Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Waterloo Sunset on BBC Radio 4's Soul Music



 [screengrab]

The Kinks classic Waterloo Sunset is fifty years old this year - ample excuse to repost a piece about the song. I don't know what other celebrations may be planned by the Beeb or others, but today it was the first subject of the new series of Radio 4's Soul Music (above). This programme blends personal associations with musical analysis and, as ever, made for a compelling half hour. On first listen, I had the feeling that one story featured perhaps a little too prominently, but on reflection the balance was right - and that particular tale had something important to say about the power of the song.

An American widow talked about her British husband who, during a severe and terminal illness, was surrounded by friends who sang (and played) songs for him, including Waterloo Sunset; we even heard a snatch of his singing along. And later a recording was made by a friend which, for his widow, bore testament to the power of her partner to bring people together.

As this particular narrative gathered momentum with each reappearance over the thirty minutes I'm afraid to say that a graceless part of me, known well to certain privileged individuals, wanted to shout: "So what? Could have been any song. Let's get back to the musical analysis, people, as this is not, to the best of my knowledge, a newly discovered episode of the late John Peel's Home Truths."

But then a brief contribution from someone who talked of feeling isolated at his school helped put things into perspective. He had found solace in the song because he realised its narrator was, like him, an outsider. (Someone else made the point that in the stereo version of the track Ray's voice is off to one side, not central to the action but commentating on it. I think I may have read that Ray preferred the mono but, planned or not, that certainly makes sense.)

 And thinking over the lyrics after the programme finished, I remembered that it's not just the narrator who "don't need no friends" but the lovers too. They - lovers and narrator - are in their separate bubbles, even though they are linked by the view, the place. Which seems, especially for a fifty year old pop song, a pretty neat summation of the experience of being in a city: at once together and alone.

So it's appropriate that a personal tale of suffering is part of the mix - and that it liberates the song from being judged solely by the original studio recording: the widow makes the point that it's the recording her friend made which is the special one for her.

Plus I can hardly pretend that my own contribution to proceedings, which follows below if you choose to click to read more, is entirely devoid of the personal.

 Soul Music: Waterloo Sunset can be found on BBC Radio iplayer here

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Lives of Sam (Sam Cooke plays and biopics)



Have just finished The Life of Sam, a 2010 stage play by Robert L. Douglas. An easy and enjoyable read, it was written, we're told in the playwright's introduction, "as an effort to address the dearth of modern day media about the life of Sam Cooke and to elevate his name to its rightful place among America's greatest entertainers."

As that suggests, the tone is essentially celebratory, even though various illegitimate children and his treatment of his wife feature along the way. I'd say the piece is aimed at, or best suited to, a younger audience who know little about his background or the significance of his rise to fame. A narrator is on hand to do a lot of the heavy lifting at the start of each scene, which gives the  play an educational/docudrama feel, although it can certainly be commended as a painless way of acquiring an overview of Cooke's life and career without having to tackle either of the two major biographies.

If the above seems like faint praise, I admit that I am judging the piece cold, on the page, moreover in unedited form. Mr Douglas makes clear that the published text is as he first wrote it, uncut, and it may be that a production would have a different sort of effect. I am also unfamiliar with the tradition of gospel plays mentioned in this piece by Angela G. King about theatre in Detroit so I don't know how it would compare with other examples of that genre - or whether, indeed, it technically falls into that category. I can say, however, that the narrator is cleverly transformed into different characters during the play as occasion demands, so there is obvious stagecraft in evidence.

That said, I don't think The Life of Sam is the last word on Cooke. Whatever its merts as an introduction, in attempting to tick off so many key moments in the singer's development Mr Douglas leaves himself little time to build up or dwell on the significance of any one event.


