27 February 2021

He ruined the ending, one of the loveliest parts in the whole piece ...


 Now who, in their right minds, would buy a CD like this?

In my case the answer is simple: this was one of the discs which always seemed to be there as you walked into Cheapo, entreating you to buy it: the musical equivalent of a lonely pup in a Christmas shop.  I must have scanned the tracklisting on more than one occasion then replaced it. I mean ... Pat Boone? Why Do Fools Fall in Love by the Diamonds? I Count the Tears as a solo Ben E King track even though the Drifters are credited on Save the Last Dance for Me? The absence of an apostrophe on a Clyde McPhatter hit? I could go on ...

For anyone else tempted to to lay out a couple of quid on a well-known auction website permit me to offer a whistle-stop tour through the contents of this 2004 Newsound (no, me neither) compilation:

1 Coasters - Young Blood

A trebly live recording of a vintage unspecified - though it sounds comparatively recent. In the tiniest of print on the sleeve can be found the declaration that "For the benefit of the listener this product may have been compiled from a variety of sources, including where thought appropriate, live material." Don't like that punctuation but maybe that's for my benefit too.

2 Diamonds - Why Do Fools Fall In Love

This sounds like it might have come from the same concert. Very bright indeed.

3 Juniors - At The Hop

Same gig, it sounds like. No Danny, you'll note. Could this possibly be the Junior who took part in the Rock'n'Roll Graffiti programme?

4 Drifters - Save The Last Dance For Me

A rerecording - not live, this, but it sure sounds like they didn't want to miss their last bus. Such acceleration of the tempo calls to mind the Drifters' style when playing live gigs in the UK in the eighties, although that isn't Johnny Moore on lead. Then again, this probably wasn't one of the songs he essayed at such gigs ... though I can't be sure because the only time I saw the Drifters, in the mid-eighties in the UK, Ben E King was temporarily reunited with them.

5 Tommy Edwards - It's All In The Game

Confused now, because this sounds like the original record. Or hang on, weren't there two versions of this? Either way, it sounds familiar. Coincidentally, there is quite a nice album track version of this by Ben E King.

6 Frankie Valli - This Is Real

Not a track known to me. Sounds like electronically reprocessed stereo. Don't want to hear any more of it. Ah, hold on - is that a synthesiser? A horrible sound either way.

7 Ben E King - Spanish Harlem

Ah, now this is more like it. It's the original Atlantic recording. And none of that Rhino mono-only nonsense. Stereo, with King's voice on one channel and the backing singers on the other, like on the album released with an image from the jeans advert on the front.

8 Five Satins - In The Still Of The Night

This is the original too. Feels a bit more echoey, so maybe there has been some reprocessing for stereo here too. Not unpleasant - just feels like you're slightly drunk and you're in American Graffiti. (And that's gotta be good, right?)

9 Medallions - The Letter

Yep, it's the original. Again, maybe more echoey than usual.

10 Videos - Now That Summer Is Over

Not overly familiar with this but it sounds like the original.

11 Clyde McPhatter - A Lovers [sic] Question

Sounds like this might be live. Not unpleasant. In fact it ain't bad at all, as though the freedom of live performance, and his long association with the song, has allowed him to turn it from pop to soul. Oh, it faded out before any applause but there were enough small sounds in the background to make it fairly certain it was live. Jumping onto youtube, this seems to have come from his 1964 Mercury album Live at the Apollo. Well, at least that's one pleasant discovery I'd never have made without buying this album.

12 Angels - Till

Don't know much about the Angels but this is a lousy transfer if it is the original. Everything seems to be happening on one side, unless my headphones have gone funny.

13 Patti Labelle & The Bluebells - I Walked Right In

Don't know this one. It's definitely two channels, with the vocals firmly on one side and all the instruments on the other. As with those tracks at the start, not a lot of bottom, but not a bad performance. The same performance on youtube sounds a lot better: fuller, less squeaky.

14 Tommy Edwards - Please Love Me Forever

Sounds like a needledrop. A pleasant, evocative sound, but not really my cup of tea. The backing vocals really date it.

15 Ben E King - I Count The Tears

Hold on, this is the Drifters' recording. I know Ben E King sang lead, but it was the group. It sounds more or less like the recording on that Ben E King jeans cover compilation although the bass sounds unduly prominent. King is in the middle with the other Drifters in one channel.

16 Pat Boone - Mr Blue

Well, if you're having Pat Boone doing a cover this makes a lot more sense than Tutti Frutti. Sounds like it's closely modelled on the Fleetwoods with that colourless but strangely appealing male lead. It's stereo with nothing extreme about the balance of voices and instruments, so perhaps comparatively recently done?

