD anthology of his recordings from 1954 to 1995, called Soul of the Blues and reflecting not only his own career but changes in black music styles during those decades.

It begins with both sides of a 78rpm single by the Emeralds, recorded in Los Angeles in 1954 and released on the Kicks label. Parker’s family had moved to California from Louisiana when he was a small boy; he picked up the guitar in his early teens, formed the Emeralds with friends, and played school dances. In hallowed doo-wop fashion, the A-side is an up-tempo dance tune with a Latin beat, written by the 16-year-old Parker, while the flip is a wonderfully gloopy ballad. It’s a fine start to a lovingly compiled set.

A year later Parker was playing guitar with Bo Diddley: there are three studio tracks here and a version of “Bo Diddley” itself from the Ed Sullivan Show. He moved on to be a featured singer and guitarist with the band of the saxophonist Paul Williams, famous for “The Hucklebuck”: studio recordings from New York in 1956, including “Blues Get Off My Shoulder”, show his proficiency in a variety of styles. Four instrumental tracks, two under Williams’s name and two under that of the tenorist Noble “Thin Man” Watts (including “South Shore Drive”), are perfect examples of the idiom.

“Watch Your Step” is there, of course, is all its incendiary glory, along with an alternate take, and the discography included in the booklet gives me some information I’ve always wanted: it was recorded at the Edgewood Recording Studio in Washington DC in 1961, and the drummer holding down that fantastic Latin rhythm for a very good studio band was one “TNT” Tribble Jr. I’m afraid I’d never heard of him, but I’m glad to know his name now.

Within these 52 tracks you’ll find jump blues, novelty blues, rock ‘n’ roll blues, Chicago-style blues, gospel blues and funky blues. There are some wonderful obscurities, including the philosophical “Talkin’ About Love”, recorded in Columbus, South Carolina for the True Spot label in 1966 or ’67. In 1968 he was in England, recording for Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label: two tracks, “It’s Hard But Fair” and “I Couldn’t Quit My Baby”, were cut with a British band including the saxophonists Steve Gregory, Johnny Almond and Bud Beadle, but the mix is messy and the playing lacks the punch of the best of the American recordings. There are also six tracks recorded in front of a New York audience in 1995 for the House of Blues radio show with a very good five-piece horns-and-rhythm band, in which Parker gets all the space he needs to show that he was a guitarist in the class of Albert and Freddie King and Albert Collins.

The CD case also reproduces the poster for an all-day dance in June 1957 at the Bluefield Auditorium in Bluefield, West Virginia, a coal town in the Appalachians. The bill included the Coasters, Ruth Brown, Bo Diddley, the Drifters, the 5 Satins, Smiley Lewis, the Schoolboys, Paul Williams & the Hucklebuck Orchestra, and “Mr Bobby Parker — Blues Guitar”. The compere was the singer Johnny Hartman. Admission $2.50. “Entire balcony reserved for white spectators,” it says.

* Bobby Parker’s Soul of the Blues is released on the Rhythm and Blues label. The photograph is from the booklet, which states that 50 per cent of the profits from the set will go to the Bobby Parker Foundation.

** In the first version of this piece, I got “TNT” Tribble Jr mixed up with his father, Thomas “TNT” Tribble Sr, also a drummer. Now corrected.

Roland Kirk and friends

Roland Kirk poster

I found this flyer the other day in a box of old stuff. It’s from 1963, and it reminds me of a few things. The first is that this Roland Kirk concert was in Nottingham and not in Leicester, as I wrote in an earlier piece (now corrected). The second is that his tour was organised by Ronnie Scott’s, where he had been performing. The third is that there were some interesting musicians to be seen and heard that night.

Stan Tracey was the house pianist at Ronnie’s, then still located in Gerrard Street, from 1960 to 1967, by which time it had moved to Frith Street. After a sticky patch in the ’70s he went on to a long and distinguished career as a composer and bandleader, leading to the award of an CBE in 2008, five years before his death at 86.

Malcolm Cecil was an excellent bassist (and early member of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated) who migrated to the USA, took an interest in synthesisers, and palled up with Bob Margouleff, a man of similar instincts. Together, as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, they released Zero Time in 1971 before going on to provide the crucial synthesiser expertise on Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, thus helping to shape the direction of music in the 1970s and beyond.

