On the surface, Charlie Watts and Ted Dexter, who died last week within 24 hours of each other, might seem to have little in common. The former, the son of a Wembley prefab-dwelling lorry driver, was the drummer with The Rolling Stones, while the latter, born in Milan to a prosperous insurance broker, captained England at cricket. Charlie went to a secondary modern and Ted went to Radley, a public school; Charlie studied at Harrow Art School, Ted entered Cambridge, probably on the strength of his sporting skills. 

        So far so different but here’s a few similarities. They were both spectacularly good at what they did. Both always dressed smartly and carried themselves with an air that bordered on the aristocratic. Neither suffered fools and were, in fact, quite shy, which sometimes came across as arrogance or, at the very least, impatience. Both were married for over 60 years to the same women whom they met when they were in their early twenties. They both loved fast cars and bred horses. They both reached 80, Ted a bit more. Their obituaries in the Guardian occupied the same amount of space – one page plus one column – and both were mourned deeply within the fields in which they excelled, with glowing tributes from their peers and contemporaries. Finally, I saw the Stones perform five times between 1971 and 1981, and probably saw Ted Dexter bat and bowl about five times at the Scarborough Cricket Festival between 1958 and 1962. And I enjoyed watching them both immensely. 

        But there’s something deeper that I’ve fathomed, not just through reading copious obituaries of both but from observing their graceful, elegant journeys through life. Both showed an identical lack of concern about what others thought of them. They simply hadn’t a care in the world if how they behaved was contrary to what was expected of rock stars or first-class cricketers. Both lived their lives precisely as they wanted to live their lives, casually and utterly insouciant, and would not be dictated to by those around him nor, heaven forbid, public opinion. 

        Charlie Watts was the odd one out in the Stones. Not for him the dedication to decadence espoused by Brian and Keith, nor Mick’s vanity or Bill’s promiscuity. All this was beneath him. Aside from a bit of a wobble in the 1980s, he behaved at all times with dignity, slightly aloof from the rest of the gang and always smartly dressed, in the certain knowledge that they needed him more than he needed them. The Stones were his day job, his bread and butter, nothing more, nothing less. He could have been a graphic designer and would no doubt have been a damn good one. It always seemed to me as if he viewed his position in the group as slightly absurd, as if he was the beneficiary of a lucky break that occurred through being in the right place at the right time, but once installed he knew precisely what was required of him and how to become indispensable. He was no doubt bored when required to drum for take after take after hed nailed it first time. He followed his own path and if that meant financing a 38-piece jazz band just so he could play drums alongside them, then so be it. 

        In a similar way, Ted Dexter refused to be intimidated by the cricket establishment. He batted with enormous style the way he wanted to bat, taking on fearsome fast bowlers without today’s helmets, and if the cricketing gods were with him he smacked boundaries all around the field. If they weren’t and he was dismissed, well there was always tomorrow. He looked bored when he was fielding. His cricketing career was curtailed by a freak motoring accident but he didn’t complain, just turned his skills to something else. He was dignified, and dressed smartly. He could have been a professional golfer and would no doubt have been a damn good one. He followed his own path and if that meant piloting his own plane to Australia, a journey that took five weeks and involved 24 stops for fuel, taking his wife and infant son along for the ride, then so be it. His spell as a chairman of England’s selectors did go as well as it might, but as a cricket administrator he was a pioneer of white ball cricket, fixed contracts for players and professional coaching methods for young cricketers. 

        And, of course, the Stones had a private box at Lords for the use of Charlie and Mick. Pity they could haven’t afforded it when Ted was playing, or that he and Charlie never met, not that I know of anyway. If they had they’d have had plenty to talk about.

The photograph of Charlie appeared on the BBC's web page, photographer unknown. The photograph of Ted was downloaded from his own website. 




