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Posts from the ‘Soul music’ Category

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.

‘Summer of Soul’

So much has been written about the documentary based on unseen footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that you won’t really be needing another recommendation from me. But among all the performances assembled by the director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, from the series of concerts in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park — now known as Marcus Garvey Park — during that summer 52 years ago, there are some things in particular that I wouldn’t want you to miss.

The gospel sequence, which begins with the profoundly thrilling sound of Dorothy Morrison’s deep contralto leading the massed Edwin Hawkins Singers on “Oh Happy Day”, stands as the foundation of the whole thing. Its climax comes when Mahalia Jackson, feeling unwell, invites Mavis Staples to start off “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, which the younger woman does beautifully. But then Mahalia, evidently revived by what she has heard, comes forward to join Mavis — and you can sense the bedrock of Manhattan Island shaking to the majestic roar of their voices.

It’s like one generation handing the torch to another, and there’s quite a lot of that feeling throughout the film: the elaborate stage costumes of the Fifth Dimension and the straw-thin David Ruffin giving way to the hippie threads of Sly and the Family Stone being one example, the contrast between restrained mohair-suited blues of B. B. King and Nina Simone’s closing recital of a challenging poem by the Last Poets’ David Nelson being another. As someone says, this “was when the negro died and Black was born.” (Ruffin, by the way, had just left the Temptations and sings “My Girl” magnificently, wringing the neck of his extraordinary falsetto.)

The director uses standard documentary techniques — a strong gallery of talking heads and the deployment of newsreel footage — but there were times, particularly in the opening sequences, when I thought he’d been influenced by the video montages of Arthur Jafa, whose shows in London and Berlin I’ve written about. That’s a good way to go, although Thompson doesn’t overdo it. The stories parallel to the music are well chosen. The activist Denise Oliver-Velez talks about the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault gives a shattering description of her experience in 1961 as the first black female student to be enrolled at the University of Georgia; she went on to become the first black female journalist in the New York Times newsroom.

Of course the deepest impression is left by the knowledge that here are black artists performing to black audiences numbered in the tens of thousands, on their home turf — something on a different scale from the Apollo Theatre a few blocks away. (Harlem was thought to be dangerous territory for white people then, and there are very, very few non-black faces to be seen in these vast crowds.) Sly Stone was also a star at Woodstock that summer, but you can’t watch his “Everyday People” in Harlem without thinking that this spine-tingling performance has gained an extra dimension from the context. And you can see very clearly why Miles Davis (who is not in the film) wanted this audience rather than those who came to see him in European-style concert halls, expecting to hear “My Funny Valentine”.

I remembered, too, the times I’d seen Nina Simone at Ronnie Scott’s or the South Bank, and been irritated and even infuriated by the distance she’d chosen to open between herself and her all-white audiences, expressed in bouts of brusqueness and truculence generally ascribed to a diva’s temperament. To see her in a Harlem park, gently crooning the brand-new “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” to her people, so centred, so serenely beautiful in her Afrofuturist hair and robes and jewellery, made me feel ashamed of those responses from 30-odd years ago. Sure, I loved the music in Summer of Soul, but I also came out of the cinema into a warm London night with a lot to think about.

* Summer of Soul is in cinemas and on the Hulu streaming platform now. Here’s the trailer.

‘One Night in Miami’

Sam Cooke would have turned 90 today, had he not been shot to death by Bertha Franklin, a motel manageress, during a dispute in South Central Los Angeles on December 11, 1964, when the singer seemed on the brink of the kind of transition from popular hitmaker to cultural spokesman that the equally ill-fated Marvin Gaye would make with What’s Going On seven years later.

According to Franklin, his last words were: “Lady, you shot me.” She is one of the witnesses summoned to speak in The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, a documentary available on Netflix. Its director, Kelly Duane de la Vega, does an excellent job of piecing together Cooke’s story, although perhaps too much emphasis is placed on the conspiracy theories that accumulated after his murder.

His real last words, however, were the lyrics to “A Change Is Gonna Come”, the song that he was inspired to write by hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and which duly became an anthem for the civil rights movement when released as an A-side a fortnight after his death. A probably romanticised version of how he came to compose it is contained in One Night in Miami, a new filmed version of a stage play by Kemp Powers in which Cooke, the NFL star Jim Brown and Malcolm X join Cassius Clay in a motel room on the hours after Clay’s first defeat of Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964.

The meeting did take place, and the invented conversations between the four men are intense and compelling. Malcolm is on the brink of completing Clay’s conversion, but has yet to reveal that he himself is about to break with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. In individual confrontations, the men challenge each other about how to proceed in their dealings with the white world. Brown wants to give up the NFL — in which he represents a role model for black kids — to become a Hollywood star. Cooke is told that it’s time to stop pandering to white audiences. Clay is hours away from becoming Muhammad Ali. But Malcolm, too, is confronted with his own issues.

