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Posts from the ‘R&B’ Category

Gumbo on the King’s Road

Along with the Chelsea Potter, John Sandoe Books and Peter Jones, the Pheasantry is a rare reminder of how the King’s Road used to be before it was ruined by retail and food chains, a process that started in the 1970s. I hadn’t been there for many years until a couple of friends invited me to go with them to hear Jon Cleary on one of three sold-out nights this week.

It’s a Pizza Express now, and like the ones in Dean Street and Holborn it has a thriving music programme in the basement, taking over the cabaret function of the old Pizza on the Park. Cleary, the English-born singer and pianist who has lived in New Orleans for many years, was an ideal choice to perform solo on the club’s Steinway in the intimate, 70-seat environment.

To say he has metabolised the music of New Orleans during his decades in residence, and particularly that of its great pianists, is no exaggeration. In the first set, he started with Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and then mixed it all together in a great gumbo whose ingredients included Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Mac Rebennack and Allen Toussaint. He did the Booker thing of bringing Brahms to the boogie-woogie and the rumba to Rachmaninoff, wandering along the highways and byways of the keyboard to find lurid climaxes, crafty turnarounds and outrageous false endings that brought spontaneous cheers.

The second set was something else. This was about the songs. And not just the fine covers of “Lucille”, “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” and “Blueberry Hill” but his own compositions. One, the soulful “Frenchmen Street Blues”, was heard in season two of Treme. Another, a lovely wistful blues-ballad called “All Or Not At All”, is something he’s apparently been working on for years. A third, “When You Get Back”, is a strutting blue-eyed soul song that I can’t get out of my head. A very good night indeed.

The blues came down from Richmond

Around the corner from where I live is an apartment that was once a crash-pad for Paul Simon, Jackson C. Frank and John Martyn. If I carry on to the train station, I pass the building where the Rolling Stones played the early gigs that attracted the attention of Andrew Loog Oldham and the four Beatles. On the way I see another building, now a Nando’s, where Eric Clapton and his fellow art students would while away an afternoon over a single cup of coffee. A couple of doors above it is the site of a clothes shop that was once vital to the Mod culture. I walk on past an independent book shop which, 50-odd years ago, was owned by Pete Townshend (who still lives a few hundred yards away, up the hill, past the house where Syd Barrett once had a flat). Beyond the station lies a rugby ground, the site of the festivals that, starting in 1961, created the enduring pattern for such open-air, multi-stage events.

If, instead of heading for the station, I were to walk in the opposite direction, I’d come to the footbridge to an island where, as the ’60s picked up speed, trad jazz gave way to R&B bands in a semi-derelict hotel whose ballroom featured the Cyril Davies All Stars, Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men with Rod Stewart, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Downliners Sect, the Art Woods, the Graham Bond Organisation, and so on.

The place that featured the Stones was the Station Hotel in Richmond, where the back room hosted the first incarnation of the Crawdaddy Club. The coffee bar was called L’Auberge. The men’s boutique was John Simon’s Ivy Shop. Townshend’s book shop was called Magic Bus. The rugby ground is the home of Richmond RFC and London Scottish; their clubhouse became the second Crawdaddy, where the Yardbirds — mostly local boys — took flight. The Eel Pie Island Hotel is the legendary venue in the middle of the Thames at Twickenham, which opened with local trad jazz bands in 1956, closed in 1970 with Quintessence and burned down while being demolished the following year. Those are some of the locations, and there are many more, including the Hanging Lamp folk club, held in a church crypt, where the local teenager who would become Elvis Costello went to listen to guitarists like Davey Johnstone and John James.

The story of how Richmond and Twickenham — and particularly Eel Pie Island — became a seed-bed for the British R&B bands that, in conjunction with the Mersey Beat, reset the course of rock music is such a great one that I’ve often thought it was worth a proper book, particularly after I came to live here 20 years ago and realised that the buildings and the pavements had tales to tell. I never got around to it. But now someone else has, and he’s done it so well that I’m glad I didn’t.

Andrew Humphreys spent many years working on travel guides, first for Lonely Planet and then for Time Out. He lives in Richmond and runs a publishing company of his own. When he had the idea for the book, he offered it to three well-qualified music journalists, none of whom was interested. Eventually he decided to do it himself, and I’m glad he did because it could hardly have been done with a finer combination of basic enthusiasm, thorough research and authorial skills. Apart from getting the facts right and in the correct order, he’s talked to many of the people who made up the audiences and customers at these places, creating a vivid portrait of an extremely exciting and important time.

