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Washington/ Jack Landron (1997)
By Elijah Wald
The billing is oddly appropriate: "The Return of Jackie Washington,
starring Jack Landron." Landron is a New York-based, Afro-Puerto
Rican actor. Washington was the king of the Cambridge folk scene,
"the male Joan Baez." Both were born in Roxbury and named
Juan Candido Washington Landron; except for a temporal gap of thirty
years, they are the same person.
The billing was Landron's idea: "It's a very glib thing, but
the more I think of it, that's really what it is," he says.
"I have not done this in a long time, and I found that if I
approached it as me playing Jackie Washington I was not daunted.
So I am having a wonderful time going 'Oh, yeah, he used to do this,'
and 'Oh, wasn't that funny when he used to say that.' And also comparing
how I felt when I sang or worked up a certain arrangement with how
I think about those things now.''
In the early 1960s, Jackie Washington was a folk star. He sang
everything from English ballads to calypso, and he had an energy
and humor that carried audiences along with the force of a tidal
wave. In recent years, he has made occasional visits to his old
haunts, playing a song or two at gatherings of the local folk clan,
and he still has the same explosive energy and the same gentle way
with a melody. Nonetheless, his appearance at Club Passim this Saturday
will be his first full-scale concert in many years.
Despite the billing, Landron will be doing a lot more than recreating
his youth. In the intervening years, he has become a versatile songwriter,
and his show will feature material he has composed for National
Public Radio, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, and a new musical,
"13th St. Suite." Still, he finds the experience extremely
nostalgic, and it has got him thinking about old times.
Landron became a folk singer completely by chance. He was a student
at Emerson college, with plans to be an actor when he and "a
bunch of my little Ivy League bourgeois friends from Roxbury'' went
down to a Boston coffee house, the Golden Vanity.
"We were a group of Cape Verdian, Puerto Rican, black guys,
and we all had on our little three-button suits and those skinny
little ties and Oxford shirts,'' Landron remembers. "We went
in, and there was nothing on the menu but different kinds of coffees,
teas and cider, and the people were strange. There were all these
white types, and they were dressed like 'Oh, we don't care about
looking good or anything like that.' We were having a wonderful
time--little did we realize that Darjeeling or Lapsang Suchong,
that [stuff] was expensive.''
Landron had the solution. "It was a 'hoot night,' so if you
performed you could get your drinks free. I went up there and did
some stuff I had learned off Harry Belafonte records, and I was
Landron became a regular at the Vanity, then moved across the river
to Cambridge's Club 47. It was the height of the folk revival, and
he was a unique character, a young, vibrant, black performer who
could sing just about anything and make audiences love it. It was
an exciting time, when Bob Dylan could pick up his version of the
ancient ballad "Nottamun Town'' and rework it as "Masters
of War,'' or a Portuguese song he was featuring could show up on
the hit parade as "Lemon Tree.''
Somehow, though, Landron never made it as big as a lot of his peers,
and he firmly ascribes this to the racial climate. "This was
even before the days of tokens,'' he says. "You were just invisible.
You wouldn't open a magazine or turn on the TV and see black people
or anything Puerto Rican. Everything was 'Leave It To Beaver.' So
I know that I was patronized. I know there was a limitation on what
I could do. I made some innovations that found root, but there was
not a way for a guy like me to be really influential. I was an exotic
trifle. That was what that time was like.''
Matters came to a head when Landron went south to work for black
voter registration. Other folk singers came, sang, and went home,
but he stayed and organized. When he returned to Cambridge, things
did not feel the same. Meanwhile, folk-rock had hit, and his acoustic
style was out of favor. Landron decided to make a break with his
past. He moved to New York, changed his name, and entered another
"I worked at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, the Negro
Ensemble, the Caribbean-American Repertory Theater. I was playing
in non-white theater companies, to largely non-white audiences.
New York is very much different from Boston, in that there are whole
enclaves where you can be submerged in a culture, and that's what
happened to me.''
Though there is a sharp edge to some of his reminiscences, Landron
says he is anything but bitter about the past. It was, as he will
point out, his youth, and he is looking forward to revisiting it
tomorrow evening. He is bringing his daughter, who has never seen
him perform as a folksinger, and plans to drive around Roxbury with
her and point out the sights of his childhood.
He is also enjoying reimmersing himself in the music. For his occasional
guest spots he has relied on his humor and stage presence to wow
the audience, but this time he wants people to hear the songs. "I
have been working on putting together this show,'' he says. "I'm
going to try to do some real music, really sing some stuff. Also,
looking over the things and reminiscing, there are stories that
go with the songs that are interesting. So I'm looking forward to
it very much.''
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The Fairfield Four (1997)
By Elijah Wald
James Hill will turn 81 a week from today. It is not an age when
most people are doing rock 'n' roll shows, but Hill's group, the
Fairfield Four, will be opening for John Fogerty at Harborlights
this Sunday, and joining him for two numbers, including "A
Hundred and Ten in the Shade,'' the song they sing on his new "Blue
Moon Swamp'' album.
"Oh, it's been going great!'' Hill says of the Fogerty tour.
"I wondered about it, 'cause we sing an a cappella gospel,
you know? And they got a rock 'n' roll band, man. It's two different
things, but man, people act like they really is enjoying their opening
act on this one; they don't want us to stop singing.''
The Fairfields' recent list of collaborators is impressive. In
the last three years, they have worked with Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello,
Steve Earle, Charlie Daniels and Lee Roy Parnell, and they had to
break the Fogerty tour to go into the studio with Johnny Cash. Meanwhile,
their own new album will be out in September, with an all-star release
show scheduled at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
Ask Hill how he accounts for the group's success, and he sounds
pleasantly puzzled. "I'm surprised the young people are liking
what we are doing,'' he says. "But they really love it. I think
it's new to them, just like rap is. You catch a guy 30, 35 years
old, what we're doing now is different from anything he's ever heard.
But we're doing the same thing we did when I came to the group in
The original Fairfield Four got together in the early 1920s, but
they hit their peak in the 1940s, with a radio program on Nashville's
powerful WLAC that could be heard all over the country. By the end
of the decade, they were one of the best-known groups in gospel,
featuring Sam McCrary's lead, Hill on baritone, and the booming
bass of Isaac Freeman, the only other early member still with the
The Fairfields were something of a supergroup, formed by raiding
the best singers from other outfits. Hill, for example, had started
out singing with his mother's gospel group and gone on to achieve
success with a Birmingham quartet, the Five Silver Kings ("quartet,''
in gospel terminology, is a style of singing, and by the late 1940s
virtually all quartets had five members). "What the Fairfields
were singing was right down my alley,'' he says. "So I fit
That golden age was of short duration. In 1950, Hill and Freeman
split off and formed another group, the Skylarks. "I'll tell
you what happened,'' Hill says. "Gospel had hit a hard place
in the road, man, we weren't doing nothing too much. And, believe
it or not, for 30 years we didn't do nothing too much but just every
once in a while we'd get together and do a number or two, an anniversary
or something, but that wasn't too often.''
It was in 1980 that the Fairfields reformed, at the urging of gospel
scholar Doug Seroff. "He got us to go to Birmingham, Alabama
for a quartet reunion thing, with a bunch of older groups. So we
got together and went on down there, but we didn't think the people
were gonna think too much of us, because at that time the groups
had gone contemporary mostly, they'd added drums, guitar, keyboards,
all of that stuff. I said they wouldn't want to hear us, especially
since we're men getting up in age too. We went down there to sing,
man, and they didn't want[MAKEITAL] us to stop singing.''
That led to several performances at the Smithsonian festival in
Washington, as well as to Carnegie Hall, the New Orleans Jazzfest,
and hundreds of smaller venues. In 1992, their first modern album,
"Standing in the Safety Zone,'' was nominated for a Grammy,
and they made a national tour with Lyle Lovett. The next year, Elvis
Costello took them to London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, and they have
barely rested since.
Last year, the Fairfields added a new lead singer, Joe Rice. At
23, Rice is young enough to be the grandson of the other members,
but Hill says he fits in perfectly. Meanwhile, Hill himself is still
going strong, and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
"I intend to just keep on doing what I've always done,'' he
says. "You know, time brings about a change; I don't get around
as much as I used to do; but as far as singing goes it's no problem.
Long as I be able to do it, I'm going to do it.''
to the Archive Contents page
Eartha Kitt (1997)
NEW YORK--It may be the last bastion of cafe society: the Cafe
Carlyle, with its pastel murals of minstrels and ballerinas, its
quietly efficient waiters, and the tables of well-dressed customers
murmuring in a blend of Continental accents. There was a time when
New York had a dozen rooms like this, though none of tonight's customers
look old enough to remember them. Eartha Kitt remembers them well.
Kitt, who begins a four-night stint at Scullers Jazz Club this
Thursday, got her professional start over fifty years ago, as a
dancer with the Katherine Dunham troupe. By 1950, she had become
a featured performer, and in Paris she left the troupe to begin
a solo career. She was a sensation, and soon found herself starring
opposite Orson Welles in his production of "Dr. Faust'' as
an archetypal heroine who was a schoolgirl one moment, Helen of
Troy the next. Welles called her "the most exciting woman in
Certainly, she was like no one else. Her voice, face and style
were captivatingly odd, indefinably exotic. She was often described
as "ageless,'' and time has proved the point. At the Carlyle,
she walks confidently to the stage, and begins to sing: "I've
got a voice that says 'Yes', '' she purrs, homing in on a young
man at a front table--"a walk that says 'Maybe' ''--her hips
swivel a hint of invitation--"but a look that says 'Uh-uh!'
'' Kitt's eyes flash danger, and she turns her back on her rejected
admirer. The audience laughs, then leans forward, entranced. Kitt
is magic, and her powers are untouched by time. It is more than
a great performance; it feels like a voyage to a vanished age.
Later, one cannot help asking: The illusion is perfect, but is
this really what it was like in the classic period of New York cabaret,
the days when Billie Holiday was at one club, Edith Piaf at the
next, and Kitt at a third? "Yes, it is,'' Kitt says firmly.
"And you won't get it anymore when I'm gone, because I'm the
last of the Mohicans. So, if I were you young kids, I'd keep me
Kitt is speaking on the telephone, from her room at the Carlyle.
She seems friendly and forthright, but declined to be interviewed
in person. The voice is enough, though. Whether one first heard
her singing her Turkish hit, "Uska Dara,'' or growling her
way through the role of Catwoman on TV's "Batman,'' Kitt has
a voice that cannot be forgotten.
Kitt is quick to point out that, in terms of her career, that has
not always been a good thing. "Being an individual can work
against you,'' she says. "Agents say 'We don't know how to
cast you.' Recording companies say 'Who's gonna buy that voice?
We don't know whom to sell it to.' When I first came back to America,
I was cancelled out of La Vie en Rose because I was singing in seven
languages, and they had never seen anything like me. They thought
'What is it?' ''
To her fans, though, that is her strength. She is not a jazz singer
or a nightclub chanteuse, a comedienne or a dancer; she is simply
Eartha Kitt. "I have no category,'' she says. "Just as
I've always said I have no color. I don't belong to a race, creed
or color; I am me. There is nothing to compare me to, so there is
nothing for me to compete with except myself.''
If Kitt was always unique, this has only become more obvious with
the years. Few performers of her generation are still working; virtually
none are devoting the same focused energy and attention to their
performances that they did in their youth. There are no dead spots
in her show, no coasting on her legend. Even a song like "C'est
Si Bon,'' which she has sung at every show for over forty years,
will have a new twist every night, an ad lib or a bit of unscripted
interplay with the audience.
"There is so much spontaneity in what she does,'' says Daryl
Waters, her pianist of eleven years standing. Waters is co-composer
of the Broadway hit "Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk,''
and is currently up for a Grammy, but he says there is nothing he
prefers to backing up Kitt's show. "There's nothing that charges
me like that. We can do the same songs, and the performance will
never be the same; it's like trying to always be in sync with this
really living creature that you can never anticipate their next
move. Whatever she does has a dramatic flair to it, and it's always
coming from within who she is.''
Waters has heard Kitt described as "difficult'' and worse,
but says their relationship has been excellent. "Often, what
people call being difficult is an artist trying to deal with their
own insecurities or trying to deal with the unprofessionalism of
other people. She has every right sometimes to not be smiling in
your face like you'd like her to be. A lot of times what people
classify as being overly difficult is just the fact that you have
a different opinion, and because she's a women is she not allowed
to have a different opinion?''
Kitt herself can recall many times she has run into trouble for
stating her views. Some were professional: There was the time she
proposed a white star to play opposite her in a production of "Salome,''
and her agent said, "Eartha, don't you know what color you
are?'' She still seethes at the memory. "I wasn't thinking
about color. I don't think an artist has a color. But there you
are. So I went out myself and found a director at one of the most
prestigious shows on television. And the William Morris Agency called
me a bitch, said I was shrewd, I was mean, because I went around
them. You're a strong person and you know what you want to do and
you go after it, so you're considered a bitch.''
Kitt's worst setback came from her outspokenness in another forum.
Invited by Ladybird Johnson to a women's conference on urban youth
in 1968, she pointed out that it was impossible to persuade young
people to avoid crime if the reward for having a clean police record
was to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. Johnson was shocked to the
point of tears, and Kitt found herself vilified in the press and
virtually blacklisted from American television. She took refuge
in Europe, where she remained a top star, but her American career
has never recovered from the interruption.
Hence the Carlyle and Scullers. Kitt says she loves the intimacy
of the small clubs, but she would clearly prefer to be playing Symphony
Hall, or starring on Broadway (she would like to do an integrated
"Mame''). Fortunately, she seems to be moving in that direction.
Her film career is picking up speed, with recent performances in
"Unzipped'' and "Harriet the Spy,'' she is getting a lot
of television work, and her 28th album, "Back in Business,''
was nominated for a Grammy last year. It is easy to think, watching
her at the Carlyle, that she will soon be too big for the room.
The only barrier is time, and Kitt is doing an astonishing job
of surmounting it. Halfway through the show, she announces a recent
birthday, proudly declaring herself to have "reached the beautiful,
most wonderful age of 70.'' She later explains that she can only
approximate that figure, having no record of her early years as
a poverty-stricken orphan in South Carolina, but that she must be
somewhere in that vicinity. And she sees no reason to conceal or
mask her longevity.
