Tuesday, 12 January 2010

A Tribute to Leiber and Stoller

I was there when this concert, taking in all the Leiber and Stoller classics, and billed as something like "the indoor event of the year" was recorded at Hammersmith Apollo in July 2001. It's a mixed bag but the backing musicians (inc Pete Wingfield and Mick Green) do not seem underrehearsed, if I can put it like that: crustacean posteriors spring to mind. At a certain amount of fathoms. Very possibly not less than fifty.

Okay, facetiousness over. The singers fronting the orchestra, a different one for every song, are a mixed bunch: soap actors singing Trouble I can do without. But there's Ben E King singing Stand By Me, forty years on (and unlike any other singer, from Lennon downwards, not copying the phrasing on the original recording), which is a moving experience even if his rich baritone is not what it was (on the night I thought the mike was faulty); as I was about to give a valedictory school assembly on that song, the concert is forever associated - for me, anyway - with imminent liberation.

Other highlights are Dave Gilmour's version of Don't, not aping Elvis but singing, in a quiet, understated yet wholly convincing way; the guitar solo feels an extension of the singing and the whole is magical. (Not so Leo Sayer's take on Chuck Jackson's I Keep Forgetting: he reads the words, suggesting he forgot that he was advertised as being on the bill some weeks in advance - and it's a pity they didn't get Tom Jones onto that one. Or anyone else, really...) Ruby Turner does Falls Fool in Love (not the Frankie Lymon song but a number recorded by the original, Clyde McPhatter era, Drifters) against a great arrangement that seems half ska, half the more familiar lazy, lolloping New Orleans beat (though I know that ska derives from New Orleans rhythms) which seems a perfect replacement for the, I'd say, knowingly corny arrangement in the original Drifters version (I think Dave Marsh, in The Heart of Rock and Soul, says it sounds like an Irving Berlin number) and Sally Kellerman, accompanied by Mike Stoller on the piano, does Is That All There Is? justice. On the night, some people in front of me chose halfway through that song to get up for a comfort stop, so this recording is some kind of a consolation.

Too often, though, the names are not big enough, or not serious enough, or not American enough, to give these songs what they deserve. Mark Lamarr may love this sort of music but he can't give Framed the comic gravitas, if that makes sense, that the song needs. But it's well worth going through the whole DVD because you get such a range of performers and with Mike "Cue the music!" Mansfield at the helm, it's well recorded with what appears to be about twenty cameras (he seems particularly fond of drawing our attention to the young, hardworking drummer, and captures moments of delight on Pete Wingfield's face - as well he might, as this keyboard wizard has made a speciality of backing rock'n'roll acts). Tom Jones and Edwin Starr tear into Jailhouse Rock and Baby, That is Rock and Roll respectively, but it's Ben E King I will remember, singing his song afresh, and radiating dignity - odd to think the universe can hold him AND Leo Sayer ...

Go to the BFI site, here, for the transcribed interview which took place at the NFT a couple of days before the Hammersmith gig; Leiber and Stoller were attending a screening of the documentary about them in the Songmakers Collection DVD set. It's a very full interview and it's usefully given subheadings:

The Backrooom Boys
Modern Records
Red Bird
Listen to the lyrics

Mine is the first question in the audience Q&A because one of them had casually mentioned that they had about half an hour to spare in a session so decided to do Stand By Me; for a moment I thought they had been implying it was all a happy accident. But elsewhere in the Q&A someone asked if they treated their job like a 9 to 5 thing and the answer - how could it be otherwise, when you think of their achievement? - was that they "wrote and planned records for about eighteen hours every day, in our office or in our homes."

In the documentary Ben E King modestly disclaiming his own part in the records' success, likens singing different Leiber and Stoller's songs to the pleasure of wearing and enjoying different suits. I can't recall the source but I think I remember his saying on another occasion that the songwriting team basically just added the opening riff to Stand By Me, which was otherwise by him (a thorny question which may necessitate my finding and revising the information in that farewell assembly) but there was no rancour: he recognised that that made the record.

The Songmakers Collection is a series of five interconnected documentaries about Brill Building writers and performers. In addition to the programme entitled Words and Music by Leiber and Stoller, there are programmes on Bobby Darin, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick and one entitled The Hitmakers, which features interviews with Goffin and King, Mann and Weil (plus clips of performers including the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers). It's a while since I've actually watched all the programmes so I can't give a blow by blow account but I think that the four are interviewed together, so there is that additional poignancy of time passing to which I referred in the Always Magic in the Air review - in fact I think Ken Emerson drew on these documentaries. Each lasts about fifty five minutes and the most useful thing I can say is they feel substantial. They can be bought together relatively inexpensively.

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