Thursday, December 21, 2006

Ain't Am Clean?

A moment from the Wattstax festival:

As Larry Shaw, vice president of advertising and publicity at Stax Records and assistant director of the movie version of Wattstax, gazes out across the Los Angeles Coliseum his face is etched with anxiety. To protect the Los Angeles Rams’ pitch the grass is off limits to the reported 112,000, largely African American, crowd packed into the stadium. Yet, despite security being provided by three black organisations (The Watts festival, The Sons Of Watts and the Watts Rangers) people are flooding onto the pitch.

Seven years earlier, in August 1965, Watts had seen an African American uprising during which the L.A. district had been engulfed by flames for five days. That day, in 1972, as the August sun once more beat down, Shaw must have wondered if this “rare opportunity that lets you do something corporately valuable without being guilty of exploitation” that he had written of in the press release was about to turn ugly.

The difference between triumph and disaster is a small fifty-five year old showbiz veteran in a fuchsia pink safari jacket and short pants … The Prince of Dance, the funkiest man alive, the world’s oldest teenager: Mr Rufus Thomas!

Since 1965 all Stax notepaper had borne the legend The Memphis Sound. Thomas, as much as anyone, had helped conceive the sound of Memphis providing the first sizable hit not only for Stax records but also, in 1953, for Sam Phillips fledgling Sun label.

Billing himself as Rufus ‘Hound Dog’ Thomas Jr, Sam Phillips' legendary label enjoyed its first chart success with Bear Cat – a fun answer record to Big Mama Thornton’s classic Hound Dog.

“Me and Sam Phillips? We were tighter than the nuts on Brooklyn Bridgethen.” Thomas told Peter Guralnick in Lost Highway.

Fun though it was Bear Cat prompted a lawsuit from Don Robey owner of Peacock Records which had released Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog a month earlier and Sam Phillips was obliged to part with a substantial sum of money to appease Robey.

The following year Presley hit his stride and it marked the end of Thomas’ recording career at Sun:

“When Presley and Carl Perkins and Cash came along just like he (Phillips) catered to black, he just cut it off and went to white.” Thomas remembered (Lost Highway: Peter Guralnick)

Thomas’ roots in Memphis show business ran deep though. He had worked tent shows with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in 1936:

“I started actually as a tap dancer. That’s how my good timing came about. I was a tap dancer and I used to do some scat singing like Louis (Armstrong), you know all those kind of things. Really I did it all. If it came under the heading of show business I did it.”(Lost Highway: Peter Guralnick).

In the 1940s Thomas hosted the now legendary Amateur Show at the Palace Theatre on Beale Street. Tenor Sax player Herman Green of the Palace Theatre house band recalls:

“Rufus had a partner called ‘Bones’ and they would warm up the audience with an act called ‘Rufus and Bones’. They were kind of a black Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, with Rufus doing the straight lines and ‘Bones’ doing all kinds of crazy things.” (Waking Up In Memphis: Andria Lisle and Mike Evans)

After eleven years, and having witnessed most of the major players in black music at that time take the stage, Thomas left Amateur Hour in a dispute over money:

“I wanted more but I couldn’t get Bones to go ask for it with me. So the man got with Bones and asked him would he work with someone else…he said yes and I got fired.”(Lost Highway: Peter Guralnick).

Still Thomas had other irons in the fire including hosting another amateur show at the Handy Theatre, still with Bones, and perhaps more significantly broadcasting on WDIA The Mother Station of the Negroes.

In 1948 WDIA had introduced a policy of all black announcers playing mostly black music. A 1952 survey showed “that radios, once beyond the means of the average black family had become a standard appliance- in Memphis alone 93 per cent of black households owned a radio and 30 per cent owned two.” (Almost Grown: The Rise Of Rock James Miller).

It was in an attempt to reach that audience that Jim Stewart, head of Satellite (soon to be Stax) records first met Thomas in 1959 whilst pitching The Veltones Feel I’m In Love/ Someday at that point Satellites sole foray into R&B in a catalogue that included You Drive Me Crazy/Say Anything But Not Goodbye by Ray Scott who had authored Billy Lee Riley’s Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll.

