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Posts tagged ‘Boz Scaggs’

Love Don’t Love Nobody

As long as Boz Scaggs goes on making records, I imagine I’ll keep buying them. Although his new one, A Fool to Care, has its pleasant moments, it isn’t up there with the very best of his work. And, unusually for Boz, it also contains a serious misstep, one that’s worth noting because of its nature.

It’s a cover version, and when Scaggs chooses to cover a song, you can tell it’s because he loved the original. He never moves far from the way it first fell on his ears. And a man who can deliver a decent cover of something as extraordinary as Mable John’s “Your Real Good Thing (Is About to End)”, as he did on Come on Home in 1997, is not to be disrespected. With one song on the new album, however, he overreached himself before he even got started.

The Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody” was one of the finest soul records of the 1970s, and still sounds to me like one of the greatest deep-soul ballads of all time. It was written by Charles Simmons and Joseph Jefferson, whose credits appeared on many Philadephia records of the era; the arrangement and production came from the extremely great Thom Bell, who moulded the hits of the Delfonics and the Stylistics as well those of the Spinners. It also has a lead vocal that shows what was lost to the art of soul singing when Philippé Wynne died in 1984 at the age of 43, after suffering a heart attack on stage in Oakland, Calfornia.

Wynne could decorate a song with wonderfully inventive ornamentation which, by contrast with the work of the narcissists of today’s so-called R&B, never called undue attention to itself but was always in the service of the song, the arrangement, and the production. In that respect he was the peer of Ronald Isley and Teddy Pendergrass. And he was at his exalted best on “Love Don’t Love Nobody”: seven minutes and 13 seconds of soul heaven.

The record begins with Bell’s piano, discreetly shadowed by a bass guitar and vibes, quietly commanding attention. There’s gospel in the cadences, but also a grave delicacy in Bell’s keyboard voicings and a pensive elegance in his touch. It’s the sound of introspection, even the sound of sadness itself, setting Wynne up for his entrance with that heart-rending opening verse: “Sometimes a girl will come and go / You reach for love, but life won’t let you know / That in the end you’ll still be loving her / But then she’s gone, you’re all alone…”

As the track builds, Wynne adds his characteristic inventions to the song but firmly resists the temptation to overdo it. He’s listening to Bell’s arrangement, so spare, so subtly sophisticated as it adds strings and backing voices, and he’s making himself a part of it, even when he jams over the long fade.

One other thing. I was doing some remixing at Sigma Sound in 1974 when I fell into conversation with an engineer, and asked him about Thom Bell. When I told him how much I admired “Love Don’t Love Nobody”, he said that he’d worked on that session a year or so earlier. He told me that the rhythm track had been done in a single take, and that Bell had finished it in tears. That knowledge doesn’t make me listen to it in a different way, but perhaps it does help to explain the very deep connection that it can make.

Boz Scaggs does a decent job on a song of which he is obviously very fond. But I can’t help wondering if, had he known about Thom Bell’s tears, he’d still have decided to take it on.

A hipster’s life and times

Donald FagenOf the many, many entertaining passages sprinkled throughout Eminent Hipsters, Donald Fagen’s slender volume of memoir and musing, one in particular caught my attention. Looking back on his teenage years, the co-founder of Steely Dan recalls the experience of taking a girl to a jazz club in the mid-Sixties, hoping to share with her the experience of listening to some of the music to which he is in thrall. They’re on a date: the boy in a preppie blazer, the girl in a little black dress.

Imagine a split-screen, Fagen writes. On the left, the kid’s eyes are wide, his face is flushed; he’s transfixed. He can’t believe he’s finally in a real jazz club twelve feet away from the great John Coltrane, who’s blowing up a storm. His date, on the right side of the screen, is in hell. Although she’s heard her boyfriend talk about jazz, this is her first real exposure. She’s been in this tiny, smoky, smelly room for almost an hour now, nursing screwdrivers and being forced to listen to four Negroes creating a din that sounds like nothing imagined on God’s earth. She’s got her head in her hands down on the table because it hurts, a real pounder behind the eyes. Most humiliating is the fact that her boyfriend has forsaken her for a black man who seems to be using his silver horn as a satanic instrument of masturbation. The two sides of the screen merge when she finally pulls on her date’s arm and demands to be escorted out. In the clubs, this classic scene can still be glimpsed today, always interesting, always poignant.

Indeed it can. And how exquisitely Fagen recalls the tumult of emotions that many of us must have shared on such occasions, before we acquired sufficient pragmatic wisdom to know that this music and most (although not all) girlfriends were better kept apart.

Eminent Hipsters is a surprise and a joy. The first half consists of essays illuminating the various youthful enthusiasms and some of the people and events that would shape his life: the route into jazz provided by the music of Henry Mancini, the programmes of the jazz disc jockey Mort Fega (the model for the protagonist of The Nightfly, Fagen’s first solo album), his days at Bard College and the fateful meeting with Walter Becker, who would become his partner in Steely Dan.

Some of these have been published before, in Premiere, Slate, Harper’s Bazaar and Jazz Times; one that hasn’t is his reminiscence of the devotion of his mother, a night-club singer, to the Boswell Sisters. If, like me, you know them only by name, Fagen’s description of their recordings will sent you straight off in search of the moment, during their 1932 version of “We Just Couldn’t Say Good-bye”, when a sudden key-change from F major to F minor makes us feel, in Fagen’s description, as though “we’ve been instantly transported from the sleepy Delta to Times Square on a Saturday night.”

With page 86 (of 159), however, the book executes an abrupt key-change of its own. The essay format is abandoned and for the rest of the volume we’re into an intimate diary of the two-month tour undertaken in the summer of 2012 by Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, calling themselves the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue — a successor to the shows presented by the same singers almost 20 years earlier, when they called themselves the New York Rock and Soul Revue.

I don’t think I’ve read a more unvarnished and punishingly self-aware expression of the sensations experienced by a musician of Fagen’s age and standing while on the road and experiencing what he calls Acute Tour Disorder (ATD), a syndrome that tends to magnify every small irritation into a source of major annoyance. Hotels, venues, audiences and his own performances are mercilessly criticised. We hear how Scaggs and McDonald save money by passing up the various Grand Hyatts and Four Seasons, choosing instead to sleep on their upholstered, blacked-out and soundproofed tour bus in the venue car-parks. “I’ve tried that a few times,” Fagen remarks. “It felt more like the lifestyle of an insect than a human.”

Fagen frets about his health, in particular a spider bite that he fears will turn necrotic, swallows painkillers and sleeping pills, listens to Stravinsky in his room, and spills the beans on “privates”: those high-paying gigs undertaken by major recording artists for corporations celebrating success or individuals celebrating birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. Everybody of his generation seems to do them nowadays, as a result of the discovery that album royalties can no longer be guaranteed to maintain them in accustomed luxury, but a certain amount of consequent self-loathing is involved.

“The worst are corporate gigs where the band is hired to perform in front of several hundred or a hundred or even fifty suits at a convention or company party,” he writes. “They usually sit at tables, dinner-theatre style, maybe with their wives or, just as often, hired escorts, and consume a lot of hard liquor. If they’ve hired a top band, it means they’ve had a good year and the leadership has invested in a real blowout, a wang-dang-doodle, although they never look as though they’re having much fun. The hookers like to get up and dance.”

Occasionally real life makes a painful intrusion. He’s in Orange Beach, Florida when he learns of the death of the son of his wife, the singer Libby Titus, whom they have been unable to save from his addictions and suicidal impulses. Anyone who has spent a part of their life on the road, in whatever circumstances, will identify with that, and with the solution: deal with it, and carry on.

* The photograph of Donald Fagen, taken by Danny Clinch, is from the jacket of Eminent Hipsters, published in the US by Viking Penguin and in the UK by Jonathan Cape. 

A weekend with Booker T

Booker T

It was a warm evening, and the air conditioning had packed up. An hour before midnight last Friday, Ronnie Scott’s Club was like a sauna. “That’s when it started to feel authentic,” Booker T Jones would say later. “Just like the places I used to play.” But the air-con failure wasn’t the only good omen.

When there’s a Hammond organ in the house, the best place to be is as close as possible to one of its Leslie speakers — those pieces of wooden furniture, the size and shape of a small refrigerator, containing rotating horns which, at the flick of a switch, provide the instrument with its distinctive and heart-stirring whirr and churn.

It’s a lesson I learnt during my teenage years, when the clubs were small and the stages were low and you could get up close to the likes of Georgie Fame, Graham Bond and Zoot Money. So I was extremely pleased when the maitre d’ at Ronnie’s led me to a seat at the side of the stage, a few feet away from one of the two Leslies hooked up to Booker T’s B3. What would normally have been a rather indifferent vantage point suddenly seemed like the best spot in the house.

