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Posts from the ‘Rock and roll’ Category

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.