"I was very lucky to be called 'the most exciting woman in
the world,' because I don't have to play any games about anything,''
she says. "I don't have to worry about whether I'm 70 years
old or 30 years, because the lines that are coming to my face mean
that I am maturing, I'm growing, and I'm still here. It's the map
of life. I like the maturing side of me. I don't believe in fighting
nature except to stay healthy, to do everything that is natural
to maintain the youthful look and the agility and all of that and
also the state of mind. I am very proud that I have been able to
sustain, and the public has kept supporting me, so I don't have
anything to lie about''
She has no doubts that, given an opportunity, she could go head
to head with the young pop stars of the 1990s. She has had European
dance club hits in recent years, and is confident that quality can
win out. "Today, the business in general is a lot of noise,
a lot of hype, a lot of packaging,'' she says. "I still don't
know what Michael Jackson is capable of doing, because I've never
seen him do anything that is not flying in the air or a 4th of July
kind of thing.
"Now, everybody sings exactly like screaming their heads off,
and I find there is nothing to compete with because the more they
scream the more they're putting themselves in a situation that that
pony is gonna drop dead real fast. Everybody is riding the same
pony and we are not creating individuals anymore. And generally
it's downgrading, dumbing down the teenagers, because if you never
get to see someone like me and make your own evaluation between
me and somebody else who is contemporary, then there is nothing
for you intellectually to play with--all you're getting is that
Kitt does not sound irritated as she says this. On the contrary,
she sounds confident and somewhat amused. "We are living in
a very interesting time,'' she says. "That's why I'm very glad
I'm still here and still doing the same things I did 30, 40 years
ago and people are loving it, including the young people. The younger
people really do want quality, and when they see it and they find
it, they cater to it and they bring their friends and their friends'
friends. It's absolutely marvelous, but they make me feel as though
I should be around for another 70 years.''
to the Archive Contents page
Dale Hawkins (1997)
By Elijah Wald
Dale Hawkins makes his return to New England Saturday, appearing
on an "oldies'' bill at Lowell Memorial Auditorium with Frankie
"Sea Cruise'' Ford. On the phone, though, he sounds nothing
like an "oldies'' artist. There is none of the smooth professionalism,
the air of a practiced entertainer who has been pleasing his fans
for 40 years. Hawkins still sounds like a stone rockabilly, as wild
as he was when he stormed the charts in 1957 with one of the most
primal hits ever cut by a white rocker, "Suzie Q.''
At the time he was 17, and just returned to his native Shreveport,
Louisiana, after an underage stint in the navy. "I was trying
to go to school, and work too,'' he says. "But hell, all I
wanted to do was play music. I had a band. Some of us weren't old
enough to get in the clubs, so the ones that could, well, we went
in the front and the rest of 'em we pulled in the bathroom window.''
One of the younger ones was a 15-year-old friend, James Burton,
who would go on to be one of the most acclaimed guitarists in rock.
He was the first of Hawkins' incredible string of lead guitarists,
which also included Roy Buchanan and Scotty Moore, as well as Boston's
Kenny Paulsen. (He met Paulsen on a tour through Boston with Chuck
Berry in 1957, the last time, to the best of his recollection, that
he has been in this area.)
How did he get so lucky? "Hell,'' he says, "there weren't
no luck to it. See, I was a structure person. By structure, I mean
you got to play it this way. Ain't no other way to play it, because
it's wrong if you do. I was really hated by most all the guys that
played guitar with me, because I'd just make em play it till I got
it like I wanted it. But they all turned out to be great guitar
players. Sure did. You know, I'd take these guys, like 14 years
old or so, and me, I wasn't a great guitar player by any means,
but I could get a lick going. And then I could say 'Take it, and
let me do this other thing.' Because you just couldn't do it all
yourself. That's like rubbing your stomach and trying to pat your
head. Not too many Chuck Berrys around.''
Like Berry, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters, Hawkins was signed to
a record deal by Leonard Chess, becoming the only white artist on
the label. As he remembers, this led to some confusion. "Everybody,
all the jocks, they thought I was black. I was in Philadelphia,
one of the first places we stopped to promote the record, and I
went in the station and the guy behind the board, he points at me
and says, 'You're Dale Haw-aw-aw?!' Man, he almost rolled on the
floor. He interviewed me and -- dig this -- I started getting phone
calls, and some of the mothers would call and say, 'We just love
your music, but you really should improve on your diction, for your
race.' I was flipping out! I says 'I sure will, ma'am.' ''
Hawkins laughs long and hard. He clearly loves to talk about those
days, though many of his best punch lines will not make it into
a family newspaper. While Shreveport was best known for the country
sound of the Louisiana Hayride, where he worked for a while parking
cars, blues had always been his first love, both older artists like
Lonnie Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins the new sound of Jackie Brenston,
Junior Parker and Johnny Ace. He was in seventh heaven when Chess
brought him to Chicago and he got to record with musicians like
Willie Dixon and jam in clubs with Little Walter.
Asked whether it was not unusual in those days to be playing in
an integrated setting, he gets serious for a moment. "A lot
of people still don't understand,'' he says. "Sure it was segregated,
but for the music, it's really just where you're from, and how you
was raised. I'm not trying to tell you any philosophy or [junk],
but if you take and research most artists from that era, white or
black, you will find they came from kind of the poor side of their
families, had to work hard, taught to respect. You know, you have
to have that light in there for it to come out. And we came from
an era of leaving the door unlocked, where you trusted people. Of
course, all of us got [cheated], but still it was better than picking
Hawkins followed "Suzie Q'' with a string of lesser hits,
becoming a regular visitor to American Bandstand and touring like
crazy ("If I believed in a song, I could sell that sucker to
a mule,'' he says happily). By 1960, though, his run was over. He
turned to producing, charting records for artists including Bruce
Channel ("Hey! Baby'') and the Five Americans ("Western
Union''). Then, by the 1980s, he was fighting a serious amphetamine
habit, and he dropped out of the business.
Now, he is back with a vengeance. He has opened a recording studio
in Little Rock and is preparing his first album of new material
in 25 years. He has toured Europe, and is raring to get back on
the road in the U.S. On this visit, he will not have his own band,
but he hopes to bring them through soon and show the youngsters
how it oughta be done. "I'm enjoying myself,'' he says. "The
new stuff I just got through recording, I just call it 'American
music,' but it's country blues. Because people don't understand,
man, where it came from. You know, the 1950s was a turn-around era,
and I was just fortunate enough to be there and love it enought
that I didn't care how it turned out. I did it like I wanted to
do it, I guess you might say.''
to the Archive Contents page
David Adams (1997)
By Elijah Wald
David Adams is on his feet in the WILD broadcast studio, swaying
and clapping along to the new disc from the Soul Stirrers. A photographer
scrunches in the corner, snapping off shots. As the song ends, Adams
slides into his seat, fades the music down, and hits the red "talk''
button. "Ohhh!" he hollers. "They're taking all kinds[MAKE
ITAL] of pictures in here! They're gonna make David a star!'' With
practiced ease, he flips a cart into the tape deck, and an advertisement
comes on for his Saturday night anniversary concert. He turns the
mike off, reaches for another CD, looks up at the photographer,
Outside the studio's glass window, in the front office, Alice James
is answering the phone. The president of the David Adams Fan Club,
she is there with him every Sunday morning from dawn to nine o'clock,
taking calls from local ministers, song requests, dedications, and
news of births, deaths, and illnesses in Boston's gospel community.
Though little known to the outside world, within that community
David Adams is already a star, and a familiar friend. Next year
Adams, 63, will celebrate his 30th anniversary as Boston's best-known
gospel d.j. Known as "Mr. 'My My My,' '' for his trademark
catchphrase, he has become a Sunday morning institution, the area's
most enthusiastic booster of old-time gospel music.
Asked to explain his enduring popularity, Adams gives a typical
response: "The only thing that I can say is it's gotta be in
the soul. As I tell people, I'm not ashamed -- if I feel the spirit
I'm gonna shout. God has blessed me that way. He's been a great
blessing to me. I'm not looking be a star. I'm not looking to do
anything but give God praises, and if I can just can help one person
along the way, then my living will not have been in vain.''
It may sound trite to some, but Adams clearly means every word,
and anyone in Boston gospel will testify that he lives by his message.
It is the old-time way, learned during his boyhood in the south.
"If you speak about my history,'' Adams says, "I'm from
Florence, South Carolina, and I started singing with my brothers'
group when I was about eight years old. I stayed with gospel music
and I knew all the original groups. I knew the names of the singers
like some kids know baseball players. I came from South Carolina
into Philadelphia, I sang with a group there for about nine years,
and then I left Philadelphia and came up here. Boston was a beautiful
place, so that made Boston my home.''
Adams arrived in 1959, and quickly became a familiar face around
the gospel scene, doing a little singing and turning up at programs
by all the local groups. Then, in 1968, he found himself in a community
organization, the Black United Front, that was confronting the owners
of WILD. In a scene that was being duplicated across the country
at stations that served black listeners, the group demanded that
the station place blacks in management positions rather than simply
using them as on-air frontmen. WILD capitulated, and brought in
Paul Yates from Pittsburgh to be general manager.
"When he came here, there was no gospel on for three mornings
and I called him up and told him there was no way that we could
do that,'' Adams says. "The community wouldn't accept that.
So he said 'Well, I just got here and I don't know; would you come
down and talk with me?' So I went down and he and I talked and he
says, 'Could you take the job?' ''
Adams at first demurred, as he did not have a broadcasting liscence,
but Yates brought him in to do a one-hour show presenting local
singers while he studied and got his papers in order. As soon as
he passed the exam, he became religious director for the station,
and stayed there for the next 15 years, going on the air at dawn,
seven days a week.
The hours sound grueling, but Adams seems to take a sort of pleasure
in the task. He gleefully recalls the blizzard of 1978, when the
National Guard had to give him a lift down to the station. The snow
was chest-high, but he was on the air at dawn.
"As soon as I signed on, I saw the hot line ringing and I
knew it was [then manager] Sunny Joe White. He says, 'David, I don't
know how you made it.' And he says, 'I don't know how I'm gonna
get down there. Could you stay until I get there?' I says, 'Yeah,
I can stay till you get here, but don't you dare ask me. . . .'
I says, 'You know what I mean.' He says 'Aw, I'm not gonna ask you
nothing. Just play your own music, David. I know you ain't gonna
play no rock and roll'. And I says, 'You know right.' So, I played
my gospel music, let everybody know that they couldn't use their
cars. He made it there about 11:00 and I made it back home.''
Adams stayed at WILD until 1983, when he got a daily show on WCAS
(later WLVG), an all-gospel station. He was the station's top draw
until 1987, when an aneurysm almost killed him, and forced his retirement.
He remained visible on the scene, though, with benefit concerts
and appearances as an m.c., and he returned to WILD with a Sunday
morning show in 1991. The original arrangement was that he would
be paid in advertising for his concert presentations, but his doctor
forbade him to get involved in that high-pressure business. So,
for six years, he and James have dragged themselves out of bed before
dawn every Sunday for the pure love of the music and the community.
"It's just something I got to do,'' he says. "I can't
let it go. So many of the ministers in this city, I knew them before
they ever were into the ministry. They knew me before I started
broadcasting. It's just like a home family. It's a beautiful feeling,
and the music to me is very, very important because it is an expression
And, for now, at least, he has no thought of giving it up. "I
tell you, I don't never want to retire from radio,'' he says, sounding
as enthusiastic as he does on the air. "If the good Lord says
one day that my work is done, then I will be ready to retire. But,
until that day, I'm gonna try to haul right on until the end.''
to the Archive Contents page
Eric Burdon (1997)
By Elijah Wald
"Can you hang on a second?'' Eric Burdon asks, answering the
phone in his Palm Springs home. "I just want to finish making
a drink and I'll get right back to you.''
So what is Burdon drinking these days? "Lemon juice and water,''
he says, then realizes he is disappointing the listener. "Well,
last night I was drinking tequila,'' he adds cheerfully. "And
I was working. You know, you gotta keep up appearances.''
Burdon, who comes to House of Blues this Thursday, is one of the
legends of rock 'n' roll, a proto-punk rocker from Newcastle, England,
who remembers back to the days when he and Mick Jagger were eager
kids sharing a guest spot with Alexis Korner's seminal English blues
band. In the 1960s, he led the Animals on over a dozen hits, and
cracked the top 10 again in 1970 as front man of the funk band War.
He also wrote the most entertaining memoir of those times, a chronicle
of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll called "I Used to Be an Animal,
but I'm All Right Now.''
Today, unlike his surviving "British invasion'' peers, Burdon
is neither playing stadiums nor nostalgia packages. At 56, he is
still sweating it out in the clubs, shouting blues and rock lyrics
over a crack band that includes Frank Zappa sideman Aynsley Dunbar
Burdon has mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, he says,
"I love working clubs; I love in-your-face gigs.'' On the other,
he is hoping that a new album he is recording will put him back
up on the charts beside his erstwhile compatriots, and he feels
he has paid enough dues to deserve some payback.
"I'm not trying to make any excuses,'' he says, after outlining
a string of bad record deals in the 25 years since leaving War.
"I [messed] up big time as a businessman. We all did, the Stones
being the one exception because Mick went to the [adjective] London
School of Economics. But it ain't over till it's over. I'm living
a life in the works. I went for what I went for, and went through
what I went through. The thing is, I've never been able to look
at this business as a business. As Rahsaan Roland Kirk said, 'The
business ain't nothing but the blues.' ''
There are not a lot of contemporary rockers quoting Roland Kirk,
but Burdon's generation were music fanatics before they were singing
stars. "That's all we lived for,'' he says. "At school,
back in like 1958, I had a student union movement that had 'John
Lee Hooker for President' sweatshirts made up. It was our vocation;
we were preaching the word. I remember the Beatles, for Christ sake,
on stage, John Lennon walking up to the microphone and telling the
audience to 'Shut the [adjective] up and listen to this song, and,
if you like it, go out and buy it tomorrow by a guy named Chuck
Berry, 'cause he did the original and he did it much better than
us.' With [their manager] Brian Epstein in the wings, pissing himself,
going 'I told John not to say that. He's gonna blow the whole thing.'