17 Hearts - Lonely Night

Sounds like the original. Not to be confused with Long Lonely Nights by Lee Andrews and another group of Hearts, this is the one with that wonderful endearment: "You great ... big ... lump of sugar."

18 Coasters - Poison Ivy

Ah. We're back to that live concert at the beginning. Nuff said.

19 Tokens - The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Same here.

20 Mellow Kings - Tonight Tonight

But the closing track is the original recording. Reminds me that I first heard it on an album on the Joy label (President Records) which was pretty lousy sound quality, so it's kind of reassuring to hear something which approximates to it. It also reminds me that Bob Dylan, playing Wilbert Harrison's Kansas City on his Theme Time Radio Hour, said that it always sounds good, and the same, whether you play it on a top of the range hifi or hear it on a crummy radio ... ah. Whoever mixed this track just faded out the track so we didn't get to hear the Mellow Kings' final harmonies. As Tommy Cooper would say, "That's nice." He ruined the ending, one of the loveliest parts in the whole piece.

Well, McPhatter apart, I was wise to spurn this little item over the years. And I must say that there were very, very few disappointments with what I did purchase in Cheapo over the years. There was one CD of soul remakes which I didn't spot before I bought it, and there was one occasion - one in who knows how many years? - when I opened the CD when I got home and found the wrong disc inside but that's about it.

Regular readers may be interested to know that I'm not planning to leave the topic of Cheapo for a while yet. I recently found the list I was sent of their remaining stock a year after the shop closed its doors and I'm going through that, seeing which titles evoke memories. 

Those live tracks ... is there a kind of rule, or a scientifically recognised phenomenon, that the more emotionally distanced singers become from their material the more celebratory such material sounds?

14 February 2021

Return to Cheapo or Is That All There Is, Sonically Speaking?


Whenever I start to recreate a visit to Cheapo Cheapo Records in my head I always find myself striding purposefully towards the very back of the shop, ignoring the lure of those goodies nearer the entrance. 

Which is odd, because this wasn't something I ever actually did. 

My main interest was in CDs, and even though DVDs multiplied and become more prominently displayed during Cheapo's final years a substantial amount of shelf space was still given over to the humble compact disc as you walked in, and it was my invariable practice to start with a look through these before gradually working my way towards the inner depths.

That harder-to-get-at stock did become more appealing over time because at some point - possibly in the shop's last two or three years - all the nostalgia CDs were torn from their hipper companions and relegated to shelving along the back wall, hence the destination in my reverie. By "nostalgia" I mean mostly thirties and forties recordings and a few discs from the early fifties which didn't fall into the rock'n'roll category - the Great American Songbook, in other words, whether crooned by British or American artists, or essayed by a smattering of jazzers: Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and others were heavily represented.

Rock'n'roll (and more recent pop) was there to stay in pride of place, greeting any prospective customers who popped their heads round the door, but I'm guessing that such Radio 2 Sunday fare as Peggy Lee - or what used to be Radio 2 Sunday fare until recently - hadn't attracted quite the same number of impulse purchases, hence its demotion to the comparative inaccessibility of the back room. And it wasn't just the extra few yards which made it hard to get to, as some readers will remember: you could have quite a job squeezing past should any other punters be clogging the shop's narrow thoroughfare - an image now doubly distanced, alas, at the time of writing.

So why weren't Miss Lee and her cohorts seeing much action? I suppose because the nostalgia brigade tended to be older than the typical Cheapo customer, more likely to be well-heeled enough to prefer splurging their money in the bright, wide-aisled comfort of Tower Records in Picadilly Circus or HMV's flagship store in Oxford Street, where a vast nostalgia/easy listening section always seemed to include an endless supply of British dance band releases on the Vocalion label. So why struggle through the confines of Cheapo when you didn't even know what, if anything, you might find of some favourite artist?

But I loved the mystery, the uncertain rewards - and it didn't hurt that during the last seven years of Cheapo's existence I was often buying records on behalf of an employer, building up a comprehensive library of popular music, so every visit to Soho's record shops was also a paid day out - though I'd have gone for myself anyway, and frequently did so at the weekends. In those final years, for work and play, I spent many happy hours going through all those nostalgia CDs at the back - which I suppose is why, with the condensing effect of memory, this now seems to have become the sole purpose of all my visits.
In truth, you wouldn't necessarily find the best or most interesting purchases on those furthest shelves, but the process of making a selection from those particular rows of CDs was undoubtedly the most fascinating part of any expedition.

It was a little like engaging with Radio 4's Round Britain Quiz, a show to which I have become addicted in recent years. The appeal of quizzes - for me, at any rate - is the fleeting and illusory reassurance they offer that all the information unthinkingly amassed over the decades, all those trivial and pointless details taking up so much valuable headroom, might prove to be of some practical worth, after all, and so for that blessed half hour of brain-barbecuing, if no other, there is a feeling of wholeness ... and I don't mean Bob of that ilk.