Johnny Butts was a very fine drummer who played with the Emcee Five in Newcastle (alongside Ian and Mike Carr) before moving to London and contributing to the groups of Ronnie Ross, Humphrey Lyttelton, Tony Coe, Dick Morrissey and Gordon Beck, and the Tubby Hayes Big Band. He died in a road accident in Bermuda in 1966, aged 25.

Brian Auger was a useful young bebop pianist with Tommy Whittle and others before switching to the Hammond organ in the year he made this tour with Kirk. In 1965 the Brian Auger Trinity was joined by Julie Driscoll, Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry to form the Steam Packet, a very fine live band who never had a proper recording session. The Driscoll/Auger version of “This Wheel’s on Fire”, a Bob Dylan/Rick Danko composition circulated on the original Basement Tapes publisher’s acetates, is on anyone’s list of great ’60 singles. Later Auger formed Oblivion Express and moved to California, where he still lives, aged 80.

Irish-born Rick Laird had left Australia for London in 1962 to study at the Guildhall School of Music and quickly became a first-choice bass player on the London scene, playing with many visiting Americans at the Scott Club. In 1966 he won a scholarship to the Berklee School in Boston, played with Buddy Rich’s big band, and switched to bass guitar. In 1971 he was recruited by John McLaughlin to help form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with whom he toured and recorded. Later he toured with Stan Getz and Chick Corea. More recently he has taught bass and pursued a second career as a photographer.

Phil Kinorra was a 20-year-old drummer whose nom de batterie was made up, in a touching display of hero-worship, of bits of the names of three of London’s finest modern jazz drummers of the time: Phil Seaman, Tony Kinsey and Bobby Orr. His real name was Robert Anson, he was born in Nottingham (so this gig was a return home), and he also appeared alongside Graham Bond and Johnny Burch on Don Rendell’s wildly exciting 1963 Jazzland LP, Roarin’. In the mid-’60s he adopted a new identity and led a mod-soul band called Julian Covey and the Machine, who recorded “A Little Bit Hurt” for Island in 1967 and whose constantly shifting personnel included the organist Vincent Crane (later of Arthur Brown’s band and Atomic Rooster), the guitarists Jim Cregan, Dave Mason and John Morshead, the ill-fated bassist Cliff Barton and the definitely not ill-fated bassist John McVie, and the saxophonist and flautist Bob Downes. When psychedelia beckoned, Anson/Kinorra/Covey metamorphosed into Philamore Lincoln, writing “Temma Harbour”, recorded by Mary Hopkin as the second follow-up to “Those Were the Days” in 1969, and releasing The North Wind Blew South, an album of what would now be called Sunshine Pop, on Epic in 1970. He left the music business later in that decade and seems never to have returned.

Quite a lot of history for one tatty bit of paper, which I stuck up on my bedroom wall as a 16-year-old and then carried around from place to place, from one life to another, for almost six decades.

Chris Barber turns 90

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Chicago, 1959: Muddy Waters, St Louis Jimmy Oden, Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson

Chris Barber is 90 today. Few people have had a more profound impact on the course of my generation’s musical tastes in the six and a half decades since he encouraged his banjoist/guitarist, Lonnie Donegan, to continue the habit — started when they were both members of Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen — of breaking up an evening of New Orleans music with a skiffle turn in the intervals, thus leading directly to “Rock Island Line” and all else that followed.

That was no fluke. Barber had broad taste and was a lifelong proselytiser for great music and great musicians. He loved the blues, and in the late ’50s he brought Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters to Britain. The legend goes that purists turned up to hear Muddy sing the “authentic” Delta blues on an acoustic guitar and were scandalised when he plugged in his Telecaster and let rip with the electrified Chicago version. Luckily, at least as far as history goes, the purists were in the minority. Barber also brought over Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, thus helping to shape the tastes of a generation who would soon become Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Blues Breakers and thousands more.

Barber’s own ensembles veered gently away from the strict New Orleans format, adding an electric guitarist and extra horns (including saxophones, anathema to traddies). Later Paul Jones was often the featured singer with the Big Chris Barber Band, which I last saw playing in the park in central Baden-Baden on a sunny summer afternoon during the 2006 World Cup. On that occasion the bandshell was only 100 yards or so from the five-star hotel where the wives and girlfriends of the England team were staying, staked out by Fleet Street’s paparazzi, but I don’t recall any of them leaving their poolside loungers to listen.

Last year Chris announced his retirement. On his 90th birthday, I’d like to thank him for all he did, directly and indirectly, to guide so many of us towards the music that changed our lives. And, of course, to wish him many happy returns.

The state of things

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One characteristic of despotic governments is an urge to suppress or deride art that does not serve their own purpose; hence Hitler’s persecution of “degenerate art” and Stalin’s enthusiasm for socialist realism. We haven’t quite reached that stage, but the political role of artists of all kinds grows more important in times such as these. Here are four new recordings with something to say.

1 Robert Cray Band: “This Man”

In his excellent new album, That’s What I Heard, Cray and his producer, Steve Jordan, explore a variety of approaches with great success (for example, there’s a gorgeous version of “You’ll Want Me Back”, which Curtis Mayfield wrote for Major Lance in 1966). But one track really stands out. On “This Man” he takes a standard blues trope — a stranger arrives in the singer’s home and tries to steal his woman — and turns it to a different use. The groove is down and funky, the mood ominous. “Who is this man in our house? / Who is this man? Better get him out! / We’ve got a problem, he’s gotta go / If he don’t leave, we can’t live here no more / If we want to save our home, better get him out.” Next verse: “When I come home from work, there he is again / Talkin’ loud, talkin’ trash, and it’s always something about him…” I don’t think it’s hard to identify the connection we’re being invited to make. The refrain goes “Get him out! Get him out! Get him out!” If songs could win elections…

2 Irreversible Entanglements: Who Sent You?

As well as being probably the finest solution yet devised to the eternal problem of how to blend jazz and poetry in a way that satisfies the requirement of both, Chicago’s Irreversible Entanglements are also a great protest band. Camae Ayewa — sometimes known as Moor Mother — rivals Matana Roberts as an eloquent writer and spellbinding declaimer of poetic texts. The musicians — Aquiles Navarro (trumpet), Keir Neuringer (alto saxophone), Luke Stewart (bass) and Tcheser Holmes (drums) — bring the open lines and flexible interplay of Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet and the explicit cultural grounding of Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music into the 21st century. Who Sent You?, the collective’s second album, presents the coolly controlled sound of an angry and insurrectionary America that will not be silenced.

3 Pat Metheny: From This Place

With “This Is Not America”, co-written with Lyle Mays and David Bowie in 1985 for the movie The Falcon and the Snowman, Pat Metheny created a piece whose resonance has grown over the intervening three and a half decades, whether you’re listening to the original or to the version by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra on the album Not in My Name. The undertone of his latest album, even in its most lyrical moments, is one of disquiet. The oncoming twister pictured on the cover looms as the music begins with a long, complex, multi-sectioned piece called “America Undefined”. There is wonderful playing throughout by the pianist Gwilym Simcock, the drummer Antonio Sànchez and — particularly — the marvellous bassist Linda May Han Oh, against discreet and effective orchestral arrangements on some pieces. Grégoire Maret adds lovely harmonica, and the title track features Meshell Ndegeocello singing Alison Riley’s lyric: “From this place I cannot see / Heart is dark / Beneath rising seas…”

4 Jasper Høiby: Planet B

The Danish bassist and composer probably best known for his work with Phronesis assembles a different multinational trio to tackle climate change and related social issues. The British saxophonist Josh Arcoleo and the French drummer Marc Michel are more than ready for the challenge of the exposed format, helped by the inventiveness of Høiby’s compositions and his subtle use of electronics — and by the sparing inclusion of words spoken by thinkers including Ram Dass, Grace Lee Boggs, Charles Eisenstein and Jiddu Krishnamurti. Their speech is incorporated with the lightest of touches, providing a framework within which the music speaks in its own language. “If we could truly collaborate with our fellow man,” Ram Dass says, “there would be enough to go around for the world.” Music that relies on unselfish collaboration has much to teach tyrants, actual and would-be.

* The Robert Cray Band’s That’s What I Heard is on the Thirty Tigers label. They tour the UK from April 30 to May 16, starting in Bexhill-on-Sea. Irreversible Entanglements’ Who Sent You? is on IARC/Don Giovanni. They play the Corsica Studios, London on March 10. Pat Metheny’s From This Place is on Nonesuch. Jasper Høiby’s Planet B is on Edition Records.

The lost promise of Jesse Belvin

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Sixty years ago last month, the singer Jesse Belvin was travelling with his wife Jo Ann from a show in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he had performed at the city’s first integrated show, to his next engagement in Dallas, Texas, a journey of 300 miles. In the early hours of the morning they were outside Hope, Arkansas on I-30 when their driver, a friend named Charles Ford, veered into the wrong lane and ran head-on into an oncoming car. All three occupants of Belvin’s Cadillac were killed, as were those in the other car, a couple from Milwaukee.

Belvin was 27, already established as a key figure on the Los Angeles R&B scene, with a new RCA Records contract and realistic ambitions of crossing over a much wider audience. His smooth voice and musicianship allowed him to deliver a grown-up Broadway song as convincingly as a greasy teenage ballad. Had he survived, we might never have heard of Sam Cooke — who signed with RCA immediately after Belvin’s death — or Marvin Gaye, whose background and aspirations were very similar.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, Belvin had moved to South Los Angeles with his mother at the age of five. He sang in church, becoming a choir leader during his teens, before gravitating to the local doo-wop scene. At 20, he had a hand in writing “Earth Angel”, a massive hit for the Penguins and a doo-wop template. The song’s authorship was long disputed, but it seems to have had its origins in Belvin’s habit of sketching a snatch of a song and passing it on for other hands to complete. He may even have written the whole thing. The Fiestas’ “So Fine” was his, even though it’s usually credited to Johnny Otis, as was “Dream Girl”, a hit for Belvin in 1952 when recorded for one of the small labels run by the Hollywood record store owner John Dolphin.

He had also joined the band of the popular tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, who had put together a vocal group — three men and one woman — called Three Dots and a Dash . Leaving McNeely in 1953, he re-recorded “Dream Girl” as a duo with Marvin Phillips, a fellow Dot, for Art Rupe’s Specialty label; released under the names of Jesse and Marvin, the song enjoyed even better sales. That success, however, was temporarily derailed by a draft notice.

Two years later, on returning home from army service, he resumed his activities within the LA scene, working with a variety of vocal groups, including the Feathers, the Chargers, the Cliques and the Sheiks, and alongside such ambitious young men as Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Charles Wright and his cousin Tony “Nite Owl” Allen. A set of demos recorded the ’50s show a mastery of a variety of R&B styles to match that of his LA contemporary Richard Berry, the versatile composer of “Louie Louie”.

Late in 1956 he recorded another doo-wop ballad, the gorgeous “Goodnight My Love (Pleasant Dreams)”, for the Bihari brothers’ Modern Records. George Motola had written the outline of the song, but invited Belvin to add a middle eight and polish it up. Declining a credit, Jesse asked instead for $400 — which was provided, in exchange for half the song’s copyright, by another songwriter, John Marascalo. Featured every night as the closing music to Alan Freed’s radio show, it became a long-lasting favourite.

In 1958 he was signed to RCA by the jazz trumpeter and bandleader Shorty Rogers, then in charge of the label’s West Coast A&R department. This was his break, giving access to big budgets and big promotion, with the eye on the audience captured by Nat King Cole. His first album, Just Jesse Belvin, featured rather anonymous MOR arrangements by Ray Martin and Dennis Farnon on songs like “My Funny Valentine” and “Secret Love”. His version of “Volare” was released as a single; not his finest hour, it fared poorly in competition with Domenico Modugno and Dean Martin.

Shorty Rogers put the great Marty Paich in charge of the arrangements for his second album, giving the singer more stimulating settings and a band including such jazz greats as the trumpeters Conte Candoli and Jack Sheldon, the alto saxophonist Art Pepper, the pianist Russ Freeman and the drummer Mel Lewis. The album was titled Mr Easy, and its versions of “What’s New” and “Angel Eyes” stand comparison with the best ballad singers of the era. In this environment Belvin showed immaculate control of his suave tenor voice and a beautifully understated gift for phrasing a line.