Alongside the musicians and their listeners, several key figures are identified. The first is a local businessman called Michael Snapper, who bought Eel Pie Island Hotel — built in 1830, mentioned by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, in and out of fashion over the decades — in 1951, when it was all but abandoned. The second is a young trumpeter named Brian Rutland, who persuaded Snapper to let his Grove Jazz Band use the dilapidated ballroom. The third is a rum cove called Arthur Chisnall, who managed one of Snapper’s shops in Kingston, saw his vocation as scooping up lost youth and putting them on the straight and narrow, took over the running of the venue and, responding to police demands that it be properly organised, created something called the Eelpiland Club, which soon became a focal point for beatniks, students from the area’s several art colleges, and other adventurous types.

The fourth is Harold Pendleton, a former accountant who loved jazz, managed the Chris Barber Band, ran the National Jazz Federation, founded the Marquee Club in an Oxford Street basement in 1958, organised the NJF’s first National Jazz Festival at the Richmond Athletic Association’s grounds in 1961 and saw it grow into an event of national significance, with the trad and modern jazzers gradually pushed out by the young R&B bands, first represented in 1963 by Georgie Fame, Graham Bond, Cyril Davies and, at the bottom of the bill, the young Stones.

The fifth is Giorgio Gomelsky, a refugee from Soviet Georgia who arrived in London in 1955, aged 21, and soon became known on the scene as a hustler and fixer, a colourful character never short of an idea. Through knowing Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies he met Brian Jones, whose new band he heard at a pub in Sutton in February 1963. It was Gomelsky who created the Crawdaddy for them at the Station Hotel later that month, first with an audience that could be numbered on one hand but soon with queues down the street. Gomelsky printed flyers, ran ads in the Melody Maker, buttonholed journalists on the music papers, and in general hyped the Rolling Stones as best he knew how. He did a great job, but within weeks he’d lost them to a younger hustler, the 19-year-old Andrew Loog Oldham, who came to see them in Richmond and persuaded them he could take them to the next stage. As, of course, he did, leaving Gomelsky to manage the Yardbirds and cook up countless further schemes — some good, some bad, none of them quite as good as the Stones — before his death in New York five years ago.

All this and much more is in Humphreys’ book, which is well illustrated with period photos, flyers, posters and adverts, and useful maps on the end-papers. It’s also hugely enjoyable, written with a delightful touch and an ear for the colourful anecdote. Here, for instance, is a trad-band musician describing the task of getting their instruments across to Eel Pie Island on the original chain ferry, before the footbridge was installed in 1957: “A decidedly dodgy affair, like the D-Day landings but without the gunfire.”

I hope I haven’t made Raving upon Thames sound like a book of local history. In fact it’s about us — all of us, even if we weren’t there.

* Andrew Humphreys’ Raving upon Thames: An Untold Story of Sixties London is published by Paradise Road (www.paradiseroad.co.uk). The photograph was taken at Eel Pie Island in 1960 for a feature in Weekend magazine headlined “Down Among the Dead Beats”.

London Jazz Festival 4: What’s Going On

When the photograph of Marvin Gaye appeared on a large screen above the stage late in the evening, just as the rhythm section of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra was cranking up one of the familiar vamps from What’s Going On, the eyes started to prickle and a round of applause arose from the audience in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Fifty years after his masterpiece entered our lives, what would Gaye have made of this occasion, had he lived to see it?

He would certainly have noticed that the concerns he voiced throughout the cycle of nine songs are even more relevant today. The point was driven home when that same screen carried the words of Rosa Parks, Margaret Mead, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass and others over contemporary images of protest.

Fifty years ago! Gaye was 32. I was 24. So young! It’s sad for someone of my age to see today’s 24-year-olds still having to confront worldwide poverty, systemic racism, pointless war and the threat posed by climate change, which were the themes of What’s Going On. Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter are responses to some of those concerns, and more effective ones that we managed in our younger days, but the issues remain unresolved.

