My Pop Life #190 : There You Are – Millie Jackson

There You Are – Millie Jackson

Shucks, I thought this party was gonna be really hitting on something
Ain’t nothing around here but a bunch of women, nobody to dance with
Every man that looks like anything already been taken
Sho’ can’t trust nobody to tell you where to go these days
Uh oh…..

…hmm Lord, have mercy…

I was 20 years old when I discovered Millie Jackson. And she blew my tiny white boy mind.  No, I didn’t meet her, could’ve been fatal.  I bought an LP entitled Caught Up – I cannot remember why or how I came to know about it.  I was in my soul music educational phase playing catch-up on a lifetime’s diet of Pop Music with the occasional prog rock interlude (Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf) mixed with some Pure Prairie League and Joe Walsh and Spirit with a smattering of Roxy Music, Carly Simon and Joan Armatrading.  You could drive a truck through the gaps – jazz, soul, reggae, classical, african, indian, country, blues, the works really.  I was at least aware of my limited palette and spent all of my spare pocket money on records.  LPs and 45s.  I was living in London with Norman Wilson, Lewis MacLeod and Derek Sherwin and we were all at LSE in the Aldwych so opportunities were many, a stroll down to Berwick Street or D’Arblay St in Soho would leave me flicking through endless LPs I’d never heard of, desperate to spend my student grant.  One of the winners was Millie Jackson.

This LP, as I say, blew me away.  On the cover, Millie Jackson caught in a spider’s web, with a man, and another woman.  The music was soul music with spoken interludes, told from the viewpoint of the mistress and the spoken word sections – notably The Rap which is track two, right after the classic If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Wanna Be Right) – are quite extraordinary.  Tired Of Hiding is also on side one – what a song that is.  Her personality comes breaking out of the speakers, larger than life, mouthy, opinionated, funny, dirty, defiant, honest, truthful. Magnificent.  There’s a section in The Rap, and you have to hear it really because it’s the way she delivers it that kills me, in a sassy Georgia accent via Brooklyn and Jersey :

You know, I don’t wanna leave you with a one-sided conception over this thing.
Anyone out there in my shoes this evening, I want you to know what I’m talking about.
I want you know there’s two sides to this thing.
There’s a good side to being in love with a married man and I like it.
‘Cause you see, when you’re going with a married man, he can come over two or three times a week and give you a little bit.
That means you’re two up on the wife already, ’cause once you’ve married one, you don’t get it but once a week.
Another sweet thing is on pay day, he can come over and give you a little bread and I like that.
But the sweetest thing about the whole situation is the fact that when you go to the Laundromat, you don’t have to wash nobody’s funky drawers but your own and I like it like that

Call me sheltered but it was just something I’d never encountered before.  Growing up in leafy East Sussex I wasn’t aware that I’d met a single black person until I got to the LSE.  A couple of Mauritian nurses at Laughton Lodge, a Brazilian kid at school, Ugandan asians billeted in Lewes, but that was about it.  It was like a doorway into a world I knew nothing about.  It got under my skin clearly.   But it wouldn’t be until 1984 and Panic! at the Royal Court with Danny Boyle and Paulette Randall that I would have a genuine close friend who was black.

The album finishes with a cover of the timeless Bobby Goldsboro ballad Summer (The First Time) with that sexy piano riff and a whispery sexy lead vocal about Millie losing her virginity on the last day of June.  Genuinely Hot Stuff !

The follow-up LP was called Still Caught Up – the cover has a soulful portrait of Millie wearing a 1970s hippy hat.  This follow-up is mainly from the point of view of the wife, with the same scintillating soul-bearing honesty, more like a bulletin from the front line of the sex wars than a soul LP.  Again, spoken word over the orchestrated lush soul section dominates the experience, vengeful, furious, telling it like it is.   Recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama like its predecessor, these two records are classic soul moments which take no prisoners, raunch-rap long before Mary J. Blige or Salt’n’Pepa.  She is a little like a female Barry White or Isaac Hayes but Millie is actually way more original and unique than either of these fellas.  A storyteller.   Still Caught Up finishes with the married woman alone – she’s lost her husband to the other woman on I Still Love You (You Still Love Me) – and it’s a heartfelt tearful slow ballad which finishes in a mental hospital, I kid you not.  No prisoners are taken.  I was hooked by this woman, and bought three more albums before being led astray by other music – 1979’s A Moment’s Pleasure with the opening track Never Change Lovers In The Middle OF The Night and a big dirty live LP called Live and Uncensored which is a record of Millie Jackson’s massive presence in a live arena, something which I regret to never having experienced.

This song comes from Free And In Love, released in 1976.  Not considered in the high echelons like the previous two albums (or the three that preceded them in the early 1970s) it nevertheless contains one of my favourite songs of all time : There You Are.  Again Millie tells us a story, about being at a club, with no decent-looking men available when – uh-oh….

……There You Are…..

Looking like a king and everything…

So in my and Jenny’s favourite section, she turns to Helen for a sister’s help…

Hey, Helen, the fella standing over there on the corner
Do you know his name? Oh, you do… Jimmy?
Would you introduce me to him?
…See, that’s why I don’t like to go nowhere with you
What kind of friend are you?
That’s alright, wait ’til the next time you want somebody to hang out with you
You’re gonna hang out by yourself, ’cause I’m gonna be with Jimmy


So she introduces herself to Jimmy, and the rest is history and herstory. One of her greatest vocal performances, not cynical and whip-smart like much of Caught Up, just open-heart surgery soul music.

We introduced our friend Jimmy Lance to this tune back in the day when we all lived in Brighton.  Oh how we laughed.

Eight years after I first heard Millie Jackson and carried her around in my secret heart like an unspoken, unthought-of sexual fantasy, I was working at The Tricycle Theatre on Kilburn High Road on a show called Return To The Forbidden Planet, by Bob Carlton.  It was a rock’n’roll version of The Tempest set in outer space, loosely based on the 1956 sci-fi B-movie.  All the actors had to sing and play something, and they needed a saxophone.  I auditioned for Hereward Kaye, the MD, and Glen Walford the director (who would a short year later put me off live theatre for 20 years when I played Macbeth in Liverpool Everyman (see My Pop Life #108)).  I did OK.  I got cast as the bo’sun.  We rehearsed and I learned Good Vibrations from Herry, keys and backing vocals, played bass on another song, drums on another song, it was one of those shows where we swapped instruments for effect.  We opened sometime in the spring of 1985.  Mumtaz and I were on our last legs in the Finsbury Park flat (even though tragically she was back in Karachi buying me two wedding shalwar-kamiz behind her parent’s backs) and I was driving to work across the top of Hampstead Heath in my Hillman Minx.   At some point in this process I started rehearsing for the Joint Stock show Deadlines in the daytime hours (see My Pop Life #185) then travelled to the Trike to do the show in the evenings – pretty full on – and I had to stop drinking even a half-pint of beer because it made me feel that my Hepatitus was on the rise again, contracted in Mexico in 1981. I was stretched to the physical limit in other words and my body was letting me know.

