13 August 2022

Jake Thackray biography Beware of the Bull now available


 

The Jake Thackray biography having arrived, I couldn't resist devouring it immediately, even though it's the kind of work which ought to be savoured at leisure. What follows is more by way of a few initial thoughts than a comprehensive review, but based on my frantic run at the thing the good news is that the book is all that might have been hoped for and can be recommended without reservation to thoroughgoing Thackrayites and the Jake-curious alike.

Written with the cooperation of family and friends from all stages of his life and career, there is almost no section of the story which doesn't benefit from several viewpoints, to say nothing of extracts from Jake's own public and private writings. There is even an appendix with lyrics of a large number of unrecorded songs (although, sad to report, a song I remembered fondly from Tickertape survives only as a title).

If fans already familiar with the outline of Jake's career have concerns about the portrayal of his final years they can be reassured that this period is sensitively handled. For those not already acquainted with the basics, Jake Thackray was raised a Catholic and became a teacher, writing songs for his pupils to sing, before those songs came to the attention of radio and television producers, leading to national fame through his regular appearances on Braden's Week and elsewhere. Over the years, however, an increasing dissatisfaction with performing, exacerbated by his alcoholism, led to his withdrawing from the spotlight altogether. 

The account, in the book's closing chapters, of his decline seems perfectly pitched: it's not sensational but does include the odd telling comment from friends about evidence of some further deterioration. It all makes for saddening reading, of course, but the pace of those revelations feels exactly right - there is no sense of the reader being hurried along to the inevitable ending. It's also heartening to learn that for quite a while, when the wind is in the right direction and Jake feels thoroughly comfortable, he can still do a good gig - provided he has no sense of the weight of the audience's expectations beforehand.

You could, I suppose, view this story as a cautionary tale about the corrosive effects of fame - even though fame wasn't something which Thackray actively pursued. Once on the performing treadmill, however, it seems to have been difficult for him to get off. His dislike of larger venues, preferring the intimate connection with audiences in clubs and universities, forced him into doing more gigs, cutting into time once available for reflecting and songwriting. Yet there are contradictions here: he may have disliked TV's weekly deadlines, feeling he was producing substandard work as a result, but later he came to regret the absence of the discipline which such commisions had once imposed.

This fable-type aspect of his rise and fall may mean that the book's appeal could extend beyond the devotees who pre-ordered their copies and attract a more general readership for whom Jake might be a distant, if fond, telly memory, or perhaps a name cited as an influence by some artist they admire. Here's hoping it will prompt them to explore beyond his best-known comic numbers. 

For those, like myself, already broadly acquainted with the story, the pleasure will be in having so many gaps filled by this admirable book, which it's difficult to imagine being surpassed. Quite apart from anything else, it represents a technical triumph in its marshalling of so much information: despite having hordes of voices to sort out and arrange, the narrative always remains clear, the chapter endings compelling the reader onwards. The writers' style isn't showy, but there's no doubt that this is a book by people who know and understand their subject - hardly surprising, as both are intimately acquainted with his work in practice: John Watterson performs as tribute act "Fake Thackray", and Paul Thompson has also sung his fair share of Jake's compositions. 

Which may explain why the many capsule accounts of songs in the book are so satisfying, whetting the appetite by conveying a sense of Thackray's intentions without falling into the trap of quoting from the lyrics at length and spoiling the pleasurable surprise of the recordings exploding in the listener's ears for the first time.

Question: As a result of reading it is this complex man now, to use Arthur Miller's phrase, "wholly known"?

Answer: Despite the multiplicity of voices, no; but maybe we are now as close as it's possible to get. 

This really is a consderable achievement and a great service to all those who have wanted to know more about this beguiling artist.

 

Paul Thompson has asked on social media that people buy a book directly from the publisher, Scratching Shed, rather than a certain well-known online retailer. You can do so here.  I can certainly vouch for the fact that Scratching Shed dispatch their books promptly: I ordered a copy for a friend which arrived two days after placing it.

 

Two Jake Thackray-related posts on this blog: 

 On Again! On Again! or Strangers on a Train

Ralph, William and Jake (and Davey) or Act As Known


 

25 June 2022

25 Glorious Years of Pizza

Today marks 25 years since a play of mine about a pizza delivery man and his determinedly awkward customer was first performed. It was part of a writers' showcase based around food - the theatre producing it had recently moved to new premises in an area associated with eateries. The building's transformation from its previous use had not yet been completed, however, and perhaps because this event took place before the official opening there is little mention of it online. Which seems a pity to me - and I daresay five others might feel the same, though they will have to tell their own stories in their own doo wop-related blogs.

9 June 2022

Jake Thackray biography

 

A biography of Jake Thackray, written with the cooperation of friends and family, is due to be published by Leeds-based company Scratching Shed this August. I don't think anyone will be disappointed.

Paul Thompson, cowriter with John "Fake Thackray" Watterson, recently posted the above image of its cover design on social media advance orders are already being taken - the Scratching Shed website is here. Publication date is August 11th. The hardback book, running to 464 pages, is £20 and post-free in the UK, which sounds like a pretty good deal to me. I read a short sample in draft form and can't wait for the whole thing.

Here's part of the description on the Scratching Shed website:

The book reveals a life as extraordinary his writing: the hard childhood in the terraces of Leeds, remarkable Catholic education and formative years in France and war-torn Algeria; the first career as an inspirational, unorthodox, highly creative teacher; the meteoric development as a writer and performer, and discovery by the BBC; the Abbey Road recordings and impact on The Beatles; the fame and fortune brought by a remarkable television career... and Jake’s rejection of it all.  It is the story of a charismatic, complex, self-effacing man who remained an enigma even to his friends.

 

 Other posts about Jake Thackray:

 On Again! On Again! or Strangers on a Train

 Ralph, William and Jake (and Davey) or Act As Known




8 May 2022

14 Karat Soul's first TV appearance


 

I had despaired of ever seeing it but 14 Karat Soul's first ever TV appearance, on Saturday Night Live on January 24th, 1981, can now be viewed online at the Internet Archive website, which is cause for celebration if you care for this sort of thing.

I saw this line-up around a year or two later in the UK, and for me this will forever be the group. They appeared in the original modest workshop-type production of The Gospel at Colonus and Sister Suzie Cinema at the Edinburgh Fringe, and I saw their normal stage act quite a few times over the next few years in Scotland and England. 

I've written about this experience several times, so I won't rehash it - links below if you care to explore - but the most important point, which I never tire of repeating, is that their subsequent studio recordings were but a pale shadow of the excitement of seeing the group, propelled by the bass voice of Reginald "Briz" Bisbon, performing in theatres. Even now I can't find the words to describe adequately how I felt over the nights of seeing them during a week's residency at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow in the early eighties: there was a moment of what I can only term rough magic during their opening number, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, when the blending of their voices produced ... well, I don't know what. Their acapella single of that song doesn't have the studio effects of later recordings, so ought to be close to that experience, but isn't, at least according to my memory.

16 April 2022

Repeat of Juke in the Back show about the Flamingos


For anyone who doesn't know, Matt the Cat's shows about the Flamingos in his Juke in the Back series are currently being repeated via his website and can be recommended: he plays most of their records and provides a potted version of their story along the way. At present it's Episode One, which covers the group's time on Art Sheridan's Chance Records, their first label (1953-1954);

30 March 2022

Outside Soap: the sad case of the "Eden-ender"

 

When a young soap actor who originates a role is replaced does he or she have any legal recourse? That's the question posed in a new book, Outside Soap, by Charles Hamm, to be published tomorrow. The timing couldn't be better, as a case may soon be going to court: this week a former star has announced his intention to sue for loss of earnings, based on the number of years in which his successor played the role. And if the action is successful that may prove quite a tidy sum, so alarm bells must be ringing in the offices of television companies up and down the land. 

For viewers of British soaps it's a familiar story: a young actor plays a character for ten or fifteen years, often right from the moment of his or her onscreen birth, only to be replaced by - well, not even a lookie-likey in many cases.

13 March 2022

Monkey Bar Business: three Depression-era songs

 

I've already paid tribute to Hubert Gregg but this footnote has become necessary because I've just discovered the details about a record he played on his radio show Thanks for the Memory which had been eluding me for - ohhh, only around the last four decades or so.

29 July 2021

No Place Like Home now being repeated on Forces TV

 

If you have read Robert Webb's memoir How Not to Be a Boy you may remember that the youthful Webb mentions an unlikely source of comedic inspiration: the mainstream sitcom No Place Like Home, which ran for five series on BBC1 in the 1980s.

It's about a middle-aged man, chagrined to find his grown-up children have taken up residence in the family home once again - a bit like Eric Chappell's Home to Roost, on around the same time - only more so, as this put-upon dad is lumbered with four kids and a wife. Not the most obvious sitcom, perhaps, to stir the blood of one who went on to star in a gloriously dark example of the genre but that's what seems to have set the seal on Webb's decision to become a performer.

Not that he offers an unqualified tribute to the ability of its writer, Jon Watkins.

25 July 2021

Bakeries I Have Loved ... and Lost

 [Barney Farmer]


I don't suppose it will be news to many of its former customers that the London bakery chain Percy Ingle's closed all its shops last year. But it certainly came as a shock to me when I made the discovery a few weeks ago. 

Even though the local branch had been shut ever since the first lockdown it didn't occur to me that this might be the end. Call it denial, arrant stupidity, or what you will, but I think I'd vaguely assumed that they were waiting for the final all-clear, reluctant to go head to head with the more widely known rival depicted above, or, I dunno, maybe one of the assistants had got covid or the family-run company was reluctant to put staff at risk, or ... 

In my defence, although the shop had been shuttered there had been no other indication that anything might be afoot, no sign of building work or the interior being stripped or anything - until, that is, one morning a comparatively trendy eaterie was suddenly there in its stead. Which led me to search out the articles online and read the sad details about this situation.

27 June 2021

Cumbrae-Potter Karaoke or A Memory of Christmas Past

 


 

My one and only foray into karaoke (literally "empty glutton", unless I'm thinking of something else) occurred a few Christmases ago, on a Scottish island blessed with several pubs. My companion and I were visiting our friend, whom I'll call Ronaldo; he was working in one of those establishments, and on the first night of our stay we went there - not to sing but to do a recce.

I have to admit that I had come to scoff - or at least, that's what I presumed would be the outcome of my visit. Blessed, or cursed, with a certain amount of knowledge about popular music, and being, furthermore, in possession of two elder brothers, the idea of what is and is not cool, musically speaking, is lodged firmly in the Pismotalitian brain, permitting of no deviation.

Anyway, that first night we perched at the bar, stopping occasionally to listen to what was, in youthful parlance, "going down". Did I splutter into my beer at some of the punters' efforts assailing our ears? Did I then fall to the ground, clutching my stomach while crying out, again and again: "No more! Oh, in God's name, no more!"?

12 June 2021

Just One Hissing Thing After Another


Three months on from the previous posting I hereby declare my "wee phrase" of buying up old cassettes from a well-known auction website exhausted. Not that this means I'm any nearer a conclusion about the wisdom of re-embracing this ancient medium. If I could be said to have embraced it: an air-peck-on-the-cheek, if anything. Even though I must have bought around a dozen I've only listened to a few.

Why the reluctance? Two reasons, one more fanciful than the other. 

21 March 2021

In Which Tape Hisstory Repeats Itself

 


It may be a passing fancy, and in time may go, but I wish to announce that I have re-embraced the humble cassette, that much-loved companion of This Great Nation's former days, and to boast - or confess - that even though I've already got a couple of large  plastic crates piled high with 'em I've been spending most of today buying even more via a well-known auction website. I'm aware that this frenzy could be spent out in a matter of days: I haven't listened to any of my old tapes yet, and as one of those crates was slumbering on a shelf very near my TV it may be that they have become magnetised and unlistenable.

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 ...

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. 

31 December 2020

Last Call for Elevenses

A final selection of eleven posts from the archive to mark eleven years of this blog. Click directly on the image beside each description, rather than the title, 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.
  

2. Up the Swanee tells the story of the dispute between father and son puppeteers Harry and Matthew Corbett; a more faithful account may be found in Geoff Tibballs' biography of Sooty.

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.

 

2 : You Have Two (I Have None) - the Orchids


Like the Flamingos, the Orchids recorded for Al Benson's Parrot Records in the early fifties. They are best known for the disjointed narrative of Newly Wed, beloved of Frank Zappa and others, but You Have Two (I Have None), aka Happiness, which only saw the light of day in the nineties, is equally good. It seems they weren't treated well by Benson, and as a result didn't remain in the business, but they left the world eight sides of the very highest quality. Some discussion of Newly Wed cropped up during my dialogue with Clarke Davis but this piece was the first examination of a doo wop record written especially for the blog. (The image above, taken from the Vocal Group Harmony website, is not of the Orchids but the Five Thrills, the previous group of the Orchids' Gilbert Warren.)


3 : Waterloo Sunset - the Kinks


At some point in 2010 I gave myself permission to stray from the exclusive consideration of doo wop in these pages. This piece about Ray Davies's Waterloo Sunset was part of Gnome Thoughts, an unplanned, ever-expanding, series about David Bowie's early musical influences.

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.

2020


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. (Photograph from 1950 school yearbook, shared by Todd Baptista on social media.)

 

2019

 

In 2019 I interviewed Pete West as part of ongoing research into the songwriter Alan Klein: Pete had been lead guitarist in the group which morphed into "the Al Kline Five" after Alan joined in the late fifties. For several years they played weekend gigs around North London but when the chance of a summer season at Butlins Skegness meant turning pro Pete had to decide whether he wanted to give up the security of his well-paid job ... (Thanks to Ken Aslet for the photographs of the band which illustrate this piece; that's Pete in the foreground above.)

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.

 The Beatles, as the most newsworthy representatives of the new style of music to be heard on TOTP, were half-heartedly tolerated by my mother but actively disliked by my father, who considered their financial success as unfairly earned and saw their creed of pleasure as something dangerous. I recall listening to the White Album for the first time on a brand new Boots stereo bought by my immediate elder brother, and the paternal disapproval over the collage-type insert with bare flesh: "I'm not very happy about that." Mild words - but as Bertie Wooster would have put it, he meant them to sting.

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.

Even if you did see it you may not be aware of the documentary equivalent of bonus tracks available on the PBS website: the raw audio for ten interviews in which director Michael Epstein can be heard gently prompting - and occasionally prodding - interviewees to talk about matters which, in some cases, they haven't discussed publicly before.

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