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Posts from the ‘Rock and roll’ Category

Greetings from Asbury Park

ASBURY PARK_QUAD ARTWORK

There are many heroes in Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock & Roll, a documentary film in which the writer/director Tom Jones explores the musical history of the New Jersey beach resort. Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt and Southside Johnny Lyon top the bill, but the list also includes David Sancious and Ernest “Boom” Carter, respectively the organist and drummer with early editions of the E Street Band, who provide eloquent accounts of the music to be heard in the clubs and bars of the town’s West Side, where the black population lived.

Springwood Avenue was the West Side’s main stem, and the Orchid Lounge was where great music was heard (Carter mentions Grant Green, Jimmy McGriff, and many others). The cross-community synergy between West and East was important in the development of the music for which, in the wake of Springsteen’s success, Asbury Park eventually became internationally famous, but it had come to an end in 1970, when a riot over the Fourth of July weekend saw 75 per cent of the businesses on Springwood Avenue burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt.

The riot — eventually suppressed by the arrival of state troopers — expressed the desperation of people who felt they had nothing. Tragically, and as is so often the way, the principal victim of their demonstration was their own community. The film ends on an upbeat note, looking at the current activities of the Lakehouse music academy and studio, where very young musicians are given a chance to learn, to play and to perform, but it cannot pretend that the grievances which erupted almost 50 years ago have been properly addressed.

Springsteen, Van Zandt and Lyon speak with great fondness about what the place gave them, by enabling them to immerse themselves in the world of music. Unlike Dylan and the Beatles, Springsteen says, those who learnt their trade in the Asbury Park bar bands were not musical revolutionaries: they were alchemists, he says, taking bits from all over the place — soul, R&B, Elvis and Little Richard, the British Invasion — and turning it into something of their own. He and his old friends speak with a warmth that is as powerful a defining characteristic of their music as any stylistic element.

The film shows us important venues including the Convention Hall (where the Who shared a bill with Herman’s Hermits and the Blues Magoos), the Upstage Club (where, because it lacked a liquor licence, teenagers could congregate to play and listen) and the Stone Pony (made famous by Southside Johnny and Miami Steve). At the screening I went to, it finished with 20 minutes of a recent fund-raising concert at which practically everybody who ever played in an Asbury Park bar band gathered on stage to run through cheerfully chaotic versions of “Johnny B. Goode”, “Bye Bye Johnny”, and — at Springsteen’s behest — “Lucille”, in the great Everly Brothers arrangement.

The director both excavates the Asbury Park legend and polishes it up a bit. And why not? As Springsteen remarks: “Everything’s broken. We are the fixers of broken dreams.”

* The film was shown on Wednesday of this week at various cinemas in London. There seems to be a screening on May 25 in Liverpool, and there may be others.

Joe Osborn 1937-2018

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As a first-call bass guitarist in Los Angeles in the second half of the 1960s, Joe Osborn played on some of the era’s most memorable hits, including “California Dreamin'”, “Windy” and “MacArthur Park”. Osborn, who died at his home in Lousiana on December 14, aged 81, formed a particularly strong partnership in the Hollywood studios with the pianist Larry Knechtel and the drummer Hal Blaine.

Born in Mound, Louisiana, Osborn started life as a guitarist and spent two years playing with Bob Luman in Las Vegas before joining Ricky Nelson’s band in 1960 and moving to LA. Since the guitarist was James Burton, Osborn switched to bass and played on such Nelson hits as “Travellin’ Man”. In 1964 his studio career had already begun when he became part of the minimalist rhythm section on the Lou Adler-produced Johnny Rivers at the Whisky A Go Go, whose party vibe, captured by the engineer Bones Howe, made it — and the single taken from it, Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” — a giant hit. Osborn went on to play on many more of Rivers’ (now underrated) albums, right up to LA Reggae and Blue Suede Shoes in the early ’70s, and on many of Howe’s subsequent productions, usually alongside Blaine. “Hal and Joe had the lock and the feel,” Howe said in Harvey Kubernik’s book Turn Up the Radio!

He played a Fender Jazz Bass, whose narrow neck suited his fingers, mostly with a pick. Apparently he didn’t change his flat-wound strings for 20 years. There was plenty of competition on his instrument in the Hollywood studios — from Carol Kaye, Ray Pohlman, Lyle Ritz, the multi-talented Knechtel and others, some of them with jazz training — but he was valued for his southern rock ‘n’ roll chops. His later work included Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (with Knechtel on piano) and all the 5th Dimension’s hits, including “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Let the Sunshine In/Aquarius” and the sublime “One Less Bell to Answer”.

Here is a very nice little two-minute tribute, and here is a short interview. As with a lot of great session musicians, the true extent of his contribution will probably never be adequately measured.

Bye bye, Johnny

Johnny Hallyday RIPOn this side of the English Channel, we spent decades laughing at Johnny Hallyday. He was the eternal proof that the French couldn’t do rock ‘n’ roll. At all. But if there was one quality that defined Johnny, apart from his obsession with American popular culture, it was persistence. And eventually I saw past the dreadful cover versions of US hits (“Viens danser le Twist”) and found myself starting to enjoy and even admire what he did.

The turning point was a composition by Michel Berger called “Quelque chose de Tennessee”, featured in Johnny’s 1985 album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Attitudes. It’s a beautiful song with really wonderful words, and it enabled Hallyday to find the perfect balance between his oft-thwarted desire to sing with the emotional abandon of an American rocker and his heritage in the more dignified cadences of French chanson. The ambiguity of the title — Berger was writing about Tennessee Williams, but since this is Johnny we’re listening to, there’s also an implicit hint of Memphis — helps to set up a genuinely great performance.

Five years ago, that song gave me an unforgettable moment. It was October 2012, and Johnny was playing the first proper UK concert of his entire career. The Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters, and I seemed to be one of only a very small number of English people present (remember that London — for the moment, at least — has a French population of somewhere around 300,000). It was a gig I really didn’t want to miss, for cultural as much as musical reasons.

Johnny did his thing in front of an excellent band, singing with a power and an energy astonishing in a man of his age and with his medical history. And when he delivered “Quelque chose de Tennessee”, the audience rose to join him, singing Berger’s tune and lyric with great feeling. So did I, and if I tell you it was like joining in with Springsteen when he does “Hungry Heart”, you’ll probably know what I mean. Both songs address a yearning for something beyond our ordinary little lives, and Johnny evoked that feeling as effectively as Bruce.

His death was announced today, at the age of 74. His country will be in mourning for a man who had his first hit in the month that Elvis was demobbed and half a year before John, Paul, George and Pete made their first trip to Hamburg. No more Paris-Match cover stories. No more buying the paper on holiday in France to check out the itinerary of his latest annual summer tour, with its sports stadiums and Roman amphitheatres. Adieu, Jean-Philippe Smet. Bye bye, Johnny.

Remembering Fats Domino

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

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

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

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

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

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