In those days, rock 'n' roll was not about money and fame. It was
still an underground scene, catering to a small group of record
collectors and social outcasts united by an almost religious belief
in the music and the people who made it. Burdon's generation was
fighting to break out of the middle class mediocrity of the post-war
years, and he notes that African-American music was only one of
several working class "roots'' styles that attracted him.
"I started out as a folk fanatic,'' he says. "And I wasn't
listening to Dylan and people like that. When I was a folk fan,
the thing I was listening to were the pit miners in my local town.
A guy who was a pit deputy, working at the pit face, who would sing
local ballads about shipwrecks in the North Sea, stuff like that.
That was important to me, because I realized one thing about folk
music. No matter what the BBC were telling me the news was, folk
singers from all around the world were telling you the real story.
"That's what clued me in to John Lee Hooker -- he was telling
me real life stories of what the American working man's experience
was. I saw in American r&b what was beginning to get lost in
English folk music. One day, that guy who was the pit deputy folk
singer, he came walking into the folk club with a silk suit on and
a guitar and started singing 'Heartbreak Hotel.' And that was the
beginning of it all; this whole new thing had arrived.''
Burdon's love for the music took him in quite different directions
from those of most British rockers. For him, the highlight of the
Animals' first U.S. tour was not the huge rock shows, but the chance
to be the only English band to play Harlem's Apollo Theatre. When
the Animals broke up, rather than taking the obvious step of hiring
more English sidemen he joined with War, a black funk outfit. Later,
he would record a fine duet album with bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon.
His most recent distributed album, "Lost Within the Halls of
Fame'' (which is dated 1995, but he says was recorded in the 1980s,
and which he is not happy with), has him trying his hand at rap
as he leads the listener through a musical autobiography.
Clearly, his devotion to African-American music is deep and continuing,
rather than simply a matter of raiding a few hot licks and vocal
inflections. Equally clearly, Burdon has tried not to rest on his
laurels. All of this makes it a bit disappointing that his latest
release, "The Official Live Bootleg,'' which he put out this
year to sell at gigs, is simply a bar-band rehash of Animals hits.
It rocks hard, but is hardly innovative or adventurous.
Burdon concurs, but explains that he is "a victim of today's
technology. There are kids out there in the audience with DAT machines,
and you do a new song in Germany, you go back next year and it's
out on a CD. That's why I have to keep playing the old Animals catalog;
because a) it's what people want to hear, b) you know that it's
gonna make for plain sailing on stage every night, and c) the songs
are so strong that you can do what you want with them, I can chop
and change and improvise, and as long as I deliver the chorus where
everybody gets to sing along, they're happy. And I'm happy. But
don't think that I don't want to move forward and that I haven't
got new things to say.''
Indeed, Burdon feels that he is musically as strong as ever, and
he is looking towards the future rather than the past. "I'm
currently in the studio doing some material that's right up to the
minute and very much me,'' he says. "It's a conglomeration
of all sorts of things: A jazz track, a pseudo-punk track, a country
and western-influenced track, reggae. And I'm happy it's that way
because my intention was to [mess] up people's minds, and have them
go 'How can we categorize this?' Because that's one bad thing this
business does; it always has to pigeon hole and categorize.''
Burdon still likes to challenge the listener and, with a lifetime
of experience to draw on, he sees no reason why his best work should
not still be ahead. "To me, the music never smacked of pure
youth,'' he says. "All the guys that I came up on, like Muddy
Waters, when I heard him he was already 40-odd. Rock 'n' roll, yeah,
is supposed to be the music of youth, but blues and rhythm &
blues and jazz are eternal. People confuse artists with athletic
jocks these days, and that's not right. As an artist, you're not
supposed to get worse as you get older, you're supposed to get better.''
to the Archive Contents page
Buckwheat Zydeco/ Rosie Ledet (1997)
By Elijah Wald
It's zydeco time in New England. Sunday, Stanley (Buckwheat) Dural
brings his band to Decordova Museum. Wednesday, "Zydeco Sweetheart"
Rosie Ledet is at Johnny D's. Then, next weekend, the Cajun &
Bluegrass festival in Escoheag, RI, features Ledet and C.J. Chenier
along with over a dozen other bands.
For those who have not heard it, zydeco is the African-American
counterpart of Cajun music, a spicy mixture of Cajun, blues, r&b,
and whatever else a musician may care to toss into the pot. Pioneered
by artists like Boozoo Chavis, Rockin' Dopsie, and the king, Clifton
Chenier, it swept the world in the Cajun craze of the early 1980s.
One of the most exciting places that the music began to catch on
was among young, black Louisianans. For years, they had tended to
regard it as old folks' music. "My dad played zydeco music
for family entertainment in the home,'' Dural recalls. "He
played the real traditional style, only with accordion and washboard.
Just for family gatherings, which we call a boucherie[ITAL] -- kill
a pig, get outside, the fathers would play the music and the mothers
would do the cooking. He always wanted me to play the accordion,
but I was like in my generation. The accordion was an older generation.
That's how I felt; I was one of the biggest critics of zydeco.''
Dural was a local r&b star, the organ-playing leader of Buckwheat
and the Hitchhikers, playing the sounds of P-Funk and Earth, Wind
and Fire. Then, one day in 1975, he took a one-night gig backing
Clifton Chenier. "I learned something there,'' Dural says.
"What you don't understand, you don't criticize. What got me
was the energy. We played four hours non-stop and it felt like 30
minutes, that's how excited I was. I didn't know it could have that
much energy, because I'd always heard it played at the house with
just my dad and the washboard, but Clifton had guitars, bass, drums
and horns, and man, I couldn't believe it.''
When Dural was discovering zydeco, Ledet was only four years old.
Like him, she grew up thinking of zydeco as her parents' music,
but by the time she was in her teens Dural had built a bridge for
younger listeners. "I love him,'' she says enthusiastically.
"He's much more rocky.''
Dural's funk-r&b background informed his zydeco style, horrifying
the purists but winning a new generation of local kids. As Dural
points out, this was exactly what Chenier had done a quarter-century
earlier: "Clifton also took it to a different dimension; he
had blues, roots culture, a little rock 'n' roll. And I took it
up a step higher, to my generation. You know, I'm not gonna have
no limits to my abilities. If you can do it, why not?''
In an odd turnabout, the younger generation that Dural brought
to the field has now moved the music towards an older sound. Rather
than playing the piano accordion favored by Chenier and Dural, Ledet
and her peers tend towards the older button accordion, either the
classic one-row instrument or the somewhat more sophisticated three-row.
"I like the piano too,'' Ledet says. "But they're so heavy
and hard to handle. To me, it's just a lot easier to play the little
push-button. And back home, it's just kind of what's happening right
Dural finds this pretty funny. He stresses the greater versatility
of the piano accordion's chromatic keyboard, but also says that,
as an organist, he found the more primitive instrument insurmountably
foreign. "I wouldn't even dare try to challenge that button
accordion,'' he says, laughing. "Buttons in the back, buttons
in the front, man, too many buttons for me. It gives me the blues.''
Whatever they play, though, he is thrilled to see a new generation
entering the field. "There are so many young people in zydeco
now, and it's a good thing, 'cause when the roots of your culture
is lost, man, you lose your identity. If you stay away from the
roots of your culture and your music just to make a dollar bill,
it's defeating the purpose.''
To drive the point home, Dural has just recorded the most traditional-sounding
album of his career, "Trouble.'' Though all but one song, a
version of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads,'' are originals, he
is hearking back to the sound of those back-yard barbecues of his
childhood, the rhythm-heavy, chugging sound that has found new life
in the hands of modern Louisiana stars like Beau Joque. "This
is the beginning,'' he says. "Like rock 'n' roll come out of
the blues. It's spiritual. No matter where you want to take it,
you always got to have a beginning.''
It is also a tribute to his father, with whom he had a difficult
early life, but reconciled through music after he became a zydeco
player. For black French Louisianans, as for their white Cajun counterparts,
the music is not only exciting, but also a bridge to their heritage.
"My parents love it!'' Ledet crows. "They couldn't believe
it at first, cause I was one of those kids who were like, 'Nah,
I don't want to listen to that. I hate that.' And they're, 'I'm
telling you, it's good music.' They was always trying to get me
interested, but I was more into rock 'n' roll and blues. But I love
it now, and a lot of younger people are really[ITAL] getting into
it. So that's going to keep the tradition alive, and help it to
to the Archive Contents page
The Bad Livers (1997)
Austin, Texas, has been the most fertile ground for folk/country/rock
fusions in the United States, but even by Austin standards the Bad
Livers are unusual. An acoustic trio, led by banjo player, singer
and songwriter Danny Barnes and largely devoted to old-time, traditional
styles, the band has developed a hard-core following centered in
alternative rock venues. Its last Boston visit was as opening act
for the Butthole Surfers. Tonight, it headlines at the Rat.
The odd thing about this is that the Bad Livers do not sound particularly
odd. There have been comparisons to the Pogues, but the Bad Livers
have none of that band's obvious mix of traditional material and
punk attitude. "We're not shtick-oriented,'' Barnes says. "We
didn't have a meeting and decide how we were gonna dress or what
the market needed. We are just totally music driven.''
Bass and tuba player Mark Rubin concurs. A versatile musician who
seems to have worked with half the roots bands in central Texas,
he says he and Barnes just started fooling around with a lot of
music they enjoyed and the band formed naturally out of their experimentation.
"It wasn't like an epiphanal moment or anything,'' he says.
"It just organically grew, like a fungus.''
Three things set the Bad Livers apart from most folk or country
roots bands. One is their range of influences: Rubin comes from
Stillwater, Oklahoma, and grew up around classical music and traditional
jazz, then went on to rock, country, bluegrass and Tex-Mex (he currently
plays bass for Santiago Jimenez). Barnes is from Denton, Texas,
and grew up in a family that worshipped country music, which he
mixed with blues, western swing, and whatever else caught his fancy.
When they got together, they were delighted to find that they could
make this hodge-podge work as a unified whole.
The band's second strength is the technical facility of the musicians:
Rubin jokes about his choice of instruments ("In Oklahoma,
if you're a large-statured gentleman, they either put you on the
bass or the tuba''), but he provides a rhythmic foundation that
is both understated and distinctive, slapping his bass like a bluegrass
old-timer or making his tuba sound like a jug. Barnes plays six
instruments on the band's latest reocrd, and is a virtual encyclopedia
of traditional banjo styles. Meanwhile, Bob Grant, a new member,
keeps the center together with strong rhythm guitar and mandolin.
Then there is Barnes' composing and arranging. It is misleading
to call him a songwriter, because the raw song is only part of the
sound he assembles. Rubin enjoys a comparison with Duke Ellington,
who wrote pieces for the specific talents of his musicians. Barnes
describes the process as "a symbiotic relationship, in that
I get my songs out there and the band gets custom-made songs to
fit what they're doing.''
The songs are all original, and range from quirky stylistic fusions
to pure, traditional-sounding numbers like "Corn Liqour [sic]
Made a Fool Out of Me,'' which sounds like it could have come from
the 1920s string band master Charlie Poole. Barnes enjoys experimentation,
but is equally proud of his ability to write in the classic styles;
to him, learning to write like the masters is as much a part of
the process as learning their instrumental styles, and he takes
the comparison to Poole as a huge compliment. ''I consider those
Charlie Poole tunes to be as good as anything anybody's ever done,''
he says. "That music goes beyond the form. It has a sort of
psycho-acoustic effect, like I assume Middle Eastern music has.
It seems to speak to us beyond our time, like the voice of God.''
As a banjo player, Barnes may have a special affinity for Poole's
work, but he is equally effusive in his praise of musicians from
quite different worlds: Bob Wills, T-Bone Walker, or Roky Erickson,
of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators ("he had a jug player in
a psychedelic rock band--way ahead of his time''). To him, it is
all of a piece: it is good music, and genre need not come into the
Because of this musical omniverousness, neither Barnes nor Rubin
express any particular surprise that their rootsy, acoustic sound
should have become popular with the alt-rock crowd. After all, if
they are good, why shouldn't people enjoy what they play? "When
we walk on stage, what we think about is the music,'' Barnes says.
"We don't think about the audience at all. We think about each
other. We're real, super-duper music fans, and we say 'Hey, look,
if we can entertain and impress ourselves, and have fun and interact,
then we're gonna be fine, whether or not they like it.' And, 99
percent of the time, they get off on it even more because they realize
we're not putting anything on, we're doing this because we believe
in it. They get into the energy and feeling we put into our music,
and we end up being greatly rewarded.''
to the Archive Contents page
TED HAWKINS PROFILE (written for Acoustic Guitar
Ted Hawkins is an imposing figure. Tall and handsome, his dark
brown face framed with a white beard, he walks onstage and seats
himself on the same milk crate he used in his days as a Venice Beach
street musician. As he takes his guitar and begins to tune, one
notices that the nails of his right hand thumb and index finger
are incredibly long and thick, like natural picks. On his left hand
he wears a leather glove, a relic of the days when 12-hour street
sessions lacerated his fingertips. He pours some powder on the glove
and, smiling, flicks a little white cloud into the air.
Suddenly, Hawkins whips his body to the left and freezes, his black-gloved
finger pointing and his eyes locked on some horrible sight. "There!"
he shouts, his voice impossibly loud. The startled crowd tenses.
"...stands the glass," he sings, sliding smoothly into
the Webb Pierce country tearjerker that is a highlight of his new
Geffen album, "The Next Hundred Years."
"You got to know how to stop the people," Hawkins says,
repeating a lesson from his street days. "And it ain't enough
to just stop 'em, you gotta hold 'em there. Now that I'm in the
clubs I don't have to sing my guts out like that, but I do it because
I'm used to it."
To illustrate his point, Hawkins tells a story: "One time
at Venice Beach there were some teenagers that were standing over
me," he remembers. "I heard the leader tell them, 'Wait
until he get off into the song, then get his bucket.' My bucket's
always full of money, you know. So I started singing 'All I Have
to Offer You Is Me,' and I sung it like somebody was whuppin' me.
He got a funny look on his face and a tear fell, and he say, with
a shaking voice, 'Not him, man. Not him.'"
