This feature was written to coincide with Jimmy Scott’s London appearances in 2004 but they were cancelled and the piece was not used.
Van Morrison says that Jimmy Scott can “sing the rest of us off this planet”: Lou Reed calls him the greatest singer in the world: Marvin Gaye longed to sing ballads with the depth of Jimmy Scott: Madonna says he is the only singer who can make her cry, but relatively few people know of Jimmy Scott.
There are several reasons why. It is partly due to him signing a ridiculously restrictive recording contract and partly due to his limited and hackneyed repertoire, giving the impression that new albums are old ones. The fact that he is the slowest singer in the world is another factor, but the main reason is his freakish voice. Hear Jimmy Scott by chance on the radio and you will be convinced you are listening to a woman, and many listeners find that off-putting. As Nancy Wilson wrote in a sleeve note to an album in 1969, “Many vocalists, especially females, including myself, have patterned their styles from Little Jimmy Scott.”
If you know nothing of Jimmy Scott’s life, you might think I am making up the story that follows: nobody, it would seem, could live like this as one calamity follows another. His tribulations enhance his work: is any singer more aching or poignant on stage or on record than Jimmy Scott?
James Victor Scott was born in the black part of Cleveland, Ohio on 17 July 1925. He was the third of ten children to Arthur and Justine Scott. Arthur surfaced roads for a living, but he was feckless so that the family never had enough money. Justine took the family to church and sometimes Jimmy would sing to her piano accompaniment. Even when he was 10, he was singing behind the beat. She encouraged his talent knowing that he was both different and good.
Because Jimmy wasn’t growing, he was diagnosed with Kallmann’s Syndrome when he was 13. The syndrome stopped his body developing, stunting his growth at just under five foot. He had no sense of smell, his voice did not break and, a matter of some concern, he had small privates.
Around the same time, Justine put a hand out to save her daughter from a speeding car. Her arm got caught in the door handle and was wrenched from its socket. She died from a loss of blood. The drunken but wealthy driver donated $50,000 for the upkeep of the family, which a judge put in trust for the children but the money was never seen again. The children were placed in orphanages and foster homes.
Jimmy didn’t spent long in care. He was working from the age of 16, washing dishes, typing envelopes and being a cinema usher. He admired the way Paul Robeson could make a lyric come to life in Show Boat and he would study the lyrics of the great popular songs and consider how he might sing them himself. Once you know his background, you can sense that he is singing of his own plight when he performs ‘My Mother’s Eyes’, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ or ‘Why Was I Born?’. He stopped singing ‘The Loneliest House On The Street’ because, even by his standards, it was too emotional.
In 1945 Jimmy travelled in a road show starring a contortionist called Caledonia. He was 20 and he married a buxom, 16 year old waitress, more out of pity than anything else because he wanted to rescue her from abuse by her father. When they went on the road, she became a prostitute and they were divorced when he caught her with another man. Jimmy’s next relationship was with another large prostitute.
When he demanded his wages from one piano player, he was knocked to the ground and kicked in the head. He bought a gun and shot out the windows in the pianist’s house, but it taught him that he did not want to be a gangster. On the whole, he was earning reasonable money and when his brother, Justin, died after drinking contaminated water, his father sent him a telegram, “Justin is dead. Send money to pay for funeral.”
Hardly surprisingly, Jimmy started drinking and smoking reefers, but his friend, Charlie Parker (‘Bird’), warned him off heroin. A live recording from 1950 of Jimmy and Bird doing ‘Embraceable You’ surfaced in 1977 on the LP, One Night In Birdland, but the vocalist was wrongly identified as Chubby Newsome. Billie Holiday heard Jimmy at the Baby Grand club in New York and told him, “I heard what you’re doing and you’re doing it right.”
He auditioned for Lionel Hampton’s orchestra, who had discovered Dinah Washington and had Quincy Jones on trumpet. He sang ‘Why Was I Born?’ with the band and Hampton was impressed. Hampton loved gimmicks and called him Little Jimmy Scott. Because Jimmy, and sometimes the audience, would be in tears when he sang, he was also called Crying Jimmy Smith.
In 1950 he made his first recordings as the featured vocalist with Hampton’s orchestra. His version of ‘I Wish I Knew’ with flute, vibes and organ is exquisite. When he was handed a lyric by a fan, Regina Adams, ‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’, he and the organist Doug Duke wrote a melody. He recorded it with Hampton but was disappointed that the record label said “vocal with orchestra” without giving him a namecheck. The disc-jockeys assumed that it was Hampton’s female vocalist, Irma Curry. To make matters worse, neither Doug or Jimmy were listed as composers, but Hampton’s wife, Gladys, took the credit instead. Jimmy had mixed feelings as the song climbed to No.6 on the R&B charts and it was to be his only hit record.
As published in Country Music People February 2012.
Long before the term “Americana”, there was John Stewart with his potent musical mix of folk, country and rock, usually writing about America and all bound up with that remarkable voice and its surprising vibrato.
John Stewart was born in San Diego, California in September 1939. He was part of the folk group, the Cumberland Three and then in 1961 he replaced Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio. Almost immediately, Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane and John Stewart recorded Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”, surely one of the most telling records of the Twentieth Century. John narrated Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Rev Mr Black” so effectively that I can’t even imagine Johnny Cash doing it better. He wrote several songs for the Trio, the best known being “Chilly Winds”, but the song that became a standard was “Daydream Believer”, a multi-million selling single for the Monkees.
By 1967, it was inevitable that he would be going his own way and he made Signals Through The Glass with Buffy Ford, who became his wife. His groundbreaking album, California Bloodlines, made in Nashville in 1969, included his celebration of the American spirit “Mother Country”, the childhood memories of “The Pirates Of Stone County Road” and the travelling song, “July You’re A Woman”. “Armstrong”, a single to celebrate the achievements of the astronauts reaching the moon, made the US charts but then was withdrawn as it was considered, for some daft reason, unpatriotic.
One great album followed another including Cannons In The Rain (1973) and the extraordinary live album, The Phoenix Concerts (1974), the one place where he was regarded as a star. Its atmosphere doesn’t fall far short of Johnny Cash At Fulsom Prison. This magnificent set includes Stewart’s reflections of campaigning with Bobby Kennedy, a cycle of songs known as The Last Campaign Trilogy.
Although John Stewart had reservations about the production, Fire In The Wind (1977) is a brilliant album and the follow-up, Bombs Away Dream Babies (1979), produced by Lindsey Buckingham, included a US million-seller, “Gold”. It was a song about not making it in the music business, and such ironies abound in John Stewart’s career.
After that, everything became low-key and some albums of new songs were simply released as gig cassettes, sometimes especially for the UK. Among the more esoteric releases was The Essential John And Buffy, recorded at the Turf Inn, Dalry, Scotland, in 1994. His songwriting never faltered and Rosanne Cash topped the country charts with “Runaway Train” in 1988. Nanci Griffith and Joan Baez recorded several of John’s songs.
Around 2000, Buffy Ford was diagnosed with a brain tumour and John had the trauma of wondering how they would fund the treatment. Fortunately, Buffy made a very good recovery, although she lost the sight in one eye and became deaf in her left ear. John’s health then suffered. In 2007, his response to hearing that he had Alzheimer’s Disease was to write “I Don’t Drive Anymore”. John died in January 2008 in the very hospital where he was born.
In recent months, Buffy and Nick Reynolds’ widow, Leslie, have been helping to establish the KingstonTrio Legacy project for the Smithsonian Institute. It will be a travelling exhibition as well as a website and the interviewees include Brian Wilson (in a striped shirt), Al Jardine from the Beach Boys and Rosanne Cash.
In November 2011, Buffy Ford was in the UK collecting information for the project. She came to BBC Radio Merseyside and I used the opportunity to record a conversation with her and several John Stewart (and Buffy Ford!) enthusiasts – promoters Geoff Davies and Andy Fergus and fans Brian O’Connell and Andrew Doble. I am presenting this as straight conversation as I love the way it flows. It was not at all a sad occasion: most of the time we were laughing and I hope you will be too.
Spencer Leigh I’d like to start with the first times we saw John Stewart and obviously, Buffy, your experience will be quite different from ours.
Buffy Ford Well, I wasn’t a Kingston Trio fan at all. I was into musicals and Judy Garland, although I lived close to where John was and we had mutual friends. I knew Nick Reynolds’ first wife, Joanie Reynolds, and I would hear the Trio at art fairs in Sausalito.
In 1967 I was in a show and John had left the Trio and was looking for a girl to sing with him and somebody had said that he should see me in this show.
He had been interviewing and flying girls in from all over the country! He wanted to do a duo with a girl and he was also thinking of singing with John Denver, but then John Denver decided that he was going to sing on his own. During the show, there were maybe 800 people in the audience, but my eyes just connected with this person. I didn’t know who it was but I played to this person all night long and then afterwards, somebody said, “There’s a guy here from the Trio who wants to meet you” and it was the same guy that I had been playing to. He asked me out to coffee and I was kinda shy and said, “No”, and I went home and said, “I blew it, I blew it, I blew it.”
Then I was babysitting at this pool and my mother rang. She was like a Mae West character, and she said, “Hey, babe, you had better grab a towel because John Stewart is on his way up to see you.”
Pretty soon John came through the gate with his cowboy hat and his flowered shirt, I will never forget how he looked. He was so tall and handsome and he had his guitar. The first song that we ever sang was “Cody” and he said, “What do you think? Do you want to try singing together?” I said, “Yeah, that would be great.”
At the time I was rehearsing with Jefferson Airplane but I said to no to them and decided to sing with John. We started singing together and then I became a huge Trio fan. I met Nick and we became this amazing family and I still listen to their music and there is no sound like it, there are no harmonies like their harmonies. Not only that but the three of them were so connected as they sang on one microphone and nobody tried to outdo each other. They were all so in tune with each other. I love “Road To Freedom” and “California” but all the records are very special to me.
Andrew Doble I first picked out John Stewart’s voice in the Kingston Trio in “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and that solo verse that he sang had an edge that I hadn’t heard in the Trio before. As catchy as “Tom Dooley” and “MTA” were, there was something about “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” that was different. It is a wonderful Pete Seeger song and John’s contribution is truly inspirational.
Spencer Leigh Andy, what are your first memories of seeing John Stewart?
Andy Fergus I first saw John Stewart at Salinas in California in 1976. I was such a huge fan and also a mega-fan of Bobby Darin, which John never forgave me for. Bobby Darin died very young of a heart attack and I never got to see him. I thought I must see John Stewart in case anything happens to him. I saved up my pennies and went on a trip to Salinas.
Bruce Barsotti was putting a rodeo on in Salinas and John was the star and so I flew to LA and took a bus down and that very evening I met his bass player, Chris Whelan. I said, “No, isn’t his bass player Arnie Moore?” Chris was like six foot five and he said very dramatically, “I am the bass player.” (Laughs) He told John this and when John came in for the show the next day, they found me a front row seat and the first half-hour of the show was a total blank for me because I couldn’t believe that I was sitting in Salinas in California listening to this amazing singer-songwriter.
Buffy Ford Andy Fergus arrived at our front door with his suitcase. I said, “John, did you invite Andy to stay?” He said, “No”, but we invited Andy in and he stayed for a year! (Laughs)
Andy Fergus One night Tom Waits came round and he was writing the Small Change album. Tom and John were playing songs to each other and Tom was spending the night downstairs because I had the spare room. Being in California, they had large potted plants in the middle of the house and they were going through the roof. John told Tom that there was a snake in the potted plants. I said to John, “I didn’t know that there was a snake in there” and John said, “There isn’t.” Tom Waits had a restless night because of that.
Andrew Doble I will tell you about the first time I didn’t see John Stewart. He was due to appear in London at the Borderline and he was taken ill – I think he lost his voice – and the show was cancelled at short notice, so my wife and I sat at home and we got out The Phoenix Concerts, which is a wonderful live album as we all know, and we played that back to back, straight through twice. That gave us something of what we were missing.
