My Pop Life #188 : Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum

Spirit In The Sky   –   Norman Greenbaum

Never been a sinner I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with
The spirit in the sky

*

It is January 28th 1994.  Jenny and I are sitting in the front row of the back section of the Empire Leicester Square, reserved for the red carpet people for this Premiere of the film Wayne’s World 2.   All our guests are sitting in the front section.

I had shot the movie a few months earlier in Los Angeles.  At one point I’d been walking back to my trailer in full make-up and rig – quite a few hundred yards across the Festival site – and the producer, Lorne Michaels was walking toward me.  We both stopped to say hi, and after exchanging niceties I asked him if my name could be on the poster, since I’d never had my name on a poster before.  He agreed that it could.  Just like that.  And it was, which later annoyed Julie Burchill so much that she mentioned it in fury in one of her rants.  Haha.  It was exciting for me for the film to open so quickly, but my split life in California and London meant that I had no strategy to deal with the opening except to just turn up and enjoy it.  Looking back it now appears that this was a golden springboard that could (should?) have launched me onto another level, but I think that a) I thought that I was already on that level and b) I didn’t really strategise my work in those days.  I’ve never enjoyed publicity, PR, Q&A, EPK, red carpet, all that.  It’s like a completely different job to the one I do, and frankly I’m just not very good at it.  I should just try acting (dear blanche) probably.  But oftentimes I am number five or six on the cast list, which is just below where the important people are, and being overlooked has become part of my brief when films are publicised.  Which funnily enough I got used to.  Below the radar.  Not recognised when out and about.  And so on, and so forth.  But we’d had a little red carpet stuff, not much because there was Mike Myers, Jerry Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones and people like that at the Premiere and that’s how it always goes. So Jenny and I went into the foyer and were ushered into a wee room where we could sup champagne briefly before being taken in to our seats.  It was a huge thrill to be sure. The lights started to dim – or did they?  That moment in the cinema where you feel the light fading, and it doesn’t.  My agent Michael Foster was sitting in front of us and he turned around and his eyebrows were working overtime because..

Then Paul & Linda McCartney walked in and the whole place went apeshit.  People stood, cheered and whooped, rushed them, got held back by security.  Paul and Linda were shown to their seats NEXT TO US, and Paul turned to security and indicated that he would sign autographs for a few minutes, a kind of “let them through” moment.  And through they came, shaking hands, whooping, crying… and Linda started whooping herself, joining in, so did Paul “WOOOO” they said enjoying the fuss and attention, apparently.  People shook their hands, had things signed, took pictures (with real cameras – it’s 1994), and eventually security put an end to all the activities and got everyone back to their seats.  At which point Paul turned to us and they introduced himself : “Hi I’m Paul, this is Linda“.  No shit sherlock I thought but said: “Hi Paul, I’m Ralph this is Jenny“.   All done, now the lights went down for real and the film started.  Jenny and Linda shared popcorn.  It was one of those nights.

Wow right.  This was the man I had idolised since I was a boy.  I was now 37 years old.  I couldn’t quite take it all in but didn’t have to because now there was a film to watch.  Watching myself acting has become harder and harder for me over the years – and recently next-to-impossible.  I can’t explain it fully, except to say that I feel increasingly vulnerable, increasingly exposed & revealed as the years go by.  But in 1994 I didn’t have much of a problem with it to be honest.  Also – the character I was playing in Wayne’s World 2 – roadie Del Preston – was such a world away from me that I didn’t feel that exposed.  I think I became an actor to escape myself, and these kinds of parts have always been my favourite as a result.  The character was firmly based on Danny The Dealer from Withnail and I, shot almost ten years earlier in England and written about in My Pop Life #128 .   Long hair, tattoos, a slurred, brain-bombed voice, spouting curious drug-addled philosophy based on years of experience “on the road” with various “bands” so that the character had become a virtual stereotype of the vintage rock’n’roll hippy roadie.  It was a gift of a role, and in retrospect (always 20/20 hindsight) should have put me into some kind of opportunistic position.  In fact, I didn’t work much in 1994.  Odd.

The weird naked Indian

I enjoyed the film.  It was funny.  Mike Myers and Dana Carvey (who wasn’t at the London Premiere sadly) had a great onscreen schtick which had carried over from Saturday Night Live sketches – they knew these characters and what they could get away with, what their timing should be.  Against them were the beautiful Tia Carrere and Kim Basinger as the unattainable girlfriends who – against all odds – fall for our heroes, and Christopher Walken as the evil biz manager who wants to steal Wayne’s girl.  And me.  Del Preston – the old London roadie who can help Wayne and Garth put on ‘Waynestock‘, a pop festival in their home town of Aurora, Illinois.   And a plethora, a gamut, a menagerie, a rogue’s gallery indeed of characters, comedians, jokers, ne-er-do-wells and faces who have either disappeared entirely or become legend : Bob Odenkirk, James Hong, Lee Tergusen, Chris Farley, Charlton Heston, Harry Shearer, Jay Leno, Drew Barrymore.  It was good company to be in for sure.  We laughed a lot.  Gags. Jokes. Laffs. Foolishness.  I’ll blog the shooting of Waynestock later.  For this post, I’m watching…

Chris Farley & Lee Tergusen 

Then suddenly, the scene where I have to train Wayne and Garth and their buddies (including Chris Farley & Lee Tergusen) How To Be Roadies.  A series of faintly comic sketches pumping tennis balls at a stage while yanking over a microphone stand, an eve-of-battle talk for morale.  And over this sequence, the director Steve Surjik and producer Lorne Michaels had put this song : Spirit In The Sky by Norman Greenbaum.  A classic.  An evocative, original one-off, a truly great song.

Norman Greenbaum is Jewish and wrote this song – his only hit – presumably under the influence of mind-altering substances, given that it is a Christian gospel glam-rock anthem with a stunningly phased lead guitar, recorded, amazingly in 1969.  Some claim it as the record that started glam rock, which was a British scene in the early 1970s and included working class geezers in lipstick and make-up stomping around on stack heels to a solid 4/4 backbeat, often with hand-claps : bands such as The Sweet, Wizzard, Slade, Mud, Suzi Quattro, Gary Glitter and David Bowie himself trod this glorious path, but some years after this single was number one pretty much everywhere.  Or maybe I made that bit up.

Either way, there it was soundtracking my moment in the film.  I felt strangely moved at this point.  Like this really was a personal soundtrack for that character, and that situation.  I wonder now what other songs they tried out for that bit?

Tia Carrere & Christopher Walken

After the film Paul & Linda were hustled away as the credits rolled, and the rest of us had cars to take us to the Hard Rock Cafe on Hyde Park Corner, straight down Piccadilly.  Somehow we got squeezed into a vehicle with a tall Texan model who used to go out with Bryan Ferry before she ditched him for Mick Jagger.  Let’s Stick Together indeed.

At the Hard Rock we were inside the roped VIP section (was there another section in fact?) and we had sixteen guests with us – I’d asked for a generous handful of tickets for the film and the party and got them.  Who was there with us that night ?  I remember Paul and Colin Chapman, Jo Martin and Michael Rose. Roger Griffith and Jo Melville. Beverley and Paulette Randall.  Danny Webb & Leila Bertrand.  Eamonn Walker & Sandra Kane.  Mandy and Lucy Jules, Jenny’s sisters.  And Michael Buffong.  A good gang.  We spread out and hunted food and drink in packs.  I’d like to say that all the food was vegetarian, at the request of Linda McCartney and Paul, but I can’t actually remember that detail.  We sat with them and they were lovely – Mike Myers and miserable unfriendly Paul Merton also joined.  Linda was very sweet and kind and very strongly vegetarian, very important to her indeed.  Macca was light and funny and generous.  The reason for them being there was this : Myers had designated the chosen charity of the Premiere to be Paul’s newly opened Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts or LIPA, on the site of his old school near the Cathedral off Hope Street in Liverpool.  I offered to do some free workshops there, but when I contacted them later that month the first question was “Please send us your C.V.”  I did but nothing.

Del Preston

As for the party.  It’s all a little blurry now.  It probably was then too.  Those were the days of smoking indoors.  My highlight reel would have to include the following clip :  after Paul and Linda moved on to another table of their friends, Naomi Campbell slid in beside me (I was bleached blond that night, and she’d recently shown a preference for that look and had an affair with the U2 bass player,) and we chatted for a while, someone took a photograph which is framed and in storage, so sorry not for the blog today, and then Jo Martin the flame-breathing goddess of Hackney introduced herself to Naomi with “Hello, I’m Jo, a friend of Ralph’s WIFE“.  Not before I’d given NC my phone number, but alas it never rang.  In the photo of Naomi and I you can see Jo and Leila behind us looking daggers…

Chrissie Hynde (for yes, it was she…) winking at me as I walked downstairs looking for the toilets.  Good friends of Linda.

Michael Rose (who then played in a great band called The April Place) saying “Ralph, c’mon, I have to speak to Paul NOW!”   So we joined his table and Paul and Michael and I chatted about Fool On The Hill & Pet Sounds and Paul passed me a spliff he was smoking and I inhaled and Everything Was Fine With The Earth And All That Was On It.  And kind of has been ever since to be honest.   A moment.  Childish but true.  Later the party started to wind down – at which point I noticed that Jaye Davidson was there – friends with Naomi – who I’d worked with a few years earlier on The Crying Game.  He was drunk.  So was I.

There’s another fabulous picture of Macca and I talking to each other as the party starts to move out (it’s in storage).  TRAMP was the word being passed around.  A nightclub on St James St.  “We used to go there in the old days, me and the boys,”  said Paul confidentially to me “after a show or whatever, to pick up birds“.  He winked.  “Mind you, see her over there?” he nodded toward Linda who was talking to someone else, “She gave me the glad eye earlier.  Think I might be in there.”  He enjoyed this joke very much, one he must have told a hundred times in similar circumstances, surrounded by adoring fans and ‘birds’ and seeking out the eyes of his beloved.

I asked him how – after years of this public adoration that we’d seen a glimpse of inside the cinema – the screaming fans, the crowds, the adulation – how he’d handled it all this time, and how gracious they’d both been about it.  He looked around and whispered “In the car on the way up from Sussex : we get really stoned.”  Of course.  “You coming to Tramp then?

Drunken moments – watching Roger grabbing Naomi’s leather-clad buttock in one hand as we walked out.  The gang were getting taxis down Piccadilly to the club.  I think everyone decided to Carry on Partying.

At Tramp, a desk, a maitre-D, a penguin looks at the large group of black people at the entrance to his club.  “Can I help you?” he says, his eyes giving the opposite meaning.  Yes I say, we’re with Paul & Linda and Naomi from Hard Rock, Wayne’s World blah blah fucking blah.  His face is the picture of England that we know and love, drenched in miserable boarding school rainy afternoons, ranked prefects and results, furtive secret sex, jealous unattainable class status and a wilted disdain for anything foreign.  He asked for my name.  “Just a moment please“.  He disappears downstairs to check my story.  The gang behind Jenny and I are happy, glowing, full of joy, but clearly expecting the worst.  Which then duly appears with Penguin and a faintly obsequious smile, pastel-coloured with supercilious hauteur : “I can let the two of you downstairs, but sorry, not the others…”  

Bless the gang, they insisted to a woman that Jenny and I go into Tramp and Carry on Partying with the glamour pop model people.  We didn’t.  We were moving as a pack in those days.  You turn my people away, we aren’t coming in.  Any of us.  Goodnight.  All back to ours !!   About ten years later, maybe twenty ? we did go into Tramp with Rula Lenska who is possibly a contemporary of Paul McCartney, and I stole an ashtray.

A series of taxis took us back to Archway Road N6 where we lived.  And we laughed and drank and smoked some more.  Celebrated properly together.  Who were we again ?  Well to honour the few :  Jenny and I, newlyweds in 94.  Paulette & Beverley who have appeared in My Pop Life #60 and My Pop Life #187 (among many others) and who are two of my very special friends.  My brother Paul, and his man at that time Colin Chapman – who had moved down from Durham a few years earlier and who is still in our lives to this day.  Indeed recently Colin it was who told me where to go to find a nice leather jacket in New York = Cast on the Lower East Side.  Colin knows these things.  He now does a fashion blog and is here regularly, but lives in Shoreditch with his man Dunk.

Jo Martin

Roger Griffith

 

Danny Webb

Michael Rose

Michael Buffong

Sandra Kane

 

Josephine Melville

Eamonn Walker

Paulette & Beverley Randall

Paul, Ralph & Colin Chapman in 2013

Jo Martin (who saved Naomi Campbell from a date with me) had worked with Jenny in a play at the Tricycle Theatre called Pecong – an updating of Medea to Trinidad, directed by Paulette.   Eamonn was also in this production playing Jenny’s brother (My Pop Life #104).   His partner Sandra now runs the cafe in Roundhill Park; when we met her she’d just come back from living in Japan.   Jo Martin was going out with Michael Rose at that point, a foxy eastender who played a mean guitar and could sing too.  They lived down the road from us in Holloway so time was spent there, smoking weed mainly, listening to reggae, Lenny Kravitz’ first LP, hanging out with her friend Tracey, or with Roger and Jo Melville.  Roger Griffith is a wonderful actor – I had cast him as my lead in The House That Crack Built in a BBC funded workshop, the rap opera/play that was never performed, and his to-be wife Jo Melville was one of the female Possee known as The Bibi Crew.  They are no longer together.  Roger and Michael Buffong were both in The Possee, which I mentioned in My Pop Life #184, a big part of that early 90s London landscape.  As were Danny Webb and Leila Bertrand – Danny was in Alien 3 with me in 1991 (see my Pop Life #  ) and his wife Leila is a casting director : they lived downstairs from my therapist for a while (probably around this time?) in Maida Vale, and all I remember from that shoulder-rub was Leila meeting her on the stairs one afternoon after some complaints and nonsense with “Heal thyself physician!“.   Funny.  They have two beautiful daughters Lily & Bellaray who came to see us in Brooklyn in late 2015 with their mum, we went to Sunny’s bar in Red Hook for a bit of live bluegrass.

Jenny, Leila & Johanna at Sunny’s in Red Hook 2015

And Mandy and Lucy, ever-present sisters, confidantes and ladies-in-waiting, keepers of the secrets, queens, princesses and gold medal winners of life, love and art.   They are, naturally very dear to Jenny’s heart, and mine.

Me, Mandy, Lucy

It was a great kitchen party.  We smoked.  We drank.  We played records.  Til dawn ? Dunno.   Did we play Spirit In The Sky ?  Maybe we did.   Probably not.

Well, it is my pop life after all.

Youtube doesn’t have the roadie training section which features this song, so you’ll have to make do with this clip : Del Preston outlines his plans for the gig…

My Pop Life #152 : The Morning Papers – Prince

The Morning Papers   –   Prince

If he poured his heart into a cup and offered it like wine

She could drink it and be back in time for the morning papers

The third time I saw Prince live was with The New Power Generation at Glam Slam, his nightclub in downtown Los Angeles.  Spring 1994.  Jenny and I are renting a lovely old tiled and wood-floored 1940s ground floor apartment on King’s Road in West Hollywood, just south of Beverley Boulevard.  It has a piano!  The World Cup is approaching, but only the immigrants – the latinos, africans and europeans – are interested.  Jenny spends a lot of time in London filming with John Thaw on Kavanagh QC playing a lawyer.  For some childish reason I always call it Cavendish PC.  There weren’t that many parts for black actors on British TV in those days.  How times have changed…

We used to walk a couple of blocks west from King’s Road to Jans – an old time diner with booths and an endless menu which included The Monte Cristo – french toast with cheese, turkey and ham, my particular preference.  With french fries. And ketchup, or catsup as it used to be known. And coffee. And the Morning Papers.  Always the LA Times, which is thin fare, but that’s where we were.  At least it had a decent Arts section, and film reviews were pored over.  The LA Weekly (a kind of Village voice for Southern California) was a weekly staple and gave us film reviews and concert listings.  We could actually walk to the Beverley Center – cinema, restaurants, shops etc, but we usually drove.  Almost opposite us was the King’s Road Cafe, a hipster joint before the word was coined. It was self-consciously groovy and slightly twee and we preferred Jans, where the waitresses were all middle-aged ladies, often latinas,  the owner was an ancient Greek and the customers were old jewish people and cops.  Classic old-school American diner.

Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #135) was staying with us in LA on an extended break from London.  She’d just graduated from the Brit School in Croydon, and sung at our wedding and she wanted to check out La La Land while we were there – the centre of the music industry as well as the film industry.  We were in Los Angeles for close to three years straight in the early 90s, and I could count the number of visitors we had from London on one hand.  I know it’s a long way and an expensive flight, but there was free accommodation at the other end if you asked nicely !!    Anyway, Lucy’s favourite artist is Prince.

Prince Rogers Nelson.  Who died today Thursday April 21st 2016 aged 57 in Minneapolis.  The shock will take a while to sink in.  I’m still trying to deal with David Bowie passing not to mention Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman and Ronnie Corbett.  This year the long scythe of death is cutting down many of our brightest and best and most loved creatives.  We are all in shock at how fragile life is, at how young many of our heroes are dying.  And it’s still only April.

About 22 years ago Lucy and I drove downtown in my stupid show-off car which I dearly loved, a 2-door gas guzzling white pimpmobile or Lincoln Continental.  I couldn’t drink and drive of course, but there are no handy subway stations in Los Angeles.  Everyone drives.  I had seen Prince twice before : first in 1988 when he played Wembley Arena on the Lovesexy Tour, entering the stage on a Ford Thunderbird from the ceiling, Sheila E. on drums.  A tremendous gig.  Second time with my new girlfriend Jenny Jules a year later on the Nude tour, again at Wembley arena, again outstanding.  This time it’s a darkened nightclub with a mixed crowd (hold the front page LA) and huge excitement in the air.  The most recent Prince LP is LoveSymbol, the unpronounceable shape which signifies Prince at this time.

He would change his name later that year. The symbol apparently combines the male and female and led to Prince being known as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”.    When he changed his name back to Prince some wisecrackers referred to him as “The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”.  And so on and so forth.

While I had five or six Prince LPs (CDs in fact) at this point, I wouldn’t have described myself as a huge fan.   But I know a good number of people who completely adore him :  Lucy J, our good friend Loretta Sacco, Jen’s oldest friend Pippa Randall, Tim Lewis, Tom Jules and my friend Lewis MacLeod who came to Wembley with me in ’88.  They are all devastated today.  I’m just sad, upset, shocked.  So is Jenny.  Her favourite Prince song is Scandalous from the Batman soundtrack and it was favoured at many of our Brighton houseparties.  As for me – well, I really like lots of Sign ‘O’ The Times (Slow Love is the best song probably because to me it sounds like an old-school soul record) and most of Lovesexy.  Diamonds & Pearls is probably my peak Prince LP, the first album he recorded with The New Power Generation.  Yes yes of course Purple Rain and 1999 but they’re like event songs.  I’m just being honest here.

The LoveSymbol LP had a handful of absolute crackers – My Name Is Prince, Love 2 The 9s (Lucy’s favourite), 7, Sexy M.F. and this tune The Morning Papers, my favourite Prince song.  Why ?  I’m not sure that I could really analyse that, but I like the melody mainly, but also the sheer poppiness of it I think, I like the lyrics and the horns and I like the guitar solo.  The song is inspired by and describes Prince’s early relationship with Mayte Garcia one of his back-up singers whom he married in 1996 two years later.  She was 15 years younger than him.

He realised that she was new to love naive in every way

Every schoolboy’s fantasy of love that’s why he had to wait

They were divorced in 1999 after losing two children.   There is a lovely story of his first meeting with Warner Brothers (I think) in a big office which had various instruments hanging on the walls.  When Prince felt that the meeting wasn’t going the way he wanted he offered: “I can play any instrument in the world after studying it for five minutes by the way”.  I think he knew he could, and he needed to be signed.  The suit pointed to a French Horn and said Ok – play that.  Five minutes later Prince played him the melody of the song they’d just been listening to and he was signed.  He fought against this contract all his life – the Symbol name-change was his way of re-negotiating his deal, and he appeared in 1993 with the word SLAVE written across his cheek.  There are no Prince videos on Youtube.  None.  There may be tomorrow.  He sanctioned his autobiography two days ago.    He really was a phenomena.  His passing has left a huge whole in the musical firmament and in millions of lives.  It feels very strange for me to be going out to a concert tonight (Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso) and I expect he will be remembered.  I will remember him for sure, but I guess we all have to live on.

Right ?

Now I’m home.  The concert was superb, classy, wonderful.  When Babs and I came out of BAM there was a huge crowd of people, police cars blocking the street, TV crews and loud music on South Elliott and Lafayette – a couple of thousand at least outside Spike Lee’s office.  They’re playing Purple Rain and people are swaying, holding their phones aloft.  It’s a love vibe.  I love how New York mourns and celebrates and marks a major death like this.  Spike did a similar thing for Michael Jackson, and of course John Lennon’s death was mourned across the city.

We saw Prince again in 1994 but I cannot remember where (Staples Centre?) or whether it was before or after Glam Slam. That night he and the band played for three hours straight and did a half-hour encore.  Maybe more.  Pure sweaty funk, with some pop and rock and soul poured liberally over the top.  Most of Diamonds and Pearls, loads of Symbol and Sign O’ The Times, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, Nothing Compares To You, 1999, Raspberry Beret, and on and on.  It was, of course, fantastic.  He was the ultimate showman in his cuban heels and cheeky smile, his absolute mastery of the guitar, his posing, his musicianship.  His energy was infectious.   He will be hugely missed.  Prince Rogers Nelson R.I.P.

Live on Arsenio Hall :

http://www.ultimedia.com/swf/iframe_pub.php?width=480&height=385&id=sursr&url_artist=http://www.jukebo.com/prince/music-clip,the-morning-papers-live,sursr.html&autoplay=0&mdtk=04516441&site=.fr

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

I Can’t Hear You   –   Betty Everett

you walked out on me once too often now

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

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

this girl ain’t throwing away her youth

Betty Everett 1963

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

Brooklyn

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

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

Jenny Jules & Charles Randolph Wright 2014

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

Nona Hendryx & Vicki Wickham

So.

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

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

The Motown Revue at Marble Arch, London in 1965

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

Martha Reeves,the Vandellas, Dusty Springfield

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

the great Lucy Jules

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

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

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

Betty Everett in 1963

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

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

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

“This girl ain’t throwing away her youth”

Carole King & Jerry Goffin

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

Credit where credit is due.

Happy New Year everyone, thanks for reading.

Ralph Brown 2015

My Pop Life #126 : Blue Monday – Fats Domino

Saturday mornin’, oh saturday mornin’ all my tiredness has gone away

got my money and my honey & we’re out on the stand to play…

 When Jenny and I finally got married on July 25th 1992 we did it in style.  We did it in the way we wanted to.  We’d postponed the original date (see My Pop Life #20) and waited a year or two then walked up the aisle eventually in 1992.   Our perfect wedding consisted of : a gold wedding dress for Jenny;  a bootlace tie for me;  a choir composed of our friends to sing things to us (see My Pop Life 56);  a wedding reception where someone played Chopin and where we both made speeches;   a party in the evening where we could invite EVERYONE;  a wedding band which played at the party that we could both play in.  For starters.  We planned every detail.  Some people don’t do this obviously – some people run away to Las Vegas, or in Dee’s case, Grenada.   Yes, Jenny’s oldest sister Dee flew to New York and thence to Grenada to marry Mick Stock (Jamie and Jordan’s dad) and made Jenny’s mum Esther furious for denying her a wedding.  We included Esther in our wedding – it was about 18 months of serious hard-nosed negotiation, mainly by Jenny.   OK, all by Jenny.

              

         Stephen Warbeck                                     Joe Korner

      

                       Simon Korner                                     Andrew Ranken

The wedding band was made of people I’d gone to school with and played in bands with, almost exclusively.  Andrew Taylor “Tat”on guitar, from school band Rough Justice (see My Pop Life #80);   Joe Korner on keyboards/piano from art-rock band Birds Of Tin (haven’t written about them yet);    Patrick Freyne on drums also from an early incarnation of Birds Of Tin;   Simon Korner my oldest and best friend on bass guitar – rather remarkably I’d never played in a band with him before so we were making up for lost time;   Andrew Ranken on vocals who had gone out with Simon’s sister Deborah Korner for years through school and beyond before Deborah had a baby boy and then tragically and awfully died shortly afterwards of an aneurysm in 1991.   The shadow of that death was still cast over our wedding quite naturally.  Andrew and Patrick had both been excellent drummers at Priory School in Lewes, (as had Pete Thomas) and they had performed a memorable drum battle on the school playing fields one summers day in 1974.   Pete Thomas went on to join The Attractions in 1977 and has been playing with Elvis Costello ever since off and on, while Andrew  joined The Pogues in 1983 and had recorded five LPs with them by the time of our wedding.  I’d seen them live many times with Simon and Joe.  He brought multi-instrumentalist and good bloke Jem Finer, co-writer of Fairytale in New York with him into the wedding band on saxophone alongside myself.

James Fearnley,  Jem Finer,  Andrew Ranken,  Spider Stacey,            Shane McGowan, Cait O’Riordan early 1980s

Stephen Wood, close friend of Andrew who also went to Priory played accordion and went on to change his name to ‘Oscar-winning composer ‘ Stephen Warbeck (for Shakespeare In Love).   On the night of the wedding a third sax player called Chris turned up and played tenor.  He was good, but he needed to be because he hadn’t been to any rehearsals.   Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules was on backing vocals with Jenny herself alongside our good friend Maureen Hibbert.  They looked like The Supremes or The Emotions ie : great.  And they could all sing.  It was a good wee band.

The Mysterious Wheels

Andrew, Simon and Joe are still playing together in that band, now called Andrew Ranken & The Mysterious Wheels.  Catch them live in London!

We rehearsed in IGA Studios as I recall, close to Mount Pleasant Post Office in WC2.   The early discussions about a setlist were interesting since they mainly consisted of Andrew casting a veto over any song which he didn’t fancy singing – which was most of the songs that we wanted at our wedding.  Oh well.  The only exception was Try A Little Tenderness which we had lined up for Lucy, who has an exceptional voice, but that’s for another post.  In the end our setlist was based on Andrew’s tried and tested setlist emanating from the great city of New Orleans and primarily songs written or performed by the great Smiley Lewis:  One Night, I Hear You Knocking, Dirty People and Blue Monday.   I knew Smiley Lewis – I’d bought the above-pictured CD in the mid-80s, it is Fantastic.  One of the inventors of rock and roll or R’n’B as we knew it.  (They’re very close.)  All songs made famous by other players – One Night by Elvis, I Hear You Knocking by Fats Domino and Dave Edmunds, Dirty People by Omar & The Howlers.  Who?   I also owned Fats Domino’s greatest hits from way back in the late 70s and considered him to be a genius.   Fats covered all these songs.  We also threw in Robert Parker’s Barefootin’, Chuck Berry’s Nadine, Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene, Dr John’s version of Junco Partner,  and Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee and Lawdy Miss Clawdy (I think!).

Andrew had played in Lewes band The Grobs when Simon and I, Tat and Joe and Patrick and Stephen were at Priory School.  He’d always been cooler than us.  One year older is a long time when you’re sixteen.  I’m not sure when he settled on New Orleans as the source of his live act, but it is definitely a sign of muso grooviness, like a faintly secret musical society.  Everyone knows Motown, most people know Philly, some know Stax but who knows Imperial Records or Specialty  Records from Louisiana ?  The sound of New Orleans is different from everywhere else in the States in that most songs will be piano-based rather than guitar.  This rolling style exemplified by Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Dr John gives all these records their own unique flavour, my own personal favourite style of boogie-woogie rhythm and blues.  Andrew Ranken, in short, was right.  Perhaps The Pogues, a punk-flavoured London Irish band led by the inimitable Shane McGowan had formed an attachment to the city when they’d passed through.  Original member Spider Stacey now lives there with his wife, having worked on a couple of episodes of that great TV showcase for the city Treme.

Fats Domino 1956

Almost all of these chosen wedding night songs were born in New Orleans.  Days after the wedding night, in a completely star-crossed, fortuitous and magical co-incidence,  Jenny and I were drinking our way around the Crescent City on our first honeymoon, courtesy of MGM Studios who had employed me to act in their film Undercover Blues alongside Fiona Shaw, Dennis Quaid, Kathleen Turner and Stanley Tucci.   For another post !

New Orleans is where jazz was born in those days before recording was invented.  Instruments abandoned by the marching bands of the Confederate army after the Civil War ended in 1965 were currency in New Orleans where whites and blacks mixed more than they did elsewhere in the segregated south, giving rise to a creole property-owning middle class in the late 1890s when the riverboats would steam up the Mississippi and gamblers, hucksters and nascent capitalists rubbed shoulders in the gin-joints and speakeasys of The French Quarter where Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton could be found forging the music of the 20th century.   It became known as Music City long before Nashville stole that crown.  There are blues joints and hops all over town, some of them such as Tipitina’s legendary.   By the mid-forties the blues had acquired a bit of bounce and this is where Smiley Lewis comes in.   A rural Louisianan who hopped a tramcar to N’Awlins after his mother died, he hooked up with bandleader and key figure Dave Bartholomew, and cut Dave’s song Blue Monday.

It’s a Monday to Friday song,  some of my favourite songs have this structure : Friday On My Mind by The Easybeats, Diary of Horace Wimp by ELO.  Solomon Grundy springs to mind :

Solomon Grundy,

Born on a Monday,

Christened on Tuesday,

Married on Wednesday,

Took ill on Thursday,

Worse on Friday,

Died on Saturday,

Buried on Sunday,

That was the end, of Solomon Grundy

A nursery rhyme ‘collected’ in the 1840s.   Bartholomew’s song was re-recorded by Fats Domino two years later and became a huge hit in 1956, the year that I was conceived.  Smiley Lewis’ biggest hit was I Hear You Knocking but again Fats’ version of that also outsold it by hundreds of thousands.  Smiley Lewis didn’t have no luck.

Our version of Blue Monday featured a crappish saxophone solo by me and a wonderful chorus of the girls singing “Saturday morning oooh Saturday morning…” as they swayed in the breeze at the microphone.  I remember watching our friends Conrad and Gaynor dancing, and others too.  Jenny’s primary memory of the gig is Stephen Wood’s leather sandal beating time into a puddle of beer as he squeezed that accordion.

The wedding party itself was at The Diorama near Regent’s Park, and was brilliantly stage-managed by blessed Neil Cooper may his soul rest in peace.  We had an open parachute suspended from the ceiling above the dance floor.  Flowers everywhere.  The band went on at around ten-thirty I think.  It was nerve-wracking, but no more so than standing in a church in front of everyone and saying your vows.  I tried to enjoy it, and some of the time I did.  I’m really really glad we did it.  I remember standing round in the Diorama earlier in the evening in my brand new blue suit from Paul Smith gnashing my teeth at the non-arrival of Jenny’s brother Jon who was doing the DJ-ing at the party (he never did show up) and playing Songs In The Key Of Life as people arrived and overhearing two people standing in front of me – the light was low and there were hundreds of people there – discussing the event… “I heard The Pogues are playing later…”  “No…!

The Pogues

Well two of them were.  My main confession concerns the song itself.  I always thought that the Sunday section was “Sunday morning my head is bare, but it’s worth it for the times that I’ve had” but apparently that’s a mis-hearing.  I’m imagining Fats Domino or Smiley Lewis in church on Sunday morning with bare head.  But apparently all the lyric sites quote “Sunday morning my head is bad…”  Make up your own mind dear reader.

Fats Domino himself is simply a legend.  One of the primary forces behind the birth of rock’n’roll he is remarkably still alive, as are Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard from that era.  Three of the group are pianists.  Fats still lives in the 9th Ward in New Orleans and he went missing after deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as did many people including Allen Toussaint.  But he surfaced a few days later.  One of my favourite Fats Domino stories involves boogie-woogie ivory basher Jools Holland who was making a documentary and was visiting his house.  “Good morning“said Jools in his scrawny Lewisham gobshite accent, “We’re here from the BBC making a documentary about pianists and we’re very pleased to include your good self“.  Fats blinked and stared.  “What’d he say?” Fats eventually asked.  Jools repeated his sentence probably slightly slower to no effect.  They all stood there looking at each other.  Eventually Jools sat down at the grand piano and played the intro to Blue Monday.  Fats broke out in a big grin and shook his hand : “I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but if you can play that tune, you can stay

Blue Monday was my favourite of the wedding band songs I think.  It’s a great great song.  Still in the Ralph & Jenny playlist.  Enjoy.