Saturday, 6 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 29 (1958 charts, Humph & Big Joe, 50s Lennon)

Here's the tracklisting (including some youtube links) for the 1958 volume of the Fabulous 50s series, plus some brief notes made at the time of purchase:
We are now approaching the end of this series whose major benefit is that you get to see the sort of thing which was in the UK charts that year, not simply the mostly American items which have subsequently become classics.

So in addition to the international biggies on this edition which need no introduction there is also Lord Rockingham (a successful attempt by contemptuous British jazzers including Benny Green to cash in on the rock'n'roll craze, as it was then); Lonnie Donegan still riding high on the skiffle craze; a forgotten Tommy Steele track entitled Nairobi; the non-international Max Bygraves with Tulips from Amsterdam; "Elias and his Zigzag Jive Flutes" plus some early CLiff Richard from the days when he was (briefly) seen as the British Elvis - I think Schoolboy Crush was originally intended as the A side to Move It but the latter track's quality (one of the few British rock'n'roll tracks which would not have disgraced an American company) was unmissable.

In short, quality and schlock, but very good as a snapshot of British tastes so - to use a catchphrase prematurely - Oi'll give it foive.
1. Move it Cliff Richard
2. Magic Moments Perry Como
3. On the Street Where You Live [?]
4. It's Only Make Believe Conway Twitty
5. Stupid Cupid Connie Francis
6. All I Have To Do Is Dream The Everly Brothers
7. All in the Game Tommy Edwards
8. Nairobi Tommy Steele
9. Tulips From Amsterdam Max Bygraves
10. Volare Dean Martin
11. Tom Hark Elias and His Zigzag Jive Flutes
12. When The Kalin Twins
13. Tequila The Champs
14. Catch a Falling Star Perry Como
15. Fever Peggy Lee
16. Bird Dog The Everly Brothers
17. Grand Coolie Dam Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group
18. Hoots Mon Lord Rockingham's XI
19. Tom Dooley The Kingston Trio
20. High Class Baby Cliff Richard
21. You Need Hands Max Bygraves
22. Buona Sera Louis Prima
23. Kiss Me Honey, Honey Kiss Me Shirley Bassey
24. The Story of My Life Michael Holliday
25. Schoolboy Crush Cliff Richard
26. My Feet Hit the Ground Cliff Richard

Further thoughts:

 Is Tommy Steele's Nairobi good or bad? I can't work it out. So much easier in the seventies when my brothers and I knew instantly whether to cheer or boo the songs in the top twenty countdown on Top of the Pops.

Okay, let's approach this scientifically. First, it's written by Bob Merrill, also responsible for such songs as She Wears Red Feathers and How Much is That Doggie in the Window? so I think we're talking early fifties, parent-pleasing fodder here.

But just to be sure let's examine the lyrics (lines in brackets are sung by a high-pitched female chorus). Is there evidence of a wild, abandoned and dangerous passion such as might be exhibited by one who has known only the shadow of the bomb?
Rolling in the sand dunes
(Try and catch me)
Flashing in the water
(Don't get wet)
I'm-a-gonna kiss you
(You're gonna kiss me)
Only when I oughta
(That's nice)
Perhaps not. But ohhh, it's fiendishly catchy and I want to listen to it again. Is that so wrong? Is it? Anyway, the official Bob Merrill website, here, has lots of audio so you can make up your own mind.

If you can access spotify, there is an album called The Bob Merrill Songbook, a mix of his playing and talking about his own songs, and hit recordings by other artists. And listening to Eileen Barton's If I knew You Were Comin' I'd Have Baked a Cake there in rather better audio quality than the youtube clip linked to in post 21 confirms what I said about its being linked to rock'n'roll: the reinforced beat sounds very much  like that employed on the original Shake, Rattle and Roll by Big Joe Turner.

Those early recordings on Atlantic by Big Joe and others were done in the same office where the admin took place - they would just push all the desks, etc, back. And I believe on Shake, Rattle and Roll, everyone around was involved in bigging up the beat - clapping, slapping phone directories or whatever - so that whether you were listening to the record on  what passed for hi-fi or on an am radio it would leap out at you. And it sounds like they've done the same on If I Knew You Were Comin'. Here's that original studio recording of Shake, Rattle and Roll in good sound:
It's got a back beat, you can't lose it
as someone or other once said.

