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Posts from the ‘R&B’ Category

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

Zoot Money

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.

Freedom songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mac Rebennack: Roots and herbs

When Dr John came into the Old Grey Whistle Test studio at the BBC Television Centre one night in 1972, he was in his Mac Rebennack mode. That was his birth name, the one he used as a young man on the New Orleans music scene until he moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and eventually devised the hoodoo-voodoo identity that brought him fame.

There was an upright piano in the studio. The programme was going out live. Mac came in and sat down, and after I’d given him a brief introduction, he started to play. For the next few minutes — maybe 10, but I wasn’t counting — he worked his way through the history of post-war New Orleans piano styles. He went from Professor Longhair through Fats Domino and James Booker to Huey Smith and Allen Toussaint, stirring a filé powder of his own into the gumbo of their artfully syncopated, wonderfully blues-drenched phrases.

Mac — who died yesterday at his home in Louisiana, aged 77 — was an authority on the subject, a repository of the lore and legend of New Orleans music, and it permeated his own playing. Sadly that Whistle Test performance seems not to have been recorded; unlike many less worthy items, it has never resurfaced, although I continue to live in hope because I’d give a lot to see it again.

It wasn’t until many years later, while reading the notes to a reissue of the magnificent solo-piano set he recorded for the Clean Cuts label in 1981, that I discovered why he had an aversion to performing alone. In his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, he said it aroused the memory of the fear “that I’d end up alone as a solo-piano lounge act starring at Holiday Inns or bowling alleys for the rest of my natural life.”

It was during the same visit in 1972 that I interviewed him at some length for the Melody Maker. Again he talked about his hometown piano heroes, starting with Longhair — “Fess” — whom he’d heard in clubs when his father, the owner of an appliance store, was fixing broken lighting and sound systems. Later, as a young guitarist (the instrument he played before someone shot off the finger he used to bend notes), Mac was called on to play a gig in Longhair’s band.

“Fess remembered me from the way I used to pester him to death when I was a kid. He played these real complex rhythm things — even today I can’t do some of them fantastic things I’ve seen him do over the years. He was such a strong focal point, an inspiration, for everything I was involved in.” There was a mystery, he said, to Longhair’s music, particularly in his introduction of a rhumba feeling into the rhythms. “There’s a missing link there somewhere, because none of the piano players I knew from before Fess’s time were in the direction he was on — the Rhumbalero groove. At some point he was a real innovator. He made up his own music terms. He called his music ‘overboogie’, and when he did this thing by crossing his hands he called it a ‘double-note crossover’. He had something called a ‘left-hand overdrive’, and when the horns made a punch, he’d call that a ‘spew’: his terms were very descriptive.”

You could throw a New Orleans name at Mac — Mel Lastie, John Boudreaux, Harold Battiste, Ed Blackwell, Walter “Papoose” Nelson, Red Tyler, Earl Palmer, Cosimo Matassa, Snooks Eaglin — and he’d have a story about them. When I asked him about being a white man in a black man’s world, at a time when the American Federation of Musicians still had segregated branches, he told me about a tour he made with Toussaint, Eaglin and Phil “Sea of Love” Phillips in the early ’60s: “It was one of the first integrated tours of the South, pre-integration. It was very treacherous. Some of those towns, like Polarville, Mississippi, they’d have had lynchings there — and I was the guy who had to collect the money after the gig.”

The interview was memorable in another way: Mac was on the methadone programme, and he kept nodding out. He’d be in the middle of an answer, shut his eyes and stop talking. If I kept silent too, a minute or so later he’d open his eyes and resume the answer exactly where he’d left off. It was a little unnerving, but it was a sign of recovery from his addiction.

A year earlier I’d seen him in much worse shape. I spent a night at Trident Studios in Soho, where he was recording tracks for what turned out to be The Sun, Moon and Herbs — his fourth album as Dr John — with a motley gang including Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Graham Bond and a few jazz musicians, including the tuba player Ray Draper, once a member of Max Roach’s quintet, and the Jamaican saxophonist and flautist Ken Terroade. The vibe was pretty down and depressing as the assembled company went through endless stoned jams. It was hard to believe they’d get anything out of it.

It was great, then, to see what became of him not just a year later but through the rest of his career, as he became an emblem of the city that had given the music its backbone. You can say that his half-dozen Grammy awards and his membership of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were the least cool thing about him, but when you’d come through what he came through, I’ll bet they meant a lot.

If you haven’t done so already, click on the YouTube link above. This live version of his irresistible “Such a Night” from the Mountain Stage radio show on NPR in 1989 tells you how special he was — how much sheer warmth his music generated, whatever the circumstances — and how greatly he’ll be missed.

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.