Two Robert Plants sit on the coffee table in our front room right now. One of them stands next to Alison Krauss on the cover of this month’s Mojo magazine, inside of which the grizzled old rock veteran and his toothsome singing partner talk about their new album, Raise The Roof, out in November, a long-awaited follow up to their 2007 Grammy-winning collaboration Rising Sand. If the lead single, ‘Can’t Let Go’, is anything to go by, it’ll be another winner. 
The other Plant features on the cover of a new edition of Evenings With Led Zeppelin: The Complete Concert Chronicle by Dave Lewis and Mike Tremaglio. You can’t see his face as it’s obscured by his long, windswept hair, a thatch so plentiful it resembles the coat of a Cocker Spaniel, but in mid-flight with Led Zeppelin in 1969 Robert Plant was a wild, windswept creature on the cusp of a long and for the most part glorious musical career. 
        It’s nowadays quite possible that out there in this 21st Century there are Plant fans who are unaware of his illustrious past. In which case I would draw their attention to this book, the definitive account of Led Zeppelin’s life as a concert attraction, opening on September 7, 1968, and closing on July 7, 1980. As if 576 pages wasn’t enough, my friends Dave and Mike have now added a further 48. It now weighs in at 2.2kg, almost 5lbs, which is about half the weight of a Gibson Les Paul, so the combined weight of both editions gives you some idea of the mass that Jimmy Page, never the most robust specimen, was carrying on his shoulders during most of the 516 shows chronicled in the book. No wonder he’s complained of back problems. 
        Dave and Mike’s book now has over 300,000 words and 3,100 images, some 55 concert entries have been expanded with additional info culled from newly-discovered bootleg recordings, press reviews and adverts, and a 10-page bootleg discography that details almost 1,900 boots from 288 concerts that were clandestinely recorded, mostly by fans, with multiple titles from many shows. This statistic clearly indicates that LZ were among the most bootlegged acts ever, perhaps even the most, and there is a degree of irony here insofar as their manager, the cunning but ruthless Peter Grant, took every step he could to prevent Led Zeppelin from being pirated. That he so manifestly failed in this endeavour is a blessing in disguise for fans as years later the many bootlegs offer a valuable historical record that Page, for one, greatly appreciates. 
        I have an interest in this book. I edited the first edition and noted on this blog some of my own contributions, culled from the pages of Melody Maker. One I didn’t mention was the weekend I spent with Led Zep in Montreux, October 28 and 29, 1972, when I stayed with them and their entourage at the Palace Hotel and saw two shows at the Montreux Pavillon. A couple of weeks later I experienced their wrath by writing something that in their opinion was mildly uncomplimentary. Here’s what it says in the book:
        In the following week’s Melody Maker (November 11, 1972), Chris Charlesworth conducted an interview with Robert Plant in a feature called “Plant Life”. 
        In the interview, Charlesworth discussed the band performing outside of England: “Countries seem to put up no barriers to Zeppelin, who can consider themselves the unheralded ambassadors of British heavy rock. Unheralded because few reports of the group’s foreign activities seem to reach home, and ambassadors because few bands will clock up as many miles in a year as Led Zeppelin. To this end, England has been ignored this year by the group and their popularity has undoubtedly waned.”
        The band took great exception to this comment and used it as a sort of rallying cry. Perhaps feeling stung by the press criticism of the past, and having their wildly successful US tours overlooked back home, they reacted with a dig in the following week’s Melody Maker (November 18, 1972). The issue contained a huge tour ad listing the scheduled 24-date UK tour with the words “SOLD OUT” prominently displayed with the comment: “and their popularity has undoubtedly waned, Chris Charlesworth, Melody Maker, Last Week.” Even Robert Plant had a go at Charlesworth when introducing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ in Glasgow on December 4, 1972: “There was a guy who ah, worked for the Melody Maker, Chris Charlesworth, and he said our popularity has obviously waned... Thank you very much. Here’s a song that we wrote in a period of ah, everybody decided we were doing nothing, ‘Stairway To Heaven’.”
        It’s ironic that just two weeks earlier, Charlesworth had penned one of the most complimentary and enthusiastic concert reviews of the band’s entire career, and yet was being called to task for his comment. Perhaps the band’s press sensitivity had conveniently allowed them to overlook another comment from Charlesworth in the first Montreux report: “Led Zeppelin are alive and well and as good as ever. And if that crown they once wore has tarnished slightly, they will soon re-gain all their glory. They are, without a shadow of a doubt, Britain's greatest heavy rock act.”
I can report that any ill-feeling was soon forgotten, and I was welcomed to subsequent shows in America where I was stationed for the next three years as MM’s US Editor. Oddly, my coverage of the start of their 1975 US tour, in Chicago on January 20-22, isn’t included, and I take issue with the book’s handling of the sequence of concerts that followed, as can be seen from my retrospective recollections of that encounter, here: http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2014/02/led-zeppelin-1975-part-1.html. Pedantic point that it is – and Dave Lewis and I have exchanged words about this before – it seems I am the only person in the world that believes Zep, minus bedridden Robert Plant, flew from Chicago to LA where they (and I) relaxed for 48 hours while Plant recuperated, then we all flew back across the country to Greensboro for a sub-par show on January 29. Either my memory is playing tricks with me, or the records books have been changed for reasons unexplained. 
Still, this is a minor quibble. As I wrote when I first reviewed this book on my blog in 2018, Evenings With Led Zeppelin: The Complete Concert Chronicle is not only far and away the most ambitious reference book on Led Zeppelin ever published but also one of the most entertaining; now new and improved, like detergents used to be in TV adverts, and like Robert Plant when he collaborates with Alison Krauss. 


STEPHEN FOSTER - America's First Great Songwriter

For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed the songs of Stephen Foster and yesterday, because I hadn’t heard it in ages, I played this CD in my car as I drove through the Hurtwood to Cranleigh for the weekly farmers’ market. There’s 18 tracks in all and I particularly like John Prine’s folksy reading of ‘My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight’ and Roger McGuinn’s jangly Byrds-style arrangement of ‘Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair’. Other Foster songs on the CD with which most people are probably familiar include ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, ‘Old Folks At Home (Swanee River)’ and ‘Oh! Susannah’, given a ragtime treatment by Michelle Shocked. Foster is reckoned to have written over 200 songs before he died, penniless, in 1864. 

        I have long believed that Foster is the source of American popular music, the first great American songwriter to draw together musical traditions brought to America by those who arrived from Europe, Africa and elsewhere. In his sleeve notes to this CD, the US musicologist Ken Emerson calls Foster the trunk of the tree of American music.  “You can hear Foster in nearly all its branches, from country, bluegrass and gospel through the American Songbook, jazz, rock’n’roll and the classical music of Gottschalk and Ives,” he writes, adding, correctly, “There’s even a trace of ‘Camptown Races’ in ‘Jingle Bells’.” Randy Newman, for one, would surely agree; doubtless also Paul McCartney who takes the lead vocal on a rocked up version of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ by The Beatles that is featured on the second of their Beatles at the BBC compilations. 

        Emerson is the author of Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and The Rise of American Popular Culture, which I can recommend to anyone with an interest in where it all began. It catalogues the unhappy life of the first man to ever try to make a living as a professional songwriter, a hopeless objective in the days before copyright was invented. He sold his songs for a few dollars and spent the proceeds on booze. 

        It all began for me, and here I must make a confession, with the first album by the George Mitchell Minstrels, aka The Black And White Minstrels who, until the arrival of The Beatles, were by far the most successful recording act in the UK. In November 1960 their first LP began an unprecedented 142-week residency on the UK LP charts, peaking at number one five times. The only LPs to better this chart longevity up to this point were American, the soundtracks to three musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Oklahoma!, The King And I and South Pacific. Elvis, Cliff and the rest barely got a look in as far as chart statistics go. 

        This is not something much talked about today. In Electric Shock, his comprehensive study of the history of popular music, Peter Doggett gives them only a cursory mention and ignores these massive-selling records completely. They don’t make the Concise Edition of the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larkin, but they’re in the exhaustive 12-volume edition, not as the B&W Minstrels but under George Mitchell, their musical director. Larkin bravely awards their first two, best-selling, albums, both acquired by my dad, with four stars out of five, and Stephen Foster rightly merits an entry in that edition too. “There was a remarkable quality of durability about Foster’s livelier pieces which rose above their questionable quality minstrel show origins,” writes Larkin. “They remain a significant milestone in the development of popular song in nineteenth century America.

        I say bravely because the B&W Minstrels were and are an embarrassment today, and rightly so; men darkening their faces to look like coloured folk, prancing around on TV and the stage in imitation of the minstrelsy shows that were popular in America during the first half of the 19th Century. The BBC somehow failed to realise the offence this would have caused to people of colour. Neither, for that matter, did the 16 million who watched their weekly TV programmes and broke box office records at their stage shows. 

        Nevertheless, it’s still possible to listen to these records and momentarily forget the way they looked and the clothes they wore. They feature a series of medleys of largely American popular music from Foster’s era up to around 1950, song after song arranged by Mitchel to segue together seamlessly. They are arranged and produced to the highest level of professionalism, the soloists and chorus in perfect harmony over no fewer than 56 songs on the first LP and 51 on the second. This is why Larkin gives them four stars. 

        I can’t find any documentation of how many LPs the B&W Minstrels sold but it must be in the millions – their second LP spent over year on the charts too – but the first two languish in my record collection, heirlooms handed down along with a few other LPs my parents owned, among them two by genuine black performers, Ella Fitzgerald and Winifred Atwell. Both the B&W Minstrels albums are packed with Foster’s songs and it was listening to them on these records, back in 1960 and 1961, that introduced me to ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’, ‘Oh! Susannah’ and all the rest 

        I have't listened to these two LPs for years now. For all their professionalism, they sound a bit cheesy, a bit light entertainment, a bit end of pier. I much prefer the CD I listened to yesterday, and, to a lesser extent, one other I’ve had for a while, pictured below, which features performers from an earlier era, like Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. One Amazon review of that says, “Bought this for my 89-year-old grandfather. He loved it.”

    Whatever else, all this proves something I've always believed in, that the very best popular music lives forever.