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

There You Are – Millie Jackson

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

…hmm Lord, have mercy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

……There You Are…..

Looking like a king and everything…

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

>>>**BAM**<<<

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

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

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

a moment.

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

And… here we are.

My Pop Life #104 : Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf

Featured image

Smokestack Lightning   –   Howlin’ Wolf

tell me, baby,
Where did ya, stay last night?

Featured image

My dear friend Dona Croll posted a video of Howlin’ Wolf onto my Facebook page this morning and there was no turning back.  I have known Dona since the 1980s, I’m sure she won’t mind me telling you, but from where and when we met I cannot say.  Perhaps she was in the cast for the London’s Burning pilot when I met actor Gary MacDonald.  I was playing a policeman.  Most of the cast were black, but not all.  We decided to have a kickabout one lunchtime.  Of course, being in uniform meant I got kicked about all over the park.  Fair enough.

Featured image

But in the small bubble of British acting Dona and I would cross paths regularly at Tricycle Theatre first nights, anything that Paulette Randall was doing, maybe at auditions.   When I wrote The House That Crack Built for the BBC in 1989 (see My Pop Life #61), Dona was my first choice for the rapping crack-addicted Mom and she was brilliant.    I know she reads this blog so this one is partly for you dear Dona, and partly for my brer Eamonn Walker, Eamonn Roderique, E.   When I saw the clip of Wolf I immediately thought of Eamonn, because a) they favour and b) Eamonn played Howlin Wolf in a film called Cadillac Records in 2008.

Featured image

Cadillac Records was the story of Chess Records lightly disguised.   It’s a good film but while being not entirely satisfying like most biopics and most music films, it nevertheless has a clutch of wonderful performances both of the thespian and musical variety, and Eamonn is quite sensational.   He inhabited that role like he does all his roles.   Wolf was a big growler who played a mean blues harp, so E had to learn the instrument before the shoot.   Adrien Brody played Polish immigrant Leonard Chess who started Chess Records by selling blues and ‘race’ records out of the back of his Cadillac with his brother Phil in 1950 on the South Side of Chicago.  It grew to become the most important record label in the history of the blues, releasing crucial work from Chuck Berry, played by Mos Def in the film, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Colombus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer), Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) among many others.

Featured image

But Wait – Eamonn worked with Beyoncé !!!   She was very good as Etta James I thought, but I am unashamedly biased.  I love Beyoncé.  A lot.   Anyway, moving back to Howlin’ Wolf.

Featured image

Chester Burnett was a giant of a man from Mississippi who physically dominated any room he was in at 6’3”, and who adopted his name Howlin Wolf from his grandfather.   He learned guitar from Charley Patton during the 1930s, harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II in the 1940s, and songs from the likes of Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr and Son House.   He moved steadily north, first to Arkansas, then later to Memphis where he recorded some sides for Sam Phillips and finally, unusually, driving his own car and with $4000 in his pocket, he went to Chicago.  Somehow avoiding all the classic blues temptations that he was singing about – liquor, gambling, loose women of a variety of types, he hired a regular band to accompany him, including Hubert Sumlin who moved up from Memphis.  Unusually for a bandleader, Burnett paid his musicians on time, and also offered benefits such as health insurance, he therefore had the pick of the best in Chicago for years.  Featured imageSmokestack Lightning was released in March 1956 and made the Billboard R&B charts, it is now considered a classic.  Howlin Wolf had learned it back in the 30s as a variation on a train blues played by Charlie Patton and others, sitting at dawn watching the trains sparking through their chimneys at night “Shinin’, just like gold”.   It is a massively evocative three minutes of the blues with growls, yodels, harmonica wails and a wonderful circular bluesy guitar riff from Mr Sumlin which stays on E (appropriately enough) – just one chord for the whole song.  “Girl don’t you hear me cryin?”    Eamonn plays and sings it on the Soundtrack to Cadillac Records.  I couldn’t be more proud.

