My Pop Life #114 : There’s Nothing Better Than Love – Luther Vandross

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There’s Nothing Better Than Love   –   Luther Vandross

…what in the world could you ever be thinking of ??…

This song makes me melt, because of the music, the words, the rhythm, the notes, and where it takes me – to 1989 and falling in love with Jenny.   We had started dating in the summer of ’88 and following a mad American road trip at the end of that year I had finally almost accepted that she WAS the ONE.  1989 we were together.  We were in Portsmouth where I proposed, in New York City and Washington D.C., but mainly we were in London, in Highgate N6, on the middle section of the Archway Road.

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Jenny had introduced me to Luther Vandross in the shape of two LPs : Give Me The Reason and Any Love.  Probably three actually because I remember Never Too Much from this era too.  Luther was new to me, although I’d unknowingly heard him before singing background vocals on David Bowie’s Young Americans in 1974 and co-writing the song Fascination.  He also sang on the LP Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, one of the greatest soul albums of all time, released in 1972, which includes the first incarnation of Where Is The Love.  He also sang backing for Diana Ross, Chic, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer and Carly Simon among others.  I found all this out later.

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One Thursday evening in late January we lay in bed together and I summoned the courage to tell Jenny that it was all over, that I didn’t think it would be a good idea if we carried on seeing each other.  “Why not?” said Jen, who was lying on my shoulder, my right arm around her.  “Well,” I said, “Because I don’t want you to fall in love with me.”  Luther Vandross was on the stereo singing this song !  “I’m already in love with you…” she answered.  The answer that stopped my breathing, and halted the celestial cycle and melted my heart, and softened my very bones.  I pulled her toward me in an embrace.  We have been together since that moment.

My courting of Jenny had reached the point of going to meet the parents, so one Sunday I was formally introduced to Esther & Thomas Jules a handsome and loving St Lucian couple who had produced a houseful of gorgeous girls and one son.  They were very kind and served me a classic West Indian Sunday roast : chicken, plantain, yam, corn, greens, roast potatoes, dashin and gravy.  Delicious.  Mr Jules insisted that I drink a whisky or a rum with him.  I complied happily.  Jenny had two older sisters : Dee and Mollie, and two younger : Natasha and Lucy.  Jon the brother was slightly older than Jenny.  They were all very warm and friendly toward me because they all loved Jenny very much and didn’t want to upset their sister.  But also because they have all been brought up with love, and have it in abundance to spare.  It was just the family I needed and wanted to become a part of.  Solid, secure, easy, supportive and loving.   I’d already proposed to Jenny in February ’89 but hadn’t asked her father yet – but that is for another song and another story.

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Luther Vandross is the soundtrack to those young lovers though.   At the time he was an unfeasibly smooth, handsome and sultry soul singer with a very modern sound – his music is forever attached to the 1980s.   Those LPs were played a lot in Archway Road.  Beautifully produced – but what a voice.   One of the great singers of my lifetime, so expressive, so pure, gentle, and sensitive.  In a line of greatness back to Teddy Pendergrass, Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, the record you play after you’ve gone to bed.  Love music.  Of course women also sing this music – Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Sade, Gladys Knight, Toni Braxton, Roberta Flack and on and on.   Is anyone still doing it you ask ?  Oh yes – Usher, Ciara, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Frank Ocean, Lianne La Havas, and on and on.    It will always be made of course.

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My soul development went something like this :  60s – Motown on the radio, 70s – Al Green on TOTP, discovery of James Brown, Otis Redding, Stax & Atlantic then through Philly, back to Sam Cooke and Jacky Wilson, Barry White & Teddy Pendergrass, Earth Wind & Fire into DISCO, Donna Summer and all that somehow emerging into the 80s with Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC, Electro LPs and Prince.  So I had completely missed the soul continuum that Luther Vandross represents.   Jenny introduced him to me, and soon I loved him too.

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March ’89, Wembley

He was playing at Wembley Arena in March 1989 and Jenny’s sister Dee asked if we wanted to go, so together with Mick her boyfriend, we did.  It was a sold-out ten-night run in the Arena, which is massive – and Luther was the first artist to sell that many tickets, he was huge in England in the late 80s.  Rightly so.  We sat to his left, he wore silver and black, we swooned and went home happy and high.  The concert was released on video/DVD sometime later in 1991 but we’ve never seen it.   This song was on the brilliant LP Give Me The Reason in 1986, and is a duet with Gregory Hines.   I think it’s time to have a look at that night in March 1989.  Because – you know – and I know – there is nothing better than love.

