My Pop Life #158 : Tipitina – Professor Longhair

Tipitina   –   Professor Longhair

Tipitina, oola malla walla dalla 
Tra ma tra la la

Tipitina’s nightclub in New Orleans

It’s the sound of New Orleans.  That cuban rhumba habañera boogie-woogie plinky plonky syncopated piano rhythm that lurches from his fingers into your bones.  His voice is twisted, looping, gutteral, lyrical nonsense emanating therefrom.   It is unique, too unique to be popular, although others found a way to play his style commercially.  It is a lonely twisted tree growing out of the mangrove swamp, steamy and heavy, gnarled and semi-tropical, earthy and wet.

I can’t remember my way into the music of New Orleans, but it was late 80s sometime, either a Dr John concert or a book I found, possibly a compilation album, a documentary on the TV ?  Simon Korner had Dr John – The Night Tripper’s – 1st LP Gris Gris when I met him aged 14, but it didn’t really hook me.  The salty funk of the delta took another 15 years to seep into my pores.  Once it does, it takes hold, like voodoo smoke, never to be fully exhaled.  I think the first New Orleans album I bought was Smiley LewisGreatest Hits – another piano player from that city of pianos, which included the songs I Hear You Knocking and Blue Monday, both more successfully covered by Fats Domino (see My Pop Life #126).   But I’m starting to suspect that the LP pictured above was next – Professor Longhair : New Orleans Piano.  The New Orleans R’n’B sound was forged by Dave Bartholomew and others, (including Longhair) and has a Cuban influence you can hear in the rhythm mainly – that “rock’n’roll” riff from Country Boy, Bartholomew’s 1949 single, would be repeated endlessly throughout the 1950s on Shake Rattle & Roll, Rock Around The Clock and hundreds of other songs.  Musical historians reckon that Cuban/Mexican bandleader Perez Prado was influential, he who popularized the mambo.  Without going into the mathematics and bar-lines of all the different shuffles, the geographical alignment of New Orleans and Havana, and the twice-daily steamboat that traversed the Caribbean from the 1850s onwards, meant that musical cross-fertilization was inevitable, and fecund.  Ragtime, jazz and boogie-woogie all originated in the Crescent City, and it was called Music City until someone decided that Nashville could steal that title, if not the soul of the place.  Not even Hurricane Katrina could do that.

In early 1992 Jenny and I were in Los Angeles for the premiere of Alien 3, directed by David Fincher.  The following day I had a meeting with director Herb Ross for his next feature Undercover Blues.  Perhaps the fluff & fizz around Alien convinced him, but I was offered the role of Leamington, number 2 bad guy to Fiona Shaw‘s evil villain.  It was a comedy, and it was to shoot mainly in New Orleans.    I had a date that I wasn’t available on – my wedding day, July 25th.   Rather incredibly (in hindsight) the band we got together to play the wedding party in the evening, consisting of people I’d gone to school with, played pretty much an hour of New Orleans R’n’B.  This wasn’t my choice (I’d asked for Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Tamla) but Andrew Ranken‘s, who was our singer.  Fair enough,  we enjoyed the gig and the rehearsals (see My Pop Life #126) and then a few days later we’d flown out to New Orleans itself for our honeymoon, and a few days work on an MGM movie.  Serendipity chance and luck.

New Orleans is made of music and food and drink.  Our hotel room at Wyndham’s (or Westin?) had a lovely bowl of fruit, a bottle of champagne in an ice-bucket and a card from production congratulating us on our marriage and welcoming us to Louisiana.   We were yards from Bourbon St and the French Quarter, but not quite in it.  It stays up late.  The next few weeks were a rather wonderful blur of eating, drinking and live music, mixed in with a little work now and again.  Herb Ross turned out to be a bit of an arse, (shouting at high volume to me and the whole crew : “Ralph !  Ralph, you’re doing exactly what I asked you NOT TO DO!!!”) as did Dennis Quaid, but Kathleen Turner was great, and so was Fifi Shaw and they would come out dancing with the crew in the evenings, and take the piss out of the director in the daytime.

Professor Longhair

It’s a fantastic city.  Famous restaurants have lines outside to eat the food – no thanks, we’re not in prison.  We ate with Fiona Shaw, but mainly with each other.  We visited the Preservation Hall which presents a musical history of New Orleans jazz, we walked through the muggy streets, perspiring gently, we rode the St Charles Streetcar named Desire up to the Garden District and saw the mansions and spanish moss of the light-skinned creoles and white bourgeousie.   We saw the legendary marching bands, a funeral parade, we saw live jazz most nights, soul music, honky tonk and country on other nights.   And, eventually, we visited the legendary nightclub Tipitina’s on Napoleon St, out near Metairie Cemetery where the dead are buried above ground to protect them from the high water table.   That Tipitina’s, referenced by Professor Longhair in this song. Hot, vibrant, steamy, pulsing with tourists and locals alike eating beignets, jambalaya, crawfish pie, filet gumbo… 

Professor Longhair was born Roy Byrd in 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana.  He learned to play on a piano missing quite a few keys, possibly contributing to his unique style, and formed a band called The Shuffling Hungarians in 1949.  You love him already don’t you?   He wrote and recorded his two major signature tunes in this period – Tipitina and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  He would re-record them both in 1974 after spending ten years as a janitor during the 1960s and gambling himself into poverty.  He also recorded the standards Mess Around, Jambalaya and Rockin’ Pneumonia, and the songs Cry To Me and Junco Partner which we’d played at our wedding.   He had a huge influence on the N’Awlins boogie-woogie piano style, happily admitted to by Dr John, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino and others.   He passed away in 1980.

