My Pop Life #217 : Optimistic – Sounds of Blackness

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Optimistic – Sounds of Blackness

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as long as you keep your head to the sky

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I owe everything to my wife in the end.  Almost everything positive in my life has come from her incredible energy, her spirit, her capacity for love above all else.   This is her song.

I write from my dressing room on Broadway.

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dressing room, Jacobs Theatre, 45th & 8th

Last August 2018 it was – I was in Malibu with my friend Stephen Kalinich (see My Pop Life #169 : The Magic Hand) when Jenny messaged me – could I make a meeting at 4pm the following afternoon in Los Angeles – with her Agency?  She’d spoken to the boss – Scott Manners – and he’d decided to relax his rule about not representing married couples.  They had an office in New York, and one in Los Angeles.  The next day I am seated at a desk as seven agents, (including Glenn Salners & Michael Chance), ask me questions.  They all love Jenny, but what is my raison d’irt track ?  They’d seen the showreel and liked it.  Good range.  Well, I say, I like to do accents, characters, but I don’t do theatre.  It was a line I’d been using for thirty years.  Ever since playing Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman in fact, (see My Pop Life #108) although I had done one more play since then at the RSC in 1989, and one at The Bush in 2009.  I do camera.  TV, film. I’m not sure how to do theatre acting.  It seems to require lying on a large scale, expanding the performance to reach the back row, projecting, pretending TOO MUCH.  My wife Jenny Jules is very good at it, in fact she is excellent.  Quite superb.  Better than me by quite a way.  She does the stage stuff, I do the camera stuff, largely.  It’s an amicable if archetypal arrangement.

But that is the story.  They nod, we chat, it feels good.

About a month later, I meet the New York office, including Scott.  He says he is worried by some things I said at the LA meeting.  Specifically the part about Not Doing Theatre.  Well, I said, following my own pre-recorded script, the story I’d been telling myself for the last 30 years : that “I don’t do theatre”.  I was a camera actor, a minimalist whose talent was for microscopic changes of mood and thought that needed a camera close-up into my boat-race. The Agency listened, nodded and Scott said “Ralph, that’s going to be a problem for us.  We use the theatre to build careers.”

OK then”  I said,  “I’ll do some theatre“.

It was time.

They signed me up.  Two months later, Scott sends me the script and one particular scene from The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth.  I’d seen it in London with Paulette Randall earlier that year.    My audition, just before Christmas, was with director Sam Mendes who’d asked me why I was going back onstage.  I told him that my wife had scored a great gig (couldn’t say what!) which meant that I really didn’t need to work in 2019, so the shackles were off and maybe I felt it was time to get scared again after only one stage performance in the last 30 years.  He reckoned they could provide that.  I’d practised a Derry accent over the weekend listening to Martin McGuinness on Youtube, and learned the lines.  It felt good.  I was offered the part the following lunchtime.

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My shadow falls across Broadway, January 2019

 

Jenny is the theatre actor, she plugs in on stage and burns incandescent like the sun.  Anyone who has seen her, in Ruined, Sweat, The Homecoming, Wine In The Wilderness, The Crucible, Julius Caesar, Her Portmanteau, Two Trains Running, Gem of the Ocean, Pecong,  The Colour of Justice, The Vagina Monologues, Fabulation, Born Bad, Big White Fog, Death & The King’s Horseman, A Raisin In The Sun, Moon On A Rainbow Shawl or Father Comes Home From The Wars knows what I mean.  She is luminescent.   She makes my eyes water, always does.  So proud and moved, so thrilled to see her every time.  I usually go six or seven times to a show she is doing.  I make the money, she does the art.  What’s the story again ? – I subsidised the theatre via TV shows & movies.  Yaawn.  I think we’d both been telling this story to be honest, we’d just got used to it.   The story was tired and had become bollocks.

On day one of rehearsal Tim Hoare introduced himself to me as the director.  Sam wasn’t going to be around.  I told Tim “my story” and how intrepid and scared I felt going back into the theatre.  He told me how Paddy Considine had never done a play when he started in The Ferryman in London.   Tim then nursed me through the rehearsal process with ease, fairness, compassion and great emotional literacy.  I was back in my twenties, in a rehearsal room with a new family, working on a piece of literature that we would stand on its feet together.  Back when I fell in love with the idea of being an actor.

