25.2.20

THE LEGENDARY SAM COOKE



Prompted by a discussion on a Rock’s Back Pages podcast, for the past week or two I have immersed myself in the music of Sam Cooke, and not for the first time.
         I recall first hearing Sam on the juke box in a coffee bar in Skipton, my home town, when I was about 12 and big on Elvis, Buddy and the Everlys. I liked Little Richard and Chuck Berry too, but Cooke was the first black singer that really got to me as a singer and not just as a rock’n’roller, which he wasn’t anyway. He was a gospel singer who moved into pop and in so doing became an innovator of soul music. ‘Only Sixteen’, ‘Wonderful World’ and ‘Cupid’ were pop songs, beautifully sung, as sweet as anything I’d ever heard, and I bought them as 7” singles on HMV and RCA. All the rest of the singles I bought, or was given, in those days were chosen because I liked the song or the performer but with Sam Cooke it was simply because I loved the sound of his voice, the way he seemed to float through the words and incorporate a sort of spontaneous yodel at the end of a line, a ‘whoa-ho-ho-wo’ signature phrase that I’ve never heard anywhere else.  
         A year or two later I bought ‘Twistin’ The Night Away’ too, and then The Beatles arrived and Sam got killed so I forgot all about him until one evening in 1974 when I was in my apartment in New York watching TV. Up popped an ad for The Legendary Sam Cooke, a triple-LP vinyl set, so I sent off for it, enclosing a cheque for something like $3.99. It was the first Sam Cooke album I’d ever bought, one of a handful of records I actually did buy in those days since my job as MM’s US editor brought an avalanche of free records on an almost daily basis.
         As soon as The Legendary Sam Cooke arrived I put disc one on my turntable and was drawn back to Sam and my old coffee bar, and I played the hell out of all three discs for the next year or two, often quietly in the background as I was writing or reading. In December 1975 I interviewed Bobby Womack who was once a protégé of Cooke, playing in his band and – scandalously – marrying his widow within three months of Cooke’s death. The interview was mainly about Womack’s brief association with The Faces, led by Cooke aficionado Rod Stewart of course, and I felt reluctant to mention Cooke to Womack, as if I was digging up something he might not want to talk about. In the event he talked a bit about Sam without me having to prompt him.
         The RBP Podcast led me to buy Peter Guralnick’s book Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, a masterly biography of the singer that I finished reading last weekend, and as read it I listened again to Cooke’s music, this time on the three-CD set The Essential Sam Cooke, which I’d had for years, and two CDs I bought while reading, one by The Soul Stirrers, the gospel sextet for whom Cooke sang before he turned to secular music, and Live At The Harlem Square Club where his band featured the great King Curtis on sax. In truth no two Sam Cooke records could be so different, from the sacred to the profane in one giant leap. In some ways Sam’s voice had toughened up by 1963, when the live album was recorded, but then again it seems to me that as he matured Sam employed a different, raspier, voice on stage than he did in the studio. This, the live voice, is the one that so influenced Rod. “Who knows, if there weren’t a Sam, there might not have been a Rod,” he writes on the reverse of the CD’s most recent package.
         Dream Boogie reveals that although Sam was the son of a pastor he was no saint. He fathered several children before he married (twice). He liked his whiskey and his women but he wasn’t into drugs. He was careless with his money, too generous to friends, but was an uncompromising perfectionist in the studio, taking immense care over his recordings, take after take, which are analysed in great depth by Guralnick. He wrote most of his own hits, usually on an acoustic guitar, and soon realised the benefits of controlling his own music publishing. He had interesting encounters with Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammed Ali), Malcolm X, Jackie Wilson and others singers of the era. Elvis was a fan and once talked to LC, Sam’s brother, about Sam, “for 20 minutes. He knew his gospel music”.
         The book also reveals that my old editor at Melody Maker, Ray Coleman, in New York in June 1964 to cover Sam’s opening at the Copacabana, encountered a slightly tipsy Sam in the bar at the Warwick Hotel. “The Beatles are clever. They sell emotion,” he told Ray. Sam was among the first to predict – and welcome – the British Invasion. When I interviewed Bobby Womack I asked him about the Stones’ recording of ‘It’s All Over Now’ which Womack wrote for his group The Valentinos. “Y'know... I didn't dig it at all when I knew the Stones were doing that song,” he told me, confirming what Guralnik has written. “That was my first record and it was a hit and I didn’t want to know about no cover version. It was Sam Cooke that told me and he was happy because he had the publishing, but I didn't care about the Rolling Stones... no... I said, ‘Let them get their own songs together man’ but they did it and I didn’t understand why Sam was happy until I got the first cheque.”
         I never knew Ray had met Sam and if I had I’d have asked him about it.
         I did know that in the last year of his life Sam’s business affairs became managed by Allen Klein who was brought on board to straighten out Sam’s tangled finances. Klein managed to extract money that was owed to Sam and seems to have loved him like a son, and Guralnick steers well clear of any conspiracy theories that suggest his tragic death at the age of 33 was anything other than the outcome of a chain of unwise but disastrous circumstances. Sam changed labels, from Specialty to Keen to RCA, breaking contracts in the process, and was involved in lawsuits with disgruntled label owners. He could be abrupt, occasionally short-tempered, and he no doubt upset a few people by insisting on following his own path, managing his career the way he wanted to, but he didn’t make enemies to the extent that they might have wanted him dead. He was too nice a man for that. 
         Running parallel to Sam’s story in Dream Boogie is the best account of life on the chitlin’ circuit – the clubs where black musicians earned their living, usually in cash – that I’ve read anywhere, and also the gospel circuit where women were especially welcoming to the many competing vocal groups that praised the Lord in song. The book is also littered with instances of racism directed at Sam and other black performers during an era when segregation and brutality were rife, especially in the southern states. It was this ugly aspect of life in America for people of colour that gave birth to what is nowadays regarded as Sam’s masterpiece, the sublime ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, inspired by Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have Dream’ speech at Washington DC in August 1963, which became an anthem of the Civil Right Movement, covered by many.
         But over and above these subplots in the all too short life of Sam Cooke, what all this listening and research has done is to impress on me yet again that he really was the greatest soul singer who ever lived. I didn’t know that when I was 12, only that I loved his voice, a voice that still charms me over 60 years later.

