Saturday, March 31, 2007

Soul Britannia: Soulpool

Click here to visit Soulpool! This article is based upon the remarkable research of the Soulpool website, conducted by Steve Higginson , David Pendleton and others. Basically, Soulpool is creating a detailed social and cultural history of the musical roots of Liverpool, and using oral history they have been able to present a very different version of the origins of the Mersey Sound. I don't think there is any similar project of such depth online concerning this aspect of British social history. So, once you have finished reading my short(er) post to wet your appetite, follow the links over to Soulpool to read the rest of the story that forms one of the most important chapters in the history of Soul Britannia...

Trying to track down the origin point for a social phenomenon is intrinsically difficult, and there will always be the isolated example that acts as an exception to the rule. However, the history of Merseyside offers evidence that it is amongst the earliest British communities to have ready access to and develop an appetite for American r&b music. From this appetite, a new musical movement was formed, which then went on to transform music in Britain and then impact across the world...

We will all think we know this story of course. Yet while four loveable moptops were indeed responsible for the final breakthrough of Merseybeat into popular success in 1962, their careers alone do not explain the origins of this new sound.

Liverpool's black history, of course, is a long one. Both free and unfree, black people have been living in Liverpool for 400 years. As Britain's principal slave-trading port for over a century, it surpassed Bristol and London. Even after abolition of slavery in the British Empire, Liverpool's dock workers were among the most vociferous in their support for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, being at that time dependent on the southern cotton trade. Throughout all this time and beyond to living memory, Liverpool was the principal port of access to the commerce of the Caribbean.

Poverty and casual racism often colluded to ghettoise these communities geographically, for example in Toxteth, Liverpool 8, despite the lack of racial codes. As in other areas of Britain, the sign in the window of rooms to let would frequently read, "No Irish, No Gypsies, No Blacks." However, in a busy port like Liverpool, there was work to be had in boom times, and throughout the C19th, racial solidarity could be found in workers' movements such as the Chartists (William Coffey being one of the prime leaders in London), and later in the trade union movement. Of course, in times of slump, more selfish motives could rise to the surface. Such a time occured in 1948, after a wartime rise in the black population, due to the call for qualified nurses and doctors to aid the mother nation during its time of crisis. In the post-war austerity era, it became easy for people to accuse black Liverpudlians of taking jobs that belonged to white people. White rioting occured through Toxteth in that year.

So, in Liverpool by the late 1940s, before even the Windrush generation, the black community was larger and more established than in other cities outside of the major seaports. It stands to reason that there was already a growing number of musicians with both Caribbean and African influences through the 1940s and 50s. It was however, according to oral histories, quite difficult to find venues to play in, in large part due to the long-running Musicians' Union ban on any American bands playing in unionised venues. This ban was in large part a reaction to 'negro bands', as the union put it, and affected local musicians as much when combined with the casual segregation of most Liverpool venues in the 40s and 50s. Right up until the late 1950s, most licenced clubs were folk orientated in central Liverpool. Local halls such as the Nigerian, the Sierra Leone, and the All Nations, built by the Toxteth community, or the White House pub, were some of the few opportunities to perform and to go in relative peace to hear what was still unfamiliar music to the majority of Britons.

Liverpool's position as a major seaport made it open to other influences, from the late 30s onwards. Merchant seamen who found themselves travelling to the Caribbean and to the United States had the opportunity to take shore leave and wind down in the local nightlife. They began to get a taste for the very different kinds of music they encountered there. Soon they were seeking out record stores in those places, and bringing their finds in country, jazz and later r&b home with them. To the Liverpudlians back home, these 'Cunard Yanks', as they were known, often appeared outlandish, somewhat strange, when they began to congregate and play this discover'd music at their hangouts. Their clothing would seem outlandish also, described by Cunard employee Tony Dwyer as being manily African-American fashions, such as zoot suits, full drape jackets, and very tight bottoms to the trouser leg, and which Steve Higginson describes from a slightly later era as being the smart, sharp suits and button-down shirts being worn by the American r&b artist Billy Eckstine, and uncannily similar to the 'mod' fashion that would emerge in Europe and Britain nearly six or seven years later. Some, like sailor Ian Gilmour, came home in the late 50s and established clubs in Liverpool, at least tapping into the rock and roll boom and providing a atmosphere tolerant to r&b and jazz as well as the usual rock and roll. However, some other historians strongly dispute the influence of merchant seamen on Merseybeat bands themselves, stating that it was a world in which those bands rarely interacted. As this is a big debate, I will come back to it in another post.