Maybe some of them will be sorted out by the generation represented on stage last night: a 27-piece orchestra of strings, brass, woodwind and rhythm under the baton of Peter Edwards, drawn from the ranks of the invaluable Tomorrow’s Warriors project run for the past three decades by Janine Irons and Gary Crosby. None of the young musicians was born when Gaye recorded the pieces they were playing last night in Edwards’ rearrangements, but all of them clearly understood and were committed to its meaning and significance.

The 28th member of the ensemble, the South London-born soul singer Noel McKoy, brought a depth of experience as well as great vocal expertise to the role of Gaye. Without attempting an imitation, he inhabited the songs and negotiated their contours beautifully. But he was one among equals with the other musicians. A special commendation must go to the tenor saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael, who added immense presence and character to the solo parts originally played by Wild Bill Moore. The funk was brought by the unflagging team of Sarah Tandy (keyboards), Sonia Konate (guitar), Jihad Darwish (bass guitar). Romarna Campbell (drums) and Noda Oreste (congas), who hit a quietly simmering groove on one transitional passage which — with Tandy on electric piano — reminded me that Bitches Brew was released just a couple of months before Gaye embarked on the first sessions for what would become What’s Going On.

Edwards shuffled the running order of the individual songs, starting out with “What’s Happening, Brother” and “Right On”, leaving the title song until the middle of the set, and ending with the spiritual lift of “Save the Children” and “God Is Love”. There were photographs of modern urban wastelands to accompany “Inner City Blues” and wildfires and melting ice sheets for “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”. The actor Colin Salmon, the 29th member, delivered a poem/rap that summarised the album’s themes with emotional precison and dignity.

That was the second half of the evening. The hors d’oeuvres, before the interval, had been a selection of pieces from Trouble Man, the soundtrack to a blaxploitation movie, released in 1972 as the successor to What’s Going On. The hipsters’ favourite Gaye album, Trouble Man is an instrumental suite with vocal interludes, cutting and pasting the work of LA session men — Earl Palmer, Victor Feldman and so on — with Gaye’s own multi-instrumental rhythm tracks. Brass and string arrangements commissioned from a variety of seasoned pros — Dale Oehler, Jerry Long, Bob Ragland, J. J. Johnson, Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken — created and sustained a powerful mood of noir soul. Once more Edwards shook the pieces up, using Salmon as a narrator/commentator and again featuring Carmichael in the role, this time, of Trevor Lawrence, Gaye’s preferred saxophone soloist of the time.

A rearrangement of one of the original work’s gentler passages for the string section (led by Olivia Moore), with improvised solos passed in a round-robin between individual violin and viola players, was for me the musical highlight of the entire triumphant evening. In the way it developed and transformed an idea from the original recording, it reminded me of something Gaye said in 1976 while discussing Trouble Man in a radio interview with Paul Gambaccini: “If somebody took that album and did a symphony on it, I think it would be quite interesting.” I’d say Edwards and the Nu Civilisation Orchestra have done the groundwork on that project. They’re halfway there, and should be encouraged to see it through.

* The Nu Civilisation Orchestra perform What’s Going On at Birmingham Town Hall tonight (Friday 19 November), at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on Wednesday 24, and at Canterbury’s Gulbenkian Theatre on Friday 26. Donations to the Tomorrow’s Warriors project can be made here: https://tomorrowswarriors.org/support/jointhemovement/

Forever Curtis

No word of a lie, I was listening to a new compilation called People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Songbook when I came across this photograph of me interviewing Curtis in January 1972, during the edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test in which he and his band so memorably performed “We Got to Have Peace” and “Keep On Keeping On”. It was the first time I’d interviewed him (last year I wrote about the second occasion, which took place in very different circumstances, here) and he was as wise and courteous as I’d been led to expect from all of the songs of his that I’d listened to over the years. You’ll have to forgive me putting the photo up here; it’s a precious memory.

The 24-track album, compliled by Tony Rounce, kicks off with the Impressions’ version of “Gypsy Woman” and includes Mayfield’s “Keep On Keeping On”, but otherwise it consists of versions of Curtis’s songs by third parties. A few of them he also produced, such as Jan Bradley’s charming “Behind the Curtains”, Barbara Mason’s “Give Me Your Love”, Gladys Knight’s “The Makings of You”, the Staple Singers’ uncharacteristically lubricious “Let’s Do It Again”, Aretha’s “Look Into Your Heart”, Patti Jo’s irresistible “Make Me Believe in You” and Walter Jackson’s majestic “It’s All Over”. But some of the finest moments come when outsiders are looking in on the material.