Professor Longhair’s image dominates the stage at Tipitina’s

I guess it’s the crossroads thing – between north america and the caribbean, between France and America, between black and white, between Africa and Europe, but New Orleans has an atmosphere that you can’t find anywhere else in North America, or indeed anywhere else that we’ve been.   One of my favourite moments was paying for some vinyl in a record shop on Canal Street, being asked where we were from and asking the same question of the shopkeeper.  He was from New Jersey, but said he chose to live in New Orleans because it was the capital of music in North America, perhaps the world.  He added for context that had he lived a century earlier he might have chosen to live in Vienna (see My Pop Life #157).  The mix, the gumbo, the racial blurring – the character of the place is live and let live.  And the music which has come out of the place – from Huey ‘Piano’ Smith to the Neville Brothers, Little Richard to Lloyd Price, Allen Toussaint to Lee Dorsey and all the cajun twisters Queen Ida, Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco and Rockin’Dopsie, back to jazz greats Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, has been the funky nutrient-rich sound has that fed american popular music for over 100 years.  If you haven’t been there yet, make a date.

Original from 1953 :

from 1974 :

Fess explains his lineage and plays Tipitina for us:

sadly this film was taken down by someone who wants to own things rather than share them

 

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My Pop Life #152 : The Morning Papers – Prince

The Morning Papers   –   Prince

If he poured his heart into a cup and offered it like wine

She could drink it and be back in time for the morning papers

The third time I saw Prince live was with The New Power Generation at Glam Slam, his nightclub in downtown Los Angeles.  Spring 1994.  Jenny and I are renting a lovely old tiled and wood-floored 1940s ground floor apartment on King’s Road in West Hollywood, just south of Beverley Boulevard.  It has a piano!  The World Cup is approaching, but only the immigrants – the latinos, africans and europeans – are interested.  Jenny spends a lot of time in London filming with John Thaw on Kavanagh QC playing a lawyer.  For some childish reason I always call it Cavendish PC.  There weren’t that many parts for black actors on British TV in those days.  How times have changed…

We used to walk a couple of blocks west from King’s Road to Jans – an old time diner with booths and an endless menu which included The Monte Cristo – french toast with cheese, turkey and ham, my particular preference.  With french fries. And ketchup, or catsup as it used to be known. And coffee. And the Morning Papers.  Always the LA Times, which is thin fare, but that’s where we were.  At least it had a decent Arts section, and film reviews were pored over.  The LA Weekly (a kind of Village voice for Southern California) was a weekly staple and gave us film reviews and concert listings.  We could actually walk to the Beverley Center – cinema, restaurants, shops etc, but we usually drove.  Almost opposite us was the King’s Road Cafe, a hipster joint before the word was coined. It was self-consciously groovy and slightly twee and we preferred Jans, where the waitresses were all middle-aged ladies, often latinas,  the owner was an ancient Greek and the customers were old jewish people and cops.  Classic old-school American diner.

Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #135) was staying with us in LA on an extended break from London.  She’d just graduated from the Brit School in Croydon, and sung at our wedding and she wanted to check out La La Land while we were there – the centre of the music industry as well as the film industry.  We were in Los Angeles for close to three years straight in the early 90s, and I could count the number of visitors we had from London on one hand.  I know it’s a long way and an expensive flight, but there was free accommodation at the other end if you asked nicely !!    Anyway, Lucy’s favourite artist is Prince.

Prince Rogers Nelson.  Who died today Thursday April 21st 2016 aged 57 in Minneapolis.  The shock will take a while to sink in.  I’m still trying to deal with David Bowie passing not to mention Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman and Ronnie Corbett.  This year the long scythe of death is cutting down many of our brightest and best and most loved creatives.  We are all in shock at how fragile life is, at how young many of our heroes are dying.  And it’s still only April.

About 22 years ago Lucy and I drove downtown in my stupid show-off car which I dearly loved, a 2-door gas guzzling white pimpmobile or Lincoln Continental.  I couldn’t drink and drive of course, but there are no handy subway stations in Los Angeles.  Everyone drives.  I had seen Prince twice before : first in 1988 when he played Wembley Arena on the Lovesexy Tour, entering the stage on a Ford Thunderbird from the ceiling, Sheila E. on drums.  A tremendous gig.  Second time with my new girlfriend Jenny Jules a year later on the Nude tour, again at Wembley arena, again outstanding.  This time it’s a darkened nightclub with a mixed crowd (hold the front page LA) and huge excitement in the air.  The most recent Prince LP is LoveSymbol, the unpronounceable shape which signifies Prince at this time.

He would change his name later that year. The symbol apparently combines the male and female and led to Prince being known as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”.    When he changed his name back to Prince some wisecrackers referred to him as “The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”.  And so on and so forth.

While I had five or six Prince LPs (CDs in fact) at this point, I wouldn’t have described myself as a huge fan.   But I know a good number of people who completely adore him :  Lucy J, our good friend Loretta Sacco, Jen’s oldest friend Pippa Randall, Tim Lewis, Tom Jules and my friend Lewis MacLeod who came to Wembley with me in ’88.  They are all devastated today.  I’m just sad, upset, shocked.  So is Jenny.  Her favourite Prince song is Scandalous from the Batman soundtrack and it was favoured at many of our Brighton houseparties.  As for me – well, I really like lots of Sign ‘O’ The Times (Slow Love is the best song probably because to me it sounds like an old-school soul record) and most of Lovesexy.  Diamonds & Pearls is probably my peak Prince LP, the first album he recorded with The New Power Generation.  Yes yes of course Purple Rain and 1999 but they’re like event songs.  I’m just being honest here.

The LoveSymbol LP had a handful of absolute crackers – My Name Is Prince, Love 2 The 9s (Lucy’s favourite), 7, Sexy M.F. and this tune The Morning Papers, my favourite Prince song.  Why ?  I’m not sure that I could really analyse that, but I like the melody mainly, but also the sheer poppiness of it I think, I like the lyrics and the horns and I like the guitar solo.  The song is inspired by and describes Prince’s early relationship with Mayte Garcia one of his back-up singers whom he married in 1996 two years later.  She was 15 years younger than him.

He realised that she was new to love naive in every way

Every schoolboy’s fantasy of love that’s why he had to wait

They were divorced in 1999 after losing two children.   There is a lovely story of his first meeting with Warner Brothers (I think) in a big office which had various instruments hanging on the walls.  When Prince felt that the meeting wasn’t going the way he wanted he offered: “I can play any instrument in the world after studying it for five minutes by the way”.  I think he knew he could, and he needed to be signed.  The suit pointed to a French Horn and said Ok – play that.  Five minutes later Prince played him the melody of the song they’d just been listening to and he was signed.  He fought against this contract all his life – the Symbol name-change was his way of re-negotiating his deal, and he appeared in 1993 with the word SLAVE written across his cheek.  There are no Prince videos on Youtube.  None.  There may be tomorrow.  He sanctioned his autobiography two days ago.    He really was a phenomena.  His passing has left a huge whole in the musical firmament and in millions of lives.  It feels very strange for me to be going out to a concert tonight (Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso) and I expect he will be remembered.  I will remember him for sure, but I guess we all have to live on.

Right ?

Now I’m home.  The concert was superb, classy, wonderful.  When Babs and I came out of BAM there was a huge crowd of people, police cars blocking the street, TV crews and loud music on South Elliott and Lafayette – a couple of thousand at least outside Spike Lee’s office.  They’re playing Purple Rain and people are swaying, holding their phones aloft.  It’s a love vibe.  I love how New York mourns and celebrates and marks a major death like this.  Spike did a similar thing for Michael Jackson, and of course John Lennon’s death was mourned across the city.

We saw Prince again in 1994 but I cannot remember where (Staples Centre?) or whether it was before or after Glam Slam. That night he and the band played for three hours straight and did a half-hour encore.  Maybe more.  Pure sweaty funk, with some pop and rock and soul poured liberally over the top.  Most of Diamonds and Pearls, loads of Symbol and Sign O’ The Times, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, Nothing Compares To You, 1999, Raspberry Beret, and on and on.  It was, of course, fantastic.  He was the ultimate showman in his cuban heels and cheeky smile, his absolute mastery of the guitar, his posing, his musicianship.  His energy was infectious.   He will be hugely missed.  Prince Rogers Nelson R.I.P.

Live on Arsenio Hall :

http://www.ultimedia.com/swf/iframe_pub.php?width=480&height=385&id=sursr&url_artist=http://www.jukebo.com/prince/music-clip,the-morning-papers-live,sursr.html&autoplay=0&mdtk=04516441&site=.fr

My Pop Life #126 : Blue Monday – Fats Domino

Saturday mornin’, oh saturday mornin’ all my tiredness has gone away

got my money and my honey & we’re out on the stand to play…

 When Jenny and I finally got married on July 25th 1992 we did it in style.  We did it in the way we wanted to.  We’d postponed the original date (see My Pop Life #20) and waited a year or two then walked up the aisle eventually in 1992.   Our perfect wedding consisted of : a gold wedding dress for Jenny;  a bootlace tie for me;  a choir composed of our friends to sing things to us (see My Pop Life 56);  a wedding reception where someone played Chopin and where we both made speeches;   a party in the evening where we could invite EVERYONE;  a wedding band which played at the party that we could both play in.  For starters.  We planned every detail.  Some people don’t do this obviously – some people run away to Las Vegas, or in Dee’s case, Grenada.   Yes, Jenny’s oldest sister Dee flew to New York and thence to Grenada to marry Mick Stock (Jamie and Jordan’s dad) and made Jenny’s mum Esther furious for denying her a wedding.  We included Esther in our wedding – it was about 18 months of serious hard-nosed negotiation, mainly by Jenny.   OK, all by Jenny.

              

         Stephen Warbeck                                     Joe Korner

      

                       Simon Korner                                     Andrew Ranken

The wedding band was made of people I’d gone to school with and played in bands with, almost exclusively.  Andrew Taylor “Tat”on guitar, from school band Rough Justice (see My Pop Life #80);   Joe Korner on keyboards/piano from art-rock band Birds Of Tin (haven’t written about them yet);    Patrick Freyne on drums also from an early incarnation of Birds Of Tin;   Simon Korner my oldest and best friend on bass guitar – rather remarkably I’d never played in a band with him before so we were making up for lost time;   Andrew Ranken on vocals who had gone out with Simon’s sister Deborah Korner for years through school and beyond before Deborah had a baby boy and then tragically and awfully died shortly afterwards of an aneurysm in 1991.   The shadow of that death was still cast over our wedding quite naturally.  Andrew and Patrick had both been excellent drummers at Priory School in Lewes, (as had Pete Thomas) and they had performed a memorable drum battle on the school playing fields one summers day in 1974.   Pete Thomas went on to join The Attractions in 1977 and has been playing with Elvis Costello ever since off and on, while Andrew  joined The Pogues in 1983 and had recorded five LPs with them by the time of our wedding.  I’d seen them live many times with Simon and Joe.  He brought multi-instrumentalist and good bloke Jem Finer, co-writer of Fairytale in New York with him into the wedding band on saxophone alongside myself.

James Fearnley,  Jem Finer,  Andrew Ranken,  Spider Stacey,            Shane McGowan, Cait O’Riordan early 1980s

Stephen Wood, close friend of Andrew who also went to Priory played accordion and went on to change his name to ‘Oscar-winning composer ‘ Stephen Warbeck (for Shakespeare In Love).   On the night of the wedding a third sax player called Chris turned up and played tenor.  He was good, but he needed to be because he hadn’t been to any rehearsals.   Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules was on backing vocals with Jenny herself alongside our good friend Maureen Hibbert.  They looked like The Supremes or The Emotions ie : great.  And they could all sing.  It was a good wee band.

The Mysterious Wheels

Andrew, Simon and Joe are still playing together in that band, now called Andrew Ranken & The Mysterious Wheels.  Catch them live in London!

We rehearsed in IGA Studios as I recall, close to Mount Pleasant Post Office in WC2.   The early discussions about a setlist were interesting since they mainly consisted of Andrew casting a veto over any song which he didn’t fancy singing – which was most of the songs that we wanted at our wedding.  Oh well.  The only exception was Try A Little Tenderness which we had lined up for Lucy, who has an exceptional voice, but that’s for another post.  In the end our setlist was based on Andrew’s tried and tested setlist emanating from the great city of New Orleans and primarily songs written or performed by the great Smiley Lewis:  One Night, I Hear You Knocking, Dirty People and Blue Monday.   I knew Smiley Lewis – I’d bought the above-pictured CD in the mid-80s, it is Fantastic.  One of the inventors of rock and roll or R’n’B as we knew it.  (They’re very close.)  All songs made famous by other players – One Night by Elvis, I Hear You Knocking by Fats Domino and Dave Edmunds, Dirty People by Omar & The Howlers.  Who?   I also owned Fats Domino’s greatest hits from way back in the late 70s and considered him to be a genius.   Fats covered all these songs.  We also threw in Robert Parker’s Barefootin’, Chuck Berry’s Nadine, Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene, Dr John’s version of Junco Partner,  and Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee and Lawdy Miss Clawdy (I think!).

Andrew had played in Lewes band The Grobs when Simon and I, Tat and Joe and Patrick and Stephen were at Priory School.  He’d always been cooler than us.  One year older is a long time when you’re sixteen.  I’m not sure when he settled on New Orleans as the source of his live act, but it is definitely a sign of muso grooviness, like a faintly secret musical society.  Everyone knows Motown, most people know Philly, some know Stax but who knows Imperial Records or Specialty  Records from Louisiana ?  The sound of New Orleans is different from everywhere else in the States in that most songs will be piano-based rather than guitar.  This rolling style exemplified by Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Dr John gives all these records their own unique flavour, my own personal favourite style of boogie-woogie rhythm and blues.  Andrew Ranken, in short, was right.  Perhaps The Pogues, a punk-flavoured London Irish band led by the inimitable Shane McGowan had formed an attachment to the city when they’d passed through.  Original member Spider Stacey now lives there with his wife, having worked on a couple of episodes of that great TV showcase for the city Treme.

Fats Domino 1956

Almost all of these chosen wedding night songs were born in New Orleans.  Days after the wedding night, in a completely star-crossed, fortuitous and magical co-incidence,  Jenny and I were drinking our way around the Crescent City on our first honeymoon, courtesy of MGM Studios who had employed me to act in their film Undercover Blues alongside Fiona Shaw, Dennis Quaid, Kathleen Turner and Stanley Tucci.   For another post !

New Orleans is where jazz was born in those days before recording was invented.  Instruments abandoned by the marching bands of the Confederate army after the Civil War ended in 1965 were currency in New Orleans where whites and blacks mixed more than they did elsewhere in the segregated south, giving rise to a creole property-owning middle class in the late 1890s when the riverboats would steam up the Mississippi and gamblers, hucksters and nascent capitalists rubbed shoulders in the gin-joints and speakeasys of The French Quarter where Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton could be found forging the music of the 20th century.   It became known as Music City long before Nashville stole that crown.  There are blues joints and hops all over town, some of them such as Tipitina’s legendary.   By the mid-forties the blues had acquired a bit of bounce and this is where Smiley Lewis comes in.   A rural Louisianan who hopped a tramcar to N’Awlins after his mother died, he hooked up with bandleader and key figure Dave Bartholomew, and cut Dave’s song Blue Monday.

It’s a Monday to Friday song,  some of my favourite songs have this structure : Friday On My Mind by The Easybeats, Diary of Horace Wimp by ELO.  Solomon Grundy springs to mind :

Solomon Grundy,

Born on a Monday,

Christened on Tuesday,

Married on Wednesday,

Took ill on Thursday,

Worse on Friday,

Died on Saturday,

Buried on Sunday,

That was the end, of Solomon Grundy

A nursery rhyme ‘collected’ in the 1840s.   Bartholomew’s song was re-recorded by Fats Domino two years later and became a huge hit in 1956, the year that I was conceived.  Smiley Lewis’ biggest hit was I Hear You Knocking but again Fats’ version of that also outsold it by hundreds of thousands.  Smiley Lewis didn’t have no luck.

Our version of Blue Monday featured a crappish saxophone solo by me and a wonderful chorus of the girls singing “Saturday morning oooh Saturday morning…” as they swayed in the breeze at the microphone.  I remember watching our friends Conrad and Gaynor dancing, and others too.  Jenny’s primary memory of the gig is Stephen Wood’s leather sandal beating time into a puddle of beer as he squeezed that accordion.

The wedding party itself was at The Diorama near Regent’s Park, and was brilliantly stage-managed by blessed Neil Cooper may his soul rest in peace.  We had an open parachute suspended from the ceiling above the dance floor.  Flowers everywhere.  The band went on at around ten-thirty I think.  It was nerve-wracking, but no more so than standing in a church in front of everyone and saying your vows.  I tried to enjoy it, and some of the time I did.  I’m really really glad we did it.  I remember standing round in the Diorama earlier in the evening in my brand new blue suit from Paul Smith gnashing my teeth at the non-arrival of Jenny’s brother Jon who was doing the DJ-ing at the party (he never did show up) and playing Songs In The Key Of Life as people arrived and overhearing two people standing in front of me – the light was low and there were hundreds of people there – discussing the event… “I heard The Pogues are playing later…”  “No…!