Record stores in Liverpool began to stock this new music in the 1950s. When the rock and roll boom hit Britain in the late 50s, there was already this established influence. Teenage skiffle enthusiasts and banjo players in Merseyside were able to satisfy their curiosity when they encountered names such as Elmore James, Sleepy John Estes, Larry Williams or Arthur Alexander alongside Elvis or Buddy Holly, in a way that other British rock and rollers would not so easily. However, there was something else that allowed the growing army of scouse rock'n roll bands to deepen their understanding and experiences of r&b.

Up with rockers like Rory Storm or the Hurricanes, the Merseybeat scene was dominated byThe Chants: Joe and Eddie Ankrah, Eddie Amoo, Nat Smeda and Alan Hardin. homegrown artists playing their own authentic r&b. Derry Wilkie, Sugar Dean and Colin Areety jumped onstage when Little Richard played Liverpool, and were accepted for their talents and the enthusiasm of the local crowd. A number of big American r&b artists made it their business to tour to Liverpool, where they were assured of a good audience - one recent commentator on this blog, Bill Mitchell, remembers with fondness the time Joe Turner performed and came down into the audience during the interval to chat and have a drink with the people. The Valentinos, named for their American namesakes, and other local groups were digesting and recreating the American vocal harmony group sounds of the late 50s and early 60s. The Chants were also writing and performing in this vein. When four befringed lads came by to hear them play, they went back to their manager Brian Epstein to beg to play behind The Chants as their backing band. When The Chants came to The Cavern, this is exactly what the Beatles did, despite Epstein's obvious displeasure that his band were being upstaged.

This is how bands like The Beatles, who were also the songwriters behind hits for many other Merseybeat bands, were able to listen to complex vocal harmonies in r&b firsthand, and learn how to incorporate them into their guitar-based rock and roll.

They encouraged Brian Epstein to sign up The Chants along with many other Merseybeat bands in 1964. However, you get the impression that he had little enthusiasm for promoting them. Ironically, Epstein got them a record deal with ... Pye Records, the well-meaning but slightly out-of-their-milieu label of Jimmy James and The Vagabonds and later Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band also. The sound of the black r&b groups of Liverpool had some similarities with the Merseybeat sound, but it is clearly pure r&b, and different enough that the record-buying public, obsessed with Beatlemania, passed it by for the next long-haired Mersey group single. Meanwhile, other enthusiasts of American r&b, in other parts of Britain, were unaware of what was on offer to them in Toxteth, in those dark days before the internet. Micks and Keiths and Erics (both Bs and Cs) continued to think they had to go to Detroit and Chicago to find the gritty r&b they had encountered.

Here is a little taste of the early Chants, written by Eddie Amoo, as would have influenced Liverpool beat groups. Later, I will be sharing some of the transformations that The Chants and other black British groups went through to try to gain commercial success to match their talents.

The Chants - I Don't Care (1963)

Information for this post came from the Soulpool website - who go into much greater detail than I have here on all these phenomena. It is a must-read if you are interested in the story of Soul Britannia! Much information about the Chants comes from articles and photos collected by Bill Harry, journalist and author of the site Mersey Beat. I have also learnt some interesting things from the websites of Colin Dilnot, who has been kind enough to mention this site several times in recent months. In Dangerous Rhythm should be part of everyone's weekly blog trail. Recently, on his Soul of Liverpool blog, Colin announced the sad passing of Vincent Ismael, a member of Liverpool soul group The Harlems.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Soul Britannia: Geno!

Last Friday night, I went the Komedia Bar in Brighton. Coming along also was my father (going for now by the moniker Blue Eyed Handsome Dad) for a glimpse of his Sixties past and a little generational discussion about the legacy of soul music in this island nation. And some beers. And some great soul music from an Anglophile soul man who almost single-handedly brought a live soul presence to the small towns and dance halls of East Anglia and southern England. We were waiting to see Geno Washington and The Ram Jam Band! My father remembered going to see Geno at a university hall somewhere in London back in 1967. It was with a mate of his, who he hasn't seen since the mid 60s. If you remember Dave Whatman of Auckland Drive, Bevendean, in the 60s, leave a comment!


Geno Washington, born in Evansville Indiana, is of paramount importance in the history of live soul music in Britain. How did this occur? Geno was serving in the USAF and stationed at RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk. After being demobbed, he was hanging out in local clubs in Ipswich, when he happened to go along to a gig by Shane Fenton and The Fentones. Seeing their performance convinced him that he wanted to do that too. Geno is the only soul singer to have been inspired by Fenton, read name Bernard Jewry, later to become the glam rocker Alvin Stardust. Geno admits that one of the primary motivations he had for getting into music at this time was to impress women. Travelling to London in 1965 to try his hand as a singer, he was invited to join a beat group put together by Pete Gage.

In one version told by Geno himself, the band passed by an A1 motorway service station called the Ram Jam Restaurant, and the Ram Jam Band they became… or they could simply have chosen the name from The Ram Jam Club at 390 Brixton Road where they were opening for The Animals!

From 1966, Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band toured across southern England, performing covers of up and coming soul hits and their own material. It was a high-energy, non-stop performance, showcasing not only Geno’s powerful voice and the Ram Jam bands tight authentic sound, but also Geno’s dancing, and his humour and repartee, none of which were familiar to reserved British audiences. This was one of the few ways in which provincial soul fans were able to hear authentic soul live during that time, while waiting for the tours and revues of American soul artists. The level of touring that the Ram Jam Band put in paid off in terms of record sales, despite being signed to Pye Records, who as with The Vagabonds, did not exactly know what to do with a soul band, and initially offered Geno songs such as Que Sera Sera. Both of the Ram Jam Bands first albums, Hand Clappin’ Foot Stompin’ Funky Butt … Live! and Hipsters, Flipsters Finger Poppin’ Daddies! were recordings of their live performances. The first album, on Pye Record’s Piccadilly label, stayed on the chart for 48 weeks in 1966, becoming the third- biggest-selling album in Britain of the year. The Beatles Revolver was not even in the top three…* Finally though, in the end of the 60s, Geno decided to stop the exhausting touring, which had made the record company wealthy, but not him.

After recording back home during the 70s on and off, everything changed again in 1980. A song by Dexy’s Midnight Runners went to number one. Friends called Geno up at his home and told him: the Number One record in England, it’s about you… Geno was back out on the road, and back in the UK.

The concert is about to begin. My father mentions some ska records that come through the post addressed for me. Just then, they start playing One Step Beyond. He says that it was around 1964 when he was travelling around the West Country on a scooter that he first heard about ska, from a group of London girls they’d met. You didn’t hear it in the local Brighton clubs back then, even along at the club above the shops on Western Road next to Codrington Mansions.

Stanley ‘Wolfman’ Williams cranks out the guitar riff, then tenor Orlando Star and original baritone saxophonist Buddy Beagle punch through with the horns, and the Ram Jam Band start to Pick Up The Pieces. Then a familiar Otis Stax fanfare comes in, and Geno Washington comes on stage to wild applause and the first of many begin to leave their tables to dance at the front. Geno is singing I Can’t Turn You Loose, with his own lyrics, then segues into Wilson Pickett’s Feel It. Halfway through, he sings a dedication for tonight’s show:

“I love Elvis, I love BB King;
I love James Brown, I know he’ll be back again.”

Geno gets us hollering back lines from Land of A 1000 Dances, and gets us clapping, and then gets us dancing with Get Up Offa That Thing and exhortations to do the Funky Broadway. The call is answered by an eager crowd made up of young hipsters and potential artificial hipsters. Geno welcomes them all:

“We’re all gonna tell the truth, ain’t we? Yeah! Man, I see a lot of good looking people out there tonight. Yeah! Damn! I see a lot of damn ugly ones too! … Yeah, I remember the 60s, sorta – back in Vietnam – Major Washington – I didn’t fly jets, flew copters. And I also lie a lot!”

Geno volunteered wisely for a posting in England partly to avoid a more hazardous posting to Vietnam, and partly to further his athletics career, in which he excelled in 110m hurdles. He served as a physical training instructor.

In The Midnight Hour a lot of strange things seem to happen to Geno:

“Last night we were kidnapped by six skinhead Japanese! True. They made us drink six bottles of Jack Daniels! Bastards!”

Green Onions, accompanied by Geno's lyrics, becomes a melancholy plea, Maybe Can You Be My Baby. All the generations up on the dancefloor slow down instinctively to the strange, solitary, half turning, half shuffling gait:

“Maybe, can you be my baby?
Coz I’ve got so much love to give,
Maybe, maybe, maybe…”

and ends by pleading "Baby, please don’t go back down to New Orleans you know I love you so…"

Stevie Deuce on bass leads us into Theme From Shaft, and Geno takes that into Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag. Then a guitar string breaks, and Geno takes a little break, while letting us into a little secret he just made up:

“I made Eric Clapton’s last guitar. Looks good. He plays like shit. Four fucking licks!”

“If we get to 11, you girls might get freaky, throw knickers on stage and shit. You might, they’re just bigger now, yeah!”

Screaming Jay Hawkin’s I Put A Spell On You, in which Buddy Beagle does a particularly haunting solo, becomes a musical and comic classic in the hands of Geno. Halfway through, Geno tells us a story involving the mysterious Madame Lulabelle, a fortune teller. She tells Geno that his wife, Lula-May, is cheating on him. He can’t believe it, so he formulates a plan:

“I go home and put on Teddy Pendergrast singing Let’s Both Wax That Ass – ‘coz in my neighbourhood, if you can’t score listening to that … I’m smoking a Cuban cigar, and I’m doing my best Barry White voice to my wife – ‘Honey, was you faking it last night?’ And she says, ‘No, honey, I WAS asleep.’ Shit, it wasn’t funny too much!”

Geno challenges us to sing back the opening lines of I Feel Good, storms through the song, only to have one guy in the last pregnant pause yell out the last "I Got You!":

“Bastard (pronounced correctly with the double ‘arr’)!! Bastard! We practiced that for six months! I was even gonna do the splits, and then while I was down there, I was gonna breakdance on your ass! But HE fucked that up!”

The band back up and redo the ending, and this time, the offender gets a full dose of “Lord knows what I’d a done to yo’ mama .. yo’ sister ….”

"But that don’t make me a bad person?” asks Geno, innocently!

“Van Morrison, he used to help me out. He was the first Irishman I ever met, he always lent me 1s and 2s but never a fiver, he’s so tight his ass squeaks!”

I vow never to accept a two-pound note from Van Morrison. And on to a rousing Gloria. Everyone is shouting out the name.

“Before I got confident, I’d do that Elvis pose, with your legs wide apart. Then I’d drop my microphone and stick my ass in the air! A luxury item around here! On the street it would be ‘Can I touch it, can I rub it’ all the time. Sometimes it would be ladies too!”

The home straight is Knock On Wood, and then back into I Can’t Turn you Loose. Geno tries to go, but its back for an encore:

“I thought I’d get an easy night. Take the money and run. My lobster’s getting cold back there! Don’t you care? They paid the band in euros and steak and kidney pies.”

The band finish with Everybody Needs Somebody, as at the Soul Britannia Barbican concert in February that was barely advertised.

The concert ends slightly abruptly with a few bars of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, which just stops, just as I’m expecting a Thelma Houston style rendition.

We are left with words of wisdom:

“It is better to be pissed off than to be pissed on.”

The DJ plays out with some Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and I recall how at the end of every school disco in the early 80s, the teacher acting as DJ would play Come On Eileen, and people would ask if he could play Geno as well, although I am sure that in some part of my mind back then I though it was actually a song about Dino, the dinosaur on the Flintstones. Somewhere probably in the audience is Dexy’s songwriter and Brighton resident Kevin Rowland, though I don’t catch sight of him. Then the play the fellow Anglophile Edwin Starr’s War, and Blue Eyed Handsome Dad is intrigued to know that there is a statue in his honour in the middle of Birmingham. Next up is Nutbush City Limits, and Dad reminds me of when my brother and I would listen to this on family car outings to a country pub, roll down the windows, and literally scream out our own words: “They call it CROSSBUSH! CROSSBUSH CITY LIMITS!”, and howl with laughter, it being a tiny, sedate village near the historic town of Arundel. Another variation used to be Nutwood, home of Rupert Bear... Finally, the Temptations put us both in a Ball Of Confusion as we try to work out who is the female singer singing at the beginning. After a knockout evening of non-stop soul, we both head off for a good pub…

Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band - If This Is Love (I'd Rather Be Lonely)
Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band - Jumpin' Jack Flash
The first song is not on the Ram Jam Band's sixties records, but was an unreleased track now found on their compilation CD and on itunes. According to London Lee, who featured this last summer at the sadly retired No.1 Songs In Heaven blog, it was first recorded by The Precisions. It is a particularly good example of how Geno Washington helped to spread the popularity of some exceedingly rare soul recordings to the furthest reaches of Britain. The second song is here not only because these are the vocals the song should have always had to do it justice, but because we only heard ten seconds of it on the night!
Thanks to The Komedia Bar for an excellent venue and nice food. Information for this post came from various sources, including the All Music Guide, and the article If The Blues Spirit Moves You in the News & Star, who provided the humourous but perhaps apocryphal motorway service station anectdote. Thank you also to my guest the Blue Eyed Handsome Dad, Dave Whatman!

*the No.1 album of 1966 was The Sound Of Music, followed by Bridge Over Troubled Water.