Monday, July 30, 2007

Bobby Robinson facing eviction

News item from New York Daily News (via Soulful Detroit website)
Harlem icon sings blues

Impresario, 90, facing eviction

After 60 years selling & making hits, uptown icon faces eviction

BY DAVID HINCKLEY Sunday, July 29th 2007, 4:00 AM

When World War II ended, Bobby Robinson decided against returning to the South Carolina cotton fields where he grew up and where his grandfather had been born a slave. He headed north to New York. There, from a small record shop at Eighth Ave. and 125th St., he helped shape the rhythm and blues that soon exploded into rock 'n' roll. He produced a national No. 1 hit record, Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City." He produced Gladys Knight's first hit record, and in the late 1970s, he was the first music man to record this strange new sound out of the Bronx called hip-hop. He didn't sing or play music. He produced music. He sold music. He found music. He promoted music. He lived music. Today, at 90, he still does, on the same New York street corner. But as early as this week, it all could end, and for the most prosaic of New York reasons - a form letter from a new landlord saying he has 30 days to pack up his small shop and leave. Kimco, a real estate giant that owns properties such as the Concourse Plaza and Centerreach Mall, has bought the northwest corner of 125th St. and Eighth Ave. and is asking tenants to leave, including Bobby's Happy House. Kimco could not be reached for comment, but the letter tells Robinson to vacate by Tuesday. "We won't close then," says Denise Benjamin, Robinson's daughter, who now runs the store. "We're trying to talk to them and see what we can do." But there are no guarantees, and the alternatives are bleak. Finding another affordable store "in a prime location," says Benjamin, "is almost impossible." Robinson himself wants to stay: "I've been on this corner since 1946. I came back from the war, I had some money and I became the first colored man to own a store on 125th St. It isn't fair to make businesses close." If history counted, he'd stay there forever. His wall is solid with autographed pictures of artists who came over from the Apollo Theater, a half block away: Al Green, Eddie Kendricks, Berry Gordy, the Miracles with Smokey Robinson. There's Jackie Wilson and Fats Domino together, and of course, James Brown. "Very good friend," says Robinson. Robinson has a lot of those. "I was the only store to stay open the night of the [1964] riots," he says. "The liquor store near me, 10-15 guys smashed the windows, carried it out by the case. But I wasn't touched. Everybody knew me, respected me." And if it's time to go, he's going in style. He arrived at the store Thursday in a crisp tailored suit, white shirt, sharp shoes, matching tie and handkerchief, a black-and-white hat over his white hair. When he recalls the first night he and his brother, Dan, went to the Bronx to hear hip-hoppers, his legs and hips break into a little dance - just like the young and happy Bobby Robinson frozen in a slightly yellowed World War II picture on the wall, dancing with a girl from Hawaii. Today, times having changed, the golden age of the record store has passed. Shikulu Shange's Harlem Record Shack, his longtime neighbor around the corner, also is facing eviction. But music endures. And so, happily, does Bobby Robinson.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

This week's boot sale finds

Original ska and rocksteady LPs and singles are in much demand among vinyl collectors. That's hardly surprising as for the most part they contain brilliant music, and they're hard to find in really good condition. My top find this weekend was Duke Reid's Golden Hits on the Trojan label, with 12 cracking Duke Reid produced tracks by the likes of the Techniques, Justin Hines and the Dominos, Alton Ellis. the Melodians and the Silvertones. I love this raw 60s Jamaican music and this is a great example of the genre.

Another great find this weekend was This is Sue, a 60s compilation on Island with tracks released on the legendary Sue label by Roy Head, Derek Martin, Barbara Lynn, Bobby Parker and Shirley and Lee, among others. I remember buying this LP in Croydon when it first came out, but my copy, which has followed me around to God knows how many addresses over the years, is knackered. The one I found this weekend is virtually mint.

Other LPs from this week's hunt include an early Motown compilation, another ska compilation Red Red Wine, and albums by Eartha Kitt, Mike Sarne (it's crap but collectable), Santo and Johnny, Sha na na, a nice copy of Pet Sounds and the first Dr Hook LP. So not a bad haul.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Final night at Porretta

Porretta returned to tradition by featuring a review of many of the acts of the previous two evenings on the last night of the festival. Once again Toni Green stole the show, with another fantastic deep soul performance including a passion drenched version of Aretha's Dr Feelgood, complete with James Brown style draping of her shawl around her shoulders as she knelt on the stage sobbing at the end. Absolutely breathtaking.