Geoff Davies I first discovered John Stewart with that double-album, The Phoenix Concerts. I had recently opened my shop Probe in Liverpool and as the records were coming into the shop, I would try things that I didn’t know and I put The Phoenix Concerts on and that was it, I was with him for the rest of his life. There was nobody like him for the voice, the emotion, the quaver in that voice and the songs, there was so much there. It was the more positive, liberal side of the American Dream. There are strong right-wing politics in America but John was the opposite to all that by being this great man of the west. He was a big man with a big voice.
Brian O’Connell I was very, very thrilled to see that John Stewart was going to be appearing live in New Brighton in 1984 as I had been a fan of his since the Kingston Trio days. My wife and I went along to the concert and we were stunned. We were actually seeing in person the voice that we had known on record for so long. He didn’t disappoint us at all and he was absolutely fantastic. The concert was broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside and it should be released as a CD as it was so excellent. I had goose pimples when he sang “The Queen Of Hollywood High” as it was so terrific.
Spencer Leigh Yes, it was a wonderful concert and I’ve still got the master tapes! I remember saying to him beforehand, “John, will you do Daydream Believer?” and he said, “For you, Spencer, anything.”
Geoff Davies In 1984, I was staying in Wales and I knew I had to get back for this show in New Brighton and it was absolutely fantastic just as I had hoped and expected. I wanted to see him again. I had been promoting concerts on and off for a number of years, and usually I was promoting people who I wouldn’t normally get a chance to see. I put him on in 1985 and then I started distributing his label, Sunstorm, with the Trancas album. And then others were rereleased and I was part of the Rough Trade cartel of independent distributors. I handled his label for a number of years. I got his records into indie shops around the country. I was always trying to turn people onto John Stewart.
Andrew Doble My first time of seeing John playing live was here on Merseyside at New Brighton when he did that show with Chuck McDermott, and Buffy was there too of course. That was a wonderful show and it was wonderful to hear that voice live.
Spencer Leigh When you were in New Brighton with John, Buffy, you did a very moving song with John, three songs really, “The Last Campaign Trilogy”.
Buffy Ford Yes, that was very emotional to perform as it had been a very emotional time for us. We had been recording Signals Through The Glass and then John was also recording “July You’re A Woman”. I had just spoken to Bobby Kennedy on the phone and he said, “Are you two coming to the hotel?” John was recording and he said, “Honey, you go on down to the hotel and I will meet you down there as soon as I have finished.” I got in the cab and the driver said, “Did you hear what has happened?” and I said, “No.” He said, “Bobby Kennedy has been shot.”
So I ran back and told John of course. He went right over to the hotel and I went to our hotel as it was just too much for me. John went to the hospital and it was a horrible time for us.
Our time with Bobby on the campaign had been so amazing because we were lucky to be so close to him. I had never been political and I didn’t ever look at Bobby as a political figure, he was a humanitarian and he never stopped talking about the things that he cared about. It was never, “Oh, the day’s over, let’s relax.” He still continued to talk about the Indian children and he would say about a problem, “It’s up to you. What are you going to do about it?” We would have chocolate ice cream with chocolate syrup every night in his room. We saw a lot of people on that campaign and John wrote songs about them. It was an amazing time and a little boy poked his head in the bus and said, “Remember my name, Ernesto Juàrez.” John always had a notebook and he wrote everything down. I have found so many notes of John’s. I am going to do a book with Henry Diltz with photographs and lyrics, and that will be fantastic.
Spencer Leigh returns to the BBC Written Archives for an appraisal of ‘Saturday Club
This feature appeared in the March 2006 edition of Now Dig This. Please send any comments to Spencer Leigh.
Thank you for your kind reactions to the features I wrote on ‘Six-Five Special’ and on Billy Fury at the BBC. I have returned to the BBC Written Archives at Caversham and looked at the files for ‘Saturday Club’, the key radio programme for teenagers in the late 50s and 60s. Despite the pruning over the years, there is plenty to read and the files divulge what happened behind the scenes at this historic programme. On behalf of ‘Now Dig This’, I thank the BBC Written Archives for allowing me to quote from this unique correspondence.
On 8 January 1957, a young producer and former schoolteacher from Plymouth, Jimmy Grant proposed a modest series called ‘Skiffle Session’. It would feature two or three singers with a skiffle group and would last 15 to 20 minutes. Grant’s note deals with the popularity of skiffle – “In London, the skiffle movement provides entertainment at several dozen coffee-houses” and furthermore, the skiffle repertoire includes “blues, ballads, shanties, work songs, country songs, cowboy songs, railway ditties and even evergreen popular tunes.” He calculated that the cost of mounting the show would be £51.10.0d.
At first the management was unsure that there should be a show for teenagers because the parents bought the TV licences, but half an hour wasn’t much to airtime. Hence, the BBC held auditions for appropriate skifflers in March 1957. Several groups were considered and the panel notes:
Dickie Bishop – quite good, two part singing and well organised
Cy Laurie – harmony singing way off, but otherwise not bad
Chas McDevitt – much better organised, more in time and a better beat
Johnny Duncan – hillbilly, yodelling blues. Too polite to use: could he be jogged up?
I was amused by the comment on Cy Laurie, hardly the UK’s best musician but arguably the oddest as he believed himself to be the reincarnation of Louis Armstrong’s clarinet player, Johnny Dodds. Didn’t anyone ever point out that he was born in 1926 and Dodds died in 1940? Whatever, this unusual man took himself off to India and combined eastern and western sounds long, long before the Beatles.
The programme ‘Saturday Skiffle Club’ was allocated a weekly budget of £55 and it started its run on 1 June 1957 between 10 and 10.30am, replacing a half an hour of music from theatre organists: they needn’t have worried as ‘The Organist Entertains’ continues to this day. The presenter was a 26-year-old announcer and news-reader, Brian Matthew, who regarded the show as an experiment as there had been nothing like it before. In other words, Chas McDevitt and his mates were providing cutting-edge radio.
‘Saturday Skiffle Club’ was popular but the BBC’s management disliked the American bias. “Too many American work songs,” said one BBC executive, “Doesn’t anybody know any British work songs?” Jimmy Grant and his boss, Don MacLean were asked to address the issue. On 25 June, Don MacLean’s told the Assistant Head of Variety (General):
“A very great deal of thought and effort has been expended here to seek British material for these programmes. For example, I obtained several rare books of Scottish ‘work songs’ and Jimmy Grant and I and several skifflers went through them all – seeking appropriate songs that could be performed with the strong off-beat of skiffle without producing the charge of sacrilege from those who have the originals.
“The plain fact is that British folk songs do not normally have an accented 2nd and 4th beat – many are in 6/8 – and have to be adapted – American folk songs mostly do, and therefore are a more natural choice.
“In spite of this, in the four programmes to date, approximately one in three songs has been British. We had regarded this as something of an achievement – and are disappointed that this seems not to have been appreciated.”
Still, ‘Saturday Skiffle Club’ was coming from Glasgow on 6 July and the intention was to include some rhythmic Scottish folk music into the programme, but “this is definitely an experiment.” It must have worked as the programme was extended by four weeks, with the series ending now on 28 September. It was then extended further and became a regular part of Saturday morning listening. Another criticism was levelled at the show’s compère, Brian Matthew. The BBC management thought he was good but instructed Jimmy Grant “not to turn him into a comic”.
The next counterblast was the charge that there were too many spirituals in the programme – this, after all, was the province of Religious Broadcasting. Jimmy Grant rose to the defence: “Spirituals are a very important ingredient of the skiffle repertoire and it would unnecessarily lower the standard of the programme to exclude them. In the case of pop numbers with a religious slant which have been submitted by publishers, these will of course be avoided where directed by the Head of Religious Broadcasting. Nearly all the numbers in ‘Skiffle Club’ are traditional, extensive research often being required to trace their origins.”
This is a reference to the fact that quasi-religious pop ballads such as ‘St. Therese Of The Roses’ or ‘Answer Me My Lord’ were either banned or given restricted airplay on ‘general’ programmes.
And from the King of Peace to the King of Skiffle. Most of the groups were being paid a flat fee of £30.10.0d. Not so Lonnie Donegan. If he was to appear on the programme, he wanted 40 guineas. The BBC paid up for his appearance on 12 October 1957, but his relationship with the BBC and indeed everyone who employed him was always fraught with difficulty. Lonnie knew his worth as the show’s listening figures were boosted in October 1957.
The programme came under internal criticism for going over budget. For the first quarter in 1958, the show was £31.10.0d over budget and for the second, horror of horrors, £43.16.0d. No more Lonnie Donegan, that’s for sure. You save money by hiring a solo instrumentalist such as Johnny Parker or Dill Jones for 7 guineas.
The files also contain the guests for the first nine months of 1958: there were appearances by the Vipers (5), Chas McDevitt with Shirley Douglas (5), Johnny Duncan and his Bluegrass Boys (3), George Melly and his Bubbling Over Four (3), Russell Quaye’s City Ramblers (3), Dickie Bishop and his Sidekicks (2), the Bob Cort Skiffle Group (2), and the Nancy Whiskey Skiffle Group (1). They could have had Cliff Richard (then Harry Webb) but he was turned down at the audition.
George Melly normally sang jazz with the Mick Mulligan Band but he formed the Bubbling Over Four for these broadcasts. He featured Bill Bramwell on guitar and they would duet on ‘Up Above My Head’ – I wonder how the Head of Religious Broadcasting viewed that.
Perhaps a greater concern to the BBC should have been Russell Quaye’s City Ramblers as they were active in the Workers Music Association, which was an offshoot of Communist Party. The BBC was constantly being accused by Tory MPs of fostering Communist sympathies and had they known of this group, ‘Saturday Skiffle Club’ might have been off the air. As Russell Quaye was an art teacher with a red beard, it’s surprising that they weren’t rumbled!
In April 1958 the BBC had discovered new buzz words – ‘hootenany’ and ‘folkbeat’. Effectively this was skiffle rebranded and Charles Parker made a sample programme of “ballads, blues, skiffle and calypso, linked in a semi-professional but intensely exciting, free-for-all jam session.” It wasn’t a studio recording but simply a case of taking a tape recorder to the folk club featuring Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger at the Princess Louise, a Victorian pub in High Holborn, London.
Don MacLean, now Music Organiser, Light Entertainment (Sound) – I do love these job titles – heard the programme and commented, “The artists on that particular session at the Princess Louise have been on the go for many years and have made very little impact on the public. I’ve always regarded Ewan MacColl and his comrades as the Ken Colyers of folk music in Britain: they intentionally sing 14-bar choruses because some infirm old Negro used to do so unintentionally. In jazz broadcasting we give Colyer his share, but we’ve done a great deal more to foster the creative boys as opposed to the re-creative. So with ‘folkbeat’: the appropriate share for the copyists should be small – and there should certainly not be a weekly transmission of such contrived entertainment as this tape contains.
“‘Saturday Club’, ‘Guitar Club’ (if it returns), ‘Music In The Modern Manner’ and ‘Jazz Club’ will all reflect the growing demand for ‘folkbeat’ – and, in my view, should foster any young singers we can find who are making contemporary folk music for contemporary entertainment – rather than trying to preserve a cult.”
I find this memo surprising as I thought that Ewan MacColl’s scholarly approach was loved and appreciated by all at the BBC. His famed and award winning ‘Radio Ballads’ found their place on the Third Progamme.
On 5 July 1958 the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group with Shirley Douglas and the Avon City Skiffle Group were the guests in ‘Saturday Skiffle Club’. Around 20 minutes of the broadcast (the bits with Chas!) are featured on his Rollercoaster CD, ‘Freight Train’. The show incorporates world music (‘Tom Hark’), pop ballads (‘Real Love’), rock’n’roll (‘I Dig You Baby’) and jazz (‘Ace In The Hole’) but not much skiffle. Brian Matthew has a BBC accent: he is about to go on holiday and he introduces the relief compère, Michael Brooke and they play upper-class twits for a couple of minutes. “Look here,” says Michael, “this skiffle thing, I’ve not heard it before.” Oh dear.
Some comprehensive audience research was undertaken for the half-hour ‘Saturday Skiffle Club’ broadcast of 2 August 1958. The researchers requested the written opinions of 112 listeners: here is the summary.
“Those who usually enjoyed skiffle found the programme generally to their liking. The music was bright and tuneful, they thought, and the performances (by both the Pete Curtis Folk and Blues Quintet and the Bill Bailey Skiffle Group) well up to standard. A retired Works Manager was very enthusiastic: ‘It was very lively and full of the joy of the very young at their happiest. A very enjoyable programme.’ The wife of a refrigeration engineer wrote, ‘I thought most of the music had a nice swing to it. I turned my eleveneses into tenses so that I could sit down and listen and I was glad I did.’”
This interview appeared in “Brother, Can You Spare A Rhyme?”. (Details are in the Books section of this website.) I loved re-reading it: this guy was just so interesting, full of unique opinions and observations. I was so privileged to meet him.
Sammy Cahn is a superb example of the Tin Pan Alley songwriter, writing to order and producing, for the most part, first class work. He is a contender for the lyricist of the century and I was very pleased to interview him when he came to London in 1987 to present his anecdotal show, “Words And Music”, at the Duke of York’s.
The two hours that I spent with him represents two of the best hours of my life. The interview was condensed to a one-hour special for BBC Radio Merseyside and, outside of a few extracts, it has never appeared in print. It is entirely fitting that the whole text of the interview should appear in “Brother, Can You Spare A Rhyme?”, which is essentially about the best-crafted songs of the 20th century.
It’s a familiar story – the poor Jewish kid from the New York slums who makes good. Indeed, most of the key Tin Pan Alley songwriters were the sons of immigrant parents. The fact that their parents had to learn a new language might have rubbed off on them and so they became very adept with the English language and its rhymes and phrases. None more so than Sammy Cahn.
Sammy Cahn was born into a Polish immigrant family in on the Lower East Side in New York on 18th June 1913. His mother encouraged him to play the violin and now, in his stage show, he plays the piano. In his teens, he played violin in a theatre orchestra and wrote his first song, “Like Niagara Falls, I’m Falling For You”, at the age of 16. He collaborated with the orchestra’s pianist, Saul Chaplin, and they had their first success in 1935 with “Rhythm Is Our Business” for Jimmie Lunceford.
In 1937 the Andrews Sisters topped the US charts with “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” and from then on, Sammy Cahn has written hundreds, if not thousands, of songs. Many were written with Jule Styne, starting with “I’ve Heard That Song Before” in 1942 and including the Oscar-winning “Three Coins In The Fountain” (1954).
The story behind this song is Sammy’s first act finale and includes his poignant line, “You ask which comes first, the words or the music. I will tell you, the phone call.” Because of studio deals, he says that when you hear “Make it mine, make it mine, make it mine”, remember that only one-third of the song is his.
Another major collaborator was Jimmy Van Heusen and their many songs for Sinatra include “All The Way” (1957) and “High Hopes” (1959), both Oscar winners, as well as the title songs for the albums, “Come Fly With Me”, “Come Dance With Me” and “No One Cares”. They also won an Oscar for the song, “Call Me Irresponsible” in 1963.
Sammy Cahn has also written with Nichos Brodsky (“Be My Love”, “Because You’re Mine”, both for Mario Lanza), Gene DePaul (“Teach Me Tonight”) and many others. I had the feeling that if I’d said to Sammy, “I write music”, we would have written a song on the spot.
Sammy Cahn’s singing voice is rudimentary, but he is a splendid raconteur with a flair for self-promotion, whether on stage, on TV (with Michael Parkinson) or in print (his autobiography, “I Should Care”). He loves telling his carefully-honed anecdotes and if you’ve heard some of the stories in our conversation before, it doesn’t matter. They are still great stories and they offer a tremendous insight into how the great popular songs of the 20th century were written.
It’s a long interview but there’s so much more that I would have liked to have asked him. Indeed, when I met up with again, briefly, after his show at the Duke of York’s, he said, “You like Elvis. I should have told you about writing the comeback special for him and Frank in 1960.” Indeed.
I think this interview reads well. I’ve never known an interviewee to sing so much – he appear to be able to recall every lyric he’s written! – and I cherish the “special lyrics” that he kept singing. Sammy Cahn died in his 80th year on 15th January 1993 and I can imagine that his idea of heaven would be talking, endlessly talking, about his songs and, of course, writing new ones.
Would you like an ID?
“Hello, this is Sammy Cahn. And I am on With Spencer Leigh For BBC”
– so, you see, it all rhymes.
I’d like to talk about your background first. You heard Jewish music in your youth and I wonder if that influenced your songwriting.
I wouldn’t think so, but Cole Porter said to me one time, “I envy you where you were born. Had I been born there, I would have been a true genius.” If you listen carefully to Cole Porter’s melodies, they are often Hebraic in the minor tones. (Sings) “I love Paris in the springtime, I love Paris in the spring”, “What is this thing called love?” They are both beautifully and melodically constructed on the minor chords, so if you want to write a really lovely melody with great passion, you could try the deep minor chords, the Hebraic tones.
You’re a lyricist, but have you used them yourself?
Not regularly. The only one I can think of was “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon”, which was totally on the minor chords. (Demonstrates) I went to the Apollo Theatre and heard two black boys singing “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” in the original Yiddish. (Laughs) I wrote the English lyric.
That was in 1937, but you’d had a few successes before that.
Oh yes, I’d had “Until The Real Thing Comes Along”, I’d had “Please Be Kind”, and I’d had a song for Louis Armstrong called “Shoe Shine Boy”. I also had another song for Louis Armstrong called “You’re A Lucky Guy”.
Louis Armstrong had always been like a myth to me, a voice on a record that you listened to late at night, and he was the most astonishingly inventive singer and instrumentalist. When I was called one day and told that I was going to do the Cotton Club Revue, I said, “Who am I writing for?”, and I was told, “Louis Armstrong”. I said, “Louis Armstrong!” The Cotton Club was then on 47th Street on Broadway, which later became the Latin Quarter, and I walked into his dressing-room.
The first thing he said to me was, “When were you born?” I said, “June 18th.” He had a book full of birthdays and on the page for June 18th were all the celebrities who had been born on that day. He said, “Here. Sign your name.”
It’s said that Louis Armstrong didn’t know when he was born so he picked July 4th 1900 for himself as it sounded perfect.
I didn’t know that, but I started to work on his Cotton Club show and by a happy coincidence, the orchestra backing him was led by Jimmie Lunceford. The Jimmie Lunceford band was for me the single best band in all of music, and I say this with the knowledge that there was also Chick Webb, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
The single best band both to watch and to listen to was Jimmie Lunceford’s. It had Sy Oliver’s arrangements, and Tommy Dorsey was bright enough to take Sy Oliver, an incredibly talented man, away from Jimmie Lunceford. The Sy Oliver arrangements had a vast, vast effect on the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
I know Sy Oliver, I know Tommy Dorsey, but I don’t know Jimmie Lunceford.
Well, you listen to his records! I wrote their theme song, (Sings)
“Rhythm is our business,
Rhythm is what we sell,
Rhythm is our business,
And business sure is swell.
If you want rhythm on your radio,
Write in and let us know,
Rhythm is our business,
Rhythm is what we sell.”
Crawfie [Jimmy Crawford] plays on those drums in the band, and Willie Smith was singing. You know, one of the greatest arrangements of all-time is the Sy Oliver arrangement of “Ain’t She Sweet” for Willie Smith and the Lunceford band. If you play these things, you will find that they are just priceless. When he went to Dorsey, he had a tremendous effect with his trumpet challenges. I loved him. At the Cotton Club, we had a song,
“You’re a lucky guy,
When you consider
The highest bidder
Can’t buy the gleam in your eye,
You’re a lucky guy.”
Ted Lewis, the man who used to say “Is everybody happy?”, used to do a song called “Me And My Shadow”, and his shadow was a little black boy. We wanted to have a little black boy in the show with Louis Armstrong and we said, “How do we get a little black boy in there?” At the end of the show, a little black boy came walking through the tables and went up to the stage where he said, “Shine, Mr Armstrong”, and that’s when Louis sang,
“Shoe shine boy,
You work hard all day,
Shoe shine boy,
Got no time to play,”
And this stamps the period of the song:
“Every nickel helps a lot…”
A nickel for a shine!
Were you working with a collaborator at that stage in your career?
Oh yes, all those songs were written with Saul Chaplin. This was my rhythm period – I wrote “Rhythm Is Our Business”, “Rhythm In My Nursery Rhymes” and a whole lot more. (Sings)
“I could learn my ABC’s
Bring home A’s instead of D’s,
And my mom and dad I’d please
If I had rhythm in my nursery rhymes.”
Just recently I got a call from Tommy Tune who is doing a Broadway show called “Steppin’ Out” and he wanted to use an old tune of mine in his show called “Wrap Your Cares In Rhythm And Dance”. I said, “That’s fifty years old. Can’t I interest you in something else? Saul Chaplin and I wrote a rhythm song that might be useful. (Sings)
‘I could be a great singer,
But I haven’t a chance,
Cause every vocal teacher I go to,
Tells me I ought to dance.’
I said to him, ”Why don’t you use that?” He said, “No, we’d like to use ‘Wrap Your Cares In Rhythm And Dance’.” So I went to see “Steppin’ Out” at the Golden Theatre in New York City. The song wasn’t in the first act, but in the interval, I heard Harold Nicholas, one of the two Nicholas Brothers singing. They were in a lot of those tremendous 20th Century Fox musicals. They did “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and they were just incredible. Anyway, during the interval, I hear him singing:
If you’re feeling lowdown
‘Cause the skies are grey
Just wrap your cares in rhythm and dance
And dance your cares away.
I thought, “This is amazing. Did they buy this song just to have him sing it in the interval? What is going on?” Of course they hadn’t and at the end of the show, I found that the finale was “Wrap Your Cares In Rhythm And Dance”
You’re known for all the songs that you wrote for Frank Sinatra. Were you a friend of his before you wrote for him?
Yes, my relationship with Frank begins with Axel Stordahl, who was an arranger alongwith Paul Weston for Tommy Dorsey. Having written “Rhythm Is Our Business”, I was established as a band writer, so Axel took me round to meet Tommy Dorsey and I met him and likewise, I met Frank Sinatra.
I have met each and every one of the band leaders – Glenn Miller, Glen Gray, Charlie Spivak, Harry James – but Tommy Dorsey was to me the most impeccably trained orchestra leader. I would go to the Paramount Theatre and see the pit rise, and Tommy Dorsey starting off (Wordless vocalising on “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”) as the pit was coming up.
They would go into “Marie”, the Irving Berlin song, which again was down to the genius of Sy Oliver: Tommy Dorsey playing “Marie” and the band playing licks behind it. After that would come Connie Haines and then Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers. Then Dorsey would feature Ziggy Elman on trumpet, Buddy Rich on drums and himself on trombone. When all these showstoppers had finished, out stepped a young feller, thinner than my pinkie, and that was Frank Sinatra. He sang “South Of The Border” and he topped everything that had gone before. He was incredibly talented.
Did you immediately want to write for him?
Well, it wasn’t a question of me writing for him. I was writing for the Dorsey band and he was singing the songs. He was so important and if you ask me why I maintain an allegiance to him, listen to this. In 1944, when Frank made it to Hollywood to do a multi-million dollar musical, “Anchors Aweigh”, he walked into Louis B Mayer’s office and they asked him who he wanted to do the songs.
Did he want Rodgers and Hart? Did he want the Gershwins? Did he want Jerome Kern? He said, “None of them. I want Sammy Cahn.” They said, “We don’t mind hiring him, but who is he?” He said, typically, “Since you’re not going to sing the songs, don’t let it concern you. I know who he is and I want him to write for me.” This caused a brouhaha and the eminent Lou Wasserman of MCA said to me, “Sammy, tell Frank to lean back because if he insists on you, we’re going to blow this picture.”
I went to Frank and I said, “Look, Frank, yesterday nobody knew me and today they all hate me. Why not wait? There will be other pictures.” Frank said, “If you’re not there Monday, I won’t be there Monday.” And that is what separates Frank from the rest of them. I did the songs for “Anchors Aweigh” and the one I love the most is “I Fall In Love Too Easily”, which he sang at the Hollywood Bowl at the piano. I also love the song he does with Gene Kelly at the start of the film, “I Begged Her”, and then there’s “What Makes The Sun Set”.
Did Frank have an incredible range?
This was his violin period. He went from violin to viola to cello, (Laughs) and when he got to Nelson Riddle, he had his bass sound. It takes genius to project in front of the Nelson Riddle band blasting away, but Frank could do it. He’s an amazing feller.
You’re a master of rhyme, and I love the way you rhyme “time” with “I’m” in “Time After Time”.
Well, I have learnt all the feasible rhymes and I am not the first one to rhyme “time” with “I’m”. Ira Gershwin wrote, (Sings)
“I’m biding my time
’Cause that’s the kind of guy I’m.”
With Jule Styne the tunes came first most of the time. (Sings)
“Time after time
I tell myself that I’m
So lucky to be loving you”
I followed the musical line and the song leads me more than I lead it. (Sings)
“So lucky to be
The one you run to see
In the evening
When the day is through.
I only know what I know
The passing years will show
You’ve kept my love so young so new
So time after time
I tell myself that I’m
So lucky to be loving you.”
The song is writing me more than I am writing it. I’m starting at top and I don’t know where the lyric is going. Johnny Burke used to start from the bottom – he had his key idea and he would work backwards from that.
Did you go and sing your new songs for Sinatra?
To me, the greatest thrill of songwriting is the demonstration of the completed song. I always liked to do it myself. I would stand right in front of Sinatra and I would sing it to him. It was an amazing thing to be doing. When I sang to one singer,
“And when we kiss that isn’t thunder, dear,
It’s only my poor heart you hear
And it’s applause,
Because you’re mine”
he said, “How do you say ‘Thunder, dear’?”, but there was none of that was Sinatra. “Weatherwise, it’s such a lovely day” – he knew instinctively how to do it. It was very easy to write for Sinatra.
Have you any other examples?
When I sang “Come Fly with Me” for Frank, I sang,
“Come fly with me,
Let’s fly, let’s fly away.
If you can use some exotic views,
There’s a bar in far Bombay.”
I said “views” instead of “booze”. When he had finished recording, I said, “When you sing the song in Vegas or a night club, you should sing ‘booze’.” He said, “Call the band back, I want another take.” Jimmy Van Heusen was angry with me as he thought that the word “booze” would get the record banned, which gives you an idea as to how far censorship has moved. But that’s what makes Sinatra different. He said, “No, I’m going to sing ‘booze’.”
Do you have a favourite session with Frank Sinatra?
Yes, I loved demonstrating the songs for “Our Town” with him. It was a TV production with Paul Newman as the boy and Eva Marie Saint as the girl. It was at twilight at his home in Carrowood Drive, Hornby Hills, California. He just sat there and we sang,
“You will like the folks you meet in our town,
The folks you meet on any street in our town.
Pick out any cottage, large or small,
You’ll find they’re appealing
With that lived-in feeling.”
The story of the bad-tempered bandleader, Jack Payne.
A three part feature in which Spencer Leigh tries to understand Jack Payne
From In Tune, Sept to November, 2011
“I don’t know why the BBC uses me so much. I don’t kow-tow to anyone’s silly tastes or to any authority.”
Evening Standard, 8 August 1959
PART 1. BANDLEADER
Back in 1957, there wasn’t much popular music of any sort on the solitary BBC-TV channel and I would watch whatever I could find and, more importantly, whenever my parents would allow. One of the few popular music programmes was Off The Record, hosted by Jack Payne. I was only 12 years old and I sensed that this grumpy old man didn’t like what he was doing.
Over the years, I have wondered if my childhood views had any substance, and now I have inspected his files at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham, checked the archives of several daily newspapers, played his records and read his books, This Is Jack Payne (1932), Signature Tune (1947) and Jack Payne Presents Stars Of Melody (1956) as well as Peggy Cochrane’s memoir, We Said It With Music (1980).
I conclude that what we saw on screen reflected what was happening backstage. Gilbert Harding was the most bad-tempered man on television in the 1950s, but Jack Payne wasn’t far behind. At first Jack Payne’s rudeness came out of an aspiration to run the most successful dance band in the country and then, in the 50s and in his fifties, he was appalled by the new music from America and he became exceptionally and excessively blunt. He was ruthless, prepared to stand up to anyone who got in his way. His behaviour was his way of getting results, and it was only because he was highly competent that it was tolerated.
John Wesley Vivian Payne, known as Jack, was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, on 22 August 1899, the only son of John Edwin and Sarah Vivian Payne. His father managed a warehouse for musical instruments and his mother was a good, amateur singer. His earliest memory was of beating the family dog for stealing the weekly joint, and when 12 years old, he was nearly expelled for knocking out a boy at school.
By that time, he was a proficient pianist and he knew he played better than his teacher. He became competent on several instruments, an important quality for a future band leader. When only 15, Jack Payne was a sergeant in the school corps, an early indication that he liked giving orders!
The young Jack Payne hated heights. Whenever he reached the top of something, he felt an urge to throw himself off. He cured himself in a stunning way through aviation. He took part in the Great War by joining the Royal Flying Corps (which became the RAF) when he was 17, becoming a First Lieutenant the following year. Later, in civilian life, he would fly for recreation.
On demob, he worked on an estate with a view to becoming a farmer, but he sensed that he would never have enough capital to buy his own stock and land. But dancing and dance halls were becoming increasingly popular. He had played in a concert party band for wounded soldiers and he decided to form his own band.
This was the start of the golden age of dance bands with cheerful, charismatic conductors like Ambrose, Jack Hylton, Henry Hall, Roy Fox and Lew Stone. Payne took Paul Whiteman’s band as his model. Payne had little time for jazz, feeling that something more palatable was needed for popular appeal, but he never quite got the hang of being a charming and compelling front man. His second wife, Peggy Cochrane, said that he had a “forced, unnatural smile”, which sums it up.
After various residences in Leamington Spa and Folkestone, Payne joined a London agency for hunt balls and other social occasions. When his band had a snowball fight at a train station while waiting for a connection, they caused seven shillings (35p) worth of damage. Never again: Payne maintained strict control from then on. He liked his own way and he and Doris Pengree, who was eight years older, eloped and married in a registry office after her father, an army colonel, did not approve.
In 1925 Jack Payne heard of a vacancy at the luxurious Hotel Cecil in the Strand as their bandleader, Johnny Birmingham, was too fond of champagne. He took over the 10 piece band for which he was paid an impressive £28 a week. The band had an arduous schedule providing background music for cocktails and dinner as well as dances. On one occasion, the Prince of Wales asked him to repeat Noël Coward’s ‘A Room With A View’. It’s reported that he played it nine times that evening.
The Hotel Cecil Dance Orchestra made their first records for Zonophone – ‘One Stolen Kiss’ and ‘Yes Sir That’s My Baby’ – in 1925 and they appeared on a BBC children’s show on Boxing Day where Payne was introduced as Uncle Jack.
The theatrical agents and impresarios were wary about this new phenomenon, the BBC. They argued that if an act was heard regularly on air, nobody would want to see them on tour – quite the opposite view to today. Excessively cautious, the Moss theatre group ordered its stars not to appear on radio. Jack Payne knew they were wrong and he was the first bandleader to grasp the mutual benefits of performing in theatres and broadcasting.
In 1928, the BBC asked Jack Payne to form a BBC Dance Orchestra, but with an important proviso. The BBC knew about bandleaders receiving money from music publishers for plugging their songs and they did not want this practice extending to the airwaves. Payne assured them that although many band leaders did this, he was totally against the practice: he would only select music on merit.
One of Payne’s acquaintances, the singer Rudy Vallée told him about the rise of broadcasting in America and he predicted a similar success here. He told Payne that the BBC job was a golden opportunity, and so Payne said yes. Jack Payne left Hotel Cecil, taking a few of the musicians with him.
A wise move. Although the Hotel Cecil was among the best hotels in London, but it needed modernisation including hot and cold water in the bedrooms. Shell-Mex, however, wanted the land and made an offer to the shareholders, which was accepted. The hotel closed in 1930 and the site was demolished to make way for the Shell-Mex building, which stands to this day.
Payne formed the 16-piece BBC Dance Orchestra and they made daily broadcasts, always from 5.15 to 6pm, but there would be other sessions too. In 1931 alone, Jack Payne and the BBC Dance Orchestra broadcast over 1,000 different tunes in 650 hours of broadcasting, which included accompanying solo performers. This had necessitated 1,500 hours of rehearsal.
In an interview for Radio Pictorial in 1936, Jack Payne said, “I wanted Jack Payne and his BBC Dance Orchestra to become a real feature on the radio. And then it occurred to me that it might help if I found some definite way of introducing the band to listeners. I hit on the idea which has now become commonplace – the signature tune. The boys thought this was a great idea but the difficulty was to find the right tune. I recalled a tune that I had broadcast many times before, ‘Say It With Music’.” Although Payne is claiming credit for signature tunes, he was introducing an American practice. He also became the first person to introduce his own programme on the BBC.
Irving Berlin’s ‘Say It With Music’ had been written for a New York stage revue in 1921. By using it for a signature tune, Payne was telling listeners that were going to hear something bright and cheerful. In his own words, he wanted to put ‘happiness and sunshine’ on air. The British people certainly needed it as an antidote to the Depression.
The BBC thought one way to ease unemployment was by supporting British music and although Payne’s signature tune was American, the Corporation wanted him to perform British songs. An analysis of his broadcasts in 1931 revealed that the compositions were50% British, 40% American and 10% Continental.
‘Say It With Music’ was arranged by Ray Noble, who wrote ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing’, ‘Good Morning Mr. Sun’ and ‘What More Can I Ask’ for the band. Payne himself was a decent composer writing and recording ‘Blue Pacific Moonlight’, ‘Underneath the Spanish Stars’ and ‘Pagan Serenade’. In the song, ‘Radio Times’, he wrote,
“Radio brings you a million delights,
Wonderful radio nights”
Payne was so popular that there was even a song performed by other dance bands, ‘I’ve Got The Jack Payne Blues’.
One song in Payne’s repertoire, ‘She’s My Slip Of A Girl’, was the winner of a Find A Song competition in Melody Maker in 1930, although there were so many songs around that you wonder why Melody Maker bothered.
Although Payne and his orchestra were working hard for the BBC, they recorded prodigiously for Columbia – over 400 titles in four years! – but Payne was under strict rules as to what he could play on radio. He could not be seen promoting his latest successes. His band was the first to record the standard, ‘Lady Of Spain’ (1931) and like so many of Payne’s songs, he was given it in a bar.
Although Payne was allowed to make stage appearances, the founder of the BBC, Lord Reith, insisted that Payne did no Sunday concerts whilst in their employment. The Sunday schedule was all talks, chamber music and religious services, and it would not look right if a BBC employee was playing dance music on the Sabbath.
In 1931, Jack Hylton had the most popular band in the UK and they were a major touring attraction. When Hylton’s agent raised their fee for the London Palladium, the theatre manager thought it was too high and considered Jack Payne instead. They tried out the BBC Dance Orchestra at the Penge Empire and when that worked well, the Palladium was booked. Like Jack Hylton, Payne knew that the public wanted more than just to see a band playing their instruments and audiences were thrilled when a locomotive appeared to coming towards the stalls with the band members seated on the engine and playing ‘Choo Choo’.
The public loved the band, but not the critics. Edgar Jackson of The Gramophone condescendingly wrote: “Although the professional press criticised the act adversely, it went big with the public; but not, I think, because the act was good. The success seems to have been due to the curiosity of the public to see in person the band they had heard so often from their radio sets.” He concluded that while they did not have Jack Hylton’s polish, you can’t acquire stage presence in a day.
