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Posts tagged ‘Curtis Mayfield’

Remembering Major Lance

When I met Major Lance he was living near Southend, of all places. This was January 1973 and it was not quite a decade since he had raced into the US Top 10 with his first hit, “The Monkey Time”. Now he had just signed with an English company, Contempo Records, run by John Abbey, the proprietor and editor of Blues & Soul magazine. The idea was to capitalise on his hero status with Northern Soul fans by issuing his new cover version of an established dancefloor favourite, Billy Butler’s “The Right Track”, as the label’s first release.

His biggest hits had been cut in Chicago and issued on the OKeh label. Subsequently he had recorded for Dakar, Curtom and Stax, with mixed results. And now he had found his way to Contempo, which was also providing a home for Otis Leavill, his fellow Chicagoan, whom he planned to produce. “I don’t sign long contracts now,” Lance said. “I go for a year, with an option, and if nothing happens, I move on somewhere else.”

He told me how he had found his way into show business as a dancer on the Bandstand Matinee TV show in Chicago. “The dances changed so fast,” he said. “Every month we’d invent something new, and they came and went so quickly that we didn’t even have time to give names to most of them.”

“The Monkey Time” was one that got a name. It was also one of those records that came out of the radio in the autumn of 1963 and changed everything. Others were Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and the Impressions’ “It’s All Right”. This was before the term “soul music” had come into widespread use; for a while these records and others like them were referred to by UK fans as “new wave r&b”.

The three men who created “The Monkey Time” were Curtis Mayfield, the leader of the Impressions and Lance’s friend from their teenage years in the Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side, who wrote the song; Johnny Pate, the jazz bassist turned arranger, whose chart made such powerfully rhythmic use of brass; and the shrewd producer Carl Davis, whose first hit had come a year earlier with Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”. But it was Major’s modest, almost homespun tone that made it so distinctive; he sounded like an ordinary kid having a good time with a new dance craze.

That team was behind a string of hits, all of which are included among the 53 tracks on Ain’t No Soul (In These Old Shoes), a new 2-CD set released by RPM and subtitled “The Complete OKeh Recordings 1963-1967”. They include “Hey Little Girl”, “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”, “The Matador”, “Rhythm” and “Come See”, as well as great non-hits and B-sides like “Sometimes I Wonder”, “Mama Didn’t Know”, “Gonna Get Married” and “You Don’t Want Me No More”, and a handful of covers of current hits such as “Pride and Joy” and “Land of a Thousand Dances”.

He told me that the good times at OKeh ended when Columbia, the parent label, wanted Carl Davis and his artists to move their operation to New York. Davis refused, stayed put, and started his own label, Dakar (which would do well with Tyrone Davis and Hamilton Bohannon). “It had a lot to do with jealousy inside the company,” Lance said, “and problems that could have been solved but weren’t.”

My favourite of all Major’s OKeh tracks, however, is one I didn’t discover until the early ’70s, when I bought a US promo copy at the original Selectadisc shop on the now-demolished Arkwright Street in Nottingham. It was the singer’s first release on OKeh, and it made so little impact on its home market in the spring of 1963 that it wasn’t even released in Britain. But “Delilah” is one of Curtis Mayfield’s sweetest little story-songs, a typical tale of a country boy trying to charm a city girl with humility and sincerity, perfectly suited to Major’s characteristic tone: “I ain’t got much money / Just a farm on the the outskirts of town / Please don’t think that this is funny / But with you I’d like to settle down…”

Later in his life, Major hit hard times. He stayed with Contempo for a couple of years, touring the Northern Soul clubs, and then went home, where he recorded for Playboy, his own Osiris imprint and Soul, the Motown subsidiary. He served a jail term for cocaine possession, lost most of his sight, and died in 1994.

The new compilation is a good way to remember him. “Delilah” leads it off, and what has always drawn me back to it is the combination of Major’s voice, Curtis’s song, and an irresistible rhythm track, with Al Duncan’s lovely tom-tom figures and Floyd Morris’s jaunty Latin-accented piano fills, hammered in octaves in the upper register and particularly prominent on the fade. It’s just a scrap of a thing, really, but I’d hate to be without it.

Prince Buster 1938-2016

When I read today of the death of Prince Buster at the age of 78, I thought immediately of my favourite piece of music writing. It’s an essay titled “Johnny Cool and the Isle of Sirens”, written by Johnny Copasetic, a nom de plume disguising the identity of Mark Steedman, a computational linguist who is now the professor of cognitive science at Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics. The piece first appeared in 1972 in the first volume of Rock File, a paperback edited by my friend Charlie Gillett and including a selection of commissioned pieces alongside a pioneering list of every record to enter the British Top 20 between 1955 and 1969.

The essay’s author meditates at length on certain evolutionary strands of black popular music, concentrating on Prince Buster and Curtis Mayfield, and in particular on Buster’s 1967 hit “Johnny Cool” and the Impressions’ “Isle of Sirens”, a relatively obscure track (first released on the 1967 LP The Fabulous Impressions) that is nevertheless up there with Mayfield’s finest work.

He also talks about “Ghost Dance”, which is my favourite Buster track because of its sheer strangeness. “The theme,” he writes, “is that it is an open letter to his friends back in Jamaica, written/sung from abroad… it shows the use he makes of everyday phrases, the effect of the phrase with no context, the effect of sequence without a story.” Indeed, “Ghost Dance” is a kind of epistolary poetry:

“Dear Keith, my friend, good day — hoping you’re keeping the best of health / How is the music down there in Bone Yard? / I hear that Busby have a sound system / And that Nyah Keith is the disc jockey / But them can’t get no Red Stripe beer to sell in the dance at night / Tell Zackie, the high priest, who used to lead the toughest / Give him my regards / Tell him Prince Buster said, ‘Hello.’ / And Keith, if you should see Rashie / You know, Rashie from Back o’ Wall? / Give him my regards / And if you should see the two brothers, Stinky Pommels and Herman / We grew together / Tell them Prince Buster says, ‘So long, / Sorry we had to go, so soon.’ / Since music be the food of love / I’ll forever sing on / And Forresters Hall will soon get back my shape.”

Real people and places are being described here. Busby was indeed a sound system. Nyah Keith, born Albert Brown and murdered by a gunman in West Kingston in 1966, became the subject of a song by Burning Spear included on the 1978 album Marcus’ Children. Zackie was apparently a heavy for Edward Seaga’s Jamaican Labour Party, shot dead in 1966. Back o’ Wall was a Rasta community in West Kingston, demolished in the early ’60s and redeveloped as Tivoli Gardens. Forresters Hall was a popular dance hall on North Street in, I think, Campbell Town. On Rashie, Stinky Pommels and Herman, history is silent.

Thanks largely to Mark Steedman, the characters and scenes evoked by Prince Buster in his “Ghost Dance” have been running through my head for more than 40 years, along with that touching little valediction: “So long. Sorry we had to go, so soon…”

The home of the hits

RW & Ornette

Since everybody else seems to have shared their memories of Television Centre, the home of most of the BBC’s visual output for the past half-century, which the corporation finally abandoned to the developers today, I might as well join in. It was from that distinctive building in Shepherds Bush that the first series of The Old Grey Whistle Test, which I presented, was broadcast live on Tuesday nights in 1971-72, and here is a photograph (by Robert Ellis) of Ornette Coleman being interviewed by me on the programme in 1972.

Ornette was not your typical OGWT guest. He was in London to record his symphonic work, Skies of America, at Abbey Road with the LSO, and I had to plead a bit with the producer, Mike Appleton, to get him on the show. It was one of my happiest moments of the series, along with the appearances of Curtis Mayfield and John Martyn, and the night Dr John came into the studio and, in the guise of Mac Rebennack, sat down at an upright piano and spent a mesmerising 10 minutes working his way through the history of New Orleans keyboard styles. And who would not have cherished the night Captain Beefheart arrived to present his paintings to the world? They were strikingly excellent, and gave an indication of the direction he would take when he re-adopted the identity of Don Van Vliet a few years later.

A lot of the series wasn’t so much fun for me, particularly some of interviews (notably those with a near-psychotic Jerry Lee Lewis, a sneery Mick Jagger and a sarky Randy Newman — each one no doubt a justified response to my indifferent interrogational technique). That’s why I called it quits at the end of the first series and returned to the typewriter. I thought the programme needed someone more extrovert to front it. Mike, however, chose to hand the baton to Whispering Bob, who was even quieter than me. It wasn’t for a couple of decades that Jools Holland and his producer Mark Cooper came along with Later, which in its early days was almost exactly the kind of programme I’d have liked the OGWT to be: musicians playing live, without many restrictions.

That first series was broadcast from a studio called Presentation B, which measured 32ft by 22ft and had been designed for reading the news. Somehow bands managed to crowd into it, along with a couple of big old 1950s-style cameras, while the production staff occupied a control room the size of a phone box. And Curtis Mayfield’s wonderful band turned their amps all the way down to 1 but managed to make their short set sound and feel like the best gig happening anywhere in the world that night.