Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Latest music deaths

Here's a quick update on musicians who have died over the last few weeks, not all of them through COVID-19. The Vinyl Word raises a glass to them all.

There are a couple of bluesmen. One was Big George Brock who I saw several times at the King Biscuit Festival, in Helena, and in Clarksdale and also at BB's Jazz Blues and Soups in his adopted home town of St Louis. Always very smartly dressed in colourful suits and wearing a hat, Big George played with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf in his native Mississippi in the fifties before opening the Club Caravan in St Louis, which was the title of a Blues Award nominated album recorded in 2005.
Another oversized bluesman to have passed away is New Orleans resident Big Al Carson, aged 66, who played at Jazzfest several times (pictured in 2007) and on Bourbon Street. I wrote at the time:  'Big Al Carson more than justifies his name. He isn't just big, he's huge, but he's got a great blues voice, as regulars in the bar on Bourbon Street, where he plays most nights, can testify. As he says in one of his songs, he's 'built for comfort, not for speed'.
RADIO CAROLINE - 1960'SIrishman Ronan O'Rahilly, who has died aged 79, can claim credit for one of the biggest developments in UK radio history: he launched Radio Caroline in 1964, which spawned other pirate stations such as Radio London, Radio Atlanta and Radio 390 and led to the revolution within the BBC which produced Radio 1 and Radio 2. Prior to that he managed The Scene in London, a club that I visited on several occasions, and later produced 'Girl On a Motorcycle' starring a leather clad Marianne Faithfull, and co-founded Major Minor Records. Radio Caroline survives, although no longer at sea.
No photo description available.A fifties singer who has been somewhat forgotten over the years, is Carl Dobkins Jr, who had a smash hit with 'My Heart Is An Open Book' in 1959 and followed up with 'If You Don't Want My Lovin', 'Lucky Devil' and 'Exclusively Yours. Originally from Cincinnati, Carl was 79.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmK4P3Shxt4
Hamilton Bohannon, 78, was a percussionist with Motown in the 1960s who then became leader of the Fabulous Counts, which included Ray Parker and Dennis Coffey. He made his name as a disco artist when he was signed to Dakar and released the album 'Stop and Go' in 1973. He had success, particularly in the UK, with 'South African Man' and 'Disco Stomp' and, after a move to Mercury, with 'Let's Start The Dance' featuring Carolyn Crawford.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIas_yxduDw
Other recent deaths include:
Ian Whitcomb, an English singer/songwriter who had a US hit with 'You Turn Me On' in 1965. He also had success with the blues based 'This Sporting Life' but later work featured his ukelele playing on ragtime records. He was also a successful writer, beginning with 'After the Ball' in 1972.
Eddie Cooley, R and B singer and songwriter who co-wrote 'Fever' with Otis Blackwell. He had a rockabilly style US hit in 1957 with 'Priscilla', as Eddie Cooley and the Dimples.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXfY9-v9g0k
Barney Ales, promotion manager with Motown during the sixties and president of the label in the late 1970s. He also founded the Prodigal record label.
A final word, too, for singer/songwriter John Prine, whose varied life has been celebrated in many obituaries including this one in The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/apr/08/john-prine-obituary

I've just heard that Young Jessie (Obediah Jessie) has died aged 83. A member of the Flairs and, for a while, the Coasters, he made some wonderful R and B records in the mid fifties as a solo performer, including 'I Smell A Rat', 'Mary Lou', 'Hit Git and Split' and 'Shuffle In The Gravel'. I saw him a couple of times - at the Rockin' Race in 2014 and Rhythm Riot the following year - and he was a great performer. At the Riot I wrote: 'The big name of the final day was Young Jessie, now not so young at 78. but still dynamic and with a good stage act. He was wearing a dark green velvet jacket. smart tie and and brown hat but his dapper look was slightly spoilt by a minor wardrobe malfunction which he dealt with in good humour. '24 Hours A day' was followed by 'I Smell A Rat and one of his big hits 'Mary Lou', all sung with great energy. Other numbers included 'Oochie Coochie, 'Lonesome Desert' (featuring some scat singing), 'Shuffle In the Gravel', and 'It Don't Happen No More, before finishing with his biggest record 'Hit Git and Split'. An Excellent set and much enjoyed.' RIP Obie.     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2W_YWsQ2qU

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Juke joints and blues bars

There are no gigs, no trips, no festivals - no live music of any kind thanks to coronavirus. Hopes of foreign trips this year are fading fast. The Mayor of New Orleans has said that there shouldn't be any festivals at all this year. So all we can do is listen to records and remember the trips we've made over the years.
So in this post I'm writing about US juke joints and similar establishments - black blues clubs which I and my travelling companions have visited on our many visits to the States. There are very few genuine places left, but those that we've been to were without exception welcoming and musically great.