Betty Harris kicked off the show and this time ended her set with an exquisitely soulful rendition of Cry to Me. Ellis Hooks seemed to try too hard to be exciting and ended up being rather frantic and one paced. Sir Mack Rice (middle picture) showed once more why he is better known as a song writer than a singer and Jimmy McCracklin (pictured top) was in good form again, as were his back up singers Sweet Nectar. The Austin DeLone band again showed just how good they are and the irrepressible Sugar Pie DeSanto (pictured below) rounded the evening off in good style, even if that honour should really have gone to Toni. Altogether another great evening.

And so to Monday and the return home. Thank you British Airways for keeping me waiting five hours at Bologna Airport. I eventually made it to bed at 2.30am.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Stax of soul at Porretta

The first two days of the Porretta Soul Festival, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stax Records and the 40th anniversary of Otis Redding's death, more than lived up to expectations. Once again this quiet town tucked away in the mountains near Bologna came alive to the sound of sixties soul music. The weather was perfect - so unlike the UK this summer - and the atmosphere was relaxed.
First on on Friday was Bobby Johnson, a decent Otis impersonator, who got the mostly Italian crowd going. The excellent Austin DeLone band featured some soulful solos by drummer Ron Beck and Austin himself (plus a couple of awful numbers by someone called Barbara Cola) before providing the backing for the star of the night, the simply superb Toni Green (pictured above). What a voice! This was deep soul at its best, with the glamorous Ms Green belting her way through the tremendous Just ain't Working Out and Someone Else's Guy, as well as more upbeat numbers like Say a Little Prayer. She was followed by the energetic Ellis Hooks, a Sam Cooke look alike, who jumped around the stage with abandon and got the crowd on its feet. Then to Betty Harris (pictured below), introduced as the Soul Queen of New Orleans (Irma Thomas might have something to say about that). Betty's voice is as strong as it was on her classics such as Cry to Me and Nearer to You, and it was these, rather than her newer material, that shone out. Finally it was the turn of the 'Old Gangsta' Sir Mack Rice, looking remarkably fit and sporting ginger hair. If anyone has the right to sing the ubiquitous Mustang Sally, it's him, since he wrote it, and he didn't disappoint.
Saturday night was Stax night and the compact Rufus Thomas Park where the festival takes place was packed. It was another great night, kicking off with the high kicking SugarPie DeSanto. She clearly doesn't take herself too seriously and her act included gurning, back rolls and jokes, but it was good fun. Even older was Jimmy McCracklin, 86 next month, wearing a bright red suit, who went through many of his hits including Think, The Walk and Tramp. His back up singers, Sweet Nectar, featuring his daughter, took some of the strain with several adequate covers. Next it was the turn of Booker T and the MGs, with Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn ( above), who performed note perfect versions of many of their Stax hits, including, , Green Onions, as well as Hang 'em High, Time is Tight and Hip-hug-her. Saturday's final act - at nearly 1am - was the Blues Brothers Band. Despite being essentially a tribute band, they are entertaining and excellent musically, with singer Rob 'Honeydripper' Paparozzi taking the main Blues Brother role as singer. Guesting with them as usual, and adding some credibility was Eddie Floyd. His voice is not what it was but that didn't matter too much as the crowd sang along to Big Bird, Knock on Wood and the rest. He invited Sir Mack Rice onstage for a couple of numbers - two Falcons together.
Altogether Porretta is living up the reputation built up over 20 years of keeping soul music alive in this corner of Italy. Tonight's show is a reprise of the last two evenings, with nearly all of the acts performing again. I can't wait.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Drumbeat and the Good times

On one of my record forays at the weekend I picked up the LP that was issued on Parlophone featuring the stars of Drumbeat, the BBC's answer to ABC Television's Oh Boy! Jack Good's ABC programme is generally reckoned to be the best of the British rock and roll shows of the time, but there's quite an overlap, with the John Barry Seven and Vince Eager featured on both LPs. Drumbeat also featured Adam Faith, Roy Young, the Kingpins, Bob Miller and the Miller Men, the Raindrops, Sylvia Sands and 'guest artist' Dennis Lotis, while the Oh Boy! album included the Dallas Boys, Peter Elliott, Cuddly Dudley, Cliff Richard (whatever happened to him?), Neville Taylor and the Cutters and the Vernon Girls.

