My Pop Life #104 : Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf

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Smokestack Lightning   –   Howlin’ Wolf

tell me, baby,
Where did ya, stay last night?

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My dear friend Dona Croll posted a video of Howlin’ Wolf onto my Facebook page this morning and there was no turning back.  I have known Dona since the 1980s, I’m sure she won’t mind me telling you, but from where and when we met I cannot say.  Perhaps she was in the cast for the London’s Burning pilot when I met actor Gary MacDonald.  I was playing a policeman.  Most of the cast were black, but not all.  We decided to have a kickabout one lunchtime.  Of course, being in uniform meant I got kicked about all over the park.  Fair enough.

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But in the small bubble of British acting Dona and I would cross paths regularly at Tricycle Theatre first nights, anything that Paulette Randall was doing, maybe at auditions.   When I wrote The House That Crack Built for the BBC in 1989 (see My Pop Life #61), Dona was my first choice for the rapping crack-addicted Mom and she was brilliant.    I know she reads this blog so this one is partly for you dear Dona, and partly for my brer Eamonn Walker, Eamonn Roderique, E.   When I saw the clip of Wolf I immediately thought of Eamonn, because a) they favour and b) Eamonn played Howlin Wolf in a film called Cadillac Records in 2008.

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Cadillac Records was the story of Chess Records lightly disguised.   It’s a good film but while being not entirely satisfying like most biopics and most music films, it nevertheless has a clutch of wonderful performances both of the thespian and musical variety, and Eamonn is quite sensational.   He inhabited that role like he does all his roles.   Wolf was a big growler who played a mean blues harp, so E had to learn the instrument before the shoot.   Adrien Brody played Polish immigrant Leonard Chess who started Chess Records by selling blues and ‘race’ records out of the back of his Cadillac with his brother Phil in 1950 on the South Side of Chicago.  It grew to become the most important record label in the history of the blues, releasing crucial work from Chuck Berry, played by Mos Def in the film, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Colombus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer), Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) among many others.

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But Wait – Eamonn worked with Beyoncé !!!   She was very good as Etta James I thought, but I am unashamedly biased.  I love Beyoncé.  A lot.   Anyway, moving back to Howlin’ Wolf.

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Chester Burnett was a giant of a man from Mississippi who physically dominated any room he was in at 6’3”, and who adopted his name Howlin Wolf from his grandfather.   He learned guitar from Charley Patton during the 1930s, harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II in the 1940s, and songs from the likes of Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr and Son House.   He moved steadily north, first to Arkansas, then later to Memphis where he recorded some sides for Sam Phillips and finally, unusually, driving his own car and with $4000 in his pocket, he went to Chicago.  Somehow avoiding all the classic blues temptations that he was singing about – liquor, gambling, loose women of a variety of types, he hired a regular band to accompany him, including Hubert Sumlin who moved up from Memphis.  Unusually for a bandleader, Burnett paid his musicians on time, and also offered benefits such as health insurance, he therefore had the pick of the best in Chicago for years.  Featured imageSmokestack Lightning was released in March 1956 and made the Billboard R&B charts, it is now considered a classic.  Howlin Wolf had learned it back in the 30s as a variation on a train blues played by Charlie Patton and others, sitting at dawn watching the trains sparking through their chimneys at night “Shinin’, just like gold”.   It is a massively evocative three minutes of the blues with growls, yodels, harmonica wails and a wonderful circular bluesy guitar riff from Mr Sumlin which stays on E (appropriately enough) – just one chord for the whole song.  “Girl don’t you hear me cryin?”    Eamonn plays and sings it on the Soundtrack to Cadillac Records.  I couldn’t be more proud.

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Eamonn Walker is my brother from another mother.  It was gradual, and yet somehow immediate like all the best friendships.   We met when he played opposite my soon-to-be wife Jenny Jules in Pecong at the Trike in 1991, Paulette’s Randall‘s production of Steve Carter‘s Caribbean update of Medea, which Jenny won an award for because she was extraordinary.  The battling men – Victor Romero-Evans and Eamonn Walker do so in rhyme.   American actress Pat Bowie played Granny Root, massively talented Jo Martin and Cecilia Noble the other women, Beejaye Joseph and Jax Williams the eye-candy dancers.   It was a great great production.   Eamonn used to come and see Jenny and I on Sundays after seeing his twins Deke & Jahdine who were in Enfield with their mum Chris.  We were in Archway Road and thus on the way home to Sandra Kane his partner, and young boy Kane Walker (now in his 20s).    We became close family and have remained so ever since.   We played football together for the Hoxton Pirates for a few seasons on Hackney Marshes and all over South London on Sunday mornings until I broke my nose during a game – a loud crack, a violent searing pain and suddenly I was lying in a large pool of blood.    E was one of the first people in England to have a mobile phone – he’s a techno geek – and he had it behind him in a pouch at the back of the goal – he was the Pirates goalie, and he called the ambulance.    Eamonn was plucked from the ranks by Lynda LaPlante and seeded in New York were he sprouted the leaves and branches of prison drama Oz followed by much much more besides, films, TV series, he has had a really strong profile in America for years, a profile that he simply, oddly does not have in the UK.   So many black British actors have made the same journey over the last 20 years and had success, some of them becoming English stars too like Idris Elba.   Others, like Eamonn, (ranked number 11 in a US poll of “favourite British actors”)  are never even mentioned in UK media articles about black actor’s success in Hollywood.   Like a massive blind spot in the media, and partly in the UK business.   We carry on.

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In 2011 through 2012 we lived together in Hollywood,  just off Mulholland Drive in the hills above Universal with a balcony view that stretched from the Woodland Hills to the Hollywood sign and beyond.  It was good to spend time.   I would walk Runyon Canyon every day, from the top down and back up.   From that base camp E scored another Dick Wolf project: NBC’s Chicago Fire which is now in its fifth series and has him living in Chicago 10 months of every year but scoring his pension.  He deserves every cent.    Eamonn, Dona : this is for you, I love you both.

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Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Adrien Brody

This could be the longest thread ever because of links that go in every direction – into the movie The Boat That Rocked, the band Birds Of Tin, my friendship with Simon Korner, Andy Oliver, all of Eamonn’s family, Jenny’s Mum and Dad and on and on.

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But perhaps I will mention that when we adopted the beautiful Devon Rex boycat from Jason & Tash in February 2008 (just after my god-daughter Delilah Rose was born) we decided to call him Chester, after Howlin Wolf.   This beautiful animal was very special, very wise, very funny, very cuddly.  We later bought Chester a companion, a Cornish Rex and named her Mimi.  Chester had a heart condition which we discovered when he was two, an a-rhythmical heartbeat.   He would live only another two years and passed away aged four while I was working in Tennessee on a film in the fall of 2011.  RIP Chester.  The greatest cat.

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a magnificent live version from 1964 :

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My Pop Life #80 : Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

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Heartbreak Hotel   –   Elvis Presley

the bell-hop’s tears keep flowing and the desk clerk’s dressed in black

They been so long on lonely street they never can go back

and they’ve been, they been so lonely baby, they been so lonely

they been so lonely they could die…

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By the time I was 16 I had learnt the rudimentals of the saxophone, I could play a tune, I could ‘tongue’ the notes, bend the notes and more or less join in with a jam.  I could only play in a handful of keys though.  And better jokes were to come.  When I joined school band Rough Justice – my friend’s band which starred Conrad Ryle, Andrew ‘Tat’ Taylor, Andy Shand and Tigger on the drums – it was as a saxophone player.   I arrived at Waterlilies in Kingston village, sax in hand, having hitch-hiked from Hailsham, sat down, had a cup of tea, perhaps a joint was smoked,  knelt down and opened my sax case, red-velvet-lined, the horn came in various parts which had to be slotted together, then a reed selected and placed onto the mouthpiece (Selmer C) and tightened, a sling around my neck and we were off.  Give us an E said Tat.  I blew a nice clear bell-like E.   Wow that’s high.  All the guitarists tightened their strings to the right pitch.  Saxophones cannot be tuned (much*) so the more flexible instruments – the guitars, including the bass, must be.   I can’t remember how many rehearsals this went on for, but at every rehearsal someone – often two people – broke strings.   Then one day, weeks later, possibly months later, someone – who knows – maybe it was me, perhaps Andy played an E on the piano out of curiosity.  Clearly none of us had perfect pitch !     It was lower than my E.  Way lower.  It was my C# in fact.  I consulted my book “How To Play The Saxophone”.    I had an Eb Boosey & Hawkes alto.   I don’t actually know what this means even today, but I think it means that it is pitched 3 semitones above middle C – ie Eb.   What this meant for my bandmate’s guitar strings, not to mention their fingers, was that when they asked me for an E, I was giving them a G !!!  No wonder strings broke – three semitones higher than concert pitch, I got blisters on ma fingers !   I felt stupid, humiliated even, but they were all relieved.   Next time someone asked me for an E, I blew a C# and we were all sweet. *

*Muso’s note – to tune a saxophone you must move the mouthpiece up & down the cork.

– After a few more rehearsals it became evident that no one wanted to sing.   No one.   So guess who volunteered.   I’ll give it a go.   Someone who would become an actor one day.  Now, this meant learning the words to the songs which Tat and Conrad – or Crod as we all called him in those days – had written, among which were Tat’s song Muster Muster Monsters which required a kind of Vincent Price delivery, and Crod’s song about Mevagissey in Cornwall where he’d been on holiday camping with Spark and Fore and possibly Martin Elkins (“wake up with the sun run down to the sea…”), which was a basic pop vocal.  More tricky though were the choice of covers – basic 12-bar rock songs which the nascent guitar players could play with confidence – and which included THREE Status Quo songs and THREE Elvis Presley songs and Birthday by the Beatles from the White Album.  I’ll discuss the Quo in greater depth another time, for I ended up meeting them years later, but this seems like a great opportunity to put Elvis into my pop life.  Aged 16/17 I sang 3 Elvis songs, kind of unaware of his legendary status, he was just a good rockin’ boy to us East Sussex lads.   I wasn’t overawed like I would be now if I sang an Elvis song.   It was just rock’n’roll.   But the songs were 15 years old even then in 1973.

Most of the Rough Justice set were rockers, so true to form I’ve picked the ballad to represent.  It was the hardest song to sing with the exception of “Birthday” which is a scream-fest.  Two of us sang that I think.  We would perform at Kingston Village Hall, Grange Gardens for some private party, Lewes Priory school dance, not that many actual gigs.  The gigs were good, but my main memory is Crod’s bedroom, amps and speakers, fags, instruments including Crod’s homemade lemon-yellow electric guitar, carved from some tree and wired up by hand.  In my recall it went out of tune on a regular basis, but Crod didn’t seem to mind.  In fact Conrad didn’t seem to mind about much it seemed to me.  He had a gentle giant atmosphere around him, smiled a lot, was very forgiving and understanding, had a good left foot on the football pitch, came to the Albion with his brother Martin or with us, enjoyed a pint of cider and a smoke of weed, is a committed socialist even now and still lives in Lewes with his wife Gaynor Hartnell.  Lovely people whom I see all too infrequently.  Along with Simon Korner I would say he was my best friend at Lewes, since I had spent so much time with both of those families as my own family slowly disintegrated amid dysfunction and doctors and drugs.  They’d both reached out a hand and invited me into their homes.  They’d saved my sanity and my future probably.  I cannot really measure it, but I will always acknowledge it.

We had fun with Crod one day – me, Spark, Fore, Martin, Tat.  Crod fell asleep early one night.  Too early.  Wankered on cider.  Someone wondered aloud whether we should lift his entire bed with him in it outside and place it carefully in the garden, without waking him up.  Much laughter.  I think we tried it.   Of course the bed wouldn’t fit through the door.  So we settled for completely re-arranging his bedroom, moved the bed to the opposite wall, moved the bookcase and wardrobe and amps and speakers.  Then we fell asleep too.   Hadn’t worked that out – that we’d have to stay awake all night to get the juicy climax to our prank.  Then someone woke Crod up to get the joke.  He looked blearily around, said “oh you’ve moved the room around” then fell asleep again.

Matthew Wimbourne would turn up to Rough Justice rehearsals too.   He was younger than us and smaller too.   Wispy beard-hairs and glasses, hippy scarves.   Carried a set of bongos.  Sat on the floor and played along without ever really being heard.   I hope he had fun.   Tigger the drummer didn’t go to our school.  He looked a bit like a kid from fame, mullet and all.   We made a logo for his bass drum.  It said Rough Justice round the rim and had a hangman’s noose in the centre.  We wore whatever we wanted on stage which was mainly denim, although Crod had some interesting shapeless clothes, and I had my Mum’s pink blouse (glamrock!!) and a pair of stripéd pants (see MacArthur’s Park!) that were red, blue and yellow and a pair of wedge-sole AND wedge-heel shoes.  I thought I was in The Sweet !!  Singing Elvis and Quo !!!  hahahahahahahaaaaaaa…

Featured imageAs for Heartbreak Hotel, it’s quite a song.  I think people used to dance even when we played it.   It was Elvis Presley‘s first million-selling single.   Not the first thing he recorded, by any means – he walked into Sun Records in Memphis aged 18 and recorded That’s All Right Mama for producer Sam Phillips which is totally fantastic, as are all the sides he cut for Sun Records.  But once he got signed by RCA Records who bought out his Sun contract thanks to new manager “Colonel” Tom Parker, the sky was the limit.  In essence they tried to bottle the lightning of those first magical two years.  And, sadly, they did.  Bottled it, labelled it, mass-produced it, gave it a haircut and sent it to the army.  They couldn’t quite smooth out all of the rough edges but near as dammit that’s exactly what happened to Elvis.  The famous episodes of him being shot on TV only from the waist up were a real threat, not a joke – a white man dancing and singing like a negro, mixing black and white music with ease, conquering both with charm, rockabilly and sex.

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He was a powerful dangerous young man in the mid-fifties, and those first two years at Sun Records are the best of Elvis.  Not to say that the other stuff is bad – hardly that – and I have favourite Elvis songs from every period of his life.  In The Ghetto.  Are You Lonesome Tonight?   I Just Can’t Help Believin’.  Lawdy Miss Clawdy from the comeback gig.  There are two wonderful books that have all the details, all the gossip and all of the stuff you need.  Peter Guralnick wrote both – Last Train To Memphis goes up to the army, Careless Love takes it from there.  Highly recommended.

I visited Graceland in Memphis in 1989 on my way out to Dallas delivering a car for Auto-Driveaway.  Really that’s for another post, but Graceland is everything you want it to be.

In other news Kenneth Cranham (see My Pop Life #6 and My Pop Life #46) or Uncle Ken had thrust a pair of C90s into my grubby little paws one night entirely made up of original material covered by Elvis, followed by Elvis’ version.  In pretty much every respect the Elvis versions are better.  And of course they were huge hits too.  Parker and Elvis demanded half of the publishing for any song they covered, and most writers (though not Dolly Parton) agreed.

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I knew very very little of this in 1974.   Just as well I think.   I was an innocent singing rock songs for kids to dance to.    I didn’t want to be stepping into a legend’s shoes.

Featured imageAnd yes, the legend of Elvis would flourish and bloom in later years and become a kind of religious touchstone and a musical crossroads too.    There’s so much myth and bullshit written and spoken about Elvis.   I’ve heard tons of it.   Make up your own mind.   Did you know, for instance, that Elvis used to wear eye make-up in the early 50s?   There’s some amazing photos of him back then, on the cusp of his power, under arrest for an assault.   He was a tornado.    I’ve spoken about my conversation with Bristol trip-hop pioneer Tricky (My Pop Life #61) regarding the Public Enemy “Elvis was a hero to most…” lines on Fight The Power.   But whatever, he was one of the original rebels.   A white working class kid in Memphis singing black music in 1953.   He was it.    There’s two clips below, the original single from 1956, the young man aged 21 making his first million dollars, below that the ’68 comeback gig in Las Vegas where he appears to be taking the mickey out of himself and his schtick.  He was a complex man in some ways, a very simple man in others.  I’ve got a lot of time for Elvis.

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and live at the comeback gig in Vegas ’68 :