Tuesday, February 23rd

Semi-Normal Service Resumed

5 Things Christmas Song, December 23rd

Saturday, July 25th

Monday, July 6th

Saturday, May 30th. Part Two

Saturday, May 30th. Part One

Read this for more from Richard on the astonishing career of Buddy Featherstonhaugh,
possibly the only man to have had careers as a jazz saxophonist
(he toured with Louis Armstrong) and Grand Prix racer simultaneously.
Peter Guralnick on Little Richard here.
Read Emily Nussbaum’s fascinating profile of Fiona Apple in The New Yorker.
Here’s Carrie Battan’s review of “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”.
More on Armstrong’s collages at The Louis Armstrong House here.


Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week. Tuesday, May 5th

Well, John the Baptist, after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero, the commander-in-chief
Saying, “Tell me, great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”
The commander-in-chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell, he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.”
— “Tombstone Blues”, Bob Dylan

{WELCOME}

I’m sitting here thinking. Has anyone done a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo” yet? “Sitting here in limbo / Waiting for the dice to roll… / Sitting here in limbo / Got some time to search my soul…”
Or the great Willie Brown’s “Future Blues”? “The minutes seems like hours, and hours seems like days / The minutes seems like hours, hours seems like days…” [Recorded in 1931, it was once among the rarest blues 78s, and is worth around $25,000 if you can find a copy. Here it is on YouTube, with a photo his friend Son House’s signature on the label. Brown is famously mentioned in Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”.]

Anyhow, with a distinct New Orleans / Muscle Shoals flavour, here’s Five Things. We start with a few recommendations. First, if you feel like “getting lost in that hopeless little screen” as Len put it, some of our tv highlights.

{ONE} VISIONS 

SUNNY DAYS I spent some time last week sitting in the garden, lazily learning “Sunny”, Bobby Hebb’s perfect soul-pop classic. I’d been inspired by the wonderful Billie Eilish’s performance of it on the One World at Home concert, accompanied by her brother, Finneas, on an honest-to-god actual Wurlitzer electric piano*. Next to all the try-hard over-soulers, and especially after Elton John’s bizarre performance – in Tony Olmos’s words: “WTF! Why is Elton John murdering his own song?!” – Billie was a relaxed breath of fresh air.

My favourite version is still Bobby’s original, one take at the end of a session, but I also love this live performance on US TV in 1972, with Ron Carter on electric bass. Every verse pitches it up a half step and increases the tempo, until all hell breaks loose. Dig the Bond Theme intro (in the original, a vibraphone hints at that melody, but it’s made explicit in the guitar part here). As Richard Williams’ fine obit for The Guardian tells it: “In 1961 he moved to New York, where he found a more congenial artistic climate. “Sunny” would be written there, partly as a reaction to the death of his brother, who was murdered outside a Nashville nightclub in November 1963, the day after John F Kennedy’s assassination. “I needed to pick myself up,” Hebb said. The song came to him one morning when he had just returned to his home in Harlem from an all-night music session and a bout of heavy drinking, the sight of a purple dawn being its immediate inspiration.”

NOVELISATION The first episode of Novels that Shaped our World on BBC4 was an object lesson in making a literary documentary — informed people interviewed well, a clarity in the narration, and modern dramatisations of key works done with a light touch and a sense of fun. So introduce yourself to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and other early masterworks. Take a bow, director Sarah Barclay.

UN-NETFLIX Unorthodox, about a woman who goes to Berlin to free herself from a from a strict Hassidic sect in Brooklyn. Better in Brooklyn than Berlin dramatically, but fascinating, with some fantastic performances. Loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, it’s the first Netflix series to be primarily in Yiddish. Music is an important part of the plot, and the reveal at the end is very moving. Also Uncorked, a Memphis-set story of a father who wants to hand over his Barbeque restaurant to his son, who is more interested in becoming a Sommelier. It’s a post-Moonlight film, funny and thoughtful, with a smart script and an interesting soundtrack of Memphis hip-hop (except for the scenes in France which, of course, have French rap).

{TWO} SOUNDS

CELLO WEEP FOR ME Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s stunning cello piece – “Melody” – ended the Today Programme one day last week. Muscular and emotional, it sounds like the past and the future at once, which was why it seemed so perfect for the present. From powerful bass tones to almost-imperceptible flute-like grace notes, it’s compelling and concise. It’s the first piece of music on this page of his website.

UNDER THE WALL Tunnel 29, a fantastic serial by Helena Merriman which “tells the extraordinary true story of a man who dug a tunnel right under the feet of Berlin Wall border guards to help friends, family and strangers escape…” Interviews with the tunnelers who survived and the presence of some real-life coverage of the attempts (extraordinarily, an NBC film crew were making a documentary of these student diggers) make it an edge-of-the-seat thriller, beautifully rendered in sound. You can also read a web version alongside, which has photos of the locale, the wall and its guards and all the participants.