In 1960 Jim Stewart leased the old Capitol Theatre on the corner of College and McLemore Ave in Memphis and set about converting it into a recording studio.

Rufus was amongst the first people to arrive at the new studio and brought with him a tape of Cause I Love You, a song that he had written and that he and his daughter Carla performed as a duet. Stewart liked it enough to record it with Booker T Jones on baritone sax and Marvell Thomas, Rufus' son, on piano.

Cause I Love You/Deep Down Inside was issued in 1960 and it forever changed the direction of Jim Stewart’s label and life.

Stewart recalled “Prior to that I had no knowledge of what black music was about. Never heard black music and never even had an inkling of what it was all about. It was like a blind man who suddenly gained his sight. You don’t want to go back, you don’t even look back.” (Soulsville USA Rob Bowman).

Previous Satellite releases had met with indifference but this one actually sold. Indeed it sold well enough to bring Satellite to the attention of Jerry Wexler who leased the track for Atlantic records pop subsidiary Atco and led to a deal whereby Atlantic acquired first refusal on distribution rights for ALL Satellite, and later Stax, recordings.

In 1963 Thomas delivered the track that would set the template for the rest of his career. The Dog was a dance craze record and was quickly followed by Walking The Dog and Somebody Stole My Dog. Although these had all been reasonable sized hits, by 1969 Thomas could have been forgiven for feeling a little neglected at Stax. As Rob Bowman notes in Soulsville USA: “ He had not been invited to go on the Stax /Volt tour of Europe in 1967, he was not asked to perform on the labels 1969 television special and his album, May I Have Your Ticket Please was not finished for the big LP push of spring 1969. He felt that many in the company did not take him seriously as an artist.”

In December of 1969, however, Thomas was put together with the producer Tom Nixon, whom Stax had recently recruited, and immediately the partnership hit with Funky Chicken. This was another dance craze record and the first in a series of records that saw the Nixon/ Thomas partnership chart six times. As Dean Rudland points out in his sleeve notes to The Funkiest Man, at fifty-three, Thomas was ”on the hottest streak of his career”.

It was this recent career revival that ensured Thomas’ presence at Wattstax . . .

When the crowd first start trailing onto the pitch at the end of Breakdown, Thomas lightly remonstrates with them:

“I don’t want nobody on the field – not yet. When I tell you to get on the field then you get on the field and I just might get on the field with you.”

Thomas then goes into the aforementioned Funky Chicken beginning:

“Y'all come on in now
Come right on down front
I got something I want to show you”

Maybe people take this to be the invitation that Thomas had teased them with because what had been a trickle of people turns into flood.

Al Bell, who by 1972 was effectively running Stax records and was the most senior label executive present at Wattstax, recalls:

“The only time I became concerned was when they started coming over the fences and coming out on the field because I didn’t know what that could possibly result in. And Shaw was concerned. I expressed it to Shaw, I said ‘Shaw I’m concerned right here, but the only way were going to get these people off this field is Rufus Thomas. Because Rufus Thomas can control the crowd so you (Larry Shaw) gotta go out there and tell Rufus to talk these people back off this field ‘cause he can do that or we’re gonna have to close the show down.”(Wattstax DVD commentary)

This is exactly what Shaw does, then tensely watchs, as Thomas begins. The music stops and a little hesitantly at first Thomas starts rapping: “Power to the people, let's go to the stands…” some in the stands echo him but it seems distant and half hearted. Nevertheless, the crowd on the pitch is starting to thin. Thomas spots a man waving an inside-out umbrella, more an act of high spirits than a threat, and spotlights him “He don’t mean to be mean he just wants to be seen” he mocks. It turns into a routine “Yeah that’s a brother alright, but I be damned if he be my brother”. Umbrella Man is now alone on the grass mugging trying to extend his moment, but it’s gone and only he doesn’t know it. Thomas has won the crowd, “Now y’all get him off” he orders and once more people flood the pitch but only to jostle Thomas’ anonymous stooge off the grass so the show can go on.

