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Music for absent dancers

In normal times, the vibraphonist, drummer and percussionist Martin Pyne is involved in collaborations with dancers. When the Covid-19 lockdown began, he compensated for the enforced halt in that activity by spending part of May and June in his home studio, recording music for imaginary choreography. The result is Spirit of Absent Dancers, an album of 19 short solo pieces ranging from Tibetan prayer bowls to a standard drum kit.

In terms of percussion improvisation, try to imagine something that runs from the Zen sound-painting of Frank Perry to the light swing of Billy Higgins. There’s nothing loud, nothing showy, nothing esoteric. Just a delight in the deft touch of a stick, a mallet, a finger or a wire brush on metal, skin or wood, and in the process of transforming sound into a sense of movement.

When he’d finished recording, he sent the results to Yorke Dance Project, a contemporary dance company based in south-west London. Here’s a clip of what the dancer and choreographer Laurel Dalley Smith did with a solo vibraphone piece called “Enchantment”. And here’s a piece for drum kit called “Eidolon”, interpreted by Abigail Attard Montalto. And another, titled “Banshee”, danced by Jordan Ajadi.

We’ve needed a lot of protest music this year, for obvious reasons. But during a period of general anxiety, there has also been a place for music offering a diversion into reflective tranquillity. Spirits of Absent Dancers takes its place among a group of recent albums — others include Pete Judge’s Piano 2, Mino Cinelu and Nils Petter Molvaer’s SullaMadiana, and Stillefelt, by Percy Pursglove, Thomas Seminar Ford and Chris Mapp — that I’ve found particularly valuable in that respect.

* Martin Pyne’s album is on the Discus label. He took the photograph while on tour with Images Ballet Company in 2019. His recordings with his various jazz groups can be found at martinpyne.bandcamp.com

John Lennon, b. 9 Oct 1940

John Lennon was born 80 years ago today. I interviewed him a few times for the Melody Maker at the Apple HQ in Savile Row, on the first occasion in the autumn of 1969. As many others did, I found him a thoroughly engaged and engaging interviewee — and, by the standards of the time, remarkably open.

One afternoon, when we’d been talking for a couple of hours, he took me with him in his car to the Thames TV studios on Euston Road, where he was being interviewed for the early-evening news show, so that we could carry on our conversation. These were the days when the names of John and Yoko regularly featured on evening-paper billboards. You knew they were around. At Thames that day he was due to talk about his decision to return his MBE in protest — as he had announced in a press release — “against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”

During that journey to the studios, I remember him expressing his enthusiasm for a recent Lee Dorsey 45, “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)” — he liked songs with brackets in the titles — and telling me a story about the early days.

“In the beginning,” he said, “it was a constant fight between Brian (Epstein) and Paul on one side, and me and George on the other. Brian put us in neat suits and shirts, and Paul was right behind him. I used to try and get George to rebel with me. I’d say to him: ‘Look, we don’t need these suits. Let’s chuck them out of the window.’ My little rebellion was to have my tie loose, with the top button of my shirt undone, but Paul’d always come up to me and put it straight.

“I saw a film the other night, the first television film we ever did. The Granada people came down to film us, and there we were in suits and everything – it just wasn’t us, and watching that film I knew that that was where we started to sell out. We had to do a lot of selling out then. Taking the MBE was a sell-out for me.

“You know, before you get an MBE the Palace writes to you to ask if you’re going to accept it, because you’re not supposed to reject it publicly and they sound you out first. I chucked the letter in with all the fan-mail, until Brian asked me if I had it. He and a few other people persuaded me that it was in our interests to take it, and it was hypocritical of me to accept it. But I’m glad, really, that I did accept it – because it meant that four years later I could use it to make a gesture.”