1. First up is Wild Bill's at 1580 Vollentine in Memphis, which I visited several times, the first being in 2008 when I was in town with my late girlfriend Maxine. After a couple of weeks in New Orleans we returned with Aussie DJ Pierre Baroni for another enjoyable night and a few years later I went again when I was touring with three friends (Dave T, Lee and Alan). The band was called the Soul Survivors I believe (pictured above in 2008) and a very good blues band they were too. Only beer was available in the tiny club, but there was a liquor store next door and many of the regulars loaded up with stronger stuff. It was mainly a bar for locals, although on the later trip there were quite a few white students there. Brilliant atmosphere. The club closed down a few years ago, but I understand that it reopened in 2018: hopefully I will go again some time.    https://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/farewell-to-wild-bills/Content?oid=10865194

2. Teddy's Juke Joint in Zachary, Lousiana, is another genuine bar that I've visited several times, the first being in 2010. It's hidden away in the swamps north of Baton Rouge and seems to have fairly few visitors, but its owner, Teddy Johnson, is a fantastic character with a friendly word for everyone. The place is littered with music memorabilia - and teddy bears - and Teddy plays records when he's not chatting at the bar. They have live music occasionally and the photo above shows bluesmen Rudy Richard and Larry 'Lightning' Washington. Teddy put on his own light show - using a torch! If you're ever in the area take a trip to Teddy's.

3. Red's in something of an institution in the capital of the blues, Clarksdale, and despite being frequented by many blues fans from out of town it remains a genuine juke joint, with great blues, basic facilities and twinkly Christmas lights. I first went there in 2005 when I drove down from Memphis with Alan and Ken to catch Pinetop Perkins at the Hopson Plantation (he didn't perform as it was a Sunday!). In the evening we went to Red's where Bob Stroger was playing. I've been many times on subsequent visits and the photo shows local blues man Lucious Spiller in 2017. Clarksdale is also home to the Ground Zero Blues Club which is more of a professional operation co-owned by Morgan Freeman, and also well worth a visit.

4. Po' Monkeys in Merigold, Mississippi, was a unique establishment run by a guy called William Seaberry. It was a shack in the middle of nowhere with numerous signs outside (see photo) and festooned with Christmas lights inside. Live music was only available on Thursdays and the time we went in 2015 featured a fairly forgettable white blues band for a largely white audience. William 'Po' Monkey' Seaberry toured the place wearing a sort of cod piece which he would lift up every now and again revealing a huge fake penis. William died in 2016 and sadly the place has now closed, its
contents having been sold off.   https://msbusiness.com/2018/10/po-monkeys-artifacts-sold-in-auction-as-collection/
5. Gip's Place in Bessemer, Alabama, has been operating since 1952 with live blues on a Saturday night. It was run by Henry 'Gip' Gipson, a former grave digger who loved the blues, in an outhouse where he lived and attracted many locals - and the occasional out of town visitor - for a night out each week. The night that I went in 2013, with John H, Lee and Alan, Gip (pictured with me above) did a couple of numbers but most of the music was provided by a white blues band. We brought our own booze - John carried a large box of wine - but there was food available and it was a great evening. A week later, however, the local council closed the place down on the grounds of operating without a licence. There was a campaign to get Gip's reopened which was eventually successful. However, Gip died last year at the age of 99 and its future is once again uncertain.   https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/breakingnews/story/2019/oct/09/owner-backyard-juke-joint-gips-place-dies/505452/

6. I discovered Neal's Juke Joint in Baton Rouge while touring the South with Dave C, Alan and Lee in 2017. Located in Plank Road, it was opened by bluesman Kenny Neal earlier that year, as we discovered when we popped in for a drink at lunchtime. We were told that there was likely to be live music that evening, with members of the Neal family, including Tyree, performing so we came back a few hours later. It seemed like we were the only white patrons they had had as they insisted on buying us drinks and again it was a great night - so much so that we returned the following year where another of the Neal family, Fred (pictured above with Lee) played a few numbers and once again the welcome was brilliant.   https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/entertainment_life/article_42a03c50-46e8-11e7-b712-a721ec447cb8.html
7. There was no live music when we visited the Queen of Hearts bar in Jackson, Ms, in 2018 but a good selection on the juke box, which Dave is pictured choosing some gems. It's a tiny place which has been operating as a blues club, with live music at the weekends, since the 1970s. Locals popped in for take aways while we were there and a local bluesman, McKinney Williams, was enjoying a drink.  Jackson's other main blues attraction these days is Blue Monday, a weekly blues jam at Hal and Mal's Club, which I've visited several times and where artists performing have included local resident Dorothy Moore.   https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/entertainment_life/article_42a03c50-46e8-11e7-b712-a721ec447cb8.html

8. Another Mississippi blues joint with occasional live music is the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia. It's owned by bluesman Jimmy 'Duck' Holmes and has attracted quite a lot of interest in blues circles in recent years. Unfortunately there was no live music on the two occasions I've visited but hopefully one of these years....    http://msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/blue-front-cafe

9. When I visited New Orleans for the first time in 1989 one of the main places I wanted to visit was Irma Thomas's Lion's Den bar. Situated in an unfashionable, and allegedly dangerous part of town in Gravier Street, it proved to be far better than I could have asked. Irma and her husband Emile ran the place with Irma herself helping to serve red beans and rice to customers, as well as performing her brilliant songs with her band The Professionals. On subsequent visits I found that the club had been improved somewhat but the atmosphere remained utterly unique and indeed Irma's voice is still great to this day. As well as Irma I saw several other New Orleans artists play there, including Allen Toussaint, Johnny Adams and Larry Hamilton. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the club and it hasn't reopened - a great loss to the New Orleans music scene.    https://relix.com/articles/detail/interview-irma-thomas-soul-queen-of-new-orleans/
10. Another New Orleans legend, Jessie Hill, was celebrated when his daughter Judy opened the Ooh Poo Pah Doo bar in Orleans Avenue in Treme in 2014. It proved popular with locals and visitors alike and other members of the Hill family, including Trombone Shorty and James Andrews, played there from time to time, along with Guitar Slim Junior, who I saw there on one visit. It seems that the place is now closed as a result of the lease expiring - another sad loss to the Big Easy. The photo above shows Judy - no mean singer herself - in action at the club.    https://relix.com/articles/detail/interview-irma-thomas-soul-queen-of-new-orleans/

11. It took several visits to Lafayette before I eventually found El Sid O's zydeco and blues club open: Sundays only I believe. But when I did in 1993 I was impressed. Run by Sid Williams, brother of Nathan (of Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas), it features local zydeco acts and is one of the few genuine bars of its kind in the region. The night I was there, with Jonathan Coke-Smyth, the band was Zydeco Force (pictured above).   https://eu.theadvertiser.com/story/entertainment/2015/05/08/el-sidos-marks-years-making-em-dance/27008359/

12. Ernie K-Doe, hit maker with Mother in Law in 1961, was one of the main reasons I went to New Orleans Jazzfest back in 1989 and in subsequent years. But it wasn't until 1997 that I visited his Mother In Law Lounge in North Claiborne St with John Howard. There were few customers and Ernie was sitting in a 'throne'. as befits 'The Emperor of the Universe'. Ernie would perform there on occasions including one time when he impersonated Jerry Butler at length. After his death in 2001 it was taken over by his widow Antoinette who turned it into a shrine to Ernie, with garish murals on the exterior and K-Doe related memorabilia and a lifesize mannequin inside. It became quite successful but was badly damaged by Katrina. The club survived however and reopened but Antoinette herself died in 2009. It is now owned by New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and still features live music on occasions.     https://acloserwalknola.com/places/ernie-k-mother-law-lounge/

13. Los Angeles is a place where the blues is rather hidden away. But genuine blues places can be found if you know where to look (thanks to Allen 'Charmin' Larman for the info). Bell's Blues Workshop is one such place. Run by Franklin Bell (pictured above) it takes place every Sunday afternoon in the garage of his house in South Central. There's a band and a variety of singers perform a few numbers each while the mostly older audience soak it up. Singers that I've seen there on the four occasions I've visited, with Alan and John and others, include Mississippi Bert, South Side Slim, Sherry Pruit and others who are not well known, although on one occasion Eli 'Paper Boy' Reed sang a couple of numbers. Highly recommended.    https://www.laweekly.com/l-a-s-coolest-blues-joint-is-franklin-bells-south-central-garage/

14. Another venerable LA institution was the Pure Pleasure Blues Lounge in Manchester Road, a place where every Sunday evening local blues artists such as 'Sir' Stan Griggs, Sonny Green and Bobby Love (pictured) could regularly be found doing a few numbers. The locals look after you well - we were accompanied across the road to our car after one show in case we were mugged - and the house band led by veteran bluesman Joe Kincaid was great. The place has been operating for many years, as the link below shows, but I've heard that it has now closed. If so it's a tragedy. While on the subject of LA I really should mention a couple of other places that feature (or featured) live blues: the Menlo Club, which featured live blues on a regular basis, sadly closed down in 2016, but  La Louisianne, a smooth black supper club, is still in operation, with Hank Carbo, brother of New Orleans artists Chuck and Chick, appearing there every Monday until recently.    https://www.laweekly.com/r-i-p-the-menlo-club-one-of-l-a-s-last-old-school-blues-joints/

15. We move to Detroit where Dave and I visited in October to attend the Detroit A Go Go soul weekend. While we were there Noah Shaffer introduced us to the Raven Lounge, probably the only genuine blues bar in the city. There were a steady stream of excellent blues singers performing a few numbers each, the best of whom was Harmonica Shah (pictured above). Just how this unassuming bar has survived is a miracle but survive it does. And long may it thrive.   https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-raven-lounge-detroit

16. Finally, Alan Lloyd has reminded me that I really should include the City Lights Bar and Grill in Las Vegas on this list. We discovered this up market place a few years ago and went along a couple of times on the Monday following Viva Las Vegas. The host Bobby Jones, an excellent singer in the B B King style, sang several numbers and invited others to sing, including Monique Brewster and Lady Brandy, all of whom were excellent. On our last couple of visits to Vegas we noticed that the club had closed - yet another blues bar (admittedly only one night a week) hitting the dust it seems.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Bill Withers RIP + others

With coronavirus raging, the last thing we need is more bad news about the deaths of musicians, whether as a result of the disease or not. But sadly the deaths continue, the latest being Bill Withers, at the age of 81. Bill's distinctive, hypnotic voice and almost monotone, yet soulful, style brought him great success in the 1970s with several memorable massive hits.
He came to the music industry late, having served in the US Navy and working in an aircraft factory. Indeed, the photo on his first LP, 'Just As I Am', featured a photo of him at the factory carrying his lunch box. That album featured two of his biggest hits 'Ain't No Sunshine' and 'Grandma's Hands' and was produced by Booker T Jones for the Sussex label. Later hits included 'Lean On Me', 'Use Me', and 'Lovely Day', which was his biggest hit in the UK, on two occasions. Two more studio albums for Sussex followed - 'Still Bill' and '+'Justments', along with a 'Live At Carnegie Hall' LP.  Bill signed with Columbia and recorded a further five albums, including 'Making Music' and 'Menagerie', which included 'Lovely Day'. Eventually he lost faith in Columbia, whose executives he described as 'blaxperts' when they tried to control his material, and he did a number of joint projects, with Grover Washington, the Crusaders and Ralph MacDonald. Bill's style was unlike other singers of the era and divided opinion, but his hits were truly memorable and he won no fewer than four Grammys. A great loss.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CICIOJqEb5c
Another death this week is that of Bob Andy, one of the most influential Jamaican reggae singers and songwriters. Best known in the UK for his duet with Marcia Griffiths on the Harry J produced 'Young Gifted and Black' in 1970, he began his career as a founder member of the Paragons and also recorded numerous solo numbers, including 'I've Got To Get Back Home' in 1967, 'Too Experienced' and 'The Way I Feel'. He enjoyed success as a songwriter, writing songs for Ken Boothe and Marcia Griffiths, and continued to create memorable solo records into the 1970s, as well as continuing to record with Marcia Griffiths, enjoying success with 'Pied Piper'. In 1978 he withdrew from singing and concentrated on dance and acting, appearing in 'Children of Babylon' and 'The Mighty Quinn'.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vF67IBYVPUU
The Vinyl Word raises a (solitary) glass to both Bill and Bob and also to others who have passed away recently. These include:
Ellis Marsalis, New Orleans jazz pianist who was one of the biggest jazz names in the Big Easy and father of six sons, including jazz musicians Winton and Branford. I'm sure I saw him at Jazzfest on at least one occasion but can't figure out which year it was.
Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, who died of COVID-19 aged 86. He was one of the key figures in African music from the 1950s onwards and was involved in the development of disco music.
Jazz guitarist John 'Bucky' Pizzarelli, who has died of COVID-19 aged 94. He played with many jazz greats, including Django Reinhardt and Benny Goodman, and his guitar solo on Connie Francis's 'Lipstick On Your Collar' has been described as 'the greatest pop rock and roll guitar solo of all time'.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMlALAaEwfA
Another COVID-19 victim is country singer Joe Diffie, aged just 61. Having moved to Nashville, he signed for Epic in 1990 and had 35 entries in the country chart as well as successful albums including 'A Thousand Winding Roads', 'Regular Joe' and 'Third Rock From The Sun'.
I guess I should also mention Eddie Large who, as the funnier half of the poor man's Morecambe and Wise double act, Little and Large, kept us amused on Saturday nights in the seventies and eighties. Another COVID-19 victim. Here's to more innocent days!