My Pop Life #214 : Belle – Al Green

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Belle   –   Al Green

Belle….it’s you that I want, but it’s him that I need

A song which turns the history of African American music on its head, the rhythm & blues universe being filled with gospel singers who turned to secular music, including Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Toni Braxton, Sam & Dave and James Ingram – to name but a few – here however, a soul man from Memphis has found Jesus and started to sing gospel music.  I say ‘started’ because although he grew up in the gospel tradition, and had a group called the Greene Brothers in the late 50s with his brothers, he was kicked out of the band by his father when he was caught listening to Jackie Wilson.  The big sinner.  He wouldn’t sing gospel again for 20 years.  Belle is  lodged into my cortex as the great turning point in Al Green’s life when he renounced pop music and went back to God, as suggested in the line quoted above, but lodged in  my heart perhaps as something else.  Maybe I seek God in my life but, I’ve never been a religious man and this morning I felt it more likely that this refers to my need for a father figure?  Let’s explore that possibility for a minute.

Indeed it may in fact roll out to be the same thing.  Safety.  Arm around the shoulder.  Protection.  He knows best.  I must have felt some degree of this from my father for the first seven years of my life.  There he was, getting up, going to work, getting some bread in Portsmouth once he’d finished his English Degree at Cambridge.

where’s dad ?  Gone to work, get some bread

This was actually my first sentence, circa late 1958, according to mum.  He told us stories at bedtime, often made them up on the spot.  We had no idea – we being Paul and I who shared a bedroom.  Various creatures inhabited these stories – The Grimp and The Cahoodler spring out immediately although their shapes have always been blurry and indistinct.  They were cartoon animals though in my unformed mind.  We used to go on long walks together, always, and that continues to this very day when we see each other.  Nature, fresh air, leaves, butterflies, the sky, farms – all part of our shared experience.  Musically Dad never liked Pop Music so never joined in Mum’s and our dances in the kitchen or singing harmonies in the chorus in the living room.  If he was in a bad mood he’d walk in and turn it off and we’d all be sat on the settee and told to listen to Mozart or Beethoven and Paul would giggle first then Mum and we’d be ordered out, banished.  Banish. Ed.  I have some pictures of this era which was I guess 1957-1965.

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Cambridge 1958, Mum, Dad, me

When I look back on it all now, how lucky I am to be able to do this, my parents seem so ridiculously young.  How did they do it?  Three kids in the first six years of marriage.  It broke.  He strayed.  He moved out. I’ve told this story before.  But the thing is, emotionally, Dad became missing.  Never hugely physically affectionate in my memory at least, now he was out of the house, almost out of my life, and I missed him.  I’ve missed him ever since.

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But.  I’ve never really had a true father figure in my life since then.  Dad is still there, up in West Yorkshire with Beryl, and he and I have a good relationship, we speak fairly often.  So I don’t know if that is why I love this song.  It may seem like a long shot in the end, because there’s a lot deep yearning in there.  It doesn’t belong in Al Green’s gospel catalogue though, because it is still a sexual love song sung by a soul man.  The chords, the changes are fantastic.  Smoky, sultry, sexy even though he’s ultimately struggling with it.  Maybe that’s the twist for me – the magnetic attachment I have to the song, ie  maybe I’m gay !   Haha all theories welcome.

a)  I’m actually deeply religious just haven’t acknowledged it yet

b)  I’m gay, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

c)  I always needed a father figure, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

d)  It’s a sexy song, and I like sex, just haven’t acknowledged etc

e)  It’s a spiritual song, and it feeds my soul, just haven’t blah blah

f)  it’s a fine tune !!

g)  it is actually Al Green’s best performance on record

 

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                    Belle – The Lord and I have been friends for a mighty long time…              Belle – leaving him has never ever really crossed my mind

 

The Belle Album was released in 1977 just as punk was sweeping the UK and I was busy joining in (like a good law student).  I think I bought it after the gig though.  I was going steady with Mumtaz, and we were both fans of Al Green.  I wrote about the Damascene conversion I had in 1971 in My Pop Life #101.   By then my father had been gone for six years and was about to remarry and move to Yorkshire.   I was going to see Al Green with my girlfriend.  The gig was in The Venue, Victoria Street  and it was 1978.  It was a little like The Forum/Town & Country in Kentish Town, but we were sat at little tables which were spread around the downstairs – cabaret seating with waitresses and food.  Slightly raked seating?   It was actually a tremendous place to see someone live, but it didn’t last that long as a venue.  I did see Todd Rundgren there four nights running in 1978, which is pretty fanboy-esque, a series of gigs that became a live album called Back To The Bars.

I scarcely remember the Al Green gig except that it was exquisite. He had a kind of jumpsuit on as I recall, a cravat, and cuban heels. He sang all the greats, the  highlights were Love & Happiness, Tired Of Being Alone, Can’t Get Next To You, and this song Belle.  When he sang Let’s Stay Together he came down into the tables and chairs and distributed stem roses to us, holding the mic and singing to each table.  It was my first time seeing Al Green and it was extraordinary, but every time I’ve seen him since (about eight times) he always does this – walks down, touches people, sings to them, a ripple of excitement goes through the audience every time.  But in the end it’s the singing with Al.  The voice of course is extraordinary but it’s what he does with it, the turns of phrase, the whoops, the ad-libs, the phrasing, the grace notes, the pure inhabiting of every note in every song.  It all comes from within the great man’s soul.

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The song Belle is extraordinary.  You think it is finished as the music fades but he has a whole other level to go to, and he goes there.  He is testifying to us and his woman that he wants her more than she can imagine, but he needs The Lord even more than that.  And at that point in his life, he meant it.  Four years earlier, and for reasons that I have not fully understood, but reported to be his refusal to marry her (she was already married with children), his girlfriend Mary Woodson White had cooked a pan of grits (like semolina) and thrown them over him causing severe burns on his back and arms before shooting herself dead with his pistol.  A note in her purse gave the reasons.  After this a shocked and changed Al Green became ordained as a pastor and even as his record sales were falling was moving away from sexual music towards holy music, and a holy life.  Just after we saw him at The Venue he fell off a stage in early 1979 and took it as a sign that he had to change direction finally and forever. I was lucky to see him on the point of renouncing sinful music…

In the song we hear Al Green struggling with his love for a woman and sings at one point, about Jesus :

he’s my bright morning star

The Morning Star is of course the planet Venus, generally associated with the sacred feminine.  The other line that always pings out for me is :

“I know that you can understand a little country boy”

Al was born on a farm in Dansby, Arkansas in 1946 to a sharecroppers family.  I spent ten years in a small village called Selmeston in East Sussex, opposite a farm.  We used to help with the harvest in August.

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The next time Al Green  came to London it was with a gospel set and a huge choir, and none of his soul material got an airing, not even Belle.  This happened fairly regularly through the 80s, usually at Hammersmith Odeon.  The Reverend would always sing Let’s Stay Together (Jesus) though, often coming down into the crowd for that song, walking among us as it were, sometimes handing out roses.  I saw a fair number of these shows as an avowed atheist simply because he was my favourite singer in the world.  I once saw Kevin Rowland in the audience,  paying homage.  No one can touch Al frankly, not even Smokey Robinson, my other favourite, Otis Redding, or Queen Aretha may her soul rest in peace.  Al for me tops all of these.  Maybe Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would eventually nestle on the pinnacle, technique and passion to burn, but come on – I’d always choose Al Green to be honest.

It was in the late-eighties I guess (?) when Rita and I went to see him at Festival Hall – and he’d started putting some of the old soul classics back into the show after ten years and ten gospel albums. He sang Otis Redding‘s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long and Sam & Dave‘s Hold On I’m Coming (I think?) and one of his ? but I can’t remember which one, maybe the mighty Love & Happiness.  Over the next ten years he slowly left gospel music behind and started producing pure soul music again in 1995 with the album Your Heart’s In Good Hands which is magnificent, like a sigh of relief almost. On the track Love Is A Beautiful Thing  Al sings the words let’s stay together, cos I’m still in love with you, call me, for the good times, tired of being alone, here i am…  a veritable litany of the titles of his old soul hits which are clearly coming back through his nerve endings into his pores into his heart and out of his mouth.  The great return was a celebration – he is still a Reverend, but now he was back and singing everything.  Our friends Lynn and Tony saw him in Central Park in this period when the concert was almost rained off, then the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine struck Al Green directly centre stage and he announced he was going to sing Love and Happiness for the first time for years. Magical.

In 1988 I went on a long road trip across the USA from D.C. to Phoenix Arizona, written about in My Pop Life #148 .  On the way out west I stopped in Memphis for a day and hit up the various landmarks of that fine city : Graceland of course, the Lorraine Motel where a homeless lady gave me a history lesson, Beale Street where I got suckered, then the next morning driving down to Hale Road in South Memphis to find Al Green’s church, the one he bought as he was recovering from the burns.

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He wasn’t there, but I’d needed to set eyes upon the place which was his physical and spiritual base, especially since I’d just lost the bulk of my cash and was about to embark on a strange week of driving without money.

With Jenny in 1999 we would see Al Green at The Royal Albert Hall when Lucy was singing with support act Beverly Knight, then later that year we travelled down to Glastonbury (our only visit) and saw him there too.  Quite a contrast, or not.  Two great English cathedrals of music. Magnifique, as ever.   I think my favourite Al Green album (the one that gets the most plays = the favourite doesn’t it?) is Al Green Explores Your Mind from 1974.  It is perfect.  Has the songs Take Me To The River,  The City and Sha-La-La.  But he hasn’t made a duff album.

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I always call it “Al Green Explodes Your Mind”.   Which is a more accurate title.

The next record was in 2002 – I Can’t Stop which was when he came back to the UK again and we saw him live, once again, singing soul music.  The voice hadn’t gone anywhere and was still extraordinary.

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He’s still handing out roses!

Watching Al Green live I would look forward to his favourite moment, my favourite piece of the ceremony  : you know when singers go high and they move the microphone away from their mouths?  Al does that until his arm is completely straight and he can’t get the mic any further away – so he will just put it down at his feet and sing without amplification.  The audience hush and he draws us in. It is an immaculate moment. He gets the spirit like this at absolutely every gig and it is always the highlight.

 

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Top Al Green tunes that never make it onto Greatest Hits albums you ask?  I can help you there.  Old Time Lovin from 1971’s Let’s Stay Together is as good as anything he’s done. Guitar-based song, which is unusual for Al.  His long-time friend and producer Willie Mitchell played keyboards, often the bubbling Hammond organ on many of Al Green’s songs and it became a signature sound on the Hi record label, all recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, along with folk like Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright.  I should note here that Willie was the first person to visit Green in hospital after his second & third degree burns were skin grafted, they made 11 amazing albums together, but the year before Belle was released they’d parted company because Willie wasn’t interested in producing gospel music.  Al Green produced The Belle Album himself.

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Another great song is Home Again on the wonderful album Living For You (1973).  Strings and organ dominate the groove, with tasteful horn flourishes and pads.  His singing is exquisite. Willie Mitchell and Al Green in sync.

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My favourite is I’m Glad You’re Mine on the LP I’m Still In Love With You (with its stunning title track !) from 1972. Incredible drumming from Al Clark of Booker T & the MGs across town at Stax Records, who co-wrote many of the early songs with Al Green & Willie Mitchell, and played on most of them. And finally I’d recommend the last track on the masterpiece LP Call Me (1973) which is called simply Jesus Is Waiting.  Enjoy.

Rare live performance of Belle on my birthday 1978 in Japan :

Playlist of all the tunes mentioned above :

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My Pop Life #208 : I Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

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Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

9th June 2018

We went to see Ry Cooder last night in the Town Hall a wonderful old venue with a really intimate feel on 43rd St, built in 1921 by suffragette supporters.  Jenny knew the venue from an event a couple of years ago directed by her godfather Nicolas Kent – it was a staging of the transcripts of Trump’s picks for Attorney General I think.  The beer is served in plastic cups with logos which cost $5 thus the first round was $28.  She did warn me to be fair, and they only charge you for the cup once.  What a world.

Ry Cooder opened with an old song called Nobody’s Fault But Mine which was written by Blind Willie Johnson then covered by everyone including Led Zeppelin.  He sat centre stage with a battered old acoustic guitar, his white hair covered with a blue wool bobble hat (without the bobble) and there was a young man playing a treated saxophone at the side.  Treated electronically, acoustically, sonically who knows it was haunting all night.  Cooder delivered the song with the authority of a delta bluesman, picking notes, sliding his bottleneck up and down the strings which twanged and shuddered and whispered under his touch.  He was so connected to this song, with the changes and the lyrics, it was evident in every note.

I was introduced to Ry Cooder by Sir Nick Partridge.  He wasn’t Sir Nick in those days, he was Nick P., a fresh-faced and pleasant young man who lived in the flat on West End Lane that Pete and Sali owned and that I lived in too.  He was my flatmate. Known Pete since schooldays.  I’d just finished my degree in Law at the LSE and Nick had graduated from Keele University doing International Relations.  We were all post-graduates suddenly.  I was saving money for a further “year off” as we called them back then.  This was 1979 and the future lay ahead of us. Education and academia was, it seemed, finally behind us.  We used to go record shopping together because there was so much to discover !  There still is some 40 years later !!!

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Nick Partridge and Ralph Brown in a North London record shop, 1979.  Picture taken by Pete Thomas.

I was painting and decorating that summer in Pinner, and later moved onto a house in St John’s Wood, definitely worthy of its own post.  My previous mentions of this vivid era of my young adult life were in posts about Talking Heads (My Pop Life #92 ) John Martyn (My Pop Life #153) and The Specials (My Pop Life #178) and Nick features in all of them.  We were a little musical commune up there between the railways of the Jubilee Line to the south and the Thameslink line to Hertfordshire to the north PLUS the North London Line which carried nuclear waste past our building overnight while we listened to Ry Cooder and The Gladiators.  My girlfriend Mumtaz was in Mecklenburgh Square and would come and squat cross-legged on the floor with us as we passed the bliss.

In the evenings and at weekends we were all obsessed with listening to music and going to gigs.  Pete was very much a reggae aficionado but also fond of the quirky post-punk world emerging from the rubble of 1977, a plethora of independent labels issuing interesting stuff of all kinds like Wah! Heat, SpizzEnergi, Flying Lizards, or The Auteurs all with picture sleeves and original music.   In my capricious memory Sal was more into rock and I was a student new wave ex-punk who listened to soul, but Nick was always different.  Later he would live on a houseboat in Amsterdam doing a blues radio show but that’s another story, if you’re lucky.

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It was Nick who had Boomer’s Story and Paradise & Lunch and in the stoned democratic disc jockey world of West End Lane between the rails, when he got his turn for an LP side, it would often be one of these Ry Cooder records which were kind of country kind of bluesy kind of funky, but often with an added flavour from somewhere else.  Americana it would be called now.

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Then in 1979 he brought home an LP that looked like a new wave record, bright pink with a guitar player who looked a bit Nick Lowe but no.  It was the new Ry Cooder album called, unfeasibly, “Bop Til You Drop” and now we would all choose this record when our DJ turn came around.  Opening with a cover of Elvis Presley’s Little Sister but thereafter delving into obscure 60s R’n’B – Go Home Girl, Don’t You Mess Up A Good Thing, Trouble You Can’t Fool Me, Look At Granny Run Run – and a brilliant original song called Down In Hollywood (‘better hope that you don’t run out of gas…’), the album had a fantastic production quality on the guitar and backing vocals particularly.  In fact Bop Til You Drop was the first album ever recorded digitally.  Cooder is a magnificently rootsy guitarist, not a show-off in any way, but just tries to get the soul out of the instrument, and the backing vocals on the album were by Terry Evans & Bobby King who would later record their own record with Ry Cooder producing and playing on every track.  What I didn’t know until last night (too stoned to read the liner notes or maybe just not that nerdy after all) was that Chaka Khan sings on Down In Hollywood and Good Thing.   He had roughly the same line up last night – although not the same players.  Jenny turned to me at one point – probably during The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Will Make Me Poor) and said “What would you call this music?”  I said “country soul?”.  She could hear mariachi.  It’s funky.  It’s hawaiian.  It’s blues.   It’s music.

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Cooder plays without any ego at all, and often uses the concert (and indeed many of his record releases) to showcase other people and give them a turn in the spotlight.  Last night it was his wonderfully relaxed backing singers The Hamiltones who played a couple of numbers while he left the stage, then joined them on guitar for another.  Earlier it had been his son Joachim who opened proceedings with his own music.  Ry Cooder it was who travelled to Havana in the 1990s breaking the Cuban boycott and encouraging the old stars of the 1950s to team up and record again, the resulting film and album opening up Cuba to the world once again and introducing me to Ruben Gonzales, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo playing together as the incomparable Buena Vista Social Club.

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He has recorded with the great Malian blues guitarist Ali Farke Toure on Talking Timbuktu, with Captain Beefheart on Safe As Milk (see My Pop Life #205) with Taj Mahal in the band Rising Sons, with Randy Newman on 12 Songs, the Rolling Stones on Let It Bleed & Sticky Fingers, on Lowell George‘s original version of Willin’.  All playing slide guitar or bottleneck.  In 1984 he composed the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas which starred Natassia Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton and following that became a sought-after soundtrack composer using his signature slide guitar.  He’s made albums with the latino community of Los Angeles such as Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti (Chavez Ravine) and if left to his own devices appears to be following in the footsteps of his hero 1940s political folkie Woody Guthrie.  Or one of his heroes.

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Woody Guthrie 1943

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In a new song last night he sang of a meeting between Jesus & Woody in heaven, looking down on what is happening now, from the vantage point of the 1950s when we had beaten the fascists and the world stretched out before us.

Jesus & Woody

Well bring your old guitar and sit here by me
Round the heavenly throne
Drag out your Oklahoma poetry, ’cause it looks like the war is on

And I don’t mean a war for oil, or gold, or trivial things of that kind
But I heard the news, the vigilante man is on the move this time

So sing me a song ’bout this land is your land
And fascists bound to lose
You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too

Once I spoke of a love for those who hate
It requires effort and strain
Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice which leads to destruction and pain
Some say I was a friend to sinners
But by now you know it’s true
Guess I like sinners better than fascists
And I guess that makes me a dreamer too

It was a chilling song but it wasn’t the only time that the name of Jesus was called.  One of Cooder’s biggest hits was gospel standard Jesus On The Mainline,  and with The Hamiltones‘ soulful harmonies it was a standout moment at the gig.  And it became clear to Jenny and I that we were really at a gospel show.  In the sense that the black church in America has long been a vehicle for resistance to oppression, using the biblical metaphors and stories to illustrate the struggle and gospel music to inspire and strengthen courage.  Cooder never went preachy, but he was very clear where he stood.  He mentioned Trayvon Martin before playing a song called The Vigilante.  It was the lack of ego that was most striking in the end.  Playing the guitar to try and find the most expressive notes, not to show-off or strike poses.

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Ry Cooder With Taj Mahal, 1968

And indeed, it seems to me this morning thinking back on Sir Nick as a young man in West Hampstead, smoking dope with a generous smile and a ready laugh that he had no ego then or indeed now.  He always had an easy manner where embarrassment was never far from the surface, mixed with laughter and great empathy.  I went to Hampstead Magistrates with him one day and watched him with his gentle phrasing and easy manner talk his middle-class way out of a conviction and get a finger-wagging in its place.

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Sir Nick with Kirsten O’Brien

Shortly after the Amsterdam year he joined The AIDS charity The Terrence Higgins Trust in 1985 becoming Chief Executive in 1991 and finally moving on in 2013 after 28 years of service and a knighthood which followed his OBE.   We formed a close bond in those 1979-1980 days and nights and beyond into the frisbee-playing, gay nightclubbing, political 1980s, stayed in touch right up until today.  I had no idea that he was gay back then but he’s never made a big deal out of it or changed his basic persona of decency, sincerity and jokes.

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Sir Nick talks with brother Andrew, Whitstable Bay.  My dad can be seen with check shirt on the pebbles between them

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Paul Brown is 50 in his beach hut and quite a tremendous shirt

The first time any of us saw Nick after he was knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours was at my brother Paul’s 50th birthday celebration which he held in Whitstable, Kent.  It was a wonderful weekend of family – Dad & Beryl came down from Yorkshire, Becky was back in Sussex by then and Jenny and I had summer son Jordan in tow – Dee’s youngest who had a key period of spending the summer with us in Brighton.  Sir Nick was there in the beach-hut, Paul was back from Shanghai mixing cocktails in a straw hat, Richard Davies (Lady G) was probably DJing and drinking at the same time and a splendid time was guaranteed and enjoyed by all.

Nick and his husband Simon have been to New York since we moved here – I remember him asking me what he should see on Broadway – it was 2016.  I had a one-word answer : Hamilton.  He bought tickets online, then I had to go to work when he was here so I missed him, but he saw the show and, of course, loved it.

 

Paulette & Beverley Randall, Paul Brown & Sir Nick Partridge, London 2015

I did see him the year before when Paul was in London for his birthday a couple of years ago – 2015 I guess.  And then he came to send me off on my 60th birthday last summer when I hardly spoke to anyone, but hugged everyone.   I am extremely fond of him and will always be grateful for his friendship and for bringing Bop Til You Drop (and Memphis Slim…) into my life.

The last song on the album is called I Can’t Win and it is a haunting and soulful three-part harmony, simply a beautiful song about being in love with someone who isn’t responding.  We’ve all been there, but I haven’t made a habit of it thank god.  When the gig finished last night the entire band went off for about 90 cursory seconds then returned immediately as we all stood and clapped for the encore.  And they sang I Can’t Win with piercing harmonies that made the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end.  It was the pinnacle on a great night.  And it’s already up on Youtube.

Live at Town Hall June 8th 2018:

Album Version :

 

My Pop Life #207 : How Great Thou Art – The Statler Brothers

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How Great Thou Art – The Statler Brothers

Then sings my soul, my saviour God, to thee

How great thou art, how great thou art

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It’s a christian hymn.  I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when this song became part of my consciousness, but it was via my wife’s parents, in the 1990s, at a church, in London, of that I am certain.

I became the luckiest man on earth when I married Jenny Jules.  Not only because she is so special, the kind of person that pours forth light and love over whoever happens to be with her, but because that light & that love come from her parents who received me into their family as a son, and who have loved me ever since that moment.

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Thomas & Esther Jules

It may have been a christening service, Mollie & Pete’s wedding, Anthony’s wedding or possibly even a funeral.  I heard the choir singing it, and the congregation including Mrs Jules, Jenny’s Mum,  with her beautiful clear soprano.  The melody is superb and it has since become one of my favourite church hymns (I last wrote about hymns in My Pop Life #127).  Although I am an avowed atheist I don’t mind going to a christian service as long as the pastor doesn’t start moralising too heavily, as happened at one of the children’s christening services in the Stonebridge Church where Mr & Mrs Jules worshipped regularly.  Quite shocking judgemental crap about women who use assistance in getting pregnant as I recall, not from the regular priest, but it illustrated the dangers of christianity for me quite clearly.

However.

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The dashing young couple from St Lucia shortly after they met in London

The parents, (the parentals, The Rentals), Tom and Esther, both came to Britain by sea from St Lucia over 50 years ago and met each other in Paddington which had quite a decent St Lucian community in those days.  In the early days of my life with the Jules family, they lived in the shadow of Wembley Stadium in the London borough of Brent.   My wife Jenny is right in the middle of the brood, with two older sisters Dee & Mollie, plus one brother Jon and two younger sisters Mandy and Lucy.  If I start using nicknames now it will all get very confusing.   But my early nickname was Jean Blanc.  Said with a French accent please, because St Lucian patois is french at the root.  At least I think that was the name, it could have been Gens Blanc but that would have been weird.

