Sunday, April 22, 2007

Hip Ship Blues: The Incredible Jimmy Smith On A Pirate Ship

The Mi Amigo - Radio Caroline SouthRadio Caroline and the other pirate radio stations of the 1960s freed up the airwaves of a Britain sorely underserved by the offical channels of the British Broadcasting Company. First broadcasting from the MV Frederica off the coast of Essex in April 1964, outside of British territorial waters, it soon merged with Radio Atlanta, whose boat, the Mi Amigo, became Radio Caroline South, while the Frederica sailed to the Isle of Man to become Radio Caroline North, where its broadcasts were even more heavily influenced by jazz and rare blues and soul. They continued to broadcast until 1967, when offshore radio was outlawed. During that time, they transformed the musical tastes of Britain in the 1960s. Although their influence was equally as powerful for British beat and rock, they had a major influence in promoting soul music during the years 1964 and 1965.

Jimmy's Hammond is brought aboard...This post recounts an unusual event from May 5th 1965 at Radio Caroline. Keen to do things differently from the BBC, the decision was made to invite renowned jazz musician Jimmy Smith aboard, who was in London to record a soundtrack for the film Where The Spies Are and to perform at the Royal Festival Hall. Jimmy brought a precious Hammond B3 organ with him, and his band, for an on-air performance live from the deck of the Mi Amigo. Simon Dee introduced them, and then Jimmy and drummer Tony Crombie, and guitarist Tony Thorne performed two tunes titled Hip Ship Blues and Satin Doll. Despite the experience of freezing on the windswept deck, Jimmy Smith also recorded several jingles that were played on Radio Caroline North. Simon Dee talking with Jimmy Smith on deck

Jimmy Smith playing in SwedenBorn in Norristown, Pennsylvania, on Dec. 8, 1925, Jimmy Smith initially learned piano at home from his father and mother, he was a prodigy and was renowned for his endless ability to improvise without repetition. After service in the war, he went on to study bass and piano at music schools in Philadelphia, despite being unable to read music - a fact his teachers never discovered! He experimented with the Hammond organ starting in 1951, but it took him until 1955 before he had finally found a sound that was distinctivey his own. He got work playing in some of New York's most famous clubs, including Cafe Bohemia and Birdland. Offered a contract with Blue Note soon after, his 1956 album New Sounds On The Organ pushed the organ as a jazz instrument. In particular, since he was not always accompanied by a bass player in his trio, Jimmy would use his knowledge of bass to play those lines himself, giving more depth to his sound, while mimicing horn players on the other hand to give it a punchy sound. The gospel tinged, bluesy style of 'soul jazz' Jimmy Smith developed was an influence on every other organist, including r&b artist Ray Charles.

In 1963, Smith left Blue Note to record for Verve. Later in life he recorded for the Concord label. He died aged 79 at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona in February 2005.

Recording made by Dick Morecraft and is available permanently at Radio London's Radio Caroline Scrapbook. Photographs from the book 'Radio Caroline' by John Venmore-Rowland. Jimmy Smith facts from report by Arthur Spiegelmann. Some good Jimmy Smith bio pages are this one by Bob Blumethal, and an interview conducted by Pete Fallico at

Soul Britannia: Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Just What Is It that Makes Todays Homes So Different, So Appealing?1956. This Is Tomorrow. Richard Hamilton presents his collage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? Pop Art starts in Britain. Bring us America!

From Belfast to Birmingham to Newcastle, to Liverpool and back to London, Britain is emerging from the years of rationing into a more prosperous era. Full of new consumer goods and other influences from America. New musical sounds of America making their way across the Atlantic and reaching young people…

Not r&b, or even rock and roll, but skiffle at first. The music that first encouraged thousands of British youths to pick up an instrument and form a band. Lonnie Donegan and other British jazz musicians, playing a spin-off from New Orleans in the jazz era in Soho clubs. A BBC reporter investigates:

“In London, the skiffle movement provides entertainment at several dozen coffee-houses [playing] blues, ballads, shanties, work songs, country songs, cowboy songs, railway ditties and even evergreen popular tunes.”

