Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ernie K-Doe - The R&B Emperor of New Orleans

Having failed to get a free review copy of Ben Sandmel’s new book ‘Ernie K-Doe – The R & B Emperor of New Orleans’ I ordered the book from Amazon. And it was worth the price. It’s probably the best book about my favourite musical style, New Orleans R and B, since John Broven’s  ‘Walking To New Orleans’ of 1974. And, with the benefit of nearly four further decades of research into the subject, it shines a fresh light on those exciting early days, as well as telling the remarkable tale of Ernie K-Doe’s rise to stardom with his number one hit Mother In Law, his fall, literally, into the gutter and his re-emergence, with support from his new wife Antoinette, towards the end of his life.

Ernie was dismissed by many as a garrulous clown, a braggart and a has-been. But for me he summed up what makes New Orleans so special. It’s been said that New Orleans is not really part of the USA but a different country. And its musical heritage is something very special and unlike anywhere else. Ernie came from a poor family and had little education. But he had a self-confidence that outweighed his talent and which helped him maximise his opportunities until drink took its toll. He performed with all the major New Orleans R and B artists including Irma Thomas, Art and Aaron Neville, Robert Parker and Jessie Hill.  After Mother In Law made it big, with vital input from Allen Toussaint and Benny Spellman, he believed that he was truly the greatest and even took on James Brown in a head to head music event. The hits dried up and his fortunes faded, but he stayed in New Orleans and raised his profile during the 1980s as an outrageous DJ on local radio station WWOZ.
I remember reading that he would be appearing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1989 and that prompted me to make the first of many visits to the Big Easy. At Jazzfest K-Doe appeared to be the worse for wear and had to be almost dragged from the stage by Milton Batiste at the end of his set, but his voice was still pretty good with his familiar ‘ack-ack’ interjections and there was no doubting his enthusiasm. In subsequent years I saw him a number of times, including several visits to his Mother In Law Lounge where Antoinette attempted to keep him under control, with limited success. By now he had proclaimed himself ‘Emperor of the World’. On one occasion John Howard and I chatted to him as he sat rather bleary eyed on his ‘throne’ and he performed a homage to Jerry Butler for the whole of his act – in a near-deserted club.
Towards the end of his life he seemed much sharper and more focused. I met him for the last time in 2000 when he was with Antoinette on his way to do a radio interview and he seemed smart and sober. He had by now become the New Orleans legend that he always imagined he should be, having worked with several young bands in the city, and his death the following year was a major event. His fame lived on with his widow commissioning a life sized mannequin which took pride of place in the Mother In Law Lounge, visited various venues and functions in the city and even half-jokingly stood for mayor after the disaster of Katrina and its aftermath.  Antoinette died on Mardi Gras 2009 and her daughter wasn’t able to keep the club going. I was one of a group of Woodies from the UK who met up at the lounge for a final farewell organised by local Woodie Armand St Martin in 2010 and the club closed its door finally in December of that year.
Ben Sandmel’s book brings Ernie’s life and times to vivid life and I found it an enjoyable and un-putdownable read. Ernie was larger than life, He was a drunk for much of the time, but he was possessed with quite a bit of talent, and probably truly believed his claims to greatness. Mother In Law, he said, was one of only two songs that would last forever – the other being Star Spangled Banner.  It’s doubtful whether he could have survived and eventually prospered anywhere else other than in New Orleans. His catchphrases, such as ‘Burn K-Doe Burn’, will be long remembered in the city. And even though his Mother In law Lounge has now closed he will not be forgotten, as he was one of the true characters of New Orleans.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Vinyl Obscurities - the blue Pye International label

