My Pop Life #158 : Tipitina – Professor Longhair

Tipitina   –   Professor Longhair

Tipitina, oola malla walla dalla 
Tra ma tra la la

Tipitina’s nightclub in New Orleans

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

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

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

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

Professor Longhair

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

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

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

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

Original from 1953 :

from 1974 :

Fess explains his lineage and plays Tipitina for us:

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

 

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My Pop Life #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.

*

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 #34 : Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody Of Negro Life – Duke Ellington with Billie Holiday

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Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life  –  Duke Ellington with Billie Holiday

…saddest tale on land or sea was when my man walked out on me…

I’ve got those lost-my-man, can’t get him back again blues….

Very early jazz purchase from me – probably 19 years old in London.  I bought another Ellington record too “1929-1930” probably because it had East St Louis Toodle-oo and seemed like an early/fundamental/influential collection – but what did I know at 19 ?  Very little.  I had just moved to Fitzroy St Halls of Residence under the Post Office Tower – a short walk down Charlotte St to Soho Square, the 100 Club, the Marquee in Wardour St, the record shops of Berwick St and Hanway St.   It was autumn 1976.   I mis-spent many an hour flicking through endless vinyl and selecting which of the glorious LP covers I would release my un-earned Student Grant on.  Yes, now it can be told :  I was part of the lucky generation, there’s no question about it, brought up by a single parent on social security on a council estate, I still nevertheless got to study Law at LSE for three years because I was good at passing exams essentially.  A good short-term memory.  Crucial for actors, and probably lawyers, although I never got to test that theory out.  They are not so different though as jobs of work.

Anyway at some point, perhaps while hitch-hiking around the USA, or perhaps during those Fresher Week moments, I realised that I knew next-to-nothing about Music with a capital M.  Really.  I knew a few prog bands and a bunch of pop records from the charts, I worshipped Hendrix and John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Joe Walsh.  The rest was bluff and prejudice.  These record shops in W1 made me feel unenlightened and I longed for education.  My fellow students would help me out of course, but my duty to myself was clear and unequivocal :  Buy More Records.  Buy important records that made their mark.  Records that were Influential.  It was a little bit like doing a degree in Art History and catching up on the big paintings.   But I knew next to nothing.  Little scraps gleaned from the oh-so-current New Musical Express.   But musical history?  Where would you start?  I thought perhaps – with Jazz.   A scary big universe of famous names and complicated music.   But undeniably cool though, that much was clear.   So much to choose from, familiar and very unfamiliar names – I’m still finding cultural holes in the jazz road.   But Ellington was a large lamp-post, a shining beacon, a hostelry where one could sit awhile with a cocktail and tap one’s foot.    And Billie Holiday I knew the name – presumably – via Diana Ross and Lady Sings The Blues.

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I struck gold with the 1929-30 LP – it contained many of the amazing hits in the early 30s which are all carved into stone as masterpieces of the 78rpm record : The Mooche, Mood Indigo, Take The A-Train, Rockin’ In Rhythm.   But this other slab of vinyl – Duke Ellington’s Band Shorts (and it was heavy vinyl on the Biograph label I think) – appealed to me for a different reason : it seemed collectable because it had the three soundtracks (Black & Tan Fantasy and Bundle Of Blues are the other two) Duke had made in that period for short films, one of which had a 19-year old Billie Holiday singing in her film debut.  The film is called Symphony in Black and was directed by Fred Waller and was the first ‘commercially available’ film about black people in America. It won the Oscar for best short film the following year.  The piece of music is called A Rhapsody Of Negro Life, and honours WC Handy, George Gershwin and Ravel among others – but most notably the Harlem scene it represented.

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The film itself shows the young genius composer at the piano writing the score – and the score is at the crossroads of classical, blues, jazz and film music;  like so much of that era’s work we are terribly familiar with the shapes and sounds and tempos because they were the backing for so many cartoons and short silent films.   There are four parts : “The Laborers,” “A Triangle”, “A Hymn of Sorrow” and “Harlem Rhythm” and the whole piece lasts 9 minutes.

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Billie Holiday, (who had recorded her first sides in late 1933 with Benny Goodman a year previously) sings the blues lament and appears in the film as a spurned lover in an echo of the famous Bessie Smith short film “St Louis Blues” which was the other film soundtrack LP I bought on the same day.  They both seemed to me to be treasure, and for a while they were the only jazz records I owned.

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Billie, Duke, jazz critic Leonard Feather in 1935

This piece contains everything I love about music in 9 short minutes.  It changes tempo and key, it chatters and jitters, it swoons, it has a tear in its eye, it swells like a heaving chest about to burst, it is painterly and grand, emotional and beautiful.  I commend it to thy collections.

My Pop Life #18 : Kalamazoo – Glen Miller

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Kalamazoo   –   Glenn Miller

…hi-ya Mr Jackson, everything’s OK-A-L-A-M-A-Zee-O Oh, what a gal, a real pipparoo…

I’ve never really felt confident around jazz music, always imagining that there’s something there which I’m not getting.  I’ve tried playing it on my chosen instrument – the alto saxophone – and my suspicions were confirmed.  It’s hard.  I feel more comfortable around older jazz from the 20s and 30s maybe because it’s got better tunes, or is more danceable, or just less intellectual generally, but maybe that’s partly been the point of jazz anyway – only a select few will get it.   I diligently bought jazz LPs though from the age of about 20 onwards : Mingus, Ellington, Coltrane and Getz have been with me ever since.