Actually, maybe browsing in Cheapo is more accurately described as a mirror image of that famed radio quiz: whatever they may know about other stuff, with very few exceptions its contestants are sorely lacking when it comes to basics of popular music - the exact opposite of what's needed when approaching that back wall, hands outstretched in readiness, trying to summon up every last jot and tittle absorbed from mounds of books, sleevenotes, radio programmes and music papers in unwitting preparation for this decisive moment ...

And so it begins again, in yet another waking dream, and I feel afresh that question-solver's satisfaction and immersion while flipping through the rows of CDs, absorbing an array of visual and verbal clues on each front cover, deciding in a millisecond whether or not an examination of the back sleeve, or maybe even an investigation of such prophecies as might be contained within the innards, is merited.

The packaging on those CDs of older music contained the hardest codes to crack. At that time rock'n'roll was only just coming into the public domain, so choices were comparatively limited, but there were any number of discs of earlier music to choose from, on a bewildering variety of labels, and my mission was to select the right one for a particular artist: the disc most likely to contain good quality transfers of the original recordings - definitely not rerecordings or airshots, thank you very much - and which seemed to include a representative sample of their best known work. 

Certain labels offered a reasonable guarantee of good sound, and the annotations to be found in the sleevenotes of such lovingly curated discs might contain enough information to allow the hunt to stop there and then, but it was rarely that simple. Many CDs, tantalisingly cheap, provided no obvious signposts: if the artwork looked amateurish, or the picture of the artist was clearly not from the period of recording, I would know to be cautious before adding it to the pile; if a title like "The Best of" or "Greatest Hits" was applied to someone whose career, like that of Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, spanned many decades, I knew it would be wise to scan the back sleeve for more information; often, however, the blandness of certain covers, or their deliberate aping of more reliable releases, could deceive.

Artists like Donovan or the Kinks may have felt - and for all I know, continue to feel - aggrieved that budget rereleases of their material on Pye's offshoot Marble Arch in the late sixties devalued their brand, but unless memory is playing tricks there were only a limited number of those reissue labels around in those days; by the late 2000s, however, any record stall in any Saturday or Sunday market would be thronged with different labels, different repackagings of an artist's material from who knew what stage of their rise or fall in the public's estimation. Cheapo differed in that it certainly had much of the bargain basement stuff but a fair number of worthwhile compilations were mixed in - provided you knew what to look for.

Which is not to say that spotting the gems among the dross was always straightforward, even for the seasoned obsessive. Which is why - and here I come, at long last, to the burden of my song - a website devoted to one of the artists whose discs were frequently to be found against the back wall caught my eye a few years ago - too late, alas, to inform my purchasing in Cheapo but still well worth the attention of anyone still looking out for CDs of that sort.

I reckon that what every major artist needs is a website along the lines of The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography And Videography ... which may be a bit of a mouthful, but it's something which merits leisurely investigation if any of the foregoing has found an answering chime in you. It's an ongoing labour of love, maintained and updated by Ivan Santiago-Mercardo. 

You may recall that when a character in The Importance of Being Earnest finally discovers the military directories which will confirm his name he exclaims: "These delightful records should have been my constant study!" I don't know when Mr Santiago-Mercardo set up his site but had I been armed with a printout of his findings in the late 2000s I would have saved many man-hours in Cheapo ... not, of course, that I regret a minute of that immersion.

For Peggy Lee fans, the Lee-curious, or even readers who are simply interested in the phenomenon of public domain, or otherwise dubious, CDs - this site really is a must. Although I didn't come across it until 2018, long after Cheapo had been repurposed for the consumption of mango-based desserts, I immediately seized upon its information to buy yet more Peggy Lee CDs, even though clicking on a keyboard to purchase an item within that larger emporium of tat and marvels, ebay, is a poor substitute for the glow experienced while carrying a tottering pile of prizes to the counter at Cheapo's.

The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography And Videography will afford the reader many happy hours - or it probably will, if you've read with interest so far. Its author has taken it upon himself to annotate all the public domain releases out there, to point fingers where necessary (the needledrops of Hallmark), to indicate who has stolen other companies' material, and so on. He singles out, for example, a Spanish company who not only ripped off the bulk of a Mosaic release - a company renowned for its meticulous work in locating and remastering material - but didn't even have the grace to wait a few months until Mosaic might have got a decent return on their investment of time and money, thus discouraging such companies from future projects and, in this case, affecting Mosaic's relationship with EMI and having a knock-on effect on the possibility of subsequent releases by Capitol.

But the real, mind-boggling, work has to be Mr Santiago-Mercardo's valiantly sifting through all the vast multitude of similar-looking releases, assessing sound quality, contents, noting the amount of duplication to be found in other compilations and so forth, thereby making it possible for boss-eyed palookas like me to obtain more bang for their master's buck. Peggy Lee recorded between 1941 and 1995 - think about that for a moment - and the site takes you through all the different periods, all the studio recordings for Capitol, Decca and many others, all the transcriptions and film, TV and radio appearances. There are also some exceptionally detailed but very clear and well-written essays about key songs including Fever - making clear just who owed what to whom - and Is That All There Is?.

The image gracing the top of this piece of a notional "Very Best of Peggy Lee" has been taken from his site. He observes of its contents:

Combines 18 Columbia big band studio recordings from the Benny Goodman years (early 1940s) with 2 performances from Lee's radio show (early 1950s) and 1 World radio transcription (also from the early 1950s). Obviously, the title of this cheap and inconsequential disc is outrageously off the mark.
Guided and warned by the information on this website I've able to buy a considerable number of additional Peggy Lee CDs covering periods of her career not already represented by purchases from Cheapo, and there has been an additional pleasure in calculating which combination of budget purchases might match some more expensive and luxurious release which it would be harder to justify buying on my employer's behalf. 

A set of transcriptions (studio recordings meant for radio play only) were released complete on Jazzology's Audiophile label, for example, but Mr Santiago-Mercardo handily points out two lower-priced compilations which contain the bulk of the recordings. He advises that the Audiophile release is the best option but criticises its "middling" sound quality, stating that "all 49 numbers exist in far better quality", though not as yet commercially released. He then goes on to discuss another issue which includes a few of the World transcriptions: "No, it is not excellent sound quality.  But it does eradicate the dullness or opacity which characterizes many another release." If those words mean nothing to you then you are unlikely to gain much from this site. But if, like me, you have bought many a CD of older material and been stung, then this is precisely the kind of thing you will lap up.

The homepage for The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography And Videography can be found here. Those intimidated by the sheer range of what's on offer may be better advised to go to the FAQ page here, which includes notes on a selection of recommended introductory CDs, including advice about which editions to avoid. 

But if you want to plunge straight away into the world of dubious discs with innumerable variants, the heavily illustrated page here is where you want to go - its full title is: "A Gallery Of Public Domain, Budget And Bootleg Compilations". And if you have hung around in Cheapo, or any market stall, you will feel instantly at home.

There is, of course, a case to be made for asking: why bother with any of this? Won't the music come through anyway, even if the sound isn't alway top-notch? Well, maybe ... if you're lucky ... but it's one of the ironies of the digital age that a sound carrier intended to provide greater fidelity than vinyl can often sound a whose lot worse in the hands of companies out to make a quick buck - and if these artists of former times are to find favour with a new generation surely they need to be heard at their best?

I was lucky enough to have a brief email correspondence with sound restorer John R.T. Davies, shortly before his death in 2004; as some readers will know he left a legacy of remastered jazz recordings on the JSP and Hep labels and elsewhere, and understood better than most in the game how to preserve the original sound: too many CDs - and not only public domain issues - have the life drained out of them in an effort to obliterate the scratches, destroying what Davies called the "air" in a recording. (It's still going on if you frequent streaming websites: just compare a few different sonic treatments of the same jazz classic.)

I had emailed Mr Davies to say how much I'd appreciated his CD remastering of sides by Luis Russell, who had been one of my first happy jazz discoveries on vinyl in the early seventies, and got a charming reply almost immediately. A great man who devoted his life to preserving great music for everybody, he even arranged for his Marshal Cavendish Jazz Greats CD of Billie Holiday (part of a CD + magazine series) to be sent to my place of work free, gratis and for nothing, knowing that it was about passing on this music. A link earlier on this blog to an interview in which he talked about his rationale for remastering is no longer operational, but I think his key point was that he was aware that the transfer he made might eventually prove to be the only source material remaining, and thus he felt a sense of duty not to interfere too much with the original sound. 

At some point in the future I may try to list my purchases from Cheapo on this blog; secreted in some hard drive somewhere there ought to be text files listing those items bought for my employer over the years. The little business cards which Phil signed as proof of purchase were stapled to expense forms and handed to the accountant at my workplace; I have no idea whether these still exist - I suspect not, as the most recent must be about twelve years old now. 

