Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Juneteenth Jamboree: Gladys Bentley & Louis Jordan

Happy Juneteenth!

A little late this year, after another week of overworking, but its time for some Juneteenth celebrating! Last year, I did a post going into the history of Juneteenth. You can find that by clciking on the Juneteenth link at the bottom of this post, and it has links to some other interesting websites related to Juneteenth.

This time, I am briefly going to introduce two pieces of Juneteenth blues that I came across while reading Music You Never Forget: The Juneteenth Jamboree by Fred Bals. The article introduced me to the life and career of Gladys Bentley. She was a well-known singer in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, headlining at such infamous venues as as The Clam House and the Ubangi Club, before moving to California, where she performed until her death in 1960.
"Perhaps the most famous gay-oriented club of the era was Harry Hansberry's Clam House, a narrow, smoky speakeasy on 133rd Street. The Clam House featured Gladys Bentley, a 250-pound, masculine, darkskinned lesbian, who performed all night long in a white tuxedo and top hat. Bentley, a talented pianist with a magnificent, growling voice, was celebrated for inventing obscene lyrics to popular contemporary melodies. Langston Hughes called her 'an amazing exhibition of musical energy.'"

- Quote from Hidden from History : Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past by Eric Garber.

Next, in full this time, is the song as recorded by 'King of the Jukebox' Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five in 1940 for the Decca label. The song was, and still is, mislabeled as "June Tenth Jamboree," apparently because no one at Decca knew what Juneteenth was. Not a fate Louis Jordan himself would have to worry about. Jordan was a highly popular musician with both black and white audiences, one of the first"crossover" artists, having at least four million-selling hits during his career. He also performed comedy and acted in many films, while also starring in two of his own. Many r&b artists look upon him as a pivotal figure in the emergence of r&b.

Two artists, who despite the prevailing prejudices against race and sex, forged their own careers on their own terms!

Gladys Bentley - Juneteenth Jamboree (excerpt)

Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five - 'June Tenth' Jamboree (Decca 1940)

Friday, June 15, 2007

It's Like Carrying Soul To Newcastle: At The Club-A-Go-Go

The Pagans celebrate a gig at Newcastle Empire TheatreNot all the elements of British r&b were developed within the confines of West London.

Eric Burdon grew up in Newcastle, a hard-working, coal-mining region that prided itself on the quality of its colliery brass bands. Of course Eric's family did not have any connection with coal-mining as such. Eric did however enjoy listening to dixieland-era jazz which some colliery band trained musicians enjoyed, and in his youth he tried to play some trumpet, which set him apart from many other British r&b musicians of the 1960s, in that he had experience of horn parts. However, like many of his contemporaries, the influence of Chicago blues, and practicality, led Eric sing and to use the harmonica. Not the least of these considerations was that Eric never learnt to play guitar!

During his teens, he happened to pass by a black gospel church in his home town, and was mesmerised by the singing he heard within. Such an experience was exceedingly rare in late 50s and early 60s Britain. There was a growing modernising trend amongst theologians in the Church of England, but it was more aimed towards developing a more rational and scientific response to issues of society. While this appealed to the overwhelmingly areligious population of Britain, who freely admitted to visiting a church only for Christmas, weddings and Christenings, amongst the 10% of regular churchgoers, the traditional service prevailed. For the more evangelical, services were experimenting with personal readings, testimonials, and new hymns based upon British folk music. But an evangelical service in Britain had little in common with the black Baptist church experience in the USA.

Eric's epiphany had been musical and in a way political. He began to seek out the music of Mississippi and Chicago blues. He once explained what had appealed to him so much living far from the American South in a northern British city:
"If I heard John Lee Hooker singing things like, 'I been working in a steel mill trucking steel like a slave all day, I woke up this morning and my baby 's gone away' I related to that directly because that was happening to grown men on my street."

While many members of British r&b bands had benefitted from attending the new art schools, Eric and much of the mod scene had their roots in working-class communities. R&b was not treated as an exercise in historical preservation in Britain, at least at that time. It resonated with their lives on some level.

The Pagans in rehearsal in 1962Eric and Philip Payne began a band called The Pagans, and performed on the Newcastle clubs. Here Eric encoutered both a kindred spirit and bitter rival in the guise of Alan Price. Over a period of months, the members of the Alan Price Trio, including Bryan 'Chas' Chandler (later to play bass and manage The Jimi Hendrix Experience), would come to merge with Eric's band, to form the Alan Price R&B Combo, also featuring Hilton Valentine of The Wild Cats on guitar. No two members of the original band can agree on exactly who's idea it was, or who joined whose band! All recognised each others talents, while also becoming deeply suspicious of each other's position in the band. On stage, they transmuted their mutual animosities into a raucous performance. Soon they adopted a more appropriate name, The Animals.

Sonny Boy Williamson IIIn the Summer of 1963, The American Folk Blues Festival arrived in London. Amongst the invited performers was the mysterious Sonny Boy Williamson II. The harmonica player Alex 'Rice' Miller, protege of the legendary Robert Johnson, the only one to know the true details of Johnson's death, and who had later adopted the name of the original Sonny Boy Williamson, also a harmonica player, for himself, enjoyed the experience, and was fêted by a number of members of the young r&b scene, amongst them The Yardbirds , the Stones and The Animals. He began to tour the r&b clubs fronting these bands at a series of gigs, some of which were recorded. On December 30th, 1963, Sonny Boy Williamson and the Animals came to the Club A-Go-Go back in Newcastle, and recorded the performance. Recording was overseen by Giorgio Gomelsky. Still, some are not easily impressed:

"Truthfully, these live shows are more historically interesting than anything else, being merely passable bar band blues" - Steve Leggett All Music Guide

"Ah, knickers!", as Eric exclaims at the very end of the night, after thanking Sonny Boy and thanking the audience for supporting them. There had never been a passable bar blues band before it in the history of Newcastle! Now, a bunch of eager teenagers and their friends in a northern city were working with and learning from a legendary, experienced Delta bluesman, and it undoubtedly improved both their technique and their confidence. That went for the other groups Sonny Boy jammed with that year. When The Rolling Stones made their assault upon America, they made a point of requesting that Sonny Boy Williamson was also booked to appear alongside them on TV, as a mark of their respect.

