Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The day the music died

Here's an interesting article on the New Orleans music scene which was on the BBC website today. The writer gets a few things wrong - I particularly like the reference to 'Ernie K-Doe's Working in a Coalmine, and 'Sung Harbour' - but it's worth a read.
The day the music died?
By Caroline Briggs BBC News, New Orleans
When Katrina blew her fury across New Orleans in August 2005, she ripped the very heart out of the city. The music. Before Katrina, music had pulsed through the veins of New Orleans. It spilled out of every club, seeped into every street, and nourished every tight community. But it was those tight communities - places like the Lower Ninth Ward, St Bernard's, and Treme districts - that were engulfed when the levees broke. And it was those communities that many of New Orleans' musicians were forced to flee. Katrina scattered them far and wide - to New York, Houston, Atlanta, Dallas.
Thousands, it is thought, are yet to return. Ben Jaffe, director of New Orleans' venerable Preservation Hall, says his jazz band was hit hard. "Our trumpet player stayed in New Orleans, our clarinet player stayed, our pianist stayed, but our drummer left town, and our banjo player left town. Most of them lost their homes."
'It knew where I lived'
Officially, New Orleans' population is half its pre-Katrina level. According to the Renew Our Music Fund - one of a number of charities helping musicians get back on their feet - of the 5,000 full-time, professional musicians who lived in the city before Katrina, about 3,000 are still displaced.
Veteran musician, songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint, known around the world for songs like Ernie K-Doe's Working In A Coalmine, was one of those forced to leave. A veteran of Louisiana's long legacy of hurricanes, he weathered the storm in the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel on Canal Street, before leaving for neighbouring Baton Rouge. Toussaint eventually settled in New York, where he is living while his house is rebuilt.
"The Hurricane Katrina knew exactly where I lived," he says. "It knew exactly where all the important things that I lived with daily were, and it found them and it baptised them all." Despite the impact the exodus of musicians had on the city's music scene, Toussaint says he is confident it will come back. "New Orleans hasn't died. At this very moment there are musicians playing in Jackson Square, out in front of the Cathedral, all up and down the French Quarter and many other places."
Quieter streets
To the casual visitor, seeing clubs like Vaughn's, the Spotted Cat, Donna's, d.b.a, and Sung Harbour writhing with live music, it would seem the scene is already back there. But, nearly two years after Katrina, the reality is very different. As the tourists have begun trickling back to the French Quarter - but at half pre-Katrina level - so have the gigs.
And those who go looking will still find the same quality music in the shape of bands like Glen David Andrews and the Lazy Six, Joe Lastie's Lil' Jazzmen, Trombone Summit, or Kermit Ruffins. But the streets are a little quieter these days. Fewer venues are offering live music, and those who do are not open as often. Musicians claim they are also being paid less.
It is down to the fall in tourists and poorer locals who feel they can no longer afford door charges or tips for the band. Even Preservation Hall, a Mecca for visiting jazz fans, now only opens four nights a week. Glen David Andrews, trombonist and leader of The Lazy Six, admits Katrina's legacy is still hurting musicians.
"This is my second gig this month - two gigs in one month - you can't pay rent like that, but I'm going to make it work."Before Katrina I was a living musician, since I was 16 years old. I'm 27 now and I feel like I'm ten years back. Literally." But even if work can be found, the fact remains that many musicians' homes are still in ruins. The rebuilding so far has been ad-hoc, like a sticking plaster on a severed limb.
Ghost towns
Most of the areas flooded two years ago are a mixture of renovated properties, and gutted homes awaiting repair while their owners live in trailers in the garden. Others remain untouched, and every few metres an empty site tells its own sad tale. Many of the poorer areas are still like ghost towns.
Even middle-class areas like Eastover, with its 4000 sq ft homes, are still lifeless. The floods did not distinguish between rich and poor. It is only money to rebuild the homes that can ultimately help. Musicians - like anyone - need somewhere to live. Until then, locals say, the communities will remain shattered, and the music scene weakened.
"This is supposed to be America. The great America and look at what's happening," says Andrews, who himself spent 18 months living in a trailer after his house was flooded. "It's not just about the music, it is about the music community, the people who play the music. You've got to be at home. You've got to do jazz funerals, you've got to play Mardi Gras, you've got to do Jazz Fest."
'Where is the money?'
But thousands of people are still waiting for cash from the Road Home Programme before they can start to rebuild. It is coming through, although painfully slowly for many, and not without a little controversy. The question on most people's lips is: "Where is the money?" Many are angry. and fear it will never come through for them.
In the meantime, musicians have been helping themselves in an attempt to rebuild their fragile livelihoods. Non-profit organisations, many run by musicians, have sprung up, helping other artists to replace lost or damaged instruments, find gigs, provide transport and accommodation, or cover health care and housing costs.
The Tipitina's Foundation, the charitable arm of the world-famous New Orleans music venue, has distributed about $1.5m, while Renew Our Music, and New Orleans Musician's Relief Fund (NOmrf) are also there. The aim is simple: to get musicians back working and living in New Orleans. The musicians who are yet to return are mostly elderly who need access to healthcare, or younger musicians with families.
"Ultimately it may mean we lose an older generation," says Jaffe, who co-founded Renew Our Music in the days following Katrina. They are the ones I learned to play music from, learned how to cook from. Those are the ones I feel saddest about losing."