14.2.20

BRYAN FERRY – LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL, 1974




Viewed at first with some suspicion by traditionalists, the Roxy Music project began as a hybrid that updated old influences while forging ahead into unexplored areas of music, style and ideas that shifted the same axis David Bowie was tilting, albeit without quite the same extravagant allure. Roxy were sharp operators who attracted the interest of Melody Maker by sending a demo tape of their songs to our assistant editor Richard Williams, then also the presenter of BBC2’s Old Grey Whistle Test, before they’d even signed to Island Records. Liking what he heard, Richard took an interest in their career that boosted their fortunes but the truth is we were all captivated by their flair and ingenuity. (Indeed, it was Richard's review of this album on his The Blue Moment blog, that alerted me to its merits.) 
         It is sometimes forgotten that Eno was a core member of the original Roxy quintet but when he quit after their second album to develop his own peculiar strand of music-making, it was only a matter of time before Bryan Ferry, their equally distinctive lead singer, did something similar, though in his case it was to follow a solo career parallel to his work with the group.
         On the evidence of this terrific, high-energy live album, recorded soon after Ferry declared his independence, it was a sensible move. Whatever else they might be accused of, Roxy never lacked good taste in musical influences, and Ferry’s choice of material on this set suggests that he was largely the architect of this. Captured during his three-night stint at London’s RAH in December 1974, it is notable not just for the exceptional playing by the group of skilled musicians he assembled to back him up but also for the varied, personal and impeccable songs, all bar two of them covers, he chose to perform.
         Two years into his career as Roxy’s languid, lounge-lizardish lead singer, Ferry might have been expected to adopt the persona of a crooner in his solo efforts, updating the Sinatra-Como-Bennet songbook with revisions based on the electronic touch that Eno brought to the first Roxy album and his own dreamy, slippery vocal styling. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. He might have dressed in a tuxedo but he was more Elvis than Sinatra, offering up a full-tilt rock’n’roll show, its momentum decelerating only for his elegant interpretations of the two oldest songs in the set, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (from 1933) and ‘These Foolish Things’ (1935).