Rounce suggests that Dionne Warwick’s version of the much loved “People Get Ready”, recorded in Memphis in 1969, is the closest to Curtis’s original with the Impressions, and he’s right, but it’s different enough to make it a marvellous complement. The Techniques’ “Queen Majesty” and the Gaylads’ “That’s What Love Will Do” are chosen to illustrate the huge impact the Impressions had on Jamaican vocal groups (I think I’d have added the Uniques’ “Gypsy Woman”, with its gorgeous Slim Smith lead vocal).

My only other suggestions would have been to find a place for the Opals’ “You Can’t Hurt Me No More” and to omit Major Lance’s over-familiar “Um Um Um Um Um Um” in favour of the lesser-known “Delilah”, his first single for OKeh in 1963, with its great piano from Floyd Morris, Al Duncan’s kicking drums and little touches of Curtis’s guitar. Lance’s first hit, “The Monkey Time”, appears in a version from the Miracles’ Mickey’s Monkey album, allowing us to contrast the significant difference in feels between Duncan’s drumming on the original and Benny Benjamin on the Motown version.

I was pleased to be introduced to the Jackson 5’s intense and long-buried 1970 version of “Man’s Temptation”, produced by Bobby “Does Your Mama Know About Me” Taylor, its lead switched between various brothers, and to Keni Burke’s “Never Stop Loving Me”, which is early-’80s Quiet Storm music at its suavest. The version of “I’ve Been Trying” by Jerry Butler, an ex-Impression, may not be quite as sublime as the group’s original — the B-side of “I’m So Proud” — but what could be? It was their finest hour.

It’s always good to be reminded of the mark Curtis left, not just as a singer and composer but as a man who believed in taking control of his own destiny when so many in his position were being robbed of it.

* The photo was sent to me by Tim Dickinson, to whom many thanks. People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Songbook is on the Kent label.

Dylan 1980-85

While reading an interview with the filmmaker Jesse Dylan in the (London) Times last week, one quote caught my eye. The interviewer asked him about the continued productivity of his father, who is now in his ninth decade. Jesse replied that his dad wasn’t trying to outdo himself. “He’s just thinking, ‘Should I paint a picture today? Should I write a song?'”

It reminded me of of my own reaction to visiting the Musée Picasso in Paris a few years ago and realising how wonderful it must have been to be him, to get up in the morning and think, “Shall I paint a picture today? Shall I paint a few plates? Shall I make a bull’s head out of a pair of bicycle handlebars or a guitar out of a matchbox and some rubber bands?”

That’s not the only point of comparison between the two, for sure. But Dylan transforms farm implements into sculpture and photographs into paintings with the same unstoppable desire to make stuff. He’s not expecting everything he creates to be the equal of “Desolation Row”, just as Picasso didn’t think a painted soup dish needed to be a rival to the Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Jesse Dylan’s remark might have helped me to make a different kind of sense of the latest volume of the Bootleg Series, titled Springtime in New York and assembled from recordings made in the first half of the 1980s. This was a period that included Shot of Love, Infidels and Empire Burlesque, and most of the tracks on the deluxe five-CD version of the new release are outtakes from those sessions, in Los Angeles as well as New York, plus material from various tour rehearsals and a couple of live tracks (“Enough Is Enough” from Slane Castle in 1984 and “License to Kill” from the same year’s David Letterman show).

There are works of genius here, the two takes of “Too Late” and its eventual metamorphosis into “Foot of Pride” being the prime exhibit, showing Dylan functioning in 1983 at the peak of his powers, creating something that only his imagination could have produced, working away at its shape and structure and detail and angle of attack (and then still not being satisfied enough to put it on the relevant album). “New Danville Girl” has long been loved by bootleggers as a prototype of what would become, 18 months later, the epic “Brownsville Girl”, featuring a friendlier arrangement and more modest production but lacking some of the final version’s finer points. “Let’s Keep It Between Us” is a Dylan song recorded by Bonnie Raitt in 1982 and here performed two years earlier as a confiding southern soul ballad, with wonderful B3 interjections from Willie Smith.