I was exaggerating, of course, when I suggested that we’d never have heard of Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye. But were you to spend a day with Belvin’s legacy, recorded between 1952 and 1959, you might agree that this was an artist of prodigious quality who, until fate struck, was on course for a great career. And there’s no telling where it might have led.

* Jesse Belvin’s recordings are collected on The Blues Balladeer (Specialty); Goodnight My Love (Ace); a fascinating album of unreleased 1958 demos titled So Fine (Night Train); and Guess Who: The RCA Victor Recordings (Ace), which includes Just Jesse Belvin and Mr Easy. The latter is also available coupled on a single CD with Ethel Azama’s Cool Heat on the Fresh Sound label. Much of the information in the above post is gleaned from sleeve notes by Steve Propes, Ray Topping, Jim Dawson and Tony Rounce, whose ischolarship is gratefully acknowledged.

‘Mercy’

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I’d imagine that a large number of people, on reading Duffy’s Instagrammed description of her recent problems, will have reminded themselves of what a great record “Mercy” was, and still is. When it came out in 2008, I must have heard it dozens of times before the penny dropped: it’s actually a 12-bar blues.

Well, not quite. The verse is a 12-bar which stays on the tonic in bars 5 and 6 and is extended to 16 by repeating bars 9-12. The chorus is a straight 12-bar. And I love that the tune, the singing, the weird hard-rubber bass, the cheap organ sound and the guitars — including that devastating bent double-stop against silence after the breakdown — are all drenched in the blues, an updated version of the Thames Delta sound of the early ’60s.

OK, have a guess: how many times has a 12-bar blues topped the UK pop chart? Off the top of my head, I could think of only the Stones’ “Little Red Rooster” — straight from the Thames Delta! — in 1964. So I looked through all the UK No 1s from 1952-1999, and I could find only Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” and “Baby Jump” and T. Rex’s “Hot Love” that fit the spec (before you ask, “Hound Dog” only made it to No 2 for Elvis in 1956). Curious, isn’t it, that the basic foundational template of so much popular music should be so thinly represented?  If someone else wants to check through the last 20 years, be my guest — and please let me know if you find anything.

Anyway, all best wishes to Duffy. That “Mercy” link has been clicked almost 80 million times. And maybe, to paraphrase Ornette Coleman, this is when the blues leave.

Booker T’s tale

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Back in the 1980s, living in California, Booker T Jones was having so much trouble getting work as a musician that he and his wife took classes to become real-estate agents. Booker T Jones. That one. The one from Booker T and the MGs. The one who produced Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Willie Nelson’s Stardust. Whose Hammond B3 was a signature sound of ’60s R&B. Whose simple little 12-bar riff, titled “Green Onions”, still stands, 57 years later, as one of popular music’s moments of absolute perfection.

The tale about the real estate business is one of the surprises in Time Is Tight: My Life in Music, a new autobiography in which Booker T takes us on a pretty extraordinary journey. He tells the story — without the aid of a ghostwriter — in short chapters, sometimes shuffling the time sequence in a way that suggests he might have taken Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol 1 as an example. The mosaic effect is never intrusive: it works on the level of a man musing about his past and making connections that skip back and forth across time.

There’s an evocative portrait of his childhood as a multi-instrumental prodigy in Memphis, which included playing piano with Mahalia Jackson in church at the age of 12, making his first session at Stax Records on baritone saxophone behind Carla Thomas at 16 and playing organ behind William Bell on “You Don’t Miss Your Water” at 17. “Green Onions” arrived when he was 18, propelling him and his three fellow band members — Steve Cropper, Lewie Steinberg and Al Jackson Jr — to national prominence. But by then he could not be deflected from his plan to study music at the University of Indiana, which meant a 400-mile round trip to play sessions at weekends. It also put a dent in whatever touring plans the MGs might have had.

Tensions between Jones and the other band members simmer throughout the narrative, reaching one or two flashpoints as they go through various reunions and re-estrangements over the decades. The author seems to shy away from providing his deepest thoughts on his colleagues (including Duck Dunn, brought in by Cropper to replace Steinberg in 1964), and he provides no new information on the mysterious 1975 murder of Jackson, to whom he was close. There is a telling moment when, after spending a joyful time in Paris meeting beautiful women and writing the soundtrack to Jules Dassin’s 1968 movie Uptight, he re-records the theme tune, “Time Is Tight”, with the MGs for a single release. When it comes out, he discovers — “much to my dismay” — that the names of the other three have been added to the composer credits, as if this were just another session.