         Nine of the album’s 14 tracks come from Ferry’s first solo album These Foolish Things, released in 1973, four from his second Another Time Another Place (1974), with one, ‘A Really Good Time’, from Roxy’s Country Life LP, the only nod to his day job. 
         The musicians launch into the opener, ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, with more ferocity but less subdued menace than The Rolling Stones and it’s clear from the sinewy guitar fills, played by either John Porter or Phil Manzanera, and the enthusiasm of backing vocalists Vicki Brown, Doreen Chanter and Helen Chappell, that sitting down at the RAH that night was optional. Thereafter my preferred tracks include a snappy ‘Baby I Don’t Care’, the Elvis song whose rumbling bass line is perfectly reproduced by John Wetton; ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, Brian Wilson’s medium-paced and oh so lovely redemptive song; ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’, Smokey’s much covered Motown R&B hit; and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, the Dylan song given a similar angry reading to that of its composer. The Roxy ballad ‘A Really Good Time’ flaunts the same ominous discords as the group version and delivers the same punch, a warning about a surfeit of pleasure, with sinister foreboding. Sequencing it right before ‘The In Crowd’ was no doubt deliberate. Nevertheless, it’s hard to differentiate between tracks as the energy level is maintained throughout, a reflection on the muscularity of the band that also includes Eddie Jobson on keyboards and Paul Thompson on drums.
         Packaged in a handsome booklet that contains top quality black and white pictures from the concert and an unusually literate essay by Roxy’s policy advisor Simon Puxley*, the album is a reminder that Bryan Ferry was a potent if slightly disquieting presence on the UK’s music scene before his social ambitions moved in the same direction as Joe Lampton in Room At The Top.

 The photograph was scanned from the CD booklet. 



* Simon Puxley, who died in 1999, was a PhD and one of only two writers who did a runner on me while I was commissioning editor at Omnibus Press. An amiable if absent-minded intellectual, he took an advance to write a book on The Pretenders. I never saw him again. When I couldn’t reach him by phone I called round at the address in Shepherd’s Bush he’d given on the contract. The door was answered by his wife. “If you find him tell the fucker not to return here if he values his life,” she said, or words to that effect.

12.2.20

DR FEELGOOD AT THE ORANGE FESTIVAL, FRANCE, August, 1975.


Stationed in New York for most of 1975 and all of 1976 I missed UK punk but felt its blast from The Ramones and their ilk down at CBGBs. Nevertheless I caught a whiff of what was happening in the UK in August of 1975 when, briefly relieved of my job as Melody Maker’s US Editor, I was exposed to Dr Feelgood during a three-day festival that MM editor Ray Coleman sent me to cover at Orange, near Avignon in France.
         Staged in a spectacular Roman amphitheatre where gladiators once fought, it promised much but delivered less due to several star name no-shows, bands running late and interminable delays between sets. Coupled with the hard stone seats, it’s not surprising there were outbreaks of ill-feeling amidst the crowd. Still, a few incidents stick in my memory and I was reminded of my trip to Orange when the other day I chanced on my review of the Feelgoods on the website Rock’s Back Pages, of which more later. 