By and large, however, this is an assembly of lesser material. Unlike The Cutting Edge or More Blood, More Tracks, it’s not the sort of compilation that enables the dedicated student to make a close scrutiny of Dylan’s working method over a tightly defined period of time. It’s a whole lot looser than that, and variable in quality. You don’t necessarily need Dylan’s versions of “Fever”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Green, Green Grass of Home”, “Abraham, Martin and John” or “Sweet Caroline” — or Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do”, which isn’t noticeably better than those performed by a hundred young British R&B bands in the mid-’60s (including my own). You might, of course, need his gorgeous version of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”. But what all of them do is remind us of what Dylan’s backing musicians often say, that he knows a very large number of songs — and if you’re in his band, you have to be ready to play them, at least in rehearsals.

Taken together with the outtakes of songs like “Blind Willie McTell”, “Jokerman”, “I and I”, “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, “Sweetheart Like You”, “Tight Connection to My Heart”, “Seeing the Real You at Last” and “Dark Eyes”, some of them pleasingly devoid of the production touches added to the versions released on the original albums, they made me think of what it might be like if Bob Dylan turned up in your village with his band, rented the parish hall and spent an evening entertaining the locals. It wouldn’t be a show. It wouldn’t be for posterity. Nobody would be taking notes or keeping score. There might be false starts and missteps and re-runs. There would certainly be some things that didn’t work quite as well as others. Playing these five discs end to end, flattening out the artistic highs and lows, allowing the kaleidoscope of Dylan’s approach to American music to form and disperse and reform, you get a sense of how much fun that would be.

* Bob Dylan’s Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series 1980-85 is out now in various formats and configurations on the Columbia Legacy label. The photograph of Dylan in New York is from one of the booklets that come with the deluxe version and was taken by Lynn Goldsmith.

Back on Highway 61

Generally speaking, I prefer Bob Dylan to make his own cover versions, just the way he’s been doing for the best part of 60 years. There are maybe not even a dozen exceptions, mostly the obvious ones: Presley’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, Jimi’s “Watchtower”, Stevie’s “Blowing in the Wind”, the Fairports’ “Si tu dois partir”, Ferry’s “Hard Rain”, Betty LaVette’s “Things Have Changed”. But now there’s a definite addition to the list: Dave Alvin’s version of “Highway 61 Revisited”, a highlight of From an Old Guitar, his new album of rare and unreleased stuff.

To be honest, I haven’t followed the career of the singer/guitarist from Downey, California who started out at the very end of the ’70s with the Blasters and more recently led bands known variously as the Guilty Ones and the Guilty Women. My bad, as the young people say. From an Old Guitar is full of great stuff, drawing on country, blues, R&B and, in Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “Perdido Street Blues”, old-time jazz, with other songs from Mickey Newbury, Earl Hooker, Doug Sahm and Marty Robbins.

Dylan’s parable is set to a low-riding shuffle beat, the layered guitars of Alvin and Greg Leisz howling, nudging and screeching from multiple perspectives as the magnificent verses are recited in appropriately biblical tones. Alvin’s voice is one that wears its bruises, scars and calluses lightly, weighting and timing every line perfectly, drawing out the dark humour, simultaneously absurdist and apocalyptic. The video is well assembled and cut, particularly the chase towards the end between a hot rod and a Highway Patrol car on a two-lane blacktop.

My other favourite is a song called “Peace”, credited to Willie Dixon. It bears no resemblance to a song of the same name that gave the title to a 1971 Dixon album, but it carries the hallmarks of the composer of “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “The Seventh Son”. The buried hook — the thing that makes we want to listen to it again, straight away — is a funky little chorded figure from Joe Terry’s electric piano: peeping through two or three times, it seems to want to take the song in a different direction before thinking better of it and withdrawing.

I can happily listen to this album from start to finish, and then over again. Even better, I imagine, would be to wander into some bar or other — Dingwalls, perhaps, or the old Tramps on 15th Street in NYC — and drink a beer or two while listening to Alvin and his band working their way through the whole thing. One day, maybe. But whatever, that “Highway 61” is going to stick around.

* Dave Alvin’s From an Old Guitar is out now on the Yep Roc label.

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.