Otis Redding: 50 years gone

It is 50 years this month since Otis Redding died aged only 26 in a plane crash in Madison WI, killing him and four members of his backing group, the Bar-Kays. He was not yet a huge superstar and in fact became such only after he died, with a posthumous worldwide number in (Sitting On) the Dock of the Bay recorded just three days before he died.

In the UK he had been phenomenally popular, especially among young white mods and had had pop hits like My Girl. Back home in the US, he was huge R&B star, topping the R&B charts bit not crossing over to the whiter pop charts. After years as a full-throated blues shouter, he was aiming for a calmer style, in that gap in the market created by the death of Sam Cooke, that other slightly gravelly voiced gospel-turned-poppier singing star, who but had been shot dead in December 1964. Motown too had dominated the charts in the mid-Sixties, cleverly matching R&B with pop rhythms and arrangements on the Temptations and the Four Tops with stunning success. Otis’ label Stax wanted a piece of that and had a plan in place, with Otis at the centre. It’s just that it was interrupted by a plane crash on 10 December 1967.

Related imageOtis Redding was born on 9 September 1941 in Dawson GA, a very small town 150 miles south of Atlanta GA, and moved aged three to Macon GA, about 80 miles nearer Atlanta. His father was often ill so times were hard and Otis had to leave school at 14 to work to help the family. He sang gospel songs on the local radio station for a few dollars and entered – and won – talent contests to make a little money

He was inspired by another Macon GA singer, Little Richard, and Otis’ first proper job as a singer was replacing Richard as singer in the Upsetters, Richard’s band who suddenly found themselves out of work when Richard retired to be a preacher in 1957. His first records are little more than Little;e Richard impressions and no one bought them. He then moved on to Johnny Jenkins & the Pinetoppers, whose single Love Twist, was a regional hit. In 1962 Atlantic put up the money for for a follow up as long as it was recorded at Stax in Memphis 500 miles away. Otis was the driver because Johnny Jenkins couldn’t drive. Otis was 21.

The session was a bust from Jenkins’ point of view but Atlantic Records knew Otis’ voice was a bit special and had agreed that if there was any time left in the 3-hour session, they should use it with Otis. Otis recorded a couple of songs including a song of his own he had written, These Arms of Mine backed by Stax’s house band, Booker T and the MGs. It was the only useable thing from the whole session and was released by Volt, a Stax subsidiary. By March 1963 it was a minor national hit so Redding got a record deal and began a career where each single did a little better than the one before. After two years, his career hit real stride with Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, his third album, where he was backed by Isaac Hayes and Booker T and the MGs. The whole record was recorded  in one 24-hour session between 10 am July 9 (a Saturday) and 2 pm July 10, with a break 8 pm Saturday to 2 am on Sunday to allow the house band to play local gigs.

Otis wrote many of his own songs, or co-wrote them with Steve Cropper, the in-house producer at Stax and the MGs guitarist. Otis worked out the arrangements and hummed the horn parts to the musicians, he banged out the tempo and the rhythm on the desk to the drummer and then just sang. Everything was recorded live, especially early on. Nothing was planned, it was worked out around the piano and played. Otis Blue and the albums that followed did so well in the UK that the producers of top pop show Ready Steady Go! invited him and his 10-piece Otis Redding Orchestra over for a special show in September 1966. He performed, Satisfaction, My Girl, Respect, Pain in My Heart, I Can’t Turn You Loose, Shake and Land of a Thousand Dances. Special guests Eric Burdon who had just left the Animals and Chris Farlowe, both excellent R&B shouters, joined Redding on the last two songs. Burdon performed Hold On I’m Coming and Farlowe performed This Is A Man’s World.

Whilst he was here, he played a number of ballroom gigs around the country which were so successful that Stax decide to launch the Stax record label here with a full-on  package tour of artists, the Stax Volt revue, which included Otis, Sam and Dave, Booker T & The MG’s, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Arthur Conley and house band the Mar Keys. They played two-shows-a-night in 29 cities in 31 days, all immortalised on The Stax-Volt Revue Live In Europe recorded live at the opening gig at the Astoria Finsbury Park on Friday March 17 1967. There were some amazing performers on the bill, especially Sam & Dave but the star of the show was Otis. When he came out on stage, there was a moment of hush as all the mods and GIs realised that it was actually Otis Redding.

The tour as a triumph, but back home he was still not a huge star. He had though made some money. He was a successful businessman, earning about $35,000 per week from concerts and owned his own publishing and had been careful with what he had signed. He earned more than a million dollars in 1967 alone and bought himself a 300-acre ranch near Macon GA called the Big O. He loved it there and started playing shows only at the weekend so he could spend the week at home. To get anywhere in the country of shows, he bought himself a new twin-engined Beechcraft aeroplane

The plan to get him cross-over success continued when he played the Monterey Pop Festival over the weekend of 16-18 June 1967. This was NOT his natural crowd, it was what West Coast hippie audience, the love crowd as he called them from the stage. But it was a huge shop window, huge strings were pulled to get him on the bill and in the end he played for free, no fee, just flights and hotel for him and the band.

He closed the evening session on the Saturday, following of all people the Jefferson Airplane. He only played five songs, as they had gone over their curfew and his set was cut short by 2 or 3 songs. The audience of white hippies, largely stoned, came with him such was his energy. He went down a storm pong course but it was his last major show.

His full-throated singing style and gave it all two or three shows a nigh schedule had strained his voice, so he took 6 weeks off to have throat surgery. Finally back in the studio in November 1967, he recorded dozens of new songs he’d written during his recuperation, one when he lived on a houseboat in Sausalito in San Francisco Bay. (Sitting On) the Dock of the Bay was a fundamental change in style and he completed it on 7 December 1967, just before he left on a trip to play dates around the Great Lakes, with hot young Stax band the Bar-Kays as his backing group. They had had a big hit that summer with Soul Finger and when I say ‘young’ I mean young: the oldest had just turned 19 years old and most were still in High School during the week and were able to leave for the weekend to travel with Otis as long as they were back Monday morning for school.

First stop was actually in Nashville for 2 shows, then they flew on to Cleveland 500 miles away in Otis’ plane to do a local TV show called Upbeat, followed by two shows that night at Leo’s Casino. The next day they flew on another 500 miles to Madison WI for two shows that night, 10 December 1967. At 3.30 in the afternoon, four miles from Madison’s airport and a few hundred yards from the shore, Otis’ plane crashed it crashed into Lake Monona in fog and heavy rain. Otis, his pilot, his 17-year-old valet Matthew Kelly and four of the Bar Kays aged 17 and 18 all died, either from the impact of the crash, hypothermia, or drowning. The only survivor was Bar Kays 19-year-old trumpeter Ben Cauley who managed to use a seat cushion as flotation device as he couldn’t swim. Bass player James Alexander also survived because there were eight seats on the plane and nine in the touring party so they took it in turns to fly commercial. It was his turn that day.

Despite their shock and sadness at the loss of a member of their family, Stax rushed to exploit the situation . They added seagull and water lapping noises to the (Sitting On) the Dock of the Bay (and replaced his whistling too, apparently) and rushed it our into the market. It went to Number One in the USA and in many other countries around the world. It won two Grammy Awards: Best R&B Song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

The Bar Kays regrouped, replaced lost members and became the new house band at Stax and were on all those wonderful Isaac Hayes records like Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft. as the Isaac Hayes Movement. Ben Cauley died in 2015 and never really got over the experience. Stax didn’t really recover though, plagued by business problems and a disastrous deal with Atlantic, but that’s another long story.

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Don’t tell me all my love’s in vain: Eric Clapton and Layla

The album Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs was released 47 years ago, on 9 November 1970. It gave us a stone classic in the title tune and some say it’s Eric Clapton’s best album. But it’s not even by him, it’s by Derek & the Dominos, a group of unbelievable musicians formed by Clapton and keyboard player/singer Bobby Whitlock, who made the one album then split after barely six months, brought down by money, drugs and EC’s unrequited obsession for the wife of his best friend –  who just to complicate things happened to be a Beatle. Every song on Layla…. Even the covers of old blues numbers they included seem to have been inspired by Patti, George Harrison’s wife.