Here are some tracks from that recording at the Club A-Go-Go, plus The Animals' own homage to the venue that had nurtured them, which was the b-side to the fantastic Please, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.

Sonny Boy Williamson & The Animals - Night Time Is The Right Time (From Charley LP The Animals & Sonny Boy Williamson 1977, recorded December 30th 1963 at Club A-Go-Go Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

Sonny Boy Williamson & The Animals - Bye Bye, Sonny, Bye Bye (from Charley LP The Animals & Sonny Boy Williamson 1977)

The Animals - Club A-Go-Go (b-side of Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood Jan 1965)

Its definitely worth visiting The Animals Official Website , run by original guitarist Hilton Valentine, if you want an introduction to their music. Lots of sound clips are available to sample. Photos of The Pagans are property of Philip Payne, and can be found at This Book Of Burdon by Aimee Harrison. Listen to and buy more clips of the 1963 concert on itunes! Quotes from Steve Leggett at All Music Guide, and from A Change Is Gonna Come by Craig Werner.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Hammer And Nails: The Staples Singers Make This House A Home...

I have just bought my first flat, and I have been busy in the last week packing, moving house, painting and decorating! Ma cherie amour et moi are very happy, and not a little exhausted! Finally, today, my internet was reconnected ...

Naturally, this gives me an opportunity to ramble on about The Staple Singers and to play for you the title song from Hammer And Nails, an album of gospel recorded for the renowned jazz label Riverside Records in 1962. It's taken me quite a while to record this onto my computer, since there was a slight nick on the surface that sticks once in a while. There were tears as I blamed myself for this crime against vinyl, but now I have secured a copy of the single, so enjoy!

By this time, the Staples family were already a well-established gospel group who had performed together for nearly 15 years, since Roebuck Staples, born on December 28, 1915 in Winona, Mississippi, decided to form a family gospel group in 1948, incorporating his bluesy guitar style. His elder daughter Cleotha, younger daughter Mavis, and son Pervis Staples took their places sharing the vocals with their father.

Before that time, Roebuck and his wife Oceola had moved from Mississippi to Chicago during the Depression, and had worked in steel mills and meat-packing plants to support the family. The musical talent of the children encouraged Roebuck to start performing in the local Chicago churches, and by the early 50s, they made the choice to become full-time gospel singers, touring churches across the country. In 1957, they signed with Vee Jay and recorded Uncloudy Day, and it became a nationwide gospel hit. Others followed, including Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Help Me, Jesus, and Swing Down Chariot (Let Me Ride). The greater exposure led to more bookings touring college campuses, concert halls and music festivals:

"Everywhere they go they generate a unique kind of soul-to-soul enthusiasm and give every type of audience a deep emotional thrill." -Gary Kramer

Distinguishing the Staple Singers from other gospel groups was their adherence to a southern gospel style, rather than follow the more polished modern vocal harmony groups. This was exactly the kind of gospel sound that most appealed to the growing white audience interested in the 'authentic' American folk tradition. Looking to expand the label, Riverside Records signed The Staple Singers. Orrin Keepnews, who supervised the Staple Singers sessions, had made his name in the jazz world by signing Thelonius Monk and recording him on a series of seminal albums. In April 4th 1964, the Staple Singers would be performing Hammer And Nails on TV's Hootenanny, recorded for that show at the Purdue University, West Lafayette, in Indiana, alongside The New Christy Minstrels and irish harpist Deidre O'Callaghan.

The period at Riverside would be shortlived. Orrin left the business side to his old friend and partner Bill Grauer. In 1963, Grauer died suddenly, and Riverside went into bankruptcy in 1964. The Staples moved on to the Epic label. Here they would take their exposure to the world of folk and protest song and use it to record songs that mixed gospel with themes of the civil rights movement.

In 1968 when The Staples signed with soul music label Stax Records, they would suffer a certain amount of criticism for this in gospel circles. Yet, musically, the only difference was that the popular music coming out of Memphis was simply taking more of its own influences from the same traditional gospel sources that the Staple Singers had always drawn from. Nor do their message songs exactly abandon their gospel message completely.

On this, the title song from the Hammer & Nails album, which was also a single, contralto Mavis sings a powerful vocal line, using the lines 'More, more more...' to drive the beat forwards and pushing harder and harder up to a crescendo in each chorus that evokes an ecstatic feeling. This version of the song is a very different one to the more widely available recording found on their greatest hits CDs. Inexplicably, Hammer & Nails is the only Riverside track that is not featured on their 'complete' Riverside Recordings CD.

Another interesting fact: throughout the liner notes to this album in 1962, Roebuck is referred to as 'Daddy' Staples. When did he pick up his more familiar monicker of 'Pops'?

The Staple Singers - Hammer & Nails (Riverside R-4518, from LP Hammer & Nails 3501)

Information garnered from Rob Bowman's summary of the Staple Singers career, info from The Rosebud Agency, and liner notes by Gary Kramer.