Tune in to Saturday Skiffle Club on the BBC Light Programme on the family radio, half an hour for the teen-agers on a Saturday evening, starting in 1957. It’s the place we encountered real gospel spirituals, bluegrass, country, blues and r&b for the first time. Sometimes the authentic sound of Leadbelly on a recording. More often than not (thanks to strict rules on not allowing too much ‘needletime’ on radio), interpreted by a British skiffler in a live performance.

Skiffle sound doesn’t hold sway for long. Rock and roll hits British shores. The rechristened Saturday Club plays us more Gene Vincent, Cliff Richard, more American acts. But just half and hour still. If you want to hear some more, wait until early evening when the signal bounce is stronger off the ionosphere, sneak a transistor radio under the covers and tune into Medium Wave 208, Radio Luxembourg. They play the latest hits from the major record companies, who vied to sponsor a show to plug their products. The sound fades in and out in the south on England, but up North things are clearer…

1957: Don Lang & The Frantic Five on Six-Five SpecialTV! Neighbours rented one, it costs 10s a week from Rumbelows. Turn it on at six on Saturday and catch your favourite British rockers on Six-Five Special, Drumbeat on the BBC, or live from the Palladium on Oh Boy! on ITV. See some film clips of the American stars we wish would come to Britain.

1960. Finally, the end of the Musician’s Union ban on American performers. Finally hear Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy and Bobby Darin, Chris Montez, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddly - performing live on Saturday Club! Finally get to see some of their rock and roll heroes in the flesh, and along with them the latest stars of soul music, a new sound, mixed with gospel music – Little Richard and Sam Cooke, at Brighton Hippodrome in 1962, Richard jumping on the piano, never been a performance like it before. Solomon Burke in 1963, Chuck Berry in 64.

Want more?

1964. Here come the pirates, broadcasting from out at sea, far away from the reach of the BBC. Radio London, Atlanta, and most of all Radio Caroline. All aboard the good ships MV Mi Amigo and the Frederica. One stays south anchored off Essex, and one goes North, carrying a cargo of several thousand rare jazz and r&b records. Now everybody can hear the new sounds of British beat, and the sounds of America, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the old and the brand new. Whatever young people are listening to in Britain, now it all originates with the music of Black America…

Information about Saturday Club is from an article by Spencer Leigh. There is a nice list of all of the artists who appeared on Saturday Club here. I read up on Six-Five Special here. Also from The Story Of Radio Luxembourg website. Radio Caroline information is everywhere on the web, I have enjoyed looking through the Radio London scrapbook on Radio Caroline, and The Pirate Radio Hall Of Fame.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

1st Anniversary: It Was A Brown Eyed Handsome Man!

It’s been a whole year since I began this blog, and I only realised this morning! I got a little writer’s block coming up with some more historical posts about soul in Britain, when I thought, why don’t I write about Chuck Berry's Brown Eyed Handsome Man?

After deciding to make a blog while not really knowing what it entailed, and discovering that every variation of ‘sweet soul music’ had been taken already, I stayed up all night watching The Buddy Holly Story on TV, where they play Buddy’s cover of this song, and in the morning the title still appealed to me. Thinking about the song and its lyrics, it seemed to evoke a lot of things about the significance of black musical forms in America. While being a ‘rock and roll’ song meant it would highlight a broader definition of rhythm and blues, that make more sense outside of the narrow genres in the racks of your local music store.

Coded language and social commentary have a long history in music, from the rhythmic patterns and drumbeats of slave songs, through the exodus and salvation imagery of revival songs and spirituals and into gospel music. In the blues, the telling of someone’s troubles in song has revealed something of the conditions of the world around them. Characters like Stag-O-Lee have lived through many decades, informing us through their fictional exploits of the desperate side of life, much in the same way as today’s hip-hop artists continue to do. Jazz followed all of these trends also, using music itself to express it.

The emergence of rockabilly and rock and roll highlighted a changing society in which the old divisions and the certainties of the folkways of segregation in America were being challenged and bypassed. In the first of the tracks featured today, you can hear four individuals challenging those changes as they struggle to get to grips with playing Brown Eyed Handsome Man at Sun Studios in Memphis in December 4th 1956. Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Four white boys who’d, between them, spent their youths listening to gospel in black churches, learning to play blues guitar from black musicians, grown up picking cotton on mixed farming communes thanks to the New Deal, amongst other influences. Carl Perkins, always shy and thoughtful, and a little unsure of his true talent, is clearly awestruck, as they all are, as they ponder the complexity and the wit of the lyrics, and while Elvis struggles to keep the words in rhythm. Finally, he confides earnestly to the others:

“You oughta hear some of this stuff sitting around, boy”, says Carl Perkins. “I’ve just come offa a tour with this guy, Chuck Berry. Man, he sat down behind the stage and just … man, I ain’t no good!”