It’s the work of a master and, I suspect, a glimpse of Thomas the tent show minstrel. Only somebody drawing from a deep well of experience could have played a crowd so effectively.

As Al Bell says in his commentary to the DVD edition of Wattstax

“We could always be certain that when Rufus Thomas hit the stage as they say, quote, that he was gonna get the house and he got the house at Wattstax. I mean did he ever get the house at Wattstax! Get the house and control the crowd.”

After Wattstax things were never the same at Stax and the company collapsed in 1975.

Thomas recorded irregularly after the demise of Stax.

1996 saw a sort of bringing together of his two great dance craze songs when he recorded Chicken Dog with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Its hard to believe, when listening to this track, that the former Rabbits Foot Minstral and oldest living teenager was 79 at the time of recording particularly when you hear, right at the start of the track, Thomas leering “I know where I’m going now”.

On 15th December 2001 at St Francis Hospital, Memphis, Rufus Thomas died of heart failure and with him a whole tradition of entertainment.

Further reading here.

In deference to the season you can listen to Rufus Thomas' I'll Be Your Santa, Baby here.

Happy Christmas.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Happy Birthday Wanda Jackson

Described by Nick Tosches as “simply and without contest the greatest menstruating rock ‘n’ roll singer whom the world has ever known” (Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘N’ Roll) Wanda Jackson, The Queen of Rockabilly, was born on 20 October 1937 in Maud, Oklahoma.

Those who saw Wanda at The Luminaire last month can testify that she is still a great rock ‘n’ roll/rockabilly singer. Remarkably, just a month shy of 69, Wanda Jackson was still capable of those feral whoops and guttural yelps that typify her finest work.

But then Wanda Jackson has always been a remarkable woman.

In 1953, whilst still a schoolgirl, Wanda had her own radio show; in spring the following year Hank Thompson (of Humpty Dumpty Heart fame) heard it and invited her to tour with him and his Brazo Valley Boys. With Hanks patronage she was signed first to Decca, for whom she recorded from 1954 to 1956, then to Capitol.

In 1955 Wanda toured with Elvis Presley. Wanda, like everyone and everything else, was changed by Presley.

"Elvis had been talking to me about trying to sing this new rock 'n' roll or rockabilly - I don't think we even had a name for it yet - and I didn't think that I could. I told him, no, I'm just a country singer but it seemed like he knew something I didn't know. He said: 'you can do this, I know you can and you need to!' So... we were working in Memphis and one afternoon he picked me, took me to their house, the one on Audubon, the small house. And we went there and we played records all afternoon, we sang and he was trying to give me the feel for this, the way he sang songs. I was impressed that he just really seemed to care about my career" (Wanda Jackson I Remember Elvis)

Her first record for Capitol, I Gotta Know, prevaricates between country waltz and rockabilly dynamite. It is, I think, a fascinating audio snapshot of a time before rock ‘n’ roll became such a knowable thing. It prickles with mistrust and intrigue. A then unknown Buck Owens played rhythm guitar on it.

From 1956 to 1961 Wanda cut some of the finest rockabilly music you could wish to hear and, in 1957, toured with the racially mixed band Bobby Poe and the Poe Kats who featured Big Al Downing on piano.

‘“Bobby and I would do solo spots,” Downing told Bill Millar, “warming up the audience before Wanda came on. Frankly, there wasn’t as much prejudice as you’d expect even though I’d stand beside her and sing with her. She liked my playing and would introduce me to the audience, which helped.”’ (from Roadkill On The Three-Chord Highway Colin Escott)

It was with the Poe Kats, in 1958, that Wanda recorded the album for Ken Nelson that included Lets Have A Party which eventually became a surprise Top 40 hit in August 1960, by which time Wanda was playing Vegas lounges.

In 1961 she released the self penned country song Right Or Wrong (the flipside Funnel Of Love is now a live favourite amongst Wanda’s fans) followed by In The Middle Of A Heartache for which Wanda wrote the lyrics. Both are appealing Patsy Cline-ish numbers and both dented the Top 30.