And at least one instructive comparison is available. Strictly speaking, Kemp Powers' play One Night in Miami, recently seen in London (above), may not be a Sam Cooke biopic - he is merely one of three main characters emblematic of African American culture - but during the course of the play the need for a song such as A Change Is Gonna Come is very gradually teased out before it is finally mentioned and a snatch of it sung near the end. You may not get the finer details of Cooke's career in this piece, but you are left in absolutely no doubt about why that the writing of that song is such a big deal to Cooke personally and African Americans generally.

The above is based on reading the text, as ill health prevented me seeing it during its London run; I can only hope there will be another production sometime. Sadly, however, it may be that no one will get the chance to see The Life of Sam again. A later attempt to restage the play after its initial brief run was, according to the playwright, blocked by ABCKO on the grounds that the company intended to produce both a film and a play about Cooke.

Which brought to mind a 2013 blog post entitled Whatever Happened to the Sam Cook Biopic? You can read it, if so minded, here, but the gist of it is that writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais completed a screenplay for a Cooke biopic which initially met with enthusiasm from Allen Klein's daughter Jody but was nixed by a director who subsequently came on board.

I had a look online to see what further news there might be about this film, four years on from that post, and it seems that two Sam Cooke films are now imminent. Or rather imminent-ish, as the last news about them is not that recent. One is the ABCKO-authorised biopic, based on Peter Guralnick's biography Dream Boogie, written and directed by Carl Franklin - presumably he was the one who deemed the earlier screenplay inadequate.

The other, produced by Romeo Antonio and tentatively entitled Sam Cooke: The Truth, is described as "a murder mystery" centering around his death. The latter was initially announced as having the endorsement of L.C. Cooke, Sam's brother, but he subsequently denied this and ABCKO issued a statement stating that:
ABKCO Films is the only company authorized by Sam Cooke's widow and surviving siblings to produce a biopic of Sam Cooke's life.
It seems that a nephew of Cooke's is behind the "murder mystery" film; you can read more on the colorline website here.

But that article, the most recent I could find online at the time of writing, is almost a year old, and it's not clear when either film might actually come out. The only nugget of information I can volunteer personally is that I am acquainted with someone who was working with actors on an unspecified Sam Cooke project in 2013. And, annoyingly, he's told me that he doesn't remember any of the details - although that sort of seems fitting, as though Cooke will forever be elusive, an ethereal presence conjured up by records ...

At least, it would have been fitting if it didn't occur to me when revising this piece that he may well have been working on a BBC Radio 2 programme about Cooke's death, mentioned here.

It's mentioned in an earlier blog post about Cooke linked to below, but let me draw attention once again to Neil McKay's excellent radio play A City Called Glory, directed by Andy Jordan for Radio 4's 1994 series All Shook Up. Mr McKay is in the news right now in the UK as the writer and executive producer of Moorside, a two part drama about the disappearance of Shannon Matthews, recently shown on ITV. As with several of his other TV dramas, he makes the decision to show us events not through the eyes of the most newsworthy character - in this case the girl's mother, revealed to have been complicit in her abduction - but someone on the sidelines, a friend able to offer a unique and not unsympathetic perspective.



In a not dissimilar way, the person telling the story of Sam Cooke in A City Called Glory is Julius "June" Cheeks (above) of the Sensational Nightingales, who was also briefly in the Soul Stirrers. At the start of the play he is an Ancient Mariner figure in a bar, wanting to find someone to tell his story to, still trying to get his head around what happened to Cooke.Cheeks never had any wish to cross over to the secular side - he became a preacher, in fact - and McKay uses him as a touchstone for the young Sam as he starts to waver between gospel and secular success.

The playwright's masterstroke is to split Cheeks into two personae as the play approaches its climax: a voice in Cooke's own head as well as the real man desperate to tell his tale to anyone who'll listen, to give his subjective but privileged take on what may have happened on that fateful night. It's a superb moment, although one which seems so inextricably linked to the medium of radio that I can't imagine how a stage or film adaptation might work.