I suppose CDs themselves are old hat now that so much music is streamed, and there's no doubt they are less attractive than LPs; it's difficult to imagine a similar revival. But when someone recently posted a picture of a CD with the distinctive Cheapo price label affixed to it on social media it pierced my heart, evoking memories of that wonderful, ridiculous Aladdin's Cave, filling me once again with that hopeless yearning described in an earlier piece about Cheapo closing:

I dreamt about it, about being inside once again, a few nights later. The pain, really, is in not having one final chance - not to plunder, a la the ill-fated Apple boutique, but to pay my last respects, and maybe finally buy some of those fairly pointless and inessential jazz/nostalgia CDs which hovered on the margins of possibility on each visit. And to do that not so much for the music as to perform a kind of final, altruistic - I might as well saying loving - act: to show that someone finally cared even for those unlovely parts of the shop.



The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography: A Gallery Of Public Domain, Budget And Bootleg Compilations

A Wreath for Cheapo

Cheapo Cheapo Records - the complete story

31 December 2020

Last Call for Elevenses

A final selection of eleven posts from the archive to mark eleven years of this blog. Click on the image beside each description to read the piece.

1: Gnome Thoughts from a Foreign Country is the first in a series about David Bowie's musical inspirations. It was prompted by the purchase of the pictured songbook from Bowie's early years but one thought soon led to another, taking in Anthony Newley, Alan Klein, and much else. The thread leading back to Bowie was put under a bit of strain during these labyrinthine wanderings but I'd like to think it didn't actually snap.  

30 December 2020

Another eleven: comedy

A selection of eleven comedy-related posts, mostly reviews of books or TV programmes. Click on any image to be taken to the post described immediately below.

1: Eric and Ernie

Well, I say "reviews" ... in the case of this first piece it would be more accurately described as: "notes reflecting on the few aspects which interest me because that's how I roll." 

This first piece is about Peter Bowker's TV drama Eric and Ernie, recreating the early days of Morecambe and Wise, and because I'd read so much about the pair I became fixated on sins of omission, as you will see if you click on the picture above, which shows Victoria Wood as Eric's mother, Sadie Bartholomew, being waved off, her job done, as the pair embark on their career.

29 December 2020

Second XI

Another eleven posts from the archive. Click on the image to read the piece described below.


1 : Golden Teardrops - the Flamingos


Although a more extensive piece on the Flamingos' Golden Teardrops can be found elsewhere, I'm fond of this earlier attempt to describe it during my 2000 dialogue with Clarke Davis. The style - of my writing, I mean - may be a little overheated but it reflects the excitement I felt at the new experience of  sharing my passion for doo wop with like-minded people, and I'm eternally grateful to those who expressed their appreciation by sending gifts of CDs, tapes and videos which couldn't be found in the UK.

26 December 2020

Blogs Eleven

To mark eleven (count 'em!) years of blogging, an introduction to a selection of posts from 2009-2020, one from each year. 

Click on any image to read the piece described immediately below.


Billy Shelton taught Pookie Hudson how to sing in the glee club at Roosevelt High in Gary, Indiana and formed a trio with him and another schoolfriend, predating the Spaniels. In the 1990s, when the original Spaniels reformed, Billy took the place of Ernest Warren, then a minister, and he still leads a group of Spaniels today. This piece, distilled from several lengthy interviews with Billy in 2016 and 2020,  is around 25,000 words and covers his whole life and career. There aren't too many people still around from the very beginning of doo wop, so it was a privilege, as well as a pleasure, to help spread the story of one of the originators. (The photograph above comes from the 1950 school yearbook; thanks to Todd Baptista, who shared it on social media.)

8 December 2020

In which JL still is king

Every Thursday night, from the late 1960s until some date lost to memory, my brothers and I would gather around the television to watch Top of the Pops, praying that my father would not interrupt the programme (in those one-TV-set-per-household days) and that my mother would be able to arrange the making of his tea in a way that would overlap with our time attending this semi-religious broadcast. 

TOTP was something shared exclusively between myself and my brothers. There wasn't a great deal of music in our house. I do recall one rare single bought by one or other of my parents: Tears by Ken Dodd - though I don't recall its being played except by one of us. True, Dodd was a Liverpudlian, but we knew wasn't the same as the Fab Four.

10 October 2020

Lennon: The New York Years (aka LENNONYC) now available on BBC iplayer


For UK readers, Michael Epstein's 2010 documentary LENNONYC, known over here as Lennon: The New York Years, has just been repeated on BBC 4 and will be available to watch on BBC iplayer until November 8th. It's well worth watching if you didn't happen to catch it last night.

22 September 2020

It is required you do awake your Dono-faith one more once

Dono-fans will be pleased to learn that the concert at London's Cadogan Hall which had to be cancelled in April has now been rescheduled for Monday, 12th October. He will be playing two shows that day, to allow for social distancing, and both will be livestreamed.

6 August 2020

Tony Randall

I was sorry to learn yesterday of the death of Tony Randall. I had emailed him a couple of days ago to let him know about the Billy Shelton piece (previous post), which I thought might be of interest; the email bounced back then I saw today on the Louie Report website that he had died in June of last year.