It is that kind of soulful, wrenching power that brought Hawkins
to international attention in the early 1980s, and that made him
a star in England. Now, back in the U.S. after years in Europe,
Hawkins is hoping that, at 58, he may finally get a taste of success
at home. The time seems right. "Unplugged" is the word
of the day, and Hawkins is the greatest acoustically-backed soul
singer ever to record. With his Sam Cooke-inflected vocals, his
solid rhythm guitar work, and his deeply personal songwriting, his
music is unique and instantly appealing.
Ted Hawkins's story is the stuff of fiction: Born dirt poor in
rural Mississippi, he never knew his father and his mother died
while he was doing time in the notorious Parchman prison farm. After
years of hoboing, he ended up in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s and
cut a few singles which went nowhere, then spent the next few years
drifting in and out of prison. Redemption came on the Venice boardwalk,
where he attracted a following that led to four albums and a five-star
listing in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Though often called a
blues singer, Hawkins has always stuck to his own special blend
of Southern soul and classic country, sung straight from the heart.
As he tours behind the new album, it seems that finally Hawkins's
years of dues-paying are bringing some return. "All that time
on the beach, it was like I was getting ready for a main event,"
he says. "Everybody that stood before me, I was building up
fans and now they're scattered abroad and they're glad Ted Hawkins
is making it. And I'm still playing like I always was. I never had
no band; I'm my own band, just me and the guitar. These days, everybody
seems to be clowning and cursing and cutting up, and I believe somebody
in the world is sick of all that. Somebody in the world is thirsty
and hungry for a good song, and those are the people I'm trying
to the Archive Contents page
JOE ELY INTERVIEW (written for Acoustic Guitar
by Elijah Wald
People who know Joe Ely only from his records may not think of
him as an acoustic guitarist, but those who have seen his solo live
shows know better. Though he describes his music as "plain
old Texas rock 'n' roll" and normally tours with high-volume
electric backing, Ely is at his hardest-edged and most passionate
when he is alone on stage without a band to get in his way. Other
rockers get maudlin and folkie when they pull out the acoustic guitar;
Ely plays the same mix of roadhouse rock and soulful country as
he does with a band, and he turns up the energy a notch. The result
recalls his first hero, Jerry Lee Lewis, or fellow Lubbock native
Buddy Holly, both stripped-down players who dominated a stage with
the sheer intensity of their personalities.
"It's a whole different way of approaching stuff," Ely
says. He is sitting in a hotel dining room eating breakfast. On
stage last night, in a packed bar of screaming fans, he was bareheaded,
his black curls falling over a forehead drenched in sweat. Now he
is wearing a cowboy hat, and his voice is quiet, with a warm Texas
drawl. "A lot of times, with a band, when we want that energy
we'll just get louder and everybody'll play harder. Acoustically,
if you want that kind of energy you have to play softer, in order
for the words to come out. The dynamics are really kind of all you
have with acoustic stuff. And I have to think about the song more.
With the band you hear the guitars play and feel the whole beat
of it, but acoustically you really get straight into the song, right
into every single lyric."
Ely's classic early MCA albums blended an electric and acoustic
approach, but in recent years his recordings have been strongly
on the rock side. Now, Ely is returning to his roots with "Letter
to Laredo," a largely acoustic album that evokes the sounds
and mood of the Texas-Mexican border. "My dad had a used clothing
store in downtown Lubbock," he remembers. "And he would
put me to work when I was ten or eleven years old, running the cash
register. We were right down in the area where all the Mexican laborers
would come and buy these ten cent pairs of shoes and stuff. There
was this music that was going around in these little cantinas down
in the lower Broadway part of town, and I fell in love with the
romance of Spanish guitars and accordians and all that."
"Letter to Laredo" is both lyrically and musically tied
to that border sound. A flamenco guitarist named Teye provides the
principal instrumental voice, accompanied by Ely's acoustic rhythm
guitar and old partners Lloyd Maines and Ponty Bone on steel guitar
and accordion. With drums and electric bass hitting hard in the
background, and Bruce Springsteen adding vocal harmonies on two
songs, it is by no means a folk album, but the emphasis is on the
words and the instrumental interplay rather than electric pyrotechnics.
Ely has rarely sounded more relaxed, and the songs fit together
beautifully. "In a lot of ways, I feel this is the best record
I've made since 'Honky Tonk Masquerade,'" Ely says happily.
"There's a lot of records in between that have captured the
period of time I was in, but this one definitely creates an entire
mood for the entire record."
While Ely still loves the full electric band approach, the acoustic
setting pushes him to do his most complex and lyrically compelling
work. "You can get away with a lot by using a band," he
says. "A song has to be much stronger lyrically to hold up
without that band kicking it along. When I listen to the radio,
I often think 'I can't imagine that guy playing that song by himself
without all the band; it just wouldn't work, because it's all built
around a riff.' In fact with a band it works better if a song is
more pared down, not as lyrically intense but just with a good strong
chorus. But I try to write every song to hold up acoustic or electric."
The secret to Ely's writing is that he makes every word count,
whether he is writing a gentle Panhandle ballad, or a honky tonk
hell-raiser. "The hardest thing for me is to pare something
down," he says. "I'll take something and I'll find myself
going through and just marking out stuff that is not necessary.
I always write out the words first. Very occasionally I'll start
with a riff, but 90 percent of the time I'll get a song to where
it is lyrically totally complete. As I'm writing lyrics I'll write
melodies in my head, but I don't actually sit down with an instrument
while I'm writing. I've always loved playing the guitar, but I've
never really been a student of it. I use it just as an instrument
"It's funny; it seems like the minute I start writing a song
I get some kind of melody that just seems to go with it. But a lot
of times I'll alter it considerably as I go on with it. In some
cases I'll write all the verses to a song but not have a chorus,
and I'll actually go over and rob a chorus from another song."
An example of this approach comes in "Sleepless in Love,"
from his "Love and Danger" album. He had written a serious
song that had not quite gelled. Then one day he was goofing around,
thinking up unusual metaphors. He stuck the metaphors together,
tacked on the chorus of the old song, and ended up with a song that
is funny, clever, and eerily moving. It is a trick Ely has often
used, mixing humor with his most heartfelt and serious ideas, and
it gives his songs a lively realness that sets them apart. "I
often find that if I do the whole thing really seriously it becomes
kind of a little tedious," Ely says, laughing. "So I have
to kinda of play with it, slap it around a little bit. That is what
is so fun about putting songs together: the unexpected things that
happen while the process is going on."
Though he has always relied heavily on his original material, Ely
increases the range and contrast in his albums and live shows by
mixing in a liberal sprinkling of songs by other writers, especially
his old Lubbock buddies and bandmates Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch
Hancock. "Every time I approach a record, I start out writing
the whole thing myself," Ely says. "And then after I get
that body of work together and know what direction I want to go,
I start thinking about what would make it feel more complete as
a record. I never think that I have to do the whole record myself."
Though other people may have written the songs, when Ely sings
them they become personal statements. "There are certain songs,
like [Hancock's] "Boxcars," that I just feel so much like
I was there, the song is so much a part of me, that I really have
taken it on as my own experience," he says. "And I can
sing it night after night and still feel that way. When you completely
engulf yourself in a song, you try to make it your own. I'm just
eternally grateful that Butch wrote some of those, because they
are beautiful songs, and one-of-a-kind things."
Now, with the new album done, Ely is hoping to go out on the road
with a more acoustic band. Whether or not that works out, he says
he will always do occasional solo shows, if only because of the
freedom it allows him. His repertoire is large enough that no band
could learn and rehearse all of it, and the solo format has a looseness
and an intimacy that Ely finds particularly attractive. "I
never have any concern on a solo show," he says. "I don't
care if I miss a chord or miss a verse, or try a song that I shouldn't
be trying. I learned a long time ago that if you strive for perfection
you'll never get any song finished. Cause nothing is ever perfect.
So I just try to get the feeling of sitting around in a living room
with a bunch of people.
"I don't like the whole idea of a performance, where you separate
yourself from the audience. I like to try to bring them in, make
them comfortable. The thing that makes an audience uncomfortable
the quickest is if you are uncomfortable, so I just try to make
everybody feel like, well, I'm gonna screw up, hit some wrong chords,
try stuff, forget stuff, and so what? I know some people that if
they miss something--like hit a wrong note--it completely shatters
them. It affects the rest of their night. I try to blow off things
like that and look at it as, hey, what the hell, it's the song that
counts. It ain't always gone be the same."
The looseness and unpredictability give his solo concerts a tightrope-walking
quality, as if at any moment he might go too far, and this breeds
a raw energy and excitement that is contagious. A great Ely show
leaves the crowd gasping and exhausted. There are chances taken,
choices made, that few other performers could pull off, but Ely
triumphs through his obvious commitment to his audience, the quality
of his songs, his relentless energy, and his ability to laugh at
himself even as he displays the stance and attitude of the ultimate
rock 'n' roll hero. "For me, that's the only way I can do it,"
Ely says. "I'm up there with just an acoustic guitar, and it's
like I have to look around and think, 'I'm up here all by myself;
I can either be scared to death or just attack it.'"
to the Archive Contents page
DAN HICKS INTERVIEW (written for Acoustic
Guitar in 1996)
by Elijah Wald
Dan Hicks is a hard guy to figure. Famous for his lighting-fast,
wickedly funny lyrics, hot acoustic jazz ensembles, and oddball,
dead-pan stage patter, offstage he shuffles around like a large,
rather sleepy bear, his hipster drawl slowing to the pace of cold
molasses. He seems friendly and helpful, trying to answer questions
as honestly as possible, but his delivery sometimes makes you wonder
if he is putting you on. He acts cheerfully optimistic one moment,
semi-depressed the next. When the humor surfaces, it is usually
self-deprecating, absolutely dead-pan, and often so elliptical that
it is hard to tell that he is joking.
For instance, a discussion of his recent forays into re-interpreting
jazz standards slides into somewhat gloomy introspection, then veers
off into fantasy land: "I want to be a better jazz singer,
want to keep working on my chops," he says. "For me, that's
where you gotta keep dreaming or aspiring. 'Cause in a way, I can
feel stuck real easily. I can play the same gigs, have the same
kind of band as 20 years ago. You know, I haven't put out so many
records that I've got a big stockpile of material." Suddenly,
he becomes animated. "Oh, yeh! I have all that. You know my
Spanish albums, or when I did those couple of gospel albums, man?
Let's do a couple of tunes from that."
Hicks has never, as far as I know, recorded a Spanish or gospel
song, much less an album. "I was just thinking," he says.
"You know how sometimes in writing about performers they use
the phrase, 're-invented himself, re-invented herself?' I say 'Wait
a minute, why can't I do that?' Because sometimes I feel like I'm
the guy that has to play 'Payday Blues' and 'I Scare Myself,' once
a night. But then, in a way, that's because I'm doing the tunes
I like to do."
The conversation is moving in circles. And Hicks' attitude seems
a little odd when one considers that his last album, the live "Shootin'
Straight," featured entirely new material and was hailed by
a lot of people as his best album ever. Admittedly, it has not received
the attention of his 1970s recordings with the Hot Licks, but taking
a 17-year hiatus from recording is not the sort of thing that helps
maintain career momentum. Plus, even in the 1970s, Hicks' mainstream
success was something of a fluke. After all, how many people were
performing on the rock scene with a band devoted exclusively to
acoustic jazz and western swing?
"It was surprising for me," Hicks admits. "I was
somehow being included in Rolling Stone magazine, getting in the
rock category, the popular-type thing. I guess it could have been
because I was in the Charlatans and started with a name."
The Charlatans were a popular Bay Area rock band in the 1960s,
and Hicks was the group's drummer and occasional vocalist. Before
that, he had played drums in a high school dance band, and had continued
playing general business gigs through college, getting a firm grounding
in swing and big band standards. Along the way, though, he had branched
out into guitar, and it was as a guitarist and singer that he made
his real splash.
"I started out with kind of a folk repertoire," he says.
"A few Kingston Trio tunes, a few tunes out of a book. I taught
myself and then one time a guy kinda showed me the basics of finger
picking. I used to do stuff like 'San Francisco Bay Blues,' 'Grizzly
Bear.' I was doing a single act around the Bay area, as a side thing
from the Charlatans, just me and my guitar. Then I started adding
to that. I added a violin somewhere along the way; I guess I got
the ensemble idea maybe a little bit from Django Reinhardt-Stephan
Grappelli. It was just stuff I thought was tasteful."
The Hot Licks had a tight, swinging blend of acoustic string virtuosity
and hot, three part harmonies, but it was Hicks' songs that made
the group special. He seems to have a gift for odd and complex rhymes,
and for using the swing/jive vocabulary to deal with subjects and
viewpoints that are unique, to say the least. On the new album,
for instance, the first song begins "My mother died from asbestos/My
father's name was Estes/ And I don't know if that messed us/ Up,
or what it did." Then he gets to a song about alien abductions,
called "Hell, I'd Go!"
Hicks says he doesn't know where his songwriting style came from.
"I can't really think of anyone who influenced me," he
says. "Except maybe sort of subliminally, or collectively.
Every now and then I've written a song and said well, 'This has
got kind of a Mose Allison cool about it,' or 'This could be a Roy
Orbison tune.' I'll do that. And I've always liked the standards.
I learned from all the good lyrics in there, the melodies, although
I don't aspire to write them, I don't come up with like a straight
32-bar form, which is usually what the standards were."
Though the complexity of his lyrics is a Hicks trademark, he says
that, if anything, the melodies come to him first. "I always
have some kind of melody going," he explains. "And hopefully
the lyrics come along with it. Often, I'll get a verse or two pretty
easily, and then I'll need to work to finish it. For me, it's very
easy to just get discouraged, and say 'Well, this ain't coming,
I'm not getting anything' after about 15 minutes. But then I have
to say to myself 'No I'm gonna stay here for two hours. I'm gonna
write, I'm not gonna put the guitar down then come back tomorrow
or something.' 'Cause that's the only way I'm gonna get it done.
The days of doing it every day and wanting to do it are kind of
past--or at least, there was more of a time, but even back then
my guitar would sit in the case for a couple of weeks sometimes."
While Hicks' songs have been recorded by artists ranging from Maria
Muldaur to Bette Midler to Thomas Dolby, he says he regards himself
principally as a performer rather than a writer. "That's what
I do the most of, you know, that's where I seem to get the most
money," he says. "I write the tunes so I'll have something
to sing. It's just like part of the stage thing."
While the writing has attracted a broader audience, guitar players
are often struck by Hicks' unorthodox instrumental technique. He
plays with a drummer's sure rhythmic sense, using a thumb pick and
finger picks in a mix of strumming and fingerpicking. "I got
started with the finger picks in the early days, playing 'Freight
Train' or something like that," he says. "And I just kept
them on. I never used a flat pick, never aspired to play any lead.
And I don't think you can get the same thing from a flat pick. I
can accent stuff with the bass and still pick or strum or squeeze
As for the left hand, Hicks' straight-ahead, almost folky chord
shapes are an unusual cushion for the Djangoesque excursions of
his lead player, Paul Robinson. "My chord knowledge is kind
of limited," he acknowledges. "I really don't play a lot
of different chords and I don't play a lot of different little moves,
like to where there's different chords every beat of something.
I sometimes say 'I've got you fooled, because I do all this rhythm
stuff with my right hand so it sounds like maybe I know more than
I know.' Usually, also, I've got a really good guitar player with
me, good musicians. And, you know, I play more jazz chords than
Johnny Cash does."
Anyway, Hicks is well aware that his audiences don't come to gape
at his flying fingers. A good Hicks show is like a bit of musical
theatre, with the songs blending seamlessly into his relaxed, wryly
funny shtick. Once in a while he will even put the guitar aside,
and lackadaisically swish a drummer's brush on the head of a tambourine
while singing an old standard like "Give Me the Simple Life,"
then promise to include the tune on his next album, "Dan Hicks:
For Lovers Only." ("That's just the working title,"
"I try to be spontaneous," he says of his showmanship.
"I think I'm doing a good job if I'm working with the room
and things are going good. Every now and then I'll fall back on
something I've used before, some line or something, but most of
it is just ad lib city. I'm more on my toes when I'm up on the stage,
I think faster, because it's sort of a do or die situation. I've
gone ahead and put my name on the whole thing, so I've gotta come
And, if he is not a superstar, he knew what the gig was when he
started. "Being an acoustic musician is hard," he says.
"Even my girlfriend, I complain about having no money and she
says , Well, you chose to be acoustic, acoustic is harder to sell.'
I don't know. I guess I could go up there with a little amp and
a electric guitar, right. But so what? I think I'm commercial enough.
Doing a good show is commercial. Not starting every song with a
bass solo is commercial."
'Nuff said. "I hope you got something there," Hicks says,
unfolding himself from the hotel armchair. "Now I better go
down to the sound check."
to the Archive Contents page
? AND THE MYSTERIANS INTERVIEW
By Elijah Wald
Published in the Boston Globe, January1998
They're back, like the ghosts of rock 'n' roll past: More than three decades after "96 Tears'' hit number one on the charts, ? and the Mysterians have reformed and a new album finds them looking virtually unchanged and sounding as raw and energetic as ever.
"We were like a bright star that shone for only the millionth of a second,'' ? says, on the phone from his home near Flint, Michigan. "But that light has carried on through all these years, and people remember what they saw, and a lot of people haven't seen it and now they're catching up.''
"96 Tears,'' with its infectious two-note organ riff and ?'s soul scream driving home a hypnotically repetitive lyric, was three minutes of pure teen energy, the defining garage rock single of the 1960s. The group went on to make three albums, including one for Ray Charles's Tangerine label, but never equaled that first success. Their place in history was assured, though, when rock critic Dave Marsh saw ? (backed by a somewhat different group) in 1971 and referred to his music as "punk rock,'' apparently the first time the term was used in print. Marsh also called ? "the greatest dancer in the history of rock and roll,'' and the years have done little to slow down the skinny frontman's acrobatic, split-laden routines.
The superlatives Marsh and others have heaped on him, though, are easily bettered by ?'s own view of his work. He will point out that "96 Tears'' was the culminating point of rock 'n' roll; after that the music could go no further and became simply "rock." And that is only part of the story. "I created 'hip' in rock 'n' roll,'' he says. "Which a lot of people don't realize. I said, 'OK, there's got to be a change, this is too stale.' So I put that attitude in there. Then, as far as the writing, I did songs like '8 Teen,' written with the '8' and the 'Teen.' Now everybody does things like that, but I was doing it long before Prince or anybody else.''
Speaking of he-who-once-was-Prince, ? was also the first to use a symbol rather than a name. "People don't realize that I actually was the symbol, and I still am,'' he says. "But it's kind of hard to communicate with Earthlings if they don't know how to telepathically pick your thoughts up. Like if I called you and I said "[extended pause] . . . I'm telling you, 'This is Question Mark,' but you can't pick me up because you don't have that ability yet.''
Anyone perplexed by that "Earthlings'' reference deserves an explanation. The Mysterians are usually described as the great Chicano rock band, a group of Mexican immigrants based in Michigan. As ? explains, though, that is not really correct. "The other four guys were born in Texas,'' he says. "And I'm from Mars.''
He prefers not to expand on that theme, as he is trying to get two books published and doesn't want to give away his secrets, but he quotes from a New York Times interview in which he said "I was born on Mars many eons ago. I've lived many different lives. I was around when dinosaurs were around.'' Among other bits of personal information he will let drop is the fact that he is telepathically in touch with people from the future and is trying to reach the Pope and the President to pass on vital messages.
In the fast-paced and protean monologue that constitutes a ? interview, he does occasionally say a few words about his music. He started out as a dancer, with dreams of appearing on American Bandstand, before voices (he only recently realized they were from the future) told him to take up singing. He enjoyed Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Bill Haley, and other early rock 'n' rollers, but says that from the first he had his own sound.
"My only influence was being Catholic; the church organ, you know. Then after church we would go to the ice cream parlor, and next door they had a Baptist church and you could hear the people wailing, the tambourine, and I said 'Man, why can't we do our music like that in our church?' And then when my mom took me to see 'Gone with the Wind,' I was so captured by that music, the sound. So, with those three elements, that was my influence.''
It is the organ as much as anything that propelled "96 Tears'' to the top of the charts, and this tour marks the first time in almost 30 years that Frank Rodriguez Jr., who played the original riff, is back in the band. "Little Frank [as distinguished from bassist Frank Lugo], he moved down to Texas because he didn't like the cold weather up here,'' ? says. "So it was kind of hard to have practice sessions.''
Rodriguez moved back to Michigan a year ago, and soon the classic band was back together, with Lugo, rhythm guitarist Robert Balderrama, and drummer Robert Martinez. While ? had been touring off and on with various pseudo-Mysterians, this was the moment the fans had been waiting for. Soon the band was back in the studio and out on the road (plus the internet, at www.96tears.com). Another album is planned this year, featuring all new material, and ? is ready to conquer a new generation.
"I really want to reach the young kids,'' he says. "I have a lot of messages for them, and I want to teach them what music should be all about. Because what's out there right now, it's not music, it's just blech, trash. You turn on the radio, and subconciously you know it's [junk], but you accept it, because without music what are you gonna do? But hopefully, in the back of your mind, you're thinking, 'When is something good gonna come along again?' And if you wonder why we're coming back, that's the reason. Because we've got real good music. We always had good music. And we're resurfacing again because we want to let people know what music is all about.''
to the Archive Contents page
Big Al Downing (1998)
By Elijah Wald
LEICESTER, MASS. -- Big Al Downing comes down his driveway exuding
warmth and friendliness. He is a huge man with a big smile, outfitted
in comfortable cowboy wear: wide-brimmed white hat, studded denim
jacket and worn leather boots. He brings the visitor into his ranch
house, located on a quiet back road, where he moved some years ago
to be near his wife's family. Downstairs, in his basement studio,
the walls are covered with pictures and awards: Downing with various
country stars, or a plaque proclaiming him Billboard Magazine's
Number 1 New Country Artist of 1979.
The award memorializes Downing's fourth adaptation to the changing
tides of American music. By the late 1970s, he had already hit in
rock 'n' roll, soul and disco. Today, though, he is best known as
the top African-American hitmaker in the country field after Charley
Pride, and he will be at Johnny D's in Somerville this Thursday
headlining a black country bill that also includes Bobby Hebb (of
"Sunny" fame) and Barrence Whitfield.
Though to some people the idea of a black country singer seems
strange, Downing says that is a misperception. "When I was
growing up in Oklahoma, we'd go in the black clubs and they'd be
playing harmonica and stuff, and blues and country,'' he says. "My
dad used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry, and we used to work in
the hay fields -- we were contracted to load tractor-trailer semis
that would come up from Texas -- and all they played was country
music all day long.''
The history of African-Americans in country-western music was highlighted
last year by "From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country
Music,'' a boxed set from Warner Brothers Records that featured
Downing, Hebb, and Whitfield along with dozens of other black musicians
and singers. Of all the artists included, Downing has the longest
pedigree in the field. Back in the mid-1950s, he was already touring
with a white rockabilly band, Bobby Poe and the Poe Kats, and touring
with country-rockabilly star Wanda Jackson.
In 1958, with Downing singing lead, the Poe Kats cut a rockabilly
classic, "Down On the Farm,'' and began touring out of their
home area of Oklahoma and Kansas. Bizarrely, their first gig was
in Boston, playing in the Combat Zone.
"I'll never forget it, because we made $90 a week,'' Downing
says, chuckling. "Back in Oklahoma we would work one day a
week for three hours a night and make seven, eight dollars, and
we'd split that among four of us, right? When we came east we worked
seven days, and on Saturday we worked one in the afternoon to one
at night, and we made $90 a week. That was the big time.
"I remember one club there -- we were sitting there our first
night, waiting for the other band to tear down so we could set up,
and the other bandleader went over to the club owner and said, 'We're
finished, now I want to get paid.' And the guy said, 'OK, hold out
your hand.' The guy held out his hand, and the owner picked up a
baseball bat and cracked him across the knuckles as hard as he could.
Bam! He said, 'We didn't like you here, so that's all you're gonna
get paid.' Really, man. So we said 'Wooow! What if he don't like
Fortunately, Downing was an immediate favorite, though the club
owner insisted on billing him as Big Al Domino to capitalize on
his resemblance to Fats Domino. "I said, 'My name is Downing.'
He said, 'No, it's Domino.' Oh, man! So that was my first trip to
As Downing sits back in his chair, the stories just roll out. He
has been a professional musician since about 1955, when he was 15,
making his way in a world where he was often viewed as an outsider,
but as he talks the smile virtually never leaves his face. Not that
the experiences were always funny.
"I ran through that whole gauntlet of prejudice,'' he says.
"We played places where there wasn't even a black man in the
town. I'd have to go to a different restaurant to eat, and a lot
of times the band would have to throw a blanket over my head and
carry me into the hotel room. I took all the prejudice and all the
people saying, 'Man, you're crazy to do this.' Bobby Poe warned
me, he said, 'We got those people out there that just don't like
black people working with white people together -- specially you
working with Wanda Jackson, you know, a girl -- you're gonna get
some really big flack for that.' And I said, 'Let's take a chance.
I don't care, 'cause I want to play music.' That's all I was concerned
Downing toured with the Poe Kats into the early 1960s, then he
and fellow Kat Vernon Sandusky went on, with Poe as their manager.
The original concept of the band had been to cover the full gamut
of rock 'n' roll, with Downing covering the hits of Domino and Little
Richard while Poe sang the Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis numbers. Over
the years, though, Downing had proved his solo power, recording
a Domino-styled session in New Orleans with a crew including Dr.
John and hitting the charts in 1963 in a soul duet with Little Esther
Nonetheless, he continued working with his white partners until
1964 and, for once in the conversation, Downing seems genuinely
bothered as he remembers the break-up. "There come a time when
they had a big record, the band without me. They were called the
Chartbusters, and 'She's the One' was the name of the song. The
Beatles had come out and all that white music was happening, and
they said, 'Al' -- now, all of this time I'm carrying the band,
you understand, through thick and thin -- and all of a sudden they
said, 'We can't use you in the band because you're black, and we
want to go to the white audience.'
"I said, 'Oh, man.' What a trip that was. So I just got out
of it completely and I went out and got a soul band with me and
my brother. We called ourselves Willie and the Brothers and we did
Sly and the Family Stone and played all the big colleges and stuff.
We did some recordings, and then we met a guy named Tony Bon Jovi,
who's Jon Bon Jovi's cousin or uncle or something, and he said,
'I like your band, and I like you Al. I'd like to cut a record of
you.' This is in '67 or '68, and we tried different things, me and
my brother tried to cut like Sam and Dave and all of that stuff
and it just didn't work out. Then we come on up to the disco era
and Tony said, 'Al, try to write a disco song, man.' So I came up
with this song called 'I'll be Holding On' and it was a big number
one disco record in '75.''
Downing seemed to have found a new career in the r&b world,
but there was a surprise in store. He and Bon Jovi went into a New
York studio, trying for another disco hit, but none of the songs
seemed quite right. "After about two hours we said, 'Let's
take a break,' and everybody left and I went in and sat down at
the piano and I started playing 'Mr. Jones,' 'Touch Me' -- just
me and my piano, sitting there messing around. Tony happened to
be in there at the board, listening, and he opened the mike and
said, 'What's that you're playing?' I said, 'That's my country stuff.'
He said, 'Man, that's great stuff, has anybody cut any of that?'
I said 'No,' and about 20 minutes later he came back and said, 'Hey,
forget disco, we're gonna cut that.' ''
"Mr. Jones,'' a story-song about a black sharecropper who
raises a white orphan, was Downing's entree to the country charts
in 1978. In 1979, he hit even bigger with "Touch Me,'' and
went on to place another fifteen records on the charts over the
next decade. Naturally, he was compared to Charley Pride, then the
only black star in the field, but Downing is quick to point out
the difference in their styles.
"I never wanted to go the way he went. See, Charley Pride
went strictly country: When you hear him, it's just like hearing
a hillbilly guy from Arkansas. I didn't want to do that; I didn't
want to loose my roots. Because I grew up listening to WLAC [a famous
r&b station] and Sam and Dave and Otis and all of those people.
So even when I do country I still keep a little bit of soul in there.
I did not want to lose that heritage, because look at all the music
I would miss: I couldn't play Ray Charles or Fats Domino or Otis,
and hey, I don't want to miss that music.''
Downing thinks that his r&b material may turn a few country
listeners off, but, if so, they need to broaden their view of the
music. "A lot of people don't realize that country is everything.
I mean, when you hear George Jones and them people you don't get
just strictly twang. Man, they do some soulful singing. So I said,
'I'm doing my kind of country. I don't want to sound like anybody
else. I want to sound unique and different.' And it's turned out
real good that way.''
Today, Downing tours the country fair circuit throughout the South
and Midwest, and goes to Europe a half-dozen times a year. He has
been off the charts for quite a while, but continues to write country
songs, and the Warner Brothers set has brought some queries from
Nashville. Meanwhile, he is cutting a new album and carrying European
CDs of his older hits to sell to the hardcore fans.
He would like to get another hit, but realizes the present climate
is less than ideal. The barriers Pride broke down are up again in
force, and country is whiter than ever. "It just amazes me,''
Downing says. "And it's the industry that's doing it, it's
not the people. I went down to Warner Brothers when they had a coming
out party for this 'From Where I Stand,' and they had two or three
black groups and a couple of black country singers on there and
they were fabulous. One of them got signed to Arista, and now I
heard that they dropped them even before they released the record.
It seems like they don't want to take a chance on ruffling the waters.
But it's the industry, not the people, 'cause everywhere I go I'm
playing for country fans and I get standing ovations.''
Downing adds that, in the current market, being black is only part
of the problem. "These days, they're going to that young thing
-- if you're over 24, get back. It used to be 'If you're black,
get back,' but now it's if you're over 24. George Jones and Waylon
Jennings and all of these people that make good country music can't
be heard anymore, and I think that's wrong.''
Nonetheless, Downing seems anything but discouraged. As he finishes
the interview, he starts putting on tapes of new songs, including
a novelty number in the current, rock-tinged country style about
catching a catfish who sings like Elvis. After the Johnny D's gig,
he's off to Europe on a tour with Brenda Lee, and he's looking for
a label for his new album. "I think there is a market for my
music out there,'' he says brightly. "I really believe that,
and I'm not gonna let them get me down. I'm gonna keep trying and
keep kicking until the good lord puts me in the grave -- and even
then I might come back and start kicking some more.''
to the Archive Contents page
By Elijah Wald
On the telephone, Doc Watson sounds just about the same he does
on record or on stage. His voice is plain and unassuming. He answers
questions politely but laconically, without any frills or digressions.
Watson is something of an anomaly: On the one hand, he is a traditional,
unvarnished folk singer and guitarist from rural Appalachia. On
the other, he learned most of his repertoire from records and is
a musical innovator whose work forever changed his instrument. Having
got his professional start playing electric guitar in a rockabilly
band, he has gone on to be among the most resolutely old-fashioned
performers to come out of the 1960s urban folk boom.
"I never forsake the roots,'' he says, speaking from his North
Carolina, home. "I grew up with that here in the mountains.
I'm a country boy, a hillbilly if ever there was one. So I always
go back and get some of that, and the audiences demand that, in
a way. They want to hear the same mixture that I've always done.''
Nonetheless, Watson has over the years shown surprising range.
He has recorded blues, bluegrass and contemporary folk albums. His
next-to-last disc was a rockabilly excursion that had him singing
1950s hits and trading licks with Duane Eddy. His latest, "Doc
& Dawg'' (Acoustic Disc), a duet set with David Grisman, has
him attacking numbers like "Summertime'' and "Sweet Georgia
Brown'' along with old fiddle tunes, ballads, and sentimental numbers.
Recently, Watson has been playing a bit more jazz and rock ("Let's
call it rockabilly; I never did do any hard rock,'' he corrects),
and he clearly enjoys the change. The jazz tunes, in particular,
give him a chance to stretch out on guitar, and his playing can
be startling to those who only know his fiddle-tune adaptations.
"Well, it's country-style jazz,'' he says, a bit self-deprecatingly.
"It's not with all the accidentals and all that stuff. And
I can't imagine ever going fully in that direction. I love the traditional
music enough to stick by it. I've been asked, 'How do you classify
your music?' Well, I classify it as 'traditional plus,' and that's
about what it comes to.''
That description would cover what he was doing even at his most
pure and old-fashioned. Watson's first recordings, while exclusively
of old-time songs, created a revolution in guitar playing. Before
him, bluegrass guitarists were strictly rhythm players. When he
picked "Black Mountain Rag'' on his first album, the role of
the instrument was transformed.
Not that Watson will take all the credit. "Somebody else was
getting a handle on that at the time I started learning fiddle tunes
on the guitar,'' he says firmly. "Hank Garland, who later became
a jazz guitar player, in the beginning he played a bunch of fine
music with Red Foley, and there was also Grady Martin who was a
great lead guitar player, and they didn't hear Doc Watson in the
beginning. They were doing their own thing.
"Myself, I just decided because I never could seem to master
the fiddle that I wanted to play some fiddle tunes on the guitar.
I started doing that in the '50s on the electric guitar for people
to square dance to when we didn't have a fiddle. And then when I
got caught up in the folk revival in the early '60s, I decided to
do some of those things on the stage as part of my program.''
Despite his influence on later Nashville players, and his status
as a country icon, Watson says that he was never approached by the
c&w mainstream. "I never got any offers from Nashville.
Until the folk revival came along there was no place for a handicapped
person on the stage. You had to do a flashy show, and I'm afraid
I wasn't part of that scene. Then, with the folk revival, all at
once the thing changed. There was a place for people who played
music for entertainment and not flash for show.''
Looking back, Watson is just as happy that Nashville never called.
"Stardom never interested me. To me, that's not part of the
game. I feel like I developed whatever talent the good Lord gave
me when I come here for a reason, and my reason was to entertain
people and give people some pleasure and to earn a living -- and
earning a living was just about on the same line as enjoying it
and playing for people's enjoyment. To me that's what it was about,
and I never had any delusions of grandeur: "Hey, look who I
am," and all the foolishness. To me that's not necessary. I'm
afraid that I'm one of these fellows that don't want to get on the
Despite such protestations, by now Watson is accorded a respect
in the country field that is matched by very few other performers,
though he is typically modest in his assessment of it: "You
know, the reputation, if you do a thing well, it happens. It's not
something that you do on purpose. If you really enjoy entertaining
people and enjoy what you do, that will just happen.''
These days, Watson plays only about 25 concerts a year, but he
says that at 74 his enjoyment of performing is undiminished. "I
hate the road, I never have enjoyed it. I like to be at home. But
you never get tired of entertaining folks. It's always interesting,
and somehow they pull about the best you have out of you. If I said
I was tired of a good audience, that'd be a barefaced lie.''
What: Doc Watson
Where: Somerville Theatre
When: Sunday, 2 p.m.
Tickets: $20 and $25 Phone: 617/ 876-4275
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By Elijah Wald
"Youre calling from Boston? Yo, is it cold there? You
got a sweater?"
Buddy Miles is safe and warm in Fort Worth, but swears he is looking
forward to coming north. A Boston resident for a while in the 1960s,
Miles has nothing but fond memories. "Boston was a groovy city
in them days," he says, before reeling off the names of local
clubs where he used to play.
At that time, Miles was among the top drummers in rock. Michael
Bloomfield picked him out of Wilson Picketts band to play
and sing in his super group, the Electric Flag. From there, Miles
led the Buddy Miles Express, anchored Jimi Hendrixs Band of
Gypsies, made a popular duet album with Carlos Santana, and, in
an odd detour, went on to become the lead voice of the California
There were also hassles, though, including some prison time, and,
while he never stopped playing, Miles disappeared from mainstream
view. "There was a lot of drama and a lot of pros and cons
in my life," he says. "And, you know, out of place, out
of space, out of touch, out of mind. I feel bad that I haven't been
able to give more, but when you're on a rebellion you can definitely
go on the dark side sometimes, rather than the force being with
Now, Miles says, the force is back. He is enthusiastic about his
career, and the words come tumbling out of him in a cascade that
mixes street slang, song lyrics, and polysyllabic words, often of
his own construction. He is a showy talker, but when it comes to
music he is dead serious, as he proved last month when he astonished
roots music fans by showing up at Johnny Ds with retro honky-tonker
Junior Brown. Sitting behind a single snare drum, he just sat back
and kept the country beat, making the band swing without ever taking
a solo or displaying any star pyrotechnics.
"I've always looked at myself as -- if you looked at pro ball
-- an interior man," Miles says. "I'm like part of the
team, and that's what's important. And I love that responsibility
that a drummer ascertains."
Saturday night at Johnny Ds, he will be back leading his
own band, playing guitar and singing as well as holding down the
drum chair. Nonetheless, Miles remains a drummer first and foremost.
As the interview progresses, he talks about people he has worked
with, from the Ink Spots to B.B., Freddie, and Albert King, to John
McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, and Clapton. Until prompted, he barely mentions
his career as a bandleader, or the days when his "Them Changes"
was becoming something of a soul-rock classic.
"That's not what's really important to me," he says.
"Because hit records are like Bic pens: they only last so long.
It's nice to be successful, as far as values go and money and fame
and fortune, that's fantastic, but it only makes a difference if
you can genre longevity and get something out of it."
At 51, Miles can trace a career leading back to the Midwest and
his debut as a pre-teen drummer with his fathers bebop combo.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, he was raised in a house full of music.
His mother listened to r&b, and his father played the hard-driving
Kansas City jazz styles of the Count Basie Band and Charlie Parker.
"Im very familiar with all that, because its in
my blood," Miles says, pausing to scat-sing a snatch of Thelonious
Monk. "Every weekend, my dad and a couple of other guys, they'd
come to my house and theyd jam. They used to put their sunglasses
on, because they'd be full of that wine spo-de-o-dee, you know what
I mean? So, I got an in-depth, close-up look at what a musician
goes through, and I said, I want that.
"When I was about nine, we were living in Sioux Falls, South
Dakota, and they had a jam session at my house, and I sat behind
these drums and just started picking up. My dad couldn't believe
his eyes. I just sat back and played me some basic swing with them
and it blew him away, and ever since that I was in hog heaven. When
I went to school, man, couldnt nobody say nothing to me, because
I knew I was a bona fide funketeer and jazzette."
Miles left South Dakota with the Ink Spots, and went on to play
with the Dick Clark Revue before joining Pickett in 1965. Bloomfield
came along two years later, and the rest is history. For Miles,
though, the greatest thrill was always sitting down behind his drums,
and he says that it is his commitment to that basic craft that has
assured his continued employability.
"What makes a great a drummer?" he asks, echoing a question.
"It's very, very simple. Being able to keep time and keep it
perceptic. Absolutely. In other words, simplicity is the key.
"See, now, today there's a lot of cosmotometry and procurement
in pop music, all the styles and fusion and all the different styles
of playing music. But as far as I'm concerned, you have to give
yourself a breathing chance, and first off you have to understand
pocket [where the beat is] and understand your basic format. You
see, drumming is a responsibility, because you're selling the band.
You have the most important position in the band. Because I don't
give a damn what type of music you play, it is all about basic foundation."
Now, Miles wants to get back on the road and show the young folks
how it is done. "I've got a lot of time invested in myself,
and I'm playing to a whole new generation of rockers and R&Bers
and funketeers," he says. "I've been one of the forefathers
of a lot of those genres, and I'm very proud of that. But, to me,
the main body of success is being alive and having that everyday
fulfillment, and giving joy and spreading something out of it. I
don't have time to dwell on what was. I think it's a lot safer to
keep on pushing straight ahead, as Mr. Hendrix has told
us with so many other beautiful things."
What: Buddy Miles
Where: Johnny Ds, Davis Square, Somerville
When: Saturday, ? p.m.
Tickets: $? Phone: 617-776-2004
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By Elijah Wald
Wilson Pickett is back. Not back in Boston, at least not yet. But
the wildest, hardest soul shouter of them all has a new album, his
first in 12 years, an appearance on David Letterman next Tuesday
(oct 12), a New York date the following night, and hopes to do a
lot more U.S. touring in the near future. And that is reason enough
to get excited, because, 38 years after he came screaming onto the
national scene and racked up a string of hits including "In
the Midnight Hour," "Mustang Sally," and "Funky
Broadway," the Wicked One is still among the greatest soul
Pickett is really old school: He came up as a teenaged singer in
the 1950s gospel world. Asked how, at 58, he can still scream with
a power that would tear most voices to rags in a minute, he lays
it all to that upbringing: "We developed those kind of lungs
and vocal cords in the church," he says, his voice gravelly
on the phone from his Virginia home. "We sang hard in the church
-- and that was every week, so you develop that.
"And also I guess youre born with that kind of gift,
like from God. I seen the time, the more I sing the better my voice
got. It would never run out or get hoarse or anything like that.
So yeah, I'm glad I'm blessed. Especially now, after being off that
long, to have something when I came back. Cause really, I
didn't know how I was gonna sound. I was scared as hell."
On the new album, "Its Harder Now" (Bullseye),
Pickett belies the title, sounding as powerful as ever. The band,
while perfectly competent, is a revivalist group that neither brings
anything new nor matches Picketts 1960s studio outfits, and
the material, despite contributions from Dan Penn and Don Covay,
is often uninspired or tritely raunchy. The man himself , though,
is untouched by time singing with the same searing power that made
him soul man number one through. So, one wonders, why has he been
away so long?
"I got very depressed with the business," Pickett says.
"It began changing, and record companies began to shuck and
jive around, and it was too much for me. They handcuffed the radio
announcers with the programming [replacing DJ choice with required
playlists] and you had all this different kind of music running
around all over the place -- which I don't mind, far as I'm concerned
there is room in the business for all the music -- But any time
you can try and kill a music like R&B you gotta be out of your
"You could not hear any R&B on the radio for years. There
was disco and all that stuff, and it was either you do disco or
youre out of the race. So that made me feel like Hell,
I wasted a goddamn career here, you know what I mean? Cause
you can't hop from one music to another like that."
The disco boom of the 1970s spelt the end of the soul era, and
Pickett found himself in limbo. He had a variety of record deals,
but they were never satisfying either artistically or financially.
By the 1980s, he had all but disappeared, at least as far as his
American fans were concerned. He explains that he spent the missing
years working where people still supported his classic sound, in
"Europe, Australia, Japan, Brazil, places like that."
His career got a boost from "The Commitments," the film
about an Irish soul band in which he did not appear, but loomed
as a mythic presence offscreen. And finally Rounder, the Cambridge
roots label of which Bullseye is a subsidiary, came through with
an offer that interested him. He teamed up with the guitar and bass
duo of John and Sally Tiven, wrote a bunch of new songs, and cut
most of the album live in the studio, the old-fashioned way.
The process took over a year, which Pickett found a bit disconcerting.
"Before, it was just, you cut a record, you mix it and master
it, and its out inside of three months," he says, recalling
the pressure cooker days when a song like "Midnight Hour"
would be written the night before a session, cut in an afternoon,
and shipped right to the pressing plant. "So what it is now
is backward, and Im still trying to understand that. But if
it throws a few more dollars in my pocket, I dont care which
way it goes."
That might sound cavalier, but Pickett has learned the hard way
that great records do not always make for rich artists. As detailed
in Peter Guralnicks "Sweet Soul Music," he was one
of many pioneering R&B stars to find that, once their biggest
hits were behind them, their record companies gave them not a huge
check, but instead a bill for old recording expenses. Pickett says
that he still loves the music as much as ever, but this time around
he is watching his back.
Indeed, he comes out of a diatribe against modern recording methods,
with their computer samples, programming, and electronic modifications,
on a studiedly mercenary note: "I'm not saying that I would
never do something like that, because if enough money is in something
I'll do it," he says, without a trace of apology. "If
Rounder said, Pickett we want you to do this this way, and
we gonna up your contract another half a million dollars,
you got yourself a boy.
"That's what were in the business for, you know. We
need money. Back in the time, record companies used to love for
us to say, I love it. I love music.' And in the meanwhile
you had the white rock bands and the white managers putting millions
of dollars in their pocket, you know? They loved music, too. But
they loved money. Well, I love money, too!"
Whether the new album is going to put enough in Picketts
pocket to get him out on the road in the U.S. remains an open question.
"There's money in this country," he says. "More money
than you ever seen in your life or known about in your lifetime."
And yet, he is the first to add that very little of it is being
spent on soul legends. So, for now, he is taking the few high-profile
gigs that come his way, tearing the songs to bits with that astonishing
voice, and waiting to see what the contemporary scene will make
of his return.
"Im not complaining," he says. "I didnt
do anything to my singing, and people still love me, and Im
proud to have, I guess, one of my records in about every home in
America or all over the world. Im happy with that. So now
my plan is just to get behind this particular CD and try to do some
work with it."
to the Archive Contents page
By Elijah Wald
Anyone who has been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras or Jazzfest,
or who has seen pictures or film of either, knows the Mardi Gras
Indians, the black men dressed in spectacular, feathered costumes
who parade through the streets. Anyone who has heard Dr. John, the
Meters, or the Neville Brothers sing "Iko Iko," "Brother
John," or "Meet the Boys on the Battlefront," knows
their rocking, call-and-response chants. Of all the Indian gangs,
the most popular on record and on the touring scene has long been
the Wild Magnolias, led by its gruff-voiced "Big Chief,"
Mardi Gras is less than a month away, so Dollis is a busy man.
"Youll have no trouble reaching him," says the Magnolias
agent. "Hes home right now, sewing."
Seeing the big, strong men who lead the Indian gangs, it is a bit
hard to imagine them sitting for hours on end, month after month,
wielding a needle and thread, but that is the key to prominence
as an Indian. "Thats a real big part of it," Dollis
says, speaking of his election as Big Chief back in 1964 at the
age of 20. "During that time I was the youngest chief they
had in the city, but a lot of older guys respected me and they loved
the way I made my costume. Its mostly about the costume, and
then once they elect you you own that [title] as long as you keep
masking [appearing as an Indian]."
The Indian tradition reaches back at least into the 19th century.
Its origins are unclear, but it is often said that it arose
as a sign of respect in New Orleanss black community for the
Native Americans who had sheltered runaway slaves. Be that as it
may, the vocal style and rhythms of the Indian chants are among
the most purely African sounds in modern America.
When Dollis started masking, the Indians were still a local folk
tradition within the black community, but he brought them to a wider
audience when he went into a studio in 1972 and recorded "Handa
Wanda," the first single by a genuine Indian band ("Iko
Iko" had been a hit in the 1960s, but the performers were not
Indians). With the success of that record, the Indian style began
"We mostly sing the same songs that we sang back in the 50s,
the songs that was handed down from generation to generation"
Dollis says. "Only thing we did was put a little more electronics.
You know, during that time most all they had was tambourine,
but now we do it more commercial. The music changed from just tambourine
to a bass drum, cow bells, conga drums, guitars, it changed a whole
The Magnolias new album, "Life Is a Carnival" (Metro
Blue) blends traditional chants with more recent Indian-style songs.
Guest stars include Dr. John, the Band (a rare reunion of Robbie
Robertson and his old partners), Allen Toussaint, Marva Wright,
and the Black Bottom Brass Band of Osaka, Japan, along with the
regular backing group that comes to Somerville tonight. The key
figures, as always, are Dollis and his partner Big Chief Monk Boudreaux
of the Golden Eagles, and bass drummer Norwood "Geechie"
Considering that Indian bands have traditionally been fierce competitors,
and death sometimes resulted when members of one band set foot on
anothers turf, it is a bit surprising to find a Magnolia and
an Eagle teamed in one group, but Dollis says that he and Boudreaux
grew up in the same neighborhood and never thought twice about singing
"Theres no rivalry, just we try to out-sew each other
around carnival," he says. "We still keep our costume
a secret before the Mardi Gras Day and we still try to outdo each
other, try to be more elaborate than the other guy."
While Dollis promises that some of his group will be in costume,
he says that he does not wear one onstage. "The costume is
too heavy for me to do the show the way I want to do it," he
says. "A costume weigh all the way up from 150 to 200 pounds.
When I first started masking we used to wear sequins and all kind
of costume jewelry to decorate the aprons, but now everything is
rhinestones, beadwork and its heavy, heavy, heavy. Everybody
wants to be the prettiest Indian, you know, so you gotta keep up
with the times. At one time it may have cost you like about 500
dollars to make a costume, and now its up in the thousands."
Still, even after four decades masking, and heavy as the costume
may be, Dollis has no intentions of retiring his headdress. So far,
he has never missed a Mardi Gras, and he says that one of his Second
Chiefs got so tired of waiting to substitute for him that the poor
guy left and formed a new tribe, the Geronimo Hunters.
What is more, over the last two decades he has carried the music
of the Mardi Gras Indians all over the United States and on around
the world. "I thought New Orleans would be the only place that
cared about this music," he says. "But music what sound
good to your ear, it can catch on, because its so joyful and
you can really just let yourself go when you hear it. One newspaper
report about us say, One of New Orleans best kept secrets.
But now its not a best kept secret no more."
What: The Wild Magnolias
Where: Johnny Ds, Davis Sq., Somerville
When: Tonight (Fri), 9 p.m.
Tickets: $?? Phone: 617-776-2004
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By Elijah Wald
It has been quite a year for Odetta. In September, she recieved
the National Medal of Arts. Her new album, "Blues Everywhere
I Go" (MC Records), was nominated for a Grammy and two W.C.
Handy Awards. And she is touring more than she has in years.
So what does she think about all of this? First off, she says on
the phone from a tour stop, she is greatly relieved that she did
not win the Grammy. Why? "Everybody else in that traditional
blues category has been doing blues since before God made dirt,"
she laughs. "So for this young wippersnapper to come up and
make a blues record and win would not be kosher."
The aforementioned wippersnapper will turn 70 this December and
has been a professional musician for roughly 50 years. Though better
known as a folksinger, she recorded a fine blues album in 1962 backed
by first-rate jazz players. Still, the new disc is indeed something
new for her. It has Jimmy Vivino on electric guitar and Dr. John
guesting on piano and singing a duet of "Please Send Me Someone
to Love," and the arrangements are an adept blend of old and
new. As for her vocals, they sound less influenced by the classic
blues queens of the 1920s, and more like Odetta just kicking back
and being herself.
Odetta says that much of her understanding of how to sing blues
came from watching the legendary Alberta Hunters comeback
in the 1970s: "The younger [singers], when we heard the blues
records we heard energy, and I thought the way you got the energy
was to yell, holler and scream. And as I watched that little lady
she didnt yell, holler or scream one time. She just focused
on the story she was telling. Im continuing to learn from
her, it is the greatest classroom Ive ever been in."
On the new album, Odetta has carefully selected songs with messages,
many of them obscure numbers found for her by Bessie Smiths
biographer, Chris Albertson. She sings Smiths "Rich Man
Blues" and "Homeless Blues," Victoria Spiveys
"T.B. Blues," and the "Unemployment Blues."
In her interpretation, these pieces sound neither old nor new, but
ageless, and they are quite unlike the stomping, raucous material
that fills so many contemporary blues sets.
"So much of the blues that you hear carry out the stereotypes,
in as far as we as blacks in this country are concerned," Odetta
says seriously. "When the young [white] guys were going around
collecting blues, they were interested in the double entendre and
the purient, the blues that helped support what white people thought
about black people -- and that was Im gonna cut you,
Im gonna shoot you, and you did me wrong.
"Im not saying that those things were not within the
blues area, because they could not have collected them if they werent
there. But I would like to know what other songs they left out of
their collections, like the blues that were talking about the hardness
of life, the hard times that people had to go through, and other
parts of our lives outside of the sex and the killing and maiming."
When she talks about these issues, Odetta sounds like the figure
long known to folk fans, who uses traditional music to get to the
heart of contemporary concerns. The new album, though, displays
another Odetta as well. For the first time in her life, she sounds
cheerfully, exuberantly sexy, audibly licking her lips over the
lyric of Sippie Wallaces bawdy "You Gotta Know How,"
which closes the album.
"Isnt that a devilish song?" she asks happily.
"I just love to do that. People just giggle. And I think for
a lot of people who know of what my work is so far, thats
just the other pole of whatever it is that they have witnessed from
This other side will be on display at Passim, where she will do
half the show singing folksongs to her own guitar, but the other
half accompanied by pianist Seth Farber and singing blues. "With
the guitar, the folk music, maybe because of how I was when I first
started in folk music, Im so deadly serious," she says.
"Sometimes I disgust myself with the seriousness, there are
times I say, Detta, come on, please.
"I guess its because when I came into folk music I was
a scared kid, and I was also working off a lot of hate and anger.
Well, the music has healed an awful lot of that, so that when it
comes to today Im a whole other person. So you bring to what
you do, what you are. Your approach to it changes, and it is possible
for me to have fun with the music now. It is even possible for me
to laugh. Within the blues, I can play."
Where: Club Passim, 47 Palmer St. in Harvard Square
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $22.50 Phone: 617-492-7679
to the Archive Contents page
Sam Phillips/Peter Guralnick
By Elijah Wald
It is an inspired teaming: Peter Guralnick, the finest writer on
American roots music, has written and co-produced a documentary
program on Sam Phillips. A lot of people may be unfamiliar with
that name, but the piece, which shows next Sunday at 8 p.m. on A&E,
is called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock n
That is quite a claim, but look at a few of the artists who made
their recording debuts in Phillipss tiny Memphis studio: First
came the black performers: B.B. King, Howlin Wolf, Little
Milton, Rufus Thomas, Roscoe Gordon, and Ike Turner, whose Phillips-produced
"Rocket 88" (with Jackie Brenston) is often cited as the
first rock n roll record. Then came the white singers:
Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison,
and Charlie Rich.
What does Phillips himself think of the title? "I believe
that Peter suggested that," he says, speaking by phone from
his Memphis home. "I had not thought of it that way, and when
I first looked at it I thought, Well now, I dont know
about this. But when I thought about the ingredients and the
personality, the understanding, the lifetime up to that time when
I started in dealing with what it took to do what we ultimately
did, I thought, Well, you know, I dont care whether
its Sam Phillips, but, when you think about it, "invented"
is probably the best term that can be used. Because were
talking about something that you had to take the parts of this,
the parts of that, the ingredients, and the kneading like you would
a bread or something to put it all together, and we came up with
-- we invented, in my opinion -- something that was
really entirely different."
Phillips talks slowly and clearly, but his phrases can loop elliptically
around his subject until the listener loses track of the sense and
just listens to the music. He always comes back to the point, but
it can be a strange and interesting journey getting there. In a
way, that is the way he worked as a producer as well. From the first
days, cutting records to be released by other companies, then forming
his own Sun label, Phillips was not the kind of person who goes
into the studio with a finished product in mind. He believed in
serendipity, in playing around, experimenting, waiting for the right
moment, then capturing that moment on tape.
"Ive made probably more mistakes than I have things
that have come out on the right side," he says. "But at
the same time there is a certain dimension that you get from your
mistakes that I think has made me whatever it is that I am. Thats
the point that I really like to emphasize, is that you dont
have to be perfect to be awfully interesting and awfully convincing
and awfully effective."
It was more than just music; Guralnick wrote a piece on Phillips
in his first book, 1971s "Feel Like Going Home,"
and another in 1979s "Lost Highway," which he co-dedicated
to Phillips and Chester Burnett (Howlin Wolf). That was because
what he heard in Phillipss work was the expression of an ideal.
"I see it as a dedication to the freedom of the individual,"
Guralnick says, seated in his home in West Newbury. "A dedication
to bringing out the best in the individual and to respecting, or
almost honoring, the difference. You see the person being encouraged
to find something in himself that he may not know is even there.
With someone like Elvis, you see someone who at the age of 19 could
have gone in any number of different directions, and Sam had the
patience and foresight to wait for the right moment to come, and
when that moment happened to seize on it, to encourage it, to bring
out everything there was to bring out in it."
Watching the documentary, Phillipss own individuality is
what stands out. He is a tall man with the beard, hair and fanatical
gaze of an Old Testament prophet, and everyone he has worked with
speaks of him with a cerain awe -- sometimes wry, sometimes even
angry, but never as if Phillips was just another record man. Some
criticize him, but none would suggest that anyone else could have
done what he did.
But what was it? Phillips agrees with Guralnicks summation,
and goes on to put it in the context of its place and time. Born
in 1923 on a farm near Florence, Alabama, he always felt that he
had an unusual understanding of the world around him, of the poor
sharecroppers, black and white, who had grown up through the Depression.
He never accepted the Southern racial division, but it was more
than that: "I think that some of us come into this world with
certain talents that keep you close to what nature should be. And
the idea of people that are on this earth that are so gifted in
so many ways, that because of a societal breakdown over the years,
that is overlooked. Never exposed. Its never put out where
people can make a choice.
"Now, Im not a revolutionist or anything like that.
There are certain normal processes that have to take place in life,
and if they didnt I guess life might not be as important to
us as it is. But I knew that there was something there that really
had to be tried on my part, in order for me to satisfy a certain
longing. [At first,] I wanted to become a criminal defense lawyer,
to defend people that had no means to defend themselves, but when
I couldnt do that because of a lack of funds, I found it in
Some people might not see the connection between becoming a defense
lawyer and molding a young Elvis Presley, but to Phillips and Guralnick,
that was the vision of rock n roll. Guralnick has written
a definitive, two-volume biography of Presley, and it is not simply
because he loved the music. To him, growing up in the 1950s, Presley
promised a breaking down of barriers, and acted as a sort of clarion
call to all that followed: the Civil Rights movement, the 1960s
counterculture, and a recognition that vernacular music and art
could stand alongside the classics. He likens the Sun labels
breakthrough to the change that came when Dante chose to write in
Italian rather than Latin.
When he became a writer, he saw himself continuing the same mission
that Phillips had begun. He put blues, rock, country, and soul music
side by side, declaring that what was great about Waylon Jennings
was the same thing that was great about Robert Johnson or Sam Cooke
or Hank Williams. Of course, a big part of this was simply his zeal
to introduce people to the music he loved, but there was more to
it. He was trying "to communicate a broad vision of a democratic
society, both musically and at least by inference politically.
"I never thought of myself as a proselytizer, Ive never
wanted to get up on a soap box and declare my affiliations, but
this was a deep-seated belief that grew in me, that was inspired
by the music that Sam Phillips made -- or at least my perception
of what Sam Phillipss music was."
Some critics have accused Phillips and his proteges of simply ripping
off black music, but that is both oversimplified and innaccurate.
The roots of rock n roll are in blues, and Elvis had
a freedom and passion about him that was new for a white performer,
but there was as much hillbilly in him as there was bluesman. It
was a new fusion, a new sound, and, though Phillips never played
a note, Guralnick is not wrong when he calls it Sam Phillipss
music. Faced with those shy, rather confused country boys, Phillips
imagined the future of the worlds popular music; where other
people heard mistakes or incompetence, he heard promise. "My
venture was hoeing new ground," he says. "I had a lot
of stumps and roots and all of that crap, but thats what made
it interesting to me."
One of the best things about the documentary is that it does not
focus too much on that moment when Phillips and Presley broke through
to the world. Phillips insists that the two "most unique"
artists he worked with were Wolf and Rich, and the filmmakers give
them equal space alongside the bigger stars. It also shows Johnny
Bragg visiting the prison cell where he wrote "Walking in the
Rain," recorded by his group, the Prisonaires, under armed
guard during a specially arranged trip to Sun. There are sections
on the crazed Memphis d.j. Dewey Phillips, and the wrestler Sputnik
Monroe, and discussion of the odd guitar style of Johnny Cashs
lead man, Luther Perkins.
All of this went into the wide end of the funnel, and somehow Phillips
channelled, guided, and coaxed it through and captured it on some
of the most important records of the century. Presley was only one
of many artists who never again equaled the energy and excitement
of his work on Sun. Exactly how it all came together is never quite
explained, nor could it be, though both Guralnick and Phillips regret
that more time was not available to try. As Sam says, "We couldnt
really even touch on the real interesting basics of what took place
and had to take place before we could have been standing on that
right corner on that right day and the wind blowing in that right
Still, he is very, very happy with the final result. He is careful
to give credit to the artists for what he captured on Sun, and to
director Morgan Neville for the documentary, but in the end, this
is a portrait created out of two people who found a special kinship
"Im an individualist, and its very difficult for
me to turn myself over to anybody," Phillips says. "But
I think that Peter really probably understands me, for better or
worse, as much as anybody. With his mind, and having been exposed
to me the way he has, without underarm deodorant, he probably does
feel somewhat a little twitch of my soul, and I wouldnt want
it to be in better hands."
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By Elijah Wald
SAUGUS -- "Rt. 1: Main Street of the Blues." "The
North Shore: Home of Rockabilly." If those are not the tried-and-true
cliches of American music, it is not Al Cocorochios fault.
"The Sam Phillips of the North Shore," as some have called
him, has done as much as anyone in New England to keep the classic
roots roadhouse sound alive with his Black Rose label, which celebrates
its 20th anniversary with a multi-group show this Wednesday at Johnny
Cocorochio is a compact package of Italian-American energy, and
his eyes sparkle with enthusiasm when he talks about music. The
workroom in his Saugus home is lined with records and recording
equipment, and on the wall is a framed display of original Sun Records
78s, autographed by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.
They are trophies of a passion that began in 1956, when Al was 14
and saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show.
"I said, Boy, this guys great! I love this stuff!"
Cocorochio says, almost shouting. "And the first record I bought
was an Elvis Presley EP, which I still have. Before that, I had
more or less listened to a lot of Italian music, because my mother
and father both came from Italy. I wasnt used to listening
to rock n roll -- my mother and father said Thats
garbage! and used to turn it off on me. Then, when I started
wearing sideburns and having a little Bill Haley curl coming down
the front and a d.a. in the back, they thought I was a juvenile
delinquent and they were gonna have me thrown out of the house."
By then, Cocorochio was going around to record hops, dancing and
getting to know a few musicians. The first was a wild piano player
named John Lincoln Coughlin, who would later record several albums
as Preacher Jack. "I was a junior in high school, and Bobbi
Barrett was a senior. Her brother Eddie Barrett was playing drums
at that time -- now hes an editor at the Boston Herald --
and she knew I liked Jerry Lee Lewis, and she said, You gotta
come to my house and see this guy that thinks hes Jerry Lee
Lewis, And thats how I met Jack."
Soon Cocorochio was going around to Jacks shows, helping
to carry equipment and lining up a few gigs for the band. He took
off four years to go into the Marine Corps, then got right back
in the musical world, only quitting when he got married in 1968.
He got divorced a few years later, and by 1979 he was ready to get
into the music business more seriously.
"I had my house in Malden, and most of the people that lived
there were musicians. [Chicago bluesman] J.B. Hutto lived in my
house, and thats how I met the New Hawks. And Preacher Jack
used to crash on my living room floor. I decided, Im
gonna get more involved in this. I cant do it full-time because
theres no money in it, but Im gonna start doing some
booking and stuff, and then I started my label in 1980."
The Black Rose roster is made up of the kind of hard-working bands
that show up on Rt. 1 or in the suburban blues bars: Aside from
Preacher Jack, it includes B.R.M.C. (Boston Rockabilly Music Conspiracy),
The New Hawks (in various incarnations), T.H. and the Wreckage,
Bobby Fosmire, Maynard Silva, Big Bills Band, Alabama Frank,
Brewer Phillips, and the Liz Lannon Band. They play blues and old
time rock n roll, usually on weekends after they finish
their day jobs.
"No one is getting rich doing this," Cocorochio says.
"But we have fun doing it. For the musicians, I think its
the excitement, the enjoyment of playing out. Its not like
just sitting behind a desk or being a mechanic. Its like when
I work as a disc jockey; I enjoy seeing people happy, seeing them
having a good time out there."
Cocorochio certainly has not gotten rich off Black Rose. "I
made money on some of the groups, but in the long run Ive
lost a lot of money. When I first started out in the music business
I only had $9,000 to play with, and it all went fast. And then I
just more or less borrowed, did this, did that. The bands also helped
me, they put money into it themselves, and we just kept putting
"I mean, Id like to make some money, wed all like
to have a million-seller -- Id also like to be nominated for
a Grammy someday, or for a Handy Award. I would love something like
that, but I made a lot of friends, and that means more to me than
the money. The musicians and I, we all do things on a handshake,
were honest with each other. Theres no contracts, so
if they can get a better deal, theres nothing holding them
back. And we all get along great."
A lot of record company owners might talk like that, but Cocorochios
remarks are echoed by his artists. Vic Layne, of B.R.M.C., describes
him first off as "a gentleman. Hes a low-keyed, local
guy, and very sincere about the music. He did this because he loved
to get guys that were interested in doing the kind of music that
he liked and record with them. And well hang with him as long
as hes willing and able to go along with it. Because its
like a family-type thing."
Wednesdays show should be the ultimate Cocorochio evening.
He has a 20th Anniversary CD prepared for release at the show, and
expects a mix of musicians from throughout the Black Rose catalogue
to show up, do their acts, or just jam together. When things get
jumping, he may even get up and sing a couple of songs himself.
"I know I cant sing, I dont get up there and say,
Boy, I have a great voice and I want to become a superstar.
But I like to get up onstage and shake and have fun. Ill do
Whole Lot of Shakin or Tear It Up,
stuff like that. I dont know all the words, but I improvise
sometimes and we all have fun. Thats the name of the game.
I just do it to make people laugh and have a good time."
What: Black Rose 20th Anniversary
Where: Somerville Theatre, Davis Square
When: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $7 Phone: 617-776-2004
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By Elijah Wald
The Klezmatics, who come to Somerville Theatre this Sunday, are
probably the leading band in the revival of klezmer music, the Eastern
European/Jewish/Pop/Jazz fusion music that was relegated to weddings
and bar mitzvahs until staging a surprising comeback in the
1980s. And revival is the right word, because the Klezmatics are
trying to make the music live again, not just to exhibit its vanished
"I was not around [in the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s],
and its hard to be nostalgic about things I never experienced,"
says Lorin Sklamberg, the bands piano and accordion player
and lead vocalist. "In the very beginning our thing was to
try and learn the music, and the models were old recordings that
reflect a certain place and time. But once we got the language and
became facile at the inflections and the ornamentation, then you
can go off on your own. And, for me, the music thats the most
authentic is music that reflects the personality of the performer.
So, in that sense I think of our band as being very authentic."
For one thing, that means that the Klezmaticss lyrics cover
subjects that are by no means typical for the genre. Sklamberg is
gay, and addresses all romantic songs to a male love interest, as
well as tossing a line into one song saying "Were all
gay, like Jonathan and King David." Then, the bands 1996
"Possessed" album (Xenophile) has a cleverly written ode
to the pleasures of marijuana, though non-Yiddish speakers would
not know unless they read the liner notes.
Of course, non-Yiddish speakers represent the majority of the bands
audience. While most of the flood of Eastern European immigrants
to the U.S. spoke the language, it fell out of favor after World
War II, and even Sklamberg himself only learned to speak it after
he began working as a klezmer singer: "I grew up in a suburban
Los Angeles conservative Jewish community, learning Hebrew like
everyone else" he says. "Because of the Holocaust, speaking
Yiddish was not looked upon as the healthy thing to do. Basically
it was like a gung-ho, rah-rah Israeli culture thing, and I kind
of feel like I was deprived of my heritage. Of course, now I have
gotten it back with a vengeance, but I had to move to New York to
As in the songs, Sklamberg does not mince words in interviews,
and one might expect that the older, more conservative Jewish audience
would have a problem with that. According to Sklamberg, however,
the band has received few negative reactions. "We have always
expressed a kind of a radical political outlook," he says.
"But I think that if you do something with conviction, that
if anyone comes with any sort of prejudice they end up leaving it
at the door. That's been our experience, anyway. Actually, I think
that a lot of the time audiences are puzzled less by our politics
than by some of the musical vocabulary. People like [horn players]
Frank [London] and Matt [Darriau] come from a jazz background so
they bring things to our shows that might not be within the realm
of understanding of some of the people that come to the concerts."
Meanwhile, the Klezmatics audience has moved far beyond the
normal klezmer crowd, in part due to the bands eclectic assemblage
of collaborators. They have recorded with Itzak Perlman, Allen Ginsberg,
the Moroccan Master Musicians of Jajouka, and the Israeli singer
Chava Alberstein, scored playwright Tony Kushners adaptation
of "The Dybbuk," and are currently preparing a tour with
the avante-garde Pilobolus Dance Theatre. London is also music director
for "The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln," an experimental
puppet-and-theater performance which is in town this weekend at
the Jewish Theatre of New England. (He will play at the Saturday
evening and Sunday matinee performances, with a substitute on Sunday
evening. Information: 617-965-5226.)
Sklamberg says that this breadth of work was by no means something
that the musicians expected when they started playing klezmer. "We
started the band to play parties and make a little extra money,"
he says. "It never occurred to us until later that we would
go in this kind of direction, and actually it wasnt even our
idea." The impulse came largely from a label owner in Berlin
who encouraged them to be more musically adventurous, to reshape
the music to their own time and tastes.
Even today, Sklamberg says that the bands audiences are far
more varied in Europe. In the United States, with the exception
of New York, audiences remain largely Jewish, something that is
in one sense disappointing, but hardly unexpected. "Its
still Jewish music," Sklamberg says. "We do hybrids of
other kinds of stuff, but its still a Yiddish band. I know
other klezmer bands that dont use the word Jewish
anywhere in their press material, and I dont know what thats
about. I like that its Jewish music, and I like what we do."
After all, the musicians are Jewish, so it is as natural for them
to play Jewish music as for a Puerto Rican musician to play salsa,
or a white Tennesseean to sing country. Just as it is natural for
them to keep changing the music to fit their own experience. "We
ended up really putting ourselves into the music, and expressing
our musical personalities," Sklamberg says. "At this point
our music is really associated with the players, people expect to
see me and [violinist] Alicia [Svigals] and Frank and Matt, and
our personalities affect the way the music is played. And I think
that that is really a good thing."
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