The Pogues

Well two of them were.  My main confession concerns the song itself.  I always thought that the Sunday section was “Sunday morning my head is bare, but it’s worth it for the times that I’ve had” but apparently that’s a mis-hearing.  I’m imagining Fats Domino or Smiley Lewis in church on Sunday morning with bare head.  But apparently all the lyric sites quote “Sunday morning my head is bad…”  Make up your own mind dear reader.

Fats Domino himself is simply a legend.  One of the primary forces behind the birth of rock’n’roll he is remarkably still alive, as are Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard from that era.  Three of the group are pianists.  Fats still lives in the 9th Ward in New Orleans and he went missing after deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as did many people including Allen Toussaint.  But he surfaced a few days later.  One of my favourite Fats Domino stories involves boogie-woogie ivory basher Jools Holland who was making a documentary and was visiting his house.  “Good morning“said Jools in his scrawny Lewisham gobshite accent, “We’re here from the BBC making a documentary about pianists and we’re very pleased to include your good self“.  Fats blinked and stared.  “What’d he say?” Fats eventually asked.  Jools repeated his sentence probably slightly slower to no effect.  They all stood there looking at each other.  Eventually Jools sat down at the grand piano and played the intro to Blue Monday.  Fats broke out in a big grin and shook his hand : “I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but if you can play that tune, you can stay

Blue Monday was my favourite of the wedding band songs I think.  It’s a great great song.  Still in the Ralph & Jenny playlist.  Enjoy.

My Pop Life #105 : Come Rain Or Come Shine – Ray Charles

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Come Rain Or Come Shine   –   Ray Charles

…days may be cloudy or sunny….

….we’re in or we’re out of the money…

I first heard this song on my wedding day, 23 years ago July 25th 1992.   Dear Ken Cranham (who has graced these pages before) made Jenny and I a ‘wedding tape’ which we played at home after the church ceremony in Holy Joe’s, Highgate Hill (St Joseph’s) and reception afterwards in Lauderdale House, Waterlow Park (next door).   I actually carried Jenny over the threshhold of 153 Archway Road N6  like you’re supposed to, much to the amusement of the two ladies opposite who ran the sweet shop who waved at us, beaming.   I smiled.   I didn’t have a free hand as I recall.    Jenny waved – she was still in her golden frou-frou wedding dress and we were both drunk on champagne and love and words and Chopin and wedding cake and delirious happiness abounded.  There was a huge reception in the evening at the Diorama, and dear gorgeous departed friend Neil Cooper was sorting that side of things, so we had a few hours to change and feed the cats etc.   Ken’s cassette (of course) had a wonderful selection of wedding songs and love songs which will be forever associated with the day, and I’ve done similar tributes on CD, paying that moment forward to other couples about to get hitched.  Nothing more glorious than a wedding playlist, and no better party than a wedding party.  Please, whoever is reading this, invite Jenny and I to your wedding !

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Ray Charles was always there somehow.  I must have heard Hit The Road Jack on the radio in 1961 when I was 4 yrs old, living in Portsmouth, & the Hoagy Carmichael evergreen Georgia seems to be made of earth and stone it feels like it has been around forever.   The other big hit from the early 1960s was I Can’t Stop Loving You off the LP Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, syrupy choir singing backing vocals, smooth like chocolate sauce, it’s almost too sweet.  But not quite.   But it was lounge music to me as I became sentient.   I would have to grow up a bit and grow some ears before I understood the genius of Ray Charles.

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Like Frank Sinatra or Elvis, he is a giant of music and in particular of interpretation and arranging of other people’s songs.   Not to say he didn’t write music – he did – unlike Elvis or Frank,  Ray Charles wrote plenty of music including some stone-cold red-hot classics :  I Got A Woman, Hallelujah I Love Her So, A Fool For You and the monster What’d I Say, which may or may not have been improvised live (as the film Ray would have it).   It’s difficult to encapsulate the full breadth of his work in one blog, so I won’t even try.  But if a martian were to land in my room today and say “One artist will represent pop music” it would have to be Ray Charles.  He’s played every kind of music from blues and jazz to soul (which he invented some say) gospel and country, big band and ballad to funk and pop.  It’s the phrasing in the end which is so astonishing – the phrasing and the arrangements are impeccable rhythmically, melodically, all delivered with taste, groove and soul.  Plenty of imitators, but only one Ray Charles.

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When I was going through my soul education period in 1978-9 (see My Pop Life #98 for example) I bought a large box set called Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974.  It remains “the answers” for anyone seeking to understand American music of the 20th century.   I guess it’s a CD box set now – I have five double LPs squished into a box.  It sounds like a lot – but it’s actually a surface skim of a huge period of artists and tunes, from race-music and blues 78s through R&B, soul, Stax/Volt right up to Roberta Flack.

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Ray turns up on Side Two and Three and Four with classics including I Got A Woman, the mighty Mess Around and the searing genius of Drown In My Own Tears which so many great artists have covered.  I had hit a golden seam of fantastic music and next I bought a triple LP box called The Birth Of Soul  now available on CD :

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which covered the same period as Sides 2,3 & 4 of the Atlantic collection but also had all the other songs they missed out – so many favourites but I’ll briefly mention What Kind Of Man Are You? which features one of the Rae-Lettes miss Mary-Ann Fisher on lead vocals, and which was a highlight of  the film Ray.  The story about the Rae-lettes is that they all had to Let Ray or they’d be out of the band.  The line-up changed frequently.