When it came to opening night of Planet at the Trike, the actors were told that we had to circulate in the bar with the audience, offering them travel-sickness pills (sweets) and generally hyping up the spacecraft they were about to board (the auditorium, the show).  So we did.  I have no pictures from this part of my life but I guess I was about 28 years old and still had most of my hair.  I walked around the bar slightly reluctantly engaging with the punters – I am incredibly shy.  In fact, I’m not a natural cabaret-type person like the lead actors Mathew Devitt and Nicky .  What this means is that when something goes wrong, they step in and acknowledge the moment, sharing with the audience the unfortunate events and telling off-colour jokes to fill the space.  In fact I could swear that Mathew found these “live” moments his favourite parts of the show.  It’s light entertainment I suppose – or cabaret.  Or stand-up, which hadn’t quite taken off in London at this point but was hovering in the wings waiting to take over.  I was never any good at any of it until I had to be.

So I struggled nightly with these pre-show chores, engaging with the audience as an actor, in character, speaking in an american accent I think.  As I heard the final announcement to “get on board” I swept the final punters out like a good sheepdog then left the bar and rounded the corner into the foyer and

>>>**BAM**<<<

There she was.  Lookin’ like a queen and everything.  There you were.

My future wife.  Looking like Millie Jackson.  Just a little bit.  An usherette.  Tearing tickets.  I just stopped.  A vision.  Of loveliness.  Of love.

We just looked at each other, maybe said “hi” and then I went in, and walked upstairs, for I had a show to do and my entrance was climbing down from the balcony onto the stage.  I didn’t know what had just happened, but it was

a moment.

Hurts so good just wouldn’t start to cover it.  It was electricity.  It’s a reasonably long story in the end.  We saw each other – in the corridor – a few times after that, but people in the theatre warned her off me and it wasn’t to be, it was too complicated all round.  It wouldn’t actually be until 1988 that we finally had a date together, just across the road from the Tricycle in a restaurant called Le Cloche.  That’s for another post I guess.

And… here we are.

My Pop Life #162 : The Way You Look Tonight – Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday

The Way You Look Tonight   –   Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday

Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold

I will feel a glow just thinking of you

and the way you look tonight

While I was studying law in London in the late 1970s I was also improving my musical education.   The record shops of Soho in particular were a ten-minute walk from Fitzroy Street where I lived, and bulged with unknown treasure that I saved up for, dipped into and splurged on.  Like a child in a sweet shop I wanted to sample everything.  I felt ignorant about music, like I had huge holes in my knowledge – particularly classical, anything not in English or jazz.

One of the first ever jazz records I bought was a white double LP from Columbia Records called Masters of Jazz  –  Billie Holiday Volume 1 : 1933 – 1936.   It felt like an LP that may have some answers.  I also bought a Duke Ellington LP in a similar package – one of a series.  I imagined, no doubt that the other volumes would follow.   I thought jazz might be ‘a bit difficult’ – but that couldn’t have been further from the truth and I couldn’t stop playing both records.   Totally by luck I had hit bullseye first shot – the Billie Holiday / Teddy Wilson songs are both eternal and perfect, simple and complex, they reveal more and more layers of joy with each listen – and still do some 40 years later.   Over the years of loving these songs – now collected on another “complete” Columbia series which are for me the pinnacle of 20th century pop – I’ve come to really adore the piano playing of Teddy Wilson.

Billie Holiday was 18 when she recorded her first sides, with Benny Goodman – the 2 songs from 1933 are the first on this LP.  Then she did a recording with Duke Ellington in 1935 called Symphony In Black which I wrote about in My Pop Life #34.  I don’t know what she did from 18-20, aside from live dates, I guess the pop vocal world was pretty competitive back then and Billie was already seen particularly by producer and early champion  John Hammond as a jazz stylist rather than a pop singer.  Nevertheless in 1935 she cut her first sides with swing maestro Teddy Wilson for the Brunswick label and had a hit with What A Little Moonlight Can Do.   The resulting five years produced the incredible music which I stumbled onto in Soho back when I was a callow youth.  Extraordinary music.  Each song a glittering diamond of the art.

Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Allen Reuss, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson kneeling NYC 1936

Jazz standards they’re called now, some of them have become part of The Great American Songbook, others are pop songs of the day played by an ace swing band under the twinkle of Teddy Wilson.  The players were legendary themselves : Lester Young on the tenor sax, whom Billie Holiday called Prez.  He in turn anointed her Lady Day. On this song – Ben Webster on the tenor, another top player. The mighty Gene Krupa on drums from the Benny Goodman Trio, where Teddy Wilson had been one of the first black players in a prominent integrated band back in the early 1930s.

All of the numbers follow the same architectural pattern, which nowadays would be considered musical suicide.  The vocal doesn’t come in for at least 2 minutes usually.  (Hmm perhaps resembling House Music from the 1980s).   First, a shuffle is established and the melody is played by clarinet, tenor saxophone, trumpet or piano.  A full verse is played, followed by an improvised verse, followed by more of the same.  All the lead instruments get a turn, then finally, around halfway through the song, Billie sings.  The result is simply breathtaking.  You hear the greatest players of the day riffing over the sweetest songs, reigned in by the rhythm section and the melody and producing some of the most sublime music known to man – then Billie Holiday takes it home.  Always behind the beat, sometimes thrillingly in-between the beats, singing a song of her own inside the song.  She is another jazz instrumentalist, using her voice and the words as her tune.  Very few singers can pull this off – this level of structural awareness, to stretch the song beyond it’s confines to another level of syncopation and genius.

Many listeners like the God Bless The Child side of Billie, the later material on Verve from the 40s when she probably had a cigarette dangling from her mouth and was singing weary blues and jazz with great heart-wrenching and pitiful emotion and of course – it’s better than great.  She wrote the extraordinary Strange Fruit in 1939, her initial unwillingness to sing it apparently coming from memories of her father’s death.  Her talent was huge, her life was tragic.  She poured it all into the music until she simply couldn’t be bothered, wrecked  with heroin, drink and everything else and died in destitution from liver failure in July 1959.

I prefer these early sides from the late thirties to the bluesy broken Billie.   Musical people at the height of their game, playing exquisite pop music on disc.  Carefree beautiful music, written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Sammy Cahn.