When he moved to New York in 1971, he liked to keep in touch with the UK, often through the music papers. The postcard above is typical of those he’d send from time to time. In October of that year, when I sent him a note to ask for an interview for a book I was writing a book about Phil Spector, he replied immediately. He could do better than that, he said. He was about to go into the studio with Spector. Within a day or two he’d arranged a return air ticket and a room at the St Regis Hotel, where he and Yoko were living. So I spent three days with them, watching John sort through Elvis 45s for his jukebox, attending the sessions for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” — those brackets — at the Record Plant, and going with them to look at a town house on Bank Street in the West Village, which they ended up renting from Joe Butler, the drummer with the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Lennon had a way of including people in whatever was going on, which is how come Spector’s chauffeur and I ended up in the group photo on the picture bag of “Happy Xmas”. When I read a piece in The Times this week blaming him — and particularly the song “Imagine” — for all the ills of the 21st century, I thought back to the man I knew briefly, to his warmth and enthusiasm and courageous refusal to be confined by the entertainer’s role. We know now, of course, that he was complicated and difficult and sometimes cruel, and there are aspects of his life that will always be difficult to explain and excuse. That’s true of most of us. In his case, I can only speak as I found — while wishing, of course, that he could have been here to celebrate his 80th, and to give us his thoughts on the state of things.

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.

Relighting the torch

Torch singing wore thin for me a long time ago, around the time when all young female singers suddenly wanted to sound like Julie London and look like Rita Hayworth. Charlie Haden briefly rekindled the flame when he embedded Jo Stafford’s 1944 recording of “Alone Together” in his Quartet West album Always Say Goodbye in the early ’90s, and then did the job more thoroughly in a 2010 album called Sophisticated Ladies, for which invited a group of well known female singers to perform standards with the quartet plus strings. In the meantime I’d also fallen for Shirley Horn’s version of Tom Jobim’s “Once I Loved, included by the film director Pedro Almodóvar on a compilation album called Viva La Tristeza.

Among Haden’s sophisticated ladies was Diana Krall, chosen by Haden to sing Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye”, one of my favourite ballads. I knew who she was, of course, but I always thought that if I needed what she did, I’d turn to Ms Horn. Now she’s proved me completely wrong with a new self-produced album called This Dream of You, consisting of 11 standards plus the title song, which is by Bob Dylan: pure torch singing in all its sloe-eyed sultriness, but controlled by an intelligence that knows how to turn its facets to catch the flickers of candlelight.

Krall has the regulation come-hitherness, but she also has the musicianship that inspired her to call on the services of several different musical units to join her own piano and voice: the guitarist Anthony Wilson, the bassist John Clayton Jr and the drummer Jeff Hamilton for lovely versions of “But Beautiful” and “Almost Like Being in Love”, Christian McBride’s bass and Russell Malone’s guitar for “Autumn in New York” and “There’s No You”, and the piano of Alan Broadbent (who arranged Sophisticated Ladies) to accompany her singing on “More Than You Know” and “Don’t Smoke in Bed”.

The most intriguing group, however, consists of Marc Ribot (guitar), Stuart Duncan (violin), Randall Krall (accordion), Tony Garnier (bass) and Karriem Riggins (drums). Together they’re heard on a light-fingered “Just You, Just Me”, the lovely Tex-Mex-tinged title track (plucked from Dylan’s Together Through Life), and “How Deep Is the Ocean”. The last of those, which you can click on above, is — as I’m sure you’ll agree — a complete stunner, Irving Berlin’s blithe love song transformed into a blues aria and perfect in every respect, particularly the short piano improvisation preceding the final chorus: 10 exquisitely funky bars of which Ray Charles or Bobby Timmons would be proud. Compliments to Ms Krall on that, and on everything else making up a quietly outstanding album.

Maria Schneider’s ‘Data Lords’

Amid the flood of music commenting on the various crises confronting our world in the twenty-first century, it’s interesting to see that some of those who work with conventionally structured big bands are finding new ways to make their voices heard. In 2016, Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies explored the paranoia of a society under surveillance while the Liberation Music Orchestra released Time/Life, in which Charlie Haden and Carla Bley did for environmental concerns what they had previously done for political protest movements. Now comes Maria Schneider’s Data Lords, a series of pieces in which the American composer expresses her disquiet over where the unscrupulous use of technology and our carelessness with the earth’s resources are leading us.