What is evident from playing both LPs is just how crap British rock and roll was at the time. Talk about anaemic cover versions - these are mostly dire. Jack Good's later show Boy meets Girls, with Marty Wilde and, more importantly Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, raised the quality. But they were the best, indeed the only, TV access that we had to rock and roll at the time and were therefore essential viewing. Starting with 6.5 Special, and moving through Oh Boy! and Boy meets Girls to Wham and on to Shindig in the US ,Jack Good was a true originator. When he left ITV in 1960 the format he invented - live audience, fast moving action - died away until Ready Steady Go came to life a few years later. As I recall (and it was a long time ago now) Drumbeat could never quite match Jack Good's energy content, but for a pop-starved teenager like me anything was better than nothing. It's just a shame that the cover versions that we had to watch and listen to were so inferior to the originals.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Collectable EPs

It's been a good weekend record wise, with a big haul of old singles, mostly rock and roll, and with a great selection of EPs. The EP was the picture sleeve of the 50s and 60s because 45s generally came in company sleeves with picture sleeves used only rarely, unlike the contient where picture sleeves were the norm. They usually comprised the A and B side of a couple of singles so were a useful way of catching up if you missed out on the original issue of the 45. But they've become very collectable, in some cases, because sales were not particularly great as a rule. The pictures show four of the EPs that I obtained this weekend, including a couple of real rarities: Meet the Majors (no, not John and Norma), and Singing the Blues (no, not Tommy Steele, but classic New Orleans R and B from Ernie K-Doe, the Showmen, Jessie Hill and Chris Kenner).
It's Porretta next weekend and I'm looking forward to getting some sun as well as some good music. Talking of good music. I've been trying to think of something to say about the Tales From The Woods Terry Wayne gig at the 100 Club last Sunday. I''ll leave the write-up to gout-stricken John Howard, who no doubt will pen an enthusiastic review for UK Rock. It was quite an enjoyable show (the Rhythm Aces were excellent) and it's always good to see an original artist go through his or her repertoire, but it reminded me why I never much cared for British rock and roll at the time. There was Billy Fury of course, and Johnny Kidd up to a point, but most British rock and roll was second rate and unoriginal. Give me the original article every time.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Shorty Long remembered

The best boot sale find this weekend was The Prime of Shorty Long which was issued soon after his premature death at the age of just 29 on June 29th, 1969. Shorty Long, who played a variety of instruments, was one of the more underated stars of Motown, with a bluesier style than most of his label mates. He shot to prominence with Devil with the Blue Dress On and followed this up with Function at the Junction and his biggest hit Here Comes the Judge. The album pictured here contains a couple of his later smaller hits I Had a Dream and A Whiter Shade of Pale.

I see there have been a clutch of deaths this week - original Drifer Bill Pinkney, Boots Randolph, whose Yakety Sax will forever be associated with French maids chasing Benny Hill at high speed, and George Melly, a man whose talent could easily have been squeezed into a matchbox. There were obituaries of Boots and Bill in The Times on Saturday:
Sorry to have to miss the great Al Green on his current UK tour. I've seen him several times before - the most memorable being at the North Sea Festival a few years ago when I bagged a position in the front row a good hour before he came on to perform. I hope he has many more years ahead of him.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Unchained no more

Fascinated to read that Hy Zaret, who wrote the lyrics of Unchained Melody, has died a few months short of his 100th birthday. From Al Hibbler in 1955, through the Righteous Brothers in the 60s, the dreadful Robson and Jerome in the 90s and Gareth Gates in 2002. the song has continued to have a timeless appeal and it was undoubtedly one of the songs of the century. There's a full obituary in the July 4 issue of The Independent
When I reported the death of Nellie Lutcher the other day at the age of 94 John Howard pointed out to me that Kay Starr is still alive aged nearly 85. But she's not the oldest diva around: Lena Horne celebrated her 90th birthday on Saturday.

I would love to hear of any other major stars who are into their 90s. I know that there are a couple of blues artists, such as Honey Boy Edwards (92 last Thursday), but who else is there still surviving after all these years? Your comments are always welcome ( it shows someone reads the blog) but especially this time.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Northern Soul

There's a debate raging on the Soulful Detroit website about the origins of the term Northern Soul.

The term was coined by Dave Godin in the late 60s, but it seems that some soul fans in the US can't understand why some obscure Motown-esque tracks from the late 60s should have been picked up by fans in Wigan and elsewhere in the north and turned into a cult. I must admit that I sympathise with them to some extent. I lived in Wigan in the 1970s and even went to the Casino a couple of times and I love soul music, but when I go to a Northern Soul gig nowadays I can recognise maybe one in four of the tracks the DJs are playing. It has to be said that although there are some fantastic Northern Soul records, there are many that seem rather samey. Somehow I don't have the energy to familiarise myself with all the records and artists loved by the cultists, not to mention the club scene that still exists. My soul tastes veer towards Southern, rather than Northern soul. This term refers to the area of the US where the music originated, rather than the area of the UK where it later became popular, which seems more logical somehow.

A couple of pictures to illustrate my tastes - of the great Sam Cooke, in many ways the founder of soul music, and Mary Wells (also much loved by the Northern fans). Wasn't she gorgeous at the time?