My Pop Life #214 : Belle – Al Green

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Belle   –   Al Green

Belle….it’s you that I want, but it’s him that I need

A song which turns the history of African American music on its head, the rhythm & blues universe being filled with gospel singers who turned to secular music, including Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Toni Braxton, Sam & Dave and James Ingram – to name but a few – here however, a soul man from Memphis has found Jesus and started to sing gospel music.  I say ‘started’ because although he grew up in the gospel tradition, and had a group called the Greene Brothers in the late 50s with his brothers, he was kicked out of the band by his father when he was caught listening to Jackie Wilson.  The big sinner.  He wouldn’t sing gospel again for 20 years.  Belle is  lodged into my cortex as the great turning point in Al Green’s life when he renounced pop music and went back to God, as suggested in the line quoted above, but lodged in  my heart perhaps as something else.  Maybe I seek God in my life but, I’ve never been a religious man and this morning I felt it more likely that this refers to my need for a father figure?  Let’s explore that possibility for a minute.

Indeed it may in fact roll out to be the same thing.  Safety.  Arm around the shoulder.  Protection.  He knows best.  I must have felt some degree of this from my father for the first seven years of my life.  There he was, getting up, going to work, getting some bread in Portsmouth once he’d finished his English Degree at Cambridge.

where’s dad ?  Gone to work, get some bread

This was actually my first sentence, circa late 1958, according to mum.  He told us stories at bedtime, often made them up on the spot.  We had no idea – we being Paul and I who shared a bedroom.  Various creatures inhabited these stories – The Grimp and The Cahoodler spring out immediately although their shapes have always been blurry and indistinct.  They were cartoon animals though in my unformed mind.  We used to go on long walks together, always, and that continues to this very day when we see each other.  Nature, fresh air, leaves, butterflies, the sky, farms – all part of our shared experience.  Musically Dad never liked Pop Music so never joined in Mum’s and our dances in the kitchen or singing harmonies in the chorus in the living room.  If he was in a bad mood he’d walk in and turn it off and we’d all be sat on the settee and told to listen to Mozart or Beethoven and Paul would giggle first then Mum and we’d be ordered out, banished.  Banish. Ed.  I have some pictures of this era which was I guess 1957-1965.

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Cambridge 1958, Mum, Dad, me

When I look back on it all now, how lucky I am to be able to do this, my parents seem so ridiculously young.  How did they do it?  Three kids in the first six years of marriage.  It broke.  He strayed.  He moved out. I’ve told this story before.  But the thing is, emotionally, Dad became missing.  Never hugely physically affectionate in my memory at least, now he was out of the house, almost out of my life, and I missed him.  I’ve missed him ever since.

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But.  I’ve never really had a true father figure in my life since then.  Dad is still there, up in West Yorkshire with Beryl, and he and I have a good relationship, we speak fairly often.  So I don’t know if that is why I love this song.  It may seem like a long shot in the end, because there’s a lot deep yearning in there.  It doesn’t belong in Al Green’s gospel catalogue though, because it is still a sexual love song sung by a soul man.  The chords, the changes are fantastic.  Smoky, sultry, sexy even though he’s ultimately struggling with it.  Maybe that’s the twist for me – the magnetic attachment I have to the song, ie  maybe I’m gay !   Haha all theories welcome.

a)  I’m actually deeply religious just haven’t acknowledged it yet

b)  I’m gay, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

c)  I always needed a father figure, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

d)  It’s a sexy song, and I like sex, just haven’t acknowledged etc

e)  It’s a spiritual song, and it feeds my soul, just haven’t blah blah

f)  it’s a fine tune !!

g)  it is actually Al Green’s best performance on record

 

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                    Belle – The Lord and I have been friends for a mighty long time…              Belle – leaving him has never ever really crossed my mind

 

The Belle Album was released in 1977 just as punk was sweeping the UK and I was busy joining in (like a good law student).  I think I bought it after the gig though.  I was going steady with Mumtaz, and we were both fans of Al Green.  I wrote about the Damascene conversion I had in 1971 in My Pop Life #101.   By then my father had been gone for six years and was about to remarry and move to Yorkshire.   I was going to see Al Green with my girlfriend.  The gig was in The Venue, Victoria Street  and it was 1978.  It was a little like The Forum/Town & Country in Kentish Town, but we were sat at little tables which were spread around the downstairs – cabaret seating with waitresses and food.  Slightly raked seating?   It was actually a tremendous place to see someone live, but it didn’t last that long as a venue.  I did see Todd Rundgren there four nights running in 1978, which is pretty fanboy-esque, a series of gigs that became a live album called Back To The Bars.

I scarcely remember the Al Green gig except that it was exquisite. He had a kind of jumpsuit on as I recall, a cravat, and cuban heels. He sang all the greats, the  highlights were Love & Happiness, Tired Of Being Alone, Can’t Get Next To You, and this song Belle.  When he sang Let’s Stay Together he came down into the tables and chairs and distributed stem roses to us, holding the mic and singing to each table.  It was my first time seeing Al Green and it was extraordinary, but every time I’ve seen him since (about eight times) he always does this – walks down, touches people, sings to them, a ripple of excitement goes through the audience every time.  But in the end it’s the singing with Al.  The voice of course is extraordinary but it’s what he does with it, the turns of phrase, the whoops, the ad-libs, the phrasing, the grace notes, the pure inhabiting of every note in every song.  It all comes from within the great man’s soul.

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The song Belle is extraordinary.  You think it is finished as the music fades but he has a whole other level to go to, and he goes there.  He is testifying to us and his woman that he wants her more than she can imagine, but he needs The Lord even more than that.  And at that point in his life, he meant it.  Four years earlier, and for reasons that I have not fully understood, but reported to be his refusal to marry her (she was already married with children), his girlfriend Mary Woodson White had cooked a pan of grits (like semolina) and thrown them over him causing severe burns on his back and arms before shooting herself dead with his pistol.  A note in her purse gave the reasons.  After this a shocked and changed Al Green became ordained as a pastor and even as his record sales were falling was moving away from sexual music towards holy music, and a holy life.  Just after we saw him at The Venue he fell off a stage in early 1979 and took it as a sign that he had to change direction finally and forever. I was lucky to see him on the point of renouncing sinful music…

In the song we hear Al Green struggling with his love for a woman and sings at one point, about Jesus :

he’s my bright morning star

The Morning Star is of course the planet Venus, generally associated with the sacred feminine.  The other line that always pings out for me is :

“I know that you can understand a little country boy”

Al was born on a farm in Dansby, Arkansas in 1946 to a sharecroppers family.  I spent ten years in a small village called Selmeston in East Sussex, opposite a farm.  We used to help with the harvest in August.

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The next time Al Green  came to London it was with a gospel set and a huge choir, and none of his soul material got an airing, not even Belle.  This happened fairly regularly through the 80s, usually at Hammersmith Odeon.  The Reverend would always sing Let’s Stay Together (Jesus) though, often coming down into the crowd for that song, walking among us as it were, sometimes handing out roses.  I saw a fair number of these shows as an avowed atheist simply because he was my favourite singer in the world.  I once saw Kevin Rowland in the audience,  paying homage.  No one can touch Al frankly, not even Smokey Robinson, my other favourite, Otis Redding, or Queen Aretha may her soul rest in peace.  Al for me tops all of these.  Maybe Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would eventually nestle on the pinnacle, technique and passion to burn, but come on – I’d always choose Al Green to be honest.

It was in the late-eighties I guess (?) when Rita and I went to see him at Festival Hall – and he’d started putting some of the old soul classics back into the show after ten years and ten gospel albums. He sang Otis Redding‘s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long and Sam & Dave‘s Hold On I’m Coming (I think?) and one of his ? but I can’t remember which one, maybe the mighty Love & Happiness.  Over the next ten years he slowly left gospel music behind and started producing pure soul music again in 1995 with the album Your Heart’s In Good Hands which is magnificent, like a sigh of relief almost. On the track Love Is A Beautiful Thing  Al sings the words let’s stay together, cos I’m still in love with you, call me, for the good times, tired of being alone, here i am…  a veritable litany of the titles of his old soul hits which are clearly coming back through his nerve endings into his pores into his heart and out of his mouth.  The great return was a celebration – he is still a Reverend, but now he was back and singing everything.  Our friends Lynn and Tony saw him in Central Park in this period when the concert was almost rained off, then the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine struck Al Green directly centre stage and he announced he was going to sing Love and Happiness for the first time for years. Magical.

In 1988 I went on a long road trip across the USA from D.C. to Phoenix Arizona, written about in My Pop Life #148 .  On the way out west I stopped in Memphis for a day and hit up the various landmarks of that fine city : Graceland of course, the Lorraine Motel where a homeless lady gave me a history lesson, Beale Street where I got suckered, then the next morning driving down to Hale Road in South Memphis to find Al Green’s church, the one he bought as he was recovering from the burns.

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He wasn’t there, but I’d needed to set eyes upon the place which was his physical and spiritual base, especially since I’d just lost the bulk of my cash and was about to embark on a strange week of driving without money.

With Jenny in 1999 we would see Al Green at The Royal Albert Hall when Lucy was singing with support act Beverly Knight, then later that year we travelled down to Glastonbury (our only visit) and saw him there too.  Quite a contrast, or not.  Two great English cathedrals of music. Magnifique, as ever.   I think my favourite Al Green album (the one that gets the most plays = the favourite doesn’t it?) is Al Green Explores Your Mind from 1974.  It is perfect.  Has the songs Take Me To The River,  The City and Sha-La-La.  But he hasn’t made a duff album.

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I always call it “Al Green Explodes Your Mind”.   Which is a more accurate title.

The next record was in 2002 – I Can’t Stop which was when he came back to the UK again and we saw him live, once again, singing soul music.  The voice hadn’t gone anywhere and was still extraordinary.

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He’s still handing out roses!

Watching Al Green live I would look forward to his favourite moment, my favourite piece of the ceremony  : you know when singers go high and they move the microphone away from their mouths?  Al does that until his arm is completely straight and he can’t get the mic any further away – so he will just put it down at his feet and sing without amplification.  The audience hush and he draws us in. It is an immaculate moment. He gets the spirit like this at absolutely every gig and it is always the highlight.

 

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Top Al Green tunes that never make it onto Greatest Hits albums you ask?  I can help you there.  Old Time Lovin from 1971’s Let’s Stay Together is as good as anything he’s done. Guitar-based song, which is unusual for Al.  His long-time friend and producer Willie Mitchell played keyboards, often the bubbling Hammond organ on many of Al Green’s songs and it became a signature sound on the Hi record label, all recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, along with folk like Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright.  I should note here that Willie was the first person to visit Green in hospital after his second & third degree burns were skin grafted, they made 11 amazing albums together, but the year before Belle was released they’d parted company because Willie wasn’t interested in producing gospel music.  Al Green produced The Belle Album himself.

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Another great song is Home Again on the wonderful album Living For You (1973).  Strings and organ dominate the groove, with tasteful horn flourishes and pads.  His singing is exquisite. Willie Mitchell and Al Green in sync.

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My favourite is I’m Glad You’re Mine on the LP I’m Still In Love With You (with its stunning title track !) from 1972. Incredible drumming from Al Clark of Booker T & the MGs across town at Stax Records, who co-wrote many of the early songs with Al Green & Willie Mitchell, and played on most of them. And finally I’d recommend the last track on the masterpiece LP Call Me (1973) which is called simply Jesus Is Waiting.  Enjoy.

Rare live performance of Belle on my birthday 1978 in Japan :

Playlist of all the tunes mentioned above :

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My Pop Life #148 : Lost Highway – Hank Williams

Lost Highway   –   Hank Williams

I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost
For a life of sin I have paid the cost
When I pass by all the people say
Just another guy on the lost highway

Late ’88 I’m driving down Highway 20 towards El Paso, Texas.  Apart from ordering food and gas I haven’t spoken to anyone for over three days,  I’m almost out of money, my credit card has started bouncing and it’ll be Christmas in 4 days.  I think it’s possibly the most all alone and lost I’ve ever been in my life, but I’m kind of happy in a self-pityingly dramatic kind of way.  O Me Misererum.  One of life’s natural wallowers in misery, (wallow, not wallflower) I was pretty vacant, alone, solo, half-empty and broke.  Mile after mile after mile of desert scrub, punctuated by dull dipping oil derricks and the odd bridge.  The lost highway.  Abilene.  I knew that from a Nanci Griffith song. Lone Star State of Mind, deep in the fart of Texas.   There was a kind of masochistic pointlessness to the drive which suited me perfectly.

I’d gone into Auto Driveaway in Washington D.C. on December 16th and got a car to deliver.  You give them a deposit of $200 and get five days to drive to say, Dallas.  If you drive like a wanker, which is not allowed but who’s checking, you can spend a day somewhere along the route and still deliver on time.  I drove like a wanker through Virginia and West Virginia and crashed out in a motel in Bristol, Eastern Tennessee on day 1, got to Nashville on Day 2 (noted previously in My Pop Life #83) spent all of Day 3 in Nashville bopping around, drove to Memphis on Day 4 and mooched around Graceland and Beale St, got ripped off by the Mack man to the tune of $350 which is most of what I had on me, then delivered the car to an address in Dallas on Day 5 after driving through Arkansas.  

Oh you want more on the Mack man?  The phrase has now gone out of use thanks to the computer age, but you might have heard of the Mack Daddy, also going out of use.  We heard about him the following spring when I returned to D.C. with my new girlfriend Jenny for an awards ceremony.  A barbecue at a Hubert’s yard, one fella had delighted us in spinning his rap on The MackMan.  He’s the man who you can’t trust.  He’s a good talker.  He’s on your side.  He can help you get what you want, what you need.  He’s your buddy.  Oh yeah, he’s good, real good.  Then he fucks off with your money.  That’s who the mac man is.  He’s a pimp.  He’s a hustler.  The Mack Man can spot a fool from 40 paces, and wandering on Beale St, Memphis, birth of the fucking blues, he’d seen me.  Would you walk away from a Fool and His Money ?   So that was that, on the road again, Memphis had come and gone and been really great by the way, love that city, and when I’d delivered the car, the grateful owner did the decent thing and driven me to the Autodriveaway office in downtown Dallas – thence to choose a new car.  I chose the red open top 2-seater Mercedes from 1967. Can’t remember why. Where’s that car going?  I asked. It doesn’t work like that she said, where are you going?  I looked at her, short and frumpy and bad-tempered.  Not a very American attitude. They are usually so friendly and generous and willing.  She was a cow.   I’m not going anywhere I said.   No plans.  No destination.  She looked at me like I’d tricked her.  I was supposed to have a destination. I just genuinely didn’t have one.   I’d lost my UK girlfriend Rita earlier in 1988, and although I was seeing someone in England it didn’t feel official at all.   I’d had a relationship in Washington D.C., which lasted until I left town at the beginning of rehearsals and mongrel shagger Paul had stepped into my shoes and my girlfriend’s bed.  So now I was licking wounds and driving WEST WHEREVER.  I was as alone and lost as I’ll ever be in all likelihood.  I didn’t say all that.  But I wasn’t lying.  No destination, no expectations.  So she gave me the Mercedes.  It was going to Phoenix, Arizona. Another five-day ride.

I figured Texas would be boring but I was still stultified and unprepared for just how   b  o  r  i  n  g Highway 20 was. I drove into El Paso on the afternoon of Day 3, found a hotel and then drove into Juarez across the bridge over the Rio Grande.  It was Mexico.  First time I’d been there since 1980 (see My Pop Life #31).  

The bridge was the border, but not really.   I had some proper Mexican food and crossed back into the USA and slept.   The following day I drove out towards New Mexico and crossed the actual border about 5 miles outside El Paso on Highway 10.   Passport, everything. The little red Merc was driving well, guzzling gas, and I had to choose gas stations where they didn’t have the new-fangled credit card machines that were electronically connected to the bank and the rest of the world.  I sought out the ones with a piece of grey tracing paper that got rubbed over your card leaving a blackish imprint which you had to sign. Then I could fill up, and make sure I bought provisions too.  The electronic machines refused the Access Card – I was over my limit. Oh well. Made me feel more like an outlaw.

The reality was dull and lonely of course.  The lonely road.  Actually the road in New Mexico is pretty special, one of the great drives I’ve been on.  Red baked earth, blue sky, adobe dwellings and building, grey tarmac.  Country music on the radio mainly.  Washington D.C. And the theatre company who’d stabbed me in the back dwindled further and further into the distance.   Ahead of me was nothing.  It was a strange glorious empty sad feeling.  The white lines, the rolling tyres, the sun treading across the sky, the minutes ticking past, the gas tank slowly emptying, the feelings of sorrow and freedom, the man alone driving into the future, the rolling stone, all alone and lost, as night falls once more, a few more miles, a few more and there’s a cheap motel, there’s a place to crash, a parking lot, a giant empty sky. But, being a romantic, I stubbed my eyes upon the wheeling spokeshave of the stars.

Alun Lewis wrote that last line – one of my Dad’s favourites. Nicked it for the first play I ever wrote “Drive Away The Darkness” which itself is a quote from a Rolf Harris song ‘Sun Arise‘. Irony as one imagines his wandering fingers brought a fair bit of Darkness into young girl’s lives over the years.

Tombstone, Arizona

On Day 5 I rolled into Phoenix after a brief look round Tombstone and the Boothill Graveyard, resting place of the Clanton brothers, murdered by Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil, Warren and Morgan and Doc Holliday in the Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881.  The so-called gunfight lasted around 20 seconds and established the Earp family as ascendant in this part of the West. They became the law, literally, which is to say that Wyatt Earp became sheriff.   Much of the history of the U.S.A. has this violent gangster-ised quality (as does the history of man in general I hasten to add) where the winners write the history and the “good guys” always win.  I had always wanted to write the true history of Tombstone, a kind of anti-history where the Clantons are the heroes who get murdered.  But that’s the kind of warped twerp I am – always running against the wind, swimming against the tide.  

Well, now the tide had dumped me in Phoenix, where the Reverend Diane had said I would have my turning point when I spoke with her in D.C.   And you know, when people predict things, sometimes they do come true.   Maybe particularly if you want them to.   I delivered the car and back at the office was told that I couldn’t take the next car to Los Angeles.  Why ?  Because it was Christmas Eve today, LA was only a one-day delivery, and the office was closed on Christmas Day. They couldn’t give me the car for an extra day !!   No no.  No. So where was I going ?   The same old question.  What you got?  I asked.  They had Portland, Oregon.  That was like driving into winter, but it was further West.  And way further North.  I wonder what would have happened if I’d taken that car.  And this Brown Oldsmobile is going to Dallas, Texas.  Where I’d been five days earlier.  Turning point ?  Rising from the ashes ?  The definition of futility ?  Time to stop all of these rolling stone fantasies and go back home ?  Not quite.

Hank Williams was a major influence on country music in America despite dying at the young age of 29. Born with spina bifida, he used pain killers and alcohol all his life especially after an accident led to further pain. From Montgomery, Alabama, Hank (christened Hiram) learned guitar chords and turnarounds from black blues singer Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne, a fact he acknowledged years later. He recorded his first hit Move It On Over in 1947 after slogging around the circuit for years, spending the war shipbuilding in Mobile, Alabama and singing for the sailors in the evenings.  The spinal injury and another fall had excused him from service but he was already an alcoholic. Roy Acuff, country music pioneer told him “You have a million-dollar talent son, but a ten cent brain.”  Move It On Over was a huge hit, and Hank Williams spent the next six years playing live and recording his 31 singles before dying on a car journey between gigs in 1952. 

Lost Highway was written by Leon Payne, a blind country singer, and its combination of doomed romantic drifter schtick and self-mythologising misogyny was perfect for Williams.  It was also perfect for my self-pitying road trip, a man searching for his soul, for himself, a man who had never been single in his adult life but was trying it on for size and frankly, hating it.  Little did I know (or did I?) that the most important relationship of my entire life was literally days away.  

Hank Williams Sr sings to Hank Williams Jr

Lost Highway was a minor hit for Williams but remains a major song.   Dylan and Joan Baez sing it in Don’t Look Back the famous Pennebaker documentary from 1965.  It remains the anthem for the single man.  

Lost Highway is also a fantastic book by that greatest of music writers Peter Guralnick, author of Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love the two-part Elvis Presley biography, as well as books about soul music, blues, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips. Lost Highway is a personal review of the history of American music, featuring Ernest Tubb, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, and Sleepy LaBeef.   It’s absolutely brilliant.  

I started driving back to Dallas on Christmas Day 1988.

 

 

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 :

My Pop Life #80 : Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

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Heartbreak Hotel   –   Elvis Presley

the bell-hop’s tears keep flowing and the desk clerk’s dressed in black

They been so long on lonely street they never can go back

and they’ve been, they been so lonely baby, they been so lonely

they been so lonely they could die…

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By the time I was 16 I had learnt the rudimentals of the saxophone, I could play a tune, I could ‘tongue’ the notes, bend the notes and more or less join in with a jam.  I could only play in a handful of keys though.  And better jokes were to come.  When I joined school band Rough Justice – my friend’s band which starred Conrad Ryle, Andrew ‘Tat’ Taylor, Andy Shand and Tigger on the drums – it was as a saxophone player.   I arrived at Waterlilies in Kingston village, sax in hand, having hitch-hiked from Hailsham, sat down, had a cup of tea, perhaps a joint was smoked,  knelt down and opened my sax case, red-velvet-lined, the horn came in various parts which had to be slotted together, then a reed selected and placed onto the mouthpiece (Selmer C) and tightened, a sling around my neck and we were off.  Give us an E said Tat.  I blew a nice clear bell-like E.   Wow that’s high.  All the guitarists tightened their strings to the right pitch.  Saxophones cannot be tuned (much*) so the more flexible instruments – the guitars, including the bass, must be.   I can’t remember how many rehearsals this went on for, but at every rehearsal someone – often two people – broke strings.   Then one day, weeks later, possibly months later, someone – who knows – maybe it was me, perhaps Andy played an E on the piano out of curiosity.  Clearly none of us had perfect pitch !     It was lower than my E.  Way lower.  It was my C# in fact.  I consulted my book “How To Play The Saxophone”.    I had an Eb Boosey & Hawkes alto.   I don’t actually know what this means even today, but I think it means that it is pitched 3 semitones above middle C – ie Eb.   What this meant for my bandmate’s guitar strings, not to mention their fingers, was that when they asked me for an E, I was giving them a G !!!  No wonder strings broke – three semitones higher than concert pitch, I got blisters on ma fingers !   I felt stupid, humiliated even, but they were all relieved.   Next time someone asked me for an E, I blew a C# and we were all sweet. *

*Muso’s note – to tune a saxophone you must move the mouthpiece up & down the cork.

– After a few more rehearsals it became evident that no one wanted to sing.   No one.   So guess who volunteered.   I’ll give it a go.   Someone who would become an actor one day.  Now, this meant learning the words to the songs which Tat and Conrad – or Crod as we all called him in those days – had written, among which were Tat’s song Muster Muster Monsters which required a kind of Vincent Price delivery, and Crod’s song about Mevagissey in Cornwall where he’d been on holiday camping with Spark and Fore and possibly Martin Elkins (“wake up with the sun run down to the sea…”), which was a basic pop vocal.  More tricky though were the choice of covers – basic 12-bar rock songs which the nascent guitar players could play with confidence – and which included THREE Status Quo songs and THREE Elvis Presley songs and Birthday by the Beatles from the White Album.  I’ll discuss the Quo in greater depth another time, for I ended up meeting them years later, but this seems like a great opportunity to put Elvis into my pop life.  Aged 16/17 I sang 3 Elvis songs, kind of unaware of his legendary status, he was just a good rockin’ boy to us East Sussex lads.   I wasn’t overawed like I would be now if I sang an Elvis song.   It was just rock’n’roll.   But the songs were 15 years old even then in 1973.

Most of the Rough Justice set were rockers, so true to form I’ve picked the ballad to represent.  It was the hardest song to sing with the exception of “Birthday” which is a scream-fest.  Two of us sang that I think.  We would perform at Kingston Village Hall, Grange Gardens for some private party, Lewes Priory school dance, not that many actual gigs.  The gigs were good, but my main memory is Crod’s bedroom, amps and speakers, fags, instruments including Crod’s homemade lemon-yellow electric guitar, carved from some tree and wired up by hand.  In my recall it went out of tune on a regular basis, but Crod didn’t seem to mind.  In fact Conrad didn’t seem to mind about much it seemed to me.  He had a gentle giant atmosphere around him, smiled a lot, was very forgiving and understanding, had a good left foot on the football pitch, came to the Albion with his brother Martin or with us, enjoyed a pint of cider and a smoke of weed, is a committed socialist even now and still lives in Lewes with his wife Gaynor Hartnell.  Lovely people whom I see all too infrequently.  Along with Simon Korner I would say he was my best friend at Lewes, since I had spent so much time with both of those families as my own family slowly disintegrated amid dysfunction and doctors and drugs.  They’d both reached out a hand and invited me into their homes.  They’d saved my sanity and my future probably.  I cannot really measure it, but I will always acknowledge it.

We had fun with Crod one day – me, Spark, Fore, Martin, Tat.  Crod fell asleep early one night.  Too early.  Wankered on cider.  Someone wondered aloud whether we should lift his entire bed with him in it outside and place it carefully in the garden, without waking him up.  Much laughter.  I think we tried it.   Of course the bed wouldn’t fit through the door.  So we settled for completely re-arranging his bedroom, moved the bed to the opposite wall, moved the bookcase and wardrobe and amps and speakers.  Then we fell asleep too.   Hadn’t worked that out – that we’d have to stay awake all night to get the juicy climax to our prank.  Then someone woke Crod up to get the joke.  He looked blearily around, said “oh you’ve moved the room around” then fell asleep again.

Matthew Wimbourne would turn up to Rough Justice rehearsals too.   He was younger than us and smaller too.   Wispy beard-hairs and glasses, hippy scarves.   Carried a set of bongos.  Sat on the floor and played along without ever really being heard.   I hope he had fun.   Tigger the drummer didn’t go to our school.  He looked a bit like a kid from fame, mullet and all.   We made a logo for his bass drum.  It said Rough Justice round the rim and had a hangman’s noose in the centre.  We wore whatever we wanted on stage which was mainly denim, although Crod had some interesting shapeless clothes, and I had my Mum’s pink blouse (glamrock!!) and a pair of stripéd pants (see MacArthur’s Park!) that were red, blue and yellow and a pair of wedge-sole AND wedge-heel shoes.  I thought I was in The Sweet !!  Singing Elvis and Quo !!!  hahahahahahahaaaaaaa…

Featured imageAs for Heartbreak Hotel, it’s quite a song.  I think people used to dance even when we played it.   It was Elvis Presley‘s first million-selling single.   Not the first thing he recorded, by any means – he walked into Sun Records in Memphis aged 18 and recorded That’s All Right Mama for producer Sam Phillips which is totally fantastic, as are all the sides he cut for Sun Records.  But once he got signed by RCA Records who bought out his Sun contract thanks to new manager “Colonel” Tom Parker, the sky was the limit.  In essence they tried to bottle the lightning of those first magical two years.  And, sadly, they did.  Bottled it, labelled it, mass-produced it, gave it a haircut and sent it to the army.  They couldn’t quite smooth out all of the rough edges but near as dammit that’s exactly what happened to Elvis.  The famous episodes of him being shot on TV only from the waist up were a real threat, not a joke – a white man dancing and singing like a negro, mixing black and white music with ease, conquering both with charm, rockabilly and sex.

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He was a powerful dangerous young man in the mid-fifties, and those first two years at Sun Records are the best of Elvis.  Not to say that the other stuff is bad – hardly that – and I have favourite Elvis songs from every period of his life.  In The Ghetto.  Are You Lonesome Tonight?   I Just Can’t Help Believin’.  Lawdy Miss Clawdy from the comeback gig.  There are two wonderful books that have all the details, all the gossip and all of the stuff you need.  Peter Guralnick wrote both – Last Train To Memphis goes up to the army, Careless Love takes it from there.  Highly recommended.

I visited Graceland in Memphis in 1989 on my way out to Dallas delivering a car for Auto-Driveaway.  Really that’s for another post, but Graceland is everything you want it to be.

In other news Kenneth Cranham (see My Pop Life #6 and My Pop Life #46) or Uncle Ken had thrust a pair of C90s into my grubby little paws one night entirely made up of original material covered by Elvis, followed by Elvis’ version.  In pretty much every respect the Elvis versions are better.  And of course they were huge hits too.  Parker and Elvis demanded half of the publishing for any song they covered, and most writers (though not Dolly Parton) agreed.

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I knew very very little of this in 1974.   Just as well I think.   I was an innocent singing rock songs for kids to dance to.    I didn’t want to be stepping into a legend’s shoes.

Featured imageAnd yes, the legend of Elvis would flourish and bloom in later years and become a kind of religious touchstone and a musical crossroads too.    There’s so much myth and bullshit written and spoken about Elvis.   I’ve heard tons of it.   Make up your own mind.   Did you know, for instance, that Elvis used to wear eye make-up in the early 50s?   There’s some amazing photos of him back then, on the cusp of his power, under arrest for an assault.   He was a tornado.    I’ve spoken about my conversation with Bristol trip-hop pioneer Tricky (My Pop Life #61) regarding the Public Enemy “Elvis was a hero to most…” lines on Fight The Power.   But whatever, he was one of the original rebels.   A white working class kid in Memphis singing black music in 1953.   He was it.    There’s two clips below, the original single from 1956, the young man aged 21 making his first million dollars, below that the ’68 comeback gig in Las Vegas where he appears to be taking the mickey out of himself and his schtick.  He was a complex man in some ways, a very simple man in others.  I’ve got a lot of time for Elvis.

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and live at the comeback gig in Vegas ’68 :

My Pop Life #28 : Too Far Gone – Bobby Bland

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Too Far Gone   –   Bobby Bland

…my friends, they console me, they say go out and find someone new…

It’s 1981.   I’m all but recovered from Hepatitus B, although I’m still not drinking.   When my liver finally recovers I’ll be a cheap night out.   My vinyl-buying habits haven’t subsided though, and I can be found flicking through bins in Soho, Camden Town Record & Tape Exchange or Notting Hill.   I actually scored a job at the Notting Hill Record and Tape Exchange – it’s in my collection of short-lived futile jobs.

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On day one the manager  (who was like a bitter incarnation of Alan Rickman), asked me what music I liked.  It was a trick question of course.   I think I answered “Roxy Music” and possibly “David Bowie” : being an honest kind of chap and not prone to pretending I was cool – much.   He sneered in derision.  “How about you?” I asked.   “No rock music,”  he deigned to answer but didn’t offer anything else.   Wow what a twat.    Gave me a box of records to put into the bins.    They were unsorted – and I was expected to know what they all were.  I think most of them were jazz, and placed them (in alphabetical order) in the various jazz bins.   By the end of the shift I was asked not to come back tomorrow.   So much for access to cheap vinyl….

My appetite was wide and deep – I was up for anything new.  So when I found Bobby Bland smiling at me from the ‘blues’ bin I chose him.

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I knew nothing about him, or his music, but felt that as a music lover, I ‘ought’ to know about the blues.   It’s been a part of my musical journey this self-taught encyclopaedic approach and it has taken me up many delicious backwaters, and into plenty of powerful running rivers too.    A lucky dip is a fun way to collect music too.  I rarely really hate anything I’ve bought like this, but sometimes stuff gets returned, for a fifth of what I bought it for,  that’s just how the 2nd-hand music market works.   I’ll happily hand over 10 CDs now that I don’t need any longer and buy two “new” ones with the proceeds.    But this was vinyl day, and each new slice was lovingly wiped clean, placed onto the turntable and the needle gently brought down onto the black shiny spinning groove.

If you don’t know Bobby “Blue” Bland – he is an astounding singer of the blues, with a deep and profoundly emotional voice.  Bobby was brought up in Tennessee, never went to school, and got his breaks in Memphis alongside B.B. King – he was one of the Beale Street blues boys.  (BB means blue boy King, and Bobby’s nickname was Blue)  and he recorded a great live LP with B.B. King too.   I never saw him live, although I did see B.B. King at Hammersmith.   Bobby Bland’s big hits were Cry Cry Cry, I Pity The Fool and Stormy Monday, later he hit home with Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City but the tune which caught my ear & my heart & my soul was called Too Far Gone, which was the final song on the LP.    Many years later, I tried to track this song down and discovered an LP called Get On Down which Bobby had made in 1975 – a collection of country music songs from Nashville…

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Too Far Gone was written by Billy Sherrill for Tammy Wynette, and many others have covered it, notably Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris.  This blues version though, is astounding.   I love how the different parts of the band join in one at a time.   It’s a simple trick, but never done with such aplomb.   First the rolling piano, then the off beat catches the rich warm voice, the strings join in, are we in country honky-tonk or Nashville – then the horns sweep majestically into the equation bringing Memphis back to the fore, the backing singers join us for some oohs, then the harmonica adds a blues harp twang before the mighty chorus, key change and finale, and we’re done.  No middle eight, no more verses just a mighty last growl from Bobby before the end.  I still find this song completely perfect, and it would always be in any mythical top-ten I may have to produce in pop-favourite-land.   Not bad for a lucky-dip.

Around this time I visited previous flat-mate Nick Partridge (from West End Lane Pete and Sali’s place) as he was now living on a house-boat in Amsterdam, and running a blues show on the radio there.   Or maybe I’ll leave that story for another song….

Many years later I would include this tune on a cassette tape I made for my new love, Jenny Jules, a C90 that I imaginatively called “The Soul Tape”.  (See My Pop Life #29)

My Pop Life #17 : People Got To Be Free – Dionne Warwick

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People Got To Be Free   –   Dionne Warwick

…why don’t you ask me my opinion ?   it’s the natural situation…

Selmeston, East Sussex.  1968/69.  I took the bus to Lewes every day from my little village of 200 people.  A callow youth, my school had just gone comprehensive, which means that Lewes Grammar, where I’d served a survivor’s 1st year complete with detention, punches to the face and rugby, suddenly flowered into a school next to Grange Gardens (1st & 2nd years only), football and girls.   Need I describe every ray of sunshine that ensued ?  At home, we were a single-parent family but around this time one of my Mum’s friends moved in with her daughter.  I think she was called Heather, same as my mum.  I remember little about Heather but for one detail burned indelibly into my retina, of a photograph of her sitting in a meadow somewhere, which when you turned it over, bore the inscription “Pensive In The Grass“.  We howled and hooted with laughter when we discovered this – poor Heather, she was probably in one of those singles clubs with my Mum – Gingerbread I think it was called – writing to single men who wanted to meet someone special.  Who knows.   Pensive in the Grass became  a fantasy LP title forever.  I was scarcely buying records by this time – I was only just in long trousers to be honest.  But Mum had Radio One on all day long, and chose her own personal soundtrack which would get purchased in Eastbourne – a 45-minute bus journey away.  One of these sacred maternal singles was a Dionne Warwick song which bursts out of the speakers like a vintage slice of Northern Soul, meaty, beaty big and bouncy.  We all loved it.  As I grew older and more knowledgeable about music it appeared that this single was almost completely unknown by everyone I ever met, and was almost lost in a wrinkle of time, but for the fact that every time I went home to see my Mum, there that single still was – in it’s paper sleeve on the blue Pye label (can I have actually remembered that?) and still a belter of a song.

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Later still, I found out that the song was written by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati, the mainstays of 60s east-coast groovers The Rascals, famous for their hit song Groovin’ (on a Sunday afternoon).

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Clearly everyone knew Dionne as the finest exponent of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s liquid pop masterpieces throughout the 1960s – Walk On By, Do You Know The Way To San Jose and so on, but apparently in the late 60s her people decided to position her more in the R’n’B world and she went down to Memphis and Chips Moman‘s American Studios to record what was for her a whole new sound on the LP “Soulful”.

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I don’t think it was a huge success, and People Got To Be Free wasn’t released as a single in the US.  Looking at the tracklist today, it’s ironic that only 3 of the ten songs are written by black songwriters – there are three Beatle’s songs, two from Dan Penn (inc. When A Man Loves A Woman)  and Cynthia Weil & Barry Mann‘s “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” among the Curtis, Otis and Marvin covers.  Her handwritten sleevenotes talk about “recording R&B my way” but it’s really not her style to be honest – this song excepted.  It’s the standout track on the album, which clearly tanked, and within 6 months she was recording “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” with Bacharach, one of her biggest hits.

Of course my Mum – or perhaps you dear reader – doesn’t care about any of this.  She just liked the beat, and the sentiment – people got to be free.  She was single and was going to enjoy it rather than sulk and feel sorry for herself.  It was written as a blue-eyed soulboy’s answer to Martin Luther King’s call for tolerance and compassion in the late 60s, but became Ms Dionne Warwick’s most soulful vocal of her otherwise extremely silky pop career.  I love this record.