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 left to right : Gwen Berry, Merry Clayton, Clydie King, Alex Brown

Next I purchased Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music from 1964 – the smooth silky sound which includes the heartbreaker You Don’t Know Me, one of my all-time favourite songs,  Ken then turned me onto Ray Charles & Betty Carter (1961) which is a completely fantastic LP –

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Betty Carter is a wonderful jazz vocalist with sensational phrasing too and together they did the ultimate versions of quite a few songs including Baby It’s Cold Outside and Alone Together.    Then there was What’d I Say (1959) – pure R&B grooves, and Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961 again!) an instrumental big band jazz LP.  And then I probably sat down and patted myself on the back for buying loads of Ray Charles albums whom by now I completely adored.  But you see the thing with Ray is, he keeps on coming.  He was clearly prolific, just looking at what came out of 1961 for example it’s almost impolite how much music was produced.

Featured imageSo then came the wedding tape in 1992 and there was Come Rain Or Come Shine.   What a beautiful song.  The muted trumpets at the beginning are so romantic and late-night New York nightclub.   Lyrically it reminds me loosely of the wedding vows themselves which I guess is why it works as a wedding song.  And then there’s that middle eight :

I guess, when you met me
It was just one of those things
But don’t ever bet me
‘Cause I’m gonna be true, girl if you let me…

Pictured : composer Harold Arlen

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Johnny Mercer, lyricist extraordinaire

Written by the wonderful Johnny Mercer with music by ‘Over The Rainbow‘ composer Harold Arlen in 1946, it became a jazz standard almost immediately and has been covered by many artists both vocal and instrumental including Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, James Brown, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.   I can’t imagine any of them being better than this version though.   Although I can be wrong tha’ knows.Featured image

Come Rain or Come Shine appeared on an LP from 1959 called The Genius Of Ray Charles where he takes a stroll through the Great American Songbook and sings Sammy Kahn, Irving Berlin, Hank Snow (!) and others, stretching out from his R&B and gospel roots.  He would continue to stretch until he passed away.  There is still so much to discover – I recently heard his take on The Beach Boys’ Sail On Sailor and it was – like his Eleanor Rigby – a revelation.  Yes he was a musical genius.   Once you’ve heard him sing a song, his phrasing feels like The Way to Sing It.   Elvis and Frank also have this gift, yes it’s true.   As do others.  Ray Charles always felt to me like one of those bedrock people in music, you know when people talk about standing on the shoulders of giants, he is one of those giants. He may be the giantest giant.

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One of the Brighton Beach Boys felt the same way as me about Ray – notably Rory Cameron, now moved away from Brighton (as have I) – he would enthuse regularly on his timing and impeccable choices.

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I chose this song today because last night I was sitting alone in the local pub here in Prague, The James Joyce, nursing my third vodka and tonic, and thinking about my wedding anniversary, which was yesterday, and all the lovely Facebook family and others who took time to send Jenny and I love on our day of love.  And then this song came on.

My Pop Life #90 : Didi – Khaled

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Didi   –   Khaled
…la zhar la memoon la aargoob zine

didi, didi, didi, didi, zin di wah….

I’m just fated to have bad luck,

take, take, take, take this beautiful girl away…

This song is such a dear favourite of the amazing woman that I married, as were the last two songs I posted (Silencio in My Pop Life #88 and Some Folks Lives Roll Easy in My Pop Life #89) that I am seriously considering calling this section My Pop Wife.   It’s dance music for the world, and was a huge hit across the Mediterranean and far beyond in 1992, the year of our marriage, and the ripple carried through to 1993, getting as far as India.  Didi was used in a Bollywood film, and performed by Khaled at the 2010 World Cup opening ceremony.  It is his best-known song and I have proof of its dance-floor credentials from personal experience.

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I first came across Cheb Khaled (as he was known in 1984) when I bought his LP Hada Raykoum – it was raw and thrilling, the sound of raï music from Algeria.  At that time I was living in Finsbury Park with my muslim Pakistani girlfriend Mumtaz.  We went to see Khaled at the Royal Festival Hall where he had the whole venue up and out of their seats – he and his band were electrifying.  Khaled was born in Oran in 1960 and became well-known as a teenager through his cassette tapes.  He is an amazing singer.  Raï music was frowned upon for many years in Algeria, being considered a bastardization of traditional islamic music.

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Cheikha Remitti (3rd left)

Raï started out as a cross between Sephardic Jewish, Spanish, French and Arabic music in Oran, a vulgar street music which rejected conservative islamic values and definitions of what could and couldn’t be heard.  The first and still most influential star of the genre was the legendary Cheikha Remitti who popularised the bawdy and earthy songs which had previously only been heard behind closed doors at weddings and other events.  The association of ‘fallen women’ with the music kept raï music unrespectable, and she was banned from TV and radio by the first independent Government of Algeria in 1962 (because she’d sung in French-controlled areas during the revolution), and yet the working-class poor adored her and Khaled no doubt would have heard her as he grew up.

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She died, still performing and recording at the age of 83, in 2006.

Pop raï was born in the 1960s when music and instruments from other cultures, (including Jamaica) started being adopted, and the moniker Cheb (chief) was used for the popular performers to distinguish them from the previous generation.  Cheb Mami for example also had a huge following in France among the Algerian diaspora.  Cheb Khaled though rose head and shoulders above the pack, and when World Music was promoted in the UK by the likes of Earthworks and Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD in the early 1980s, raï was among the new styles and sounds that we hungrily consumed.