“I mourn the loss of our internal landscapes just as I mourn the loss of our external landscapes,” she writes in the notes. Data Lords not a sermon. It’s music, finely wrought: a suite of 11 movements, divided in two, on a pair of CDs. But it does have driving impulses. The first disc, The Digital World, reacts to the threat posed by mass data collection and artificial intelligence (in her notes, she quotes Stephen Hawking’s claim that beyond a certain point in the evolution of AI, it will turn on humanity and destroy it). The second, Our Natural World, reflects on what we stand to lose unless we find a way of turning back the tide of destruction.

Schneider was a pupil of Gil Evans, whose benign influence can be heard in the care with which she selects and combines her textures, with a special emphasis on rich and resonant writing for brass. Like him, she is brilliant at creating settings for the individual soloists among the 18-piece band on this recording. Those who distinguish themselves in their featured slots include the altoists Steve Wilson and Dave Pietro, the trombonist Ryan Keberle, the tenorists Rich Perry and Donny McCaslin, the baritonist Scott Robinson, the trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, the pianist Frank Kimbrough, the accordionist Gary Versace, the guitarist Ben Monder, the bassist Jay Anderson and the drummer Johnathan Blake.

The mood on the first disc is predominantly dark, ominous, fretful. Monder opens “A World Lost” with ruminative flights of sustain and light-touch distortion that show how profoundly Jimi Hendrix has influenced younger guitarists. McCaslin is eloquent on “CQ, CQ, Is Anybody There?” and Robinson is marvellously affecting on “Sputnik”, delivering pathos without sentimentality. The track “Data Lords” features Rodriguez making imaginative use of electronics over sombre writing that coils its tensions in a manner recalling some of Mingus’s late big-band pieces, with Anderson and Blake providing a free-flowing commentary.

The pieces on the second disc variously celebrate a temple in Kyoto, the work of the potter Jack Troy, the night sky, the words of the poet Ted Kooser, and birdlife. The mood is lighter, gentler, more optimistic, the tone set on the opening “Sanzenin” by Versace’s nimble, piping accordion: the sound of wind through reeds, the gentle swells of the brass and reeds echoing the surge of the instrument’s bellows. “Look Up” is a vehicle for Gilkes’s burnished tone and liquid articulation, over a gloriously mellow groove, while Pietro shines on the glowing “Braided Together”.

Concluding her notes, Schneider observes: “The internet doesn’t have to be all about secret surveillance, data exploitation, overreaching terms of use, and systems designed to make every human addicted to their services. It can be used to assist us all in making the world a better place.” She’s doing her bit, and Data Lords is highly recommended as a vigorous, vital, imaginative and lustrously beautiful part of the soundtrack to our times.

* The photograph of Maria Schneider is from the booklet accompanying Data Lords, and is by Briene Lermitte. The beautifully packaged album was made through and is available from ArtistShare, which facilitates fan-funded projects: http://www.artistshare.com

Those hard luck stories

Two sides to every story, right? In one of the essays accompanying the wonderful new eight-CD reissue of the collected works of Richard and Linda Thompson, Richard suggests that the indifferent commercial performance of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight — the first of their six studio albums — in 1974 could be ascribed to Island’s A&R department, which didn’t know how to categorise them. “They didn’t understand Sandy (Denny), and they didn’t understand Nick Drake,” he says. “I think we were slightly marginalised — what genre is this? Where does it go in the record shop?” Here’s my side of the story.

After I joined Island as head of A&R in the autumn of 1973, one of the first things I did was ask around to find out what Richard was doing. I knew that Henry the Human Fly, his solo album, had been poorly received and sold badly. I also knew that I loved his guitar playing. In reply to my inquiries, I was told that Richard had since made another album, this one with his wife, Linda. The finished tapes had been played to my predecessor, who hadn’t been impressed. That had been some months ago.

My response was to get in touch with John Wood, who had engineered and co-produced the album with Richard at his Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea. John brought in the tapes for me to hear. I was hooked from the first skirl of the Stratocaster on the intro to “When I Get to the Border” , the opening track. The whole album sounded like a coherent and finished statement in a way that Henry hadn’t been, and it seemed obvious that it should be released as soon as possible.