I don't know how much documentary evidence there actually is of a close friendship between the two men, not that that really matters for the purposes of the play. It's undoubtedly the case that he was present during the future star's formative years; there are several recordings on which they both feature. Cheeks was known for screaming himself hoarse in performances, so it's a neat idea that the person trying to understand what drove Cooke is his polar opposite both as a singer and as a person.

And however much license Mr McKay may or may not have allowed himself in the writing (Cheeks had been dead for several years by the time of the first broadcast) Cheeks is an inspired choice of choric figure: a character who is and is not of Cooke's world. He doesn't pretend to know everything; he is aware of the "secret Sam" who, over the years, becomes ever more reluctant to share some of his experiences on the increasingly rare occasions when they meet up. There are no murder mystery type revelations at the end of Neil McKay's play, but  if you ever get the chance to hear it, you won't come away feeling cheated.

Here is the most famous recording on which Sam Cooke and June Cheeks both feature:





Other blog posts about Sam Cooke:


The elusive man and his accessible music

Includes a review of Peter Guralnick's Dream Boogie and the Complete Specialty Recordings box set.

Whatever happened to ... the Sam Cooke biopic? 

More about that Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais screenplay

Stand By Me

Includes a section about A Change Is Gonna Come.

Waxing/waning crescent moon

Discussion of the Specialty gospel sides with audio clips.

Friday, 27 January 2017

New play at Theatre 503: Years of Sunlight by Michael McLean



For readers in London, I have just seen a preview performance of Michael McLean's new play Years of Sunlight at Theatre 503 and can recommend it highly. Previews continue until Saturday night and the play starts on Tuesday. You can book at the theatre's website here.

I first became aware of McLean's work with The Ducks, a two-hander which was, for me, a highlight of the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe. That mantra invoked in the previous post, "Complexity not complication", also applies to that piece, which explores the strange relationship which develops between two young men on community service.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

New film features the El Dorados (Manchester By The Sea)


I rarely review films on this blog, but I'd like to say a few words about writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester By the Sea. I've admired Lonergan's work for a long time, and have had occasion to analyse his stage plays Lobby Hero and This Is Our Youth. He exemplifies the mantra of writing guru Tim Fountain: "complexity, not complication." Which is to say that rather than adding extraneous plot material, the focus in Lonergan's work is on the gradual revealing of character.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

What a Crazy World to be shown on TV


I'm delighted to report that Talking Pictures TV, available on Freeview and elsewhere, will be showing What a Crazy World (1963) on Saturday January 7th at 8.05pm and Sunday January 8th at 8.00pm. Its website is here. And for anyone new to this blog, here's an introduction to the film.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

It's Trad, Dad - Deal With It



The British Trad Jazz boom of the 1950s and early 60s has been much on my mind, and in my ears, recently. It started when I came across the soundtrack for Dick Lester's It's Trad, Dad!, his first full length film, and found the whole strangely enjoyable, despite the collision of jazz and pre-Beatles pop.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Four in the Morning (Anthony Simmons) on London Live tonight


The late Anthony Simmons' Four in the Morning is on London Live tonight at 8pm. In one sense this is a slight piece, but only if you're expecting the cinematic equivalent of a novel rather than the poetic short story which this seems to be. It offers a glimpse into two relationships, one soured by the arrival of a child, and the other perhaps about to blossom, although one of the partners has had such a bad experience earlier that it is unlikely to be smooth going. These stories are framed by the discovery of a woman's body in the Thames and the subsequent cleaning and storing of the body.

It's certainly not a thriller and there is no epiphany for the characters in either of the two tales; as Jude (Judi Dench) says they are no further forward by the end of the night about what to do, and the short bursts of happiness and unease in the case of the other relationship don't provide much in the way of closure either.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

14 Karat Soul live on Switch, Channel 4, 1983


Searching youtube for any new videos of 14 Karat Soul I was delighted - no, make that gobsmacked - to find a recently uploaded clip from 1983 from a Channel 4 programme called Switch broadcast in between the first and second series of The Tube. The announcer is the actress Yvonne French.

The year is important because this is the original lineup of the group, which I remember with enormous affection, and of all the clips I've seen this is undoubtedly  the one which comes closest to the experience of seeing them live. One of the numbers is Take Me Back Baby, which founder Glenny T (above, right) revived with a version of the group in a 2011 appearance, and which I heard during their week-long residency in the unlikely locale of Glasgow's Mitchell Theatre in 1983.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Neil Brand's original radio version of Stan


If you read the earlier post about Jeffrey Holland's Stan Laurel play I bring the happy news that the Neil Brand radio play, Stan, can now be heard on archive.org here.

I have to admit that I hadn't got around to listening to Stan until today - I mean, ever, even though I'd been presented with a CD of it. Having been put off by the TV version the original incarnation wasn't an immediately exciting prospect, despite a former colleague's praise.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Gnome Thoughts ... 38 (Toll the Bell for Minnie Dyer by Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks)



I thought this series of posts about David Bowie's musical inspirations had come to a natural end, but something I read online today demands to be recorded here. Searching for the Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks song Toll the Bell for Minnie Dyer, I happened across a transcript of Bowie chatting to fans in 2001. Asked if he likes the Carry On films and Kenneth Williams in particular, Bowie replies:

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Jeffrey Holland in play about Stan Laurel at the Jermyn Street Theatre


I have just seen Jeffrey Holland in ... And This Is My Friend Mr Laurel, a one man show about Stan Laurel at the Jermyn Street Theatre until Saturday. It's an ideal venue for what is an intimate experience, starkly staged, with a chair and the frame of a bed as the only props (plus, of course, the inevitable hat).

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Barely Remembered Lil's


So 53 Rupert Street, once the home of Cheapo Cheapo Records, has transformed itself once again. Having been a mango dessert cafe, then a restaurant called Lil's, I passed the site on Saturday to see that it is now offering Italian fast food (excluding pizza, it seems) under the name of Mister Lasagna.

It only launched a month ago, and more can be read about it here, if you are so inclined. Apparently "Lasagna pans and fresh sandwiches line the counter as diners walk through the door and there’s a subtle waft of garlic in the air."

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Freddie Davies Performing Masterclass London, May 31st



Within reach of London? If so, this is to let you know that Freddie Davies, the man also known as "Parrotface" - and a comedian, actor, producer, you name it, with over fifty years' experience - is about to present his performance masterclass in London, at the Hippodrome, Leicester Square, on Tuesday May 31st. Full details including booking are available at the Stage One Productions website here. (A student discount is available.)

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Flamingos # 2: That's My Desire


The opening blast of unison singing seems to herald a performance more suited to rowdy boozer than the "dim cafe" of the lyrics, but the Flamingos' rendition of That's My Desire, a song best known via Frankie Laine's earlier hit, is mainly an exercise in emotional restraint. Discreetly aided by a sympathetic backing band, passion is allowed to build gradually, in stark contrast to some later doo wop recordings of the tune.

Monday, 21 March 2016

We ask: "What's the deal with Martin Kelner's sacking from BBC Radio Leeds?"


Very sad to hear that Martin Kelner (above) has been sacked from his lunchtime slot at BBC Radio Leeds. Although I am not a local listener, I acquired the iplayer habit a couple of years ago via a certain psittacine comedian - Martin interviewed Freddie Davies when our book Funny Bones was still looking for a publisher - and the regular, wholly pointless but compelling film club competition (a daily excuse for weak puns) soon got me hooked - not that the regular diet of Northern Soul and sixties and seventies pop proved any kind of hindrance in this matter, you understand. And for a few shining hours - I mean days, or possibly even a week or two - there was even a regular doo wop slot, though it didn't seem to attract much attention from anyone other than me and was quietly dropped.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Weald (play by Daniel Foxsmith at the Finborough with David Crellin)


I have just seen Weald by Daniel Foxsmith at the Finborough Theatre. Unfortunately this is its last night, so I can't drum up business for it, but I want to explore why it was so good.

First of all it's the mesmerising performance by David Crellin, owner of a small stable of horses, a man who never achieved his dreams, and whose remaining props are tottering. It's a two hander, and Dan Parr as Jim, the young man who has returned to this remote rural location after a spell in London, gives fine support, but it's Crellin's character, the older Samuel, who has the more painful journey and is pushed over to the edge, though their fates are intimately intertwined.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Barry Humphries' Forgotten Musical Masterpieces (BBC Radio 2 series currently available on iplayer)




Fans of the late Hubert Gregg who have happened upon this blog may be interested in a series of three hour-long programmes currently available on BBC Radio iplayer. The last episode was broadcast a few days ago so don't hang about if you want to hear them: at the time of writing (January 30th) there are thirteen days left to hear the first show. Links are provided at the end of this post.


Presented by Dame Edna's alter ego, the show's title is Barry Humphries' Forgotten Musical Masterpieces, and there are many selections of the sort which Hubert Gregg used to play on his Thanks For the Memory programme. I may be right, I may be wrong, but I'm perfectly willing to swear that the Beverley Nichols-penned Little White Room, sung by "Johnny" Mills (yes, that one) and Frances Day hasn't been heard on Radio 2 since the debonair Gregg left his square chair once for all.

A charming number in the mode of Noel Coward's A Room With a View, I've long suspected that it also played a part in inspiring Sandy Wilson's pastiche A Room in Bloomsbury. And as those iplayer links won't last forever, and I know the internet generation have issues with delayed gratification, here it is on youtube:

Monday, 7 December 2015

Some posts about John Lennon


Anniversary

Paperback Writer
 An account of a spoof Beatles biography with an unexpectedly serious centre plus a moment of shame for me after seeing Nowhere Boy

The Man From Mendips
Transcribed interview with Colin Hall not used in the LENNONYC documentary

Fifties Britain
An overview linked to the previous post

Notes From Nowhere Boy

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Flamingos # 1: Cross Over the Bridge


Listening to the audio clips in a recent post about Clyde McPhatter, here, I was struck by the difference between the Dominoes and the Flamingos. While Sollie McElroy's voice is not unlike that of Clyde McPhatter, hearing You Ain't Ready immediately after those McPhatter-era Dominoes records was mildly disconcerting: it felt like there was something missing, something I hadn't been aware of before. I had always believed that the Flamingos' records for Chance, jump blues and ballads alike, were uniformly superb.

This sent me back to Robert Pruter's book Chicago Doo Wop for guidance and succour. Here's what he says:

Thursday, 1 October 2015

NRBQ (Not Round Britain Quiz)


Round Britain Quiz will be starting soon on Radio 4 ... or will it? There are no clear indications on the Beeb's website. Still, that gives me an excuse to collect the attempts at RBQ-type questions scattered through this blog. Some were actually sent to the programme and not used, but (a bit like Keith Richards) we are not concerned with your petty quality control restrictions. So why not find a partner from the same region, book yourself into a remote but luxurious location and pretend that you are one of the RBQ teams? If you are not from Northern Ireland or Wales, please substitute alternative places.


Q1  Northern Ireland

A Lawrentian betting aid; a Beatles album before a Family intervention; a hillbilly's tribute to the military; seventies popsters who went sky high. In what sort of concerto might you reasonably expect to find all of these and why?

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Clyde McPhatter


Prompted by Colin Escott's book on Clyde McPhatter (above), I have now listened to a representative sample of McPhatter's work with the Dominoes and the Drifters plus his solo work on Atlantic, so here are a few more thoughts.

First, no real surprises about the solo sides: my vague recollection of the arrangements being rather poppy and old hat was confirmed. But the less cluttered they are the better, as with A Lover's Question or Deep Sea Ball - or the classic Without Love, which reeks of gospel: you are hearing a sermon being preached. True, it ain't just a piano backing but the arrangement is restrained and supports the vocal, never overwhelming it.

Nevertheless, the solo work on Atlantic isn't a case of a performer being forced to betray his deepest instincts: Jerry Wexler says that "Clyde wanted to be Perry Como" and the material was slanted to the pop market, though he maintains Atlantic didn't go in for "vomitacious" productions - in fact the only regret he expresses is about their decision to use a white backing group. Ahmet Ertegun, however, talks about the "leaden feet" of the arrangements, likening the resultant recordings to a chrome-heavy 1940s car which has dated less well than a sleeker earlier model.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Few Thoughts on Clyde McPhatter


"A few thoughts" is right in this instance, as this is by way of a note about a forthcoming post which is likely to be sketchy. Influential as he was, there is no mammoth biography of McPhatter to draw on, and he isn't someone to whom I've been listening for years. But I recently bought a slim volume by Colin Escott billed as "a biographical essay" about the singer, and it occured to me that I really ought to write something about him, given that he features in the story of Ben E King, is lauded by Bill Millar in his book on the Drifters, and is a prominent figure in Street Corner Soul, the excellent BBC Radio 2 documentary series about the rise and fall of doo wop.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Beatles documentaries repeated


The image above is only a screengrab, so don't bother clicking, but this is to alert readers in the UK that the documentary Love Me Do: The Beatles '62 has just been repeated on BBC 4 and as a result will be available on BBC iplayer until October 18th. (As far as I'm aware American readers are only able to access radio programmes on the iplayer.) Click here for my review of the original broadcast plus a link to iplayer.

It's not only about the Beatles - they don't crop up in the first half hour - but another documentary, Produced by George Martin, was repeated yesterday on BBC 4 and is likewise available for a month on iplayer. Click here for my review and links to iplayer and two other posts about Martin-produced comic songwriters Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks (or "Dead Ticks", as Martin called him)

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Theatre Book Prize judge Viv Gardner on Funny Bones

If you haven't visited the blog dedicated to Freddie Davies's autobiography Funny Bones, which I cowrote, here is a review of the book from Professor Viv Gardner, one of the judges of the 2014 Theatre Book Prize:
This is one of those stories that just have to be told. It is unique – there has never been quite such a long and varied a career as Freddie Davies’s - but it is also the story of popular entertainment over the past 70 plus years: the hey day and decline of variety, clubs, cabarets and cruise entertainment, the rise of television comedy and subsequent changes in fashion, and the shifting relationship between popular and ‘high brow’ performance. Freddie Davies has played every type of theatre in the country, from working men’s clubs and Butlins to the Royal Shakespeare Company, television and film, though his earliest memories are of the halls and variety theatres of the forties where his grandparents worked. His autobiography is replete with names and places, many long since forgotten, details of acts – his own and others’ – and whole bills. It is also a ‘back-stage’ story. Davies has worked not just as a performer, but also as a producer, so the autobiography charts not just his own stage career but also the challenges of working with and supporting other artists – the ups and downs, the nuts and bolts of the entertainment business.  A researcher’s dream.  It is a fascinating and important story, not just a personal but also a social and performance history.

Viv Gardner
Professor Emerita, University of Manchester
Judge, Society for Theatre Research 2014-15

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

More radio plays about AA Milne ... and a film


Prompted by the play discussed here, I found two other radio plays available online about A.A. Milne - not on the BBC iplayer but preserved on the blog of their author, Brian Sibley. You can find them here and here.

I listened to both at their time of their original broadcasts on Radio 4, and the impressions I retained have been confirmed by subsequent listenings.There is some overlap - both provide an outline of Milne's career - but I preferred Not That It Matters, which draws upon Milne's autobiography It's Too Late Now.