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Hada Raykoum was my first raï purchase in 1984, a stunning slice of Maghreb soul with accordion and drums of various kinds (I don’t know what they are called I’m afraid, please feel free to add details below!) providing the backing for Cheb Khaled’s aching emotional voice.  He would drop the prefix “Cheb” later and by 1992 when his breakthrough LP “Khaled” was released, (produced by Don Was), he was called simply “Khaled”.   The new sound had bass guitar and synthesisers, but still retained the Algerian raï flavour.  It was a massive crossover hit.

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In 2001 the film I’d written “New Year’s Day” – the most scarring experience of my professional life (see My Pop Life #75) – had its UK Premiere in Brighton, my home town.   It was probably November.  In the Marina cinema.   Although I haven’t told you, dear reader, about exactly why it was the most scarring experience of my professional life, for now all you need to know is that Jenny and I nearly got divorced during the making of the film.   We both fell out badly, and finally, with the director of the film, (why should I name him?) who nevertheless turned up all smiles to the Premiere.    Before we went in the local paper was taking pictures of the famous people (jeez) who’d swung by : Richard E. Grant and Kevin Rowland, Mark Williams and maybe me.   Then I saw Bobby Zamora at the sweets counter and went a little mental.   “Bobby” I said, “Hi !” ( I should add that we knew each other a bit thanks to the small world of Brighton and Hove Albion – the football team I supported and which he played for in 2001.  Played for?  He was our star centre-forward ! )   I burbled at him unnecessarily about my premiere, and he smiled and offered congratulations.  “Why don’t you come in and see the film?”  I asked like a burbling twerp.  “No thanks” he said.  “I’m going to see blahblahblah”.  My crest probably fell, but not for long.   Oh well.   Back in Screen 1, the premiere was chock full of friends old and new, including people who were, in disguise, portrayed in the film.   I made a little speech which was emotional (the film is very much a testimony of sorts) and thanked Danny Perkins and Will Clarke from Optimum who were distributing the movie, and then we watched it.   It was good.   Mainly.   Afterwards we crammed into taxis and perhaps a double decker bus which took us down to the PARTY which was in the Zap Club.  As it was still called in those days.

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And we had already decided who was DJ-ing, and prime position was taken by my pop wife, Jenny Jules.  And yes it was November because not two months earlier the Twin Towers had been destroyed in New York by two piloted planes (apparently), not to mention the Pentagon, and we all knew the world would change forever and yes – the anti-islamic feeling which we all take for granted now in 2015 was just starting to surface.  We knew it would.  And Jenny played this song Didi by Khaled at the height of the party.  And we danced to those muslim rhythms and those arabic words.  And shortly afterwards, one of our friends Naima, a Moroccan lady with two beautiful daughters and an English husband Steve who had converted to Islam to marry her, went up to Jenny and hugged her tight.  “Thank you for playing that” she said, “you don’t know what the last two months have been like”.

My Pop Life #56 : Morning Has Broken – Cat Stevens

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Morning Has Broken   –   Cat Stevens

Sweet the rains new fall, sunlit from Heaven
Like the first dewfall on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass…

Hands up who knew about that line “where His feet pass” ?   Wedding choir members and choir master not you !   Blimey…

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1971.  Six long years since my mum’s first epochal stay in Hellingly.  So much turmoil in those late 1960s, with more to come.  A divorce, more hospital admissions, another marriage, a separation, a nine-month period of homelessness when we were all separated, me in Lewes with Pete Smurthwaite & his mum, Paul in the village with Gilda and Jack, Andrew back in Portsmouth with Aunty Val and Uncle Keith, Mum in a caravan in Pevensey with John Daignault, whom she married in 1969.   We hardly saw each other.  Some bad stories.

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That hole in the family was refilled when we were offered a council house on a brand new estate in Hailsham, right on the edge of town.   When we moved in the grass area was still clods of mud and earth with diggers parked on it.  It was called Town Farm Estate, but locals dubbed it Sin City.  All the single-parent families, dysfunction, prison, drugs and drink lumped together out of town.  It was rough, probably.  It was home.  We were together.

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Paul and I shared a big bedroom which overlooked the fields at the back.  Just grass.  We could see Herstmonceux Observatory a few miles away, and we were horribly close to Hellingly Hospital too, a shadow on our lives.  But I was a bus ride from Polegate where I could catch a train to Lewes, a journey of 25 miles which took an hour.  I was 15 and established at school (Lewes Priory, now a comprehensive),  so the authorities gave me leave to be a “far-away pupil”.   Paul started at Hailsham school having been at Ringmer for two years.  He had a more difficult adjustment than me.   And Andrew went to the local primary school, now aged eight and perfect for playing in goal in the back field while Paul and I fired shots at him.  He had his own, smaller bedroom overlooking the “grass” outside the front door – I think it was grass after about 6 months – and the houses opposite.   John Daignault didn’t move in with us and we were glad.  Mum had met him at a dance in Eastbourne and after maybe six weeks of courting they’d got marrried.  He was ten years younger than her and a chef.  We went to their wedding but I can’t really remember it.  But they’d fought quite regularly in Selmeston, and even more so in Pevensey apparently, so we moved in as Mum plus three boys.  It wouldn’t last long – but that first six months in the brand new house was like clear blue sky after a long night of exile.  Mum was still wobbly and unpredictable and on tablets of one sort or another, and there were Social Workers involved too and a new GP to argue with.   Next door was Monique whose husband was ‘inside’ and her kids Tim and Joanna.  Tim was Paul’s age and they became friends.  I never made friends in Hailsham.   With anyone.   All my friends were in Lewes or Seaford or Kingston.

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This song was a favourite in our house.  Paul and I in particular liked the phrase “on the wet garden” it seemed to us absurd and hilarious.  Possibly why I never heard the following line  about His feet.   The piano introduction is a delight, played by Rick Wakeman, the melody is strong and uplifting and beautiful.

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Cat Stevens was born Steven Georgiou, son of Greek Cypriot father and Swedish Baptist mother.  He changed his name to make pop music, then changed his music after a near-death experience from TB in 1969.   His writing became more spiritual upon his recovery,  and he moved from Deram to Island Records with a decent run of classic albums in the 1970s.  He would have another near-death experience and another name change – to Yusuf Islam – before the 70s were over, converting to Islam.   Morning Has Broken is from his 1971 LP Teaser And The Firecat (occasional sightings in the school corridors, tucked under an arm, usually a girl’s), and is taken from a hymn written in 1931 by Eleanor Farjeon to a Scottish gaelic tune called Bunessan.    Remarkably Ms Farjeon lived in Alfriston, not five miles down the River Cuckmere from where we now lived in a fold of the South Downs.  Morning Has Broken reached number 9 in the national charts.

It is a simple song about the most profound experience – rebirth, renewal, awakening.  Each day of our lives this happens, and it is a miracle every morning.  I think I prefer the piano to the lyrics, but the feel of the song is what counts, the brightness, the delicacy of the singing, the strength and poise of the piano.

The song reappeared in my life in a beautiful way.  On July 25th 1992 I married my love Jenny Jules in St Joseph’s Church, Highgate Hill to general approval.   We had the wedding we wanted, eventually, after two years of planning and changing our minds, and reaffirming, and planning again.  We asked the nearest and dearest who wanted to (and were able to!) to form a wedding choir.  Dear Felix Cross was our musical director and we held rehearsals in our Archway Road flat on the old honky-tonk stand-up piano.   Jenny and I didn’t join in, and neither did my Dad and his wife Beryl because they lived in West Yorkshire,  but they were kept in the loop by Felix, and rehearsed on the morning of the wedding, although my recall of this detail is hazy, largely because I wasn’t there.  I was putting on cuff-links with my brother and best man Paul.  Miles away, Jenny was being princessed, queened primped and sculpted in Wembley.

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Holy Joe’s – St Joseph’s Church, Highgate Hill

Morning Has Broken was one of the songs we chose for the service, and our brave and wonderful choir had to sing it in church in front of both of our families and all of our friends.  So they all get a proud namecheck here : love and thanks to Felix Cross, John & Beryl Brown, Paulette Randall, Beverley Randall, Sharon Henry, Millie Kerr, Maureen Hibbert, Antonia Couling, Ragnhild & Jens Thordal, and dear Cora Tucker, who sadly died of stomach cancer aged 46 in 2005.

As Jenny and I sat in our finery, shy and happy, glowing within and without, these dear friends sang for us and are forever blessed.  Very special.

My Pop Life #29 : Take Me In Your Arms and Love Me – Gladys Knight & The Pips

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Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me   –   Gladys Knight & The Pips

…the moon above is shining bright, c’mon boy the time is right, here I am, take me in your arms and love me….

 The tinkling harpsichord, the sighing voice, the lazy seductive sound, the shimmering strings the soft pillow of backing vocals – why wouldn’t you put this on a mixtape for your new girlfriend?   This was an early offering from me swooning as I was to Jenny just after I’d met her.   I can’t remember what I called the tape – was it TDK? – but it contained only pure soul music.   They were my favourite songs at the time, but there must have been a part of me that was going – “I know I’m a white guy from deepest Sussex, and you’re a black chick from Wembley but I like soul music yeah?!”   It would have had a title because that’s what you did.   It might have been called – wait for it – “Soul Music”.   Hahaha.   Anyway the reason why this tape has become legendary is because we lost it in Italy.   At some point in 1990 I received a postcard with a photograph of Positano on it from David Steinberg, the Israeli director who’d helped me at the NYT in 1989 (see My Pop Life #7) and who was now on holiday on the Amalfi Coast.

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It was breathtaking.   I remember Jenny and I staring at this unlikely vista thinking WOW where is that??   We hadn’t been to Italy either of us.  It has since become our destination of choice for holidays.   But :   Whatever happened to postcards?   It used to be the age-old duty of anyone who travelled : you had to send a pile of postcards out to mum and dad, all and sundry.    Those at home would receive them with joy, a little slice of sun and culture, a smidgeon of envy.   It was basically a look at me moment, but people would get offended if you didn’t do it.  If they later found out that you’d “gone abroad”.  Doesn’t feel like that any more, but maybe it is if you’re young.   Anyway as soon as I’d wrapped on the endless unglamourous winter that was Alien3 at Pinewood Studios (twinned with Gulf War 1) , we booked a holiday in Positano, flew to Naples and drove our hired car round the dramatic winding mountain roads to our hotel.  It was a beautiful if expensive place and we explored the region – Ravello, Capri, Vesuvio – all totally stunning – in our little car, which had, of course, a cassette player.  I remember the constant curves of the road, and perhaps the giddying drops to the sparkling blue sea beneath us, made Jenny feel a little nauseous from time to time.   We brought a little selection of tapes, one of which was The Soul Tape.   We left it in the car when we returned it.   Sorry – I left it in the car when I took it back.   I Left It In The Car.

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We have spent the last 20 years trying to remember what was on that tape of love.   Certainly Bobby Bland – Too Far Gone (mypoplife #27), definitely Jackie Wilson “Sweetest Feeling” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”.   Carla Thomas : “I Like What You’re Doing To Me” and Eddie Floyd “I’ve Never Found A Girl”.  And this beauty from Gladys Knight, from her early days at Motown when she was first to record ‘Grapevine’ and had a hit with this Norman Whitfield-produced classic slice of pop/soul in 1967.   We wouldn’t see Gladys live until 2008 – it was worth the wait – and yes, she sang this one bless her.