Jones has an enquiring mind and seemed to work out very early on that the deck was stacked against musicians when it came to royalties and song-publishing. He was on a salary at Stax, which paid minute royalties for the recordings and took complete ownership of his (very valuable) publishing rights. When the label was sold to the Gulf & Western corporation in 1969, prefacing its eventual collapse, he took it as his cue to move to Los Angeles, where he encountered a very different crowd from the one he had known in Memphis.

Before long he was befriending Leon Russell, playing bass-guitar on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and living with Priscilla Coolidge, the sister of Rita, whose solo hits he produced. The nightmare of his eventual 10-year marriage to the hard-partying, wrist-slashing Priscilla is recounted in detail, balanced by the subsequent description of his blissful family life with Nan Warhurst, who became his third wife in 1985 (and gave her name to a track on Potato Hole, his great instrumental album of 2009).

There are some passages of effective prose: “The hills of Malibu could be every bit as lonely as a cell-like room in Manhattan. At night, the hills became quiet and seemed to close in so tight on you that you’d swear you were going crazy. Just like the noise in New York. Especially if you were alone, or with the wrong person.” Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the whole book comes when Nan’s mother corners him at their wedding to tell him how disappointed she is that her daughter has married across the line of colour: “The unthinkable had happened in her family and she stood shaking, glaring into my eyes. No one noticed or knew what was going on.” If the last few pages contain sentimental passages on how well his kids have turned out, we can cut him some slack there.

As well as the absorbing descriptions of working with Nelson, Otis Redding, Neil Young and many others, and of playing for the Obamas at the White House, long-term admirers will enjoy the analysis of how a few of the MGs’ best known pieces were created, particularly in terms of their chord structures. Anyone who is currently listening to the recently released first volume of their collected singles and B-sides will find their enjoyment enhanced by reading his accounts of the making of “Green Onions” (its voicing inspired, it turns out, by Booker’s early lessons in Bachian counterpoint), “Soul Dressing”, “Booker-Loo” and others, including Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” and Eddie Floyd’s extraordinary “Big Bird” (“We had moved into the Age of Aquarius”), as well as by that of later pieces such as “Hang ’em High” and “Melting Pot”.

Booker T Jones is one of my musical heroes, and an hour spent in his company in 2009, for a Guardian interview, left me with the impression of a deeply thoughtful and naturally open-minded man. His autobiography tells me a great deal I didn’t know and makes me respect him even more.

* Booker T Jones’s Time Is Tight: My Life in Music is published in the USA by Little, Brown and in the UK by Omnibus Press. The Complete Stax Singles Vol 1 (1962-67) is out now on the Stax/Real Gone label.

Zoot Money at the Bull’s Head

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This being Christmas week, Zoot Money needed to call up some deps for last night’s gig at the Bull’s Head in Barnes. A whole band of deps, in fact. But what deps they were. The great Jim Mullen on guitar. John Altman and Bob Sydor on soprano and tenor saxophones respectively. Kenny Wilson on bass guitar and Mark Fletcher on drums. All they were getting, as one of them said, was a key and a count-in. And away they went.

It was rough around the edges, gorgeous in spots, and suffused throughout by the spirit of the music they share. “The Promised Land”. “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer”. “My Babe”. “Let the Good Times Roll”. Eight-bar blues, 12-bar blues, 16-bar blues. Zoot toggled between B3, Rhodes and acoustic piano sounds on his electronic keyboards.

The highlights included two duets at the start of the second set: Mullen with Zoot on a lovely “Please Stay” and Sydor doing the Fathead Newman thing on Ray Charles’s “Hard Times”. The pianist Kenny Clayton and his daughter, the singer Alex Clayton-Black, were invited up for a guest spot which included a delightful “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to”, with a sinuous obligato from Altman’s curved soprano.

Cues were hit, cues were missed, but a good time rolled for the musicians and their audience in the little back room. That’s what the common language can do.