3 August 2020

Billy Shelton: Spaniel Forever

Billy Shelton has described himself in interviews as "a prehistoric Spaniel". He wasn't with the celebrated doo wop group during their hitmaking days on Vee-Jay Records in the 1950s but he taught their leader, James "Pookie" Hudson, how to sing during their time together at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana, forming a vocal trio called the Three Bees with Pookie and another schoolfriend, Calvin Fossett.

Billy left school before Pookie, who was eventually prevailed upon by other schoolmates to join the group which became the Spaniels. A few years into their professional career Billy received several invitations to join them but resisted; he didn't become a member until the late 1980s.

This was the second lineup of Spaniels, to be heard on later Vee-Jay sides such as Everyone's Laughing. A year or so after that, however, the original group, who sang on Vee-Jay's debut release Baby It's You and the classic Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite, reformed and Billy took the place of Ernest Warren, who had become a minister.

Now Billy Shelton is the last man standing from those Roosevelt High days – and still leading a group of Spaniels. They can be seen in Episode One of the BBC documentary series Rock'n'Roll America, with Billy intoning those immortal bass notes of Gerald Gregory's which usher in Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.

About a year after the first broadcast of that programme I was contacted by Billy, who had read a piece of mine about the Spaniels' personnel. He felt that he had never received the credit for his part in the group's history and was keen to talk “before I'm gone”.

The story which follows is not restricted to the Spaniels. Some key events in the decades between schooldays with Pookie and Billy's finally becoming a member of the group have also been sketched in. That's because there is no real dividing line: one way or another, music has always been central to the life of Billy Shelton, right from the start.

23 June 2020

Episode One of Rock'n'Roll America back on iplayer ... but hurry!

For readers in the UK the first episode of the 2015 BBC documentary series is temporarily available once more on BBC iplayer - but only until Monday 3 July, so hurry.

I couldn't say whether it's particularly innovative but it tells the story well and clearly, and has a poignancy not present in some earlier series by virtue of the fact that those involved are considerably older than in Tony Palmer's groundbreaking seventies series All You Need Is Love or even series of more recent vintage like Dancing in the Street.

Before providing a link to my original review of the episode allow me to draw your attention to a section around thirteen minutes in, featuring the Spaniels singing an acapella version of Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight and a rather too brief interview with their bass singer and current leader Billy Shelton.

Billy has described himself in an interview as "a prehistoric Spaniel" because he taught Pookie Hudson and another schoolmate how to sing during their schooldays in Gary, Indiana and formed a trio with them called the Three Bees. Much later - as in forty years - Billy took the place of Spaniel Ernest Warren, then a minister, when the original group reformed; some UK readers may remember seeing this group in London or Liverpool in the early nineties. I do, anyway - their appearance was the highlight of a 1992 Alan Freed-style rock'n'roll package show at Wembley Conference Centre.

Billy will be the subject of a forthcoming piece of writing which may appear in this blog or as an ebook. I can't give a precise date as yet but I'm close to finishing a second draft. Which prompts me to observe that whoever said "writing is rewriting" couldn't have been more wrong: in my experience it's rearranging - physically, I mean, all nasty and fiddly. Good job I'm not allergic to Pritt Stick.

It looks like all three episodes of Rock'n'Roll America are going to be taken off iplayer at the same time, early morning of Monday 29th June, so if you are in the UK and can access them, don't hang about is my tip.


16 June 2020

Coming soon ...

I don't normally give any advance indication of when I'll be posting next but I've decided to make an exception in this rare case.

This is to say that in the space of a few weeks at most I hope to post an extended piece based upon a series of interviews with a veteran doo wop singer.

Because it's longer than normal, and aims to give a broad picture of his whole life, ordering the information has been trickier than usual. As when I was working with the comedian Freddie Davies on his autobiography, I'm discovering there's a limit to how effectively a longer narrative can be structured onscreen, so it's back to what I used to think of as The Pritt Stick Chronicles: printed sheets of the rough draft cut up into pieces and reassembled.

The process of writing has changed somewhat in recent months. In an earlier post, readable here,  I described a pleasing morning routine which is now impossible. But I shall push on and hope that you, and my subject, will see the results soon.

25 May 2020

Raw footage of Ben E King interview

As mentioned in the previous post, Brent Wilson contacted Ben E King for the doo wop documentary Streetlight Harmonies but the singer died before an interview could be set up.

It's a great pity, in more than one sense. Wilson seems to have taken considerable pains to gain the trust of the artists who took part, and even though contributions were heavily edited in the final version the raw footage must have been quite extensive if the case of Vito Picone of the Elegants is anything to go by. According to a virtual Q&A Picone was "in the chair" for a straight six hours before someone realised it might be time to break for a meal.

22 May 2020

New doo wop documentary (Streetlight Harmonies)


I have just watched Streetlight Harmonies, Brent Wilson's new documentary about doo wop, and it's well worth your attention whether you are an aficionado or merely, as it were, doo wop-curious. A little over eighty minutes, it provides a very clear overview of the era as well as some discussion about the genre's lasting influence. It may not be the first film dedicated to the subject but where it excels is in the deft editing of the testimony of a large number of interviewees, allowing the story of this music to be told almost entirely through the artists' own words. Charlie Horner, credited as historical consultant, makes an occasional appearance when context is needed and DJ Jerry Blavat ("The Geator with the Heater"), songwriter Jeff Barry and some others appear, although the vast majority of interviewees are group members (including some representatives of girl groups).

5 May 2020

DO press that button: The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp

Another story-in-song which made an impression on me as a child was The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp, written by Dallas Frazier. Like Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town, the song had been a hit for Johnny Darrell on the US country charts in 1967, but I became aware of it via O.C. Smith's soulful interpretation, a greater success in Britain than America, the following year.

Listening to the opening chorus now, I'm aware of how quickly and efficiently the story is set up with a few telling details, preparing us for the fuller account to follow in the verses:

3 May 2020

Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town or The Angel Went

Having written about Honey in the previous post I'm now going to look at Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition (above). 

There are some connections between the two numbers. Both are stories-in-song, much possessed by death, and whatever the pop/rock elements in their respective arrangements they are essentially country ballads, tales of woe.

25 April 2020

Wild About Honey

Like all right-thinking people I follow Alwyn Turner's online series Revive 45 on the Lion and Unicorn website, and I urge the more malleable reader to go forth and do likewise. Once a month Mr Turner casts his eye over the top ten from forty five years ago, and the resulting mix of insight, original research (he's interviewed quite a few of the artists) and unashamed enthusiasm for hits long condemned as "uncool" by others has frequently been an ear-opener for me - and he knows how to turn the odd pleasing phrase too. The most recent post considers the charts from April 1975, including Bobby Goldsboro's oft-disparaged Honey (above).

Reading the piece has prompted me to listen to Goldsboro's record again and to look at the lyrics more closely. But before I get onto a more detailed examination I need to bring a certain hangup of mine into the open. The notional "coolnesss" or otherwise of certain records has often proven a hurdle to my fullhearted enjoyment of them, so I rather envy Mr Turner's lack of shame in that respect. I suppose it all goes back to my childhood ... childhood .... childhood ....

14 April 2020

New book about doo wop now available (Could This Be Magic? by Spencer Leigh)

Update: Spencer Leigh's Could This Be Magic? has now been been published as an e-book and is available worldwide from UK amazon here and US amazon here.

 This is to let readers know that the DJ and author Spencer Leigh has written a book about doo wop which will be published this Friday, 17th April.

The current crisis means that it will be issued initially in e-book form, although it's hoped a hard copy will be available later. I recently read an advance copy of the book, which is entitled Could It Be Magic?, and chatted to Spencer Leigh about it.

21 March 2020

When the Eyes of the World Were on the Clyde (radio documentary about Upper Clyde Shipbuilders)

Those who have read an earlier post about Donovan's 1972 concert to raise funds for Upper Clyde Shipbuilders may be interested in a radio documentary which fills in more of the background to that event.

Entitled When the Eyes of the World Were on the Clyde, the programme was originally broadcast in 2011, not long after the death of Jimmy Reid, one of the prime movers in the story. He was the shop steward who, before the "work-in", famously said:

12 March 2020

Grimful Glee Club (radio play about Thomas Hardy)

I have just heard Adam Thorpe's 2003 radio play Nought Happens Thus Twice, about Thomas Hardy's second marriage, to Florence Dugdale.

1 February 2020

Happy Birthday Spencer Leigh

A couple of weeks ago, during an interview with Joe Brown, Spencer Leigh let slip that he would be 75 on the first of February, the date of Brown's gig at the Liverpool Phil - which Spencer will, of course, be attending.

15 January 2020

The Flamingos: A Complete History of the Doo-Wop Legends by Todd Baptista

The Flamingos are one of the greatest, and most enduring, doo wop groups of them all, so it's a pleasure to report that Todd Baptista's biography, the first full-length study of the group, doesn't disappoint: this is a meticulously researched and very well organised account of their fortunes and changing personnel. The Flamingos' many permutations may not quite be in the Drifters' league but I can't have been the only one who found them confusing before Mr Baptista laid them out in these pages with such admirable clarity.