Chuck Berry creates a series of entertaining, racy tale of the allure of brown-eyed handsome men and their exploits, and puts his penchant for suggestiveness to good use by this time exhorting the women to seek them out, while he of course plays the role. The race of the character is never made explicit, but is inferred by the distinctive choice of brown eyes, as opposed to the very popular ‘blue eyes’ of dozens of popular crooners’ tunes. There lies the element of social danger that was implicit in all rock and roll performed by black artists, sexual desire between races. Little Richard for example was overt about courting publicly women of all races. Chuck is going further than this, however, in his lyrics. He subverts the dominant assumptions of the era that white women were chaste, unwilling victims of ‘miscegenation’ by threading the song with the line, “Her mother told her daughter go out and find yourself …” The suggestion is that the sexual colour line was never as rigid as society’s elders wanted it to appear. Chuck tells us “Way back in history three thousand years, Back ever since the world began.” In the realm of individual relations, the reality defied the constructs of social stricture.

Roy Kasten, writing last year at the Living In Stereo blog, made a detailed appreciation of the lyrical talent of Chuck Berry, and said:

“Berry turned the sound of a sub-culture into a universal lingo and made three minute dance numbers into comprehensive portraits of life.”

How did the song story originate? According to some sources, the first verse was inspired by Berry observing a West Coast policeman trying to arrest a Hispanic man for loitering until a girl talked him out of the arrest. The second verse is alleged to be inspired by images in the sadomasochistic novel Venus In Furs. Meanwhile, in the final verse, Chuck Berry is said to celebrate the baseball player Jackie Robinson, though again, some claim that he is talking about Larry Doby, first African-American player in the American League. It is the one verse where a brown eyed handsome man is shown beyond the arena of sexuality, beating the odds and winning the game, and is an image of power.

It’s a brilliantly written tale, and elements of its lyrical techniques have influenced others such as Van Morrison with his Brown Eyed Girl. Meanwhile, in the hands of other singers, such as Nina Simone and Fontella Bass, the song gets a different treatment, as when sung from a black female perspective in the black power era, it took on connotations of a call to support black men. While this was never the original intention of the song, it certainly adds something interesting, especially since the underlying causes of alienation of black men in American society have not been addressed and have merely become worse over the decades.

Eventually, I imagine, Elvis got the hang of the lyrics.

Arrested on charges of unemployment,
he was sitting in the witness stand
The judge's wife called up the district attorney
Said you free that brown eyed man
You want your job you better free that brown eyed man

Flying across the desert in a TWA,
I saw a woman walking across the sand
She been a-walkin' thirty miles en route to Bombay.
To get a brown eyed handsome man
Her destination was a brown eyed handsome man

Way back in history three thousand years
Back every since the world began
There's been a whole lot of good women shed a tear
For a brown eyed handsome man
That's what the trouble was brown eyed handsome man

Beautiful daughter couldn't make up her mind
Between a doctor and a lawyer man
Her mother told her daughter go out and find yourself
A brown eyed handsome man
That's what your daddy is a brown eyed handsome man

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match
To get brown eyed handsome man
She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man
Two, three count with nobody on
He hit a high fly into the stand
Rounding third he was headed for home
It was a brown eyed handsome man
That won the game; it was a brown eyed handsome man

The Million Dollar Quartet – Brown Eyed Handsome Man (Rehearsal Outtake) (Sun Records) Dec 4th 1956

Chuck Berry – Brown Eyed Handsome Man (1956)

Buddy Holly – Brown Eyed Handsome Man (released 1963)

Nina Simone – Brown Eyed Handsome Man (High Priestess of Soul LP, New York 1966)

Thanks To Living In Stereo blog for giving me some inspiration for this post, and they are always worth a read for descriptive and thoughtful appreciations of music. Read their Chuck Berry posts starting here. Also interesting is this account by Dave Marsh of the story of Johnny B Goode and the way society affected its lyrics: