My Pop Life #176 : Luck Be A Lady – Ian Charleson

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Luck Be A Lady  –  Ian Charleson

They call you Lady Luck – but there is room for doubt : at times you have a very un-ladylike way of running out.

You’re on this date with me, the pickings have been lush, and yet before this evening is over you might give me the brush

You might forget your manners, you might refuse to stay,   And so the best that I can do is pray….

There are two extremely well-known versions of this song by two extremely famous people, but I choose them not.   Now read on dot dot dot.   This hard-to-find version was the one I sang at auditions in 1982 and 1983, an aspiring thespian with a paper-thin resumé and a hopeful willing heart.  I knew nothing, and very few people were explaining things.  Normal life in other words.   A keen, inexperienced, hungry young soul.  By which I mean that I really don’t feel as if I’ve been here before AT ALL, and thus all my wisdom – such as it is – has been hard-won this time around.   And I had very little aged 24, 25, 26.  Choose me !  I’d probably just about got my Equity Card via Moving Parts Theatre Company and done a cracking John Godber-directed production of A Clockwork Orange at Man In The Moon theatre in the King’s Road which secured me an agent.  Earlier that year my girlfriend Mumtaz and I had been to The National Theatre one night to see Guys and Dolls, the Frank Loesser musical based on Damon Runyon‘s slang-crackling low-life characters, wise guys & lippy girls, gamblers, hustlers, tough guys and dames.  It was a brilliant production, directed by Richard Eyre and a real eye-opener.  Starring Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit, Julia McKenzie as Adelaide, Ian Charleson as Sky Masterson, David Healy as Nicely Nicely and Julie Covington as Sister Sarah, and my old friend Jim Carter.  It is without exaggeration one of my best nights out in the theatre ever, and it had a profound effect on me, cementing my desire to be an actor, inspiring me to think song-and-dance, and causing me to realise, finally, that film actors and stage actors can crossover into each other’s arenas and triumph.  It was simply quite exhilarating.

So much so that – gasp – we bought the soundtrack LP in the foyer with these classic tunes on it : Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat, Adelaide’s Lament, Take Back Your Mink, If I Were A Bell, Sue Me and Luck Be  A Lady, the latter sung by Ian Charleson.

What a song.  The show was also my introduction (along with my Billie Holiday LP), to The Great American Songbook, a loose collection of jazz-pop songs usually written for stage musicals and films between 1920 and the early 50s, by the all-time great songwriters Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, George & Ira Gershwin and others. Songs like Summertime, The Way You Look Tonight (My Pop Life #162 ), Cheek To Cheek, Fly Me To The Moon, Bye Bye Blackbird, I Get A Kick Out Of You, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Pennies From Heaven, Someone to Watch Over Me and on and on, all covered by all the major singers of the time, and many more since then.

Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway in 1950, and was a massive hit.  A film adaptation followed in 1955 with Marlon Brando singing Luck Be A Lady poorly and wearing a shit-eating grin to compensate opposite Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah.  Below : the movie trailer fronted by Ed Sullivan reading an autocue with glimpses of the lead characters, including Vivian Blaine from the original Broadway production who UNUSUALLY got to play the same character in the movie (mainly because Marilyn Monroe wasn’t available).

Frank Sinatra played Nathan Detroit in the film but later he made Luck Be A Lady his own signature tune along with Come Fly With Me and Under My Skin.  His version is below too.  It’s brilliant, magnificent even, but it’s not the version that I used to sing at auditions.

My generation was one of the last who had to present a Shakespeare speech and sing a song to get a job.  Not at the same time.  But nearly.  Certainly to get a place at a drama school or work at one of the regional Repertory Theatres.   I think I used to do Richard the 2nd, but I can’t really remember.  I had secured an offer for the Drama Studio in Ealing early in 1982, but I couldn’t get a grant and couldn’t afford the fees.  I’d already had a grant from East Sussex to study for a Batchelor of Law at the LSE, so why should I get a post-grad one year change-of-career hand-out?  My generation were gilded by that grant system, and the accompanying soundtrack of punk, funk, reggae and disco.  But there I was – out the other side, changing horses, wasting my education.  What a rebel!    I was out there on my own, learning Shakespeare speeches and singing Luck Be A Lady along to Ian Charleson in our attic flat in Finsbury Park.  Buying the sheet music, making sure it was in the right key so I could give it to the pianist in the audition.  I guess musical auditions still operate like this – I haven’t done one for over 30 years.  But I’m sure the pianist usually knows the score.

The song has a dramatic opening, in common with many American Songbook pieces – Stardust for example (see My Pop Life #100) – a whole section in a different key which sets the song up.  This one really appealed to me.  You’re walking into a gambling salon in your finest threads talking to your dice.  I had no idea what those dice did – not blackjack which I had played with my Grandad, but ‘craps’ which still baffles me to this day.  On my Las Vegas trips I have always concentrated on roulette, and occasionally the other type of blackjack (the card game) but not dice.  But that didn’t put me off the song, where Sky is singing to Lady Luck, and imagining that she is an actual dame.  A hackneyed yet brilliant conceit :

A lady doesn’t wander all over the room and blow on some other guy’s dice 

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Frank Loesser..

..had a classical upbringing in New York, but he broke away from his parents’ ambitions to write for Tin Pan Alley  – and he struggled for years before getting published. Probably his best known song is the peerless Baby, It’s Cold Outside which he used to sing with his wife Lynn Garland at supper club parties to end the evening, then irritated her by selling the song to MGM.  It won him a best song Oscar and was subsequently covered by every famous duet partnership you can think of, most brilliantly I think by Ray Charles & Betty Carter in 1960.   Loesser also wrote, among 700 others, Praise The Lord & Pass The Ammunition during the 2nd World War,  Let’s Get Lost, Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling and the lyrics to Hoagy Carmichael’s Two Sleepy People and Heart & Soul.

Weirdly, the musical Guys and Dolls cropped up again that year of 1982 on Elvis Costello‘s brilliant Imperial Bedroom sessions (see My Pop Life #124) in the exquisite song Heathen Town (which inexplicably ended up on a later B-side rather than on the album), where, instead of singing

and the devil won’t drag you under by the sharp lapels of your chequered coat – sit down sit down sit down sit down, sit down you’re rockin’ the boat

which is from the Guys and Dolls musical, Elvis sings

cos the devil will drag you under by the sharp tailfin of your chequered cab – and I can’t sit down I’m going overboard in this heathen town

which is both a brilliant twist on the original lyric (Runyon’s sinners in the Sally Army praising the Lord) and a confession that New York City (the heathen town) is swallowing him alive and he’s loving it.    They used to call it Sin City now it’s gone way past that…  Honestly someone could do a phD thesis on Elvis Costello’s lyrical and musical quotations so rich and varied they are.   Don’t look at me !  I’m doing broad church brushstrokes, not digging down into one particular speciality.  Butterfly mind moves on.  Anyway, maybe Costello went to the NT show too, not so mysterious…

I never was in Guys and Dolls or any other big musical.  No no, please don’t pity me, it’s a whole other type of person who usually does that kind of thing.  I’m a camera actor. Usually.  Bob Hoskins bless him was a collector’s item and showed me that it could be done.  It’s more usual in the USA for actors to sing and dance on camera and onstage (the triple threat) and even write and direct too.  They encourage it in fact.  In the UK we are encouraged to specialise, not to dilute the craft by trying to do it all.  The narrow approach.  The suspicious approach of anyone who steps outside of their box.

Bob Hoskins & Ian Charleson onstage in Guys & Dolls

Ian Charleson was a Scottish actor who trod the boards playing Shakespeare including Hamlet twice, before famously portraying Eric Liddell in Chariots Of Fire and Charlie Andrews in Gandhi in 1981 and 82.  Despite both films winning Oscars, he didn’t move to Lala Land but rather his next move was appearing onstage in the National Theatre’s production of Guys & Dolls as Sky Masterson and he got glowing reviews.  In 1986 he was diagnosed with AIDS and he died in 1990 aged 40.   I have heard better performances of this great Frank Loesser song than his, but not many.   Sinatra’s is better – it’s jazz.  But Brando’s isn’t, it’s just terrible, lacking drama, energy or feeling, so un-Brando.   Alex Harvey could’ve sung it.  Fee Waybill.  David Bowie.  Rufus Wainwright.  Or me, maybe.

Ian Charleson NY OST :

https://archive.org/details/luckBeALadyianCharlesonOntc

for contrast, Brando’s strange weak delicate take on it :

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My Pop Life #149 : Little By Little – Dusty Springfield

Little By Little   –   Dusty Springfield

little by little by little by little

In 1985 I had established to my own satisfaction that I was an actor – I’d worked with Steven Berkoff in ‘West’ at the Donmar for five months in 1983, filmed it for Channel 4, done a whole series of ‘The Bill’ as P.C. Muswell, worked at the Royal Court, The Tricycle Theatre, Joint Stock and done some BBC Shakespeare.  But I was still harbouring musical fantasies, and still playing saxophone with a band I’d joined in 1980 called Birds Of Tin.  Most of the band lived on the Pullens Estate in Kennington, between Walworth Road and Kennington Park Road, SE17.  My links with this part of South London were manyfold – I also played football on Sunday mornings with a groups of geezers known as the Hoxton Pirates who also mainly lived there – although (with one or two exceptions) not the same people !  The link was Lewes probably, unwinding out to friends and relations of rabbit.  But I’ll save the Pirates for another post.

Birds Of Tin 1985

Early days – 1979/1980 – we had many many discussions about the name of the band, and initially, after rejecting The Deeply Ashamed (Pete Thomas suggestion) and Go Go Dieppe (I’ll claim that one) we settled on Parma Violets.  {I think that name has now been taken by another group.}   At some point I’d had a sax audition for Ranken’s Romeos aka The Operation, an outfit which contained Simon Korner AND his brother Joe but which was led by Andrew Ranken who’d been in the year above us in school and who was going out with Deborah Korner, Simon and Joe’s elder sister.  He would shortly join The Pogues as their drummer, but was lead singer in The Operation and Patrick Freyne was on drums.  I was nervous and a little underprepared.  In retrospect Andrew perhaps didn’t fancy my fashion-victim appearance and vibe I suspect, for he suggested without warm-up or pre-amble doing a song in the key of B.  It was a musical ambush.  I had never played a song in the key of B in my life – it’s not common, like E or A or G or D.   I know that’s no excuse by the way.

Emma Peters & I in Joe Korner’s flat, Glebe Estate, Peckham 1979

As I explained in My Pop Life #80 the saxophone is pitched 3 semitones above concert pitch (ie the piano) so sax players have to adjust 3 semitones down when the key gets called.  Thus my audition was in Ab.  A fucking flat.  I made an abysmal mess of an attempt and put the horn back into it’s velveteen lined case, tail firmly tucked between my legs.  The Operation carried on and now play as The Mysterious Wheels and a version of this band played at my wedding to Jenny (see My Pop Life #126) where I was on saxophone alongside Jem Finer from The Pogues and an extra fella called Chris because Andrew still didn’t think I had the chops (!)    Fair enough I probably didn’t.

Joe Korner on the keyboards, Tom Anthony on drums

But later that year – 1980 – after that miserable audition failure –  another band was formed : the aforementioned Parma Violets, to play mainly original material emanating from Joe Korner and old Rough Justice buddy Conrad Ryle.   For some reason Simon didn’t join Parma Violets.  But Patrick did, and Emma Peters on violin and vocals, and Joe’s mate Sam Watson, who was a friend of Leonie’s brother, on bass.  Leonie Rushforth was Simon’s girlfriend whom he’d met in Cambridge.   We used to rehearse at midnight in Mount Pleasant Studios off Gray’s Inn Road in a studio owned by Animal Magnet, a Cambridge band that Simon was also playing in.

Incestuous and vain, and many other last names.

This line-up : Joe, Conrad, Patrick, Emma, Sam and I – produced a demo tape in a studio in Guildford where’s Sam’s mate was doing a Music Degree and our five songs were part of his final year project.  Free to those who can afford it.  It was all of our first time in a studio and was really quite thrilling.  I double-tracked the saxophone on one song making a simple chord with myself.  The singular joy of harmony.  But in the end we weren’t that happy with the finished result.  Then Patrick left, then Conrad left and I took a sabbatical and went to Mexico in order to contract one of the major viral infections, Hepatitus B (see My Pop Life #31 or My Pop Life #24).  I came back and lay down for a few months.

Emma Peters on violin

We played two covers I recall – possibly more.  One was 300 lbs of Heavenly Joy by Howling Wolf, and the other was this song Little By Little by Dusty Springfield.   Emma loved this song.  People danced to it when we played it live.  It’s mid-period Dusty, 1966, so after those classic early singles I Only Wanna Be With You, Middle Of Nowhere and I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself but before the pinnacle of Dusty In Memphis and Son Of A Preacher Man (1968).

Dusty was a cool cat.   She was deported with her band The Echoes from apartheid South Africa in 1964 for playing an integrated concert in Cape Town – despite a clause in her contract – one of the first artists to refuse to play for segregated audiences.  She introduced the British public to Tamla Motown in 1965 when she fronted the Motown Revue on Rediffusion Television, with live performances from Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Martha Reeves, a show produced by Vicki Wickham from Ready Steady Go and now our dear friend in New York (see My Pop Life #135).  Dusty found a beautiful Italian ‘schmaltzy song’ as she called it, at a singing festival in San Remo in ’65 (she reached the semi final) and her friends Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier Bell wrote English words and she recorded it.  It went to Number One in June 1966 as You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.  That autumn she had her own TV show called simply Dusty.

She is the greatest British female singer of my lifetime, and the most successful, certainly until Adele.  Her taste and her style were impeccable, and she graciously lived up to her billing as our greatest blue-eyed soul singer.  She also did backing vocals on friends’ LPs billed as Gladys Thong, notably Madeline Bell & Kiki Dee (both backing this single) and also Anne Murray and Elton John.    Little By Little was written by Bea Verdi and Buddy Kaye, who wrote several of her hits including Middle Of Nowhere.

I cannot remember if we continued to play Little By Little when the band reformed a little later as Birds Of Tin, but by then the new line-up had recorded a simply fantastic demo-tape in Joe’s flat with a drum machine called BoT.  It showcased the very best of his songwriting including one called It Never Rains :

Thursday night, General Election, Friday night, burns all the paintings

Sunday night, the separation, Tuesday’s gone in desperation…

It never rains…

I thought they were a great band and shortly after hearing that c90 cassette I rejoined.  I think it was now 1983.  Maybe I’d been doing The Bill or – more likely Moving Parts Theatre Company, who toured the land in a beat-up transit with self-written plays to politically educate the youth.  Hahaha – for another post I feel !!

Sam, Joe, Linsey, Emma

The new line-up had Tat on guitar (quiet, introspective, folk-oriented, but liked a laugh) instead of Conrad, and Tom Anthony on drums (amicable, rock-steady and played centre-half for The Hoxton Pirates on occasion) instead of Patrick.   Sam was the only one who hadn’t been at Priory – an essentially happy, friendly and easy-going fellow, he also played centre-half for Hoxton Pirates with Tom and played bass for Birds Of Tin.   Emma was a lovely clear singer and cracking violinist who went on to make LPs with The Clarke Sisters an Irish/folk outfit in the late 1990s. Then Linsey joined as a second vocalist around the same time as me, also playing percussion, lovely harmonies, and that became the classic Birds Of Tin combo.  We drifted towards the exotic sounds of Eastern Europe, did an instrumental called Smilkino Kolo which originated in Croatia I think (then called Yugoslavia of course), and another instrumental called Istanbul – could’ve been Turkish but it sounded Greek to me…

Me, Linsey on percussion, Tat on guitar

Emma did full spirited gypsy violin on these numbers and I made my sax sound like a battered didicoy trumpet.  We still played Joe’s songs, and some by Sam too – but with the same sax-and-violin attack.  There was a Madness influence if anything, maybe a sprinkle of Talking Heads and definitely hand-picked lucky dip World Music.  There was another song that I sourced from a Bollywood tape which Mumtaz and I had in our flat in Finsbury Park – can I remember the name, the film, the song – no!  but I wrote new lyrics inspired by William Blake and the new song was called Dangerous Garden.   That song really did swing.  I suspect it remains the only song I’ve ever written.

Linsey, Emma, Tat, Me

Musically we were a good band.  Good players and singers, good harmonies, tight rhythm section, good turnarounds and middle eights.  Interesting mid-80s crossover indie I suppose.  Pop music with flavour.  We never got a record deal anywhere.  We never had a manager, or any really decent contacts.  There was a kind of quiet refusal to wear any uniform or even matching vibes.  I – quite naturally – was happy to go onstage in full shalwa-kamiz of a soft blue colour, but Emma & Lins aside, the rest of the band balked at dressing up. Sam looked like Sting AND he played bass, and he used to wear pedal pushers and chinese slippers but Joe and Tat and Tom weren’t having a clothes-matching competition.  We did quite a few gigs too, a residency at The Four Aces in Dalston on Monday nights where the audience consisted of 3 rastas (“play more Russian music!“), some local SE17 events, some outdoor festivals and notably a support to The Men They Couldn’t Hang at the Corn Exchange in Brighton.

Sam Watson on the bass guitar

There were tensions in the band – it’s a band after all – and after Sam went out with Linsey for a large part of the middle period it all ended quite literally in tears and Sam subsequently listened to Elvis Costello‘s Man Out Of Time from Imperial Bedroom 20 times in a row in desolation one night.   Then a natural break came when I was offered Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman and I had to choose – acting, or music?

It’s a shame that no BoT songs survive on digital format – because I would include one here to showcase that moment in time.  But we have Dusty, and we have the treasure of these photos from IGA studios in 1985.  I always loved rehearsals and these pictures capture some of that joy – just making music together is a pleasure.   I distinctly remember walking around in that tartan suit that spring thinking “So – it’s tartan – what of it??” as people stared me down, but all photos of the garms in question have been in an attic box until now.  This set from Ian McIntyre, a whoosh into the past.  Who are those young kit cats ?

My Pop Life #73 : ‘Til Tomorrow – Marvin Gaye

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‘Til Tomorrow   –   Marvin Gaye

Hey girl what you doin’? gettin up?  You got to go ? …ah, don’t go just yet baby…Tu es encroyable…that’s French baby…it means you are incredible…mm?  …why you got to go?  baby don’t go, don’t go right now I can’t stand it please….

Now here’s a pop star who translates as he goes, unlike Grace Jones.  Tu es Encroyable.  And he has a decent accent too.   This is because he’s been living in Belgium for a year, coming off cocaine and becoming fit, healthy and writing songs again.  Marvin Gaye was in a terrible state in the early 80s, a cocaine/crack addict, owing the Revenue millions of dollars.

He was rescued by little-known Belgian entrepreneur Freddy Couseart who made a connection in London through boxing, one of Marvin’s soft spots, and offered him shelter and sanctuary in his pension in Ostend on the Belgian coast.

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Marvin & Freddie in Ostend, 1982

Marvin, worn out with Motown (who had just released In Our Lifetime “before it was ready” which infuriated Marvin)  and drained of energy, dread and desire, needed a rest, needed a break, needed a change of scenery.  He found all three in this unlikely setting and started getting clean, getting physically fit, and writing songs.  By the end of 1981 he had an album’s-worth of material and a number of record labels flew over to Belgium to bid for the next MG product.  CBS were wise and sent Harvey Fuqua who’d sung with Marvin in The Moonglows back in the 1950s before Motown and all that excitement, and CBS got the final LP Midnight Love (released in October 1982) and the lead single Sexual Healing.  Marvin went back to the USA, scored a huge hit single, paid his tax, sang the National Anthem at the 1983 basketball final, (an astonishing performance), moved back to his parent’s house and got shot by his father on April 1st 1984.

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I bought Midnight Love when it was released in 1982 and played it a lot.  I was living in Finsbury Park at the time with Mumtaz.  I’d started acting, in Moving Parts Theatre Company – (see My Pop Life #18), and then in pub theatres such as The Man In The Moon on the King’s Road doing an expressionist Clockwork Orange adapted by John Godber who I knew from Edinburgh days, also starring Paul Rider, Andy Winters, Pete Geeves.   I was a hopeful monster.    Some of my new feminist friends from Moving Parts came to see it and were horrified to find their pet man doing ultraviolence.   But I scored an agent – David Preston – a shaven-headed queen ensconced in his purple velvet-lined office with brass candlesticks somewhere in deepest Soho – well I had to start somewhere…

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This track ‘Til Tomorrow was the one that stood out for me (alongside the obvious charms of Sexual Healing) – the only ballad on a funky jazzy synth-heavy set, and with lyrics and instrumentation that are sparse to say the least, and a spoken Marvin-persona intro (which I include above) which is frankly hilarious, but somehow still sexy.  That’s just how he was.  I think my favourite Marvin Gaye LP(apart from WGO) is Live At The London Palladium from 1976, all the between-song chatter is fantastic, his voice is amazing, the band are great.  Only the duets are a little weak.

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Marvin Gaye in Ostend, Belgium, 1981

In 2013 I was cast in a Marvin Gaye biopic called Sexual Healing.   Julien Temple was directing a script by Matthew Broughton about the last three years of Marvin’s life, (played by Jesse L. Martin) centred on the Ostend story with some flashbacks to Dad (Dwight Henry from Beasts Of The Southern Wild) and Mum (S. Epatha Merkers).  Freddie Cousearts was Brendan Gleeson.  I was Jeffrey Kruger Marvin’s tour manager in wig and large specs, the man who started London’s Flamingo Club a real music person, and a real person who now lives in Brighton.  I never did look him up – it’s weird playing real people – you want to be true to them, but you don’t want to feel obliged, and in the end you have to play the script and what is written.

Featured imageSo there we were in Luxembourg in nice hotels, working with a lovely local crew (mainly) and immersed in the world of Marvin Gaye – I discovered (much like Columbus ‘discovered’ America) his 1981 LP In Our Lifetime which has some classic moments including opening song “Praise”, and I enjoyed working with Julien since we had a lot of mutual friends.  I flew back to Brighton with one more day to complete – backstage at the Royal Albert Hall.  We never shot it.  The crew flew to Ostend and shot all of that stuff, but the London end of things was never completed, neither was the film, and nobody got paid.  Another one of those stories.  Julien hawked the rushes around for a couple of years, maybe still is doing so, but nothing doing.  Essentially he’s trying to sell a huge debt with a possible money-spinning film behind it.  Given that every film ever made is entirely a leap of faith, when one comes off the rails it is very very very hard to put it back, no matter who is involved or how sexy the project looks from the outside.  Or the inside.  Damn shame.  A story that needs to be told as much as any I’ve ever done.

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The Gaye family recently won a lawsuit against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke for stealing Got To Give It Up, but I have no doubt that the decision will be reversed on appeal.  The idea that you can copyright a groove is frankly preposterous.

But Marvin’s legacy is still being fought over, Berry Gordy holds on tight to the Motown era songs, there has been a play based on Frankie Gaye‘s book Marvin Gaye My Brother, but somehow we had got the rights to the CBS LP Midnight Love so some of his tale could be told.  Too many crooks as ever in this dirty business.  Damn shame.    Frankie Gaye died in 2001, and I would recommend the book.  Frankie went to Vietnam and his experiences there in the late 1960s inspired Marvin to write and record What’s Goin’ On.   Marvin’s son is also named Frankie.

So I miss Marvin Gaye.  Miss him twice.   ’til tomorrow…  Thinking about him again, I have to say just this – his backing vocals are always completely amazing.  Cluster chords, stretching what is vocally possible behind his soaring lead vocal.  The guy was a master.

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Oh but I didn’t mention our cat, our kitten Marvin.  A Devon Rex with large ears and short fur, he would crawl up my body to sit on my shoulder whether I was wearing clothes or not.  We bought him at 9 weeks old and he lived for another eight blessed weeks.   Bled to death after cutting his mouth on a wicker basket, chewing it.  Took him to the vet but he had genetic Factor 8 deficiency.  Bless him the blood wouldn’t clot.  He died lying on my chest in the middle of the night.  Buried with full honours in the back garden.  Wept buckets.  So yeah, I miss Marvin three times.

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Ralph Brown & Jesse L. Martin, Luxembourg, 2013