Monday, 26 June 2017

Flamingos # 3: Golden Teardrops

The undoubted masterpiece of the Flamingos' Chicago recording years, Golden Teardrops was recorded during their second session for Chance Records, in August 1953.

At the time That's My Desire, from their January date, was "racking up strong regional sales", according to Robert Pruter, but for whatever reason King Kolax and his Orchestra were not chosen to back the group again. Instead, it's Red Holloway and his band who turn in a remarkably self-effacing performance: more felt than heard, it's a kind of sympathetic murmur with no exhibitionism, no solos; lead singer Sollie McElroy would later described the record as "almost acapella."

Which suggests the Flamingos were already inspiring respect in the business, by no means a given for such groups. In his memoir Du-Wop, Johnny Keyes of the Magnificents observes that older jazzers could be superior and contemptuous towards the young vocal groups they were hired to back. They would stoop to take ideas for musical backing from the acapella arrangement a group had worked out but keep all the credit for themselves.

The Flamingos were older than most groups, which may have helped in the respect stakes - their ages ranged from 18 to 26 - but they also had a professional attitude. A previous lead, Earl Lewis (a namesake of the Channels' singer), had been booted out around eighteen months earlier for not taking the job seriously enough:
"Girls," he laughed. "You know, not making rehearsals, just things like that. They were tired of my messing up." [Robert Pruter]
Billy Shelton, who was friendly with the Flamingos in Chicago, told me that they would beat up anyone who made mistakes when singing - which seems to carry forceful criticism to unlikely extremes - but Sollie McElroy's description of the way the group worked on shaping Golden Teardrops does suggest a steely determination to get things right. By the time they came to the studio every aspect of the vocal arrangement seems to have been worked out - not influenced by the vagaries of audience response at the smarter Chicago clubs in which they were then performing, but refined in private until they were satisfied:
We started rehearsing that song at my mother's apartment on 46th and Langley. I never will forget it. We rehearsed and we rehearsed. And we changed it and changed it and we were trying to get a beginning. And we began to put the song together like a puzzle. It took us about three months to do that song. Then we finally got it. If you listen to the background, there is very little music. It was almost acappella. You could hear the notes, the blending of the voices. We rehearsed a long time on that song. In fact we were almost ready to give it up. We couldn't get it like we wanted to. And Johnny started bringing in that tenor and it started fitting in. And so when we felt like we were comfortable with it, we recorded it. We never sang it in public [before it was recorded]. Once we got it together, we went to the studio and recorded it. We never did pre-sing our songs to see how the audience would accept it. We rehearsed it and went to the studio. [Marv Goldberg]
The result, released the following month, was worth the effort:

 Here, in a somewhat overheated style, is how I once tried to capture my initial response to the record:
Odd as it may seem, it wasn't that accessible to me when I first heard it around 1978, on a poor quality oldies compilation with muddy sound and a dubbed-on guitar. Adjoining tracks, like Sonny Knight's Confidential or the Spaniels' Baby It's You, seemed far better: I got the point. But this - this was Ink Spots territory, wasn't it? That guitar. The Harptones' I Almost lost my mind, also on the LP, that was emotion; the Flamingos seemed out of reach, unfocused, somehow; I couldn't take the whole thing in in one listen.
I don't particularly recall a moment of piercing clarity. But at some point the elements made sense - tremulous falsetto, out-of-tune-sounding yet absolutely right lead, odd lyrics (why "a cottage by the sea"?) and above all that sense at the beginning that we're being ushered into a holy place, cavernous and echoing as a great cathedral, and then drawn together in a moment of collective stillness, as though calmly taking stock of the sadness in things (lacrimae rerum, appropriately enough: "the tears in things") before there's a collective sigh - at what life is?- and Sollie McElroy comes up to testify or confess: "Swear to God I'll stray no more ..."
But it's too late: although at one point he addresses the lost love directly - "Darling, put away your tears," – the burden (and howl) of the song is about regret: all he can do is try to take in fully the time he hurt her enough to make her cry: the time, now gone, when he mattered to someone, and the knowledge bearing down upon him that he's going to be carrying that memory to the grave and beyond: "Until the end of time, And throughout eternity - " Golden Teardrops. Cried, by her, for him.

And the rest of the group, or congregation, seem to grab him there - we're almost at the end of the song now - try to hold him in that moment when he feels the enormity of what he's done. Maybe the wisdom will last. Who knows? But the sad, sweet pain - the knowledge that he was once loved - undoubtedly will, if the falsetto that weaves in and out of the reiteration of that painful vision of her tears at the end is anything to go by.

Doo wop lyrics don't matter that much: a peg for emotions. They'd be trite enough here if read on their own. But on this occasion they seem to give the group a clarity of focus that inspires them to a height they never quite attained on any other song: Golden Teardrops is, quite simply, the loveliest and the saddest of all doo wop records. In his autobiography Chaplin talks of the day music entered his soul. Golden Teardrops seeped into me on some unknown date. But I never tire of it and always hear it afresh; for me it holds the whole mystery of doo wop: it's religious, it's secular, it's ... beyond words, actually.
These days I am able to see that a less romanticised reading is also possible. If you have read Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire you may recall a stage direction near the end:
She sobs with inhuman abandon. There is something luxurious in her complete surrender to crying now that her sister is gone.
Which I take to mean that the character knows that the terrible action she has taken - the betrayal of her own flesh and blood - is beyond remedy, so her crying in this context is merely a kind of self-indulgence. 

You could argue that a similar sense of luxuriating in grief permeates Golden Teardrops - and Billy Vera's sleevenotes for the above 1992 CD offer an explanation:
In their stage act the group introduces the song as one written by a junkie to his long-suffering girl friend and, indeed, it was a big favorite among the early legion of collectors, a disproportionate number of whom happened to be, in fact, addicts. To crib from my friend Jerry Wexler, this "anthem of rue, regret and reform" expresses perfectly the maudlin, childish remorse of the typical addict, which is here somehow deeply moving, due in no small part to the magnificent harmonies of the (non-drinking, non-smoking) Flamingos.
Which also seems a good summation of the curious power of doo wop ballads in general: at once ridiculous and affecting. Bradford Cox of the indie band Deerhunter says:
Its like, dripping with melancholy. It has this vocal intro that’s just so ... reverberous, It sounds so timelessly lovelorn. I think of it as being the DNA of all the doowop or girl group stuff that came after it – that branch of melancholy American pop music without any of the accessories. It is just the raw data. The vocal part, especially. If you eliminate all the excess, you come down here to the basic elements of what makes great music so special ... the music of that era was a lot more in tune with something that was almost spiritual.

But where did those "magnificent harmonies" come from? In an episode of the BBC Radio 2 series Street Corner Soul Philip Groia, or possibly Alan Freed's biographer John A Jackson, recounts a Flamingo faux pas:
The Flamingos had this churchlike harmony where they were all tenors and it sounded as if it was one person singing that high ptiched closed mouth harmony but it wasn't, it was three or four of them, with the bass. I remember saying to Zeke Carey, Hey, did you sing on the street corners in Chicago? And he had a fit. He said, What, are you nuts? We are descendants of Falasha Jews from Ethiopia and we learnt to sing like that in the synagogues of Chicago.
I have read references by various group members to their singing on the streets when young, so I presume what Zeke Carey is taking umbrage at is the suggestion they actually learnt their craft outdoors.

In the same programme Terry Johnson, who was to join the group some years later, adds:
There was a bunch of temples in Chicago, Baltimore, DC and Virginia all over the place. We would meet each other when Passover would come, you know, one big congregation, and usually it was acapella and it would be the most beautiful thing you ever would ever hear. The harmonies were something that I'll never forget and I would use what I could.
Robert Pruter's highly recommended Chicago Doo Wop fills in the details:
Except for the lead singers, Sollie McElroy and, later, Nate Nelson, the group’s other members - cousins Ezekial (Zeke) Carey and Jacob (Jake) Carey, and cousins Johnny Carter and Paul Wilson - were all related and were all Black Jews. Earl Lewis, a neighborhood pal who started with the group, noted that "the Flamingos were all part of a choir in their church. They sang hymns, Jewish hymns I think. Kind of solemn, like in a Catholic cathedral." Nate Nelson, when interviewed by Wayne Jones, said, "This is where all our harmonies came from. Our harmonies were different because we dealt with a lot of minor chords which is how Jewish music is written."

An explanation is in order concerning the Flamingos’ religion. They have been called Black Jews, and indeed members of their particular denomination - the Church of God and Saints of Christ - are commonly called by that name ... This church ... has a partial Christian content, evidenced by the fact that its service uses a choir instead of a cantor, as would an Orthodox Jewish congregation. One source says that the Church of God and Saints of Christ combines elements of Pentecostalism and black nationalism with the holy days and rites of Judaism. If the church is indeed influenced by Pentecostalism, its music is surprisingly devoid of any gospel content, as Lewis and Nelson made clear.
That last point may help explain the group's superiority as ballad singers.  In an earlier post I quoted Pruter's opinion of their jump numbers:
... they’re too controlled. Peppy, up-tempo numbers seem to require a little more spirited anarchy.
It's a limitation which applies, I believe, to Carried Away, the B side of Golden Teardrops, recorded at the same session. Spurred to recklessness by a spot of hand-squeezing in the midnight hour, the singer goes home with "the gal with the eyes of grey":
She said let's have a little taste, things gonna be okay,
She said let's have a little taste, things gonna be okay,
But when I looked up her old man stood in the doorway.
 Then our hapless hero really is "carried away" - geddit?- and the song reveals itself as a cautionary tale.

It's a neat enough comic playlet, Holloway's band romps along and it's all great fun ... but for me the harmonies bestow what I can only call a kind of unnecessary beauty upon proceedings: it just doesn't feel like the group's m├ętier. Lively, yes, bigtime; but lacking in what one can only term the raunch appropriate to such a story; even the phrase "the gal with the eyes of grey" seems somehow decorous in that musical context, like a nod to a Victorian ballad. Which brings to mind that the previous year they had auditioned for another Chicago company, United, and been told that "they sang too well and didn't sound black enough."

Alright, traces of exaggeration may be found in the foregoing, yet I do wonder whether the background which helped forge the Flamingos' distinctive sound might also be the thing which prevents their really breaking free on uptempo numbers in the manner of groups like the Dominoes or the Five Keys, as discussed here.

Incidentally, for those puzzled by the "dubbed-on guitar" in that earlier encomium, my first exposure to Golden Teardrops was via the 1961 reissue on Vee-Jay Records, included on the budget album below. Vee Jay added a prominent acoustic guitar to the 1953 Chance recording, presumably without the group's involvement or consent, and in the hope of fooling record buyers into thinking it was a follow-up to the Flamingos' big 1959 hit on New York-based End Records, I Only Have Eyes For You.

That doctored Teardrops is difficult to find these days, which suggests the trick didn't work. Not too hard to see why: I Only Have Eyes For You is a more sophisticated production - sung, moreover, by a version of the group now led, musically, by the more pop-oriented Terry Johnson, who worked closely with producer Richard Barrett on their End recordings. Slapping on an extra guitar can't disguise the fact that, for better or worse, the group's style has evolved in the eight year gap between those two recordings.

That said, I have to confess I really loved that revised version of Golden Teardrops for a long time (if not the longest). When I last listened to it, however, the guitar no longer seemed quite such a natural fit: it's not at odds with the rest of the musical backing but it does feel like an unnecessary underlining of it - the whim, perhaps, of an overcautious producer fearful of the sonic degradation which comes with many bouncedowns. And its presence undermines the efforts of those musicians who had been so careful in 1953 not to overwhelm those unique harmonies.

Which leads to a further thought. Who decided on the rule MHB (Musicians Hold Back) on the original session? Hearing the song for the first time, did Red Holloway instinctively realise that not getting in the way would be the best course of action? Or - knowing they were bringing something to the table which had little need of embellishment - did the Flamingos start proceedings by laying down the law?

I don't know, but we can all be grateful that whoever made the decision it was the right one. It's almost 64 years since Golden Teardrops was recorded and it still features on countless doo wop compilations including Rhino's celebrated Doo Wop Box Volume One.

Before closing, there is one contributor to this classic who has not yet been mentioned: the singer who cowrote it with group member Johnny Carter. Sollie McElroy says:
We had a gentleman by the name of Bunky Redding who wrote the the song, but we added a little bit here and there.
I can't pretend to know much about James "Bunky" Redding, nor do I know how writing duties were shared between him and Johnny Carter. The original Chance release is credited to "Carter-Redding" although a later, somewhat smoothed-out cover produced by Richard Barrett credits the song only to "John Carter".

Searching online, however, I did find a brief account of Redding's later years. Mark H Miller, a Campus Minister Intern at Southern Illinois University in 1964, came across Redding at Maynard State Penitentiary near St Louis when he was part of a student group leading a service there.
More than a rushing wind, we heard these incredible sounds from the side of the stage.  Enter about 30 inmates singing their hearts out. Real gospel music ... never heard such with the zest and joy. Prisoners.

In the middle of the worship ... The choir sang its anthem. An anthem that featured a solo.

Never. I can say this. Never have I ever heard such a voice ... loud but not rough, pitch perfect. Oh boy. Stunning. Even more than that.
Miller is told: “That’s Ed Redding. Goes by Bunky.” And learns that:
Bunky was a jazz singer, sang with the likes of Billie Holiday and Etta James. Was in prison for shooting heroin and cocaine, at least a couple more years of sentence.
Two years later Miller spoke on Redding's behalf when he was up for parole, helping to get him a job and accommodation; you can read the full story here. It does not end well (Redding is imprisoned on another drugs offence) but there is a photograph online at the Historic Images Outlet which appears to date from 1970 and depicts a showman seemingly in control of himself or giving a good impression of same ... assuming that the image below is indeed of Bunky Redding.

According to the book Blues: A Regional Experience Redding died in Chicago on April 17th, 1975. His entry in that book adds:
Bunky recorded particularly fine sides for Score/Aladdin (1948, backed by Red Saunders). He recorded for Apex/Chess/Dempsey.
If anyone has more information, I'd be grateful to hear from them. But whatever the ins and outs of Bunky Redding's story his place in history is assured as the cowriter of the greatest doo wop record of all time.

Related posts:

Flamingos # 1: Cross Over the Bridge
Flamingos # 2: That's My Desire 
Lost Lover- the Magnificents 
Clyde McPhatter


Doowop: the Chicago Scene by Robert Pruter
Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks page on the Flamingos
A Jazz Singer Dies; A Memory Lives - Mark H Miller
The Chance Label (website) - Robert Pruter, Armin Buttner and Robert L Campbell
Bradford Cox on the virtues of surrendering to the song


If you want to find out more about the recording of I Only Have Eyes For You, the piece I'd recommend is by Richard Buskin (possibly known to some readers as one half of the Something About the Beatles podcasts); his article can be found on the Sound On Sound website here.

Looking over the above post, I don't want to give the impression that the Chance recording is a primitive one. It's certainly very clear, provided you're not listening to a public domain CD. I don't know the details of the studio set up, but Bradford Cox, in the piece quoted from earlier, offers a description of a typical setup of the time:

Generally, it had to do with mike placement and echo chambers. And with plate reverb, which were these giant things the size of pianos. You can’t really get that sound now, and most people depend on digital reverb or plug-in software to replicate those sounds, but they can’t really be emulated. A lot of it was in the dynamics. Vocals are an interesting element to record. In a lot of the doowop records that I’m interested in, the vocals were often recorded in groups around a [single] microphone. It was not an overdub situation. You had this real time interaction – between people who were looking at each other and knowing when to arc, and when to ebb. That creates a certain dynamic that can’t be reproduced by a compressor or some other piece of equipment. 
Which leads to an interesting point regarding the recording of I Only Have Eyes For You, at least as seen by Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock and Soul. I don't have the book to hand, but part of the appeal of the recording for Marsh is that the lead singer seems disconnected from his musical surroundings, that there is a clash between the old-fashioned singing and the soundscape. I may investigate further, so do check back. Adios.


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Waterloo Sunset on BBC Radio 4's Soul Music


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 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


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