The next step was to play it to the company, meaning the managing director, marketing director, promotion manager, sales manager and press officer. Their enthusiasm was unanimous. Richard was one of the group of Witchseason artists bequeathed to Island when Joe Boyd, who had nurtured them, left London to make movies in Los Angeles just before I joined. They were assets who inspired warmth (in the case of Sandy Denny, for instance) and respect (in the case of Nick Drake, who had already more or less withdrawn from the music world).

Vinyl was in short supply that winter as a result of the oil crisis, but Richard and Linda’s album was scheduled for release in April 1974 and its appearance was accompanied by the best efforts of all the relevant departments. Some people felt that the title track stood a chance of making a hit single, so it was duly released as a 45 and got some play. No one was discouraged when neither the album nor the single went double-platinum. The foundations of something worthwhile seemed to have been laid.

Then Richard came in and told me that he’d asked Jo Lustig to manage them. I knew Jo, who’d begun his career as a press agent on Broadway for Nat King Cole, the Weavers and the Newport Jazz Festival in the ’50s; he was old-school, and most relationships with him featured a phone-melting harangue at some stage. I was a bit surprised that Richard had approached him, but I knew that he got things done and that he’d done a good job for other folk crossover artists, including Julie Felix and Steeleye Span.

The problems began when Richard and Linda became affiliated to a Sufi community based in a squat on a stucco terrace in Maida Vale. Nothing wrong with that, of course. They delivered a second album, Hokey Pokey, which I didn’t care for as much as Bright Lights, but the same effort went into its release, and they were given a support slot on a Traffic tour, which was not small potatoes at the time. The third album, Pour Down Like Silver, was and remains an austere masterpiece: how many albums contain songs as great as “Beat the Retreat”, “Dimming of the Day” and “Night Comes In”? But it didn’t connect with a wider audience, perhaps because to new listeners that austerity would seem like dourness.

They went on the road with a band completed by the accordionist John Kirkpatrick, the bass guitarist Dave Pegg and the drummer Dave Mattacks: an ace line-up, and a perfectly integrated unit with its own sound. John Wood went to Oxford to record them live, and I used the epic versions of “Calvary Cross” and “Night Comes In” from that concert on a double album I compiled with John’s help and advice, rather eccentrically titled (guitar, vocal) and intended to refocus the public’s attention on Richard’s talents. For me, its other highlight was Linda’s delivery of a much stronger version of Richard’s great song “A Heart Needs a Home” than the one that had appeared on Hokey Pokey.

I left Island at that point, sometime in 1976, and a year or so later, after some seemingly unsuccessful attempts to incorporate Sufism into their music, Island dropped them. I don’t know the details of that, but I do know that they were so deeply into their faith that they’d moved to a community in East Anglia and Richard had given up playing the electric guitar, which I have to say didn’t seem like a very good idea. When they re-emerged, a year or so later, Lustig signed them to Chrysalis, where he’d had success with Steeleye, and the search a broader audience began again. The two albums they made for the label, First Light and Sunnyvista, now sound in parts like an attempt to turn them into Fleetwood Mac, which they were never going to be. But there are some good songs there — and in “Lonely Hearts”, on Sunnyvista, one of their greatest ballads, exquisitely delivered . What you can hear from the tracks included from the 1980 sessions produced by their friend Gerry Rafferty is that soft-focus AOR-style production did them no favours at all. Finally they returned to Joe Boyd, for whose Hannibal label they recorded the much crisper Shoot Out the Lights, which became — unintentionally, according to Richard — the soundtrack to their disintegrating marriage.

Hard Luck Stories is the title of the box set, and I suppose it reflects the feeling that some mysterious twist of fate prevented Richard and Linda from finding the audience they deserved. The six albums are all there, with various outtakes and demos and live versions, nicely packed with extensive (albeit poorly copy-edited) background essays. Two discs are devoted entirely to other material: the first to pre-R&LT tracks, such as the rock and roll revivals of the Bunch (with Linda and Sandy singing “When Will I Be Loved”) and a collaboration with the poet Brian Patten, the second to live material from the mid-’70s. It’s on the second that I found the biggest surprise: five long tracks recorded live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for a Capital Radio broadcast in 1977, featuring Richard and Linda with a band of mostly Sufi friends: Abdul Latif (Ian) Whiteman and Haj Amin (Mike) Evans, both formerly of Mighty Baby, on electric piano and and bass guitar respectively, and Abdul-Jabbar (Paul) Pickstock on percussion, plus Preston Hayman, a useful drummer whom I remember joining the Brand X sessions alongside Phil Collins at Island at the start of his long career as a session musician.

