May 12, 2012
Bloody hell, Van Morrison can sing the shit out of anything. This was the first track on his country covers record, "Pay The Devil" in 2006 and it was originally a big hit for Webb Pierce in 1953. Actually, Van sort of mumbles this one - but it's great for one of two reasons... either Van singing anything is gold or the song itself is so strong it can withstand any performance and still kill. A little of both, I guess. If we were still civilized enough to have jukeboxes in every corner bar, this would be as good a choice as any if you wanted to get shitfaced in style.
Here's the original Webb Pierce version from 1953:
A true anomaly in the Stones catalogue. Nobody knows what the hell it is and the Stones never really had another song that sounds like it. They recorded it and forgot about it, except Keith Richards. He played it with his solo band The Xpensive Winos in the late 80’s and later convinced Mick to put it in the set-list in the mid-90’s for a spell.
It was resurrected for the Martin Scorsese concert film Shine A Light in 2007, probably because Keith has claimed it’s one of his favourite Stones songs and here was a chance to rescue it for posterity. It’s so tightly wound with each progressive chorus but it doesn’t have any release point like most Stones tracks. It winds up and never breaks until they fade it out. But try getting this out of your head once you’ve laid into it a few times.
Connection was originally released on the Between The Buttons LP, which featured a blazingly stoned Brian Jones on the cover photo. Every song on this record would fade into obscurity almost immediately because the Stones were on the verge of recording most of their classic records between 69-73 which were a leap back to their blues and rock and roll roots…. thankfully. But Connection is killer shit from their wanker era.
May 11, 2012
Not sure what to say about "Mississippi". Bob pulled off one of his greatest songs about 40 years after he recorded his first record. If I had to pick 5 Dylan favourites, this would be in there. This one always puts me at a loss for words. Should have been a movie starring Anthony Quinn or Henry Fonda...
From the "Love And Theft" LP
"Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinkin’ 'bout the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleepin' in Rosie’s bed"
I’ve always liked these kind of “world has gone to shit” songs with lyrics that take on everything at once, scattershot style. Bob Dylan had a good one with “Everything Is Broken”. This one doesn’t go totally into that category – it’s more like a stoned “Masters Of War” but with a chorus like “Save me Jesus, from this God-forsaken place”, ol’ Bobby is clearly throwing up his hands at the whole goddamn mess, like Randy Newman does on a lot of his records.
Every member of The Band played on at least one song on this album and Rick Danko co-produced it, which is apt because Danko was clearly influenced by Bobby Charles’ singing at some early formative stage. There are moments on this record where you can close your eyes and pretend it’s Danko singing, but on this particular track, Charles is phrasing his words in a way that clearly influenced Randy Newman as well.
While Newman was already established by the time this record came out, he would have certainly heard Charles’ early recordings which were a strange combination of rock and roll, New Orleans R & B and pure Billboard Chart pop. It took me a while to understand where Charles was coming from. When you see a white guy on Chess Records, you expect something harder, but his laidback approach took me off guard and I didn’t find it exciting at first. But I kept hearing the Chess Masters record of his stuff almost incidentally, like when the album before it on your Itunes runs out and this one starts and you’re too lazy to change it. Then I started playing it on purpose and found I wanted to put my feet up and have a beer or two and just listen to it front to end. Something about his voice – he has a full, thick tone but he doesn’t put any weight behind it – begins to hypnotize you after 2 or 3 numbers.
Charles wasn’t a steady touring performer but he wrote a ton of great songs that other people performed – he wrote “Walking To New Orleans” that Fats Domino made a classic out of. “See You Later, Alligator”, “Why Are People Like That” (which Muddy Waters played in the 70’s on a record with Levon Helm drumming … small world). Bobby Charles stands right up there with his Louisiana peers like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair. Charles died in 2010.
Here's a quick shot of early Charles from the Chess days - Take It Easy Greasy (1956):
One more for the road - the Bobby Charles penned "Walking To New Orleans" by Fats Domino (1960):
Again, thanks to the now legendary Anthology of American Folk Music released in 1952, this song was heard by many and covered by many. This version may be the most well-known but everybody from Woody Guthrie, Uncle Tupelo, Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe, Manfred Mann, Pete Seeger and Burl Ives have done a take on it.
Consider this the sister song to “Stagger Lee”, another murder ballad with a similar scenario that was done hundreds of times with impossible variations. John Hardy was a black railroad worker who hanged in 1894 for the murder of Thomas Drews during a game of “craps” (some claim it was poker) in West Virginia. The dispute was allegedly about 25 cents. They say Hardy gave a speech from the gallows before the noose went around his neck, claiming his love for God and begging forgiveness for the shooting death of Drews. Others say he was defiant to the end. In this Carter Family version, the last lines are:
“John Hardy walked out on his scaffold high,
With his loving little wife by his side,
And the last words she heard poor John say,
‘I’ll meet you in that sweet by and by.’”