I confess to having been a little apprehensive when first picking up the book. With all the original members now dead, might the story turn out to be weighted in favour of Terry Johnson, the musical force behind what one might call the Mark II group? Encouraged by George Goldner, he helped steer them in more of a pop direction during their time on Goldner's End Records, leading to the huge crossover success of I Only Have Eyes For You ... but that was six years after Golden Teardrops, regarded by many as the greatest doo wop record of all, had been recorded for Chance Records in Chicago some time before Johnson joined.

11 January 2020

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs (new book and podcast)

This is to draw readers' attention to Andrew Hickey's podcast A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs and the accompanying book which covers his first fifty choices. 

New podcasts are coming out at the rate of one a week, and although he has not chosen all the songs yet Mr Hickey plans to take the story up to 1999. That's a decade or three outside my area of keenest interest but on the basis of the podcasts released so far - 64 to date in roughly chronological order, with Reet Petite the most recent - this ambitious endeavour can be recommended as a painless way of learning a great deal in the shortest possible space of time about the history and development of R&B and rock'n'roll. Mr Hickey has read the right books - and I'm pleased to note he gives Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks website the credit it so richly deserves - but, crucially, he does not assume any pre-existing knowledge on his listeners' part: you can start here if you know nothing about the history of this music.

5 January 2020

Interview with Henri Harrison (former member of the New Vaudeville Band)

[videocap from jazzandjazz]

A few months ago I made my way to the village of Lemsford, in Hertfordshire, to meet Henri Harrison, former drummer of the New Vaudeville Band, and see his current group, Henri's Hotshots, in action at Lemsford Jazz Club.

I particularly wanted to find out more about Alan Klein's time with the New Vaudeville Band, especially as Mark Blake's recent biography of their manager Peter Grant doesn't have much to say on the subject. But the ways in which performers adapt and survive when fame has ebbed away is an abiding fascination, so I was also looking forward to the opportunity of hearing the band's story from the one man who had been there from soup to nuts. Henri played on the recording of Winchester Cathedral alongside other session men when "The New Vaudeville Band" was just a thing in songwriter Geoff Stephens' dream, and was still behind the drumkit of the flesh-and-blood group, by then long mutated into a cabaret act, when they finally called it a day some twenty years later.

30 December 2019

Early Wiggle

Just before Christmas I visited a friend in Scotland who is also a doo wop and rock'n'roll fan. I brought a magazine with me which had an article about some new Carl Perkins finds - four roughly recorded sides predating his time on Sun - so was delighted to learn he already had the 10 inch Bear Family album (above) which contained these, along with some Sun alternate takes already issued on CD.

28 December 2019

14 Karat Soul one more time

Does anyone else actually know or remember this group? Sometimes it seems they were only a thing in my dream: an unattainable vision (and sound) of doo wop perfection, never seen by waking eyes or heard with unclogged ears (I'll explain later).

And yet there they are on youtube; CDs can be bought; they're mentioned in Jay Warner's Billboard book of vocal groups and there's still an official website online - even though to all intents and purposes they called it a day in 2003.

14 Karat Soul were undoubtedly an accomplished act, slaying live audiences time after time, as I can testify, yet they never made it big in America or the UK, only attaining the scale of recognition they deserved in Japan. And that's why I want to do my bit to commemorate a group who deserve to be revered all round the world.

27 December 2019

John Shuttleworth podcast and tour

This is to draw the reader's attention to Richard Herring's recent podcast featuring Graham Fellows, otherwise hapless middle-aged musician and songwriter John Shuttleworth (above). It can be downloaded here.

The interview is leisurely, and fairly frank as well as funny, perhaps helped by the fact that Herring once gave Fellows a fiver in the nineties when the latter was having no joy at a cash machine. (Herring framed the cheque he received in return, making his act of kindness doubly kind.) But it's clear, as the conversation progresses, that they do have a certain amount in common, that act of charity aside: both have forged unusual paths in the business of comedy after an initial bout of fame.

13 December 2019

Teardrops of Burnished Gold

By way of commemorating ten (count 'em!) years of this blog I've uploaded the rare 1961 Vee-Jay release of the Flamingos' Golden Teardrops to youtube, as it doesn't seem to be available there or on spotify or anywhere else. You can find any number of transfers of the original 1953 Chance recording in variable sound quality - as well as a spurious "echo version" which would have turned Bill Putnam's stomach - but not the Vee-Jay pressing, which features an overdubbed guitar. Readers who have explored the earliest posts here will know how significant that recording was to me.

30 November 2019

New biography of Ken Dodd by Louis Barfe

A new biography of Ken Dodd, the first to be published since his death, has just come out, and it's a good 'un: streets, if not whole counties, ahead of the book by Steven Griffin published in Dodd's lifetime, cheekily entitled Ken Dodd: the Biography.