But making such a milestone record was not without its victims. Of the five key players, only three are still with us, one of them not really. Eric Clapton’s story is well-known and despite heroin addiction and alcoholism is as successful today at 72 as he ever was. Bobby Whitlock the keyboard player and co-writer of the most of the songs is also still very much with us and very active musically, a new album on the way. But bass player Carl Radle was not so lucky and died of a drugs-related kidney problem in 1980 aged only 37. Guest guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash in October 1971, barely a year after the release of Layla. Perhaps most tragic of all, powerhouse drummer Jim Gordon the drummer has been in a secure prison hospital in California since 1983 when he was convicted of killing his mother.

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But back to Patti. Eric Clapton and George Harrison were best friends. They had met when Clapton’s band of the time, the Yardbirds, were a support act in the ‘Another Beatles Christmas Show’ a bizarre festive songs and comedy sketches review at the Hammersmith Odeon in London at Christmas 1964. By this time, George’s girlfriend was Patti Boyd, a 20-year old model he’d met on the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night where she had played a schoolgirl. They were married in January 1966 and lived in Esher. A little later Clapton bought the beautiful house he still lives in in Surrey, barely 20 miles from the Harrisons. As Clapton’s preferred choice of wheels was a Ferrari 365 GTC and Harrison’s was a red psychedelically-painted souped-up Radford Mini Cooper, they spent all their time together. In 1968 Harrison asked Clapton to play lead guitar on the Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps on The White Album; Clapton returned the favour by playing on Cream’s final album Goodbye credited as L’ange misterioso.

Unfortunately, Eric had developed quite an obsession his best friend’s wife. It’s not like Clapton didn’t have a steady girlfriend. He did, he was engaged to Alice Ormsby-Gore, the youngest daughter of Lord Harlech, a British diplomat, who had been US Ambassador to the USA for the first half of the 1960s. But he was a bit bored. He had conquered the world with Cream, had had a disastrous but lucrative few months with Blind Faith, a supergroup consisting of Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech. But he was so tired of the pressure of being a blues guitar god that followed someone scrawling the graffiti Clapton Is God on the wall outside Highbury & Islington tube station.

His musical tastes had changed too, away from the blues. He’d been listening to newer folkier, more soulful music like the Band and crucially Delaney & Bonnie, who were blue-eyed interpreters of a folk-blues and R&B mix. They were the first white group to sign a contract with Stax Records. Their albums didn’t sell but created a buzz in music industry circles. George Harrison gave Clapton a copy of their second album Accept No Substitute. Clapton was so impressed he invited them to open for Blind Faith on their US Tour in late 1969 and watched them every night from the side of the stage. They seemed to having such fun whereas working with Blind Faith was like having his teeth pulled so he ended up hanging out with them more than the members of Blind Faith.

No surprise then that when Blind Faith split up at the end of the tour, Clapton offered his services as their guitar player on Delaney & Bonnie’s European tour. The other backing musicians included Dave Mason, who had just left Traffic, singer Rita Coolidge. keyboard player/ Bobby Whitlock, plus bassist Carl Radle and top LA session drummer Jim Gordon.   And when George Harrison went to see the band at the Royal Albert Hall, Clapton persuaded him to join the tour as an extra guitarist, his his first live appearance anywhere since the Beatles last show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in August 1966. The next year, 1970, the same guys backed Clapton on his first solo album then more or less became the backing band on George Harrison’s triple album, All Things Must Pass. Which kind of meant being with George and especially Patti Harrison most of the time. It’s not that he didn’t try to woo Patti away from George, she just said no.

The Harrison recordings went so well that the four of them decided to form a band, and not one that was just a backing group for Clapton, a proper band. And this was born Del & the Dynamics, as they would have been called have compare Tony Ashton not got all confused when he introduced them on stage at their live debut at the Lyceum in June 1970. Ashton always called Clapton Del for some reason, but by the time a well-refreshed Ashton got to the stage he’d forgotten or just got confused because he announced them as Derek & the Dominos.

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After a few more low-key gigs – where Clapton insisted that his name NOT be on the posters – they decided to record their debut album at Criteria Studios in Miami FL with legendary producer Tom Dowd. As they got to Miami, Dowd was just finishing the Allman Brothers’ second album Idlewild South and quickly introduced lead guitarist Duane Allman to Clapton. A huge fan, Clapton invited him to join their sessions. After completing a few gigs with the Allmans, he flew back to Miami to join in.

Such was the musical simpatico between the Dominos and Duane that the whole album – and it’s a double – was done in little more than two weeks, the basic tracks all recorded live, with only a few overdubs later. Almost all the singing is live, mostly first take. They didn’t really have enough songs of their own, so included a few blues covers like Big Bill Broonzy’s Key To The Highway and Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out, both as it happens the first two songs Clapton ever learned to play on the guitar when he was a kid. They recorded Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing as a tribute to him but he never got to hear it. He died in London ten days later. The album’s track listing is pretty much in the order it was recorded so Duane is not on the first three songs.

The title song was written by Eric Clapton after a friend had given him a copy of The Story of Layla and Manjun, a book of Persian love poems by Ganjami Nizami. It tells the story of Qayas who falls in love with Layla a princess but is forbidden to marry her by her father and goes mad. His friends, unaware of  his obsession with Patti,  all thought that girlfriend Alice was Layla, especially with her father being aristocrat and Eric being working class boy from Surrey.

The song was recorded largely live on 9 September 1970 with only a few overdubs a couple of weeks later. They had spent a few days on and off approaching the tune in four or five different ways, most of them a bit slower as Clapton wrote it as a slow blues, but it was Duane Allman who speeded up the intro to create the riff to what we know now. The riff itself though, one of the classic riffs of all time in the opinion of most critics, was in fact nicked from an Albert King song, on his 1967 Born Under A Bad Sign album. The riff is a speeded-up version of vocal melody to King’s song As The Years Go Passing By on that album. And there are six layers of guitars in there, with most of the guitar solos from Clapton and the slide work handled by Allman. One layer is both Allman and Clapton playing exactly the same thing through the same single input of a tiny Fender Champ 5-watt amplifier.

A week later Eric Clapton heard drummer Jim Gordon playing a piano piece he had composed separately – actually most people say he nicked it from his girlfriend of the time, singer Rita Coolidge. Clapton liked and convinced Gordon to allow it to be used as part of the song. In a slightly different key, it was seamlessly tacked on to the existing section by speeding it up slightly so the keys matched.

As amazing as the music was, the sessions themselves were a bit of a debauch. Clapton had been dabbling with heroin for a few months, but the heartache over Patti remaining with George Harrison sent him over the edge. One day when When he tried to persuade Patti to leave George, he said that if she didn’t leave him, he’d start taking heroin. She didn’t, so he did. Since his days in Cream he’d had a healthy regard for its dangers having been lectured to by Ginger Baker, himself something of heroin expert, who threatened to cut his manhood off if he ever found out he was using heroin. And I think you take threats from Ginger Baker quite seriously.

But gradually Clapton went from using it once or twice a week, to four or five times a week to every day. And they had all the money they needed and drugs were widely available in Miami. Local dealers certainly weren’t shy and besides, they could get them from the gift shop in their hotel. You just left an order with the girl behind the counter and you got them the next day.

Recording over, they all agreed that Layla was the most powerful song on the album and they decided the album should be named after it. They added And Assorted Other Love Songs at Bobby Whitlock’s suggestion as he was eating a box of Cadbury’s Assorted Chocolates at the time and they liked the sound of it. The album was released in November 1970 and got to number 16 in the Album Charts, but did not even dent the charts in the UK.  There was no single from it and Clapton refused to do any publicity for it, knowing that it was his best work but wanting the album to succeed on its merit without the guitar god hype. The cover is a painting on the wall which Clapton saw at a friend’s house and thought looked like Patti but you will search in vain on na original pressing for the words Derek & the Dominos or Eric Clapton.

After a few more UK dates, they toured the USA for about a month, but by the first week of December it was all over, after only 6 months. Tired, overworked and not getting along and addicted to drugs, they tried to make a second album but the results were mediocre and when Clapton and Jim Gordon had a huge row, Clapton walked and that was it, in Clapton’s case for two years in which time he did nothing but sit at home play some guitar, make model aeroplanes and take heroin. He didn’t see his family or friends and when anyone came to visit, he would hide upstairs till they went. His manager Robert Stigwood was keen to keep his profile up so released The History of Eric Clapton compilation in 1972, with Layla as the single. It made Number 7 in the UK and Number 10 in the US.

He didn’t play live again till January 1973, when Pete Townshend of the Who, the only person he had kept in touch with was Pete Townshend mounted a comeback concert at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park with a superstar backing band, including Pete Townshend, Ronnie Wood, Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Ric Grech from Traffic. Clapton was so stoned that he doesn’t remember the shows at all, but the press reviews were enthusiastic mainly because people were just glad to have him back. It was a turning point in Eric’s life and career, although after the concert he went back into hiding. It was several months before he got clean and recorded his comeback 461 Ocean Boulevard which came out in April 1974.

Patti and George Harrison separated in 1974 and they divorced in 1977. Clapton and Patti got together in 1974 about her and they were married in 1979 with Harrison attending the wedding along with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. They split up in September 1984, and divorced in 1988. He wrote Layla and Wonderful Tonight for her.

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Derek & the Dominos in the garden at Eric Clapton’s house, 1970: l to r Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, Bobby Whitlock, Eric Clapton

The others musicians have not necessarily been so successful. Bobby Whitlock, the keyboard player and co-writer of many of the Layla songs, has survived intact and has been clean and sober for nearly 20 years. He and Clapton have remained good friends and he remains very active in music, as a duo with his wife CoCo, the ex-wife of Delaney. His autobiography Bobby Whitlock: a rock ‘n’ roll autobiography is well worth a read.

Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident on 29 October 1971 in Macon GA, the Allman Brothers home town. He was apparently riding at some speed when a truck stopped suddenly in front of him, forcing him to swerve sharply. He hit the back of the truck and was thrown from the bike, which then landed on top of him. He died several hours later from massive internal injuries. Carl Radle, the bass player, remained as Eric Clapton’s bass player and right-hand man for the rest of the 1970s but died in May 1980 from a kidney infection, exacerbated by the effects of alcohol and narcotics; he was 37.

Jim Gordon’s though is possibly the most tragic story. The co-writer of Layla, one of those songs like Stairway to Heaven which is always on the radio somewhere in the world, he continues to collect significant royalties. Unfortunately he isn’t really in a position to do much with them. He has been in prison since June 1983 when he was arrested for killing his mother. At his trial a year later, he was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 16 years to life, although the defence had argued insanity. A change to California law made it almost impossible to prove that anyone is legally insane, despite five defence psychiatrists testifying that Gordon was an acute paranoid schizophrenic. He remains in prison 34 years later.

Jim Gordon had been, quite simply, one of the greatest drummers of his time. In the Sixties and Seventies he was a first call studio session drummer on everything from the Monkees to the Beach Boys. He’s on Wichita Lineman, Midnight At The Oasis and even joined Traffic for a while. He is the drummer on one of the most sampled records on of all time, the Incredible Bongo Band’s version of Apache. Eric Clapton’s in his book describes him as the greatest rock and roll drummer ever, bar none. And let’s just mentally list the incredible drummers Eric Clapton has played with.

However he had been hearing voices in his head from an early age, which were only exacerbated by the drugs and were becoming difficult to ignore or control. He wasn’t a particularly sociable guy, someone said if you looked into his eyes, they were empty, he had no soul.

He was a drug addict and then found that alcohol quietened the voices, and in a short time he was drinking more than ever. The madness though was winning, and soon everyone would know it. Gordon was becoming a liability. Record producers would not hire him anymore. With few recording dates being offered, Gordon wound up doing lower-paying work, like television, movies and commercials.

The worst of the voices was his mother’s and she wanted to control his life. He did get help, checking into a psychiatric hospital at least fourteen times over the next six years but nothing stuck and he would often check himself out. By 1980 he was, for all practical purposes, no longer a professional musician. He had always been paid well and had substantial savings, property investments and royalty payments coming in so he could afford to do anything or nothing.

He decided he would either kill himself or he would kill his mother. He hadn’t seen her for two years, although they had spoken on the phone where he had threatened her, although he had never actually harmed her. He suddenly appeared at her LA apartment in June 1983 and when she opened her door the voices in his head that hadtold him to take a hammer and an 8-inch butcher’s knife told him to use them to kill his 72-year-old mother. He hit her three times and stabbed her three times.

Her neighbours heard the screams and called the police. When they went to Gordon’s apartment early the next morning, it was to notify him of his mother’s death. The police found Gordon, moaning and sobbing, face down on his living-room floor. Although he had been sober when he killed his mother, afterward he had been to a bar and got massively drunk, then went home and drank a bottle of vodka. Amazingly he was coherent with the police to whom he confessed.

In July 1984, he was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison. He was first eligible for parole in 1992, but it has been denied several times. According to the authorities he is still “seriously psychologically incapacitated” and “a danger when he is not taking his medication”. He declined to attend his last parole hearing and won’t be eligible again until at least 2018. He is serving his sentence at a medical and psychiatric prison in Vacaville, California.

Poor old Johnnie Ray, sounded sad in mono, moved a million hearts in mono

It may be that these days most people only know the name Johnnie Ray from the opening lines to Dexy’s Midnight Runners Come On Eileen, or maybe the first verse of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, but he was – according to Tony Bennett (and who am I to argue) – the true father of rock and roll, the Missing Link between the Crooners like Crosby, Como Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Bob Dylan said Johnnie Ray was the first voice he totally fell in in love with. Nik Cohn, author of some of the best and maddest books about rock and roll I’ve ever read, said that if Elvis was the great pop messiah, then Johnnie Ray was John the Baptist.

2017-04-04_16-17-32He was huge in the 1950s. There were three Number Ones here in the UK and a couple in the USAMost of his songs seemed to be about crying – Cry, The Little White Cloud That Cried and Just Walking In The Rain, which let’s face it is just a metaphor for crying

He famously wore a hearing aid as a result of childhood accident which left him completely deaf in his left ear and he had an over the top, heart-wrenching vocal delivery. Histrionic is not the word. His theatrics included tearing at his hair, falling to the floor, throwing the mike stand around, and – in particular – crying, earning him the nickname the Nabob of Sob. And Mr. Emotion, The Cry Guy, , the Atomic Ray, the Golden Tearjerker, the Million Dollar Teardrop, the Cheerful Tearful, the Howling Success and The Prince of Wails.

But what he mainly did was generate the most extraordinary levels of hysteria among young girls and young women, in particular in England, when he toured here in March 1953. And one of them was my mother, who saw him at the Palace Theatre, Manchester. It was utter bedlam, she told us, and she had to be helped by the St John’s Ambulance Brigade when she fainted.

Johnnie Ray was born on 10 January 1927, in Oregon, and grew up on a farm. The family later moved to Portland, the largest city Oregon, where Ray attended high school. At 13, he damaged the nerves in his left ear and lost all hearing in it. He knew something was wrong but thought it would get better so it went untreated for a year until he got him a hearing aid aged 14. Not the discreet types you have now but a huge piece of audio equipment that led to playground teasing. He had to have it on full volume. The trauma meant he became more introverted and became the odd ball in the school and bottom of the class. On top of all that, he was gay.

If his sexuality was an issue for him at that age and throughout his career, so was drinking. He had started early aged only 13 or 14 and it was to stay with him on and off – but mainly on – for the next 45 years. He left Oregon for Los Angeles aged 20 at which point he became a complete hedonist, a 5-beers-for-breakfast kind of guy with 10 vodka tonics between the early show and the late show. In his early days , when he maybe made $350 a week, he ended up owing a club in Chicago money once he settled his bar tab.

In LA the only work he could get was singing and playing piano in low-rent, mobbed up bars and strip clubs, mostly in black neighbourhoods. He watched the black singers closely  and learned all about singing R&B. The loudness, the phrasing too, stretching the syllables on ballads and the stage craft. A unique sight for a tall white guy with a hearing aid who would kick the piano stool over, playing the piano standing up, twirl the mike stand, pull the stage curtains down when he jumped on them. After most shows a waitress would have to go out into the audience to retrieve piano splinters or his cufflinks which had invariably shot off during his performance.

Many thought he was black especially when in 1951 he signed with Okeh Records, part of CBS but which specialised in what were known as race records, later R&B records but essentially black artists. In the US you could be huge in a particular city but nowhere nationally and his first single Whiskey & Gin – some have described as the first rock and roll record – was a huge hit in Cleveland. He moved to Detroit where he was a huge hit too, but was arrested for importuning in June 1951. He was still an obscure singer so when he appeared in court, he pleaded guilty there was no publicity. In less than a year, he was a national headliner and rumours about his sexuality began to spread.