It didn’t really stick as a nickname longer than five years or so, after which I became Ralphie or as Mrs Jules would say it : Waffee.  I can tell that she loves me when she says it because she kind of sings it with a big smile on her face.   We call them a variety of names themselves but I’ll stick with Grandma & Grandad for now because since the little ones started to come along (around the time I joined the family) that’s what they have been.  So Tom and Esther = Grandad and Grandma.  They welcomed me with warmth and love from the very beginning, although I remember Grandad, at our wedding, laying an ancient father’s curse on the next two in line Mandy and Lucy with a warning to anyone who wanted to marry his two youngest that they were not available.

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Lucy, Mandy, Latifah, Jenny, Mollie, Dee.  

Grandma worked at Marks & Spencer for most of her working life which she enjoyed very much.  After retiring she started to enjoy making elaborate cakes, whether for special birthday occasions or weddings, or her famous and sacred black cake for Christmas, carefully wrapped in tinfoil and clingfilm to keep the treasure inside. Quite the best cake I have ever eaten.  Grandad was a drummer in St Lucia but gave that up as he made the crossing and spent his working life with London Transport as an engineer in the bus garage at Brent Cross.  Now retired, he still gets up every morning at 6am to make coffee and wake the various members of the family for work, including me when I stay over – tap tap on the door – “Ralphie ? Good morning.  Coffee.”  Bleary-eyed me : “Thank you Grandad”.  Then it is down the shop for the Daily Mirror – they are both socialists and republicans – and a good hour of checking the form of the horses that day, then to the Betting Shop for a small wager.  TV is a big favourite of them both too, Channel Four racing then re-runs of Dynasty or Bonanza or other 1980s shows. They bicker if they have an audience, making jokes at each other’s expense for our amusement.

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Grandad is a brilliant storyteller and dinner time (or lunchtime) is a family moment for a tale of something he saw, something that happened, always hilarious.  Such as the car which said, as he passed it “You are standing too close to this vehicle!  Please move away from this vehicle!”.  He loves that story.  He is incredibly fit for his age – he is into his 80s now – and doesn’t look a day over 55.  They’re both young for their years and completely family-centred, never happier than when the daughters bring their (now grown-up!) children and their children round.  Molly’s eldest Dominique has two beautiful children Tia & Kian, and two other daughters : my god-daughter Kimberley and Courtnie plus Robert whose birth I wrote about in My Pop Life #123.  Dee had Thomas, Jamie & Jordan and now  Thomas & Scarlett in turn have Skye & Lua.  Generations!  Brother Jon has three children but a schism in that marriage means that they are rarely seen.

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Grandad and Grandma can often be found listening to various kinds of music, let’s see : Jim Reeves is a favourite, Al Green and Perry Como; more left-field is Mexican-American tejano and country musician Freddy Fender;  their religious music, and then St Lucian and Trinidadian quadrille and soca – Caribbean dance music derived from calypso.  Downstairs in the kitchen the radio is on all day, tuned to Smooth FM usually, and that part of family life is deeply familiar to me !

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Waffee and Grandma

Grandad & Grandma are both Catholic and deeply involved with their local church, singing in the choir, organising the collection and other behind-the-scenes stuff.  When they are in St Lucia where they have built a house in the village of Mon Repos, there is a church just down the road and we all went there one Christmas to listen to the Filipino priest sermonise us with love.  In 2007 in fact I decided not to go to the Christmas morning service because I’d done it once and not really enjoyed it.  Everyone knew I wasn’t a christian so it wasn’t too rude to swerve.

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Extended family in Mon Repos, St Lucia

But my god-daughter Chloe was with us that year, and she wanted to talk to me about it.  She was 13 and wasn’t at all sure if she believed in God.  I think she was being polite and had already decided that she didn’t to be honest.  Her Mum Maureen was going, so was Jenny, Mandy, Lucy, Robbie, Dee, Jamie, Jordan, Thomas, Scarlett, Grandad and Grandma.  I wasn’t, and Chloe decided bravely to join me in sitting it out.  I had realised at around 8 or 9 years old that I didn’t believe in the stories I was being told by the vicar or anyone else and when it was time for me to go to Big School in Lewes aged 11, I took the opportunity to drop Sunday school finally.

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Chloe in St Lucia Christmas 2007

But christian music is something else entirely.  I’m a believer.  From the gospel of The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ Oh Happy Day (My Pop Life #199) to Sam Cooke, Al Green, Paul Robeson, Monteverdi or Bach (My Pop Life #76) it is some of the most moving and uplifting music you can find.  I bought Gavin Bryar’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in 1993 when we lived in West Hollywood and much to Jenny’s dismay played that tramp singing his faith every day for a couple of months.  When I was looking online for a version of How Great Thou Art I was astounded to find thousands of different renditions, according to Wikipedia there are 1700 recorded songs at least.  Which puts it up there with Hoagy Carmichael’s Star Dust or The Beatles’ Yesterday.