I lost a bit of faith in the film when Malcolm pulls out a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and plays “Blowing in the Wind” on a handy record player, telling Cooke he should be ashamed that it takes a white boy to write a song addressing their concerns. As far as I can see “A Change Is Gonna Come” was recorded on January 30, 1964, a month before the first Clay-Liston fight. Here the dramatist’s imperative seems to have taken precedence over the actual truth, whatever that may have been.

Otherwise the film — available on Amazon Prime — is beautifully fashioned by its director, Regina King, deeply atmospheric in its mood and its detail, although traces of its stage origins remain. There are excellent performances from the four leads: Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm, Eli Goree as Clay, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr as Cooke. Michael Imperioli — The Sopranos‘ Christopher Moltisanti — turns up as Angelo Dundee, Clay’s trainer.

I recommend it highly, to be followed immediately by The Two Killings, in which — among other things — we see Cooke’s attempts to retain ownership of his work. Dr Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African studies at Duke University, says of him: “What we know is that we never got to see him as a fully mature artist, thinker and activist who, had he lived, would have had a dramatic impact on the next generation of artists, thinkers and activists.” That seems plausible.

Another of the documentary’s talking heads, Renée Graham of the Boston Globe, considers “A Change Is Gonna Come” and remarks: “It’s the shame of this nation that this song should still be so relevant.” But you have the feeling that another generation, perhaps more than one, will come and go before the change of which Cooke sang becomes definitive.

* Some of Cooke’s recordings — including Sam Cooke at the Copa and Ain’t That Good News — are newly available on vinyl, released on the ABKCO label. His finest albums, Night Beat and One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club, were reissued on CD by RCA Legacy in 2005.

Dyan Birch 1949-2020

Dyan Birch was something special. Her presence on a stage drew the eye and the ear. And now she’s gone, leaving the memory of a soulful essence that was hers alone, however big or small the stage.

She was a teenager working in Brian Epstein’s NEMS record shop in Liverpool when she met the people who shared her love of soul music and with whom she would form the group Arrival: her fellow singers Frank Collins, Paddie McHugh and Carroll Carter. In 1969 they went to London, where they were signed by the Gunnell agency, who put them together with a keyboard player and singer called Tony O’Malley. They were managed by the savvy hipster Tony Hall, and they had chart hits with “Friends”, a Terry Reid song, and “I Will Survive”, written by Collins and arranged by Paul Buckmaster.

I met them en route to the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, in a helicopter chartered by Hall. They played on the Friday bill, which also included Taste, Tony Joe White, Chicago, Family, Procol Harum and the Voices of East Harlem. Curiously, although the festival was being filmed, no footage of their set survives.

Five years later Arrival were no more. Dyan, Frank, Paddie and Tony had been joined by the guitarists Neil Hubbard and Jim Mullen, the saxophonist Mel Collins, the bassist Alan Spenner, the drummer Terry Stannard and the percussionist Jody Linscott. Now they were known as Kokomo, and they became fixtures in London pubs and clubs from the Hope & Anchor in Islington to the Half Moon in Putney and Dingwalls in Camden. Their management was in the hands of Steve O’Rourke, who signed them to CBS.

Sadly, the reaction to their records never lived up to the promise of their live appearances. Here’s a beauty from Rise and Shine, their second album: “Without Me”, written by Dyan, Tony and Frank and produced by Brad Shapiro. Many, including me, believed them to be the best of all the British club and pub bands of the 1970s.

They were much in demand by other artists; you could hear the whole band, half-submerged among a couple of dozen musicians on Bob Dylan’s “Romance in Durango”, from Desire, and on Bryan Ferry’s In Your Mind. Here they are, minus only Hubbard, backing the singer and guitarist Bryn Haworth in 1975, on a track from his second Island album, Sunny Side of the Street; it’s always been a favourite of mine for the way it highlights the special vocal blend that Dyan, Frank and Paddie conjured with so little apparent effort.

Dyan was never a diva, but always a member of the band. There were serious health problems later in her life, affecting her ability to take a full part in the very welcome Kokomo reunions; the last time I saw her, at Richmond Athletic Club four or five years ago, she couldn’t complete the set, greatly to her distress. She always seemed like a lovely person. “Spread your wings,” she and the others sang with Bryn Haworth, “and fly right out of here.” And now she has.

* The photograph of Dyan Birch on stage with Kokomo at the 100 Club in 2014 was taken by Neil Holmes and is used by his kind permission.

The First Daughter

Even after she stopped singing duets with her dad and began sharing a studio microphone instead with a man of her own age, Carla Thomas somehow remained the First Daughter of Soul. Maybe it was something to do with the lingering echoes of her first big hit, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)”, in which she was cast as the sort of perky ingenue to be found in the pop charts in 1961 rather than the mature soul singer she would eventually become.

As the offspring of Rufus Thomas, whose roles as club MC and radio DJ and recording artist made him an important figure on the Memphis music scene in the post-war decades, Carla was born to the calling. Perhaps that, too, was why she was always a little bit taken for granted, even when she and Otis Redding had a hit with Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin’s “Tramp” in 1967, a few months after her second big solo success with Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “B-A-B-Y”.

She had written “Gee Whiz” when she was 15 and recorded it, under her father’s supervision, two years later. Released on the Satellite label, the precursor of Stax, it was noticed by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, who picked it up for national distribution and saw it become a top 10 pop hit. Not even “B-A-B-Y” or “Tramp” could quite match that success.

She made many good records in Memphis during her brief heyday, however, and her story is well told in Let Me Be Good to You, a four-CD box subtitled “The Atlantic & Stax Recordings 1960-68”. Apart from anything else, it functions as a chronicle of a record company’s attempt to find a niche for a talent artist, their solutions ranging from slightly disengaged treatments of country songs like “I Fall to Pieces” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to solid blues performances of “Red Rooster” and “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and covers of current pop-soul hits like “Yes I’m Ready” and “Any Day Now”, girl-group tunes such as “A Lover’s Concerto” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and standards like “The Masquerade Is Over”. The set also features five tracks from the 1967 Stax/Volt European tour, three from the Olympia in Paris, including a driving “Got My Mojo Workin'”, and two from the Astoria in London, including a version of “Yesterday” which, with the aid of Booker T Jones’s Hammond organ, takes Paul McCartney to church.

Three of my favourites can be found in the anthology. One is “Something Good (Is Going to Happen to You”, a Hayes/Porter stomper from 1967 with a Motown-influenced 12-bar bridge. Another, from the same year, is the medium-tempo “When Tomorrow Comes”, which evokes her enduring ability to conjure a special pop-soul charm. Third, and best of all, is “I’m For You”, a 1965 Hayes/Porter ballad of spellbinding poise and quiet intensity. More than half a century later, it may be hard to defend a lyric that begins “My job is to please my man / To make him happy, any way I can.” Despite that, it’s a glorious record, summoning the ambiance of old Stax studio down to the vibrato from Steve Cropper’s Fender Esquire/Vibralux combo, the always-slightly-out-of-tune piano and the beautifully economical horn arrangement.

Throughout her career, Carla Thomas succeeded in projecting an engaging vocal personality that perhaps lacked only the tragic dimension lurking just below the surface in such contemporaries as Candi Staton, Dee Dee Warwick and Irma Thomas. Possibly, too, she lacked the hard edge of real ambition: once Stax had gone down the tubes in the mid-’70s, she did not do what others might have done and seek a home elsewhere. Now aged 77, she lives in retirement. Let Me Be Good to You, compiled by David Nathan and scrupulously annotated by Charles Waring, is a fine and warmly recommended tribute to a singer who was always true to herself.

* Let Me Be Good to You is released on October 23 on the SoulMusic label, via Cherry Red.

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.

The wisdom of Solomon

Solomon Burke

“I’m so happy to be here tonight, so glad to be in your wonderful city, and I have a little message for you. I want to tell every woman and every man here tonight that’s ever needed someone to love, that’s ever had somebody to love them, that’s ever had somebody to understand them, that’s ever had someone to need their love all the time — someone that’s with them when they’re up, somebody that’s with them when they’re down. If you had yourself somebody like this, you’d better hold on to them. Let me tell you something: sometimes you get what you want, and you lose what you had. There’s a song I sing, and I believe if everybody could sing this song, we could save the whole world. Listen to me…”

Solomon Burke, of course, not on stage or in church but in a New York studio in 1964, urged on by the exhortations of his backing singers — probably including Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston — as he recreated the vibe of a live performance, expertly mixing the sacred and the secular. I loved that record so much that when I was in a band, in 1964-65, I used to carry a copy of the 45 to gigs, persuading the DJ to play it immediately before we went on.

“Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” comes in the middle of the 79 tracks making up a new 3-CD compilation called The King of Rock ‘n’ Soul: The Atlantic Recordings (1962-1968) and feels very much like its centrepiece. Around it are arrayed the many recordings in which, assisted by the producers Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler and the arrangers Garry Sherman, Phil Medley, Gene Page and Bert Keyes, Burke achieved a sublime combination of gospel, R&B, Latin and country music.

Has any soul singer ever covered a country song more exquisitely than Solomon’s take on Jim Reeves’s “He’ll Have to Go”? Has anyone ever made a more powerful use of gospel cadences in pop music than “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)”? Has anybody made a funnier and more irresistible sub-two-minute teenage dance-craze record than “Stupidity”? Didn’t Burke, with the spoken intros to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “The Price”, pave the way for Isaac Hayes’s monologues and the arrival of rap?

Apart from his wonderfully warm, rich and flexible voice, the records are distinguished by arrangements that feature Berns’s signature use of Spanish guitars and Latin rhythms and the playing of great session men: guitarists including Al Shackman and Eric Gale are given room to interpolate little blues fills, the baritone saxophone of Heywood Henry anchors the reeds, the drummers include Panama Francis, Gary Chester, Bobby Donaldson and Herbie Lovelle, there is the piano of the great Paul Griffin, the stand-up bassists include Joe Benjamin and Leonard Gaskin. Jazz musicians earning the rent, most of them, but contributing to something that today sounds like a wonderfully natural way to make music.

The set opens with three pre-Atlantic sides and concludes with an album session produced by Tom Dowd at Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis in 1968, including the classic version of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)”, one of the anthems of the civil rights era. The last of those tracks, a lovely treatment of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby”, also appears on The Soul of the Memphis Boys, a compilation of recordings made at American in the late ’60s by singers including James Carr, Ben E. King, Oscar Toney Jr, James & Bobby Purify and Arthur Alexander.

My favourites are Joe Tex’s glorious version of “Funny (How Time Slips Away)”, Ella Washington’s “He Called Me Baby” (nearly the equal of Candi Staton’s later version), Lattimore Brown’s “Every Day I Have to Cry Some”, Bobby Marchan’s wonderfully smug “Someone to Take Your Place” and Roy Hamilton’s dramatic “100 Years”. There are also the hits: the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” (with the great Reggie Young playing Danelectro electric sitar), Elvis’s “Kentucky Rain” and Dusty’s “So Much Love”, actually a B-side, taken from the Dusty in Memphis sessions. The collection provides a great soundtrack to Roben Jones’s Memphis Boys, a thorough history of Moman’s studio, the musicians who plied their trade there — Young, the pianists Bobby Emmons and Bobby Wood, the bassist Tommy Cogbill and the drummer Gene Chrisman — and the many memorable sessions that took place in the former North Memphis grocery store.

Unlike the rhythm sections on Solomon Burke’s New York sessions, these were not jazz musicians. They were country boys, and it’s interesting to compare the results. Approaching similar material, both groups found their own pocket. The Memphis musicians are so comfortable with what they’re doing that you hardly notice them. The New York players use their chops in a slightly more assertive way that gives the music an extra edge. Those Burke sessions were something special at the time, and sound even better today.

Solomon went on to make more great records before his death in 2010. Soul Alive!, two hours of music recorded at a Washington DC club in 1981 with a band including the guitarist Marc Ribot, is one of the great live albums. Don’t Give Up on Me, a studio album produced in 2002 by Joe Henry, with the ace team of David Piltch on bass and Jay Bellerose on drums, has an elegiac beauty.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, Solomon Burke never updated his approach. He stayed with what he did, and he did it perhaps better than anyone.

* Solomon Burke’s The King of Rock ‘n’ Soul is on SoulMusic Records. The Soul of the Memphis Boys is on the Ace label. Soul Alive! is on Rouder Records. Don’t Give Up on Me is on Fat Possum.  Roben Jones’s Memphis Boys was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2010.

A place in my heart

Perhaps you, like me, found yourself beguiled by a TV ad for the new Range Rover last year — the one with the dog staring out of the window of a loft apartment and a female voice singing what sounded like the opening 30 seconds of best ’60s Southern Soul ballad that never made it out of the vaults. I wasn’t alone in trying to track it down, only to discover that there was no more to it than those few lines.

They turned out to have been written by Dom James (melody) and Tommy Antonio (words) and recorded in London with the singer Emma Smith, formerly of the Puppini Sisters. It was created to order by people who do that sort of thing for a living, and that’s all of it that there was. But James noticed the interest it created, and he promised to finish it. Now he has.

Here it is, lip-synched by Emma on YouTube and available via Bandcamp as a fine slice of balm for this bizarre summer. Apart from a couple of lines of the lyric that could have stood a bit more work, it lives up to the promise of the original snippet. I can hear Gladys Knight singing it now. But the original will do just fine.

* Here’s the Bandcamp link: http://www.emmasmithmusic.bandcamp.com/