What changed was Cry. He recorded Cry recorded in New York in October 1951 and used all the vocal tricks he had learned, stretching and bending the words and creating a unique sound. He appeared on the national TV show Toast of the Town presented by Ed Sullivan and it sold 500,000 in the few days after the show. All of a sudden he was a big star. Comedians and impressionists added him to their repertoires, including Sammy Davis Jr. There was pandemonium wherever he performed. He made $1 million that year, 1952. He was one of the first performers to aggressively market his own lines of merchandise including the Johnnie Ray Cry-Kerchief, a hankie with Johnnie’s image on it into which you too could blub, which sold like mad. There were Johnnie Ray sports shorts, ladies’ blouses, a Johnny Ray Teardrop suit, Johnny Ray bobby socks.

But he was always a risk with his sexuality, which was at self-destruct levels given he was so indiscreet. His manager had him photographed with voluptuous starlets but there were always rumours. As I said he was bisexual if anything and there’s no doubt he enjoyed the company of many of strippers he met in those clubs he worked when he first got to LA. His managers thought he needed to get married so in May 1952 he married Marilyn Morrison, the daughter of the owner well-known LA club, the Mocambo after what was a show-mance conducted in the press. She knew all about his sexuality but told a friend she would “straighten him out.” However the couple separated after 18 months in December 1953 and divorced the following year.

He was arrested a lot because he acted without any caution whatsoever because a) he was famous and b) he usually drunk so he was arrested for D&D, or in the case of Boston Airport, urinating in a plant pot when he couldn’t find the loo, then lay down and fell asleep until he woke up two hours later expecting to be on a plane to Cleveland but was actually in jail.

In December 1953 a small newspaper printed a story that they had the real scoop of the end of the marriage: Johnny Cry Ray Arrested on Homosexual Charge and info red readers of his bust 2 years earlier for importuning. Thankfully the story was not picked up for publication by any other papers but everyone now knew. And his marriage was definitely over and she was paid off. The combination of the public marriage failure, rumours of his importuning arrest and stories about his drinking meant he lost some popularity in the USA, so he booked a tour of the UK for the Spring

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He arrived here in late March 1953 for a three-week tour of Britain, starting with two sold out weeks at the London Palladium. Johnnie Ray had sold a lot of music here but the critics couldn’t get past the crying and other antics but regardless of what they wrote, the Palladium rocked like it had never rocked before. There was pandemonium at every show because we had never seen a performer move like that. They were monochrome times, still recovering from the war and there were no cool role models yet.

After the show, fans spilled out into Great Marlborough Street, to the stage door, blocking the traffic not least for Johnnie who was unable to get back to his car back the Savoy. He had to climb out onto the roof at the back of the theatre and wave and blow kisses to the crowd to get them to leave which they eventually did. He had to do the same thing back at the Savoy and there were mobs of fans outside who wouldn’t leave until he came out on his balcony and give them a wave. It was the same story when he played shows in the provinces. In Glasgow his clothes were ripped off him by screaming crowds so he started wearing cheap shirts and trousers because he lost so many. Everyone wanted a souvenir.

He returned the next year to play the Palladium again and tour the country, to ever bigger crowds. When his plane arrived, thousands met him at London Airport. At the Palladium, hysteria reached a fever pitch. Fans smashed the stage door barrier and dozens of additional police were called in. In Edinburgh 1,000 fans followed his limo from the airport to his hotel. When he got there, he stepped out of the car and got about two feet as hands grabbed his hair, coat, £80 suit … and hearing aid. He was pushed back into the car almost unconscious and driven to the back entrance. 30 minutes later, recovered, he appeared on his balcony and sang Cry to the crowd of fans below. He quipped If I’d known I was going to get this kind of reception, I’d have worn cheaper clothes

 

Back at the Palladium the next year, 1955, he was arrested running naked in the corridors at the Dorchester, banging on hotel doors, but was not charged. Hysteria continued though in the street, and he had a phalanx of 8 policemen to protect him when he went out. A local councillor complained about the waste of resources but the senior police officer said We are not protecting Johnnie Ray, we are controlling the one thousand strong crowd of irresponsible teenagers following him.

Hr remained extraordinarily popular here, with three Number One hits, but back in the US, there was a bit of a backlash. One or two scandal sheets had picked up the story of his 1950 importuning bust, which in turn implied that his very public marriage had been a sham. He needed a slightly dirty, raunchy record to get back to the top of the chart so he chose Such A Night, originally a Drifters song but later a hit for Elvis of course. It backfired because many radio stations refused to play it mainly because the lyric Came the dawn and my heart and her love and the night was gone suggested they’d spent the night together, a bit racy for the mid-1950s.

 

There were no more hits till 1956, the year of Elvis who he had influenced so much especially in the Pelvis department, with Just Walking in The Rain, although he made so much money all over the world from live show he didn’t bother recording much. And when he did his records limped into the lower reaches of the charts. But Walking in the Rain got to Number 2, kept from the top by Love Me Tender. It was sort of his last hit on the US although he had several more here up to 1959.

In 1958, a wealthy man despite his extraordinary spending on booze and hedonism, he went into hospital to have an operation to restore his hearing. In fact, he had two operations, after the first was a failure. If the first was a failure, the second was a disaster and he was completely deaf in his left ear and lost 60% of the hearing in his right ear.

His chart career was over in the USA although he was still popular here in the UK and could always sell out.  By 1963, after years of extraordinary boozing and pill popping, his health was poor and there were spells in hospital and a complete collapse. He got sober after cirrhosis was diagnosed and moved to Spain with his new manager, also his partner off stage. He was sober for the rest of the Sixties but in 1969 he went back to New York for his annual physical and amazingly his doctor said he’d done so well  that it was probably be alright for him to enjoy the occasional glass of wine now and then.  Inevitably now and then quickly became every day and an occasional glass became a bottle. Within a few months was a fully-fledged boozer again.

He was back at the Palladium in 1974 for the first time in 18 years and sold out every night and his run there was extended. He was invited back to headline the 1977 Royal Command Silver Jubilee Performance but tripped over the microphone cable as he walked on stage, fell into the piano and his singing – usually the most reliable thing – was awful. Some even booed. He was actually sober but just in poor health because of booze. He kept going till in 1989, the last year he performed, when his liver just gave up. He tried for a transplant donor but couldn’t find one and he died of liver failure on February 24 1990 aged only 63.

Live Stiffs. Live.

Take 18 musicians, including the near genius and the merely talented, the desperately hungry and the downright thirsty. Bung in some villains. Stir well. Add one spring-loaded manager. Place on a coach for 34 days. Light the blue touch paper? Hardly necessary. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Stiff’s Greatest Stiffs – Live!
Will Birch
No Sleep Till Canvey Island

It is 40 years ago now, September 1977 and Stiff Records is the UK’s freshest, wittiest and most happening independent record label.

Founded in 1976 by Dave Robinson and Andrew Jakeman, two stalwarts of the London Pub Rock scene along with a £400 cheque from Lee Brilleaux, the lead singer of Dr Feelgood, Stiff had released some of the most interesting and innovative music of the time, all promoted with wit and saucy humour. They named themselves self-deprecatingly after the standard industry term for returned unsold records or a hopeless act and called themselves The World’s Most Flexible Record Label.

Their first release was Nick Lowe’s So It Goes/Heart of the City in August 1976, which had the witty catalogue number of BUY 1. It made single of the week in Sounds and NME but failed to chart despite being just terrific. Press coverage was impressive but actual hits were elusive. As awesome a debut as New Rose – BUY 6 – is, it didn’t trouble the chart compilers . Classics such as Less Than Zero, Whole Wide World, Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll all failed to make the charts and Stiff had to wait till BUY 20 to get their first hit which was Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives .

Low on cash, they decided to send their acts out on an old-fashioned 24-date package tour, which featured Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis, all of whom had new records to promote. Dury’s new single BUY23 was Sweet Gene Vincent, Costello’s BUY20 was Watching The Detectives released in the first week of the tour, Wreckless Eric’s BUY16 was Whole Wide World and was already out as was Larry Wallis’ BUY22 the brilliant Police Car. Nick Lowe’s new single BUY21 was a cover of Billy Fury’s Halfway to Paradise, On top of all that Ian Dury’s New Boots & Panties!! was released 4 days before the tour started.

