My Pop Life #135 : I Can’t Hear You – Betty Everett

I Can’t Hear You   –   Betty Everett

you walked out on me once too often now

and I can’t take no more of your jive and that’s the truth

I ain’t about to let you run me into the ground

this girl ain’t throwing away her youth

Betty Everett 1963

The sub-heading of this blog is ‘My Life In The Gush Of Boasts’.  Stand by.  This is a strange, convoluted, small-world-but-wouldn’t-want-to-paint-it story.  I guess the reason why we live in New York now is down to Jenny Jules my talented and beautiful wife, who played the part of Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined at the Almeida in 2010.   Exactly one year later, Lynn asked Charles Randolph Wright to cast Jenny again in the production he was directing at Arena Stage in Washington D.C.  Charles and Jenny spoke on Skype and the matter was sealed.  After one breakfast with Charles in Washington one morning I knew he would be a friend for life.   It started to feel as if maybe we might end up living on the east coast of America, rather than the west coast where we have spent so much time over the last 25 years.  But we did nothing about it until 3 years later when Phyllida Lloyd‘s all-female production of Julius Caesar in which Jenny was playing the redoubtable Cassius transferred from the Donmar Warehouse in London to St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in the autumn of 2014.  Jenny was housed in a beautiful apartment in Brooklyn Heights for the run, and we stepped outside one bright blue morning and swooned. “We could live here” we said, not realising that we were in the equivalent of Hampstead, and couldn’t ever afford it.    Almost on whim, three months later we were here with two suitcases and a cat each.  The Green Cards we already had from the LA years.  All we needed was work and friends.

Brooklyn

The work came slowly at first then more steadily.  Jenny has already been in a new play by Suzan-Lori Parks called Father Comes Home From The Wars parts 1,2 & 3, and next year she will be on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s  The Crucible.  Phyllida’s 2nd all-female Shakespeare, Henry IV parts one and two combined just finished at the new St Ann’s and Jenny played Worcester and Peto, the high and the low.  My work has been mainly on American TV with parts in Elementary, Agent Carter, Turn, The Blacklist and Legends.   Occasionally I go back to Europe to do some work there.  Work has been fine.

Friends – now making friends is harder, especially perhaps as one gets older and doesn’t socialise quite as much.  I need to find another band to play with, because I miss my old gang.  Our friends here are a tight bunch based mainly on Jenny’s theatrical adventures – thus writer Lynn Nottage and her husband Tony Gerber are our bedrock, with their two children Ruby and Melkamu.   Actors Segun Akande, Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Babs Olusanmokun from the Ruined D.C. cast all live here, and we see them for movies, theatre-readings, and now, weddings !  Segun is marrying Lucy in January 2016.   Things to look forward to!

Jenny Jules & Charles Randolph Wright 2014

Charles  lives in the Village and after directing Ruined in D.C. spent the next two years putting together the mighty musical MOTOWN with Berry Gordy (!) which is Berry’s life story and the history of that great record label Tamla Motown which changed all of our lives.  It opened on Broadway in 2013 (we snaffled a ticket and I will blog it on another occasion) and it is now touring the world – it opens in London in spring 2016.   After we moved to New York in early 2014, Charles introduced us to his lovely friends Vicki Wickham and Nona Hendryx, who came down to Washington and saw Jenny in 2011, and loved her.

Nona Hendryx & Vicki Wickham

So.

We are seeing Charles, Nona, and Vicki  tonight for New Year’s Eve, a small but delightful group, avoiding Times Square and other large drunken gatherings.  Yesterday Vicki sent me a recording of a radio show which she had made earlier in 2015 in London for the BBC.  It was a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of a show called The Sound Of Motown which was produced by Vicki 50 years ago !  Can you hear the soup thickening?

Vicki was then the producer on Ready, Steady, Go! which was the first pop TV show in the UK and was massively influential pre-Top Of The Pops.  The proof was  The Sound Of Motown in 1965 when Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas and The Supremes all made their first appearances on UK television, in the same show, with Dusty Springfield – they were all close-to-unknown acts in the UK at the time.  This is despite The Beatles having three Motown songs on their first LP – the public first saw all these acts together on their black and white TV sets in April 1965 on Rediffusion.

The Motown Revue at Marble Arch, London in 1965

It was Vicki’s enthusiasm and drive and Dusty’s stardom which made it happen – they’d seen Little Stevie Wonder in Paris doing his hit Fingertips and were bowled over.  Astonishingly in retrospect, the TV company only agreed to host Motown if Dusty Springfield was involved.  She was only too happy to join in and sang various duets – including this song – with Martha Reeves.

Martha Reeves,the Vandellas, Dusty Springfield

So I’m sitting listening to this radio show with Paul Gambaccini, that motormouth media man interviewing Vicki and alongside her the great Berry Gordy, (now in his 80s !) founder of Motown, writer of ‘Money‘ and best friend of Smokey Robinson (see My Pop Life #3) and there the BBC are trying to recreate some of the songs that featured on that night in 1965 with modern artists.   Thus we get Lamar singing My Girl for instance.  And I’m thinking – all these connections – Charles and Vicki – and suddenly Gambaccini announces I Can’t Hear You No More  “and here to sing it for us is Lucy Jules !

the great Lucy Jules

Could have knocked me down wiv a fevver guv.  Lucy of course is Jenny’s sister, my sister.  She is a professional singer.  She’s a brilliant singer, always has been.  She is very dear to me, naturally, I’ve watched her sing over the years, I’ve accompanied her, she has sung with my band and there she is on the radio doing connections singing !  She kills the song, so do the house band.  But it lights a living echo within.   The amount of coincidences and small-world shrinkage shuffles is starting to ‘do my head in‘ as they say in London,  but hear this : the song Lucy Jules is singing is one which I owned back in my 20s, back in my soul-music-odyssey days, a tremendous song called I Can’t Hear You, or sometimes called Can’t Hear You No More, depending on who is singing it.   And I haven’t heard it for 30 flipping years.  I had it on a 45rpm 7-inch vinyl single by the great Betty Everett.   It was her follow-up to the huge Shoop Shoop Song which I also had on 7-inch :

“if you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss : that’s where it is !”

I think the reason why I had some singles by her was down to Elvis Costello covering her 1965 hit Getting Mighty Crowded in 1980 as an out-take of the personal favourite Get Happy LP – which appeared on Taking Liberties, an album of out-takes and B-sides.  For a musical archeologist like me there were plenty of clues there, back to the time when soul music was made out of soul.   I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down (original by Sam & Dave) was one of the singles from that tremendous LP.

Betty Everett in 1963

Betty Everett was born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago in her early 20s, signing a deal with Calvin Carter and Vee Jay records (the first US label to sign The Beatles).  Her second single “You’re No Good” is also a tremendous blues/pop song and was a hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1975.  But this one was always my favourite.  So to suddenly hear it on the radio, sung by MY SISTER was ridiculous.  As I say, I hadn’t heard it since 1985 when I finally at the 3rd attempt left my girlfriend Mumtaz and made the mistake of leaving my record collection behind.  I never saw any of those records again.   All the punk singles in picture sleeves, LPs from my teenage years, soul 45s, african records, everything.   It hurt, but I guess Mumtaz hurt more – she thought we were to be married.  But we weren’t to be married.  And so I started again, aged 29, both in Love and with a Record Collection.   But I forgot many of the records which I used to own.  Bound to happen.  And so now and again I get the joy of rediscovery, a tingle of recognition, and in this case a full circle of musical joy through Motown, Ready Steady Go!, my family and our new friends.

I looked the song up and found that Helen Reddy had a big disco-esque easy-listening hit with it in the 1970s, Lulu covered it, Alan Price and of course, so did Dusty Springfield, calling it I Can’t Hear You No More and singing slightly behind the beat, but still sounding like a black soul singer like she always did.   I guess it was her choice to sing it on the Motown Revue show – but it never was a Motown song.  Except that night when she duetted on it with Martha Reeves.

I think the Betty Everett song was picked up by the Northern Soul DJs in the early 70s and gathered a whole new set of fans – it had that fast beat and passionate vocal that they liked.  The classic pop feel comes from the writers Gerry Goffin & Carole King, she wrote the music, he wrote the lyrics.   Interesting when you know their story :

“This girl ain’t throwing away her youth”

Carole King & Jerry Goffin

Jewish New Yorkers, they married when she was 17 and pregnant and he was 20, and during a reportedly turbulent ten-year relationship they created many top hits for different artists : Take Good Care Of My Baby, (Please) Don’t Ever Change, Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow, One Fine Day, The Loco-motion, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Oh No Not My Baby, Up On The Roof, Natural Woman and many many more.

Credit where credit is due.

Happy New Year everyone, thanks for reading.

Ralph Brown 2015

My Pop Life #79 : People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions

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People Get Ready   –   Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions

People get ready – there’s a train coming

You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board

All you need is faith to hear the diesel hummin’

Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord…

I bought The Impressions Anthology double LP at some point in the late 70s during my soul conversion years.   The album collects songs from 1961 to 1977 and every one is a classic, but one song stood out for me as head and shoulders above the rest.  More like a hymn than a pop song, this is one of the reasons why pop music is so potent.  To take a church form and turn it into a gospel/political plea of this simplicity and strength takes skill, it’s like a William Blake poem or a Martin Luther King sermon,  it hits you right between the eyes, and goes straight for the heart.

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Black American music has long used biblical imagery in the context of freedom – the crossing of the River Jordan, the walls of Jericho, let my people go (from Egypt) – the language of slavery from the Moses era of the Old Testament perfectly fit the plantation south.  Trains have also been prominent in freedom songs.  The Underground Rail Road was the name for the hidden path to freedom for escaped slaves, a series of marks on trees, directions remembered, safe houses, places to avoid.   The songs Wade In The Water, The Gospel Train and Swing Low Sweet Chariot all refer to the freedom train, or the underground railroad.   Harriet Tubman was one of the main conductors on this train, freeing hundreds of slaves to the Northern states.   The Gospel Train (Get On Board) was sung by contralto Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when she was denied entry to the Constitution Hall in 1939 by the “Daughters Of The Revolution”.

With the aid and support of Eleanor Roosevelt she sang an outside radio broadcast to 75,000 people with millions listening on the radio.   She was later the first black performer at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955.  Incidentally she has also sung “Erbarme Dich” from the St Matthew Passion (see My Pop Life #76).

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Marian Anderson

So Curtis Mayfield‘s song is in a tradition, it may have the appearance, melody and structure of a gospel tune, and the subject matter of a religious song about God, but Black American music always has significant symbolic aspects of freedom hidden in plain sight.   People Get Ready is very much a song of the Civil Rights era, two years after the march on Washington, and released in the same year of the Selma to Montgomery marches.   A year ealier the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public places – the “coloured” drinking fountains and rest rooms, bars and restaurants, but in some parts of America it was impossible to register to vote.  The freedom train was coming though.   Lyndon B. Johnson‘s presidency was actually more radical than Kennedy’s before him and created many of the institutions of America still existent today – Medicare and Medicaid, public broadcasting, voting rights and public housing.

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The arrangement of the song is special – a choir hums the intro with a xylophone and strings, then the Impressions – Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler and Fred Cash – sing the song.  Guitar lines, trumpets and vocal harmonies grace the key change and then we get taken home, musically.  Something about the chord structure answers a deep yearning for completions and resolution and the song rose into my all-time top ten within a year of buying it.  I put it onto Jenny’s Soul Tape (see My Pop Life #29) along with Gladys Knight, Bobby Bland (My Pop Life #28) and others, and then in the early 1990 we saw Curtis Mayfield live at the Town & Country in Kentish Town Road.  I think most people’s highlight was Move On Up (and fair enough, what a tune), but when he played People Get Ready, in the same arrangement as the original, simple and direct, we melted.    A few months later a lighting rig fell onto him in Flatbush New York and he was paralysed from the neck down.  He still continued to write and play until diabetes lost him the use of a leg.  He died in 1999.

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 His output remains an inspiring and uplifting body of work, from the early Impressions songs through Pusherman and Freddie’s Dead to the last LP New World Order, and perhaps no other artist has contributed so many black pride anthems, from Keep On Pushing through to Move On Up.   But he also managed to balance the righteous freedom politics with an uber-cool image that peaked with Superfly in 1971.

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I’ll just briefly note in passing that Bob Marley is among the artists who covered People Get Ready.  And Stevie Wonder played it with India Arie last month in Brooklyn (see My Pop Life #39).   A towering song.

My Pop Life #55 : Help! – The Beatles

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Help !   –   The Beatles

…when I was young, oh so much younger than today,

I never needed anybody’s help in any way 

but now these days are gone I’m not so self-assured

now I find I’ve changed my mind I’ve opened up the doors

1965, Selmeston, East Sussex.  Andrew is one year old and things are not going well with Mum.  Later she would blame the amount of air and gas she was given by the midwife during the birth, but who knows why she felt she could no longer cope with life in a small village with three young boys?  The world collapsed when she was admitted to Hellingly Hospital as a patient, suffering from a mental breakdown.  I didn’t know what was going on, so what chance did Paul and Andrew, my younger brothers have?  Nan travelled up from Portsmouth to help my dad, who still had to go to work every day, teaching kids English in Falmer School near Brighton.  Nan was my mum’s mum and kindly, with a tough edge.  Her favourite swear word was “sod”.  As in “ooh, he’s a sod”.   I can’t remember who the sod was, but there were a few around. mainly on telly I think.  I cannot remember the date when mum was admitted, but it was during school term, possibly May or June.

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The following day and for about a week, I went to school – a fifteen minute walk up the village – in my grandad’s black hat, which kind of fitted me.  I was 8 years old.  Miss Lamb, the venerable headmistress didn’t say anything until the end of the week, when she had a quiet word in my ear and asked me not to wear it the following week.

We visited Mum in Hellingly a few times, stressful, strained occasions where the effects of whatever medication they were administering were obvious – she was tired and lethargic, but happy to see us.  Some of these memories survived in my first screenplay, for the film “New Year’s Day” (2001) which is very loosely based on my youth.

We didn’t know how long she’d be in there, but she was given ECT at least twice – Electro-Convulsive Therapy where they strap you to a couch put something on your tongue and shoot electricity through your brain giving you an induced fit.  I’ve seen a documentary on the procedure since with Jonathan Miller talking about how little they know about why it works – when it does.

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From that moment on, my mum would be the subject of various new treatments and theories which abounded in the 1960s regarding how to treat depression, usually some new drug which would be tested in the field on her and all the other women and men going through the same thing.  Her doctor at Hellingly was Dr Maggs.  He diagnosed manic depression, probably gave her Largactyl, a massive downer.  I got to know all of these drugs years later, both from our kitchen cupboard and later when I worked as a nursing assistant at Laughton Lodge.  For now, I was an eight-year-old boy wearing my grandad’s hat to school, to cover my dark abandoned scared feelings.

My mum was in Hellingly for 9 months.  A gestation of a new life for me, for all of us, without her.  Things would never be the same after that.

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Help is a John Lennon song through and through, one of his best.  So dramatic and hooked with feeling.  Later he would describe it as a release from being bottled up in the Beatles glass enclosure for years, the pressure of success, being holed up in hotel rooms under siege from press and fans, of having to explain every detail of every element of your life, your songs, your clothes, your haircuts.  They dealt with all of it really well, I almost remember the press conferences from that era better than the songs:  the jokes, the verbal sparring, the deflection of any difficulty or awkwardness with scouse wit and quick-thinking and solidarity.  But by 1965 the strain was beginning to show, the answers less smart-arse, more weary :

Help is a glimpse of the world beneath those likely lad grins and chuckles, the cry of a young man floating in space without anchor or centre of gravity, who was supposed to be happy because it was all going so well.  A breakout from the shell of protection, the rictus grin of appearances, the secret heart exposed : camouflaged as a great pop song.

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For me 1965/66 was the year when I created that shelter, day by day stitched together a carapace around my heart which would protect me from further pain, started to create a protective layer of survival.  I felt capable of doing that.  After removing the hat I had to walk up that little road exposed to the sky, and I learned to enclose my feelings, my pain and distress, with a character who got on with it, who coped, who survived.  Who looked after his younger brother Paul.   This new coping, private character took over my entire being over the following 15 years as things progressed, deteriorated, wobbled and left me exposed with unsteady regularity.  I would look after my brothers, and the house once Mum and Dad were divorced, but that was a year away, after Mum came home.  The story of her coming home is frightening, but I’ll save it for another song.

My real and true feelings escaped just as I went to sleep at night upstairs with Paul in the room alongside me in his own bed.  Large inchoate shapes would start to appear in the corners of the room, like Play Doh blobs of grey, heavy bulging clouds of unnerving malevolent solidity which moved closer around my eyes until they were all I could see.  I don’t remember telling anyone about that.

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I love Ringo’s drum roll before the first verse, I love Paul and George’s backing vocals especially the harmonies over help me get my feet back on the ground, but mostly I love John Lennon’s voice : grainy, gritty yet melodic and true.  The last harmony on the vocals at the end of the song is unfeasibly sweet.   They were at the height of their power, where they would stay for another 4 years.  I was at the depths of my weakness, and forever afterward lived in fear of repeating it.  I built my heart’s castle wall from the mud of Selmeston village.  I wouldn’t start to unravel it until I was in my mid-fifties.

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways
My independence seems to vanish in the haze
But every now and then I feel so insecure
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before

live, August 1965: