Sunday, 28 February 2010

Stand by him

As a footnote to the posts about Stand By Me, two youtube clips with a bearing on my comments about seeing Ben E King with the Drifters in the eighties.
These appear to be two segments from the same 1986 British TV programme, although that may refer to the date of transmission, as Unca Marvy says King only toured with the UK Drifters between 1982 and 1985.

They may be taped on location at a Manchester cabaret gig or more likely in a studio mock-up: the audience are seated at tables with little red shaded lamps. They are backed by a reasonably sized band who may have been their regular touring musicians at the time. I can't see clearly in the clip but I think I recognise the MD from the Glasgow gig, a middle-aged man whose bouncy enthusiasm the night I saw them found no answering joy in the facial expressions of at least one saxophonist.

The first clip features Johnny Moore on lead, Ben E King effectively just another Drifter, doing all the movements and harmonies.

Given what I've read about him, he may have been happy just to be making a living but it's still mildly distressing to watch; you want to reassure him: "on the horizon..." but he'd probably assume that was just a request from a Leiber and Stoller nut.

It may well be that this is how the audience likes it, but I have to say that Moore really performs his songs at a rate of knots, which tends to confirm the impression I have retained of him. Yet perhaps it's understandable: he makes the mistake of pausing during the intro to Kissing in the Back Row of the Movies, a big UK hit in the seventies ... then is forced to solicit the applause which doesn't immediately come.

There are some bitter comments about Faye Treadwell accompanying the youtube clip, alleging that she allowed Johnny Moore, the voice of so many Drifters hits, to die penniless. I certainly remember my incredulity when told by a cab driver who had been an occasional keyboard player for the live act that Moore had a house in Streatham, which didn't seem very rock'n'roll.

Go to this page on Peter Burns's website soulmusichq and scroll down to "drifters - the name game" for what seems to be the fullest account available of a sad tale. Burns has written an as yet unpublished history of the group and collaborated with Ben E King on a book which I hope will come out soon. There is also resentment on youtube that after Moore's death a UK version of the Drifters which had the blessing of Moore's family and worked hard to rebuild a fanbase was later forbidden from using the name; some have written of their disappointment when seeing the later Treadwell-approved group. You can find the official Drifters' site, fiercely defending its corner, run by daughter Tina Treadwell, here.

The second clip (below) puts King centrestage; with the others backing him, he sings Amor (good choice for a cabaret gig; the others have maracas etc), Spanish Harlem (with some nice brass) and Stand By Me. What's interesting to see is that the Drifters are properly incorporated into what is really King's solo spot: instead of backing vocals being a fairly small part of the studio recording of Stand By Me, Johnny Moore and the others repeat the title in classic Drifters fashion, suggesting how the song might have sounded had George Treadwell not rejected it for the Drifters at the time.

That thought gives a new perspective on the idea of King being imprisoned, as it were, in the eighties in the UK Drifters. And looking at the net just now, an entry by Gethsemane (good gospel name) on the everything2 site from 2000, here,  suggests George Treadwell's rejection of the song for the group was no small thing for Benny:
King recalls the end of the session: "Jerry and Mike asked me if I had anything else I wanted to do. I went to the piano and played a little of 'Stand By Me,' which I'd gone over before with Jerry. So right at the end of the session, we cut it... I had tears in my eyes when I sang it."

According to Lieber, King came into the session with "four or six bars of lyrics." The scratch percussion was made by the wiry underside of an upside-down snare drum. The bass line was added by Stoller, who arrived halfway through the session. King later claimed that the sadness in his voice came from not being able to perform the song with the Drifters.
The source for the information isn't given, but interesting that King does seem to be saying here that Jerry Leiber was already familiar with the song, presumably meaning before the session, therefore allowing time for Leiber and Stoller to have an arrangement ready, as they said at the NFT.

But then Leiber is quoted as saying what King brought to the session was very sketchy indeed - which doesn't quite accord with King saying that he worked for two days on the song before showing it to anyone.

This is a discussion which could run and run so I will only suggest that the actual quantity of lyrics brought in is almost irrelevant if those lyrics include the key components which then suggest the rest of the song. Elvis Costello talks of Paul McCartney licking his That Day Is Done (a great gospel-style song, incidentally) into shape; Macca said not to be afraid of repeating phrases, hammering them home - You mean like Let It Be? as Elvis laughingly asked this giant of twentieth century popular music (which is maybe why they didn't collaborate again).
Okay, this is a diversion, albeit sort of related as it's a kind of pop-gospel thing too, so I'm going to go with it. McCartney recorded That Day Is Done on his Flowers in the Dirt album (whose title is a line from the song) but Costello later rerecorded it as a guest of veteran gospel group the Fairfield Four, and in the notes for the group's album I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray, he talks of how they finished a version in the studio and it was good (I was going to add a "lo" there), but when a TV crew came into the studio, expecting to film the group and Elvis lipsynching to the recording, they decided to sing it live instead and, lifted by the presence of others, that rendition intended for TV had the indefinable magic and so replaced the earlier take on the final album. Costello says it was nearer either to what he intended or the original demo - meaning, I suspect, that while McCartney's version, which mimics the sound of a New Orleans funeral marching band, is a good idea in principle, it just sounds a teeny bit leaden by comparison.
The Costello / Fairfield Four recording is also dear to my heart because it was introduced to me by my Costello-loving friend, late of North Berwick and everywhere else, who correctly assumed I'd like it a great deal. When Elvis began singing - not so much. But when those wonderful grainy harmonies filled the little computer speakers - oh yesss. And having the guy who played piano on pop gospel classic Bridge Over Troubled Water probably didn't hurt either. The title of Paul Simon's song was adapted, as many reading this will know, from Claude Jeter's ad lib in the Swan Silvertones' recording of Mary, Don't you Weep: "I'll be your bridge over deep water if you'll trust in My name." You could even say that the Swan Silvertones' recording constitutes a kind of pop gospel, as it's a very compact version of what might have taken ten minutes or more to build to in live performance.
Gospel in feel as the Costello-McCartney (or was it McCartney-Costello?) may be, however, you could argue that the actual story of That Day Is Done owes more to English folk song: a dead father laments not being able to attend his daughter's wedding, as far as I can work it out.  

As you can hear, the group are supporting Costello's vocal on that TV appearance from the start; on the album track they only come in on the first That Day Is Done. There is a touching moment on the album version which can't really be replicated: Costello, half-hesitating, is instantly bolstered up by those other voices, as also happened, I believe, when he sang it at the Festival Hall. I've got a feeling that Frank Skinner, a big fan of the other Elvis, once had the chance to sing a song with the Jordanaires for a documentary or something, and said that their backing helped him, however, temporarily, to be a good singer - or believe he was, anyway.

Which, if it's necessary to tie things up with a nice red ribbon, takes us back to Ben E King, cabaret or not, being surrounded by a group again - and whatever the vintage of the other two singers, Moore went all the way back to Drifters Mk 1, being Clyde McPhatter's second replacement as lead. So maybe, instead of pitying the spectacle of a solo star being forced to muck in with all the fancy footwork when Moore is singing lead, we should feel glad for this second chance, however it came about, for Benny simply to be part of the whole, not forced to carry everything himself.

I was going to end by sniffily adding: "Then again ... not exactly 116th and Eighth, is it?" But watching the King/Drifters segment again to try to grab an image for the top of this entry I was reminded of a barely audible "Yeah!" from another group member when Benny launches into Stand By Me. If that was Johnny Moore, then maybe that's all that needs to be said. "You never felt alone, is all."

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