Pye International issued some great R and B, American pop and early soul records during the late fifties and early sixties, including recordings from the likes of Chess and Excello. But its atrocious dark blue and gold label design for the first 130 releases or so rendered the labels virtually unreadable at times. Hardly surprising that this design was replaced in 1961 with a red and yellow label. Never mind - it's the music that counts, and here are ten vinyl obscurities from Pye International's blue period, with Youtube links.
1. Arlene Fontana - I'm In Love/ Easy. Mint value - £10.
Who was Arlene Fontana? I've no idea and information seems scarce. But judging by her photo she was a young Connie Francis clone. This light poppy effort was recorded for the US Paris label.
2. The Edsels - Rama Lama Ding Dong/ Bells. Mint value - £120.
Recorded originally for the Twin label in 1957, this is one of the all time great doowop records and the title phrase was later picked up Barry Mann (Who Put The Bomp) and Showaddywaddy, among others. Named after Ford's least successful model (not a propitious start) the band started out as the Essos. This was their finest hour.
3. The Skyliners - The Door Is Still Open/ I'll Close My Eyes. Mint value - £20.
Another doowop group, fronted by Jimmy Beaumont, whose best known record and biggest hit was Since I Don't Have You, released this soft double sider which failed to make it. The Door Is Still Open - ostensibly the B side - was written by Chuck Willis.
4. The Belmonts - Tell Me Why/ Smoke From Your Cigarette. Mint value £40.
Another great piece of doowop which showed that there was still life in the Belmonts after Dion went solo. Carlo Mastrangelo sang lead for this Sabrina recording which reached number 18 in the US charts.
5. The Sensations - Let me In/ Oh Yes I'll Be True. Mint value £30.
Some more doowop from Yvonne Baker and the Sensations who had a big hit in the US with this catchy girl group style record, the follow up to their other significant hit Music Music Music. Formed in 1954 as The Cavaliers, the group signed to Chess subsidiary Argo for this one. Yvonne, who was backed by three male singers, later went solo with some success.
6. Shep and the Limelites - Ready For Your Love/ You'll Be Sorry. Mint value £100.
This was part of probably the longest running saga in doowop history. It started with lead singer James 'Shep' Shephard's hit with the Heartbeats, A Thousand Miles Away, and continued with Daddy's Home, What Did Daddy Do, Three Steps From The Altar and Our Anniversary - all part of a continuing story. Surpirisingly I couldn't find Ready For Your Love on Youtube so here's Daddy's Home instead.
7. Johnny Rivers - That Someone Should Be Me/ Blue Skies. Mint value £10.
Three years before Johnny Rivers began to make it big with a string of rock and roll, disco a go-go covers he recorded this one for the Chancellor label. Sounding remarkably like Johnny Burnette, this is quite a good soft rock and roll record.
8. Jimmy Breedlove - You're Following Me/ Fabulous. Min value £30.
Jimmy was originally an R and B and rock and roll singer, a member of The Cues, who released some collectable rock and roll singles on Capitol and RCA and who also served as a vocal backing group for Atlantic. This early Burt Bacharach song is in a very different style - soft and quite soulful.  Jimmy recorded for a variety of labels, including Okeh, Jubilee and Roulette but never quite made it big.
9. The Marcels - My Melancholy Baby/ Really Need Your Love. Mint value £15.
The Marcels were just about the last hurrah of original doowop with their smash Blue Moon selling millions (I'd love to hear City fans attempting their version). They followed it up with a series of doowop versions of other oldies - Summertime, You Are My Sunshine, Heartaches and this one, My Melancholy Baby, in which they diss their big hit before breaking into the melody. Worth a listen.
10. James Ray - If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody/ It's Been A Drag. Mint value £22.
The story of James Ray is rather a sad one. This excellent record was ripped off by Freddie and the Dreamers while his Got My Mind Set On You became a big hit for George Harrison. According to the not-always reliable Wikipedia: "Ray stood just 5' tall and first recorded as Little Jimmy Ray, releasing "Make Her Mine" on the Galliant label in 1959. It was unsuccessful and by 1961 he was destitute and living on a rooftop, though still performing in clubs. Songwriter Rudy Clark befriended him, and persuaded Gerry Granahan of Caprice Records to sign him. Ray died from a drug overdose soon after his chart success, possibly as early as 1962."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Duane Eddy - still twanging after all these years

Twangy guitar hero Duane Eddy has seen a big revival in his career in the last couple of years. His recent album Road Trip was recorded in Sheffield and produced by Richard Hawley of Pulp and suddenly he is hip once again. And not before time!
I caught him at The Anvil in Basingstoke - part of his own musical road trip of the UK - and he played several numbers from the newish album, but it was mostly his early two minute guitar masterpieces that really rocked. He was backed by Richard Hawley's band, including a great sax player, and the sound was just right. Twangy and hard!
Duane kicked off with a string of his Lee Hazlewood produced early hits - the surf guitar flavoured Movin' and Groovin', Yep, The Lonely One and Shazam - all performed to perfection - before risking one of the new numbers - the rather undistinguished Bleaklow Air. He continued with more of his twangy stuff, including Ramrod, the slower 3.30 Blues, 40 Miles of Bad Road, Cannonball and the emotive First Love First Tears, before attempting another rather dull number from the new album - Attack of the Duck Billed Platypus. He dedicated his huge 1960 hit Because They're Young to Johnny Walker, who made it his theme tune on pirate radio, before moving to two more tracks from the new album - Road Trip and Curveball - both of which were far more reminiscent of his early material. Duane finished off with a rousing Peter Gunn and, as an encore, another pretty good track from the Road Trip album - Mexborough Ferry Boat Halt - and a final Hard times from his early days.
Now aged 74, Duane is clearly as good as ever and long may it last. It's just fantastic to see a hero of my youth still at the top of his game.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Now it's Robin Gibb

Very sad to hear of the death of Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees aged just 62. I was never a great fan of the band, especially of their disco stuff, but early records like New York Mining Disaster 1941, Massachusetts and Words were pleasant harmony records and deservedly successful. It was, however, as songwriters that they really excelled. Who can forget Al Green's version of How Can You Mend A Broken Heart or Nina Simone singing To Love Somebody? And of course they boosted the later careers of Diana Ross (Chain Reaction), Barbra Streisand (Woman in Love), Dionne Warwick (Heartbreaker) and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (Islands In The Stream).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Donna Summer RIP

The Vinyl Word raises a glass to Donna Summer who has died of cancer aged just 63. Donna was the queen of disco with huge seventies hits such as Love To Love You Baby and I Feel Love and I remember that her early music videos really raised the bar in terms of visual content. She began her rise to fame when she moved to Germany to star in a production of Hair and made it big when she teamed up with Giorgio Moroder. Her first album Lady of the Night wasn't released in the US, but the moans and sexual groans on Love To Love You Baby caused a sensation both there and in Europe, with a 17 minute version becoming popular in clubs. Later hits such as MacArthur Park, Hot Stuff, Dim All The Lights and Bad Girls - the title track from her prostitution-based album of the same name - reinforced her disco success. Alleged anti-gay comments in the early 80s cost her some support but she continued to record on and off with success through the 90s and into the 21st century. I'm no great fan of disco, but Donna was a true star and it's sad that she's died at such a young age. So many musicians seem to have died in the last few months.

On a completely different topic, I went to a talk today by Harry Shapiro at the British Library on the Ealing Rhythm and Blues Club and its place in the formation of the British R and B scene, with performers such as Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, Graham Bond and Jack Bruce. Harry knows his stuff, having written a number of books on the subject, and it was a fascinating look back at the early 60s scene. I didn't go to the Ealing Club at the time, but I went to the Scene, the Flamingo and Eel Pie Island, so it was interesting recalling those attempts by British acts to emulate their American blues heroes - with mixed success it has to be said.

Monday, May 14, 2012

66 Up

I was fascinated to see '56 Up' on ITV tonight - a programme that has been following the lives of a group of people every seven years since they were seven years old, which is now 49 years ago. I am ten years older than them and therefore old enough to remember the first programme, and I've watched every series since then. The latest series made me think about the seven year landmarks of my own life. One day maybe I will write my life story, but for now, here's a seven year interval snapshot:
- Aged 7, 1953. At Spring Park Primary School in Shirley, Croydon, living in West Wickham, Kent. The Queen's Coronation. Just a normal seven year old with a reasonably happy life I think. Music wise, a boring time - pre rock and roll.
- Aged 14, 1960. Now at Dulwich College having got there on my 11 Plus. Still living in West Wickham. Watching Crystal Palace when I can. Really getting into music and began my personal top ten, which I continued to maintain until the end of 1965. Top record of the year - Wonderful World by Sam Cooke.
- Aged 21, 1967. Trainee journalist with the Croydon Advertiser. Living in Warlingham, but left home and move to a bedsit in Tooting. Later moved in with a black exotic dancer seven years older than me. Reviewing records on a regular basis, some of which I still have, and concerts, such as the Stax/Volt show in Croydon. Favourite singer - Otis Redding.
- Aged 28, 1974. Now living up north. Moved from journalism with the Wigan Post and Chronicle to PR for the Co-op Bank in Manchester, having previously had jobs driving exotic dancers to Northern clubs and selling encyclopedias door to door. Living in Skelmersdale, a Liverpool overspill town, with my first wife, an Anglo-Burmese lady. Music-wise a barren period - Scousers in those days were mainly Country fans.
- Aged 35, 1981. Living in Bolton and still working as head of PR for the Co-op Bank. Remarried, honeymooned in Rome. Punk restarted my interest in music, but there weren't too many gigs worth seeing. Collecting beermats and enjoying real ale.
- Aged 42, 1988. Happy family man now living in Barnet and working for Barclays Bank as a PR man. Set up Barclays' sponsorship of the Football League the year before. Two sons - one born in 1982 and the second in 1986. Getting more interested in music again and thinking about going to New Orleans, which I did the following year.
- Aged 49, 1995. Still at Barclays, working hard as head of retail PR, and still living in Barnet. Visiting Jazzfest in New Orleans regularly and a regular visitor to boot sales. Record collection growing. Sons growing up. Now drinking wine, rather than beer. Beginnings of mid life crisis - making up for lost time!
- Aged 56, 2002. Now divorced and living in Bounds Green, although often in the Isle of Dogs where my girlfriend Maxine, aka Lex, lived. After leaving Barclays in 1999 I had several PR jobs but was made redundant and after nearly a year unemployed got a comms job with Defra in Guildford. Regular visitor to New Orleans, Utrecht Blues Festival and Porretta, and collecting records still.
- Aged 63, 2009. Still living in Bounds Green and working in PR at Rio Tinto, travelling to Australia, Africa and North America. Maxine developed a brain tumour and died at the end of the year. Still visiting New Orleans from time to time and Porretta, and frequenting boot sales on the lookout for records.
That's the story up to three years ago. Now I'm retired and living in Hampshire. The next '7 Up' landmark will be when I'm 70 in four years time. What will my situation be then I wonder?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Duck Dunn RIP

What has already been a terrible year for Memphis soul just got a whole lot worse with news of the death of bass player Donald 'Duck' Dunn' in Japan, where he was playing with his long time partner Steve Cropper. Duck Dunn played on Last Night by the Mar-Keys and became a key member of Booker T and the MGs who had many hits of their own and also acted as house band at Stax, backing great recordings by the likes of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd and Albert King. My photo shows him playing with Steve Cropper at Porretta in 2007.
Following the deaths of Andrew Love, Skip Pitts and J Blackfoot in recent weeks, this has been a huge blow to soul music.

Rocking at Hemsby

A long night at the Hemsby Rock and Roll Weekender yesterday - with John Spencely driving and Ken Major for company - to catch Robin Luke, who sold three million copies of Susie Darlin' in 1958, playing in the UK for the first time. Still looking and sounding good, he went through a fairly short but top quality set featuring mostly songs he recorded back in the late fifties. Since his success as a teenager he's had an impressive career as a professor at Missouri State University, but he showed he's lost none of his vocal skills as he went through a selection of teen ballads and soft rock and roll numbers. He followed an opening Peggy Sue with Marty Wilde's Bad Boy - a rare example of a UK original being covered by an American artist. After that it was Can't Stop Me From Dreaming, Walking In the Moonlight, Won't You Please Be Mine, the upbeat Rotten Love and Ever Lovin' - a song made famous by Ricky Nelson - before finishing off with his rocking follow up single Chicka Chicka Honey and of course Susie Darlin'. After 30 minutes Robin had run out of numbers so he reprised the last two numbers as an encore, saying he's had 'more fun than a pig in poop', before finishing off with an Elvis inspired version of Blue Suede Shoes. Altogether a very enjoyable set - but I'm pissed off that my camera malfunctioned and I didn't get any photos.
I had heard a lot of good stuff from John about Swedish singer Eva Eastwood and I have to say I wasn't disappointed, even if my main interest on the night was Robin Luke. With her excellent band the Magic Keys, she ranged from rockabilly to sixties girl group pop and hard edged rock and roll. She's got a great voice and brilliant stage presence. I don't know her tracks too well, but she included Hot Chicks and Cool Cats, Everybody's Gone and Done It, Oh Peter, Love My Baby, the excellent Wendy's Wedding, 60291, Burning, You Should Have Asked Me and What Do You Know About Love. She finished with an excellent version of Sonny Burgess's Ain't Got A Thing and, as an encore, Ruth Brown's As Long As I'm Moving. Good rocking fun throughout.
This was my first Hemsby for over ten years, but on this evidence I may well go again.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Lovers Rock in Islington

The black British soft reggae genre of music known as Lovers Rock spawned a number of successful singers in the late seventies and early eighties. Melodic and soft-edged, it's perfect for smooching or just swaying to the beat. Two of its foremost exponents were Janet Kay (top photo) and Carroll Thompson (lower photo), who both had major Lovers Rock hits, and their show at the Islington Assembly Hall last night showed that they are still at the top of the game - and that the genre is far from dead. The mood was mellow and there were smiles on the faces of the audience - the majority of whom were female, many of them clearly reliving their youth - as they swayed and sang along.
Janet and Carroll alternated throughout, each doing two or three numbers before passing to the other, culminating - to the crowd's delight - with their biggest hits - Carroll's Hopelessly In Love and Janet's 1978 smash Silly Games (check out the Youtube clips below). Carroll's set included Sing Me A Love Song, Just A Little Bit, Yesterday, Touch Me In The Morning, Crazy For You, Phyllis Dillon's Don't Stay Away, I'm So Sorry and Simply In Love - all of them well received by the enthusiastic crowd who sang along at every opportunity. Janet included You Bring The Sun Out, Minnie Ripperton's Loving You, Missing You, Silhouettes, Billy Stewart's I Do Love You and Sittin' In The Park and Rock the Rhythm. Both of them have strong voices and the band and female backing singers were sympathetic. Overall, this was a laid back affair and the crowd went home happy, remembering perhaps the first loves of their lives.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A few final words

There are a couple of deaths to catch up on.
Lloyd Brevett was the double bass player with the Skatalities and was an influential early ska and reggae performer. Hits such as Guns of Navarone and Eastern Standard Time helped to pioneer the ska sound and when the band broke up, when trombonist Dn Drummond died, Lloyd continued with the Soul Brothers, later to become the Soul Vendors. He left the reformed Skatalites in 2004 and now only Lester Sterling of the original band remains. Lloyd was 80.
Rockabilly singer Larry Donn grew up in Arkansas in the fifties and released his first record Honey Bun in 1959. He recorded for Sun but no tracks were issued and he became a DJ. He was 70.
A final word, too, for hairdresser Vidal Sassoon who, as much as anyone, symbolised the style of the sixties. He made his brand global and became a millionaire - not bad for a Jewish boy from the East End. He was 84.

Here's a photo I took of Lloyd Brevett playing with the Skatalites at Dingwalls in 2003.

Read more »

Monday, May 07, 2012

Vinyl Obscurities - One Sided London demos

London American is the king of UK record labels with hundreds of early US rock and roll records being released on the label in the late fifties and early sixties. For the first few years (up to 1960) Decca group released one sided demos in small quantities and some of the more obscure London records are more common in this form than in the stock copy version. I came across this Fats Domino demo at a car boot the other day, which prompted me to feature a selection of my favourite one sided London demos this time on the blog.

1. Fats Domino - What's the reason I'm not pleasing you. This was the B side of Blue Monday which was issued on London 8377 in 1957.
2. Little Richard - Ooh My Soul. Classic Richard - issued on London 8647 in 1958. B side is True Fine Mama.
3. Jack Scott - With Your Love. Jack's second UK single, released on London 8765 in 1958. B side is Geraldine.
4. Titus Turner - We Told You Not To Marry. Noted songwriter and R & B singer, this was recorded for King and is an answer song to Lloyd Price's I'm Gonna Get Married. Released in 1960 on London 9024. B side is Taking Care of Business.
5. Bobby Comstock and the Counts - Jambalaya. White rock and roller Bobby was best known for Tennessee Waltz and Let's Stomp. Here he is on the Cajun classic, released in 1960 on London 9080. B side is Let's Talk It Over.
6. Billy Bland - Sweet Thing. Wrongly attributed to Bobby 'Blue' Bland, this was the B side to Let The Little Girl Dance released on London 9096 in 1960.
7. Jessie Hill - Ooh Poo Pah Doo. This slice of New Orleans R and B was Jessie's biggest hit and kept him in business until his death in 1996. It was recorded at Cosimo Matassa's studio and produced by Allen Toussaint. Released on London 9117 in 1960, this is Part One. Fortunately I've also got Part Two, also on a one sided demo.
8. Etta James - Tough Mary. This great R and B number is the B side of Etta's first UK release - All I Could Do Was Cry - released on London 9139 in 1960.
9. Shirley and Lee - Let The Good Times Roll. This is a more uptempo version of Shirley and Lee's Aladdin hit of 1956, recorded for Warwick and is almost equally good in my opinion. Released on London 9209 in 1960. B side is Keep Loving Me.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Skip Pitts

Word has come through of the death of Charles 'Skip' Pitts - famous for his wah wah guitar on Isaac Hayes' Shaft - at the age of 65. It's only a few days ago that I heard of a benefit being held for him in Memphis to help with his medical costs for cancer. And it's only six months since I saw him play with the Bo-Keys at the Ponderosa Stomp when he looked well and was in good form (see photo). Sadly his death means that we will be deprived of his excellent guitar work at this year's Porretta Soul Festival where the Bo-Keys are scheduled to play.
Born in Washington, Skip played on Gene Chandler's Rainbow '65 before joining Wilson Pickett's band. He worked with Isaac Hayes for many years and also played on many Stax records by Rufus Thomas, the Soul Children and others. He has toured with the Bo-Keys extensively since its formation in 1998.