What these tracks show is that Richard was on to something when he tried to blend folk-rock with Sufism, locating common ground between the two in the drones and modal structures that underpin the lengthy explorations of songs like “Layla” and “The Madness of Love”, and an excellent version of “Night Comes In” with Linda taking the lead vocal. “A Bird in God’s Garden” has a lyric adapted from the poet Rumi, delivered in beautifully layered three-part harmony by Linda, Richard and Whiteman, developing into a extended but never self-indulgent jam and coming back to the song before finding its resolution with a perfect sense of architecture. Richard later re-recorded it with Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser and John French, but the nine-minute version here is one of the loveliest things I’ve heard this year, almost worth the price of the box set by itself. It certainly makes you wonder what might have been, and in my case it makes me wonder what I might have done better.

* Richard and Linda Thompson’s Hard Luck Stories 1972-1982 was compiled by Andrew Batt and is released by Universal Music. The photograph is from an early Island Records publicity shoot.

** The original version of this post had Richard re-recording “A Bird in God’s Garden” with a group including Mayo Thompson. For some reason I’d included his name instead of that of John “Drumbo” French. Thanks to those who pointed out this episode of brain-fade.

A memory of Toots Hibbert

It was Chris Blackwell’s idea to get Toots Hibbert to record “Tumbling Dice”. He must have had in mind the way Otis Redding had made such a success of turning “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” into a soul stomper. And, as people always said, if Toots resembled anyone in the way he delivered a song, it was Otis.

This was September 1972, and Blackwell was in Jamaica to work on a few projects, including the sessions for the Wailers’ forthcoming album for his Island label. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston were at Harry J’s studio, on Roosevelt Avenue in Half Way Tree, recording a song called “Slave Driver”, which included the lines: “Slave driver, the tables have turned / Catch a fire, and you will get burned.” A couple of miles across Kingston, just off Spanish Town Road in a featureless area near the docks, lay Dynamic Sounds, where the studio had been booked for an afternoon session with the Maytals, whose Blackwell-produced album Funky Kingston, released in the UK six months earlier, had already stirred interest outside the established market for West Indian music.

Dynamic Sounds was also where, at the start of the year, Paul Simon had recorded “Mother and Child Reunion” with a local rhythm section including the lead guitarist Hux Brown, the bass guitarist Jackie Jackson and the drummer Winston Grennan, drawing the rock world’s attention to reggae. Those three musicians were reassembled for this Maytals session, augmented by Radcliffe Bryan on rhythm guitar, Winston Riley on organ and Gladstone “Gladdy” Anderson on piano. As they arrived, I noted Jackie Jackson’s choice of conveyance: a brand new Vauxhall Viva GT covered with tiger-skin vinyl.

Together they were variously known as Gladdy’s All Stars, the Harry J All Stars, Beverley’s All Stars, the Aggrovators and, eventually, the Upsetters. They were a crack band, and on a hot afternoon in Kingston, sitting in a circle, the drums separated only by low sound-baffles, they locked into a groove without a moment’s hesitation. The only problem was that no one — not Toots or his fellow Maytals, Jerry Mathias and Raleigh Gordon, not Blackwell, not even me — knew the words to “Tumbling Dice”, and in those days there was no Google where someone had deciphered Mick Jagger’s faux-southern drawl and decided that he was singing “Honey, got no money / I’m all at sixes and sevens and nines / Say now, baby, I’m the rank outsider / You can be my partner in crime.”

Toots’s solution was to ignore that little difficulty and simply steam ahead, making up words — mostly nonsense syllables — as he went along. If Otis could make sense of “fa-fa-fa-fa” and “got-ta-got-ta”, so could he. And that’s more or less what he’d done with Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie”, one of the singles taken from Funky Kingston. A few takes of “Tumbling Dice” were committed to tape, but as far as I can discover nothing ever saw the light of day.

For me, it was just a treat to see those musicians — the equivalent of the house bands at Stax in Memphis or Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans — in their own environment. Particularly Hux Brown, whose stuttering single-note commentary was such a distinctive feature of so many records, including “Mother and Child Reunion”, and Gladdy Anderson, a legend of Jamaican music.

And, of course, Toots, whose death at the age of 77 was announced last week. I’m sorry I didn’t get to hear him recording one of his great original compositions, like “Six and Seven Books of Moses” or “54-46 Was My Number”, but at least I got a chance to spend a few hours watching a force of nature at work.

* The photograph of Toots and his fellow Maytals is from one of the reissues of Funky Kingston. Maybe someone can tell me who took it.

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.

Gary Peacock 1935-2020

Where did they come from, those jazz bassists who appeared in the 1960s, transforming not only the way the instrument was played but also its role in the music? They were the children of Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers, and they were legion: Reggie Workman, Richard Davis, Jimmy Garrison, Scott LaFaro, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Henry Grimes, Chuck Israels, Steve Swallow… and Gary Peacock, whose death at the age of 85 was announced today.

I suppose the first time I heard his playing was on Don Ellis’s Essence and Prince Lasha’s The Cry, both recorded in Los Angeles in 1962, then Tony Williams’s Life Time in 1964 and Albert Ayler’s epochal Spiritual Unity in 1965, followed by a host of albums — not least with the pianists Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Marilyn Crispell and Marc Copeland, and in Keith Jarrett’s long-lived Standards Trio — that secured his place in the music.

To a superlatively agile technique, an almost voice-like tone, a gift for phrases that sang in the ear and an adventurous spirit he added a subtly poetic sensibility intensified by a spell in Japan that began in the late ’60s and lasted two and a half years. During that time he became a student of Zen Buddhism and a sense of meditative calm began to suffuse his playing, even when it was at its most active.

He made a few albums while he was in Japan, and one of them has long been my favourite of all his recordings. Titled Silver World, it was made in 1970 under the leadership of Hōzan Yamamoto, the great shakuhachi player and teacher, with Masabumi Kikuchi on piano and Hiroshi Murakami on drums. Somehow a copy found its way to me soon after its release, and it was one of those recordings that made me aware how jazz could be open to collaborations with all kinds of music from all over the world.

As far as I know, it has never been released outside Japan. But here it is. If you have the time, listen to the 12-minute title track, and marvel at the delicacy with which intense emotions are conveyed — and, of course, at Gary Peacock’s genius for finding the right notes, the right weight, the right attack all the time. And for understanding the value of silence.

Another of his Japanese albums, the almost equally wonderful Eastward, with Kikuchi and Murakami, included a sleeve note in which he wrote:

“No art form can be unaffected by the environment it lives in. The spiritual, social, political, scientific, technological Renaissance of today, exrpessing itself on all levels and in all societies, has been and continues to be the dominant theme in much of today’s music. The increasing use of electronic devices, accentuation of loud raucous sounds, lyrics suggesting a spiritual Utopia in one case, or denouncing war, government, tradition, show this influence. It is at the same time a testimony of the inseparabilities of music and environment. They are dependent one upon the other. They are expressing one another. They are one.

The music on this album does not claim immunity to such environmental influences. It does however lack a certain degree of aggression, violence, or a special message. It was not conceived with the purpose of making a strong spiritual, social, scientific or musical statement. It was, on the contrary, conceived with no specific purpose in mind. Therefore it may lack some ‘excitement’ for the listener, but perhaps they can sense a certain spirit of joy and humour which we had in producing it.”

I think I understand what he meant: in a sense, in this instance, “purposelessness” is the highest state the creative mind can achieve. Not at all times and on all occasions, of course. A sense of purpose can be the driving force of the greatest art. But the Zen mind lets go and allows it to happen. And when the mind was that of Gary Peacock, what happened needed no other justification.

* Hōzan Yamamoto’s Silver World was released on the Philips label in Japan in 1971. Eastward was released on Japanese CBS in 1970. The photograph of Gary Peacock was taken by Bob Gwynne and is from the cover of Peacock’s December Poems album (ECM, 1977).

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.