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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 #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 #20 : Everything Must Change – Oleta Adams

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Everything Must Change   –   Oleta Adams

…the young become the old and mysteries do unfold
cause that the way of time nothing and no one goes unchanged…

Jenny – my wife – absolutely loved this first LP from Oleta Adams with the hit single “Get Here (If You Can)” and the dancefloor groove “The Rhythm Of Life”.  Very good.   This was the classic song hidden in the depths of the LP, written by Bernard Ighner.   Covered by many others.   The early 90s.     Not kids anymore, getting on with being grown-up.  Jenny and I decided to get married in 1990, and a giant discussion emerged which would last for several years.   I exaggerate only slightly.  The big questions were when? and where?

We lived on Archway Road at that point, the middle section which runs from suicide bridge up to the tube station and Jackson’s Lane.  London N6.   Since Jenny’s family are Catholics, and mine are do-what-you-want, we arranged a meeting with the priest at St Josephs on Highgate Hill, a large and rather formidable catholic church perched next to Waterlow Park, where we could hold some kind of reception.  Father Patrick, a white-haired kindly Irishman spoke to us about the arrangement.  We book the church for one year later – June 1991 would be ideal.  We’ll have to do some evening classes ‘in marriage’, which we’re quite happy to do, and we’ll be expected to attend Mass on a Sunday morning about once a month.  Or Jenny will at least.   It all seems jovial and easy and we shake on it and walk up to Highgate Village for a celebratory drink.  There are some nice pubs in Highgate, notably The Flask, but for some reason we walked back down Jacksons Lane to The Black Lion on the upper reaches of Archway Road near the woods.   We had a few, and had a fight, about what I simply cannot remember but it was a serious fight because the following day we walked round to the church and asked to cancel the wedding.

Luckily we hadn’t announced the date, or got any cards printed up or booked the hall/cake/car/band.  So the wedding was off then.   We weren’t off, but the wedding was.   We were secretly relieved, and disappointed at the same time.   But underneath all the bickering and hesitation, we clearly agreed on one crucial thing – the wedding mattered, and it had to be right.   For entirely different reasons I’m sure.   My reasons?  Both of my parents had, at that point, been married three times – each – and I’d attended the various ceremonies with Paul & Andrew and Rebecca.   There’s one particularly grim photograph of us boys at the Brighton Registry Office marriage of our Dad (whom we called ‘John Brown’ after the divorce from my mum) to Lynne Brewer, his girlfriend and former pupil.   Andrew (10) has a fringe and a smile rather plastered onto his face, Paul and I have groovy teardrop collar shirts – I guess it’s 1974 – and truly miserable glum faces.   That was my dad’s 2nd wedding.   His third, to wonderful Beryl, was a happier affair, and lasts to this day I’m happy to witness.   My mum’s three marriages were a) to my dad, b) to JD (Rebecca’s dad), and c) to Alan which worked for a while, but only for a while.   So marriage for the younger me was a bit of a joke to be honest.   Fraught with issues to say the least.   The fight in the pub was a sign that I wasn’t ready to be married – perhaps, as I’d always claimed, I didn’t really want to be married.   That’s how I grew up, all my 20s “I’m never getting married”.   Beware of what you say in your 20s.   You may be mistaken.   I sure was.   But neither of us were ready to get married in 1990 – even in a year’s time.  When we cancelled the wedding we didn’t cancel each other.   We got closer, eventually.   But these moments of certainty are so fleeting, the moments of doubt so pervasive.  That’s partly what marriage is, a pegging out of cloth in the wind, pinning down one area of doubt at least, making a shelter in the woods that will be there at the end of day.

Things were changing – aren’t things always changing ?  Mandela is released from prison, Poll Tax riots in Trafalgar Square, the Soviet Union melting like a globally-warmed iceberg, Saddam invades Kuwait.   And at some point that autumn I am offered the role of Aaron – ’85’ –  in Alien 3 by David Fincher.   I’ll save that for another song, but it meant that we could afford to get married – at some point in the future.   When we were ready…

As for Oleta Adams, she was “discovered” by Kurt Smith and Roland Orzabal and invited to join Tears For Fears as singer and pianist, and she appears on the Seeds Of Love LP.  Her own debut Circle Of One, from where Everything Must Change comes, was released a year later.  I’ll confess that we didn’t keep up with Ms Adams who has released six further LPs, but she still performs from time to time with TFF to sing Woman In Chains.