Featured image

Eamonn Walker is my brother from another mother.  It was gradual, and yet somehow immediate like all the best friendships.   We met when he played opposite my soon-to-be wife Jenny Jules in Pecong at the Trike in 1991, Paulette’s Randall‘s production of Steve Carter‘s Caribbean update of Medea, which Jenny won an award for because she was extraordinary.  The battling men – Victor Romero-Evans and Eamonn Walker do so in rhyme.   American actress Pat Bowie played Granny Root, massively talented Jo Martin and Cecilia Noble the other women, Beejaye Joseph and Jax Williams the eye-candy dancers.   It was a great great production.   Eamonn used to come and see Jenny and I on Sundays after seeing his twins Deke & Jahdine who were in Enfield with their mum Chris.  We were in Archway Road and thus on the way home to Sandra Kane his partner, and young boy Kane Walker (now in his 20s).    We became close family and have remained so ever since.   We played football together for the Hoxton Pirates for a few seasons on Hackney Marshes and all over South London on Sunday mornings until I broke my nose during a game – a loud crack, a violent searing pain and suddenly I was lying in a large pool of blood.    E was one of the first people in England to have a mobile phone – he’s a techno geek – and he had it behind him in a pouch at the back of the goal – he was the Pirates goalie, and he called the ambulance.    Eamonn was plucked from the ranks by Lynda LaPlante and seeded in New York were he sprouted the leaves and branches of prison drama Oz followed by much much more besides, films, TV series, he has had a really strong profile in America for years, a profile that he simply, oddly does not have in the UK.   So many black British actors have made the same journey over the last 20 years and had success, some of them becoming English stars too like Idris Elba.   Others, like Eamonn, (ranked number 11 in a US poll of “favourite British actors”)  are never even mentioned in UK media articles about black actor’s success in Hollywood.   Like a massive blind spot in the media, and partly in the UK business.   We carry on.

Featured image

In 2011 through 2012 we lived together in Hollywood,  just off Mulholland Drive in the hills above Universal with a balcony view that stretched from the Woodland Hills to the Hollywood sign and beyond.  It was good to spend time.   I would walk Runyon Canyon every day, from the top down and back up.   From that base camp E scored another Dick Wolf project: NBC’s Chicago Fire which is now in its fifth series and has him living in Chicago 10 months of every year but scoring his pension.  He deserves every cent.    Eamonn, Dona : this is for you, I love you both.

Featured image

Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Adrien Brody

This could be the longest thread ever because of links that go in every direction – into the movie The Boat That Rocked, the band Birds Of Tin, my friendship with Simon Korner, Andy Oliver, all of Eamonn’s family, Jenny’s Mum and Dad and on and on.

Featured image

But perhaps I will mention that when we adopted the beautiful Devon Rex boycat from Jason & Tash in February 2008 (just after my god-daughter Delilah Rose was born) we decided to call him Chester, after Howlin Wolf.   This beautiful animal was very special, very wise, very funny, very cuddly.  We later bought Chester a companion, a Cornish Rex and named her Mimi.  Chester had a heart condition which we discovered when he was two, an a-rhythmical heartbeat.   He would live only another two years and passed away aged four while I was working in Tennessee on a film in the fall of 2011.  RIP Chester.  The greatest cat.

Featured image

a magnificent live version from 1964 :

My Pop Life #65 : Wake Up Alone – Amy Winehouse

Featured image

Wake Up Alone   –   Amy Winehouse

He’s fierce in my dreams, seizing my guts
He floods me with dread
Soaked in soul
He swims in my eyes by the bed
Pour myself over him
Moon spilling in
And I wake up alone

Featured image

This is an incredible song from a deeply talented songwriter and singer who sadly left us at way too young an age.   She has many imitators, but none who can match her artistry.   I was working on a film called Tower Block on the day she died – 23rd July 2011 – with an accomplished gang which included Russell Tovey, Jack O’Connell, Julie Graham, Nabil Elouahabi, Kano, Montserrat Lombard, Jill Baker and Sheridan Smith.  Towards the end of the shoot I was suddenly aware that Sheridan was in floods of tears so I went over and asked her what was wrong.  “Amy” she said, “she’s gone“.  It was a terrible moment, and without further explanation I knew that she was dead.  Sheridan was one of her friends.  What an utter and tragic waste, that we all saw enacted in front of our eyes.

Featured image

*

In 1984 I did a play at the Tricycle Theatre in north London called Return To The Forbidden Planet.  I played the saxophone.  The MD was Hereward Kaye.

Featured image

*

In 2012 I was playing saxophone in The Amy Winehouse Experience at a music festival, with Hereward Kaye’s sons Joe and Rory Kaye, and my wife’s childhood friend Pippa.   Wait.  I’ll explain.

Featured image

*

Rewind to north west London and two young girls : one with St Lucian parents, one jewish, doing dance routines for their own imaginary TV show.  My wife Jenny was the black girl, her best friend was Philippa Randall.  They danced together, sang into hairbrushes, choreographed steps and roped in siblings to ‘assist’.   As the years went by they stayed in touch, Jenny became an actor, Pippa a nail technician.  When Jenny got married, all of Pippa’s family came, when Pippa got married to Tony, Jenny and I went.   When Jenny and Pippy’s Nanny Flo died, we all went to the funeral.   Then Philippa’s wonderful parents Roy and Robbie decided to move to Spain for their retirement.  Pippa and her Prince-lookalike husband Tony joined them.  We missed Pippa when she was in Spain but she seemed to like it there and flourished.  Her marriage wasn’t working though, despite two beautiful girls Tia Bliss and Lucy Bear.   After the inevitable split with Tony, Phillippa came back to the UK with her parents and 2 girls and her new man Joe Kaye, whom she’d met in southern Spain, and whose own parents were also very special, Hereward and Pat.   Yes, the same Hereward who’d been my musical director at the Trike.   The extended family moved back from the Costa Brava to Linfield, (just outside Haywards Heath a few miles north of Brighton) and Herry & Pat opened a Rock School nearby with Joe, who is  a very good guitarist and musician in his own right.

Now : Philippa just happens to be a spitting image of Amy Winehouse, a terrific singer, and being a North London jewess I guess all the pieces were in place.  The whole family had come to see The Brighton Beach Boys one night playing our big concert – Sgt Pepper v Pet Sounds and absolutely loved it.  Herry’s other son Rory is also a guitarist and now has his own band playing rock.  Joe and Philippa asked me to step in on sax for some gigs.  I was a huge fan of Amy, so I agreed.

Featured image

Then I had to learn the songs!  I had both LPs, “Frank” was a breath of fresh air in 2003 with it’s jazzy vibe, but certainly didn’t prepare us for Back To Black in 2006 which is quite simply a modern masterpiece.  Produced by Mark Ronson, with the analogue old-school New York soul band The Dap-Kings providing almost all the session musicians, as well as being her touring band in 2006, it was a perfect confluence of elements.  Every track is special.  And having had to learn them all for the horn parts, I can tell you that they have very unusual and intriguing chord sequences.  Take “Wake Up Alone” which is the best song on the album for me :

verse :       A     A    G#    G#    C#m   C#m    C     C

Emaj7   Emaj7    C#m   C#m   C    C    F#m   F  

bridge :         Dsus4      D     G     E7b9   x3

chorus :          C     Bm    E7b9

See what I mean ?   I’m joking – that’s for the musos reading.    But take my word for it – that’s a wonderful series of chords.  The lyrics are even better…

…That silent sense of content that everyone gets

Just disappears as soon as the sun sets…

It is a song of deep longing, unfulfilled.  Plenty of water references – he swims in my eyes by the bed is an incredible line,  Pour myself over him….  This is soul music,  as good as it gets.   I never did see Amy live, and I wish I had.   I know many who saw the slurring, shaky performances of those last few years.  Terribly terribly sad.  I prefer to remember her with the swaggering yet vulnerable poise of that incredible show from 2006 in Ireland, at the St James’ Church in Dingle on Dec 3rd, or the Shepherd’s Bush concert from the same year.   But I got great pleasure in playing her songs with a lovely tight band based around my friends, old and new and my wife’s  friend Pippa, giving her own trembling chutzpah and antsy tottering to the Winehouse legend, tattoos carefully drawn on, beehive in place, that dark trembling voice just about intact.

Featured image

A remarkable circle of life – Herry and I had played Good Vibrations on stage every night at the Tricycle, the show there, written by Bob Carlton, being a rock’n’roll musical of the sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, which itself is a re-imaging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.   The notable thing about the Tricycle’s production of this show, (which originated at Bubble Theatre and went on to grace the West End), was that it introduced the novel idea of having black actors in the cast – the inhabitants of the magical island – this being part of the theatre’s brief, and their local audience.   Ram John Holder played Prospero, and found me a place to live since I was once again homeless as that show ended its run.  In a further spiral to this circle, my wife Jenny was schooled at the Tricycle Youth Theatre during the 80s, and is now on the Board of that great venue.   Jenny has also performed Amy – at a special celebration fundraiser for Nicholas Kent, who was artistic director of the Tricycle for many years – singing Love Is A Losing Game with Graham Kearns accompanying.  I’d love to have seen that, but I saw Jenny rehearsing it many times !

Featured image

 I only played a handful of gigs with the Amy Winehouse Experience, but it was worth it for the opportunity to get inside these tremendous songs.    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, in various incarnations – Amy Winehouse.

track 8 from Back To Black :

incredible live performance at Shepherd’s Bush :

The Amy Winehouse Experience live, 2012 :

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Amy-Winehouse-Experience/390986427614883