Booker T Jones is one of my all-time heroes. Like many, I remember the thrill of hearing “Green Onions” for the first time; its special magic has never faded. And its B-side, a sinuous slow blues titled “Behave Yourself” (originally intended as the A-side), hinted at other dimensions of musicianship. As the years passed I discovered that every note he recorded was worth hearing. All the original MGs’ Stax albums, from Green Onions in 1962 to Melting Pot in 1971, contained something wonderful — and I’m very fond of the two reunions that followed Al Jackson Jr’s tragic death, Universal Language (Asylum, 1977) and That’s the Way It Should Be (Columbia, 1994), with Willie Hall, Steve Jordan and James Gadson replacing the peerless Jackson at the drums. Booker went on to prove, with Bill Withers’ Just As I Am in 1971, Willie Nelson’s Stardust in 1978 and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s Deep River in 1992, that he is a producer of marvellous sensitivity. He remained a wonderfully sympathetic sideman, too: for the proof of that, just listen to “Sierra”, a gorgeous song from Boz Scaggs’s 1994 album, Some Change.

So he’s someone I always look forward to seeing, and on Friday — at the second of four nights (and eight shows) on Frith Street — he delivered a 75-minute set that ranged through his entire history, from that imperishable first hit (recorded when he was a 17-year-old high school student) and the MGs’ great “Hip Hug Her” through Stax/Volt favourites like “I’ve Been Lovin’ You Too Long”, “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Hold On, I’m Comin'” to pieces from his recent albums: “Hey Ya” from Potato Hole, “Walking Papers” and “Everything is Everything” from The Road From Memphis, and “Fun”, “Feel Good ” and “66 Impala” from the new one, Sound the Alarm. His three-piece band, recruited from the Bay Area, supplied plenty of energy and all the right licks. He sang a bit, in a range-limited voice, and played guitar on a few of the tunes. But when he let the Hammond and the Leslies rip on an encore of “Time is Tight”, the speaker horns spinning faster inside those plywood cabinets, I was somewhere close to heaven.

On Saturday afternoon he returned to the club for a question-and-answer session in front of an audience, showing himself to be a thoughtful and genial man. Sitting at the Hammond, he played snatches of “Green Onions” and “Ain’t No Sunshine”, and just a handful of bars from each was enough to send a thrill through his listeners. Among the things we were told was that Ray Charles’s “One Mint Julep” was the record which led him to conclude that the electric organ would shape his destiny. And there was an interesting answer to a question from my friend Martin Colyer (check his blog: http://www.fivethingsseenandheard.com), who wanted to know how he had come to play bass guitar on Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in 1973. As part of his explanation, Booker told us that he had first been recognised in the Memphis music community through playing bass in the house band at the Flamingo Room on Beale Street, and at that stage — despite his proficiency on keyboards, oboe, clarinet, baritone saxophone and trombone — it was as a bass player that he originally expected to make his career.

Four years ago, when the magnificent Potato Hole came out, I interviewed Booker for the Guardian (it’s here, accompanied by Eamonn McCabe’s fine photograph, taken the same day). Meeting your heroes for the first time is always a perilous business, but I came away from the encounter feeling I now admired the man as much as the musician.

Some bits of the interview didn’t make it into the paper, for reasons of space, so here, for the first time, are his remarks on a couple of topics. First, I asked him whether, as a teenage musician with an inquiring mind in the clubs of Memphis, he’d been familiar with the generation of gifted local modern jazz players that had included the saxophonists Frank Strozier and George Coleman, the trumpeter Booker Little and the pianist Harold Mabern. His answer was unexpectedly illuminating.

“I did,” he said. “They were two or three years ahead of me. Same town, same neighbourhood. I knew who they were. We went through the same doors. But I reached a day, one day, I don’t remember exactly when it was, that I had to ask myself, ‘Can I do this? Will I, in my lifetime, be able not only to play the music but live the lifestyle? Is that who I am?’ I realised, no, it’s not who I am. That’s who Jimmy Smith is, or John Coltrane. I don’t have the resolve, I don’t have the discipline. But even if I did, is that me? No, because I also like to play piano and guitar and trombone and I like to arrange and I also like country music and classical music — so I’m somebody else. I’m not that. And I stopped the pursuit at an early age.

“It broke up some friendships that I had, but I knew it was the right thing for me to do. A very close friend said to me, ‘What are you doing, man? How can you go over to Stax and play that stuff? Is it the money?’ If I’d been hanging out with a Sonny Stitt, that’s what he would have said to me. It was like a club, almost. I talked to Herbie Hancock about it, and to the bass player Stanley Clarke, and I know I couldn’t have done it. I’d have been able to get the technical chops, with practice, but I couldn’t have lived the lifestyle.”

So instead of another Memphis bebopper, we got a man capable of creating something like the arrangement of Willie Nelson’s “Georgia On My Mind”, its wonderful simplicity capped by a coda in which the rhythm and strings are joined by a horn section, vamping gently through the fade-out. He was delighted when I mentioned it as a special favourite.

“I’m so glad you said that,” he responded, “because it took so much time and money to put that on, but I could not get away from the inclination to do that. We went through the whole song with just the band and some strings, but at the very end I just needed to do that. It was expensive — a full complement of horns, and I don’t think we did any other songs at the session. It was an indulgence. At the time it wasn’t a big-selling record. It was a little bit of a struggle and I really appreciate that you like it.”

Even when he adds a horn section to the budget, however, the idea of excess is completely alien to Booker T’s temperament. He is a musician whose presence guarantees a measure of restraint and economy, the hallmarks of all those wonderful MGs records. “I don’t think it could have been any four guys,” he said of the band with whose name his own will be forever linked. “The one thing we had in common was a commitment to making the music simple and funky. It never got so complicated that it was inaccessible to most people. Not to say that complex music isn’t accessible or beautiful, but one way to access beauty is through simplicity.”

On the way out of Ronnie Scott’s on Friday night I bumped into Bryan Ferry, who was with three of his four sons and their girlfriends. He had taken them to listen to a musician he himself had first seen on the legendary Stax/Volt tour in 1967. Now that’s my idea of good parenting.

The Memphis blues, again

boz scaggsA new Boz Scaggs album is always a welcome arrival in this quarter. Whether it’s a collection of R&B warhorses, a set of jazz standards or — best of all — a clutch of new original songs, there’s a better than even chance that it will throw up an enduring personal favourite like “Loan Me a Dime” (from the first solo album he  made after leaving the Steve Miller Band in 1969), “Runnin’ Blue” (from 1971’s Boz Scaggs and Band), “We Were Always Sweethearts” and “Near You” (Moments, also 1971), “Breakdown Dead Ahead” (Middle Man, 1980), the sublime “Sierra” (Some Change, 1994), “Ask Me ‘Bout Nothin’ (But the Blues)” (Come On Home, 1997), and “King of El Paso” and “Thanks to You” (Dig, 2001).

I’ve interviewed him a couple of times, first in 1971, when he was spending time in London (and played a memorable gig at the old Country Club on Haverstock Hill with the fine band from his second album), and then in 1994, on a plane from San Francisco to Los Angeles, when Some Change had just come out, ending a long silence caused by his decision to stay at his Bay Area home in order to be close to his growing sons, following the end of his first marriage. I liked him a lot. He seemed to be a man who had the whole thing in perspective. By pacing his career carefully and not getting too carried away when “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” turned him into a white-suited pop star in the late 1970s, and by holding on to his enthusiasm for music, he’s managed to maintain a consistency so impressive that there’s virtually no one of his generation whose releases I look forward to more, even though I know they’re not going to be pushing back any boundaries.

The new one is called Memphis, because that’s where it was recorded. In Willie Mitchell’s Royal Recording Studios, in fact, with a basic band of Scaggs himself and Ray Parker Jr on guitars, Willie Weeks on bass and Steve Jordan on drums, plus guests including Charles Hodges on organ, Spooner Oldham on various keyboards, Keb’ Mo’ and Eddie Willis on guitars, Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, the crack horn section of Ben Cauley (trumpet), Jack Hale (trombone), Lannie McMillan (tenor) and Jim Horn (baritone), and a small string section arranged by Mitchell and Lester Snell.

Many of the songs will be familiar to fans of rock ‘n’ soul, among them Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia”, the Moments’ “Love on a Two Way Street”, Tyrone Davis’s “Can I Change My Mind”, Jimmy Reed’s ‘You Got Me Cryin'”, Al Green’s “So Good to Be Here” and — the biggest surprise — Steely Dan’s “Pearl of the Quarter”. They’re done in the way you’d expect from Boz, which is to say with taste and finesse and respect. Too much of all those qualities for some people, probably, but it doesn’t bother me, although I’m not as bowled over by his gentle version of “Corrina, Corrina” as others seem to be: I’m happy to stick with the reading of this lovely song included 50 years ago in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. “Rainy Night in Georgia”, “Can I Change My Mind” and Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk” are also a little on the underwhelming side. An immaculately sharp treatment of Willy DeVille’s “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl” (nothing to do with Patty and the Emblems’ girl-group classic of the same name) is the track I’m going to take away from this album, along with the opener, a slinky Scaggs original called “Gone Baby Gone” in which he taps into the real Memphis vibe. And that’ll do for me.