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Posts from the ‘R&B’ Category

Betty Lavette, protest singer

Betty Lavette

Which activist was it who remarked, sometime in the early ’70s, that he’d forgive Bob Dylan everything if he’d just write one more good song against the Vietnam war? I forget, and it doesn’t really matter. Dylan, of course, never responded to the plea. That phase of his life was done. And I guess that when Patti Smith sings “Hard Rain” at the Nobel ceremony in the time of Trump and Putin, a 50-year-old song is as good as new.

So if we can’t have new songs that rail against injustice with the kind of resonance that Dylan’s early efforts achieved, then maybe revisiting the old ones is the best we can hope for. The fine soul singer Betty LaVette does that to an extent on her new album, Things Have Changed, where she and her producer, Steve Jordan, reinterpret a dozen Dylan songs of varying vintages.

Most of them are non-political, either early (“It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Mama You Been on My Mind”), mid-period (“Going Going Gone”) or more recent (“Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, “Emotionally Yours”, “Seeing the Real You at Last”). But the saw-toothed, low-slung version of the title track which opens the album sounds like an elliptical state-of-the-nation address delivered from the back table of some anonymous small-town bar, and it sets the tone and trajectory for what follows.

Much credit for the album’s considerable success must go to the guitar of Larry Campbell (one of Dylan’s most faithful sidemen), the keyboards of Leon Pendarvis, the bass guitar of Pino Palladino and Jordan’s drums, whose collective nailing of a kind of grunge-funk mode is discreetly compelling throughout. It took skill, imagination and guts to devise a new groove for “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, in which LaVette pays as little attention to the sheet music as Dylan himself would, cutting herself loose from the melody to locate what she needs within such a well-worn song. “Political World” rides on a lean displaced-backbeat riff that nods to War’s “Slippin’ into Darkness”, which suits me fine, and the exquisitely restrained treatment of “Going, Going, Gone” lifts it straight into the upper reaches of my list of favourite Dylan covers.

Now I come to think about it, there’s isn’t actually much explicit protest in this album — certainly not as much as in Mavis Staples’ recent If All I Was Was Black. But somehow the mood still feels insurrectionary. As Bob wrote and Betty sings, “This is a political world, where peace ain’t welcome at all / It’s turned away from the door to wander some more / Or put up against the wall…”

* Things Have Changed is out now on the Impulse label. The photograph of Betty LaVette is by Mark Seliger.

 

The story of Al Duncan

Al Duncan

Long before I knew his name, I was hooked on Al Duncan’s playing. In the autumn of 1963 the Impressions’ “It’s All Right” came on the radio, with its beautiful drum fills. Over the next couple of years there followed a procession of Curtis Mayfield-written songs by the Impressions and Major Lance, driven — like “Delilah” and “I Need You” — by that very distinctive drumming, so clean and relaxed.

Along with Motown’s Benny Benjamin in Detroit and Stax’s Al Jackson Jr in Memphis, Duncan propelled the cream of mid-’60s soul. Eventually I discovered his name, along with the information that he played a lot of blues, R&B and soul sessions in Chicago for Vee-Jay, Chess and other labels before being supplanted by a younger man, Maurice White (later, of course, the co-founder of Earth Wind & Fire). But I didn’t know anything else until this week, when I bought the new issue of Blues & Rhythm, the fine British monthly magazine, and there he was on the cover.

The story is an interview taped in 1975 in Santa Monica by the writer Bill Greensmith, and never previously published. Duncan talks at length about his entire career, from his early days as an aspirant jazz drummer in Texas and Kansas City, playing with the bandleaders Ernie Fields and Jay McShann, to his collaborations with Mayfield, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Phil Upchurch and many others, and his move in the 1970s to Los Angeles, where he played with people like Red Holloway but seemingly failed to break into the session scene.