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Back in the day I used to make people mixtapes which actually were 90-minute tapes – C90s by Memorex or TDK or BASF.  The great thing about these was that you could fade things in and out or just pause the tape in the middle of a tune.  CD mixes are naturally inferior in this respect.  Kalamazoo was one of the first jazz tunes I’d put onto one of my mixtapes and thus represents a level of cautious bravery.

In 1981 I’d joined a socialist-feminist Theatre Company called Moving Parts, who wrote their own plays and toured them to youth clubs and unemployment drop-in centres around the UK, preaching tolerance, equality, marxism and revolution.  It was my first professional job as an actor, even though I was only getting £40 a week it would “lead to an Equity card” in the hallowed phrase of the time.  It actually did, three tours later.  The core group was Ruth Mackenzie, Rachel Feldberg, Anita Lewton and Saffron Myers.  We played music in the shows too, some covers but always with the lyrics changed in a cabaret style. After the show “there would be a discussion”.  These were almost always fantastic.  Sometimes we had polo mints thrown at us, or heckles, but it was righteous rockface work going into deprived communities with an alternative viewpoint.

One particular mixtape I made for the gang was called, with no apparent embarrassment on my behalf “The Immaculate Conception”.  I can still remember most of the running order on this tape and most of the songs will probably trickle out somehow onto My Pop Life.   I was about 23 years old when I made it, living in an attic flat in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz, and becoming, before my very eyes, a professional actor, working my passage in a Ford Transit van up and down the M1.   The tape was for the endless journeys, up to Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire.  Pulling the set out of the van, setting it up, doing the show, doing the discussion, packing it all back and grabbing some food before the next show – always two shows a day, sometimes three.  The Immaculate Conception mixtape went from jazz to pop to classical to spoken word to country without apology or transition, abrupt startling juxtapositions of styles which clearly clashed, there was Robert de Niro from Taxi Driver, Hawaiian guitar, clips from Star Trek, Beethoven, Bach and Randy Crawford. I’m still pretty proud of it.

It’s funny I was going to suggest that Kalamazoo was the first jazz tune I had the confidence to include on a mixtape, but I’ve just remember that Duke Ellington’s Black & Tan Fantasy was on there too, following Randy Newman’s Sail Away (oh the daring).   No matter, Kalamazoo was still a gateway song.  Simply put – it’s a pop song with jazz elements, not really jazz at all.

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It’s funny, clever, brilliantly arranged and played, and slightly creepy.  Miller took a popular song and “jazzed it up” – not particularly by the way – but rearranged it in his own layered swing style.  The rhythm, mainly carried by the woodwinds and swishing hi-hat is lazy and yet urgent at the same time.  But I think what captured my pop heart were the vocals – not just the alphabetical tricks but the layered harmonies, Andrews Sisters style and the hook of “zoo zoo zoo” which reminded me (perhaps) of Baloo the Bear.   Jazz purists have always derided Miller for his simple pop take on swing jazz, preferring Ellington, Basie, Hampton, Kenton, Teddy Wilson and so on, and now that I’ve been exposed to all these great bandleaders I can see their point.  But there will always be room for Glenn Miller in my ear – he had the real popular touch, and there is a strange innocence in this song that makes me feel that America can’t be all bad.

Addendum : I’ve never seen this long version in the clip, but it’s a good find I think.

My Pop Life #8 : I Wanna Be Like You – Louis Prima (with Phil Harris)

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I Wanna Be Like You  –  Louis Prima (with Phil Harris)

…I’ve reached the top and had to stop and that’s what’s bothering me…

The Jungle Book came out in 1967 when I was ten and we all went to see it in the cinema in Eastbourne. Maybe mum took us? Andrew was one year old so who knows.  It burned its way into my young brain forever. The tiger, Shere Khan, the snake Kaa, the Beatlesque vultures.  But this section mainly. King Louis was genius. To make the song a New Orleans jazz shuffle (another Louis – Armstrong – was the template) was particularly clever.  To then ask Louis Prima to sing it was inspired.  When the writers approached Prima he said: “You tryin’ to make a monkey outta me? OK I’m in”

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And the animators became inspired in turn by the band in the studio and how they played it.  Phil Harris added his vocal as Baloo which is also hilarious, joyous and completely swings…see the film below.  Of course I had no idea who sang it when I was a child.  Didn’t matter to me one jot.  A singing monkey.  Great.  As one grows through life these things become intriguing and eventually important.  Who was that monkey?  I’d come across Louis Prima at Paulette & Beverley’s legendary parties at Club 61 in Clapham during the late 80s/90s where “I Ain’t Got Nobody” would be belted out at top volume around 4a.m. (by all the single ladies and all of the married ones too) after a particularly excellent & potent caiperinha mixture had done its work.  Then later linked him to Rudyard Kipling and Disney.  Funny old world.  What a tune though.