In October that year Wanda married Wendell Goodman, who also became her manager in 1970. They became born again Christians in 1972 and Wanda wished to become a country gospel singer. Capitol were less enamoured of the idea and Wanda was released from her contract. She then pursued her vocation as a singer and Christian on small specialist labels such as Word and Myrrh.

With Capitol from 1961 to 1973 Wanda was a regular on the country charts. Although these tracks tend to lack the coruscating urgency of Wanda’s rockabilly sides they amply demonstrate the breadth of her talent as she adapted to changes in country fashions. It is these tracks which make up the Ace CD The Very Best Of The Country Years and it was the promotion of said CD which saw Wanda rockin’ up a storm at a packed Luminaire. Watch some of it here, courtesy of Richard Gibson .

Further reading here and here.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Soule Man

George Soule is best known, where he is known at all, for the 1973 Fame single Get Involved. Soule originally cut this George Jackson penned call to action as a demo:
Rick Hall decided it was worth a shot as a record and did his thing getting it ready for release (overdubs, my vocal, horns etc.)” remembers George.The record made the black Top 20 and the black television stations came calling but he felt he had to decline their invitation, because George Soule wasn’t, as so many had assumed, a black artist.
As he told Barney Hoskyns, for his book Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted:
“I just didn’t feel comfortable being a white artist giving this black message.”

In 1965 Soule had appeared, together with Ray Charles, on Jack Good's American television show Shindig singing a number called I Love The Way You Love.
“I would like to tell you I was on the show because of something I did in the music world at that time,” says Soule “The truth of the matter is it was arranged by my mother who grew up with Tom Moore, President of ABC TV. All it took was a phone call and I was on Delta flying to CA.”
The following year George produced I Gotta Find A Way / It’s Over My Head by the Six Soul Survivors on the small Meridian based Rap label. Paul Davis, of the Six Soul Survivors, had written both numbers.

In 1967 Tommy Couch founder of Malaco Records opened a recording studio in a disused Pepsi Cola warehouse in Jackson Mississippi:

‘Almost the first people to drop in were white Meridian songwriters Paul Davis and George Soule. “They were both kinda like Dan Penn,” says Tommy; “country and bluesy at the same time”’ (Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted, Barney Hoskyns)

They brought with them black singer Eddie Houston:
“Eddie Houston worked for the Soule' family business here in Mississippi as a shipping clerk. He was aware of my interest in the music business and presented me with a demo tape of him and his band. I took the tape to Tom Couch and we decided to do a speculative session on Eddie.”Capitol Records liked what they heard and issued Simon Says (a Soule/Davis composition), “The Capitol release on Eddie was a first for Tom and myself. It was the first master we ever leased to a major record label.” says Soule.

That same year Cozy Corley, who was the first artist Malaco had recorded, cut the Soule/ Davis composition Warm Loving Man.

1969 was a big year for Soule. Tetragrammaton Records released his first record as a singer Mississsippi River/ Talking 'bout Love. The b-side was a Soule/ Davis original. Mississippi River was also Paul Davis’ solo debut released the same year on the Bang label.

Also that year Floyd Brown enjoyed regional success in New Orleans with Someone the first song Soule had ever had published and recorded:
“I co-wrote the song with a life long friend Richard Cherry when we were both teenagers. The first recording was by Sue Thompson on Hickory in 1964. Later, Frank Ifield recorded the same song for Hickory. Also Etta James cut it at one point years later. There have been several cuts on the song. It never has been a hit, but, the folks at Acuff-Rose Publishing used to kid me and say it was the only soul song in their catalog.”

Most importantly, in December ’69, Jerry Wexler picked up four Soule compositions.
“At that time I decided to move to Muscle Shoals from Jackson, MS. I remember the session (for Saving It All For You Judy Clay), and how exciting it was to have Mr. Wexler use my material. I was not involved as a player on the session but was present and watched Mr. Wexler do what he does so well, produce records.”

As the Seventies dawned Soule cut So Glad You Happened To Me for the Bell label.

‘“George could really sing, he sounded totally black, says his one time writing partner Terry Woodford. “A real insecure guy, but very talented. I signed him as a writer and singer and produced his first record for Bell then he produced me on Cottillon” (Say It One Time For the Brokenhearted, Barney Hoskyns)

Soule recalled: “"So Glad You Happened To Me" did well in Washington D.C. upon release but didn't get off the ground anywhere else.”

It was with Woodford that Soule penned soul favourite You Can't Stop A Man In Love which has been recorded by Reuben Howells, Carl Carlton and Bobby Womack amongst others.

One of my favourite Woodford/ Soule compositions is Paul Thompson’s Special Kind of Woman (B Side of What I Don’t Know Wont Hurt , also co written by Soule, Volt 4042) Says George “The Paul Thompson session was a spec session in hopes of securing a record deal for Paul with a good company. After completion of the session and mixing the master was leased to Volt Records, a division of Stax in Memphis.”

In 71 he issued We’re Into Something Good on Great Western Gramophone Records as George Glenn. “Glenn is my ex-wife's maiden name. We thought at the time since everyone was having problems pronouncing my last name correctly we’d use "Glenn" instead of "Soule' ". (its pronounced Soolay by the way)

The following year saw his first Fame release I’ll Take Care of You.

In addition to releasing Get Involved, 1973 saw Soule co-write Stony with Dan Penn at the latter’s Beautiful Sounds studio. It is apparently in a similar vein to Penn’s "Nobody's Fool" album of that year though it is not included on that album. Soule also contributed the title track to Percy Sledge’s highly thought of I’ll Be Your Everything album issued by Phil Walden’s Capricorn label that year.

In 1975 he produced Frustrated Housewife by the late Ava Aldridge at the Music Mill in Muscle Shoals.
“A speculative session had been recorded on Ava and MGM was one of the companies we dropped by to pitch Ava's masters to. We made a deal for Ava and the album "Frustrated Housewife" was released on MGM as a result. The title track of the LP was used in the movie Fighting Mad starring Peter Fonda.” says Soule. He also wrote Woman Without Love with Ava Aldridge who he remembers as “a songwriter's songwriter, a great vocalist and friend.”

In the years that followed George Soule busied himself as a freelance studio man and songwriter.

In 1992 Soule contributed to Etta James' The Right Time album:“Jerry Wexler came to Muscle Shoals Sound to produce Etta James. At that time I was still living in the Muscle Shoals area and visited the studio on a regular basis. “Knowing him from his visits in the early 70's, he invited me to visit with him in the office while he made preparations for the Etta James session. He asked me how I was doing etc...and if my catalog of songs were producing enough income for a living. After he finished the tracks and lead vocals on Ms. James, he asked some of us local singers to put together a backup group… That was the last session I participated in before moving back to Mississippi.”

And that was that, more or less. (In 1994, together with Ava Aldridge, he sang background vocals on Dan Penn’s Do Right Man album.)

Then in 2003 Casual records released an excellent compilation called Country Got Soul which featured Soule’s Get Involved alongside the work of such artists as Larry Jon Wilson, Tony Joe White and the late Eddie Hinton.

Such was the interest generated by this record that early the following year its compiler Jeb Loy Nichols got together several of the featured artists including George Soule at Dan Penn’s Nashville studio for a new album Testifying . I’m Only Human written and sung by George Soule is, to these ears, the stand out track on this outstanding album.

In 2005 he performed at the Muscle Shoals night as a part of The Barbican’s 'It Came From Memphis' festival.

In July 2008 I had a quick chat with Larry Jon Wilson, who was in the UK promoting his eponymous new album. Conversation came round to the Barbican gigs and Wilson said before going on Soule was too nervous "to spit" and that Bonnie (Bramlett, who was also on the bill that night) was pretty worried. Wilson was determined to look out for Soule whom he called "that cajun guy" :" I introduced him (at the Barbican), as a man who CAN sing in key that made him laugh and he was able to perform after that" recalled Wilson.

Soule went on to perform a number of songs including a rather lovely version of The Dark End Of The Street.

All of which is a long winded way of telling you that at 60 years of age George Soule, one of the great lost voices of blue eyed soul, is releasing his first album today (tomorrow in the US). Recorded in Nashville and produced by Mark Nevers , it’s called Take A Ride and is issued by the excellent Zane records. Listen to a bit here then rush to your nearest independent record shop and buy it!!

(By the way I have, like George Soule, been a member of The Southern Soul list for some years now and those quotes not taken from Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted are taken from messages George Soule sent to that group. Thanks are therefore due to the Southern Soul moderator and listees)

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Happy Birthday Hank Williams

Hank Williams was born in Mount Olive Alabama on 17th September 1923. He died just 29 years later. Had he lived he would have been 83 today. Imagine him sitting politely through yet another birthday special, coming to you live from Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium with, say, The Dixie Chicks presenting a ghastly parade of contemporary country luminaries paying insincere tribute to the Grand Old Man of The Grand Ole Opry, (all that earlier sacking business and other unpleasantness conveniently forgotten)? Actually it IS quite easy to imagine, country audiences love bad boys and the country music establishment, with whom Hank had fallen out shortly before his untimely demise, were quick to claim him after his death. But I prefer to believe Hank would have remained too ornery for any cheesy all star tribute.

Your Cheatin’ Heart is my favourite Hank Williams song. In fact Your Cheatin’ Heart is quite possibly my favourite song of all time. I can’t think of a version of it I don’t like. Presley’s 1965 version with The Jordanaires isn’t great.Elvis refused to overdub it, deeming it unfit for release and in truth the King turns in a performance that borders on self parody. A missed opportunity but the song survived it.

Your Cheatin’ Heart was recorded at Hank's last ever recording session on 23rd September 1952. Williams' second wife claimed that he wrote the song about his first wife, Audrey, from whom he had split in January 1952 after a passionate, and sometimes torturous, relationship.

‘Hank started telling me about his problems with his ex-wife, Audrey. He said that one day her cheatin' heart would pay. Then he said, "Hey, that'd make a good song! Get out my tablet, Baby; me and you are gonna write us a song!" Just about as fast as I could write, Hank quoted the words to me in a matter of minutes.’ (Sing Your Heart Out,Country Boy Dorothy Horstman)

In August of 1952, Hank had been fired from The Grand Ole Opry having been deemed unreliable. In October of that year he wed his second wife, Billie Jean Jones, not once but three times (twice before a paying audience at a sold out Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans).Sometime on 31st December 1952/1st January 1953, Hank Williams passed away in the back of his Cadillac. His funeral was held in Montgomery, Alabama on 4th January 1953. The following month MGM issued Kaw Liga with Your Cheatin’ Heart on the flipside. Both sides became number 1 hits.

On 7th January 1953 Joni James recorded Your Cheatin’ Heart for MGM. The next day Frankie Laine recorded the song for Columbia Records. Laine's version was released in the wake of James', which hit number 2 in the Billboard pop charts, but nevertheless it reached a respectable number 18.

This was the version of Your Cheatin' Heart I first heard. I think it was some time in the mid- seventies, on The Best of Frankie Laine (Hallmark Records HM 515) an album my parents had bought on cassette tape to play in the car. Laine’s robust singing style didn’t much appeal to me then but Your Cheatin’ Heart struck an immediate chord, though it confused as much as it delighted me.

Your Cheatin’ Heart is a confusing song. The confusion starts right with the opening three words: “Your cheating heart…” Hank himself seems to weigh each word more or less equally but others have greater difficulty. Frankie Laine requires an enormous whooshing breath before he can bring himself to sing these words, Gene Vincent stutters, singing “Your cheat, cheatin’ heart…” whilst in his 1962 version Nat 'King' Cole, perhaps uncomfortable with the words accusatory tone, opts out altogether leaving the opening lines to a bland chorus of girl singers before finally joining in at line three, “But sleep won't come the whole night through...”.

Once one gets inside this song it becomes apparent what a strange, clever and frankly quite nasty piece of work it is. Initially it seems a fairly standard exercise in self pity but, in fact, Your Cheatin’ Heart is a cuckold’s feverish revenge fantasy. The singer wishes pain and heartache upon their former lover but in so doing only confirms their own misery and loneliness: “You'll walk the floor the way I do…” It is impossible to escape the feeling that the sufferings detailed in the song are actually those of the narrator not their subject. These are future events, wished for rather than actual: “Your cheatin' heart will pine some day”, it says though in the songs present it does not seem as if the faithless ex suffers at all.

Incredibly Hank's career really lasted only five short years but in that time he enriched The Great American Songbook with songs as breathtaking as Cold Cold Heart , I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry and, of course, Your Cheatin' Heart.

Hear Hank's timeless version here .
I'm not Sure Hank Would've Done It This Way but I love this 1969 version by James Brown.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

We're Gonna Rock 'n' Roll All The Way To The Stars

I am excited to report that a modified version of this piece will be appearing in the October 2013 issue of His Vintage Life magazine.

On January 30th 1957 at Sun Studios, 706 Union Avenue, a kind of alchemy took place.
A dumb song, Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll by one Ray Scott was transformed from kitsch fluff to rockabilly gold by the sheer intensity of its performance. On piano that day, an as yet little known, Jerry Lee Lewis but at the microphone, singing with a devilish conviction that belies the songs nonsense lyrics was Billy Lee Riley!

Without Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll, with its campy lyrics, monster movie screams and insanely committed performance contemporary music would be a duller, less strange place.As no less an authority than Greil Marcus wrote of it (in the notes to the 2000 edition of Mystery Train) "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll.. [was] of the weirdest of early rock 'n' roll records - and early rock 'n' roll records were weird"!

Together with Riley’s cover of Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson’s Red Hot and his own composition Pearly Lee, both of which were also recorded that fateful day in Memphis, Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll forms the foundation of the Billy Lee Riley story. It is a story as labyrinthine and surprising as any in the history of American roots music.

Born in 1933, of Irish/Cherokee stock Riley grew up in Osceala Arkansas. The family were poor and Riley’s father, a house painter by trade, and his elder sister would pick cotton to help make ends meet. At one point things got so bad the family were reduced to living in a tent for a year.

Blues was the young Riley’s first love- as he recalled in the sleeve notes to his 1992 Blue Collar Blues album- “I was raised mainly around the old gut bucket blues. Those days we couldn't listen to blues on radio, no one played it. I used to hang around and listen to all the black guys playing blues” By the age of six he was already an accomplished harmonica player.

In 1948 a 15 year old Billy Lee Riley lied about his age and joined the US army. Discharged in 1953 he married the following year and moved to Memphis in 1955. It was here fate, in the shape of ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement, stepped in.

Clement, together with Ronald ‘Slim’ Wallace, had built a recording studio in the latter’s garage. In March 1956 they cut their first record, with Billy Lee Riley on vocals, Trouble Bound on one side and Think Before You Go on the flip.

Clement took the tapes to Sam Phillips,founder of Sun records and forever known as the man who discovered Elvis, to have an acetate master made. Sam liked Trouble Bound enough to want to release it as a Sun record conditional on the country sounding Think Before You Go being replaced with a more rocking tune. Riley obliged by penning Rock With Me Baby.

James Van Eaton played drums, Marvin Pepper bass and Roland Janes guitar on Rock With Me Baby.Post Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll this group became known as The Little Green Men and together with multi instrumentalist Riley they became the Sun studios house band, playing on numerous pioneering rock ‘n’ roll records.

Billy Lee Riley’s blistering version of Red Hot was tipped for the top by no lesser an authority than Alan Freed and legendary Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips (a man whose footnote in history was assured when he became the first to play an Elvis record on air) played it. A lot. As Memphis music maverick Jim Dickinson recalled in Robert Gordon’s book It Came From Memphis Red Hot by Billy Lee Riley- I didn't realize that wasn't a hit until I moved to Texas for college.”

And why wasn't it a hit? Speaking in 2001 to Brian Smith of the Phoenix New Times newspaper Riley insisted “Red Hot was going to become a national hit.... I saw the orders; there were orders for a lot of records. He (Sam Phillips) got on the ‘phone right in front of me and said ‘we’re not shipping Red Hot were shipping Great Balls Of Fire instead’”.

So in 1958 a disgruntled Riley left Sun for the first time and recorded a single on Brunswick. Produced by Owen Bradley Rockin’ On The Moon was, presumably, intended to capture again that Outer Space/ Flying Saucer magic. Despite interest from RCA he was persuaded to return to Sun for another couple of releases before leaving again in 1960.

There then followed a bewildering array of independent releases, some under his own name, others under an equally bewildering array of pseudonyms. There are many gems in Riley’s wayward discography of this time but, for me, none surpass Shimmy Shimmy Walk Parts 1 & 2. Issued in 1962 on the Dodge label and credited to The Megatons this instrumental is a steaming slab of swampy southern soul swagger that wouldn’t have disgraced Booker T and the MG’s themselves.

Talking of whom…it was after a weekend session with Billy Lee Riley at the Stax studios that Booker T and the MG’s were born. In Rob Bowman’s book Soulsville USA Steve Cropper recalled that day: “We were sitting around waiting after the last cut to find out if we were gonna do another take. Billy and Jim(Stewart-co founder of Stax) decided that was it, that was good enough for what Billy wanted and when Jim went to hit the talkback to tell us ‘Hey guys, that’s it, go home’ we were just jamming on this blues thing.” That blues thing became Green Onions. (In 1972 Stax did issue a Billy Lee Riley single, on its "white" HIP subsidiary, Family Portrait/Going Back to Memphis it was not,however, recorded at Stax famous East McLemore Avenue studios)

Sometime later in ‘62 Riley moved to the west coast and became a sought after session musician. Sessions included, amongst many others, playing bass on The Beach Boys Help Me Rhonda and bringing some proper southern harmonica blues to Ohio- born Dean Martin’s waxing of Lee Hazlewood’s Houston.

Riley moved back to the south in 1966. In 1968 Riley recorded Happy Man for Atlantic records. Covered as Otis Smith's "Down The Road",this brass heavy track was a favourite of Northern Soul DJ Guy Hennigan at Stafford allnighters.

The following year found Riley back at Sun, although by now the label was owned by Shelby Singleton, for a further two singles:Kay / Lookin' For My Baby and Pilot Town, La. / Working On The River.Both singles were recorded for Sun International in Florida and both are appealling stabs at country soul.

His 1971 version of A Thing About You Baby, produced by Chips Moman, was selling well until that most celebrated of Sun records alumni, Elvis Presley, released his version. Sick of it all Riley quit the music business in 1973. For a while.

Coaxed out of self imposed exile to play the 1979 Memphis in May festival Riley was once again seduced by the siren call of music. Arriving to a Europe in the grip of a rockabilly revival later that year, Riley was amazed to find himself revered by this new wave of old school rock ‘n’ roll fans. Still it wasn’t until 1991 that Riley returned to music full time.

And then Bob Dylan came a-calling. By this time Riley was once more living in Arkansas and as he told his local paper: “Bob said I was his favourite singer and that he had been looking for me since 1985, he’d even been to my old house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee looking for me.” When Riley opened for Dylan at Little Rock Arkansas in 1992 Dylan introduced him as “my hero” and was visibly thrilled by his set. Curiously, earlier in his career. Riley had covered three Dylan songs (Blowin’ in the Wind, Like a Rolling Stone and Mr Tambourine Man) on his 1966 Funk Harmonica album.

When Riley was inducted to the Arkansas Walk of Fame in March 2000; letters from Dylan, Sam Phillips and The Smithsonian Institute were read out, all hailing him as a pioneer and seminal influence. Some consolation, perhaps, for a career typified by missed opportunities and poor timing.

Despite having a lousy band backing him Billy Lee showed he could still “rock ‘n’ roll all the way to the stars” at The Barbican’s “It Came From Memphis” festival in April last year,from whence the picture that accompanies this article came.

Further reading here and here. Listen here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Good Morning Captain...Ha,Ha

Welcome to my first ever stab at blogging.