It’s a relatively new song : composed as a poem in 1885 by Swedish Pastor Carl Boberg, it travelled via Estonia and Russia to then be translated into English by missionary Stuart Hine who added two verses of his own.  The melody is either Russian or Swedish depending on who you read.  It became popular in the 1960s when evangelical preacher Billy Graham used it at his giant tent meetings and has since been covered by all and anyone, from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn to Gladys Knight, Al Green and most famously Elvis Presley who made his 2nd gospel LP in 1967 and called it How Great Thou Art.

I chose The Statler Brothers out of the dozens that I’ve listened to today (it’s proper work this blogging y’know!) because it approximates most closely to the version I hear in my head.  Not too slow, like Mahalia Jackson or Elvis. Not a solo voice (as beautifully as Tammy Wynette or Gladys Knight sing it).  Not too many gimmicks or personal touches.  Not over-produced.  Just a lovely four part harmony delivered straight by a country gospel quartet who often backed Johnny Cash.  But so many to choose from….  The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Mahalia Jackson.  Pentatonix.  Carrie Underwood.  Alan Jackson.  Dolly Parton.  Donna Summer.  Charlie Daniels.  Johnny Cash.  Willie Nelson….Some of these are attached so feel free to let me know your favourite in the comments below this blog.

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So in fact I may have heard it earlier in my life when I was around 10 or 11 in the late 60s without knowing what it was.  Maybe.  It is an amazing song and brings tears unbidden to my eyes, but it only became a favourite via Mrs Jules.  She would sing it gently to herself while bustling around the kitchen cooking some pemé & acqua (coconut tamale & chilli fish fritters) for Good Friday, or her famous chicken (when I ate chicken!), yam, dashin, plantain, rice & peas, bwa-pain if we were lucky – breadfruit, which grows in their garden in St Lucia along with avocados and bananas.  She has cooked me, and the whole family of course, many many fine meals.  Made with love. You can taste it to be sure.  They fill their house with love and laughter and gentle humour.  They are like my mum and dad and I love them both very much and thank them forever for allowing me to marry their beautiful daughter.  How great they are indeed.

The Statler Brothers :

Carrie Underwood & Vince Gill :

Elvis Presley live in 1972 :

The Vocal Majority (extraordinary) :

the brilliant Tammy Wynette :

Alan Jackson :

My Pop Life #199 : Oh Happy Day – The Edwin Hawkins Singers

Oh Happy Day – The Edwin Hawkins

he washed my sins away…

It’s the piano, echoing like some dark shadow from a cavern, rolling along with a loose stride, moving up, moving along, but the voice the voice the voice, rich and deep and strong.  Always thought it was a woman then learned it was the Edwin Hawkins Singers and wondered at his range especially when the handclaps start and we take off to heaven.  When Jesus Walked, Oh when he walked, he washed my sins away.  Later, years later it became apparent that the lyric was When Jesus Washed, Oh When He Washed, He Washed My Sins Away (Oh Happy Day).  There’s a fantastic rhythmic ripple on the word Jesus which makes him Je-ZER-us.  The chord change on the second line swallows me every time, the response choir, the gospel chorus takes the word “day” into a new space, a lifting up of the heart occurs and I swoon into being and nothingness.  Hypnotic.  Spiritual.  Massive.  The first time I had heard the word ‘Jesus’ outside of  a church or a bible class.

It is 1969 and I am living in the village, travelling on the bus to Lewes Grammar in my dark blue and sky blue school uniform complete with cap, a new bug in a new world of rules, bells, prefects, lessons with different teachers.  I’m watching Top Of The Pops on Thursday evenings at 7pm.  This is my religion.  I can’t remember seeing the Edwin Hawkins Singers on the show, or whether Pan’s People danced or there was a film, but the record got to number two.  Not even certain if we bought it, but fairly sure we did, and my mum, who was the 45 purchaser in 1969, had always been a religious woman, certainly in her teens had been a bit of a holy roller.  Church didn’t move me in any way though and I stopped all church-related activity once I left primary school.  My dad (who lived in Eastbourne) was what he called a ‘confirmed agnostic’ which always felt to me like sitting on the fence.  I suppose he wanted to look at both sides from up there.  I was fairly certain that there was no God, anywhere in the Universe.  Jesus had certainly existed and had been clearly an interesting radical, but he had constantly related his life to his Father, God, so I could only go so far with that story.   But I never had any issues with this song, which is right on the nose.  He Taught Me How To Wash, Fight and Pray (Fight and PRAY!).  Then another mistake : IN HIM rejoy… sing… ev….ery day.  Apparently it is :

and living rejoicing every, every day

Doesn’t Matter.  It was the first gospel tune that I responded to.  It didn’t convert me to Jesus, or God, but it converted me to gospel music.  A choir, a rhythm, a call, a response.  Apparently it encouraged George Harrison to write My Sweet Lord, another spiritual groove from the era.  I have a handful of key gospel tunes that move me, sometimes to tears and this was the first.