Each act played a 30 minute set and the running order changing nightly, so democratically a different act could headline each night. It took off from London in the direction of the first night in High Wycombe 40 years ago this October 3. One of its 24 stops was the Lyceum in the Strand on October 28. Ticket price was £1.50

We all by and large know who Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Ian Dury are, although at this point they really weren’t really anyone. Lowe had been bass player and chief songwriter with Brinsley Schwarz and was now main in-house producer at Stiff; Dury had been an art teacher and pub rock singer whose band Kilburn & the High Roads had fizzled out; and Costello had only left his job as a computer operator at Elizabeth Arden in Acton that July when his debut album My Aim Is True had been released and he was expected to get out there and promote it.

Fellow tourist Larry Wallis had been a member of the Pink Fairies, Ladbroke Grove’s favourite psychedelic underground freak band of the early 1970s, whose gigs promoted free music, drug taking and anarchy and often didn’t always involve playing with their clothes on. He was even an early member of Motörhead but by the autumn of 1977 had a solo single out, the rather brilliant Police Car produced by Nick Lowe.  Wreckless Eric on the other hand was a newcomer who had been signed by Stiff because he just dropped by the office with a tape they liked. He became a quirky troubadour of the new wave era and his new release was the enduring hit Whole Wide World.

The idea was that each artists picked their own backing band from the same pool of musicians and come up with a witty name. Costello already had his Attractions (three of whom still play for him to this day) and Ian Dury had his Blockheads, who had played on his new album. Nick Lowe’s band though, billed as the Nick Lowe’s Last Chicken in the Shop, included Dave Edmunds and Larry Wallis on guitar and Attractions’ drummer Pete Thomas … on guitar. Wreckless Eric’s band, the New Rockets, included Ian Dury on drums, Ian Dury’s girlfriend Denise Roudette on bass and Blockhead Davey Payne on free form jazz sax. Larry Wallis’ Psychedelic Rowdies included Nick Lowe on bass, both Terry Williams, later of Rockpile and Dire Straits and Attractions’ Pete Thomas on drums.

However nine days before the opening show, Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson had a huge row. Their relationship was always volatile but this must have been a bad one, because instead of the broken cider bottles in the office, they were on the pavement outside their 32 Alexander Street, W2. And the front window was broken. A settlement was hammered out where Riviera would leave Stiff with Lowe and Costello and Robinson would continue with what remained of Stiff. But only once the tour was over.

At 4pm on Monday, October 3, the entire company left Alexander Street destination High Wycombe in a 42-seat coach, led by tour manager, Dez Brown, amazingly a teetotaler given the mayhem to come but with the social skills of an angry Lemmy, so overall he was quite unpopular. His assistant, a blonde girl from California called Farrah was inevitably referred by all to as Farrah Fawcett-Minor

First on at High Wycombe Town Hall was Nick Lowe, wearing a fluorescent green Riddler suit decorated with question marks. Already an experienced road warrior, he was apparently a reluctant Live Stiff and was now content to be a Stiff’s in-house studio producer. Using the wisdom from years on the road with Brinsley Schwarz, he always asked that he go on early in the bill so he could spend more time in the bar after he’d finished.

Next up was a tense Elvis Costello, who refused to play material from his just-released debut album My Aim Is True, which not surprisingly went down like a lead balloon. He had not considered the prospect that the acts on the bills might be eve a little competitive with each other but Ian Dury certainly had. He knew Costello was the major competition so had his publicist make a series of four badges saying Sex &, Drugs & ,Rock & and Roll and throw them into the crowd halfway through Costello’s set so that the audience started scrambling around everywhere trying to grab a badge rather than listening to the music. That set the tone for the tour.

Wreckless Eric didn’t have many songs so his was a brief set, but then Ian Dury took the stage, shouting Oi Oi! After seven years on the circuit and already aged 35, his moment had arrived and he wasn’t going to waste it. He and the Blockheads were a complete revelation, easily the equal of the white-hot Attractions. It became clear fairly quickly that this revolving bill idea wasn’t going to work, so it became two revolving bills: Dury closing one night and Costello the next.

Dury wasn’t finished with his one-upmanship though. His Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll became the tour’s anthem and closed the show every night – at his suggestion – when the entire company, or those that could be located, would come back on-stage for a rousing finale of the song. It was a very clever idea – however brilliant Costello had been, they always sent the audience home with an Ian Dury song ringing in their ears.

Elvis Costello completely reorganised his set to include songs from the album and was a little less confrontational with the audience. As Costello says in his autobiography – it’s 600 pages long with only one page on Live Stiffs tour: We either had to follow Ian or try to upstage him. Most of the time Ian took the decision on points. He was charismatic, sometimes malevolent and most important funny, all qualities I lacked.

And then Dury responded. While Costello was writing four or five songs a day, Dury never stopped working on his act and thinking how can I be seen to be better than Elvis? He dressed differently each night, some nights as the Pearly King in a spangly jacket, some as a cloth cap Cockney cabbie, another with a striped hat and ski mask. During guitar solos he would pull hankies or feather dusters or plastic toys out of his pockets and throw them in the crowd or squirt water pistols at the crowd.

As the tour wound its way round its 24 stops, the permanently thirsty members of the company established the 24 Hour Club, a drinking club named after the rule that if someone knocked on your door at any time of the day or night you had to have an alcoholic drink. You just slept off your hangover on the coach to the next gig. Charter members were Nick Lowe & Dave Edmunds plus all the Attractions apart from Elvis, Larry Wallis, Terry Williams and one or two others, who dedicated their time to seeing how far their £50 a week wages might go in a bar and if possible stay up all night drinking. Dury wasn’t a member though and thought his Blockheads should be sober on stage. If anyone offered them a drink, Ian would say, ‘We don’t’.

And as the tour wound on, some people had been drinking so much and their hangovers so dreadful that they couldn’t really perform the next night. After two weeks, Wreckless Eric was close to collapse, he’d never played so many gigs in such a short space of time, so on Doctor’s orders he was sent to his parents’ house to recover and missed a few dates.

Nick Lowe’s appearances at the club were less and less. To be honest he’d done it all before and as senior Stiff staffer on duty was trying to control his own excesses. This led to some tension between him and Dave Edmunds, who’d essentially been a studio producer for several years and off the road so was out on tour for a laugh and was dismayed to find that his partner in crime was often missing. Then after on particularly drunken evening, Edmunds was sacked from the tour. At 1am after some enthusiastic drinking, Edmunds and Larry Wallis suddenly wanted some valuables he’d left with Dez Brown, the teetotal tour manager if you remember, who not surprisingly had gone to bed early and had left strict instructions not to be disturbed.

On reaching the tour manager’s room, they knocked, and continued knocking until a naked Brown opened the door. The details of What Happened Next cannot be fully reported, other than to say that things escalated really quickly and Dez Brown was left covered in blood and chocolate. Amazingly

, Nick Lowe, who was sharing the room with Brown, slept through the whole thing. When he awoke the following morning, Brown was in hospital and there was a note at Lowe’s bedside that read: Basher — you missed the sound of breaking glass, which gave him an idea for a song.

In the furore, Edmunds was sacked but graciously Larry Wallis explained that actually he was partly to blame, so Edmunds was almost immediately reinstated. However he’d already left the hotel so everyone chased off to the railway station to catch up with him but his train had left. At the next gig, Elvis Costello had to deputise on guitar although Edmunds was back the next night.

On October 28, the tour climaxed with a sold-out Lyceum Ballroom gig in London, where it was Ian Dury’s turn to close the show. The event was recorded and filmed and received extravagant media attention. Five shows remained, but there was now general impatience to get things over and done with, especially with Riviera, Lowe and Costello out the door the moment the tour ended.

Three shows, including the Lyceum, were recorded for a live album Live Stiffs that was released early in 1978 to recoup some of the £11,000 losses, a significant sum for an independent label. Luckily the tour broke Ian Dury and his New Boots & Panties album stayed in the charts for two years, a life-saver for Stiff. Without it they may not have survived. A year later, in the autumn of 1978 they did it all over again, with a second live package tour with the Be Stiff Tour. To up the ante they went everywhere by train which they hired specially for £40,000 for the month. There was a third tour, the Son of Stiff Tour, in 1980 but Stiff were actually too successful for it to matter. As Ian Dury’s success had waned, they had signed Madness, whose first 20 singles all entered the UK Top 20 and their debut album ‘One Step Beyond’, released in 1979, stayed in the British charts for over a year. They even had a US Top Ten single with ‘Our House’.

The Grim Reaper’s Greatest Hits: the story of Death Discs

In the UK we called them Death Discs. America was a little squeamish so they were Teenage Tragedy Songs. If you were a happening DJ they were splatter platters, that genre of popular song, often a ballad,  where someone dies.

The late 1950s to the mid 1960s are full of them, a product of the moral panic society felt in the mid Fifties when confronted with outlaw imagery from the movies and this new rock and roll thing. Think Marlon Brando in The Wild One, James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Elvis swinging pelvis. The phenomenon was juvenile delinquency and the Man was terrified of it. Thankfully for them that new rock and roll music had already become white and safe. It was the ridiculously clean cut and God-fearing Pat Boone who had the big hits with Ain’t That A Shame, Long Tall Sally and Tutti Frutti not Fats Domino or Little Richard. Even Elvis’s pelvis had been tamed, first by the TV censors and the by the Army. So there was a bit of a reaction.

Death discs are not necessarily bad songs but they are deliberately cautionary tales full of the symbols of juvenile delinquency like motorcycle crashes or drag racing accidents, plus suicides and drownings and plane crashes. You will know Tell Laura I Love Her, Ebony Eyes, Johnny Remember Me and possibly the best known and may be the best Leader of the Pack. 

The first successful rock and roll death disc was Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Bootswritten as a spoof by the legendary song-writing duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the first hit for them before they wrote some of the greatest songs of the second half of the 20th Century – Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Yakety Yak, Love Potion Number 9, On Broadway and Stand By Me. Christ they’d be among the greatest for Stand By Me alone.

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Black Denim Trousers…, recorded by The Cheers in mid-1955, is the story of a motorcycle rider and his loyal but oft-neglected girlfriend Mary Lou, who pleads with him not to ride one night but because he’s an outlaw, he ignores her and rides to his doom. However, when investigators arrive at the scene of the crash, they find no trace of the motorcycle or rider except for his clothes, the eponymous black denim trousers and motorcycle boots. And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back. I thought you’d all appreciate the sartorial detail

It would have faded into obscurity had it not received an unbelievably tragic bit of promotion two weeks after release. Good news indeed for the Cheers, very bad news for James Dean, who crashed his Porsche Spyder on 30 September 1955 and the great teen idol was dead at 24. To catch the national mood of despair, DJs reached for an appropriate recorded and Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots was it. It reached Number Six on the US chart in October 1955.

It took a couple of years for more death discs to hit the charts. There was a rather bizarre song called Endless Sleep, an American hit for Jody Reynolds (and Marty Wilde’s first hit here) where lovers row so badly that the girlfriend runs into the sea and drowns herself. That was too miserable even for the record companies so Reynolds had to re-write it so that he dives in and rescues her, so I suppose it’s technically not a death disc as no one actually perishes. It is a terrible song though.

In the meantime there were a couple of Western tragedy songs – Marty Robbins’ El Paso which packs quite a story into its 4 minutes, about a cowboy who falls in love with a dancer and kills the man who is bothering her. He goes on the lam but his love is so strong he returns to find her, only to be shot by the posse. He dies in the dancer’s arms. Wow. There was Johnny Preston’s Running Bear, a Native American Romeo and Juliet, where Running Bear, so desperately in love with Little White Dove, alas from a rival tribe and on the other side of a raging river tat to be together they dive into the river, kiss and then drown.

What these songs needed was cars or motorbikes and possibly some really bad lads. Then another bit of good luck, though not for Mssrs Holly, Richardson and Valens who died in a plane crash in February 1959. The first record to cash in was Teen Angel by Mark Dinning, a singer who grew up on a turkey farm in Oklahoma. Bitten by the rock and roll bug, he said goodbye to the turkeys – until his sister wrote Teen Angel after deciding that all young people couldn’t be little devils, some had to be teen angels. How that brought to a mawkish song about a nice young man who takes his best girl out for a drive but alas the car stalls on a railway line just as a train hurtles towards them. He pulls her to safety but then she runs back to the car to get his high school class ring and is killed.

Many stations in America wouldn’t play it but a few in big cities did and it took off from there. It was Number One is February 1960 for 2 weeks and sold 3.5 million copies. Here in the UK it was banned by the BBC, not for being in poor taste but for being awful. The Melody Maker even said it had blood in the grooves in its review. It was barely played by Radio Luxembourg and it only made Number 37 here. Ever quick to cash in, Brill Building songwriters Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh gave us Tell Laura I Love Her. Incidentally Barry too one of the best songwriters of the second half of the last century, mainly with wife Ellie Greenwich who together gave us Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me, Be My Baby, Chapel of Love and River Deep, Mountain High.

Tell Laura I Love Her gives us teenager Tommy, desperately in love with Laura but unable to afford a wedding ring for his best girl so enters a stock car race for the prize money so he can. You can see where this is going: the car crashes, Tommy;’s brown bread but his last words are Tell Laura I love her. In the US it was a huge number 7 hit for Ray Petersen, an otherwise unremarkable singer from Texas, but in the UK the BBC banned it  and his record company Decca didn’t even bother to release it. Step forward EMI, sniffing an opportunity, who had nice Welsh singer David Spencer do a version. Cashing in on the generally grisly theme, what with this being only a year since Buddy Holly’s plane crash, his name was quickly changed to Ricky Valence. It was banned by the BBC but Radio Luxembourg didn’t really care about tasteless and vulgar so they featured it heavily and it went to the top of the charts for 3 weeks in October 1960 and sold a million copies.

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Surprisingly even the Everly Brothers, huge hit-makers then and still one of the most influential groups of all time– imagine Simon & Garfunkel, the Hollies and the Beatles without them – were not immune. They had been pallbearers at Buddy Holly’s funeral but that didn’t stop them releasing airplane-based death disc Ebony Eyes, barely a year after Holly’s death. Initially on the b-side of Walk Right Back, the ghoulish record company flipped it after two planes collided over New York City in December 1960,  killing 134 people. With the most grisly promotional boost imaginable, Ebony Eyes reached No.8 on the U.S. charts and Number 1 here in March 1961.

But we didn’t really have the same iconography as the USA, our cars were smaller and much uglier so there are not huge numbers of homegrown death discs till John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me, produced by maverick record producer Joe Meek in his home studio at 304 Holloway Road N7. Literally his home studio, as he had microphones in every room of his flat. The main band were in the studio, the violins were on the stairs, the brass section downstairs and the ethereal backing singer was in the echoey loo on the top floor.

It was sung by actor/singer John Leyton whose manager, Robert Stigwood – at that point not the powerhouse impresario he became later when he managed the Bee Gees – realised that telly could be a huge boost for his client so used his contacts to get Leyton a starring role on top ITV show Harpers West One as pop singer Johnny St Cyr. Not surprisingly he sang his new single on air and 12 million viewers watched it and most of them appear to have bought it. Within 4 weeks it was number one where it remained for four weeks.

A couple of years later, we got Terry by Twinkle, a nice girl from Surbiton called Lynne Ripley, who at 16 was the girlfriend of one of the Batchelors, a rather bland but fantastically successful Irish singing trio, who got her record deal. At least she wrote the song herself and recorded it with the tudio greats of the time and that included Jimmy Page, but overall Terry sounds like a terribly anaemic version of probably the genre’s pseudo-operatic peak with Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las

Leader of the Pack takes things to another level, an operatic level, maybe an  cinematic level. This song is in technicolour where the others are black and white. Everything is a little more vivid, the sound is bigger and then there are the sound effects. Not to say the clichés aren’t piled on. Jimmy is a bad boy with a motorcycle, from the wrong side of the tracks, who her parents – and by the sound of it her friends too – thoroughly disapprove of. Her dad forces them to break up, Jimmy rides off on his bike and crashes.

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The Shangri Las’s were real tough girls from Queens, New York – you can hear how strong the accents are in the opening dialogue at the start. They were a quartet, two sets of sisters, the identical twins the Gansers and the Weiss sisters, who when they made their first records, Leader of the Pack and the earlier (Remember) Walking in the Sand? were aged just 15.  However they posed for photos and made public appearances as a trio most of the time because Betty Weiss had had a child in 1964, which have been scandalous even in a death disc. Publicity said it was a bad cold.

The song comes once again from Jeff Barry, his wife Ellie Greenwich and the song’s real architect, producer George Morton, who preferred the more mysterious name of Shadow Morton. He was a Brill Building hustler who had never really written any songs and was probably just interested in Greenwich, until he was challenged him to show some of his work. He didn’t have any but went to the beach to think and came up with (Remember) Walking in the Sand? When that was a Number 5 hit, the label said what ‘s the follow up. He didn’t have one of those either, so he got drunk and took a shower and came up with Leader of the Pack.

It was recorded in July 1964 in NYC and took 62 takes to get it right. The piano player may have been a 15-year-old Billy Joel, he certainly remembers playing on Shangri La’s sessions but because he wasn’t in the musician’s union yet, they may have had a union guy in to do it later. Either way Billy never got paid. Another legend suggests the sound of the sound of the motorcycle was recorded as it was being driven through the lobby of a hotel. Great outlaw story but it was taken from a sound effects record.

It was Number One in the US for one week in November 1964 but was again initially banned by the Beeb but was pushed hard by Radio Luxembourg and the new Pirates stations and it got to Number 11 in the UK. We obviously really liked it here because it was re-released here in 1972 and 1976 and got to 3 and 7 respectively.

The death knell for Death Discs was the British Invasion, when pop culture and in particular the US charts were interested in happy, upbeat, long-haired British guitar groups, not maudlin songs about dead girlfriends and suicides. There are only a few really, maybe Honey by Bobby Goldsboro in 1968, which rode the heartbroken national mood following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy as to get up to Number Two. Or maybe Ode to Billy Joe by Bobby Gentry which might be a little too clever and cheese-less to qualify. It’s more of a spooky mystery song, where we never quite find out why she and Billie Joe McAllister were throwing something off the Tallahachie Bridge and why Billie Joe McAllister then jumped off and kill himself. There really was a  Tallahatchie Bridge in Mississippi, although since it’s only 20 feet high, death or even injury was unlikely. A fine of $100 however was certain.

The last Dearth Disc to dent the charts might just be the worst. Paul Evans’ Hello, This Is Joanie is  truly awful song from 1978 which seems to epitomise the genre. It updates Endless Sleep with a bit of new technology in the form of the telephone answering machine. The lovers argue, she storms out to drive home and crashes – fatally. He doesn’t realise and keeps calling her answerphone and gets her chirpy answerphone message Hello, this is Joannie, I’m sorry but I’m not home But if you leave me your name and number I promise, soon as I get in I’ll phone. Which of course we all know she won’t do. It got to Number Six here in December 1978. Which seems perhaps an appropriate place to come to a stop. A dead stop perhaps.

Farewell then Chuck Berry…

So farewell then Chuck Berry. A true pioneer and without doubt – don’t even bother to argue with me – one of the most influential performers, songwriters and guitar players in the second half of the Twentieth Century. No argument at all.

From 1955 to 1964 he wrote and recorded an incredible list of songs that 60 years later we all know and can hum if not sing the actual lyrics. If you ever started a band at school, hell, at any time, the first song you rehearsed was a Chuck Berry song, in my case Roll Over Beethoven, but it could just as well have been Maybelline (his first hit in 1955) or  Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B. Goode, Memphis, Tennessee, Promised Land or dozens of others.

They were songs of humour, attitude and no little insight into young teens’ lives. His lyrics deliberately appealed to them by describing exactly what they were interested in: dances, cars, high school life, the opposite sex – all in an exciting new guitar driven sound that has influenced almost every guitar player that came after. Let’s not forget that it was a Chuck Berry record Mick Jagger was carrying when he bumped onto Keith on Dartford railway station in October 1961. The Rolling Stones first single was a Chuck Berry tune and as Keith Richards said when he inducted him into the Hall of Fame in 1986: ‘I’ve stolen every lick he ever played.’

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He did have a reputation as a VERY difficult man though, embittered by the experiences of his life and career, his mistreatment by the business and the law. When you booked Chuck Berry, he got his cash upfront before he played, always in US Dollars, regardless of where in the world he was playing. One Saturday in Glasgow in January 1973, the promoter hadn’t read the contract carefully enough and tried to pay in Sterling, but after a tongue-lashing from Chuck, headed out into a wintry Glaswegian evening to get it changed into dollars before Chuck would go on, despite the crowd getting, let’s say, ‘restless’ as only Glaswegians can on a Saturday night.

His contract stipulated the exact times he would appear and depart. He would sometimes stand backstage gazing at his watch, waiting to go on at exactly 8, not later, not earlier. He did an hour. Not 61 minutes, not 59 minutes but an hour. And he only played an encore if he was specifically paid to do so.

And you provided the backing band, so all Chuck had to do is turn up with his guitar. The promoter contractually had to provide a Fender Dual Showman amplifier, and if one was not provided, he either walked out or demanded a fine of $2,000 to be paid before the show. He insisted on being met at the airport with a Lincoln Town Car but if a promoter sent a stretch limousine with a driver, he would send it back.

But he did always give the crowd what it wanted. He played all his hits, did his signature duck walk, that knees together-legs bent strut he used to do as a kid to entertain his family, he’d work the crowd and give them what they wanted but when the clock ticked over, he was out of there with his money in cash.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in an entirely segregated – i.e. entirely black – part of St Louis. It was so insulated that Chuck said he didn’t see a white person till he was 3 years old. He saw some white firemen at a blaze and assumed they were so frightened that their faces had turned white from fear of going near the fire. His father told him they were white people, and their skin was always white, day or night.

His very strict middle-class upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age. He played in public for the first time at his all-black High School aged 15 in 1941 and played some boogie-woogie songs for which he got a tremendous ovation. His music career was slightly delayed though, when he and two high school friends decided to drive to California. When they ran out of money, they used a fake pistol to rob a bakery, a barber shop and a clothing store. Then their car broke down so they had to steal another car, before being arrested. After 21 minute trial in a predominantly white rural town, he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, the maximum possible, despite being a first time offender. He served three years.

He was already in his late 20s, married with children, when he started singing in public again, mainly white hillbilly songs but played in a bluesier style by a trio of three black guys. His trick was to sing very clearly, like a white man, and be a hell of  a performer, dancing and guitar playing duck-walking around the stage and his showmanship began to attract white audiences to their shows. Emboldened by his minor success, during a club date in Chicago, he collared Muddy Waters and asked him how you got a record made. Muddy said see Chess Records.

He sent them a tape of Maybelline, a rock and roll rewrite of a country tune called Ida Red which Chess invited him to record in May 1955. It had that popular Bill Haley stomping beat, with a chop-chop guitar and the Berry’s unconventional lyrics about him in his cheap Ford chasing his faithless girl, who’s with another guy in a much nicer ride, a Coupe de Ville. It made to Number 5 in the Hot 100 pop singles and by the end of the year, the song had sold a million copies and his earnings went through the roof, from $30 a night to $500 a night

After a couple of misses, he next scored with Roll Over Beethoven. Sixty years later its verses are known to everyone on the planet: Tell Tchaikovsky the news and I’m gonna write a little letter, gonna mail it to my local DJ, It’s a rockin’ rhythm record I want my jockey to play.  A long line of hits followed, although you will search in vain though for hits between 1961 and 1964, due to an enforced hiatus when he was sent to prison for three years in prison for offences under the Mann Act, a federal law from 1910 and already an anachronism, which made it a crime to transport a woman or girl from one state to another for the purpose of prostitution or for any other immoral purpose.

He was on a tour in EL Paso TX , crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande to Cuidad Juarez in Mexico and met Janice Escalanti, a 14 year old schoolgirl of Apache descent who had already been arrested for vagrancy and prostitution as well as public drunkenness but was nonetheless only 14. She left with Chuck and travelled on tour with him all the way back to St Louis. When they fell out, she went to the Police. Chuck was arrested and it probably didn’t help that he was black and she was not and that he already had a conviction for armed robbery.

After a two-week trial in March 1960, the jury took just over two hours to convict him. He was fined $5,000, and sentenced to five years in prison, the maximum allowable. He appealed the decision, arguing that the judge’s comments and attitude were racist and prejudiced the jury against him. He won the appeal and a second trial was heard in May and June 1961, resulting in another conviction and a three-year prison sentence and $5000 fine. After another appeal failed, Berry served one and one-half years in prison, from February 1962 to October 1963

Released in October 1963 and immediately went back to work – unlike say Jerry Lee Lewis who’d had his own sex scandal whose career was finished – he just picked up where he’d left off. So Nadine (Is It You?), No Particular Place to Go, You Never Can Tell and Promised Land are all from 1964 and 1965, success buoyed by the Chuck Berry tunes popularised by the Beatles and the Stones. The late 60s were a bit lean, but by the early Seventies, there was a bit of a rock and roll revival, a backlash against the heavier and psychedelic rock sounds then in vogue.

Chuck was back but despite the seismic influence of his songs, none of them had ever gone to Number One in US or the Uk. Until My Ding a Ling. How heartbreaking that his biggest ever hit, his only Number One was a smutty novelty song that he didn’t even write, although he claims copyright and was often listed as writer until a law suit from New Orleans songwriter Dave Bartholomew, co-writer of many of Fats Domino’s hits.

My Ding A Ling was recorded live during the Lanchester Polytechnic College Arts Festival at the Locarno Ballroom in Coventry, England, on 3 February 1972. His pick-up band included guitarist Onnie McIntyre and drummer Robbie McIntosh from the Average White Band. Onnie reported, when I spoke to him, that the rehearsal was basically Chuck – who arrived an hour before show time in his stage clothes carrying  guitar – saying “When I drop the neck of the guitar down, I’ll start and you just follow me. When the neck comes down again, you stop.” That was it, rehearsal over.

But what a showman! He had the audience in the palm of his hand from start to finish. There was the Duck Walk, Cossack dancing and audience participation. At the end unusually he refused to leave the stage, staying beyond even his usual allotted 60 minutes to do Johnny B Goode. Once he’d finished though, he left without saying goodbye to his musicians and got into his car and drove off. The NME said Chuck Berry is no battered old relic being trotted out for a rerun He’s a living master of rock and roll.

Radio stations started playing My Ding a Ling as an album track and pressured Chess into releasing it as a single, although they weren’t keen and expected trouble. It got into the US singles charts so it then got released in the Uk where many radio stations refused to play it. On the BBC, broadcasting legend Alan Fluff Freeman introduced the song by saying “oh Chuck baby, how could you?”. Still, it sold in the millions.  Ever the businessman, he toured relentlessly to cash in, his fee back up to $10,000 from $1000.

It proved to be his swan song, failing to trouble chart compliers again despite performing into his late 80s. There were a few more legal scrapes, including 4 months for tax evasion in 1979 when the taking everything in cash caught up with him. And who can forget that  curious case of him installing CCTV in the ladies’ toilets at a restaurant he owned in St Louis in 1990.  A police raid on his house found videotapes of women using the loo, one of whom was underage, so in order to avoid the child-abuse charges, he agreed to a plea and was given a six-month suspended jail sentence, two years’ unsupervised probation, and ordered to donate $5,000 to a local hospital. He also settled with 59 women who sued him for around $1.2 million plus legal fees.

He announced on his 90th birthday last October that a first new studio album since 1979, entitled Chuck, will be released in 2017. It also features his children, Charles Berry Jr. and Ingrid, on guitar and harmonica and is dedicated to his wife, Themetta, for whom the word long-suffering barely seems adequate, but in the end they were married for 69 years.

 

 

Is this the real life? 40 years of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a  huge bombastic sprawling, six-minute rock opera  took three weeks to make starting on 24 August 1975. It was painstakingly pieced together in six studios, pushing 1970s recording technology to its limits. The song’s multi-tracked vocals were overdubbed so often that the tapes became virtually transparent and have to be baked today before they can be used.

It wasn’t a conventional song. First of all there’s no chorus; secondly it’s three different bits stitched together – intro, a ballad segment, an operatic passage, a hard rock part bookended by a rather reflective intro and outro. It was reportedly the most expensive single ever made at the time of its release

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It was released on 31 October 1975, stayed at the top of the UK Singles Chart for nine weeks and had sold more than a million copies in the UK by the end of January 1976.  It’s been Christmas number one twice, reaching number one a second time in 1991 for another five weeks when the same version was re-released after the death of its composer and singer Freddie Mercury. Not bad for a song the record company said would never be played on the radio.

It was written at Freddie’s flat at 100 Holland Road Kensington W14, in Spring 1975 on an upright piano in his bedroom which was also the headboard of the bed, so if he thought of something in the night he could lean over backwards and play. He was double jointed apparently.

He had had bits of it since the late 1960s, certainly the piano riff and the ‘Mama’ bit, which he pinched from a Roy Orbison song called Mama. But he was sick of  always being compared to other bands, especially Led Zeppelin so he wanted to do something just ridiculously and outrageously different.

There was no demo.  It was all in Freddie’s head and was originally known as Fred’s Thing, all in Freddie’s mind. The rest of the band thought he was joking when he played the opening ballad section on the piano for them and stopped and said, ‘Right, this is where the opera section comes in.

They recorded it at Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, in a converted stable in rural Wales. It started with Freddie, drummer Roger Taylor and bass player John Deacon recording the backing track live, before they got to the vocals. Deacon is no singer apparently so Mercury, Taylor and guitarist Brian May reportedly sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day for days on end. The entire arrangement was written out on the back of fag packets, telephone directories and bits of papers. When they’d done one part, they moved onto next part of the harmony.

The entire piece took three weeks to record, and some sections featured 180 separate vocal overdubs. They thought they were finished then Freddie would come up with another ‘Galileo’, so they would have to splice in another piece of tape to the reel. They nicked a few things from band leader Mantovani: the Magnificos and Let Me Goes are Bells’ Chords, a technique where single notes of a chord are sung in sequence and sustained by separate voices to allow the chord to be heard. Brian May had heard it on his parents’ radiogram in the 1950s.

 

Freddie Mercury decided it was going to be the first single, although everyone at the record company EMI thought it would be a flop. EMI wanted to edit it down to 3 minutes as it was 5′ 55″ long, too long for radio and TV, not to mention it was a bizarre mix of opera, ballad, classical and heavy rock. Who was going to play it? UK radio in 1975 was limited to BBC Radio One or  Capital Radio, neither of whom playlisted it. And the press didn’t really like it either. The Melody Maker said that ‘Queen contrived to approximate the demented fury of the Balham Amateur Operatic Society performing The Pirates of Penzance’.

The band bypassed EMI’s decision by playing the song for friendly Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett, to whom they gave a reel-to-reel copy and told him with a wink he could only have it if he promised not to play it. To which he agreed with a wink. Everett teased his listeners by playing only parts of the song so that audience demand intensified to the point that he played the full song on his show 14 times in two days in October 1975. Fans tried to buy the single the following Monday, only to be told by record stores that it had not yet been released. EMI then gave in to the pressure and it came out on 31 October 1975.

The next problem was how would you play it on BBC TV’s weekly pop show Top of the Pops? They’d look rather silly just the four of them miming to the 180 piece operatic choir on TV. So they made a video, the one that has been called the first ever music video, which is not really true (the Beatles made films of the latest single at the height of their extraordinary success in the 1960s) but they did invent the pop video as the promotional tool which everyone felt they had to make when they had new song out.

It was filmed in four hours at a cost of £4,500  on 10 November 1975 at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, just North of London, where Queen were in dress rehearsals with all their stage lights and staging. That means the live bits are not filmed on stage somewhere, they are filmed in dress rehearsals for the tour that was to begin. The head and shoulders were done at the side of the same soundstage. There are some fairly primitive special effects which were done live like visual feedback where the camera turns to monitor, or a prism lens. It was all done in 4 hours, no post-production.

 

Playing the song live obviously created a problem with the operatic section. Initially they played it in 2 sections, opening the act with the first bit then playing h 4 or 5 songs in the middle as a kind of medley before ending it with the rocking ‘So you think you can love me and spit in my eye section’. Later they just played a tape of the whole operatic section accompanied by a light show so they could go off stage, get … ‘refreshed’, change their frocks, and come back and crash into the heavy section. Which is also what happened when Elton John – in a truly dreadful toupe – and Axl Rose played it together at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley on Easter Monday, 20 April 1992. Alas, Freddie had died aged only 45 six months earlier. He would have been 70 year sold this week.