He died on January 3, 1995, aged 68. For me, this interview is priceless testimony from a man whose playing has been part of my life for more than half a century. So thanks, Bill Greensmith, for disinterring it, and to the editors of Blues & Rhythm for not only publishing it but making Al Duncan their cover star.

Muddy Waters: Behind the sun

Muddy Waters

A new compilation of Muddy Waters’ recordings for the Chess label got me listening obsessively this week to “Louisiana Blues”, one of my favourite pieces of American music. The pleasure was enhanced by the fact that the mastering of Can’t Be Satisfied: The Very Best of Muddy Waters 1947-1975 gives the music, recorded on primitive equipment at the Chess Studio in Chicago almost 70 years ago, a new clarity without compromising its grainy warmth.

Recorded on October 23, 1950 with Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica, Ernest “Big” Crawford on string bass, the drummer Elgin Evans tapping something (possibly a washboard) almost subliminally, and an unknown second guitarist, “Louisiana Blues” has the subtlety and intricacy of chamber music. Opened by Muddy’s quivering unaccompanied bottleneck guitar, it eases quickly into a graceful pattern that switches between a light-footed stride and a funkier half-time rhythm as the instrumental lines wind around each other.

The time is hard to follow: there’s a basic 4/4, but Muddy throws in individual bars of 2/4 and 3/4. Unlike John Lee Hooker, however, he doesn’t do it because the symmetry of the conventional 12-bar blues is of no consequence to him. He does it because that’s what the natural cadence of the song, whose melody line echoes the bottleneck phrases, is demanding. You know that nothing was ever written down on a piece of manuscript paper that day in 1950, but this is nevertheless a fully composed piece.

If you’re trying to count the bars, it’s hard to follow — for me, anyway. And that’s what gives the record its everlasting mystery. It won’t stand still for you. It keeps moving to its own multi-layered momentum, seeming to slide out of your grasp while simultaneously pulling you forward with it.

Muddy wrote it, and I have a particular fondness for the first verse: “I’m going down in Louisiana / Baby, behind the sun / Well I just found out / My troubles just begun…” Behind the sun? That’s the poetry of the blues right there, in an image that leaps beyond literal meaning into the realm of the imagination. And the firm but gentle way he bends those words, laying them against the warping harmonica and bottleneck phrases, shows a supreme musicality at work.

(Another bluesman, Louisiana Red, used the phrase to introduce himself a dozen years on his first album, The Lowdown Back Porch Blues: “I am Louisiana Red / And I come from behind the sun…” Were they Muddy’s original words, or had he already borrowed them from someone else? I have no idea. But he makes them belong to him.)

Anyway, this three-minute act of perfection, characterised by a wonderfully delicate balance of interplay which we white boys of the 1960s could hope to do no more than crudely approximate, gave Muddy his first Top 10 hit in the R&B chart in February 1951, which says something about the good taste of his public. Now it’s hard to imagine a time when people all over the world won’t still be listening to it.

* Can’t Be Satisfied is a 2CD set, released on Universal’s Spectrum imprint. Its 40 tracks, selected by Russell Beecher, include material from many of Muddy’s single and album releases during his time with Chess, including selections from his 1960 Newport live album, Muddy Waters: Folk Singer, Folk Festival of the Blues, Electric Mud, Live at Mr Kelly’s and The London Muddy Waters Sessions. Listening to it sent me back to Robert Gordon’s Waters biography, also called Can’t Be Satisfied, published by Jonathan Cape in the UK in 2002 and still highly recommended.

Mavis Staples goes high

030913_mavisstaples_2685As soon as she made her first record with her family’s gospel-singing group in the early 1950s, Mavis Staples made it clear that she occupied a vocal and emotional register of her very own. At the age of 14, already she could invest the lines “Won’t be the water / But the fire next time” with an almighty dread. Today, at 78, she may have lost some of the range and raw power of her youth but she retains every ounce of the visceral impact. And in terms of its relevance to the state of the world, her new album, If All I Was Was Black, takes its place among the year’s most essential recordings.

It’s her third album with Jeff Tweedy, the leader of Wilco. Tweedy wrote all 10 songs, three of them in collaboration with Mavis, and plays in the small band assembled for the project. The songwriting is superbly sensitive and appropriate, using various forms of primal guitar-led R&B as settings for lyrics dealing with the racism that has refused to go away in the 50 years since the Staple Singers recorded “Freedom Highway” and played their part in the civil rights struggle.

“Little Bit”, structured on a wiry riff reminiscent of the early Magic Band, deals with the deaths of boys and young men at the hands of the police. “Who Told You That” is similarly stripped-back, putting Mavis and her backing singers firmly in the spotlight as they reject advice not to “rock the boat” and to “stop acting up”. Mavis is at her most urgent on “No Time For Crying”, which hits a relentless groove like a cross between Tinariwen’s desert blues and Otis Taylor’s one-chord chants. “We Go High” marries a famous phrase from Michelle Obama’s speech in support of Hillary Clinton — “When they go low, we go high” — to a gentle, soulful tune that could have come from Curtis Mayfield. “Try Harder” is another exhortation; fuelled by a couple of fuzz guitars and a crunching riff, it could have come from the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” era. The album closes with the meditative “All Over Again”, in which the duet between Mavis and Tweedy’s finger-picked acoustic guitar reminds us that her dad, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, grew up on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta, listening to Charley Patton and Son House.

That’s one of the things I love about this deceptively simple-sounding album: in its search for a language with which to express its very immediate concerns, it makes connections with important traditions. Nourished by the deepest roots, it makes a direct and poignant address our own perplexing, disturbing time.

* The photograph of Mavis Staples is by Chris Strong.

Remembering Fats Domino

Fats Domino 2When I was ushered into his room in the Churchill Hotel by the personal valet who had worked for him for more than 20 years, Fats Domino was wearing his off-duty outfit: a brown knitted suit and a hair-net. On stage at the Hammersmith Odeon a couple of nights later, the look was very different: white jacket, shoes and socks, pink tie and trousers, diamonds covering his fingers, his belt buckle, his tie clip, his watch. Here was the man whose record sales in the 1950s were second only to Elvis Presley.

This was April 1973, and he was a couple of weeks away from his 44th birthday. In person, giving an interview to the reporter from the Melody Maker, he was pleasant, if a little guarded. He dutifully ran through his history for me, the stuff that’s been in all the obituaries over the past couple of days, telling me about falling in love with the piano as a child, copying the great boogie-woogie pianists (he mentioned Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons), how Lew Chudd had signed him to Imperial, and how when Imperial was bought by Liberty he had left and made deals first with ABC Paramount, then with Mercury and Reprise. When we spoke, he was without a recording contract.

His stage show was magnificent. Here’s what I wrote, comparing his concert performance with those of other rock and roll pioneers in middle age: “Unlike Chuck, he wasn’t cynical or saddled with a poor backing band; unlike Jerry Lee, he didn’t want to sing country ballads; unlike Little Richard, he wasn’t carried away with his own divinity. He was, quite simply, Fats Domino. He sang almost nothing that wasn’t a million-seller, or close to it, and he sang them exactly as he’d laid them down on the original recordings.”

He’d brought a fine band from New Orleans: the ripe-toned saxophone section of Fred Shepherd (alto), Walter Kimball, Maurice Simon and Fred Kemp (tenors) and Roger Lewis (baritone), plus the great Roy Montrell on guitar, David Douglas on bass and Walter Lastie — a member of one of those Crescent City musical dynasties — on drums. The songs they performed included “I’m Walkin'”, “Blue Monday”, “Let the Four Winds Blow”, “I’m in Love Again”, “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Some Day”, “I Want to Walk You Home”, “Hello Josephine”, “Ain’t It a Shame”, and “So Long”, plus “The Saints”, “Stag-o-lee”, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and Professor Longhair’s “Goin’ to the Mardi Gras”, all in 45 minutes. Apart from the general impression of good humour and good times, I can recall Lastie’s brisk double-shuffle on “I’m Walkin'” and an excellent gravel-toned baritone solo on “Blue Monday”.

It was only Domino’s third visit to the UK. He’d been here as part of a package tour in 1962, and had returned in 1967 for one of Brian Epstein’s concerts at the Savile Theatre. Given that the Beatles loved and revered his music, it’s a pity they didn’t sign him to Apple and help him make some more good records.

I mentioned to him that Dave Bartholomew, the trumpeter and bandleader who had been the co-writer and musical director on his early hits, had told me a year or so earlier that, when they went into the studio back in the early ’50s, they were attempting to make the first fusion of Dixieland jazz and R&B. Fats didn’t entirely agree. “We was just doing what we wanted,” he said. “That’s all — there weren’t no more to it than that.” Enough, however, to help change the world.

Remembering Major Lance

When I met Major Lance he was living near Southend, of all places. This was January 1973 and it was not quite a decade since he had raced into the US Top 10 with his first hit, “The Monkey Time”. Now he had just signed with an English company, Contempo Records, run by John Abbey, the proprietor and editor of Blues & Soul magazine. The idea was to capitalise on his hero status with Northern Soul fans by issuing his new cover version of an established dancefloor favourite, Billy Butler’s “The Right Track”, as the label’s first release.

His biggest hits had been cut in Chicago and issued on the OKeh label. Subsequently he had recorded for Dakar, Curtom and Stax, with mixed results. And now he had found his way to Contempo, which was also providing a home for Otis Leavill, his fellow Chicagoan, whom he planned to produce. “I don’t sign long contracts now,” Lance said. “I go for a year, with an option, and if nothing happens, I move on somewhere else.”

He told me how he had found his way into show business as a dancer on the Bandstand Matinee TV show in Chicago. “The dances changed so fast,” he said. “Every month we’d invent something new, and they came and went so quickly that we didn’t even have time to give names to most of them.”

“The Monkey Time” was one that got a name. It was also one of those records that came out of the radio in the autumn of 1963 and changed everything. Others were Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and the Impressions’ “It’s All Right”. This was before the term “soul music” had come into widespread use; for a while these records and others like them were referred to by UK fans as “new wave r&b”.

The three men who created “The Monkey Time” were Curtis Mayfield, the leader of the Impressions and Lance’s friend from their teenage years in the Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side, who wrote the song; Johnny Pate, the jazz bassist turned arranger, whose chart made such powerfully rhythmic use of brass; and the shrewd producer Carl Davis, whose first hit had come a year earlier with Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”. But it was Major’s modest, almost homespun tone that made it so distinctive; he sounded like an ordinary kid having a good time with a new dance craze.

That team was behind a string of hits, all of which are included among the 53 tracks on Ain’t No Soul (In These Old Shoes), a new 2-CD set released by RPM and subtitled “The Complete OKeh Recordings 1963-1967”. They include “Hey Little Girl”, “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”, “The Matador”, “Rhythm” and “Come See”, as well as great non-hits and B-sides like “Sometimes I Wonder”, “Mama Didn’t Know”, “Gonna Get Married” and “You Don’t Want Me No More”, and a handful of covers of current hits such as “Pride and Joy” and “Land of a Thousand Dances”.

He told me that the good times at OKeh ended when Columbia, the parent label, wanted Carl Davis and his artists to move their operation to New York. Davis refused, stayed put, and started his own label, Dakar (which would do well with Tyrone Davis and Hamilton Bohannon). “It had a lot to do with jealousy inside the company,” Lance said, “and problems that could have been solved but weren’t.”

My favourite of all Major’s OKeh tracks, however, is one I didn’t discover until the early ’70s, when I bought a US promo copy at the original Selectadisc shop on the now-demolished Arkwright Street in Nottingham. It was the singer’s first release on OKeh, and it made so little impact on its home market in the spring of 1963 that it wasn’t even released in Britain. But “Delilah” is one of Curtis Mayfield’s sweetest little story-songs, a typical tale of a country boy trying to charm a city girl with humility and sincerity, perfectly suited to Major’s characteristic tone: “I ain’t got much money / Just a farm on the the outskirts of town / Please don’t think that this is funny / But with you I’d like to settle down…”

Later in his life, Major hit hard times. He stayed with Contempo for a couple of years, touring the Northern Soul clubs, and then went home, where he recorded for Playboy, his own Osiris imprint and Soul, the Motown subsidiary. He served a jail term for cocaine possession, lost most of his sight, and died in 1994.

The new compilation is a good way to remember him. “Delilah” leads it off, and what has always drawn me back to it is the combination of Major’s voice, Curtis’s song, and an irresistible rhythm track, with Al Duncan’s lovely tom-tom figures and Floyd Morris’s jaunty Latin-accented piano fills, hammered in octaves in the upper register and particularly prominent on the fade. It’s just a scrap of a thing, really, but I’d hate to be without it.

‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’

 

Nick Broomfield’s documentary on the life and death of Whitney Houston is both profoundly affecting and rather disappointing. What Whitney: Can I Be Me does have to recommend it is a quantity of intimate backstage film shot (by Rudi Dolezal, who gets a co-director credit) during a tour of Germany in 1999, when the singer was on the brink of disaster: still in her ultimately catastrophic marriage to the singer Bobby Brown (with whom she shared addictions), bringing their small daughter on stage to perform in a gruesome cameo, and surrounded by laughing sycophants and worried-looking assistants in charge of make-up, hair, and so on. That daughter, Bobbi Kristina, would died of an overdose in 2015 at the age of 22, three years after her mother was found dead in her bath at the Beverly Hilton, and to read that information in a caption before the closing credits is to experience perhaps the most dismaying of the many sad moments punctuating the film’s 105 minutes.

Early on we are shown Houston as a 12-year-old prodigy singing a solo with a New Jersey gospel choir, encouraged by her mother, the session singer Cissy Houston, and then as the 19-year-old protégée of Clive Davis, the head of Arista Records, who — as one of his former employees attests — found in her the kind of malleable diva material that Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick had been simply too old and set in their styles and images to provide when he signed them in their middle years. The film holds up Davis’s decision to groom her as a black pop star for white people as a factor in her tragedy, which makes it odd that — during a Q&A session after a screening in London this week — the director said that he had chosen not to interview the  veteran executive because he had not wanted to make a controversial film. Those familiar with Broomfield’s previous output will find this a curious claim.

It’s clear, of course, that he can’t wait to get the short years of golden success — the hugely successful debut album, the starring role in Bodyguard, the worldwide smash with “I Will Always Love You” from that film’s soundtrack, the countless awards — out of the way in order to reach the stuff of tragedy, and there is certainly no shortage of that. Her mother’s desire that her daughter should fulfil her own thwarted ambitions is a subtext; Cissy appears in the film, as do the two older brothers with whom Whitney is said to have shared drugs during adolescence. We are told about her close relationship with her father — but when we learn towards the end that John Houston was suing his daughter for $100m shortly before he died, we are not told that he and Whitney’s mother had already gone through an unpleasant divorce.

It’s a classic story of success tearing a family apart, but the emotional heart of the film is its portrayal of Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, the schoolfriend who became her companion and probably her lover until being removed from the picture during the Brown years. Again, Bloomfield claims that although he had Crawford’s number, and although she knew about the film, he declined to talk to her out of feelings of discretion.

The most dramatic testimony comes from David Roberts, a Welsh former policeman who was her bodyguard from 1988 to 1995 (we glimpse him in the background in several sequences), and who claims to have tried to get people to do something about her addictions, without success. Several of her musicians and backing singers, notably the saxophonist Kirk Whalum, speak movingly about her prodigious qualities as a singer and her warmth as a woman. All of them would like to have seen a different outcome but were powerless to intervene.

The music itself is barely discussed. I always found her voice technically impressive rather than emotionally moving, but that may have been a consequence of the decisions taken early on by Davis and his chosen studio operatives. It would have been interesting to know what an old-school soul/R&B producer like Jerry Wexler, Dave Crawford or Allen Toussaint would have made of her.

There are so many holes in the narrative that I began to think only an eight-hour multi-part treatment like the recent O. J.: Made in America would do proper justice to the many facets of Houston’s story. (There’s not a word, for instance, on what she did in the five years between her divorce from Brown and her death.) But I’m grateful to Bloomfield for unearthing — via the testimony of the record producer David Foster — that the decision to get her to sing the first verse of “I Will Always Love You” without accompaniment was made at the suggestion of The Bodyguard‘s other star, Kevin Costner. Maybe everyone else in the world already knew that, but I didn’t.

* Whitney: Can I Be Me is in UK cinemas from June 16.

Fine and mellow

Fine & Mellow 1Like the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”, the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” and Shirley Ellis’s “The Name Game” and “The Clapping Song”, Rufus Thomas’s “Walking the Dog” was one of a bunch of early-’60s hits that made reference to playground songs. It was also a great R&B record, one of those that all British groups of the time had to learn.

Its other attribute, when first released on Stax in the US and London American in Britain, was a great and unexpected B-side. Rufus’s reputation was that of a showman, a specialist in slightly daft dance-craze songs, but his version of Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow” showed another side of his personality. Already 46 years old when the record came out in 1963, he had started his career more than 20 years earlier as a DJ on Memphis’s influential WDIA radio station, and he was steeped in earlier modes of blues-inflected popular music.

Holiday had first recorded “Fine and Mellow” in 1939 for the Commodore label. The extended version she sang during the TV special The Sound of Jazz in 1957 is even more celebrated, her pensive vocal choruses interspersed with marvellous solos by the three great pre-bop tenor giants: Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and her soul-mate, Lester Young.

Not surprisingly, Rufus Thomas’s reading can’t match the emotional depth of the composer’s versions, and it doesn’t even try. But Thomas is respectful to the lyric and the melody, laid out over altered-blues structure, and only his occasional dark chuckle interrupts the alternating pleas and threats he is addressing to his lover. It’s also great to hear the Stax house band tackling a blues just as they would have done countless times in the clubs along Beale Street: razor-sharp guitar commentary from Steve Cropper, tinkling barrelhouse piano from (probably) Booker T. Jones, and a fine horn section.

Interestingly, on my London American 45 the song is credited to “McKay”. The label on Holiday’s original Commodore version clearly named her as the composer. In 1957, two years before her death, she married Louis McKay, a man with gangland connections. Maybe, at some point, he had the publishing rights signed over to himself.

You can hear Rufus’s recording on More From the Other Side of the Trax, a new collection of Stax B-sides from the early blue-label era, compiled by Tony Rounce for Ace Records. In addition to Rufus and his daughter Carla, there are gems from 1961-66 by the Mar-Keys, Eddie Floyd, Sir Mack Rice and William Bell, as well as lesser known Stax artists such as Barbara Stephens, the Premiers and the Triumphs, a Chips Moman band whose “Raw Dough” was the B-side “Burnt Biscuits”, the first release on Stax’s Volt subsidiary.

In those days artists seldom recorded songs specifically for B-side use, with the result that both decks tended to be the product of full creative effort. “Fine and Mellow” was one of those flip-sides that added a dimension to the listener’s appreciation of the artist in question: a real bonus. And it still sounds great.

Georgie Fame: the man in full

georgie-fame-box-2

Georgie Fame at the Cinnamon Club, Manchester, in 2007 (photo: William Ellis)

You wait decades for a proper anthology of Georgie Fame’s best stuff, and then two of them come along almost at once. Last year there was the beautifully produced five-CD box called The Whole World’s Shaking, including his first four albums for the Columbia label between 1963 and 1966 — Rhythm & Blues at the Flamingo, Fame at Last, Sweet Thing and Sound Venture, each with bonus tracks — plus a fifth disc of rarities and oddities from the period. Now there’s an equally handsome new six-CD set, also released on Universal/Polydor, called Survival: A Career Anthology 1963-2015, which ranges from the Blue Flames’ first two instrumental 45s for the R&B label to the lovely album, Swan Song, which came out last year, and which he billed as his last (although I gather he might be having second thoughts on that). This new box is so full of good stuff that I hardly know where to begin, although I suppose I should point out some of the less obvious highlights.

I was at Island Records in the mid-’70s when Chris Blackwell signed him, to the surprise of those at the company who thought his adventures in the middle of the road during his time with CBS (“The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”, and so on) had destroyed his credibility. From a commercial perspective, the Island liaison was a failure.  First, with J. J. Cale taking over from Mose Allison as the dominant influence on his music, Blackwell sent him to Tulsa with Denny Cordell to make an album that never saw the light of day, and then Glyn Johns took over for one that was released but made no impact. There’s a whole disc from those sessions, including the slinky blues “Ozone” and a high-stepping version of Bobby Womack’s “Daylight”.

But what we also have from the Island vaults are seven tracks from the previously unheard tapes recorded at a Lyceum gig in the autumn of 1974 with an expanded 12-piece all-star Blue Flames line-up, including Marc Charig alongside Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton on trumpets and Elton Dean in a saxophone section also including Alan Skidmore, Stan Sulzmann, Steve Gregory and Bud Beadle. Brian Odgers (bass guitar) and Brian Bennett (drums) are the rhythm axis, with Colin Green and Bernie Holland on guitars and Lennox Langton on percussion. Thanks to careful remixing supervised by Tristan Powell, one of Georgie’s talented sons, it’s a treat to hear them roar through “Point of No Return”, “Parchman Farm” and so on in front of an enthusiastic audience at a venue that was once a great place for gigs, before The Lion King took up permanent residence.

The other big surprise to me was a track from his sole album for Pye, Right Now, produced in 1979 by the rather unlikely team of Karl Jenkins, then midway between Soft Machine and the knighthood earned for his classical compositions with Latin titles, and Jimmy Parsons, for many years the suave maitre d’ of Ronnie Scott’s. The song is called “Eros Hotel”, and Georgie wrote it with the UK-based American poet Fran Landesman, best known for her lyrics to “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men”. A gentle reverie, swathed in strings, it’s a most elegant evocation of seduction in London, and it makes me want to seek out the album from it comes.

We know what Fame can do with other people’s songs, but “Eros Hotel” is a reminder of what an accomplished composer he became. From “Getaway” through “Flamingo Allnighter”, “Vinyl” and “Mose Knows”, his stuff is hip. There’s another example of his lovely ballad-writing in “A Declaration of Love”, one of the 11 tracks here from the fine New York sessions supervised by Ben Sidran in the early ’90s. The eight-minute title track, the bluest of blues on altered changes, comes from those sessions: you can imagine how much he enjoyed sharing the studio with A-Teamers Richard Tee (piano), Robben Ford (guitar), Will Lee (bass) and Steve Gadd (drums).

An abundance of great material among the 111 tracks includes items from the two tremendous live albums, Name Droppin’ and Walking Wounded, recorded live at Ronnie’s in 1997. There’s also a glorious “Since I Fell For You” on which he’s accompanied only by his Hammond B3 and Guy Barker’s trumpet, and a fine “Funny How Time Slips Away” from the Pye session, and tons of other things that you might never have heard before but will be very pleased to meet in the course of a journey through a wonderful life in music, in which even the occasional misstep was simply the preface to a graceful recovery.

The team who put this exemplary package together — Tristan Powell, the disc jockey Dean Rudland and the Universal A&R man Chas Chandler — deserve the highest commendation. The blemishes are few: the Basie drummer Sonny Payne is mistranscribed as Sonny Cain, Bill Eyden is wrongly identified as Phil Seamen (the man he replaced as the Blue Flames’ drummer) in a caption to one of the many fine photographs in the accompanying 48-page hardback booklet, and I’d have liked the generally comprehensive musician credits to have extended to identifying those who played on the Island studio sessions. But those are quibbles. If I didn’t already have Survival, it would be the only thing I’d want or need for Christmas.

‘Blue & Lonesome’

rolling-stonesPut a guitar in my hands and you’ll get the “Smokestack Lightnin'” riff until you rip the instrument away from me and smash it over my head. That’s part of having been a teenager in the early ’60s, and equipped with a certain set of instincts. It doesn’t leave you.

That’s what the Rolling Stones demonstrate, rather more expertly, on Blue & Lonesome, their 23rd studio album, recorded in three days at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove studio at the end of an alley in Hammersmith. It’s the best thing they could have done — in fact probably the only thing they could have done to rekindle my interest.

I’ve been reading an old Record Mirror piece by Norman Jopling, dated May 11, 1963. The intrepid reporter had been to see the Rolling Stones at the Station Hotel in Richmond-upon-Thames, and had talked to them afterwards about their repertoire, which was based largely on the recorded works of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. They told him they had no interest in using original material. “After all,” an unidentified Stone told him, “can you imagine a British-composed R&B number? It just wouldn’t make it.” The sounds like Brian Jones to me. And within a year, of course, he would be eating his words as Andrew Oldham coaxed Mick Jagger and Keith Richard into producing “Tell Me”, “Good Times, Bad Times”, “Satisfaction” and the rest.

Of course they wrote some great songs. But that well dried up many years ago, and it was an intelligent decision to go back to where they came from and make an album of blues covers. I admire the fact that they chose comparatively obscure songs; how simple would it have been to make an album out of the likes of “Smokestack Lightnin'”, “Boom Boom” and “Big Boss Man”? Instead they’ve gone for Jimmy Reed’s “Little Rain”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime” and Lightnin’ Slim’s “Hoo Doo Blues”, songs known only to the cognoscenti.

And, like the bluesmen they worshipped, they’ve got better with age. Play these tracks next to recordings from their early years like “Honest I Do”, “I’m a King Bee” and “Little Red Rooster”, and you can’t miss the improvement the years have brought. Production quality has something to do with it, of course. Don Was and the engineer Krish Sharma are a cut above whoever recorded the first Stones tracks at Regent Sound on Denmark Street. In partnership with the musicians, they know exactly how to distress the sound, dirtying up the guitars and providing a great sonic perspective that evokes the 1950s Chess recordings of the Muddy Waters Blues Band. This is rough music, and that’s how it comes across here.

I’m sorry that they don’t credit the individual guitar solos (Hubert Sumlin would have given a pat on the back to whoever gets the starring role on Little Johnny Taylor’s “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing”). But Jagger gets an extra star for some excellent harmonica-playing — which he needed to do, given that three of songs are plucked from the repertoire of Little Walter Jacobs, a gob-iron immortal.

My only complaint about an otherwise thoroughly worthwhile album concerns the sleeve. How difficult could it be to design a fantastic cover for a blues album by the Stones? If you don’t have any ideas of your own, Mr Art Director, just go back to their first LP, with its moody chiaroscuro group photograph by Nicholas Wright, or its very similar successor, for which David Bailey did the honours. Instead we get a piece of artwork based on the tired old “tongue” logo — so crass as to be actively repulsive. And I’d have liked an Andrew Loog Oldham sleeve note, too.

* The photograph of Mick Jagger and Ron Wood is from the inside of the album sleeve, and is uncredited.