Andrew Cole's article on the origins of rock'n'roll linked to earlier says
The back beat was a feature of gospel (in the form of hand-clapping) and of rhythm and blues of the 1940s, which itself grew out of a combination of big band swing and intimate guitar and piano blues.
And to stress the intertwangling of the various forms, here is a clip of Turner from 1966, backed by the late Humphrey Lyttelton, well known and much loved in Britain over the decades. Humph wasn't too concerned about musical boundaries, having introduced a saxophonist into his New Orleans-style lineup in 1953, although such was the zeal for trad jazz in Britain at the time that some fans displayed a banner advising Bruce Turner (no relation): "GO HOME DIRTY BOPPER!"

Humph toured with Big Joe and Buck Clayton in 1965 and penned an affectionate portrait of the great blues shouter in his 1975 book Take It From the Top, which I read around the time I first heard Turner's classic The Boss of the Blues LP (in the packaging below):

Book and album both made a big impression: I had been  introduced to rock'n'roll via the frenzy of Little Richard, which was still great  in smaller doses, but what was going on here was something equally exciting but in a different way (and I'm talking specifically about that album, which was more jazz-based than his hit singles). Humphrey Lyttelton sums it up perfectly -  in fact, if I read the book before hearing the album (I can't remember now) it may have predisposed me to like it. Turner was, he says, an innocent offstage, and occasionally insecure onstage:
He had a stock phrase, a hangover from the rhyming hip jargon of the 'forties, to express his periodical -and always unfounded - conviction that things had gone wrong. "We're in a world of trouble," he would cry, "Someone took a pin and busted the bubble!" But when he was confident and in congenial company, the big penetrating voice assumed an air of massive authority.

To some listeners over here, weaned on rock'n roll and theatrically extrovert "rhythm ' blues" his manner of delivery, standing foursquare with the huge frame bent forward slightly and little movement beyond the snapping of finger and thumb, was disappointingly short of frenetic, as was his limiting of his vocal range for the most part to four of five notes. They missed the passionate intensity which lay beneath the repetitious phrases and the dramatic effect achieved when, by changing just one beautifully-judged note, he gave a stanza an  unexpected emotional jolt.

Joe Turner, the singer of powerful, sexually-assertive, sometimes quite cynical blues ("baby you're so beautiful but you've gotta die someday") personifies for me the jazz fan's perennial problem - how to reconcile two often  irreconcilable halves of a musician, his music and his overt personality. For me there are still two Joe Turners, and I love them both.

When Big Joe died, one of the records Humph played by  way of  tribute on his radio show was Ti-Ri-Lee, a lesser known number which was a favourite of his. (Sadly, I can only find it on spotify, not youtube.) Not sure whether I've heard it since that day in 1985, but listening to it now I can see exactly why it might have appealed to Humph. It's a reworking of the song usually known as Cherry Red Blues or Hollywood Bed, but with the sting of sexual bragging somehow removed, so that it comes over as the sound of a man wholly at ease and happy, simply wanting to share that happiness with the world:
 Well I'm rollin' and I'm reelin'
Spinnin' just like a great big wheel
Gonna tell the whole wide world
How good you make me feel
And no trace of insecurity here: Turner is supremely confident and happy among the musicians, commenting delightedly "Boy, this child's a mess!" when the saxophonist takes a solo: music, as the song says, to make you feel good in your spine, way down in your knees.

Walking in the Lake District, I once came across one of  those benches with a little plaque atop a windswept hill, miles from anywhere. The inscription read:
In Memory of Joe Turner
Could it have been ... ? Unlikely, I know - but not impossible. No dwelling did I there espy, but his gal famously lived upon a hill. At any rate, I thank his shade for the joy left behind.

To get back to the (sort of) point: as mentioned before, the Fabulous 50s series may not be the most comprehensive of collections - for that, check out the British Hit Parade series on the Acrobat label - but I still say it works well as a quick glimpse of the very biggest sellers - and clearly the teenagers weren't the only ones doing the buying. A lot of rock'n'roll represented on the Acrobat CDs, which aim to cover the entire Top Twenty for each year, is missing here, presumably because, important as the songs have become, they weren't necessarily Number Ones at the time. These include:
Raunchy - Bill Justis
At The Hop - Danny And The Juniors
Bony Moronie - Larry Williams
Jailhouse Rock - Elvis Presley
Listen To Me - Buddy Holly And The Crickets
Breathless - Jerry Lee Lewis
Johnny B. Goode - Chuck Berry
Claudette - The Everley Brothers
Rave On - Buddy Holly
Yakety Yak - The Coasters
To Know Him Is To Love Him - The Teddy Bears
And already the Beatles are looming on the horizon: Raunchy (a Sun record) was George Harrison's audition piece for the Beatles - on the DVD set of the Anthology documentary the Threetles play it - and To Know Him Is To Love Him, an early manifestation of Phil Spector, was one of the songs the Beatles played during their ill-fated Decca audition on the first of January 1962. Nerves made them play everything at a fair old lick, so it's hardly the Beatles at their best, particularly on what is intended as a ballad, but it's an important recording nevertheless. Macca has said:
That was the first three-part [harmony] we ever did. We learned that in my dad's house in Liverpool.
Here's that Decca version:

To bring things full circle, there is an outtake from Lennon's Seventies Rock'n'Roll album with Uncle Phil himself at the helm which seems to be a belated overcompensation for the haste of the Decca performance; listen to a (non-embeddable) youtube clip here. But the BBC radio version below strikes an ideal balance between the two, and reminds you of Lennon's vulnerability as a singer:

Now at this point I suppose I ought to embed a clip of the Beatles singing Shake, Rattle and Roll to give an air of thematic unity to this post, but as it's just them messing around during the filming of Let It Be I'm not going to; listen to it here if you must, but its main interest is in seeing how, in  freefall, the group reach back to the fifties and  the records which filled them, as teenagers, so full of possibilities.

The presence of Billy Preston on  the session is also a throwback: he had been in Little Richard's backing band when he toured the UK in 1962 with the Beatles as opening act and they became friends when working together again in Hamburg. Below is a famous image of the courtiers - or possibly the young  princes by then - surrounding the king:

You can read a recent interview with Richard in Marc Myers' JazzWax blog here. The post includes some  video clips, including one possibly dating from the 1962 tour and one of gospeller Marion Williams, onlie begetter of the "Wooh!" passed to Macca via Richard.

Oh yes, it's all interlinked, y'know. As reinforced by an exchange in the interview which allows me to tie up this post without the attendant sourness of that Let It Be clip:
JW: Which jazz musicians told you they enjoyed your music?

LR: Tab Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae — all of them. Peggy Lee used to come to hear me.

JW: So, did Little Richard kill jazz?

LR: Kill jazz? Oh no, no, no. I don’t believe rock 'n' roll could kill jazz. Nothing can kill jazz. Jazz is an original. Jazz is beautiful music. I don’t believe that. Jazz is still here. Real rock 'n' roll musicians love jazz. A real musician loves all types of music
 ... or it would have done if I hadn't just listened to an interview with guitarist Earl Slick, photographer Bob Gruen and producer Jack Douglas about working with John Lennon, downloadable as free podcasts here. They are linked to a PBS series about Lennon in New York, LENNONYC due to air in America on November 22nd, basically interview material which couldn't all fit into the documentary itself.. There are nine podcasts online so far, and those three I've heard are very good indeed, so the site is well worth investigating.They last about an hour each.

Slick enthuses about the pure rock'n'roll feel of Lennon's rhythm guitar, more discernible in his solo work than underneath the polish of Beatles recordings (apart from that last Beatle John hurrah of a solo near the end of Abbey Road, I suppose). And Bob Gruen, I think, mentions that Lennon got his hair cut Teddy boy style once again on what was to be his last day on earth.

Odd to think that it's almost thirty years on.

No doubt there will be lots of tribute programmes and articles but these intelligent and unshowy interviews with those who knew him as a colleague and friend will be hard to beat. You really get the sense of personal loss, especially in the case of Earl Slick, who resisted talking about John's death at the time.

At one point either he or the interviewer observes of Lennon's music:
He never strayed very far from the fifties.

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