Payne was furious, pointing out that he had been booked for the Palladium before the negotiations with Hylton had broken down and that the reviews had been better than Jackson had indicated. Okay, admitted Payne, there had been a couple of bad reviews but that was for “reasons which are better left unsaid”, the implication being that they, like Edgar Jackson, had allowed prejudice to cloud their opinions.
A couple of months later, Edgar Jackson acknowledged their disagreements and said that their new recordings (‘Pardon Me, Pretty Baby’, ‘When I Dance With My Girl’) were the best of the month’s releases. He added that when it “comes to producing comedy numbers, I hand it to Jack Payne.” Around the same time, Eric Blom in The Gramophone called Payne “the frivolous darling of the musically unlettered.” Maybe but in 1931, Jack Payne was the first to record ‘Twentieth Century Blues’, even before Noèl Coward himself.
Another criticism came from the critic Harvey Grace, who disliked Payne playing any classical tunes: “Why should the dance bands be allowed to lay predatory and profaning paws on great music?” As it happens, even the instigator of the Proms, Sir Henry Wood, praised Jack Payne’s classical adaptations.
In 1931 Jack Payne and the BBC Dance Orchestra appeared at the Palladium in a Royal Variety Performance although Payne was dismayed at having to sing without a microphone, which were in short supply and wanted elsewhere. Still, Payne’s orchestra had the honour of playing the National Anthem.
Payne was doing so well that he and Dorothy built a house in north London to his own design. He built into the contract that the builder could be fined if he didn’t meet deadlines. In the end, the builder had to put 40 men on the job to avoid his penalties!
In January 2007, I asked listeners to my BBC Radio Merseyside programme, On The Beat, to come up with titles for a Bob Dylan album, Highlands 61 Revisited, to celebrate him buying a country pile in Scotland. I was sent over 200 possible titles and my thanks to Chloe Alexander, Dave Donnelly, Andrew Doble, Sue Griffin, Ian Hughes, John Jones, Brian O’Connell and Kevin Toal.
In the wilds of Scotland, Bob Dylan has been recording with a ragged band of legendary musicians including Robbie ‘Burns’ Robertson, Rye McCooder, Aly Kooper and Wee Jimmie Keltner, noted for playing with porridge spurtles instead of drumsticks. Together they have created The Distillery Tapes, a mixture of Jock’n’Roll and Malt Country. The tracks are still shrouded in Highland mystery but they are rumoured to include the following titles:
Loching On Heaven’s Door
I Threw It Stornaway
Red Eyed Lady Of The Highlands
It’s All Over Noo, Rabbie Burns
Hoots Of Spanish Leather
Jock Of Diamonds
Like A Govan Stone
The Tams They Are A-Changin’
YOU’RE STILL ON MY MIND
Published in two parts in Country Music People September and October 2006
If you asked passers-by if they knew Gram Parsons, few would say yes. They would all know the Eagles, and it can be argued that the Eagles would not have existed without him. By those in the know, Gram Parsons is seen as the founder of country-rock and even alt.country, but is that true? Part of the legend is because he lived very fast and died very young – but what of the music. Just how great was Gram Parsons? I’m going to do my best to answer it.
In his otherwise excellent biography, Gram Parsons: God’s Own Singer (Helter Skelter, 2002), Jason Walker wrote, “I have not sought to investigate some of the frankly outlandish stories that proliferated at the time of his death.” What a ridiculous statement: surely that is what he should be investigating, and anyone who buys a biography expects to be told what the stories are and whether they are true.
It could be that Walker is just being lazy, but I can understand his reluctance. Gram Parsons’ wayward lifestyle led to his death and then, because of a drunken pact with his road manager, Phil Kaufman, his body was stolen and cremated in the desert. Rock fans who couldn’t name one of his songs know of his death, but the true fans, like Walker, prefer to say, “Listen to the music”. Okay, I will, but I would maintain that his excesses enhance and enrich his music. It is the same scenario as Hank Williams, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis: you would never want them living next door but their work is the product of their unruly personalities. Gram Parsons died when he was 26 and although he had been full of promise, he blew every opportunity he had. He rarely lasted more than a few months in a group, a combination of his restlessness and his profligate lifestyle. Writing this feature, I realise that he annoys me intensely as I can’t believe how anyone so privileged and so talented could mess it all up.
If you set aside an afternoon, you could hear all of Gram Parsons’ recorded work as it is pitifully small: effectively, some early recordings, an album with the International Submarine Band, another with the Byrds, two with the Flying Burrito Brothers and two solo ones for Reprise: GP and the posthumous Grievous Angel. His songwriting legacy is around 50 songs, most of them co-written.
An overview of Gram’s career was issued on Sacred Hearts And Fallen Angels, a 2-CD Gram Parsons anthology, issued on Rhino in 2001. Rhino has now released Gram Parsons – The Complete Reprise Sessions, a 3-CD package which includes those solo albums, outtakes and an interview. A single CD compilation is Warm Evenings, Pale Mornings, Bottled Blues (Raven, 1992).
A feature-length TV documentary, Fallen Angel, first shown on BBC Four, has been issued on DVD, in an expanded version. There hasn’t been a bio-pic as such – we’ll come to the dodgy Grand Theft Parsons later – but he is a country James Dean and somebody must be planning something somewhere.
To date, there have been four biographies: Gram Parsons – A Musical Biography by Sid Griffin (Sierra, 1985), Hickory Wind: The Life And Times Of Gram Parsons by Ben Fong-Torres (St Martin’s Griffin Books, 25th anniversary edition, 1998), Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography Of Gram Parsons by Jessica Hundley and Polly Parsons (Gram’s daughter) (Thunder’s Mouth, 2005) and the aforementioned Jason Walker. Phil Kaufman told the story of Gram’s last days to Colin White, in Road Manager Deluxe, which was published in its third edition by White-Boucke in 2005.
Gram is strongly featured in two comprehensive studies, Are You Ready For The Country? – Elvis, Dylan, Parsons And The Roots Of Country Rock by Peter Doggett (Viking, 2000) and Desperados – The Roots Of Country Rock by John Einarson (Cooper Square Press, 2001), as well as many other music books. Note Peter Doggett’s title as he is placing Gram Parsons alongside Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. I have drawn on most of these books whilst writing this piece but the quotes, including the ones with the authors, come from my own interviews.
In Peter Doggett’s eyes, Gram Parsons was a chameleon: “Everybody thinks he was a down the line country singer but he changed his style depending on whom he was with. When he was with the Stones, he started acting like Mick Jagger. He was an impossible guy to be around – lots of drugs, lots of drink – and it was inevitable that he would die early.”
His contribution is succinctly expressed by the American writer and musician, Sid Griffin: “He brought to a young audience to country music. I had country music in my back yard as there was a barn that had country and western dances but I hated it. It’s absurd to realise that I had this incredible heritage and ignored it but in the 60s, I wanted to be in the Beatles and live in Liverpool or London. Many young southerners like myself were only introduced to the music by a young hip longhair called Gram Parsons, but that’s a hell of a good contribution to have made.”
Some say that Gram started country-rock, but I tend to think that was Elvis. I put this point of view to Emmylou Harris. “Well, I suppose he did, but then you could argue that Bill Monroe started rock’n’roll. None of us exist in a vacuum and we’re all influenced by other people. I do think that there are visionaries: Bill Monroe was one, Elvis was one and Gram Parsons was one too. He took the poetry and beauty of country music and that wonderful harmony style of the Louvin Brothers and fused it with the poetry of his own generation, plus, most importantly, a rock’n’roll attitude. He had one foot in rock’n’roll and one foot in country. That’s not to say that Elvis didn’t do that, but he was the King, and Gram was much more in tune with his own generation.”
“All the riches and pleasures, What else could life bring?”
Although a wealth of material has been published about Gram Parsons, his history is unclear. This is partly his own doing. Gram told reporters that he was the son of a hobo country musician, who died in jail. Like Bob Dylan rewriting his past, it sounded good. In a sense, he had no choice: we prefer working-class heroes and it wouldn’t have looked good if he had acknowledged a privileged and wealthy upbringing.
Parsons’ grandfather, John Snively, owned land in Florida and made a fortune through orange juice, cattle and the entertainment complex, Cypress Gardens. His net worth was $30m and his daughter, Avis, married Major Ingram Connor, a fighter pilot from World War II. Gram was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida on 5 November 1946, but he spent his early years in Waycross, Georgia. His father ran a packing plant for Snively in Waycross, but he suffered from depression from his wartime experiences and drank heavily. His main interest was in hunting dogs and he was often called ‘Coon Dog’.
Gram was impressed when he heard Elvis Presley with Little Jimmy Dickens at Waycross City Auditorium in February 1956. According to Parsons, Elvis shook his hand, gave him an autograph and wished him luck. Gram loved the Louvin Brothers and he wrote his first song, Gram Boogie, when he was 11. He had some talent as a budding magician and would perform shows for his neighbours. However, it was a troubled family and Coon Dog’s self-esteem reached rock bottom when he found out about his wife’s affairs. He committed suicide just after seeing his family on a train to Winter Haven on 22 December 1958.
At the time, Gram was studying at a military academy and he became disturbed, soon being expelled for bad behaviour. His mother married a businessman from New Orleans, Bob Parsons, who specialised in earthmoving equipment. The Snivelys didn’t like him, regarding him as a gold-digger, but he adopted Gram and his sister, Avis, and Gram enjoyed his company. The family returned to Winter Haven and Gram had a Fender Stratocaster and learnt Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly songs. He played in the Legends with Jim Stafford (later to hit with Spiders And Snakes) and Kent LaVoie (later to become Lobo and score with Me And You And A Dog Named Boo). One day Gram dyed his hair blonde but when it came out orange, his mother made him leave it as a punishment.
Gram befriended a successful equestrian, Buddy Freeman, at a Cypress Gardens horse show. He arranged a few bookings for Gram and as a result he teamed up with a folk group, the Shilos, consisting of Paul Surratt, Joe Kelly and George Wrigley, Buddy became their manager and did well, sometimes hiring them out for $350 a night, which is good for an unknown group. A Miami newspaper said, “Parsons is the only one of the quartet, who has finished high school. The group, however, sings with a professional poise rivaling better-known groups who are riding the folk-song fad.” So Kingston Trio, watch out!
The Shilos played amusement parks and hootenannies and were included on a variety show for the state visit of King Hussein of Jordan. Bob and Avis bought the 17-year-old Gram a coffee-house, the Derry Down in Winter Haven, so that the group would have a regular performing venue. The Shilos’ introductory tape for radio stations was issued in 1979 as Gram Parsons: The Early Years 1963-1965, Volume 1 (Sierra 200750). There wasn’t a Volume 2 but the album was reissued with bonus tracks in 1985.
It’s a spirited recording very much in the style of the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four or the Highwaymen. The songs include Bells Of Rhymney and Mary Don’t You Weep, but they also perform Gram’s torch ballad Zah’s Blues, which he wrote about a girl singer he heard in Greenwich Village. As well as the radio tapes, there is a demo of Gram’s song, Surfinanny, which is Gonna Raise A Ruckus Tonight with new words. He’s still working on the song and stumbling over the words.
On 27 March 1965, Parsons wrote to Paul Surratt about his ambitions and saying that they must perform original material: “I think we should work on my material. I know it will sell. Music, believe it or not, is turning towards a more intellectual vein. I’m sure that my music is going to be as big as Dylan’s.” He told a friend that not to write ‘haven’t’ in a song but ‘ain’t’ to make it more authentic: he was learning fast.
The Parsons household was becoming more and more like a Tennessee Williams melodrama. His mother, Avis, was drinking heavily and in June 1965, she died at the age of 38, actually on the day that Gram graduated. Gram paid her an affectionate tribute in his song, Brass Buttons, the first known recording being in December 1965. Avis and his stepfather Bob had had a child of their own, and to add to Gram’s problems, Bob was to marry the babysitter.
After his initial setback, Gram had done well at school and secured a place at Harvard University. He told the Shilos that the group was over. He said, “I’m heading north and I’m never coming back south again. Good luck to all the rest of you.”
Unsafe At Home
In September 1965, Gram Parsons went to Harvard to study theology, but it’s doubtful if he did anything except enroll. He wrote to his sister about his parents: “We have the advantage of seeing definite examples of what can happen when people permit life to tangle them so badly that there is no escape.” Sound advice, but it was not something he heeded.
Although Gram may have intended to study, he was sidetracked into making music and taking LSD. Following the death of his mother, he was entitled to a trust fund of $30,000 a year. In December 1965, he was sent down from Harvard for not doing any work, but he had enough money to set up himself and his group, The Like, in a house in the Bronx where they lived and rehearsed.
Among Gram’s friends was the former child actor, Brandon de Wilde, who had been in Shane (1953), Goodbye My Lady (1956) and Hud (1963) and who nurtured dreams of being a rock star, perhaps with The Like. The band was rehearsing both country and R&B songs. There is nothing particularly new in this – after all, both Elvis and the Beatles did it, not to mention Ray Charles with his groundbreaking albums.
During 1965 and 1966 Gram recorded some demo tapes and they have been released on Another Side Of This Life (Sundazed, 2000). The CD has to be reprogrammed to hear them chronologically but there are five from March 1965, six from Boxing Day 1965, five from April 1966 and two of Gram’s own songs from December 1966. The tapes were never intended for public performance and so it is unfair to criticise them, but they include some of the limpest covers you will ever hear, particularly of the Coasters’ Searchin’. Naturally, it is intriguing to have 50 minutes of Gram’s voice and guitar, but the CD is only of historical interest and I can’t imagine anyone putting it on for pleasure.
During 1966 and inspired by the name of a comic orchestra in an episode of The Little Rascals, The Like changed its name to the International Submarine Band, which was both psychedelic name and a nod to the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. In November, Parsons went to Los Angeles where de Wilde was making a film. De Wilde introduced him to David Crosby and he told Crosby’s girlfriend, Nancy Ross, “I’ve been looking for you a long time”, a chat up line which was surprisingly successful and didn’t wreck his friendship with Crosby. Gram moved the band to Laurel Canyon and they played at the Whisky A Go Go. Brandon de Wilde recommended them to Peter Fonda, who recorded Gram’s song November Nights and placed them in his psychedelic film, The Trip. Their song, Lazy Days, was not deemed hip enough and they are seen playing while another group, the Electric Flag, is on the soundtrack. Either the film was made on drugs or Fonda and his team were hooked on kaleidoscopes.
The line-up of the International Submarine Band had been Parsons, John Nuese (guitar), Ian Dunlop (bass) and Mickey Gauvin (drums). They released two singles, One Day Week (Columbia), which is rather like the Dave Clark Five, and a rock version of Johnny Mandel’s theme for the satirical film, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (Ascot), but in July 1967, Dunlop and Gauvin left. Those two teamed with Barry Tashian and Barry Briggs to form the first Flying Burrito Brothers.
The merger of country and rock was gathering momentum in Los Angeles, and in particular, Rick Nelson had cut an album, Bright Lights And Country Music, in early 1966. Gram Parsons persuaded Duane Eddy’s former producer, Lee Hazlewood, to give his band a chance, and Hazlewood’s girlfriend, Suzi Jane Hokum, produced their album, Safe At Home. Just Parsons and Nuese remained from the original band and the line-up is supplemented by Chris Ethridge (bass), Jay Dee Maness (pedal steel), Earl Ball (piano) and Jon Corneal (drums).
The album includes Gram’s composition about a cruise ship, Luxury Liner, an odd subject for a country song but one with a long life. His picture of a happy marriage, Blue Eyes, could have been taken up by any number of country stars and Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome is a typical, but less distinctive country song. They perform fine versions of Bobby Bare’s Miller’s Cave, and Merle Haggard’s I Must Be Somebody Else You’ve Known. The album is completed by covers of A Satisfied Mind, That’s All Right (Mama), Folsom Prison Blues and I Still Miss Someone, but there is an outtake on the first Rhino set of a pedestrian version of Knee Deep In The Blues.
Duane Eddy, Glen Campbell and Don Everly sang the band’s praises on the back sleeve. Everly raves about the album’s “white soul”. I wouldn’t make any great claims for the album, but the Byrds’ biographer, Johnny Rogan, disagrees. “I think Safe At Home by the International Submarine band was an important milestone in the history of country music because it was the classic combination of country and rock which Gram went on to do with the Byrds and the Burritos. It wasn’t well known at the time and yes, I am sure you could find other groups who were doing similar things, but that doesn’t take anything away from it.”
By now Gram had married Nancy Ross and she had become pregnant. Gram didn’t relish the responsibility of being a father and unlike his character in Blue Eyes, he wanted Nancy to have an abortion. She refused and Parsons’ only child, Polly, was born in late 1967. Shortly afterwards, they split up and Nancy moved to Santa Barbara. Gram had revealed himself to be not safe at home and the poor sales of the album led to the submarine sinking.
The hit-making Los Angeles band, the Byrds had reached a crisis. They had had international success with Mr Tambourine Man, All I Really Want To Do, Turn! Turn! Turn! and Eight Miles High. They had instigated folk-rock and had delved into country music with A Satisfied Mind and their hit single, Mr Spaceman, a novelty record which could be described as psychedelic bluegrass.
But as soon as one member joined, another one left. When David Crosby left in October 1967, there was just Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke (who was about to be sacked) and they had dates to fulfil. The Byrds were dropping out of the sky, so Chris Hillman went to see Gram Parsons. Roger McGuinn recalls, “Chris Hillman found Gram and brought him over and I thought he was good and we hired him and he evolved into a monstrously good player and songwriter and singer.”
Although McGuinn had no clear idea of what the Byrds were going to do next, he expected them to continue in the psychedelic vein of Eight Miles High. When he heard Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons harmonising on country numbers, he envisaged a double-album capturing a century of American music and ending with psychedelia. In the end, he decided on just going country. Hillman was delighted – he was an experienced bluegrass musician who had been sneaking country songs onto Byrds’ albums when he could. Now he had an ally in Parsons.
Michael Clarke comments, “Chris and I had always loved country music and so there had always been a country twang in the Byrds, but Roger is no James Burton, if you know what I mean.” And no friend of Michael Clarke’s, it would seem. Michael Clarke was replaced with Hillman’s cousin, Kevin Kelley, who had been in the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.
In March 1968, the long-haired Byrds went to Nashville to make the new album and on their first day, they recorded a countrified version of Bob Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere. A few days later, they were guests on Tompall and the Glaser Brothers’ section of the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry promoted old-style country and the audience was not impressed with hippie musicians. As soon as their name was mentioned, they went “tweet, tweet”.
Tompall Glaser announced that they would sing Merle Haggard’s Life In Prison, but Grams’ grandmother was in the audience and he decided in the final seconds to switch it to his nostalgic Hickory Wind. A new song by a hippie band: the audience was bored, but they won them round with Merle Haggard’s Sing Me Back Home featuring Lloyd Green on steel guitar. The presenter of the Grand Ole Opry, Ralph Emery, told the Byrds that he didn’t like hippies, which prompted Roger and Gram to write Drug Store, Truck Drivin’ Man, a song that Joan Baez sang at Woodstock. On the other hand, Emery’s former wife Skeeter Davis kissed them and said they’d done well.
The Byrds continued making the album, which became Sweetheart Of the Rodeo. Although there is some country-soul with William Bell’s You Don’t Miss The Water, it is largely country and folk numbers in a contemporary setting. McGuinn is in his element with Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd. They do a wonderful take on the Louvin Brothers’ The Christian Life without, it would seem, any irony, and Hillman sings the bluegrass hymn, I Am A Pilgrim. The new songs included Gram’s nostalgic view of a lost childhood, Hickory Wind, which was dedicated to his grandmother.
It was intended that several tracks would feature Gram Parsons’ lead vocals. When Parsons foolishly told Hazlewood what he was doing, Hazlewood pointed out that Parsons was under contract. The negotiations between Columbia and Hazlewood ended bizarrely: Gram’s lead vocals were removed on some tracks, although they remained on Hickory Wind and the country standard, You’re Still On My Mind. Roger McGuinn recorded new lead vocals for such songs as Parsons’ One Hundred Years From Now, and the album was released.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was very well reviewed but a poor seller. The country fans weren’t interested and the rock fans were suspicious of country and what’s more, McGuinn’s distinctive 12-string sound had been abandoned. Peter Doggett recalls, “Up to that point, it was the Byrds’ worst selling album. First of all, it was an out and out country album and people weren’t expecting that from the Byrds and several songs were sung by Gram Parsons. Nobody had ever heard of him, and what was he doing on a Byrds’ album? It was a real shock for their fans. It wasn’t a big seller but it was one of those records that has become really influential for other musicians.” The Byrds’ biographer, Johnny Rogan, agrees, “When the Byrds went to Nashville, Nashville did not want to know them, but they did influence a whole generation of new country singers.”
Confused by all the books about the Beatles? Spencer Leigh has read them all.
Please Note – This feature has been added to the website on 7 December 2005. Any comments and opinions will be welcomed. Write to Spencer Leigh.
“A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one. It comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.”
(Aldous Huxley, 1928)
(Spencer Leigh, 2005)
In her 2005 biography of her former husband, Cynthia Lennon believes that John really loved her. Part of the evidence is that he wrote All My Loving for her. Only he didn’t. In separate interviews, both John and Paul have said that it was Paul’s song and, of course, it also sounds like a McCartney song. Was Cynthia deluded, a classic Freudian slip, or was it bad research by a ghost writer and even worse acceptance by Cynthia and her publishers? Is it none of the above and simply carelessness, a disregard for the reader, the Beatle fan?
That sounds an extreme example of inaccuracy but it is by no means alone. The literature about the Beatles increases in epidemic proportions: there are already 400 books with several more in the pipeline. How do we decide which are reliable and which tell us something new? In this feature and for the first time, we assess which books to read and which to ignore.
By and large, I am looking at first hand accounts – the autobiographies and authorised biographies – of those who were there. As we shall discover, being there does not necessarily mean accuracy, and there is self-deception and the cynical creation of anecdotes. Even if the facts are right, the author may be woefully wrong about human nature, and with personal scores to settle, the books can be battlegrounds as well as biographies. Most authors want to show themselves in the best light possible, and lionisation goes hand in hand with self-publication. All authors want to please their readers, which means leaving out the boring bits and providing an entertaining read.
All this has made me question the accuracy of the history I was taught at school. Unquestionably, the Beatles’s story is modern history and yet so much is being told wrongly. Many of the books can’t separate the trivial from the important and are ridden with errors: all too often authors pick up mistakes from other books and repeat them. A biographer may undertake commendable research but he can find himself identifying with his subject, which again distorts the view. In a curious exception, Albert Goldman came to hate his subject, John Lennon, which led to a totally biased biography. There is one major difference with the history I learnt at school. There the historical facts had come from the winners: this time the losers also get their say.
The Beatle books that tend to work best are the complete biographies and this is because the narrative drive is so strong. The film, Stoned, made me realise how much stronger the Beatles story is than the Rolling Stones’. With its many twists and turns, it is a fantastic soap opera. To quote the student in Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, “History is just one fucking thing after another”, and that is the Beatles’ story to a T.
In 1964 and at the height of Beatlemania, Brian Epstein wrote his autobiography, A Cellarful Of Noise, which was ghosted by the NEMS Organisation’s new personal assistant, Derek Taylor. A Cellarful Of Salt, more like. Taylor wasn’t around as it happened and as he had limited access to Epstein due to his commitments, he invented certain things for his approval including a girlfriend. Nothing earth-shatteringly wrong, but don’t rely on the book for accuracy. In the lightweight text, we learn little of Epstein’s motivations and nothing of his gambling or homosexuality. Nor could it be otherwise as homosexuality was illegal. The book was simply another device to sell the Beatles as lovable moptops. Even in 1964, the truth was somewhat different.
Derek Taylor made the best of a bad job and it is worth commenting on the role of ghost writers. Some of the books which are pilloried below are as much the fault of the ghost writer as the author. The general view is that ghost writers are seasoned hacks, able to extract the anecdotes from the subject, put them in order, sort out the inaccuracies and combine grammar with the glamour. Perhaps I am being sceptical but I am certain that some writers are also under orders from the publisher to egg the pudding as much as possible and certainly not to lose a good story by asking, “Did this really happen?”
An experienced journalist for The Sunday Times, Hunter Davies was given access to the Beatles and their inner circle to write The Beatles: The Authorised Biography, which was published in 1968. The book set the template for Beatle biographies and has several enthralling passages – Davies was fortuitously present when John and Paul are writing With A Little Help From My Friends, the only observed account of their writing together. Unfortunately, Davies had a cavalier attitude to his work: he did not spend enough time on interviews – where, for example, are the Quarry Men they left behind? – and there is a lack of candour.
In a foreword to Keith Badman’s book, The Beatles:Off The Record (2000), Davies, as good as admits he was lazy: “When I was doing my authorised biography of them, all those years ago, I had terrible trouble getting them to remember how many times, for example, they’d been to Hamburg and the names and order of the clubs they’d played in. They gave contradictory answers: John could hardly remember anything. Yet Hamburg was vital in their life and had happened relatively recently.” What’s wrong with doing some research? The dates in their passports would have been a good start.
Davies’ updates to his biography, which are simply additional chapters, are also sluggish although in one of them, a peeved McCartney said, for the first time, that the canonisation of his late songwriting partner had gone too far. Davies should have revisited his notes, sought out fresh material and reworked his text: more than anyone, he could have, should have, attempted the definitive book on the Beatles.
You would never know from reading Hunter Davies’ book that there were drug problems in the Beatles, but once the group had broken up, John Lennon told all. He was now studying Primal Therapy and rather like Elton John, he used the interview as therapy in extended conversations with Jann Wenner for Rolling Stone. Lennon had an enormous chip on his shoulder and had lost his sense of humour, but they make remarkable reading, the first time that any celebrity had been so frank. Lennon remarks, “If there is such a thing as a genius, then I am one.”
Although Lennon didn’t gloss over his faults, he stressed the weaknesses of others, being especially critical of the talents of Paul McCartney. .The full text of the interview has been reprinted in several editions, but unfortunately Lennon Remembers: The Rolling Stone Interviews (1971) is missing an index, which is a necessity as he rambles from subject to subject, often contradicting himself.
If he is to be believed, Allan Williams was the Beatles first manager and the person who arranged their initial residency in Hamburg, although both statements could be challenged. Williams wrote his first autobiography with the assistance of Bob Azurdia, a Merseyside journalist from the Catholic Pictorial. Although this unpublished text still exists, it has not been seen publicly. Because I knew Azurdia, I feel that this would provide a truthful account of the Beatles’ coffee bar and Hamburg days.
In 1975, Williams retold his life story to another local journalist, Bill Marshall, but the publishers wanted something more salacious. As Williams had run out of anecdotes, Marshall concocted some amusing tales and offered them for Williams’ approval. With great delight, Williams added them to his repertoire and now, well and truly in his anecdotage, he suffers from reverse Alzheimer’s where he remembers events which never happened. Nobody minds as he is a Grade A raconteur.
Allan Williams’ biography, The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away, is great fun but Paul McCartney in a superlative put-down said, “Some parts of this book are partially true.” Providing an author has the cash, Williams is a must-see for anyone writing a Beatles book and he has written a further book, this time with journalist Lew Baxter, The Fool On The Hill (2003). The books are similar but a mellowing has taken place. As Williams tells everyone, “I am not rich but I am a millionaire, a millionaire of memories.” And if you believe that…
As it happens, I have an example from personal experience as to how the tales have been spun. In 2002, I spoke at the memorial service for the Cavern DJ, Bob Wooler. According to Allan Williams’ account in The Fool On The Hill, I criticised him during my address and he retaliated “in a strident voice that echoed round the stone walls” and his ripe language “stunned the vicar”. This never happened, although I wish it had, and if I told anyone about the service, I would be tempted to add it.
Although you shouldn’t read Allan Williams’ books for historical accuracy, they do convey what it was like to be a young Beatle and they reveal the argumentative relationships between Williams and the group. Williams doesn’t mind showing himself in a bad light, something which would never occur with another impresario, Sam Leach. Leach, who promoted the Beatles at the Iron Door and the enormous Tower Ballroom in New Brighton, thought he had been omitted from Beatle history and called himself “The Man Whom Merseybeat Forgot”. After some self-publishing adventures, he told his story in The Rocking City; The Explosive Birth Of The Beatles (1999) and he did it to set the record straight as he saw it.
Sam Leach goes way too far in the other direction: he puts himself in the centre of all their development on Merseyside, does not admit to mistakes (for example, did he always pay his artists?) and given a few more pages, might have invented the wheel. Who, I wonder, is Sam wanting to impress? Maybe himself more than anyone else. At the end, he lists his promotions, but, if you look at the original posters, many of them were not his doing at all. For all his bluster, it is self-evident that Sam Leach lacked the vision to become an Epstein. In 2005 he promoted a benefit for New Orleans at a Liverpool club. He secured the services of P.J. Proby and 27 Liverpool acts, which made the bill unwieldy, and because of poor publicity, only 250 attended.
In 2000, Professor Mike Brocken of the Institute of Popular Music at Liverpool University wrote a very stimulating if contentious academic paper on the over-simplifications in Beatle literature for the book, The Beatles, Popular Music And Society. Brocken himself had ghosted an unpublished book for the Merseybeat promoter, Joe Flannery. As “Flannery handled the entire Pete Best affair for Brian Epstein”, the book sounds absorbing, but “entire”? Wasn’t Best personally sacked by Epstein? Do Flannery and Brocken have the reasons that have eluded everyone else for years? It’s worth waiting for but in the past, I have suspected that Flannery was not as close to Epstein as he claimed.
He maintains, for example, that he and Epstein had regular meetings about the promotion of their artists but Flannery’s artists (Lee Curtis, Beryl Marsden) never made the charts leading to the Liverpool expression, “Flannery’ll get you nowhere.” Considering that Brocken has been so critical of the standards of Beatle biographies, I will be intrigued to read the Flannery tome and see how it measures up to his theories on the limitations of history.
The idea of publishing two (or in Pete Best’s case, three and a DVD) autobiographies is widespread in the Beatle world. In 1978, John’s first wife, Cynthia, wrote, by her own admission, the “lightweight” A Twist Of Lennon, but, despite all the hurt and the fact that she was married to another man (John Twist), it was full of admiration for John and aside from her illustrations, it offered little that was new and certainly nothing sensational. Although John and Yoko disapproved of the book, it was kinder than they could have expected.
Cynthia Lennon’s 2005 version, John, is more critical and a passing comment to John’s “unreasonable rages” is now a full-scale beating. Cynthia displays her contempt for John’s Aunt Mimi, who throws a chicken at him and she reveals an affair between Ringo’s wife, Maureen, and George Harrison. However, in the light of that All My Loving comment, can the book be trusted? Cynthia also writes about events to which she was not party, and it would have been helpful to know the sources. Did the information come from John or from other books?
Cynthia closes her second book by saying that “If I’d known as a teenager what falling for John Lennon would lead to, I would have turned round right then and walked away”, but she has been backing down from this outlook in interviews. This alone suggests that the book needed more insight: have two of Cynthia’s subsequent marriages failed because of the problems of measuring up to Lennon or did Cynthia just have an unfortunate choice in men? Perhaps it’s telling that she calls herself Cynthia Lennon rather than Cynthia Charles.
Jerry Wexler was born on 10 January 1917 in New York City. He completed a degree in journalism and worked for Billboard. In 1953 he started to work for Atlantic Records and was involved in producing the Drifters, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and Aretha Franklin. He has also produced Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan and Dire Straits. I spoke to him at his home in Florida for an interview which was broadcast on Saturday 26 February 2005.
SL: From reading your book, Rhythm and the Blues, I take it that you are a producer who is more keen on the feel than the technicalities.
JERRY WEXLER: Exactly and I had the advantage of having the legendary Tom Dowd who was perhaps the foremost sound engineer of the era. He was always sitting on my left. Most producers move the faders or twist the knobs and I never had to put my hands on the board, except perhaps very late on when the multiples reached 64 in which case Tom would say, ‘Please push these particular knobs or faders’, but otherwise I didn’t have to touch anything. The same would be true of microphones and miking the drums, miking the vocals and what kind of mike to use. We would get into a routine and if I wanted a particular sound on a particular singer, I would say to Tom, ‘Let’s use that German mike that we used on Ray Charles or Solomon Burke’, and so on. I became familiarised in a layman’s way with the bells and whistles that were available. I never had to understand them in depth, and all I would say to Tom is, ‘Let’s do so and so.’ The end product was our concern and that depended upon the final mix.
SL: So you were almost listening to the music as a listener would.
JERRY WEXLER: Exactly. When we mixed the record we would use various sized speakers and then finally put the playback on very small speakers, and even take a cassette or a CD out to the car and try it in an automobile as so much listening was done while people were driving with small speakers. One of the most important things was balance, to make sure that the singer could be distinguished and could be heard intelligibly over the instrumental background. A frequently committed sin in this business is the sin of drowning out the speaker and a lot of that is attributable to the vanity of the arranger or the producer who wants to his charts to be heard very prominently – he wants to hear those strings, he wants to hear those horns. I want to hear the bass drum and so on, but I think there have been many mistakes as this diminishes the vocal. After all, this business is pretty much about a singer and a song.
SL: I could never understand why Mick Jagger’s vocals were submerged on the Rolling Stones’ records in the 60s.
JERRY WEXLER: You would have to attribute to Mick and Keith themselves. Mick and Keith were really the producers of those records, they made the records and they took the decisions. The producers were more or less pro forma. I saw Mick and Keith in the studio at Muscle Shoals when they made Wild Horses and I was really impressed by them as record producers, not just as brilliant rock performers. They knew just wanted to do and how to do it, and they want about it decisively and economically, not wasting time and that’s another factor. Time-wasting is an enormous component in rock and roll and that comes from a lack of certitude, of not knowing what to do. Let’s try this or let’s try that. Not so with Mick and Keith: however the mix came out, that was their doing.
SL: In the 50s I presume that most artists would be trying out the songs in clubs and then coming into the studio. By the time of Sgt Pepper, a lot of artists would come in the studios to write the songs.
JERRY WEXLER: Yes, this is a multi-generational phenomenon. Back in the early 30s in the eras of small bands and big bands and singers like Bing Crosby or Gene Austin, the material was developed and refined in performance before they got into the studio. They would bring to the studio a more or less finished product. The objective was to catch this performance on tape, and of course it was mono and they had to catch it the way it sounded in the studio. Music moved on into rhythm and blues and rock and so on and many performers learnt their material in the studio and so it was matter of rehearsing and developing the songs there. I always took a rigorous stance on that. I insisted on diligent pre-production. I would say, ‘Work it out at home or at a rental studio, which is very cheap. In a recording studio the clock means dollars going by at a great pace, so come prepared.’ It went back to preparation on the road.
Take Ray Charles. When Ray assembled his own little seven piece combo, he would go out on the road and he would perfect all his material before he came into the studio. He would call me up and he would say, ‘Hey cousin, I’m coming in two or three weeks and I have three songs that we can do.’ We could do those songs without too much stress or time wasting. Then he would come back again and eventually we would have enough for an album. Same with Aretha Franklin. Instead of saying, ‘We will do an album here’, which could take anything from three weeks to a year in the case of a notorious British band, we didn’t often sit down with the notion of doing a whole album, a thematic album. We would do a few songs, put them away, and get the singer to come back. Then we would have enough to constitute an album’s worth.
SL: When Ray Charles wrote What’d I Say, did he perfect it on the road before you heard it?