We currently live in Brooklyn and our back garden is up against a huge church wall inside which is the Institutional Church of The Living God.  They rehearse Thursday evenings usually and have a service or two on Sundays, starting around 10.30am.  When we first moved in 30 months ago I swore that I couldn’t live with the noise, especially in the summer when all the windows are open !  Then as the months passed I realised that my objections were narrowing down and starting to find a focus- the choir were good, the keyboards were fine, the preacher sounded powerful.  It was the drummer.  The bloody drummer !!  He was atrocious.  Just whacking away at the snare and bass drum like a metronome.  No rhythm.  No feel.  Just whack whack whack.  Like a military drummer without the skill.  Shockingly bad.  Eventually I confided my hatred for this non-musician to my dear neighbour Libby, who has a piano in her apartment next door.  We often play at the same time !  She told me that the neighbourhood has had long run-ins with the Pentecostal church, asking on numerous occasions for double glazing over the stained glass windows – or are they just pieces of coloured paper over the glass – anyway it looks pretty at night and doesn’t stop the sound of the shit drummer from penetrating my apartment or my brain.  Libby also told me that the drummer was the grandson of the pastor so we are all doomed to eternal metronomic whacking unto infinity (and beyond!)

I’ve wondered about visiting the church for a service, but I’d feel like an intruder, an imposter, a spy.  Christmas Eve I like to go to the local Emmanuel Baptist Church on Lafayette Avenue & Washington where the band and the choir are first class and the drummer is ace, as are all the singers, hairs on the back of the neck stuff.  Where a Church Service is close to being a concert.  But they make us all feel welcome, they know it’s the only day we even think about going to church, and I’m there for the band and the singers, for the gospel music, not for the message.

Although – when everyone turns and greets their neighbours with ‘bless you’ – the sign of friendship – it is extremely moving.

So Edwin Hawkins passed away yesterday, aged 74.  The song was recorded on a two-track machine with Dorothy Combs Morrison singing the lead vocal.  So that was a woman, I finally accept.  It sounded like a woman.  Edwin was on the piano, with all the feel.  That is how you play the piano.  Aretha knows.

It was the happiest song of my youth bar none.  Oh Happy Day it was called.  We chose it for our wedding, discussed a few times already in this blog (see My Pop Life #126   and My Pop Life #56  ).  We had a choir and a few solo singers which we rehearsed in our flat in Archway Road.  Here is a picture of a rehearsal :

Antonia, Maureen, Jenny, Millie, Beverley, Paulette

In the end we picked Oh Happy Day to play us out of the church – St Joseph’s on Highgate Hill – instead of the usual cascade of organ chords by Mendelssohn from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  On the day, Maureen Hibbert (see pic above) was our lead singer and the choir of angels  was our nearest and dearest (who could sing !!) which included my dad John and his wife Beryl, Paulette and Beverley Randall, Antonia Coker, Sharon Henry, Millie Kerr, and Maureen Hibbert, all marshalled by our M.D. and choirmaster Felix Cross.  They made quite a good racket for such a small choir – but here’s the thing : we walked out of the church so damn fast and so full of excitement that we missed the legendary rendition of Oh Happy Day by Maureen who apparently according to all reports, absolutely flipping Smashed It !

Since those glorious days in 1969 when this song reached number 2 in the Pop charts, I have learned that you don’t need to believe in God to appreciate religious music, and that it has a great deal of power & emotion & beauty, and is of course some of the greatest music ever written – some of which has made its way into these pages, notably Bach‘s St Matthew Passion (see My Pop Life #76) and Fauré‘s Requiem (My Pop Life #24), both Christian, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (My Pop Life 135), who I was privileged to see sing twice, who was a Sufi.   And then there is the song of my namesake Ralph Vaughan Williams – To Be A Pilgrim from 1908, collected from an old hymn and re-birthed as an inspirational song (see My Pop Life #127 ).

When we went to see Aretha Franklin live a couple of years ago she had a gospel element to the show when she sang Old Landmark off the Amazing Grace album which she made with her father in 1972, testifying over her backing singers about her cancer and her faith, and it was the best part of the evening, quite stunning.  For years after Al Green stopped singing pop music in the mid-70s I went to see him every time he came over to England, it was a pure gospel show.  Electrifying as only Al Green can be.   Saw Mavis Staples in LA, absolutely fantastic.  But all of them – Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, James Brown they were all schooled in gospel.  It’s simply the root of all soul music and R’n’B.

Oh and that chord change – simple like all the best ones, but brilliant.  We’re swinging from C sharp to F sharp until that second vocal line.  Then we suddenly drop from C# to Bb7.  So only one note changes -the C sharp goes up a semitone to D while the bass moves from C sharp down to B flat.  Glory ensues.

I always used to separate gospel out, because of God.  Now I join it all up.