But check out the piano of Teddy Wilson.  Syncopation and a loose tightness, rolling phrases, moments of strange determination and bloody-mindedness, lyrical beauty.  It reminds me of Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin (see My Pop Life #9) and there can be no higher praise from me.  I’d love to hear Teddy Wilson playing Chopin.  Purists may scoff (oh go on, please) but examples abound of the jazz/classical crossover, from Aretha Franklin singing Nessun Dorma when Pavarotti fell ill in 1988, and Benny Goodman playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in 1949.  Different disciplines, sure, but same instrument.  Anyway, Teddy does it for me as a pianist.  Something very quality going on.  He became known as the ‘Marxist Mozart’ in New York thanks to his leftist sympathies, people don’t like to distinguish between shades of red do they, if you’re vaguely left you’re a commie.  For example Teddy chaired the Artist’s Committe to Elect Benjamin J. Davis, black Communist leader who was elected to the NY City Council in 1943.

This song was written by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, originally sung by Fred Astaire in the film Swing Time, and winning the Oscar for best original song in 1936.  It’s a corker of a tune.  Similar in theme to Don’t Ever Change from the 1960s.  A wonky piano backflip takes us into the clarinet melody over a brisk shuffle, played straight just once, followed by eight bars of improvisation before the trumpet takes us through the second verse and we slide gloriously back to the piano genius of Wilson before Billie finally, reluctantly, joins them, singing her song inside theirs.   All these sides from these sessions – mainly cut in New York, but also recorded in Chicago and Los Angeles – are for me the very stuff of joy itself.

These days it is possible to listen to Billie Holiday in rehearsal, phrasing, trying stuff out, ordering drinks, flexing her vocal instrument, arguing.  Too much information?  For some people yes.  They prefer to receive the art in finished condition, these overheard bootlegs of conversations feel intrusive, reductive.  Others, including me, want everything.  When I started collecting Beatles bootlegs, I relished every overheard word, every joke and quip, every false start and breakdown.  It was like gold dust.

Billie Holiday : A female jazz artist in a male world : 1939

This song was recorded on October 21st 1936.  Astaire had already recorded it, and many others would follow – Parker, Sinatra, Art Blakey, Ferry, Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee….

No particular memory, just a lifetime’s pleasure.

My Pop Life #151 : Mood Indigo – Charles Mingus

Mood Indigo   –   Charles Mingus

I have been writing this occasional musical memoir now for almost two years. This is the 151st entry, the 151st song. Am I halfway-through? One third? Just started? Almost finished?  Who knows.  If only it had been the 150th…

I am pressing the great pause button in the sky after this entry though, because, so far at least, I have not been paid for my writings here. So for the time being I will transfer my attention and energy to the commercial sphere, and look to create some drama, whether it be theatre, TV or film. I am sure occasional entries will insist on being registered, songs will trigger memories, memories will trigger songs. The blog’s not dead, just resting.

Charles Mingus entered my world in the late 1970s. I was studying law at LSE. I’d spent the first two years in University accomodation around Fitzroy St W1, beneath the Post Office tower, a short walk down Charlotte St to Soho and the West End. I’d torn tickets at The Other Cinema on Scala Street, soon to become The Scala Cinema. I’d seen the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and The Clash live onstage.  Now in 1978 I moved out of Central London and dared to relocate south of the river, where fellow student Mike Stubbs rented an entire house on Canonbie Road in Honor Oak.  SE23 for fuck’s sake.  I had a bedroom (with a piano in it!), and shared the facilities – bathroom, kitchen, living room, garden – with Mike and his girlfriend Hilary, and her friend Rosie, who were both nurses. It was massively civilized, and very comfortable – by far the most well-appointed place I’d ever lived in, reminding me of the Korner’s Lewes house, or the Ryle’s place on St Anne’s Cresecent. Or come to think of it, our beautiful semi-detached place in Selmeston where I grew up.  Honor Oak is a hill just to the south of Peckham Rye, and I caught the number 63 bus into the LSE every day, rather than walk through Bloomsbury down to the Aldwych as I had for the two previous years. It was all very grown up and rather shocking.  I recall that at least some of the time I would stay in town with my girlfriend Mumtaz in William Goodenough House, Mecklenburgh Square WC1.  Bloomsbury.

I was musically curious even then. Not content with punk and new wave I was exploring the deeper realms of Pop with the encouragement of Mike. He made me a tape – a C90 cassette – called Gotta Have Pop, which contained songs by solo Jay Ferguson (from Spirit), the later period Kinks (Celluloid Heroes), Supertramp, 10cc and Colin Blunstone. My classmate Lewis MacLeod and I were deep underground in the soul mine digging out ‘unknown classics’ from the record shops of Soho – Major Lance, Garnet Mimms, Lorraine Ellison, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland (see My Pop Life #28 ) or Millie Jackson.

But my inner explorer was going further – I’d bought a Duke Ellington LP, a Billie Holiday LP, a Stan Getz LP, and next : a Charlie Mingus LP. I cannot remember why or how this album caught my attention, but I bought it without listening to it, I liked the cover, maybe someone I admired had mentioned it, maybe a random choice.

It was called Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus and it was and still is completely amazing.  I am eternally grateful that I found this album and this artist at such a young age – or at any age really.  Hours of joy and passion.  There are many jazz artists that I have simply not heard in any context, and I am sure that many of them are absolutely brilliant, just undiscovered by my ears just yet.  But here was a bullseye.  Mingus played double bass and ran a large band for this LP which was made in 1963 in New York.  Among the players : Eric Dolphy on saxophone, Eddie Preston & Richard Williams on trumpets and Jaki Byard on the piano.  The album collects different versions of some of Mingus’ best-known compositions often with different titles.  The classic Goodbye Pork Pie Hat becomes Theme For Lester Young, while Haitian Fight Song becomes II B.S.   The LP was a kind of full stop in Mingus’career to that date, a summation of a brilliant run of albums that culminated in The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady in 1963.   He was a superb arranger and big-band leader, second only to the great Duke Ellington in the history of jazz.  On this record he pulled in Bob Hammer to help orchestrate, arrange and score the eleven-piece band.

None of which I knew in 1978.  It was just a great noise.  Jazz.  Squelchy, fat, fluid, wild and hot.  The notes stretch against each other, pulling in different directions, the result is terrifically exciting music.  It operates like a kind of collective improvisation at times, and although the elements of free jazz might be suggested, everything is pinned down, but loose.  It’s a great trick if you can pull it off.

People seem to prefer Mingus Ah Um from 1959 (a stunning LP) or The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady LP, but my ears prefer this album which for me is simply wall-to-wall genius.  On it there is one cover – a song which appeared on my Duke Ellington LP (1929-1930) – a very famous slow blues ballad called Mood Indigo.  Written in 1930 by Ellington and Barney Bigard, with occasional lyrics by Irving Mills, although often played as an instrumental.  Ellington’s genius was to take the three lead instruments : Bigard on the clarinet (normally the top line) Arthur Whetsol on trumpet (in the middle) Joe Nanton on trombone (bottom line) and reverse them, so that Nanton was playing at the very top of his range, and Bigard at the very bottom of his.  The result was astounding.  Mingus takes the elements of this gentle lyrical tune, strips them out and reconfigures them – with respect, always with respect for Duke – and then proceeds to play a double bass solo which is the final word in bass playing I believe.

Charles Mingus died in 1979.  His widow, Sue Mingus, runs several bands who play his enormous legacy of works.  There is the seven-piece Mingus Dynasty.  There is a Mingus Big Band who perform at the Jazz Standard on E 27th St every Monday night, a 14-piece playing the well-known and undiscovered compositions of the master.  Jenny and I went last year with Doraly & Kristine and had a terrific night in the company of five-star players – occasionally Randy Brecker, Wayne Escoffery or Vincent Herring sit in, but they’re all top top players.  The school of jazz that Mingus started back in 1956 is still running it’s collective improvisation classes, play loose, stay tight, listen to each other.  Although the work now is scored, the feel has to still be there.   One of the very best nights out you can have in Manhattan.

At the interval I went upstairs for a cigarette and had a chat to the bass player Boris Kozlov who was doing the same.  Well- he was being Mingus, I was just smoking a cigarette.  I asked him if he was going to play Mood Indigo.  “No,” he said,  “Mingus didn’t write that.”

“I know” I said.  “But it’s one of his greatest moments for me”.

“You’re right” he said.

I base my opinion on a small collection of Mingus LPs which I have collected over the years – and my ears.  Last year I read his pungent and scandal-laden autobiography which is nothing if not honest, entitled “Beneath The Underdog“.  It describes his early years and adventures in Los Angeles and New York in the underbelly of the jazz scene with startling clarity and eye-opening salacious detail.  I recommend it to all.

Mood Indigo has become one of my theme songs over the ensuing years.  Never far from a top 20 list or a mixtape, it conjures something ineffable and pure which seems to come from my very bones.  It’s all in the bass.  The horns wail the familiar tune which appears to express pure sorrow, while the piano adds splashes of colour.  But the double bass expresses the soul of the piece and takes the solo into inner space, while always being aware of the song’s essential shape.   Mingus adored and admired Ellington, and so do I, (see My Pop Life #34) and this song, like many of the Duke’s, became a standard – a tune to play for the punters then improvise around, stretch out on.  It is the definition of beauty.

It also seems to express an inner sadness that is an essential part of me.  I am unable to rest or relax without feeling it.  Only when busy or when filled with purpose does this feeling retreat.  When I am writing, playing music, acting, shopping, sweeping the floor or folding clothes in the corner laundrette then I feel fine.  But when everything is done and the great void offers to swallow me up once more, the horror vacuii emerges from within and I feel in my essence a profound depression which I have had for over 50 years.  Mingus suffered from depression too, and fits of rage with famous examples of physical explosions and giant sulks.  He was a musical perfectionist and demanded the very best from his team, from his band.  He hated the clink of ice in a glass when he was playing live in nightclubs, and often stopped to berate the audience.  He was driven, unhappy and had to express himself to survive, and I totally understand that.  It’s not a matter of choice, it’s a compulsion to create or drown in your own mood indigo.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog, it will continue but not on a regular basis.  There is a Follow button to the right beneath this post, if you click it, any new posts will come direct to your inbox.   Stay well.  Be kind.  Bye.

 

My Pop Life #140 : The Right Thing To Do – Carly Simon

The Right Thing To Do   –   Carly Simon

And it used to be for a while
That the river flowed right to my door
Making me just a little too free
But now the river doesn’t seem to stop here anymore

Spring 1977.  I’m nearing the end of my first year at LSE.  I’ve got a decision to make, because during the long summer break I won’t be able to stay in my lodgings, the Maple Street flats on the corner of Fitzroy St, London W1, because they are owned and run by the LSE and in the summer we can’t stay there.  Most of my gang are going home to Glasgow, Sussex,  Barnsley, or Bedfordshire.  I actually hadn’t worked anything out, but going back to Hailsham and that sin city council estate wasn’t even an option.  But I was no longer going out with Miriam, so the Ryles wasn’t an option, Simon Korner was going abroad and going back to Lewes somehow didn’t seem right anyway.   Then I spotted a notice on the college noticeboard :

ACTORS WANTED FOR NEW PLAY GOING TO EDINBURGH FESTIVAL
JUNE – AUGUST
AUDITIONS BLAH BLAH BLAH

I scribbled the phone number down and called it up and booked an audition.  I cannot remember a single detail of the audition, either where it was, what I had to do, anything. But I got it, and made immediate plans to stay in London for the rehearsals.

Only one pupil from Lewes Priory had gone to Drama School (Drama Centre I think?) – Helen Lane, who was in the year above me.  I knew her because I’d done a few plays at school – rehearsing after school usually with kids older than me.  So many stories there – but – I enjoyed it.  I knew I’d enjoy Edinburgh – although I’d never even heard of the Festival before.  During my first year studying law down on the Aldwych there were a few competing social activities – and after some thought I’d decided to play football on Wednesday afternoons.  It clashed with Drama which was also on offer.  But I’d played football for Lewes every Saturday morning for years, and subsequently played centre-half for the LSE.  The home games were in New Malden so some commitment was required !  But the point was, that I treated playing football and drama as the same kind of thing.  Like playing pool.  Things that you did for fun, in the evening and at weekends.  So a whole summer of that was cool by me.

Anyway, I told Helen about Edinburgh and she was very supportive and offered her floor for me to sleep on for rehearsals.  I think she lived in Camden Town or maybe Kentish Town.  Rehearsals were near Russell Square somewhere in Bloomsbury which was my route to college anyway, familiar.  Weird this – by now I was going steady with Mumtaz, and she was running the student accommodations so why didn’t I stay with her ?  The memory is no help once again.

Carly Simon, London 1972

Now it’s all going to go vague. I think a fella called Murray directed the play.  we did weird stretches and warm-ups in the mornings and played some drama games which I would remember for my National Youth Theatre Days a decade later (see My Pop Life #7).  I was playing a recruiting Lieutenant for the US Army.  The play was called The Death Of Private Kowalski.  The National Student Theatre Company, run by Mr Clive Wolfe was producing it at their inaugural season at Edinburgh.  We were in a theatre or perhaps it was a Church Hall in Broughton St ? York Place ? in Edinburgh.  Near Leith Walk ?  I think we shared it with a deaf theatre company.   I remember an altercation one night, just the silent fury of sign language.  I think an American actor called Tom played Private Kowalski.  I remember little very clearly.  But I’m absolutely certain that every single one of the cast EXCEPT FOR ME was at Drama School – either Rada, Drama Centre, Ealing, Mountview or the Old Vic.  I was an object of curiosity.

“What are you going to do when you leave college?”

I’m going to be a barrister.

“Oh.  Really?”

Yes.  Really.  Why, what are you going to do?

“What do you think?  I’m going to be an actor of course.”

> THUNDERSTRUCK <

Edinburgh 77

A trickle of an idea started to form in my left ear.  I didn’t dare speak it aloud, so daring , so brave and foolish it was.  One other student from LSE was in the Company, Nick Broadhurst who was studying Sociology.  I was quite impressed that he’d managed to snaggle the beautiful Tibetan student Kalsang as his girlfriend, but he listened to weird music like Elevator Coming Over The Hill.  He was helping Clive behind the scenes and secretly plotting a brave and dangerous idea of his own.   The other administrator was Jane who had curly brown hair and John Lennon granny glasses.  I think my digs were unremarkable, and all I remember of Edinburgh is the constant smell of sweetness in the air coming from the breweries.  Known as “Auld Reekie” Edinburgh was a cornucopia of delights, from the Castle to the Fringe club, to the streets full of actors and clowns and buskers all competing for audience.  This was 1977 remember, way before the comedians took over, and way before it became the commercial event it is today.  It was a theatre festival, and I remember seeing groups from Russia and New Zealand that year.

Edinburgh Festival 1977

Then, one afternoon, after the show (once a day at 3pm I believe) I was downstairs in the toilet having a slash.  Innocent, unformed and alive, I was about to experience what I would later understand was akin to a Damascene conversion.  In an Ediburgh toilet. Beside me a large man who asked me, in a strong Texan accent

“Where are you from in America son?”

Is it strange that I had my cock in my hand at this revelation, as the stars changed course and the earth swallowed my life up and spat me back out ?

I’m from England

I replied, shaking drips and re-corking the underpants.  “Well,” said the Texan,

“Fooled me.  Great Job !”

Thank you I said, covering my earthquake and zipping up the trouser.  It was a bolt of lightning which went to my very core and rewired my entire life.  At that point I realised that I could be like those other kids.  I could be an actor.

*

Why Carly Simon ?  Really ?  Well, it was ubiquitous that summer.  No idea why – it had been out for years by then.  But music lasted in those days.  This LP, No Secrets by Carly Simon, was an ever-present that summer.  I think Helen had it in her flat in Kentish Town.  Jane definitely had it.  I kept seeing girls carrying it.  It was a girls record.  All the girls I knew LOVED IT.  And I became exposed to it, there was a record player somewhere and on it went.  It is an amazing LP.  Of course I already knew You’re So Vain from Pan’s People dancing to it on Top Of The Pops and finding clouds in their coffee.  No Secrets was her 3rd LP on Elektra Records, making number one in the billboard charts for 5 straight weeks in 1972.  I love every song on this record.  Lovely chord changes on The Carter Family and When You Close Your Eyes and emotional bombs going off all over the place.  The Right Thing To Do is the opening song and has a lazy 70s feel that takes me right back to the joints smoked, the relaxed vibes, the flares, the girls.

Trident Studio (as was), St Ann’s Court

Later I would discover that No Secrets was recorded at Trident Studios in St Ann’s Court in Soho, now a Film Production house where I’ve done numerous voice recordings, ADR sessions and so on.  Transformer, Space Oddity and many other great albums were recorded there in the 60s and 70s.  The studio musician credits on No Secrets now reads like a who’s who of the London Sessions, about which I almost made a documentary a few years back.  Another story.  Andy Newmark on drums, Klaus Voorman on bass, Jimmy Ryan on guitars.  With contributions from my old friend Ray Cooper (from Handmade Films) on percussion (listen for the ripple of the congas after the first line of The Right Thing To Do), Jim Keltner, Paul Buckmaster, Paul & Linda McCartney, Mick Jagger, Lowell George, Bonnie Bramlett, James Taylor, Bobby Keys, Nicky Hopkins, Doris Troy with Liza Strike and Vicki Brown doing the bvs for this song.  Richard Perry produced. Everything clearly just fell into place. There is an ease and a freshness to these songs, both in the writing and the recording.

*

I’ve often wondered in subsequent years, perhaps on a daily basis whether a career in acting was The Right Thing To Do.  I went back to LSE that autumn a changed man, but I completed the final two years of the law degree and I am indeed LLB or Batchelor of Law. So I have a complex relationship with my ghost career as a barrister, and often peek over to see how he’s doing.  How’m I doing ?  Possibly my least favourite question.  Gemini. Always needs an option.   I sadly discovered while writing this blurry memory that Clive Wolfe passed away last year.  RIP.  He was at  least partly responsible for where I am today.

Live !!

My Pop Life #136 : Sanson Ki Maala Pe Simrun Main – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Sanson Ki Maala Pe Simrun Main   –   Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

سانس لینے میں ہار     –   ‘necklace of breath’

*

Sanson ki maala pe simrun main pi ka naam

Apne mann ki main janun aur pi ke mann ki Ram

With every breath I take, I chant the name of my beloved;  I know what’s in my heart, and God knows what’s in the heart of my beloved

*

Blackstock Road, Finsbury Park

In 1983 I lived in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz.  We’d met in 1976 in Carr Saunders Hall on Fitzroy Street, part of the LSE student accommodation portfolio.  We’d been an item since then.   The Finsbury Park flat was a bedsit really, under the roof of a three-story building with two sloping ceilings.  I was 26 and just starting out on a professional acting career.  Mumtaz had completed her law exams and was embarking on a career as a solicitor in the criminal law.  Downstairs was Laurie Jones, an old Communist who looked like both Burl Ives AND Vladimir Ilych Lenin, a Tottenham fan with Season tickets to both Spurs and Arsenal.   A very interesting man.  A legend in fact.  On the ground floor was a blues run by a friendly Jamaican man called Shirley.

Mumtaz was born in Aden, now Yemen, to Indian parents, and her father was a doctor who had left India at partition in 1949.  The family left Aden in 1966 when it became independent and being muslims decided to settle in Karachi in  Pakistan.  Having gone to school high in the Himalayas in Murree, Kashmir, Mumtaz had come to London to do a degree in international history and politics, then decided to become a lawyer, which meant years of legal exams.   Her elder sister Nasreen was a barrister, younger brothers Mahmood and Mehboob would start an accountancy firm together.  When we ate in, which we usually did, Taj would usually cook something from her cuisine – Roghan Josh, Chicken Curry, Keema Peas, Aloo Gobi, Basmati Rice, Dal, Raita, flat bread (often pitta bread) – and over the years she taught me how to buy the ingredients and cook this food.  The spices were never mixed – we bought black pepper balls, cloves, sticks of cinnamon bark – dry spices, and these would be cooked before the oil was introduced.  They flavoured the oil. Or ghee – clarified butter.  Then the onions, then the meat or veg, and then the other spices – all with their Indian names – I’ll do a brief translation…

Garam Marsala – the combination of pepper, cloves and cinnamon

Haldi  –  Turmeric – which gives everything that yellow colour

Jeera –  Cumin –  in seed form or as powder

Dhaniya – Coriander powder, or fresh coriander often used as garnish.  Also called cilantro in the US and shadow-benee in St Lucia (!)