May 9, 2012
Strange to say Casino Boogie is underappreciated, seeing that it’s on the Stones most celebrated album, “Exile On Main Street” and occupies a prime spot in the running order – 4th from the top, and on side one of the LP when this was first released, sandwiched in between the frantic boogie of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” and what may be the greatest Stones song of all-time, “Tumbling Dice”.
Yet the Stones never played this live on any of their tours, it never makes the greatest hits packages, and nobody ever covers it. One listen and you get a slight clue – it’s probably impossible to recreate that vibe anywhere near what it sounds like on record. It’s impossibly lazy sounding and any attempt to recapture that drugged out, South-of-France decadence is sure to fail, even by the creators themselves.
You don’t need me to tell you how great Exile On Main Street is or the conditions it was recorded in. It’s a story that’s now part of the mythos, like Elvis walking into Sun Records in Memphis and cutting “It’s Alright, Mama” to an incredulous Sam Phillips. But to me, no song better captures the hazy blues Saturday night of Exile better than the heat-stroked “Casino Boogie”. It’s hard to even think of a band that could write this song and perform it the way it was recorded. The mumbled but swaggering lines by Jagger, the high lonesome backing vocals by Richards on almost every line, the rhythm section almost falling out of tune at the same moments, like the reel of tape was warped in the heat. This is a song where you can smell and taste the air it was cut into.
People are losing their jobs all over the place. Here in Ottawa, whole swaths of government workers are being let go, and in a government town, that’s bad news, like auto plants in Detroit laying off assembly line workers is bad news.
It’s the same then as it is now the world over. As T-Bone says, “Times is hard, baby, and hustling is really on”. And hard times with money means hard times at home with your old lady or old man. You don’t find political blues songs, but you sure hear about the fallout at home. This isn’t one of T-Bone’s more well known songs, and only features a short guitar run at the beginning, but you know Chuck Berry was listening pretty closely, as he was to all of T-Bone’s records. Just like Keith Richards copped Berry's riffs and style, Chuck did the same with T-Bone Walker. And we can all be thankful of that little miracle.
May 7, 2012
I used to have this version on an old cassette tape full of jazz standards, and in the fall/winter of 1997 I listened to that tape on a loop because I only had one other laying around for the little player alarm clock beside my bed. I'd fall asleep to songs like this and "Sentimental Journey" by Doris Day, staring at the faint reflection on the window of the wooden cross from the church across the street. The song and the cross are one and the same in my memory now.
I hadn't heard this version of "He's Funny That Way" for a long time, maybe not since that winter, until I heard a mysterious few seconds of it on the TV while I was in another room. Coming back to this song is like finding an old picture you thought you had lost.
A lot of people think Billie Holiday is depressing because of the hell she was going through in her life, but I never felt that way listening to her. The early stuff from the 30's in particular, is just pure warmth. It wasn't until "Strange Fruit" in 1939 that the full power to haunt a song (and the listener) became clear.
Holiday could take a humble sort of tune like this and make it unforgettable. The song just unwinds from her, and every line bleeds into the next. Listening to her, you know you're at the source of something and it doesn't even make sense to try and explain it. She's her own genre.
John Hammond "discovered" Holiday and he would go on to sign a kid named Bob Dylan. Not bad, John.
May 4, 2012
When the blues nearly died in America (commercially), the Brits were all too happy to take them and eventually most of the big blues names made it across the ocean to play for young kids like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.
Here's Chess backbencher Sugar Pie in England backed by guitarist Hubert Sumlin (Howlin Wolf's guitar player) and Willie Dixon on bass who wrote all the Chess Records classics like Hoochie Coochie Man etc.
Sugar Pie looks like she's three feet tall in front of big Willie, but she's one of those female singers who just vibrate, like Tina Turner or Etta James. Sugar Pie had a big hit with "Soulful Dress" but was never a big star on the Chess label, despite being a hell of a live performer.
Rock Me Baby has always been a lazy kind of number, no matter who plays it, but this version moves well because Sumlin's guitar sings the whole way through and Sugar Pie is someone you can watch for hours. She's almost like a cartoon character, Betty Boop pleading with the fella's to "rock" her all night long.
Also, just watching big Willie Dixon smile and roll his eyes is worth the whole four minutes.
Very rare but sorta late rockabilly. It's hard not to fall in love with this one. It's held together with spit and nearly falls off a cliff a few times but it's pure wild man music sung by someone who sounds like a twelve year old. Maybe he was. It has it's own internal logic and I have no doubt when they were playing it they thought it was tight as hell. As far as I can tell, the Relyea's didn't exist past 1963, but at least they gave us this crazed minute and a half.
Uncle Dave Macon had two songs on the well-known Anthology Of American Folk Music released in 1952 by Harry Smith. Macon was well known outside of the Anthology due to being a Grand Ole Opry star, but this compilation was a gateway for everybody into more unknown Appalachian music. Suddenly these long forgotten field recordings were being covered by everybody in the 60's folk boom and the rest is history. Most of the singers on that Anthology are now revered and Uncle Dave Macon is no exception, considered by some to be more important in early country music than Jimmie Rodgers. I don't even care about that argument. Let the nerds decide. Just listen to the hell of a time they're all having when Macon whoops into that chorus/refrain and starts stomping his feet. This thing gets unhinged.
This is the man who laughed at a young Robert Johnson in the early 1930's when Robert tried to sit in on a Son House gig and fumbled around on the guitar. Johnson took the humiliation and, as myth has it, walked to the crossroads and sold his soul to "Old Scratch" in exchange for skill and fame. When he went back to Son House, nobody was laughing anymore. During the big folk and Delta blues revival of the late 50's and early 60's, Son House was the biggest discovery, a man who had laid dormant for decades until he had an audience again. He picked up the steel guitar and started playing his signature song Death Letter for white college audiences across the country. He was also one of the only people left alive who knew Robert Johnson personally and he spent the rest of his life answering questions about a man who died in 1938.
This song is pure power no matter how slow or fast House played it. This cut from a TV show sometime in the 60's finds House in growling form, like he just wrote it hours before.
The best way to describe the respect that fellow blues musicians had for the legendary Son House is found in the book about Muddy Waters "Can't Be Satisfied" written by Robert Gordon. In it, Gordon talks about a scene backstage at a 1965 show at Carnegie Hall with both Muddy and House:
House, who was tall and boney, walked backstage with his loose gait and one of Muddy's band members nudged another, then imitated the man's walk. "Muddy moved across to that guy quick," said Dick Waterman, Son House's manager. "Quick! And Muddy grabbed him. 'I seen you mockin' that man. Don't you be mocking that man.' And everybody fell back. He said, 'When I was a boy comin' up, that man was king. King! If it wasn't for that man, you wouldn't have a job. If it wasn't for that man, I wouldn't be here now.'"
Here's a White Stripes version of Death Letter from 2003:
Paul Oscher, a white harmonica player who was with Muddy’s band from the late 60’s to the early 70’s, talks about being on the road with guys like Andrew “Bo” Bolton, Muddy’s driver and best friend, and Sonny Wimberly, the bass player, in “Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life And Times Of Muddy Waters” written by Robert Gordon:
“Bo would go [while driving], ‘Whoa! I see the moon and the moon sees me, God bless the moon and God bless me.’ Then Bo would take a swig of gin, say, ‘Wake up, motherfuckers, wake up, y’all sleeping while I got to work.’ Then Sonny would say to Bo, ‘Shut the fuck up, you ugly motherfucker. We the stars.’ Then Bo would turn around to Sonny and say, ‘Ain’t but one star in this band and that’s Muddy Waters.’ And that’s the way the motherfucking shit would go.”
Gordon goes on to write: “Doo rags on their heads, processes beneath, guns at their sides, the Muddy Waters band, integrated, was a sight to see. At a truck stop in east Texas, the whole room shut down when the band walked in; they opted for takeout. They stopped for gas in Michigan, late night, and the lady pulled down the shades. On their way to Tupelo, Mississippi, they passed a billboard in the middle of the night [that read]… BEWARE! YOU ARE NOW ENTERING KLAN COUNTRY. A hooded figure sat atop a rearing horse. The silence in the van thickened.”
"I was accused of murder in the first degree
The judge's wife cried, "Let the man go free!"
I was rubbin' my root, my John the Conquer root
Aww, you know there ain't nothin' she can do, Lord,
I rub my John the Conquer root"
It took me a while to get into Leon Russell. This song for instance, I kept waiting for something to happen, for that drum fill which would kick in the rest of the band, but Leon just keeps it rolling on piano with his then songwriting partner Marc Benno wailing in the background. Then it clicked for me, much like it did with somebody like Dr. John. A lot of those early Russell songs are a pure force of personality and he wins you over, even with warped, almost tuneless dirges like this. Now I can't stop playing his records.
"Well I'm tryin' to stay 'live
And keep my sideburns too
Ask all the people
It's getting hard to do"
The big man used to sit on a throne in the middle of the stage later in life but never really got the fame and fortune he deserved. His discography is intimidating because there’s just so much material, much like Willie Nelson – where do you start? This is a good place. “If You Need Me” was released in 1963 on Atlantic Records, home of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. It was written by Wilson Pickett but put aside for Burke when Atlantic rejected Pickett’s version (Pickett was allegedly crushed but ended up with Atlantic anyways). I prefer Burke’s. It’s a little more restrained and it cuts through better that way. To me, Wilson Pickett was a party singer and not many were better at that, but Burke could lean on a ballad like a sonofabitch.
Here's the rarer Pickett version from 1962: