A Man With The Knack (Louis Jordan)

On “Winds of Change”, the opening title track of Eric Burdon & the Animals 1967 LP, a big record round our way, the Geordie guvnor marked a moved from R&B to Psychedelia with an invocation of the giants of 20th century music. Over a wash of sitar, violin & sound effects Eric, stoned horizontal in an echo chamber, checked great names of Jazz & Blues before moving on to Rock & Roll. Even though we were kids we knew most of these artists. Only one name came around twice, one that we were not really aware of. “Louis Jordan smiled”…was our first encounter with an influential musician whose work still delights over 60 years after it was recorded. Thanks Eric.

Louis Jordan arrived in New York in 1932 aged 23.  Jordan was a multi-instrumentalist, his father taught music, before he settled on the alto saxophone. By 1936 he was playing in the Savoy Ballroom Orchestra at “the Heartbeat of Harlem”, “the World’s Finest Ballroom” fresh from 50G’s worth of refurb, the place to be & be seen. Bandleader drummer Chick Webb was disabled & Louis sang, handled the intros & duetted with the young female lead, Ella Fitzgerald. In 1938 Webb fired Jordan for enticing band members to join his own group. Louis Jordan & the Tympany Five were soon making their own records & a name for themselves.

It was possibly an economic decision to go with a small group. Those big bands of the Swing Era must have been high cost operations. What these guys lacked in numbers they made up with their energy & anyway they didn’t play Swing but Jump Blues, a dynamic more uninhibited style, ideal for dancing the Jitterbug which was a new sensation sweeping the nation. In 1941 Decca launched its “Sepia Series” for African-American artists they identified as having “crossover” potential to white audiences. Louis Jordan was on the list & it was an inspired decision. For the next decade he was top of the R & B pops, the “King of the Jukebox”, a permanent fixture on the charts with at least 4 million selling records.

“Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” was our gateway to Jordan’s music. It’s a country talking blues matched to a train-track shuffle beat, the nimble rhymes (“democratic fellows named Mack” !) enunciated with a sax player’s breath control by Jordan. Our 2nd favourite pub rock band, Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers, included a spirited version of the song & it became an earworm for the woman lucky enough to be my wife. We picked up a Louis Jordan collection & were introduced to his effervescent mix of jumping jive & his conversational, jazz hipster, street smart vocals. The big hits are “Caldonia” (1945) & “Saturday Night Fish Fry” (1949). In 1946, this humourous, celebratory music perfectly caught the post-war mood & the group had a remarkable 13 songs on the R&B chart. “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” stayed at #1 for 18 weeks. It was preceded by a duet with his old spar Ella, displaced by another Louis Jordan & the Tympany Five single.

Jordan & the band made many “soundies”, early music films & they were popular enough to star in a couple of hour length movies. “Wham Sam (Dig Them Gams)” is from “Reet, Petite & Gone” (1947) which squeezed 14 songs into its 67 minutes. Louis is looking fly in his plaid shirt, in most clips the fellows are wearing their smarter stage wear. The stunning Patricia Anderson sits on the piano being beautiful while Mabel Lee’s dancing is hotter than Georgia asphalt. She’s got legs & she knows how to use them. “Wham Sam” is not the most politically correct of songs. In the 1940’s the UK’s highest paid entertainer was comedian Max Miller, “the Cheeky Chappie” who walked a similar line between salaciousness & humour. In both cases a nudge & a wink undercut any accusations of smut & assisted their popularity. I’ve not heard Jordan’s song “Pettin’ & Pokin'”, I wonder what it’s about.

My personal favourite of Jordan’s is included in one of the films but the celluloid version of “Beware (Brother Beware)”, a cautionary tale of courtship, doesn’t match the record. You’re just a click away so “get your business straight, set the date, don’t be late”.

Of course such success couldn’t be maintained as music tastes & dance fashions changed. Jordan tried a short-lived big band but soon reverted back to his Tympany Five (the numbers were flexible). He continued to record & perform & this clip from 1966 is no golden oldie revival rollback. This is a great rocking band, including drummer Chris Columbo, a T5 fixture, well-rehearsed but still keeping it greasy. “Ram-Bunk-Shush” is a tune by his former keyboard player Bill Doggett & is one of the delights of the Y-tube. Tapping your feet while smiling is good for you.

Many claims are made about the influence of Louis Jordan on Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, even Rap. Certainly he made his mark on the musical history of the last half of the 20th century. Jordan’s producer at Decca, Milt Gabler, used the same formula, with a harder backbeat, on the tracks he cut with Bill Haley & the Comets. Haley was a populariser rather than a pioneer & perhaps Jordan played a similar role for African-American music, breaking the “race” barrier imposed by the music industry & society. His use of vernacular language influenced Chuck Berry, James Brown admired his ability as an all-round entertainer. We could be here all night. It is enough to say that the vibrancy of Louis Jordan’s music endures & his smiling face belongs alongside the greats of popular music.

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I Sat Up And The Room Was Full Of A Man With A Gun (Donald E Westlake)

Donald E Westlake, a very prolific writer of crime fiction, moved to New York in 1959 & immediately found that he could give up his day job in a literary agency & turn pro. By the end of the following year there were 9 published titles written by Westlake but not under his name. This soft-porn pulp used the pseudonym Alan Marshall, an umbrella apparently for a number of contributing authors. I have not read “Man Hungry”, “All the Girls Are Willing” or even “Passion’s Plaything”, maybe I should check them out…maybe. His fecundity, his range & eagerness to see his work in print meant that he employed many nom-de-plumes in his career. It hasn’t helped his reputation as a top gun in American crime fiction. You could have read one of his books & not known that it was by Westlake.

The first of his books to make an impression had the name Richard Stark on the cover. “The Hunter”, published in 1962, It is the debut of Stark & of the master thief Parker whose life in larceny would be developed over the next 45 years. As was the case with many of the writers of hard-boiled fiction Westlake attracted the attention of European film directors. In 1966 Jean-Luc Godard played fast & loose with “The Jugger” for “Made in the USA” without acquiring the book rights. The next year English filmmaker John Boorman adapted “The Hunter” changing Lee Marvin’s character from Parker to Walker for “Point Blank”. The film, one of the greatest of the 1960’s (OK, my favourite movie, like ever !) mixed the nouvelle vague with film noir. The existentialism & the brutality were Boorman/Marvin’s, the skeleton, the classic revenge thriller was Stark/Westlake’s.

Westlake became established enough to use just the 2 names (with a diversion for the Mitchell Tobin books written a Tucker J Coe). His books are about scores, capers & heists.They are set mostly in New York & the characters more sophisticated than classic 1950′[s pulp. The plots are tight, amusing & involving, the cracking-wise excellent. Parker, the pro, is cynical & suspicious, unsurprised by any twist & turn because everything is just business. In 1970 a Parker novel kept taking a lighter, more comic turn & it became the first book to feature John Dortmunder, another long-running criminal character. “The Hot Rock” was quickly picked up by Hollywood.

In “The Hot Rock” (1972) Robert Redford plays Dortmunder, George Segal his main partner-in-crime. There’s a good supporting cast, Moses Gunn & especially Zero Mostel always add value. English director Peter Yates (“Bullitt”) & master screenwriter William Goldman, fresh off “Butch Cassidy…” & a Westlake fan, were involved too. The movie, titled “How to Steal a Diamond (In 4 Uneasy Lessons)” in the UK, is a quality comedy-caper film shot in Manhattan with a cool Quincy Jones soundtrack. It’s not “Dog Day Afternoon” but then few films are that good.

It wasn’t until 1975 that Westlake slowed a little. There was a novel a year under his own name, some developing the Dortmunder character. In 1986 he couldn’t resist introducing the Sam Holt novels written by Samuel Holt ! In 1997, after a break of 23 years, Parker returned in the aptly named “Comeback”. He seemed no older & no better at life & crime but the world had changed. This time around Parker had a great plan to rip off a tele-evangelist. Man plans, God laughs.

Hollywood kept calling & his novels were regularly adapted. Mel Gibson starred in “Payback”, a remake of “The Hunter” with the Parker name changed again (this time it was Porter). Westlake insisted that the name could only be used if all the novels were optioned. It was only after his death in 2008 that a “Parker” film was made but if you think I am going to watch a Jason Statham movie, even in the interests of research, then think on. None of these films were better than “The Outfit” (1973)  from a 1963 novel with a very similar revenge plotline to “The Hunter”. Written & directed by John Flynn, who went on to make the excellent “Rolling Thunder” (1977), it’s a direct, tense thriller. Robert Duvall  (Macklin) is out of jail & pissed. He wants the money he is owed by the Mob & revenge for his brother’s death & single mindedly pursues the Boss (Robert Ryan) with Joe Don Baker & Karen Black for company. “The Outfit” is a proper film, I met Mr Baker once in London & spoke about “Junior Bonner”, the film he made with Peckinpah. I should have complimented him on this movie too. This great clip highlights Jerry Fielding’s cool score.

It’s tough to recommend particular books by Donald E Westlake, there are over 100. The early ones are now from a world that has changed, they belong with the classic 1950’s hardboiled fiction of David Goodis & Jim Thompson. Westlake wrote the screenplay for “The Grifters” (1990), an ideal choice to update the master. His later books reflect these changes, the effect of 9/11 on New York, Google…”some other nosey parker way to mind everybody else’s business.” In the final Dortmunder novel “Get Real” our anti-hero commits a crime for the convenience of reality TV. In this just as it always was the humour, the satire & the plot development is sharp & hits the mark. The cynicism too, nothing is what it seems. Donald E Westlake’s closest literary contemporary is Elmore Leonard, a writer held, I think, in higher regard. For myself Westlake’s cast of characters, his sophistication & even his dialogue outdoes Leonard & he deserves a place at the top table of American crime fiction.

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New Music From Jason Isbell

A great weekend for new music. Wilco give their album “Star Wars” away buckshee,  singles from Keith Richards, Public Image Ltd & Public Enemy. Over the coming days I’m sure that I’ll be returning to all of them. It may be a while before they hit the front of the queue because today (Saturday) this year’s (2015) most eagerly anticipated music came around. “Something More Than Free” is the new LP by Jason Isbell, the follow up to 2013’s “Southeastern”, a record that has given me so much pleasure since its release & continues to do so.

 

 

I won’t presume to tell you everything about the new record, it’s only been in the house for 12 hours for Jah’s sake. “Southeastern”, like all the best things, took its time to reveal its depths & its delights. I wrote about it here, struggled then to pick 3 songs & would possibly select 3 others if I did it all over again (I didn’t pick “Live Oak”. What was I thinking ?). “24 Frames” has been on the Y-tube for 6 weeks, it’s rock for & from the heartland, the most accessible track on the record & pretty, pretty good. Isbell was Artist of the Year at last year’s Americana Music Awards, his “Cover Me Up” won too. I have a problem with “Americana”, it seems to be no more than a catch-all, a marketing tool. You, & Bill Hicks, know what you should do if you’re in marketing…

 

 

After such an acclaimed LP, one instigated & inspired by some major, positive life changes, getting straight & getting married to Amanda Shires, it was always going to be interesting what came next. Those confessional, vulnerable, raw emotions can become contrived if you go to that well too often. On “Something More Than Free” he’s still writing about goddamn lonely love & life but his blue-collar characters are more than settling, they see a little light. Working with the same producer, Dave Cobb, there are musical similarities to “Southeastern”. At the moment tracks 5, “Children of Children”, 6, “The Life You Chose” & 7, the title song, have more expansive arrangements, not grandiose but substantial, played live they should be a little more raucous, both rockin’ & rollin’. I expect the more restrained offerings to catch my attention later. Man, I’m pleased to hear this record.

 

Jason Isbell’s music covers rock, country, blues, all that stuff. He served an apprenticeship at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, did time with the Drive-By Truckers, learned his trade. As a singer & a songwriter he is at the top of his game, comparable to Springsteen & Steve Earle when they were hitting that same good spot. These are the only 2 songs from the LP I can find on the Interwebs so here’s Jason & Amanda playing “Live Oak, the one that got away last time. On his 2013 visit to the UK he was playing small venues & I’ve just found out he has a gig in Manchester in January 2016. I’ll get on to that the first thing tomorrow.

 

Are You Ready For The Country ? (Daniel Romano)

I was going to do one of these things about Daniel Romano some time last year when his 2013 LP “Come Cry With Me”, a classy collection of both country & western songs was causing a stir around here. Daniel & his music was new to me & I eventually settled for a tip of my stetson to the record in a piece about the much longer established Lyle Lovett. Anyhoo, there’s a new LP, “If I’ve Only One Time Askin” coming around on New West Records at the end of this month & the first single is a song good enough for George Jones though I doubt that “The Possum” would have included the odd endpiece on his version of “The One That Got Away”.

 

 

“Come Cry…” came wrapped in a sleeve showing dude Daniel in his finest Western wear. The Nudie Cohn inspired threads reference a bunch of guys named Hank though, everybody knows, Gram & the Burritos chose this embroidered, rhinestone cowboy rig  another time we were reminded of the heart & soul in old school Country music. Romano had started in Ontario with his group Attack in Black, a punky-pop guitar deal. His solo work reaches back to the music of 1950’s Nashville, before producers like Chet Atkins & Owen Bradley moved into the middle of the road & developed the smooth countrypolitan crossover “Nashville Sound”. I was initially expecting to find a little too much artifice in the art of this homage. I was wrong, there’s a lot more to Daniel Romano than hipster hillbilly. He knows how this music goes.

 

 

free-show-poster.jpgDaniel Romano writes tragic songs of life. Man, there’s a lot of lost love, empty bottles & broken hearts here. Musically he & his band, the Trilliums, work from a tried, tested, traditional, familiar palette & that sympathetic pedal steel works a treat. Lyrically he can get tears from a rock but he’s smart not saccharine & anyway I’ve heard a lot of sad songs, I like them. Lines like “There are lines in my face that don’t come from smiling” can seem a little arch but no more than Lovett’s “I married her because she looks like you”. They are both working with a heritage & with conventions that they respect, intelligent enough to produce work that is amusing but not taking the piss, modern & beyond mere revivalism.

 

The conventional structure of the songs is familiar . If it was good enough for Hank Williams…what is impressive is the knack Romano has for injecting originality & impetus into the formula. Repeated exposure to his tunes reveals his range too. “Chicken Bill” is one of those Tex Williams style talking blues, always a good thing. There’s a touch of gospel too but without the, y’know, Jesus stuff. The two videos here are both tracks from the “Sleep Beneath the Willow” LP (2011), another assembly of anguish which also includes “Hard On You” which sounds like a hit to me. The Darwinist promo for “Time Forgot (To Change My Heart)”, the best slab of Lee Hazlewood influenced doom I’ve heard for a while, is funny & strange, I like both of those things.

 

 

This week I discovered a new clip on the Y-tube of the band playing live at the Best Kept Secret festival last month over in Hilvarenbeek, the Netherlands. “Best Man” is not on the tracklist for the new LP, maybe it will be on the already announced next one “Mosey”. Offstage Daniel drops the cowpoke-in-a-cadillac couture, the song has a loose alt-country feel & is a fine example of a tune that keeps on keeping on to the end. So, a couple of indicators to future music from Daniel Romano. On the evidence of these & of the last two LPs whatever he releases will be interesting & I will be interested.