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The Ferryman

There are twenty-one actors in the cast plus a baby & the animals, it is a monster three-hour banquet of a play set in South Armagh & Derry in the North of Ireland in 1981 during the Hunger Strike.   I play IRA Commander Jimmy Muldoon. Most of the cast were new, and most of them were American.  Charles Dale, Fionnula Flanagan, Glenn Speers and the children (Brooklyn Shuck, Willow McCarthy Michael McCarthy & Matilda Lawler) were staying on from the Broadway cast.  Charles is Welsh, Fionnula and Glenn are southern & northern Irish.  The kids are all Americans doing a Northern Irish accent (very well).  The new company included the lovely Brian D’Arcy James as Quinn, Holley Fain as Caitlin and Emily Bergl as Mary, Fred Applegate as Uncle Pat and Annie McDonough as Aunt Pat, Graham Winton as Magennis the IRA man with the Prod surname, and Shuler Hensley as Tom Kettle the Englishman in Crossmaglen.  Sean Maloney and Terence Keeney came over from the West End company and the Guinness started to flow, Collin Kelly-Sordelet (Jersey boy!), Ethan Dubin (Brooklyn boy!!), Julia Nightingale (starlet) and Jack diFalco (doing the accent all day and all night) joined us in the various Irish bars of Hell’s Kitchen.  The belly started to grow.  Stories, politics, Ireland, the Troubles. We drank.  We bonded.

Then we moved to the theatre on 45th St.  The show was still on in the evening, so we worked from 12-4pm on the stage.  Shared dressing rooms with the company and had to clear out every day.  The day approached.  For my Broadway debut.  At the age of 61 and a half.  What blessings are these.

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Broadway virgins no more : Julia, Sean, Terry, me, Ethan and Annie

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Me and Brian D’Arcy James on opening night

What is inescapably extraordinary is this simple fact : the play is set in South Armagh in August 1981.  If you look back at an early entry in my story (My Pop Life #13 : The Green Fields of France) it is the story of a younger version of me in South Armagh, August 1981.  Crossmaglen.  The Troops Out Movement, protected by the IRA through the countryside on a delegation to the British Army barracks there.  A quite extraordinary circle back through my own history, which I discussed in rehearsals.  How could I not ?  Being told by Jean in West Belfast not to go down the shop in Ballymurphy for cigarettes on my own because I’ll get popped once they hear my accent.  Seeing The Undertones in Finsbury Park and other gigs with Fergal Sharkey stripping down one song at a time from a parka to bare chest as he warbled through their pop-punk repertoire.  Seeing Bobby Sands murals on the Falls Road the size of a house.  Being in a war-zone.  The violence of those years in England – Brixton going up in flames, the Falklands War, the NF, the miner’s strike, IRA bombs in Brighton (see My Pop Life #185 : Between The Wars).

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The Ferryman cast & crew in rehearsal, Feb 2019

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The infamous IRA scene at the top of Act 3 in rehearsal : Collin Kelly-Sordelet, Sean Delaney, Terry Keeley, Michael McCarthy, Jack diFalco

But beyond all of that, my own blood rushing through my veins every day as I boarded the Q train over the bridge to Manhattan with all the straphangers at 9.00am, finally feeling like a New Yorker.  I revisited my own love affair with acting, where I started, in the theatre.  Throughout my 20s I had done plays, above pubs, at the Edinburgh Festival, at the Royal Court, the Donmar, the Tricycle, the RSC.  I’d even written a couple.  Then after a terrible experience at Liverpool Everyman, revealed in My Pop Life #108 : Sumer Is Icumen In, I quit the stage and concentrated on TV and film acting.  Luckily Withnail & I  happened around the same time, and although it would take a few years to permeate the cultural landscape, my future was, unbeknown to me, already assured.  Lucky doesn’t cover it.  I am simply born protected & blessed and always have been.  I am forever grateful.  There was a moment of course in the joy of rehearsal when I thought – wow!  I should’ve gone back to the theatre YEARS AGO, but hey.  At least I got there.  I absolutely feel at home again.  Born again happy.

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Ben, associate director, and Tim Hoare at work

And as Tim said to me on the day of the Dress Rehearsal – “you are a stage animal“.  Such a terrific endorsement at a critical time.  I had the Juice.  I didn’t know that at the start of rehearsal but now I could feel it.  I was using an old muscle and it still worked.  This in itself has been a huge thrill.

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The Ferryman – the prologue : Glenn, Charlie, me, Graham

And all the while, there was Jenny alongside me as ever, nurturing and supporting, loving and healing, and holding her own secret, and rehearsing her own mighty show, for she had been cast back in September 2018 and signed an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) to not release the information to anyone.  We lived in a state of heightened purse-lipped security for three months.  Not even the word “Broadway” was to be uttered to any friends or relations of rabbit. The best gig she’d ever scored and she couldn’t tell anyone.  Until the day my deal was done, just before Christmas, and then there was the Press Release.

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Jenny Jules as Hermione Granger

Jenny was going into another hit Broadway show :  Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, replacing our friend Noma Dumesweni as Hermione Granger.  For a year.  At least.  This was the secret we had held for three months.  Mmmmmmnnnnn.  Biting the soles of our feet.  Such a Great Part.  Such a great show.  I’d seen it with Cush Jumbo & Sean Griffin and Rose Leslie in 2018.  Noma was in the cast.  So thrilling, such a wonderful piece of theatre, full of real magic.  So suddenly we were both Broadway Babes, inheriting parts in shows which were already hits, had already been reviewed and were running on with new companies.  Both produced by Sonia Friedman.  We were local hire in the two West End hit transfers.  Perhaps not that surprising, thinking about it.  It had taken us five years.  We were on Cloud Nine.

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Cloud Nine – kind of

Jenny started rehearsing long before I did, and didn’t open until a month after we’d opened – a fifteen-week rehearsal period all in all.  The Cursed Child show is in two parts, two complete plays, and they perform each one four times a week, eight show a week in all, the same as The Ferryman.

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Ron, Harry, Hermione – Broadway 2019

The Cursed Child is considerably more technical than our traditional play which obeys the unities of place and time, set inside a farmhouse in Armagh.  The Cursed Child has magic for a start.  To say more would be to spoil the surprises for those who haven’t seen it yet.  But they needed their fifteen weeks.  Jenny opened last night in Part One, and tonight in Part Two.  Her sister Mandy (Natasha, Reginelle, Bad) came over for the opening and is sitting there tonight.  She’ll come to see The Ferryman tomorrow night.  What a star.

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Max & his dad Sean

Yesterday dear friends Cush and Sean came to the Ferryman matinee.  They loved it.  They’d seen it twice before, and told me this was their favourite.  That was a secret of course.  This isn’t :  Jenny and I are Oddparents to their son Maximilian who is almost one beautiful year old.  After eating and walking up to the flower shop with them for Jenny’s first night bouquet, I split and bought a bottle of Yoichi Japanese whisky to take up to the lads’ dressing room after the evening show.  They hold an impromptu whiskey bar upstairs every night and it was time for me to contribute.  I deliberately use both spellings as we drink both whiskies.  We finished it in 40 minutes between the seven of us, then walked two blocks to Bar Centrale to meet Jenny, her sister Mandy, her room-mate Diane Davis (Ginny) and Charles Randolph-Wright our friend.  Sean and Terry came with me.  We had a few drinks and some toasty cheese and jumped in a taxi home.  Just a few mates from two shows.  It was a perfect end to a perfect day.  No need for Lou Reed after all.

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And it was Jenny who’d done it.  Who’d spoken to her agent and wondered if he would represent me.  Who’d sent the showreel. I’d been without an agent all year, since sacking Oriana Elia in January 2018.  Another tedious story.  I have a manager, Michael Lazo at Untitled in LA.  And I’d done a movie early in the year that he had organised as a straight offer – Gemini Man with Will Smith, directed by Ang Lee.  Nice gig.  But I hadn’t acted since.  I’d written a movie and co-written a 4-part TV show so I hadn’t exactly been idle.  But she’d moved some earth and sorted me out.  She didn’t want me idle when she opened on Broadway.  Something to worry about.  And now here we were both on Broadway, at the same time.  I will forever be grateful to her, for her optimism and faith and love.  For her fierce heart.  For her fire and her ice.  And for just being her beautiful self.  Did I mention I was lucky ?

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This tune literally lifts her heart.  From 1991, when we were courting, it is a gospel groove from Sounds of Blackness, a large soul/jazz/gospel ensemble out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Run by Gary Hines and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.  Jam/Lewis formed a band called Flyte Time with Alexander O’Neal in the 1980s who then supported Prince on tour (but now called The Time and with Morris Day on lead vocals).  They then went on to produce Just Be Good To Me for The SOS Band and Janet Jackson’s hit albums Control & Velvet Rope.

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In 1991 they nurtured their neighbours Sounds of Blackness, through their 2nd LP The Evolution of Gospel.  This – Optimistic – was the lead single.  It is pure UP music, and Very Jenny.  Very Infectious.  I swear she could heal the world on her own if she had time.  Their 3rd LP Africa to America : The Sound of the Drum is even better and I commend it also to thy ears.  Communal groove music.

Thank you my darling.  You are my world.

Never say die

 

 

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

I Can’t Hear You   –   Betty Everett

you walked out on me once too often now

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

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

this girl ain’t throwing away her youth

Betty Everett 1963

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

Brooklyn

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

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

Jenny Jules & Charles Randolph Wright 2014

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

Nona Hendryx & Vicki Wickham

So.

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

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

The Motown Revue at Marble Arch, London in 1965

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

Martha Reeves,the Vandellas, Dusty Springfield

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

the great Lucy Jules

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

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

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

Betty Everett in 1963

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

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

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

“This girl ain’t throwing away her youth”

Carole King & Jerry Goffin

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

Credit where credit is due.

Happy New Year everyone, thanks for reading.

Ralph Brown 2015

My Pop Life #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 #45 : If You Love Me – Brownstone

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 If You Love Me   –   Brownstone

…but if you want my heart then it’s time that you start
To act like you’re mine in the light and the dark…

We finally moved into our new house in Brighton in March 1996, after Eamonn Walker (brother from another mother) and I had sanded and varnished the floors of three rooms, and Tony Roose (expert!) had helped me lag beneath the floorboards.   Lovely wooden floors in place, Jenny was welcomed down, previously restricted from visits due to her asthma.   The dust now settled, we brought the cats down and moved into the top room with views of the Palace Pier and across to Worthing and Chanctonbury Ring on the Downs.   It was a great move.   A new life.

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Brighton was local newspapers, slower pace, less happening, and trains to London.   After a few months we wondered if we’d made a Terrible Mistake.    Then people started to come down – the first visitors were Paulette and Beverley Randall, and we moved the kitchen table out into the garden and ate alfresco whilst drinking quantities of wine.   Summer arrived and we started to really fall in love with being in Sussex, taking trips out to my childhood haunts, finding lovely country pubs and walks and butterfly sanctuaries, lying on the beach with the tourists, becoming deeply involved in the Brighton & Hove Albion story as chairman Bill Archer announced that my beloved Goldstone Ground was to be sold “to pay debts” – and there were no plans in place for an alternative home ground.   1996-7 was a dreadful season to follow the Seagulls, but the fans were amazing, letting the board know their feelings about having our home sold from under our feet.   We were rooted to the bottom of the entire league for weeks that autumn, manager Jimmy Case was sacked and it felt like the people running the club would be happy for it to fold.   The fans and players eventually saved Albion in dramatic fashion – but this is not the place for that reminiscence.

I turned 40 in the summer of ’97 and held a legendary party in our new house to celebrate and mark the passage of time.   It was attended by neighbours from across the street, new friends from Brighton, and many old mates and new who had travelled down.   It was billed as running from midday June 21st to midday June 22nd – a proper midsummer night’s dream.    I finally crashed out at lunchtime on the Sunday.  It was a big old-fashioned dirty young people’s party and I kissed goodbye to my 30s in defiance.  Dancing went on literally all night, guests such as Chiwetel Ejiofor (with whom I’d just shot “Amistad”) slept on the bouncy castle erected in the garage, people went down for a swim in the sea at dawn, I became 40 high on ecstasy, drink, marijuana and dancing.

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Brownstone’s “If You Love Me” was a key song for Jenny and I.   I can’t remember where we first heard it (Trevor Nelson? or maybe before we left Los Angeles…) but the tune, the lyrics, the voices, the swing of it became our sound in the party years 1996-2000.   Jenny enjoyed DJ-ing too, and she always targets her DJ set at the women on the dancefloor.  Once the women are dancing, the guys will tend to follow…  So there’s a bit of Whitney, some Bee Gees, Abba, TLC, Prince, Ghetto Heaven, Aretha…and Brownstone.  Turn the lights down low, turn up the bass, and grab the nearest honey…

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Brownstone formed in the early 90s.    Nichole “Nicci” Gilbert, who co-wrote If You Love Me, Monica “Mimi” Doby, and Charmayne Maxena “Maxee” Maxwell (who sadly passed away after an accidental fall in February 2015) met at various auditions around Los Angeles, were signed with Michael Jackson‘s label MJJ and recorded the LP From The Bottom Up in 1994.   They had a number of line-up changes in the years since.   This song transcends all the hype and music-biz PR by simply using great singing – three excellent voices in harmony.  Song was nominated for a Grammy in 1996 (but lost out to TLC’s “Creep”).

and here is an acapella version :