Chilli – in powder form, or chopped fresh.  It’s the white seeds which burn the tongue

Ginger – also in powder form or chopped fresh as is

Garlic – powdered or chopped fresh.

Every dish we made always had all of the above in, with salt and often mustard seeds too.  To be eaten with yoghurt (Raita) sometimes with lightly roasted cumin seeds if we could be bothered, never with cucumber like they do in the restaurants, and pitta bread, which was wetted with water and grilled very slightly so it was warm but still fluffy.  The morning after a meal, Taj would fry two eggs and serve the left-overs as breakfast. Delicious.

Over the years I learned a little Urdu, and at one point made an effort to start reading it.  That was a challenge I never met.  But Taj would speak to me in Urdu, and things would sink in.

“Mai ghar jana Chahiye” =  I want to go home.

 “Bukle ghi hai ?” =  are you hungry ?

Mumtaz was a practising muslim – she prayed every day, perhaps not five times a day, and she covered her head when she prayed usually.  We never did go to the mosque together, and I never did meet her parents, who lived in Karachi in any case.  Taj was a relaxed muslim – clearly since she was living with an Englishman in sin, and drinking fine wines, smoking cigarettes.  We got on very well in my memory.  When we went out it was to plays or films or gigs – The Specials, Talking Heads, Nina Simone, Al Green, Todd Rundgren, Roxy Music.   King Sunny Ade (see My Pop Life #115).  Then one night Mumtaz took me to a Pakistani gig.

I cannot remember where she got the tickets, but there we were in the front row of the balcony inside Shoreditch Town Hall, before it was a hipster neighbourhood.  It was the top of Brick Lane, essentially.  The audience was almost entirely filled with sub-continentals, ie Indians and Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, perhaps some Sri Lankans.  One or two white faces including mine.  At risk of repeating myself, it was around this point that “world music” had started to leak into the country, via WOMAD (see My Pop Life #67),Stern’s Music Store in Whitfield St (see My Pop Life #38), the John Peel Show, and word of mouth.  But this gig felt very much like an underground show, not one which the cognoscenti were attending. Unlike King Sunny Ade earlier that year, which despite being full of Nigerians, also had it’s complement of musical tourists.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would have been 35 years old at this point, almost ten years older than me.  A mountain of a man, with a beatific child-like face, he sat cross-legged on the carpeted stage and made himself comfortable, to huge applause from the audience.  The tension and apprehension was palpable.  Alongside him, a harmonium player.  Also a tabla player, perhaps another drummer.   I can’t be sure if there was a swarmandel or a tamboura – (a stringed instrument, not a sitar), but behind the front four chaps were four more seated fellows who were essentially the vibes – singing and clapping.  I had very little idea of what to expect, but as Nusrat indicated that he was ready to start you could almost hear the intake of breath before the absolute silence in the hall.

The harmonium played a note or three.  Nusrat raised a hand, concentrated, a bead of sweat already trickling down his face.  The entire hall was focussed on this man, his hand expressing some inner spiritual moment.  Then he opened his mouth and sang.  Long tones, which were immediately picked up by the fellows behind him, harmonising, echoing.  A melody was picked out and repeated.  Now I wish I’d studied Urdu better, but these were Sufi religious songs, ghazals and bhajans and qawwalis praising the prophet Muhammed either literally or poetically.  But I had no idea they were so powerful, so beautiful, so technically incredible.

Qawwal & Party

As the beat started to throb and the hand claps set the rhythm, the mood became celebratory, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan started to lose himself in the music, started to float upon the bed of song that was being created around him, started to improvise.  Now the full glory of this man became apparent.  He sang slow, he sang fast, he chattered like a woodpecker, he made up impossible melodies as they occurred to him, he slowed down to careening hymn-like swells, all the while the band would follow his every note, with him all the way, supporting, lifting, praising, at one.  Quite sensational and unlike any concert I’d ever seen before.

The songs were over 20 minutes long and the audience were encouraged to clap along.  The atmosphere was quite mesmeric and spiritual, without being religious at all.  I could enjoy it in my own way as I’m sure devout muslims in the audience could as well.  It was quite simply one of the most astonishing things I’d ever witnessed.  Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan got hot and undid layers, got wet and dabbed away the sweat, got thirsty and drank water.  But I’d never heard anyone sing like that ever before.  It was like James Brown and Aretha Franklin combined with Al Green and Otis Redding.  Feverish, impassioned, live.  He was quite literally lost and found in the music.  His hand would trace the melody in the sky as he searched for new shapes to sing.  Now and again the familiar chorus line would swing back into view and everyone would clap along, then a new space would appear for Nusrat to improvise and extemporise into.  It was astounding.   We were witnessing one of the greats in his pomp.

By the end of the show we were drained and exhausted but moved beyond our wildest craziest dreams and the man next to me turned with a smile “Did you like it?”.  I was dazed and happy and said yes, I’d loved it.  “Better than your opera !” the man said, pretty sure of himself, not joking, full of fervour and pride in his own culture, proud to have it represented to his foreign neighbour.  He was right.

Mumtaz and I floated home.   We knew we’d been treated to a rare soul.

The following year the LP Allah Hoo was released in the UK, then Qawwal & Party Volume One.   I’ve bought a fair bit of his stuff over the years, but he’s made over 160 LPs on Oriental Star Agencies recordings alone (based in Birmingham UK), and I don’t have many of those to be honest.   I have about 60 songs I guess and I can play Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan all day long and not get tired of it.  It is made as spiritual music and perhaps that is the effect it has on me.  It lifts me certainly.

This song : Sanson Ki Mala Pe, is an old bhajan from the early 14th century originally sung in praise of Hindu god Lord Krishna.   It was first sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in 1979 as a Sufi praise song and was hugely popular.  The title and repeated phrase translates as

On the garland of my breaths I have bejewelled my beloved’s name

but other translations use the phrase rosary of breath.  The thing about Urdu, and Arabic, is that they are written in Arabic script, from right to left.  When you write it out in English, there are always these discrepancies in the spelling of words like Mala – Maala etc.  Not a good example – Mala = found and Maala = beads (the necklace or rosary).  Anyway (!) Urdu is an extremely poetic language and resists easy translation of the more beautiful poems and ghazals.  But I’ve never needed to know what Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is singing to be honest.  The music sends me, as my Mum used to say.   And I feel extremely lucky and honoured to have witnessed one of the greatest singers of my lifetime performing live on stage, not once but twice.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died in August 1997 of kidney and liver failure.   He was 49 years old.

the short version : an excerpt –

the full genius 25 minute experience :

My Pop Life #113 : God Save The Queen – The Sex Pistols

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God Save The Queen   –   The Sex Pistols

we mean it maaan…

God save your mad parade.  The Silver Jubilee, June 7th 1977.  I was living in a flat on Fitzroy Street with one other gentlemen, also an LSE student – a Trinidadian indian chap called Mahmood.  I had befriended the LSE Ents crowd – bands, weed, politics, journalism.  We went to gigs, we got stoned and listened to music, we went on marches and demonstrations, we wrote articles in the student rag.  The hair was reasonably long, but by summer 1977 I’d gone punk (see My Pop Life 52 / The Clash / Complete Control) or had I ?  Musically we all had – The Clash LP was played endlessly and we’d all been to gigs by people like 999 and The Adverts, Slaughter & The Dogs & The Vibrators.  When the hair got cut and dyed I can’t remember, but it was that summer.  In fact – that has sprung my memory – I was 20 years old later that month, and I would have felt that big zero number coming like we all do, so I’m pretty sure that once punk was unearthed and discovered from it’s hidden realms – I was surrounded by it in other words – I would have dived in both barrels because this would be my last teenage gang.   A nineteen-year old punk is almost too old, but there were way WAY older than me back then dontcha know.   Anyway – who cares about the age thing, it’s all bollocks, to use a word we wouldn’t see in day-glo colours until late October.  We couldn’t believe how long it was taking the Sex Pistols to release their first album, they’d changed record companies three times and put out four blindingly good singles.  This is the second one, and, although Anarchy In The UK (released 26 November ’76) was a statement of intent and a major punk manifesto of nihilism, God Save The Queen was a more thrilling record.  It’s not a competition anyway, but by May 1977 The Sex Pistols’ notoriety was at its height.

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Posters with the portrait of The Queen with a safety pin through her mouth started appearing on the streets, and many would be vandalised, torn down or spray-painted.   The cover of the single was in silver and blue, the Jubilee colours, designed by Jamie Reid, but it wasn’t planned as a comment on the Jubilee.  In fact the song was recorded in October & March at Wessex Sound Studios with producer Chris Thomas.

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Paul Cook, Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock & Steve Jones in 1976

Johnny Rotten wrote the song over beans on toast for breakfast one morning, and Steve Jones and Glen Matlock (before he left) helped with the music and Jones played guitar and bass – Sid wasn’t up to recording anything too musical, being mainly ‘the gimmick’.  He’d replaced Glen Matlock the original bass player.  In fact manager and svengali Malcolm McLaren had contacted Matlock and asked him to play bass on God Save The Queen, and Glen agreed, if he got paid up front.  The money never appeared so Jones got the gig.

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 The single was pressed on A&M Records, but the label then sacked the band ten days after signing them and withdrew the promotional copies. These have become among the most valuable collector’s items in vinyl history – one A&M copy of God Save The Queen sold for £13,000 in 2006.

So when the single was released on Virgin Records in May 1977 it had been around for a while.  The coincidental hoopla of the Silver Jubilee – the constant bullshit of bunting, nationalism, false history and doffing the cap to our betters had fed an anti-royal fervour which was there to be ignited.

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  The record was banned by the BBC and subsequently went to the number One position in the national charts, although officially it remained at number two, behind Rod Stewart.  We all knew it was number one on sales, it wasn’t even conspiracy theory.  No one had ever dared to question the Royal Family so publicly before in living memory and a thrill ran through public life as the British Establishment responded with threats of arrest and the Tower via Traitor’s Gate.  There were  attacks on the band and other punks on the streets by nationalist youth, skinheads and other offended types.

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Jubilee : On the Thames

And then, when The Sex Pistols hired a boat and played the song on the River Thames across from the Houses Of Parliament, a police boat came alongside, boarded, pulled the plug, shut them down and arrested Malcolm McClaren.  It was perfect publicity of course.  Everyone played their role.

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McClaren arrested June 7th 1977

The other half of the country was cheering them on, revelling in the open defiance of the snotty plebs, two fingers up to her Maj.   No Future….

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On that day June 7th when the single was Number One (Number Two officially!) and the whole nation had a public holiday, people were encouraged to organise street parties and genuflect, the students gathered in flat 4:1 where Andy Cornwell opened his windows onto the street, we rolled joints and smoked them out of the window, and we played The Sex Pistols “God Save The Queen” all day, off and on, and then at one point for at least an hour, over and over again.  Don’t forget that when I say we “played” the single, we actually had a few copies and a nice stereo, and the needle would be placed back to the edge of the seven-inch circle.    Those present :  Andy Cornwell, Van Morrison devotee;  Norman Wilson, Thin Lizzy fan;  Lewis MacLeod, Flamin’ Groovies appreciation society;  Anton, Neil Young groover;  Nigel, Todd Rundgren acolyte;  Derek, Joan Armatrading lover;  and me, Ralph, Peter Hammill and Gentle Giant collector.  Not a punk among us – although I suspect I’d started posing as a punk by then due to the imminence of my 20th birthday – but we all LOVED this single (although memory tells me that Barnsley lad Norman hated punk rock) and celebrated its timely arrival at the top of the charts, but off the radio, on Jubilee Day.  We became the radio and made up for all the plays the song wasn’t getting on the BBC.  It was a legendary day.  Actually we were White Punks On Dope.  Stoned out of our boxes listening to the Pistols and dub reggae.

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Sid Vicious, Paul Cook, Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones

Later that year I would get word from Stephen Woolley in the Scala Cinema coffee bar where I worked (see my Pop Life …) that the Pistols were playing in London the following night.  I can’t remember how I snaffled a ticket but I did, and went up to Birkbeck College in Uxbridge to see them.  They opened with God Save The Queen.  Mayhem.

Jubilee river boat trip :

My Pop Life #98 : When Something Is Wrong With My Baby – Sam & Dave

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When Something Is Wrong With My Baby   –   Sam & Dave

…we stand as one…and that’s what makes it better….

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Sam and Dave in 1967

When I landed at LSE in 1976 to study Law I was a country boy from Sussex who’d grown up in a town where the 1960s were still being celebrated.   Lewes wouldn’t go punk until around 1979-1980.   My musical taste was – I thought – pretty wide.    It wasn’t.    I’d discovered soul and reggae in 1971 in the magical forms of Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Dave & Ansel Collins and Bob & Marcia – all chart acts though.  All the non-chart music I liked was stuff like:  prog (VDGG & Gentle Giant), US country rock (Commander Cody, Joe Walsh) and groovy english rock (Man & Roxy Music).  Random additions in the shape of Osibisa, Joan Armatrading and Blue Öyster Cult completed the patchy picture.   My new friend at LSE was in the shape of Glaswegian Rangers fan Lewis MacLeod, also studying Law, with absurdly long wavy hair and an almost unintelligible accent, especially when drunk.   We bonded while writing a Beatles ‘A’ Level Paper together one stoned afternoon (I’ll blog it one day).   We were hungry for more music.   Together we would go on a voyage of discovery into the deepest realms of soul music.  Classic soul music.

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I suspect the first major purchase of this period was James Brown’s 30 Golden Hits, all the singles from Please Please Please through to the most recent Sex Machine.   This was a record to savour.   But it wasn’t enough, oh no.    Next up was the Stax Gold LP which was the creme de la creme from Memphis, but only scratched the surface of that great record label (William Bell and Judy Clay – Private Number, Mel & Tim –  Starting All Over Again, The Staple Singers – Respect Yourself, Jean Knight – Mr Big Stuff – all will have their day!).

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I don’t think Sam & Dave were represented on this LP because for arcane reasons their records were all owned and distributed (?) by Atlantic, the parent company who completely stiffed Stax in the late 1960s.  Although I have some of their 45s on the Stax blue label.    Curious.    We dug deeper – Sam & Dave recorded all their hits at Stax Records under the supervision of soul gurus David Porter and Isaac Hayes,Featured image with the house band Booker T & The MGs playing the instruments – two white fellas Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on guitar and bass, and two black fellas Booker T Washington on keys and Al Parker on drums (pictured right).   This is a major band of brothers.   Together with the Memphis Horns – white trumpeter Wayne Jackson and black saxophonist Andrew Love they created an unparalleled run of songs that define southern soul music.   All of the singers were black : Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, The Staples Singers, Wilson Pickett (also released by Atlantic), William Bell, blues guitarist Albert King, Johnnie Taylor.  The owners were white : Jim Stewart, who formed Stax Records in 1959 with his sister Estelle Axton (St-Ax) and who personally engineered many of these records up almost until the takeover of the company by Al Bell in 1970.   I mention the race of the participants because it both was and was not important – it wasn’t important to the musicians at all, nor to Jim and Estelle, but Memphis, Tennessee was a racially segregated city when they were all growing up, and yet they worked together making classic soul music for all those years.   However once Dr Martin Luther King was shot just up the road from Stax in the Lorraine Motel in 1968, the atmosphere and racial politics of America and the record label changed.   The story of Stax Records is for me the most compelling portrait of America in the 1960s and I have long nurtured projects about Booker T & The MGs, Otis Redding and the label itself.  There are many documentaries, and books (Rob Bowman wrote the best one) and a museum now stands where the studio was, overseen by previous Stax secretary Deannie Parker, whom I have spoken to on the telephone while trying to get a Stax stage play off the ground.  She was very sweet and helpful.

Sam & Dave came up through the gospel circuit in the South and met at an amateur night in Miami.  They became a duo that night and were later signed to a local record label by Henry Stone.  Stone it was who suggested them to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records (based in New York) and Wexler decided to ‘loan them out’ to Stax because he thought their style suited the label.   He was right.   While Steve Cropper and Jim Stewart worked on the first few songs, they were soon passed to relative label newcomers Isaac Hayes and David Porter who proceeded to shape their act into a more passionate call-and-response Southern roots gospel sound, and who then wrote and produced a run of hit singles that was only bettered in the R&B charts by Aretha Franklin in the 1960s, including huge pop hits Soul Man and Hold On I’m Coming.

Sam Moore has the higher sweeter voice, a Sam Cooke template if you will, while Dave Prater is the gruffer urgent baritone reminiscent of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops.   Together they were Double Dynamite or The Sultans Of Sweat, the most compelling live act of the 1960s (and that includes Otis and Aretha).   They wore lime green suits with red handkerchiefs to mop up the sweat, the righteous sweat that they produced onstage as they whipped the crowd into a frenzy.   The music was infectious, the double act irresistible.

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Featured imageThey went on tour to Europe in 1967 – The Stax/Volt Revue  – with Otis Redding, Arthur Conley (Sweet Soul Music), Eddie Floyd and The Mar-Keys.  Booker T & The MGs backed every singer and Otis was naturally top of the bill.  The story goes that he would watch Sam & Dave from the wings every night as they ripped through their hits, kicking up a storm with their gritty gospel soul and leaving the audience high – then he’d have to go on and top it – solo – every night.   He’d never worked so hard in his life.   At the end of that tour he told his manager Phil Walden never to book him with Sam & Dave again.   But tragically Otis would be dead before the year was out,  killed in a plane crash on December 10th 1967 near Madison, Wisconsin just three days after recording Dock Of The Bay.   There are now recordings of this amazing Stax/Volt tour available out there.   I’d just love to have been at one of those shows.

When Something Is Wrong With My Baby was Sam & Dave’s only ballad (there I go again!) released in January 1967.   It didn’t dent the UK charts, and I certainly didn’t hear it as a 9-year old.   I first heard it in my crate-digging soul years when I amassed over a period of some years a rather splendid collection of rhythm and blues 45s and LPs which I subsequently lost in the split with Mumtaz in 1985 (see My Pop Life #93), and then slowly rebuilt from (spiral) scratch.   I’m certain that this essential song is on the Soul Tape that I made for Jenny when we were courting (see My Pop Life #29 & My Pop Life #28).    It became one of “our songs”.   Well, it would wouldn’t it?    What an amazing record.   Wayne Jackson himself said it was the best record he played on, or heard in the 1960s.   Rob Bowman’s book calls it “one of the most sublime records in soul music’s history“.

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So that when I was invited to be interviewed by Peter Curran for Greater London Radio to promote either a film or a TV show (cannot remember!)  that was about to be released, I travelled down to the cosy GLR Studios in Marylebone clutching my Stax 45rpm 7″ copy of this single, hoping that the young Northern Irish DJ would indulge the youngish Sussex actor.   I think it was 1990, but I wouldn’t put money on it.   And bless Mr Curran’s cotton socks because when he saw a 7-inch single in my hand he immediately said “Great – you’ve brought in some music – what is it?” instead of wittering on about the playlist like some radio stations I could mention.  And he played it.

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Eddie Floyd, Sam Moore, Steve Cropper, Otis Redding, Wayne Jackson and Arthur Conley on tour with Stax/Volt in Europe 1967

A few days later I was at Jenny’s parents’ house in Wembley and Dee was there – Jenny’s eldest sister (Tom’s Mum) and her partner Mick Stock.   They ran a pub together in Alperton, just down the road.   Mick was in the kitchen when he saw me, and said, “I heard you on the radio the other day Ralph.  GLR?”  “Oh yes. Did you?”  I answered, always embarrassed by these kinds of conversations, especially then, before I’d learned the human art of grace-under-pressure.   Mick was happy though.  “I love that Sam and Dave song – brilliant choice!” he said  – and shook my hand.   “Great stuff”.   What a lovely endorsement.

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Jamie with Mick in 1992

Sadly for us all, Mick Stock – Jamie and Jordan’s father – passed away in 2013 of a heart attack and is deeply missed.    I dedicate this song to him, and to Dee.

vinyl single :

outstanding live version where Dave sings the 1st verse solo, Sam the 2nd :

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