For more, and some quotes from musicians, have a look at this http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6944941.stm

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Elvis effect

It's months since I last checked the top 40. It all seems rather meaningless now that it's no longer based on actual record sales. And it doesn't help that it's stuffed full of people I've never heard of. There's no Top of the Pops these days to provide a weekly crutch for people like me to talk knowledgably about the latest hits. I checked the charts today though and was surprised to find no fewer than three Elvis tracks in the top 30: Blue Suede Shoes, My Baby Left Me and Suspicious Minds. There's also an Elvis album at number two in the album charts. It's a tribute to Elvis's longevity, not to mention the quality of the three tracks that have made it into the charts. Unless, he's still around somewhere busily promoting his records in readiness for another comeback!

At the weekend boot sales I bought about 25 LPs for £1 or less each, but only one of them will go into my record collection - a 1980 album by Tyrone Davis called I Just Can't Keep On Going. Among the stuff that I have advertised on eBay are LPs by Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Mountain, Jack Bruce and the Grateful Dead (my username is soulboy1946 if anyone's interested). All of them are too rock orientated for me. The most interesting find was probably an LP called McDonald and Giles, by two former members of King Crimson, which sounded quite pleasant when I gave it a spin. I just hope I can sell them all, because my flat is beginning to get rather full of records that I don't want, as well as a lot that I do.

Yesterday I went with my girlfriend to John and Mary's barbecue in Southend. A very pleasant afternoon with quite a few of the Tales From The Woods crowd there, plus some musicians who looked the part. Congrats to John and Mary on their 40th. That's quite an achievement.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

From Ska to Di

***Another of the early pioneers of ska, guitarist Jerome Hines - Jah Jerry - died recently. He was an early member of the Skatalites, and also backed such greats as Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, Desmond Dekker, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals and Millie Small. Whether he played on the first ska single is uncertain, as no one seems to be able to agree just what that record was, but he was certainly there at the beginning, as the obituary in today's Independent makes clear http://news.independent.co.uk/people/obituaries/article2883799.ece

***Another unsung artist from the early sixties was Timi Yuro, a true blue eyed soul singer, who died three years ago. I have always loved her haunting London 45 'Hurt' and I picked up her second LP the other day, entitled 'Soul', released on the Liberty label. To be honest, it's more Dinah Washington than what we think of as soul these days, but what a voice. Amazing timbre.

***It's nearly ten years since Princess Diana died. I met her once, at Kensington Palace, and she really was stunning and very warm. The day of her death was one of those ' I was there' moments that I and millions of others will never forget. For me, it was at an early morning car boot sale in Barnet. It was still dark and no one even knew for sure that she dead, but we were shocked and couldn't quite take it in. I don't think any death has hit home so hard since then, but of course there were others before then, starting off with Buddy Holly in 1959, and moving on, for me at any rate, with Eddie Cochran in 1960, John F Kennedy in 1963, Sam Cooke in 1964, Otis Redding in 1967, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, Elvis in 1977, John Lennon in 1980 and Roy Orbison in 1988. Each, in their own way, made an impact on me, coming as they did, at the height of their powers in some way - even Roy Orbison, who had so recently made a comeback album. They are missed, all of them, even today.

Friday, August 17, 2007

25 years of the CD

It seems today is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first CD (by Abba apparently). It spelt the death of vinyl, or so people thought. I resisted the newcomer for as long as I could but eventually I capitulated and bought a CD player and a handful of CDs, which have grown over the years. But I kept on buying, and playing, vinyl and it remains my favourite format. Why? There's the nostalgia element I suppose - memories of those wonderful 45s of my youth - but there is a difference in sound quality. OK, so most vinyl has at least some crackle, and in some cases more than a little, but the texture of the sound is somehow more pure. And of course the cover of a CD can never match that of an LP in terms of artwork or sleevenotes.
Nowadays it seems that the lure of the CD is declining as downloads gradually take over. Yet I see more new vinyl in record shops than I have seen for years. As a vinyl collector it's the original issues that I'm after, not the reissues, but it's good to see that even after 25 years vinyl, like rock and roll itself, is here to stay.
Moving away from rock and roll, I went to see Carmen Jones at the Royal Festival Hall last night. I'm not an opera fan - indeed I fell asleep at Glyndebourne once and was nudged awake because I was snoring - but Carmen Jones I can handle. The tunes are good, the action is colourful and there are some very sexy black girls on stage. Picture shows Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi who plays Carmen. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Amy in rehab (and she says yes yes yes)

It's a familiar story. Young kid makes it big in the music business, gets into drugs and booze, and in no time at all is either dead or finished as an artist. That's the direction things appear to be going for Amy Winehouse. The new Janis Joplin? Maybe. I like her soulful voice and I reckoned she looked pretty stunning when she appeared on Jools Holland's Hootenanny show just a few months ago, but sadly she's going downhill fast. Apparently she's now in rehab (despite saying no, no,no) but we've heard that crap before. Herion, Cocaine, Ecstasy, Horse Tranquilliser and Booze - that's some cocktail. And it seems her low-life hubby is just as hooked. I hope she makes it through this, as she has a rare talent, but somehow I doubt it.

The 'before' and 'after' pictures - one taken in 2004 and the other last week tell their own tale.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Tony Wilson RIP

I was quite shocked to hear that Tony Wilson, the king of Manchester rock, has died aged just 57. I lived in the North West from 1968 to 1982 and Tony Wilson was a household name in those parts from his regular appearances presenting Granada Reports. His Granada TV series So It Goes was ground breaking and provided a glimpse of genuine punk rock at a time when it was ignored by most mainstream TV. Yet Tony was, as I recall, a complete wanker. I came across him often in the early seventies when I was a journalist on a couple of Lancashire local papers. Tony's ego was well known and it's fair to say that he pissed off both me and my journalist friends whenever we came into contact with him, which was fairly often.

My favourite memory of Tony was at a stock car meet somewhere in Lancashire when local journalists were invited to compete against each other and generally get pissed. Tony was there, wearing a deep red velvet suit and, naturally, he won every race he entered, while I and others slithered round the track in the sticky mud. True to form, Tony celebrated his success by standing on the back of his car while someone drove him on a lap of honour. And then, what joy, he fell off, and his velvet suit got covered in mud. Laugh? We had a couple more pints celebrating his downfall.

To be fair, wanker or not, Tony was a character and put Manchester on the map musically. So I mourn his passing. It's a ridiculously young age to die, but so it goes.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Elvis 30 years on

It's 30 years since Elvis died and the Elvis industry is bigger than ever. I heard the news of his death as an 'And finally' on News at Ten. Shocked, I tuned into Radio Luxembourg for some reason and it seemed the right thing to do. Tony Prince was rabbiting on about how the King had died and got Jimmy Saville among others to eulogise. Apparently Big L got its biggest audience of the year that night, but in those days where else could you go to find out the really important news of the day?

So much has been written about him since then that there's really nothing left to say. I was ten when Heartbreak Hotel was released and it made an indelible impression. My sister bought the blue HMV-label 78 and later Blue Suede Shoes, I Want You I need You I Love You, Hound Dog, Love Me Tender and Blue Moon and I was hooked. His tracks for Sun were classics, but so too were many of his early RCA sides. The first few films showed potential, but as Colonel Tom Parker's influence grew, Elvis was shunted towards mediocrity. Then he joined the Army and things were never the same again.

I recall awaiting his first post-Army 45 with excitement and was only mildly disappointed with Stuck on You. The double sider of Mess of Blues and Girl of My best Friend promised better things ahead, but it proved to be a false dawn. Under RCA's and Colonel Tim's direction things went downhill fast. The records. with the odd exception, were bland, and the films tedious. Despite his revival in the late 60s Elvis never recovered his early excitement. Yet the legend goes marching on. I, like thousands of others, have paid homage by visiting Graceland (and been sickened by the tackiness of it all). I've even visited the two room house in Tupelo where he was born (allegedly). So Elvis is alive and well, in financial terms at any rate.

He will never be forgotten, even though his genuinely creative period lasted little more than three years. So here are my top 20 favourite Elvis tracks (in no particular order) - and funnily enough all but one are pre-army: That's all right, Lawdy Miss Clawdy, Mystery Train, Money Honey, My baby left me, Trying to get to you, Blue Suede Shoes, I got a woman, One sided love affair, Heartbreak Hotel, All shook up, Hound Dog, Don't be Cruel, I want you I need you I love you, A Fool such as I, One night, Teddy Bear, Jailhouse Rock, Treat me nice, King Creole, Mess of Blues.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Lee Hazlewood

Lee Hazlewood, who died aged 78, was one of the great figures of rock and roll. Yet he was never a major artist and his unspectacular vocal style and uncommercial approach made him an unlikely rocker. He enjoyed success as a songwriter (eg Houston), and as a performer he was best known for his duets with Nancy Sinatra, although I first became aware of him as a solo artist through Words Mean Nothing (It's what you do), a rather middle of the road single released on London in 1960 (a 45 I still don't own). But of course it was as the driving force and inspiration, along with Al Casey, behind Duane Eddy and Sanford Clark that he made the deepest impression. He was undoubtedly influential, yet never quite in the mainstream. He will be sorely missed. For more, here's the Indy's obit: http://news.independent.co.uk/people/obituaries/article2838621.ece and the Lee Hazlewood Story: http://web.inter.nl.net/users/wilkens/Lh06.html

Not a particularly successful weekend at the car boots, but I did strike gold on Friday in, of all places, Cheapo Cheapo Records in Soho, where I picked up two absolute classic R and B singles for 50p each - Shirley and Lee's I'll Thrill You on Vogue, and LaVern Baker's I Cried A Tear.