JERRY WEXLER: Absolutely. Ray, God rest him, was a very modest man. He was aware of his level of creativity and I think he was a genius. He was aware of it but he never displayed it. He would call and say that he had a few songs but he wouldn’t usually make any comment about them. He called me up before he brought What’d I Say in and this became extravagant hyperbole when he said, ‘I think you might like this one pretty well.’ That constituted a rave for him and it was very easy to record. It was hardly a song: it was an extended rhythm lick with a few jingle like verses: most of them were Sears-Roebuck lines from the blues, ‘See that girl with the red dress on, She can do the Birdland all night long’, not exactly Shakespearian innovation. He strung a few lines together but the essence of that record was that boiling rhythm track and the back and forth between Ray and the Raelets. That was all prepared.
SL: Ray Charles may have been a modest man but you did put out albums with ‘Genius’ in their titles.
JERRY WEXLER: That was more or less my doing. There was only one album that was called The Genius Of Ray Charles. That was the last album he did for us and he went to greener pastures, I suppose. I had wanted to use the word ‘Genius’ in connection with a Ray Charles album for a year or two but my partners dissuaded me – that is, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun – they said, ‘Let’s not get so boastful.’ Finally, we all agreed that the album deserved the appellation so that’s how it came about.
SL: Save The Last Dance For Me was produced by Leiber and Stoller but were you overseeing these records?
JERRY WEXLER: No, I had nothing to do with it. Having them do the Drifters’ records was happenstance. In the first incarnation of the Drifters featuring Clyde McPhatter, Ahmet Ertegun and I produced those records – Money Honey, Honey Love and all of those things. Then there was a hiatus: Clyde McPhatter left the group and went into the army. When he came back, he engaged on a solo career and the years went by with no Drifters, and the Drifters fragmented. The rights to the name unfortunately reverted to a manager and an accountant instead of to the members themselves. Therefore we had to deal with these people: we were not happy about it, but the name ‘The Drifters’ seemed to still have some value, even though it was in hibernation. I called the manager who was a trumpet player who had been married to Sarah Vaughan and I said, ‘You want to assemble a group and we call them the Drifters’ and see what we can do. He found a group called the Crowns whose lead singer was Ben E King and through commercial or artistic licence or whatever, we changed the Crowns into the Drifters. Leiber and Stoller had been producing the Coasters for us, and as Ahmet and I found ourselves very busy as the company was growing, we thought it might be a lark if they had a shot with the Drifters. They had There Goes My Baby which was a huge hit and they became the producers of this next generation of Drifters.
When Tommy Steele was making his rock’n’roll records in the mid-1950s, he was telling interviewers that he wanted to be an all-round entertainer, an opinion wholeheartedly endorsed by his manager, Larry Parnes. For Tommy Steele at least, rock’n’roll was a passing phase and he would star in musicals. And he certainly has: Half A Sixpence (1963), Hans Christian Andersen (1974), Singin’ In The Rain (1983), Some Like It Hot (1991) and Scrooge (2003) have been very successful stage productions and he has also starred in the film version of Half A Sixpence (1967) as well as Hollywood musicals including Finian’s Rainbow (1968). He is a noted sculptor and his bronze, Eleanor Rigby, is one of Liverpool’s tourist attractions. It seems an oversight that he hasn’t been knighted.
Latterly, Tommy Steele has been touring the UK in the stage version of Doctor Dolittle. As it happens, I was interviewing the composer, Leslie Bricusse before rehearsals started. The songs for the film had been written for Rex Harrison and they had to be performed in the same half-sung, half-spoken manner to work. Tommy wanted a big song so that he could really use his voice and Bricusse told me, “Tommy will be sitting where you are tomorrow and I’ve got two songs for him. He can pick which he likes best.”
The Doctor Dolittle musical was a popular and a critical success and I marvelled at Steele’s energy. This was a singing and dancing role for a 71-year-old man who was rarely off stage. Still, he had been doing it all his life and was used to it.
Our editor knew that Tommy Steele should be covered in Now Dig This but he had the impression that Tommy was not keen on talking about his rock’n’roll days. To a degree, that is true: Tommy always has some new project on the go which, inevitably, is the best thing he’s ever done. That is what he wants to talk about, and fair enough, what’s wrong with that? From that point of view, he is a publicist’s dream.
I’ve met Tommy on a few occasions – when he was at the Palladium in Singin’ In The Rain, backstage in Liverpool at Some Like It Hot, again in Liverpool for Scrooge, and more recently, on tour with Doctor Doolittle. Earlier this year, I read Tommy’s files at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham and I asked if I could discuss its contents with him for a programme on Radio Merseyside. Although he did not know what was in the files (as I wanted to keep that for the interview), he, very sportingly, agreed and I went to the Queen’s Hotel in Leeds to meet him.
So, over the years, I have talked to Tommy Steele about many aspects of his career. For this feature, I have collected his comments about rock’n’roll and run them together. It’s fair to say that Tommy never talks about rock’n’roll at this length but fortunately, whenever I have ever seen him, I have asked different questions and so we have a reasonably complete story. Most NDT readers will have their views of Tommy Steele’s rock’n’roll records (and they are not as bad as some of you may think) but here in this feature, we view them from Tommy’s perspective.
One more thing: Tommy said that he could not talk about showing Elvis Presley around London in 1958. This story made the national news after the impresario Bill Kenwright revealed it on Radio 2 earlier this year, and naturally, there has been speculation about its accuracy. An Elvis associate, Lamar Fike, has posted an internet response that he, and not Elvis, met Tommy met in London, but it seems impossible that Tommy didn’t know the difference between Elvis Presley and Lamar Fike. Whatever Tommy Steele told Bill Kenwright and however it was interpreted, I don’t think he is in a position to comment as Bill Kenwright is paying his wages! Hence, that little bit of the Tommy Steele story is not included below.
My thanks to the BBC Written Archives in Caversham for permission to quote from their documentation.
Tommy, when you did your one-man show, you sang a Buddy Holly song and said that you had seen him early on. When was that?
I saw Buddy Holly in Norfolk, Virginia in 1955 or 1956. The ship had gone in for some repairs and there was a show there that night at the town hall called the Grand Ole Opry Travelling Show. I was a country guitar player, so I had to go and see that. All these great country acts were on, but there was also this feller in his glasses playing country music. He did a typical country ‘You done me wrong’ song and then he played another song and the rhythm changed. A lot of country music emphasises the second and fourth beat of the bar – there is a lot of that (demonstrates) – but he added fills that I’d never heard before, and it was Buddy Holly. I went away thinking that he was really great and then I went into New York and I heard ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ by Carl Perkins. I bought the sheet music and five days later, I was in London singing those type of songs. That’s how it started for me.
Oddly enough, your vocal inflections on ‘Butterfingers’ are not far from Buddy Holly.
A lot of Holly’s inflections are in ‘Butterfingers’, but all of us in those first months of rock’n’roll were learning from each other. We didn’t have it in England until I arrived on the scene because we didn’t have any country guitar players. Rock’n’roll is country music, and all the early rock’n’roll singers had been country singers.
You were Britain’s first rock’n’roll star. Did you feel a pioneer at the time?
No, as there were quite a number of fellers and a few girls playing guitars in coffee-bars, although I was the only one singing country music – Hank Williams and Red Foley and some Leadbelly – but I never felt like a pioneer, just a bit different. I was just an 18 or 19 year old enjoying myself. When I made by first recording for Decca around October 1956, the papers started calling me a rock’n’roll star and put me in the same category as Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Little Richard. Now, they were pioneers!
You did record Hank Williams’ ‘Wedding Bells’.
That’s right. On my first tour, a good third of my act was country. I did ‘Wedding Bells’ and ‘Kaw-liga’, great Hank Williams songs, and no one had ever heard of them before. A good third tour of my programme was country. Because the drums accentuated the second and fourth beat of the bar, the fans assumed it was rock’n’roll. The origins of rock’n’roll are in country music so they were right. If you play ‘Move It On Over’ next to ‘Rock Around The Clock’, you’ll find that Mr Haley has a lot to thank Hank Williams for.”
Had you picked up on country music when you were in the navy?
Yes, I was taught by a Scouser. He showed me the basic chords and I sang on ship for a good two years and so when I came ashore in the summer of 1956, I had a whole repertoire of country songs. I found it very easy to sing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ because they were so close to country music.
You were Tommy Hicks and you became Tommy Steele. Was that Larry Parnes’ idea?
No, no, it was my idea and that was before Larry Parnes. John Kennedy was my first manager: Larry came in later to arrange the business, while John was the brains behind the publicity. We agreed that Tommy Hicks or Thomas Hicks outside a marquee wasn’t going to suggest anything dynamic and we wanted something more theatrical. I thought of my grandfather, whose name was Thomas Steil Hicks, I don’t know where that came from, so I said, “How about Tommy Steele?” I became Tommy Steel and by a mistake on someone’s part, an ‘e’ was stuck on the end and it became Tommy Steele as it’s spelt today.
Your first record, ‘Rock With The Caveman’, was written by you and a young Lionel Bart.
Not so young: he was about 25. Lionel was writing a lot of songs for the Billy Cotton Band Show and he wanted to get into records. One of his songs for Billy Cotton went “Oh for a cup of tea instead of a cappuccino”. I met him at a party with Michael Pratt, who was an actor, and we three formed the Cavemen, which was country songs and comedy. Our theme song was ‘Rock With The Caveman’ and it was a joke, a spoof, the sort of thing Monty Python might have done, or The Two Ronnies.
I’m sure that the kids who bought it took it seriously: I know I did.
Yes, of course they did, and I didn’t mind that. The more people that listened to it the better.
And I think you were working with jazz musicians on that record.
Yes, Ronnie Scott said that was the first and only time that he been asked to play a 14-bar solo. I had added two bars, which you don’t really do, but he played them for me and it worked out fine. My family was there and they applauded after the first take. Hugh Mendl, the producer, said, “Can your family come in here because one can hear every clap?”
Here are the details of your first television appearance, Off The Record, for which you got 12 guineas. I saw that and was immediately impressed.
That certainly made ‘Rock With The Cavemen’ but the thing that got me going was 6.5 Special. I was treated on Off The Record like I was a burglar. It was run by Jack Payne who was a very stiff, unamusing man, very stern and way above rock’n’roll. I got an introduction in which he said, “Here’s rock and roll, and you can take it or leave it.” And he left it, of course. “Rock With A Caveman” must have nearly killed him as he’d never heard that kind of music before.
You shot to fame on the first TV show for teenagers, 6.5 Special?
The BBC said they’d created this new show for me, 6.5 Special, and Jack Good was a young feller with glasses and an Oxbridge accent who’d just come out of university. He wore a suit and tie and had marbles in his mouth. He looked elegant, like a posh schoolteacher, but he’d gone to the BBC with some great, new ideas and they liked them. He was brimful of ideas and images. Everyone there thought he was a crackpot but they could also appreciate that he knew how to get to the kids.
What did you think of 6.5 Special?
It was a very mixed bag of music and fun. Jack Good had this idea of not giving the audience seats and letting them roam around the studio. The cameramen said, “You can’t do that. They’ll walk on the wires and ruin the focus.” Jack said, “No, let them roam about and if they come into shot, so be it.” I’m surprised that he got away with it, especially as he was so young. Everyone wondered what he knew about television, and the answer was probably “Very little.” I remember someone in the audience who looked like Bill Haley. Jack said, “It’s not Bill Haley, it’s a lookalike. We’ll pick him up in the audience shots and people will think that Bill Haley comes to our show.”
You didn’t so much cover ‘Singing The Blues’ as transform it as your first line is unintelligible. Was that deliberate?
No, it was the way I wanted to sing it. You know, ‘Wh-el-lll-lll’, just like that. British performers invariably relied upon American songs for their records and it didn’t change until Lionel Bart was writing hits for myself and Cliff Richard. All of a sudden, British music publishers and record producers were looking for British talent to write the songs. Until then, covering Guy Mitchell was the norm and quite acceptable. I didn’t plan that ‘Well’ by the way: someone pointed at me and it came out that way.
It’s extraordinary that you both made Number 1.
Yes, but Guy held it longer than I did. I had one week, and in fact, it was the only Number 1 I ever had. I had lots of Number 2’s and Number 3’s but I didn’t mind as my records tended to stay around a long time. ‘Butterfingers’ was in the charts for months.