CORONA IN THE CRESCENT CITY Harry Shearer on New Orleans, From Katrina to Corona on the always-interesting From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4. “Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is facing another lethal storm. The city on Louisiana’s coast has become one of the worst-hit areas in the US. Some have blamed the high death toll on the decision to allow the annual Mardi Gras parade to go ahead. But musician and actor Harry Shearer, famous, among other things for voicing characters in The Simpsons, says don’t victim blame and don’t reproach the revellers.” Beautifully done. Oh, and Sue McGregor’s excellent The Reunion, also on Radio 4, the episode on four Girl Singers of the 60s – Helen Shapiro, Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw and Jackie Trent.

{THREE} *THE MIGHTY [FINE] WURLITZER

When we recorded in Muscle Shoals we asked why the studio was full of Wurlies. Apparently, schools bought them in bulk for music classes as they had a built-in speaker. Unfortunately, they were a devil to keep in tune, so they offloaded them, and they ended up in recording studios, accidentally becoming a valued component of the “Southern Soul” sound. Here’s Mark P. at the Wurlitzer and Robbie Taylor (our great keyboard player) at the Fender Rhodes. 70s music heaven!


{FOUR} A SLOW BLUES FOR A LOCKDOWN MIDNIGHT

Sometimes there’s nothing like a slow blues, and here’s a cracker, featuring the wonderful Arnett Cobb on tenor sax and Ellis Marsalis on piano, with Chris Severin on bass and Johnny Vidacovich on drums, taped on the evening of January 30, 1982, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Ellis Marsalis sadly died last month.

Drummer Vidacovich was interviewed by my friend Sam Charters for his book A Trumpet around the CornerThe story of New Orleans Jazz, and I love this quote from it… “Musically, what’s going to happen around here – it’s about maintaining the past. But that isn’t a good word, because if I say maintain the “past”, what I really think about is that it’s something that’s growing. It’s a kind of machine. That’s the way music was around here, constantly growing, and it has the past in it. So if we can maintain that, then we’ll do what we’ve always been doing maintaining a music that has a past, [but] that’s very much alive today. That’s what we have to work for.

To me, that’s the way I see the living body of music in New Orleans. It’s very old, but it’s still growing. It’s like a tree that has a big, big trunk and old roots, but if you look up at the top, you can see it’s still sprouting little leaves. It’s still coming out, waving in the breeze. That’s what we have to do, make sure the tree don’t get sick.”

{FIVE} THANK YOU, CHRIS

A lovely 90th birthday tribute to the extraordinary career of Chris Barber on thebluemoment reminds me of the last time I saw Chris play, at the Camberley Cricket Club, alongside the always brilliant clarinet of Sammy Rimington. Sammy’s in the glass to the left, Chris on trombone to the right. Chris was a wide listener, always adding musicians and instruments that weren’t part of his starting point of New Orleans Jazz. For a period he had a great electric guitarist called John Slaughter, a fine horn section and a bevy of excellent guest vocalists. I always loved the fact that Chris also continued to be interested in later music from the Crescent City – his long association with Mac Rebennack was proof of his open ears. When he turned 81, he released a double CD called “Memories of My Trip”, an overview of his career, with fine performances by Chris with Van Morrison, Keith Emerson, Mark Knopfler, Rory Gallagher and Muddy Waters among others.

{ENDNOTES} 

¶ On one of BBC4s interminable So-and-So at the BBC, – you know, Singer-Songwriters, Country Songs, Cilla Black – I catch Carl Douglas doing “Kung Fu Fighting” on the One Hit Wonders show. I’d never realised what a nice-sounding voice he had, and such lovely phrasing. If he could be this good singing nonsense with conviction, I want to know what’s in Carl’s back catalogue, so I’m off to explore…

¶ You shouldn’t miss this, a short performance by “flatfoot” dancer D.Ray White. I aspire to this brilliant style of dance, and will attempt a demonstration at the first post-lockdown party. Be there or be square.

This is one of the best things I’ve read about music, improvised jazz in particular, recently. And these sentences felt relevant to “lockdown time”… “The process described in that paragraph may have taken five minutes, or it may have taken fifteen. No one was keeping score, and one of the special properties of improvisation – and not just jazz improvisation – is that it can take hold of chronological time and distort it: speeding it up, slowing it down, bending it, stopping it altogether. Now Konitz briefly ruled time, making it obey his commands as he lingered over the revealed contours of his design, sprinting forwards and pulling back until he judged the moment right to unveil the unmistakable shape of a standard.


Front Cover

The book of Five Things is available from Amazon here.

“He writes with the insight of someone who has inhabited the world of the professional musician but also with the infectious enthusiasm of someone who is a fan like anyone of us. He also comes at the subject from an entirely personal, slightly sideways perspective, with no agenda and no product to sell. It’s entertaining and inspiring in equal measure.”
from an Amazon review by Zuma

“A terrific book, stuffed to the gills with snippets of news items and observations all with a musical theme, pulled together by the watchful eye of Martin Colyer… lovingly compiled, rammed with colour photos and interesting stories. He has a good ear for a tune, an eye for the out-of-ordinary and can write a bit too.”
Steve Carr, everyrecordtellsastory.com

If you’re receiving the email out, please click on the Date Headline of the page for the full Five Things experience. It will bring you to the site (which allows you to see the Music Player) and all the links will open in another tab or window in your browser.

April 3rd: Bill Withers, RIP

So sad to hear of the death of Bill Withers, life guide and fine songwriter. Here’s a reprint of a couple of Five Things about Bill.

Bill Withers onstage in 1973.

The things you learn…
Sent on a small Bill Withers journey by The Immortal Jukebox, I came across the interesting tale of his first album on the mix site, written by Barbara Schultz. There’s the fascinating story of Wally Heider’s studio in the piece, which is basically an interview with the great engineer Bill Halverson. And how many articles about recording studios feature the word “soffit”? “Withers was eventually signed to Sussex Records, and the great Booker T. Jones was enlisted to produce the new artist’s debut album, Just as I Am in 1971. Also on the session were two members of the MGs – drummer Al Jackson and bass player Donald “Duck” Dunn – plus singer/songwriter Stephen Stills on guitar. The recordings were made in Wally Heider’s Studio 3, then situated in L.A. at the corner of Cahuenga and Selma. The engineer was Bill Halverson, whose credits at that point included such essential records as Crosby Stills and Nash’s massive self-titled debut, Cream’s Badge, Tom Jones Sings She’s a Lady and CSNY’s Déjà Vu.

“It was Stephen Stills’ studio time that we were using,” Halverson recalls by phone from his home in Nashville. “I was working with Stephen on his first solo record, and he came to me a couple nights before this and said, ‘I’ve got this guy who needs a night of studio time.’ Stephen was hanging with Rita Coolidge, and Booker was marrying [Rita Coolidge’s sister] Priscilla Coolidge, and somehow Booker asked Stephen for some studio time. We just spent the one night.” On Withers’ session, Halverson placed Jackson’s kit near the control room glass, under an overhanging soffit – an emulation of United Western 3 [a fabled room in LA Studio lore — ed] – that held the studio playback speakers. “If you tucked the drums as close as you could under that overhang of the big speakers, you were out in the room but you had really good isolation,” Halverson says.

“When Bill Withers showed up,” Halverson says, “he comes walking in with his guitar and a straight-back chair, like a dining room chair, and asks, ‘Where do I set up?’ I showed him right in the middle of the room, and then he left and he came back in with this platform, a kind of wooden box that didn’t have a bottom. It was about four inches tall, and was maybe 3 foot by 4 foot; it was a fairly large platform, and he set it down in the middle of the room. Then he put his chair on it and got his guitar out, and he’s sitting on top of this box. So I miked him and I miked his guitar, and then I was doing other things – getting sounds together. But then he calls me over and he points down to the box and says, ‘You gotta mike the box.’ Well, the way I was trained, you serve the artist, whatever the artist needs. So I got a couple other mics and I miked the box, the place down near the floor, next to this platform.
 
“And now, when you listen to “Ain’t No Sunshine,” you know that all that tapping that goes on [while Withers sings] ‘I know I know I know’ all through it, actually, that’s him tapping his feet on the box, which is actually more intricate than the guitar on that track. He had evidently rehearsed that in his living room, maybe for years.”

I found the great documentary, Still Bill, directed by Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, complete on YouTube. I wrote a little about it in 2012:

It’s Bill Withers’ World: we just live in it… the Wonderful Still Bill
Everyone is hereby urged to see this fine, fine piece of work, less a music documentary than a meditation on how to live a life. Best human moment: Bill’s visit to an educational project helping kids who stutter (Withers did until the age of 28). Best musical moment: a toss-up between Raul Midón and Bill on the telephone, and at a tribute concert, Bill watching Cornell Dupree glide ’n’ slide through Grandma’s Hands, talent undimmed by illness (even though he has an oxygen tube on). Bill steps onto the stage and sings a verse, but then, as Barney Hoskyns’ wrote: “as if concerned not to upstage the ailing but grinning Dupree—one of soul music’s greatest guitar players—he almost immediately sat down beside him, continuing to sing but deferring to Dupree.” And with his hand resting on Cornell’s knee.

If you haven’t seen it, rectify that omission soon. The Cornell Dupree version of “Grandma’s Hands” is at 1 hr 6 minutes.

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