         I recall watching a set by Fairport Convention but whatever enjoyment I felt was tempered by an altercation I’d had earlier in the day with their bass player Dave Pegg in the backstage bar. Pegg, not in the first flush of sobriety, took exception to an MM review of his group’s last LP, and decided to vent his spleen by pouring a pint of beer over my head. I too had drink taken and this emboldened me to retaliate, not least because I wasn’t the author of the review that had so inflamed him. So I bought a pint and went over to where Pegg was sitting and poured it over his head. He was restrained from thumping me by others in his party. I think we made up later.
         The Fairports appeared on the first evening of the Festival, a Friday, and they were followed on stage by John Cale who was billed to appear with Nico. In the event Nico elected to perform solo later in the evening, but I liked Cale whose acquaintance I’d made in New York. I also felt that he, and not Lou Reed, was the key musician in the Velvets. Idiosyncratic to a tee, Cale wore what today would be called a onesie, loose and unbuttoned to the waist, and after his set he walked straight off stage and carried on walking, striding purposefully past everyone backstage, out of the arena, up a hill and on into the town. I alone decided to follow him, maybe 20 or 30 yards or so behind, curious as to his intentions. When he reached the town he went into a bar, ordered a drink and sat down. He was still dressed in his distinctive stage wear but no one gave him a second thought, so I went into the same bar, ordered a beer and sat down alongside him.

John Cale on stage at Orange

         “Hello Chris. What are you doing here?”
         “Hello John. Taking a break from New York. I enjoyed your set.”
         “Thanks.”
         “Er, what’s with leaving the arena and heading straight for this bar.”
         “I didn’t like the crowds backstage.”
         “Fair enough. I didn’t like them much either. I have to go back though. I’m supposed to be covering the show for MM.”
         “Rather you than me. You don’t have any money do you? I forgot to grab some on my way out.”
         I handed John a few francs. “Thanks. Bye.”
         “Bye John.”
         I walked back to the arena, which wasn’t far, but was refused entry by the guardian of the backstage door who didn’t believe I was from MM. Fortunately my plight was noticed by Patsy Collins, who worked for Artists Services, bodyguards to the stars, who knew me from past encounters, and he eased my entry in a manner that comes naturally to straight-talking Cockneys built like brick shithouses. That night he was working for Bad Company, the headliners, whose customary professional but rather predictable set was sadly diminished by a surfeit of the local speciality, full-bodied red wine. I heard later that some of their entourage were involved in a bust-up in a restaurant in the town. No doubt Patsy sorted it out.
         Back at the festival the following morning I was wondering what the day would bring after yesterday’s adventures. I wasn’t to know it but I was to be knocked sideways by an act I hadn’t seen before, so to finish this little post I’ll quote my MM review verbatim:

Wilko and Lee on stage at Orange

         On paper, Saturday night looked to be the least attractive evening of the festival but it was, in fact, a triumph for Dr Feelgood, who received the biggest ovation of any act throughout the three days. Unfortunately, I missed John Martyn's opening set, but the general consensus of opinion was good by the time I arrived and the Feelgoods took the stage.
         The band, who had flown over in a small plane chartered by the festival promoters, were an absolute knock-out, providing an object lesson to bands who flounder in complexity for complexity's sake.
         The Feelgoods were so damn simple you just had to prick up your ears and listen as three-minute (!) songs were punched out with fire and drive and a certain amount of self-parody.
         The crowd erupted as they thundered along, never hesitating for a second, like an express train on a quick inter-city route. 'Doctor Feelgood' itself brought the audience to their feet, and they stayed up for the closing sequence of 'I'm A Hog For You Baby', 'There's A Riot Goin' On' and the closer 'Route 66'.
         For five minutes they cheered, but the Feelgoods never returned, and when the crew began to dismantle their equipment the cheers turned to hostile jeers and whistles. Procol Harum had the unenviable task of following, but the immediate danger was forestalled with a seemingly interminable pause between the two acts.
         Thus, when Procol finally appeared, well over an hour after Dr. Feelgood left, they were welcomed with a certain feeling of relief.

The next day, the Sunday, Lou Reed failed to appear which was a shame as I’d like to have contrasted his set with John Cale’s. Even better would have been them appearing together, but I’d have to wait until 1993 to see that.  

All images sourced from the internet.

8.2.20

SLADE SPLIT!


I was disappointed to learn last week that Slade have finally split up – after 50 years together according to The Sun, the newspaper of record for those with short memories. Other papers have carried the story but theres nothing like Britains best-selling red top tabloid to get to the heart of the matter, and it would be remiss of me, their official biographer, not to comment. 
         Firstly, along with the group themselves, their many fans and probably everyone else not employed on The Sun’s news desk, I had been under the clearly mistaken impression that they split up about 30 years ago. The precise date of their disbandment is hard to pin down insofar as it was a gradual separation but Noddy Holder, Jim Lea, Dave Hill and Don Powell last played a (paying) gig together in 1984, and since then – apart from that Fan Club appearance in April, 1991, at Walsall Town Hall, undertaken in somewhat fraught circumstances – the group has been absent from the stage. New recordings by them had also petered out by then, though odd releases under a variety of combinations and aliases continued to appear.
         Secondly, that quartet first teamed up as The ‘N Betweens in 1966, so that’s 54 years ago and not 50 as The Sun would have you believe.
         Now that that’s been cleared up, I feel duty bound to explain that the reason for Slade’s sudden and needlessly sensational re-appearance in the headlines is that guitarist Dave Hill has apparently dispensed with the services of drummer Don Powell in his group Slade II, a pronouncement greeted with dismay by fans, not least because Hill informed Powell of his decision via e-mail. This is a sad state of affairs when you consider that Hill and Powell first played together back in 1964 in a Midlands group called The Vendors.
         It is evidently Hill’s intention to continue to promote himself as Slade II with three other (waged) musicians, while Powell has signalled his intention to form a new group, which will include at least one defector from Slade II, and call it Don Powell’s Slade. No one but a die-hard curmudgeon would wish Don – one of the most amiable men it’s been my pleasure to know – all the best in this venture. I wish I could say the same for Hill.
         Having two groups with the same or similar generic-style name led by former members of the mothership is nothing new. Yes managed it, as did The Searchers and a few others from the beat boom of the 1960s, not to mention countless black vocal groups whose personnel fluctuates like the sexual inclinations of popular TV presenters. A clever lawyer could argue that Paul and Ringo have been doing the same thing with The Beatles for years now, but the standard of musicianship they apply is on a vastly different level to that of Hill, which leaves much to be desired, at least from what I’ve seen of Slade II on YouTube.
         I don’t think this will end happily. Don has evidently told Dave he cant continue to call his group Slade II, only Dave Hills Slade. Hill wont like that. Either way, absent Noddy Holder’s irreplaceable, sparkling voice and Jim Lea’s compositional and multi-instrumental skills, any 21st Century version of Slade lacks considerably more than 50% of its potency. Sadly, this seems not to be a consideration when the need earn a living is paramount.
         Which brings me to further revelations from our friends at The Sun. If they are to be believed – and I have my doubts – Noddy is worth £20 million and earns £250,000 a year from ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, as does Jim whose fortune is not disclosed. I would imagine it is greater than Noddy’s, if for no other reason than, unlike Jim, Noddy is no longer married to his first wife and nothing diminishes a rock star’s wealth like a divorce. “While Noddy and Jim, 70, have been living in luxury, Dave and Don, 73, have been performing at Butlin’s and the festival circuit to make ends meet,” The Sun tells us. “The unglamorous venues are a far cry from the stages the rock icons graced in their heyday.”
         They got Noddy and Jim’s ages wrong but far worse, later in the story, was the sentence: “There were no scandals or tragic accidents [in their past] and they rarely touched drugs.” I would invite them to look up their back issue for July 4, 1973, and read Don’s book.
         I rest my case.