A Way With Words (Robert Hunter 1941-2019)

In the first hour of my first day on my first visit to the Glastonbury Festival I was assembling the necessary refreshments while watching my companion attempt to erect a tent I’d borrowed from a professional chess player of my acquaintance. She was no more an expert camper than myself but I was still surprised at the amount & volume of complaint coming in my direction. Please, I was trying to listen to the music drifting across the site, an acoustic version of a familiar Grateful Dead song, Of course it was, we had come to the festival for 3 days of Peace, Love & Music. As a Dead Head my interest was roused when another of their songs followed. I needed to get closer to the stage & investigate further. I left a joint for H, I’m sure that the weekend’s accommodation would be sorted by the time I returned.

 

 

So the first live performance I saw on Worthy Farm’s landmark Pyramid Stage was by Robert Hunter, the illustrious lyricist & collaborator with Jerry Garcia & the Grateful Dead, who unfortunately died this week aged 78. I’m no obituarist & it’s tough to settle on three selections when there are so many significant songs. I do have to mark the loss of a great American poet, someone whose contribution to our music & certainly to my own musical experience, has been considerable.

 

Image result for robert hunter jerry garciaHunter & Garcia were a thing before the Dead, even before Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. There’s just one credit for him on the group’s second album, “Anthem of the Sun” (1968), next time around his name was on all 8 tracks of “Aoxomoxoa” (1969). “Dark Star” is known as the apex of their improvised instrumentals but it has words & Hunter provided them. In 1970 the Dead’s recordings transitioned from being a psychedelic dance band to embracing their & America’s musical roots. Hunter’s stories of gamblers. losers, drug-addled train drivers & other working men, new myths of the West,  complemented this blend of Folk, County & Blues.  On the perfect “American Beauty” the Grateful Dead were singing sweet songs to rock our soul & the considered, philosophical lyrics made the listening experience transcendent.

 

 

The Grateful Dead records, live & in the studio, the solo albums & side projects, were all part of our collections. Robert Hunter’s “Tales of the Great Rum Runners” (1974) & “Tiger Rose” (1975) may not have got as much play as some of the others but they were good to have around, fine additions to a body of work from the extended Dead karass & an indication of songs that would have been more familiar if the band had picked them up. As the group matured so did Hunter’s lyrics & there were still those good enough to become long-standing inclusions in the live set. Bassist Phil Lesh said this week, “”As much as anyone, he defined in his words what it meant to be the Grateful Dead”.

 

Hunter continued to write with Garcia right up to the guitarist’s death. His intimate connection was established & he was still able to distance himself from the excesses of Rock & Roll by living in England for some years. I guess that’s how he ended up on the Glastonbury stage. He wrote with other people too, most notably with Bob Dylan on the “Together Through Life” LP (2009) where he shared credit on 9 of the 10 tracks. I could go on, checking for songs that mean more to me than they do to you, cherry picking some of his oracular lyrics, but I wont. Instead here’s Elvis Costello’s version of “Ship of Fools”, one of the outstanding songs Hunter wrote for “From the Mars Hotel” (1974) perhaps the last album from the Grateful Dead’s Golden Age.

 

 

Image result for robert hunter jerry garciaOne sure thing is that Robert Hunter’s words will be part of my funeral service, a reflection of the long, strange but hopeful trip it’s been. Problem is which song to settle on. It’s been “Box of Rain” for some time now though only a fool would not consider “Ripple”. Coming up on the outside is this beauty from Jerry’s first solo record. “To tell sweet lies, one last time and say good night”, thanks for your stories Robert Hunter. Fare Thee Well.

 

 

 

The Sound Of The Funky Drummer (Soul September 1969)

September 1969 began with Aretha Franklin at the top of the Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations (what?). Lady Soul achieved her 7th R&B #1, there were to be 10 more, with “Share Your Love With Me”, a song from way back in 1963. I have the original of this song by Bobby “Blue” Bland, fine versions by the Band & Van Morrison but I must admit that  Aretha, the Sweet Inspirations, the Muscle Shoals band & King Curtis’ horns make a very classy combination. The Queen’s successor enjoyed a 7 week stay at the top of the chart, it’s one that you know but one that will wait until next month.

 

 

New Orleans’ groovy gumbo of multicultural rhythms had been moving on up the Mississippi, influencing American music since, possibly before, the turn of the century when cornet player Buddy Bolden flavoured Ragtime with dashes of improvisation, Blues & Gospel & invented Jazz. The second line tradition had its beginnings at the city’s funeral processions but its sinuous, upbeat  rhythms were by no means sombre. In 1969 The Meters released their debut LP & New Orleans Funk, particularly the 45 “Cissy Strut”, was on the national charts. The door was opened for other artists who played that good stuff.

 

Image result for eddie bo posterFirst to step through was Eddie Bo whose “Hook & Sling (Parts 1 & 2)” was at #13 mid-month & had been as high as #6. Eddie had been recording for 15 years, lots of singles, no albums. If you were in a club on Bourbon Street in the early 1960’s & Eddie Bo was playing his brand of piano R&B then it would be a perfect evening (I’m not sure how to dance “the Popeye” but I can dream!). His talents as a musician, composer, arranger & producer were much in demand. He had regional hits but never broke out into national recognition. At the small Seven B label he sang on & rearranged a track by Earl Stanley & the Stereos released in 1966 as “Pass the Hatchet” by Roger & the Gypsies, an iconic New Orleans record. “Hook & Sling” is in that category too.

 

Image result for eddie boBy the late 1960’s Eddie had got the Funk & his drummer of choice was James Black, a Louisiana man who had left to make the Jazz scene in New York before returning to R&B sessions. In 1969 James was on it, his percussive pyrotechnics on Betty Harris’ “There’s a Break in the Road” were spectacular & on “Hook & Sling” were equally so. Along with Zigaboo Modeliste, drummer for the Meters, James Black was a key figure in creating the city’s distinctive Funk sound. On the back of the hit Eddie made more 45’s & started his own label, Bo-Sound. He finally released an album in 1977 & their were others, new tunes & compilations until 2016. There are many music legends from way down yonder in New Orleans & Eddie Bo’s contribution was significant enough for him to be included among them. I’m just going to put “Check Your Bucket” right here, I know of no better tonic to be taken with the day’s first cup of coffee.

 

 

Image result for dyke and the blazers let a woman be a womanOver on the West Coast Sly Stone was making music that was not only innovative & influential but also selling by the lorry load. It would be a year or so before other groups from Los Angeles would have a major impact on the R&B chart but in 1969 there were signs that LA was coming up. There were two records made in the city on the chart. Two different groups, the same musicians involved with both. Dyke & the Blazers’ “Let a Woman Be a Woman, Let a Man Be a Man” had stalled at #44 but it was too good a record to miss out & did reach a higher position.

 

Related imageArlester “Dyke” Christian, originally from Buffalo, based in Phoenix, Arizona had scored a Top 20 R&B position in 1967 with his group’s single “Funky Broadway”. Wilson Pickett made it into an even bigger hit & Dyke, struggling to keep his band together, began to record in Los Angeles. His raw, gutbucket Funk, a variation on James Brown’s template, scored a hit with “We Got More Soul” & “Let a Woman…” was more of the same. Dyke’s studio crew were gaining a reputation of their own, the two hits tailor-made from long, improvised jams. The drum breaks, played by the outstanding James Gadson, ensured a long life for the much sampled “Let a Woman…”. There were smaller hits to follow but unfortunately Dyke was fatally shot outside a club in Phoenix in 1971. By this time his talented backing band were working on their own thing.

 

 

Image result for watts 103rd street rhythm bandThrough the 1960’s the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band had a complicated narrative. Led by singer Charles Wright for the 1968 LP “Together” the group was on to its fourth incarnation. This more stable unit displayed its wide range of talents on the album, Jazz-tinged ballads, excerpts from the set of the best live Soul covers band in California, the primal Funk of “Do Your Thing”, a breakthrough hit employed so effectively in “Boogie Nights” when William H Macy is doing his thing. The insistent,  very groovy “Till You Get Enough”, #38 in the chart, was the lead single from “In the Jungle Babe”, a more fully realised set, the covers receiving an individual take, from a more confident combo. For the next couple of years the music made on 103rd Street was some of the best around.

 

Image result for watts 103rd street rhythm band till you getSo who were these guys providing the raw but always tight & in the pocket backing for both Dyke & Charles Wright? Drummer James Gadson was complemented by bassist Melvin Dunlap, guitarist Al McKay was around until 1969 when he joined Earth, Wind & Fire, the slack taken up by Benorce Blackmon. There was a horn section & the whole thing was tied together by keyboard/arranger Ray Jackson. James was unsettled by a lack of credit for his input on the smooth perfect “Love Land” on which he sang. In 1971 he, Dunlap, Blackmon & Jackson left to join the very successful Bill Withers. They can be heard at their consummate best on Bill’s “Live at Carnegie Hall” record & seen on the star’s in concert Y-tube clips. The band do their thing sitting down too, James Gadson always smiling because it’s that good. Imagine how hard that groove would have been if they had bothered to stand up!

 

 

“How Are You?” “Old” (Almodovar And More)

Are there more films around concerning the passing of the years & reflections on childhood or is it just that now I’ve reached a certain age I’m paying more attention to them? In 2016 “The Distinguished Citizen” (“El Cuidadano Ilustre”) entertainingly told the story of a Nobel Literature Laureate (Oscar Martinez from the brilliant “Wild Tales”), wealthy & now unmotivated to write, accepting an invitation to return from Spain to his hometown in Argentina where his memories & the often resentful characters from his novels await. Last year Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” lovingly & painstakingly captured his own upbringing in 1970’s Mexico City & was deservedly awarded the Oscars for Cinematography, Direction & Best Foreign Language Film (though my vote went to “Shoplifters” from Japan). While I’m interested when others share their cogitations there’s ample contemplative retrospection in my real life thank you. It’s OK because this week I saw “Pain & Glory” (“Dolor Y Gloria”), the new film from Pedro Almodovar & I’ll bet my pension that it will be some time before I need to watch another movie about love, loss & Life.

 

 

In the photo a Caucasian male and a Hispanic female can be seen.

Pedro y Penelope

Pedro Almodovar, a master of cinema, is 70 this month & has been directing films for almost 40 years. Since his international breakthrough in 1988 with “Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown” his sophisticated, subversive, sometimes melodramatic or outrageous observations on modern Spain (it’s a list…a long one) has established him as the legatee of their genius Luis Bunuel & worthy of a placing alongside the great directors of cinematic history. “Pain & Glory” is the most autobiographical of his films, thematically & stylistically Almodovariano, casting two of his greatest stars while delivering a singular personal statement with integrity & honesty.

 

Image result for pain & glorySalvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, grizzled, handsome, sensational) is a film maker who no longer makes films, preoccupied with psychological & physical ailments. A revival of one of his movies reconnects him to the estranged star & to heroin, a drug he had some experience of. His opiate induced absorptions return him to childhood living in a cave with his mother (Played by Penelope Cruz with the sensuality of Sophia Loren) & a love for cinema smelling of “piss, jasmine & a summer breeze”. There’s a reunion with a former lover, Salvo’s first feelings of homosexuality & meetings with his dying mother (Julieta Serrano cast as Banderas’ mother for the third time). All of it is at a perfect emotional pitch &, employing a palette of red & white, looks absolutely gorgeous. The soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias is similarly evocative. Almodovar’s films are not always as fully realised though different folks see different strokes of inspiration in each of them. “Pain & Glory”, with its closing reminder that we have been watching a film, is a masterpiece from a director in absolute control of his undoubted talents.

 

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OH!

 

 

Image result for once upon a time in hollywoodIt was an early start on Sunday lunchtime for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. It would have been earlier but the multiplex staff forgot about us though the delay meant that we were spared the interminable commercials/trailers time waste & went straight to Los Angeles in 1969. Well, into Quentin Tarantino’s version of La-La land. QT’s movies, steeped in popular culture references, all have an element of anamnesis. The movie homages (steals?), artfully placed posters, the kitschy-cool Pop soundtracks all reflect his life-long preoccupations. This time around Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a star on the wane, is constantly reminded of his successful past. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) his former stunt double now a gofer is similarly reduced, living in a trailer adjacent to a drive-in cinema. They can’t buy a break in the New Hollywood. Rick’s boozing & Cliff beating up Bruce Lee when he does get a job doesn’t help. Meanwhile Rick’s next door neighbours, Roman Polanski & Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) are living the life.

 

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OH!

“…in Hollywood” is packed with references to movies & TV shows, real & imagined. The director has some fun morphing Rick into “The Great Escape”. There are some fine scenes, Rick does proper acting, Sharon goes to see one of her movies, Cliff’s visit to the Spahn movie ranch with those damned Manson Family hippies. Then there’s Tarantino’s whipcrack dialogue, it’s a long film but listening to his characters shoot the breeze is always a reason to hand over the entrance fee. A fair chunk of the Internet & the commentariat likes to snark at such a visible, sometimes controversial director. There’s a new Charlie’s Angels film coming up, you’ll be OK. The ending has raised some kerfuffle, violence in a Tarantino movie…who knew? The clue is in the “Once Upon a Time…”, it’s a reverie, only a movie. Jeez, in one of his films he killed Hitler, that didn’t really happen either.

 

My companion & I had seen every Tarantino film & on the way home we talked about wanting to return to them (me, “Jackie Brown”, him, “Reservoir Dogs”). Damn, if “Kill Me Now Ringo, Said The Gringo”, a Spaghetti Western Rick made in Italy, exists then we would pay to see that too. We’re already on the lookout for  the flame thrower-heavy “The 14 Fists of McCluskey”. “Anyone order fried sauerkraut?”

 

 

Related imageBong Joon Ho returns to South Korea for “Parasite”. He went to Hollywood to make the sci-fi classic “Snowpiercer” (2013), on to Netflix for “Okja” (2017), a capable satire about corporations starring a very big pig. “Parasite” concerns a poor family of four struggling to get along in the gig economy, living in a shabby basement. The son, Ki-woo, catches a break & after a little fakery gets work with a very wealthy one-percenter family. A plan is hatched to change their luck & the rest is their story. South Korea’s first winner of the Palme D’or at Cannes is an intricate film, a biting social commentary on the class divide, an amoral, absurd black comedy, a drama which becomes a tense thriller. Each tonal shift is wonderfully & entertainingly handled by the director, the dispassionate camera lens allowing you to make up your own mind about the protagonists. A nod to Hye-jin Jang as the cynical, profane mother, my favourite character. Things I learnt from “Parasite”, the rich don’t like the smell of the poor & the best plan is no plan, then nothing can go wrong.

 

It’s evidently been an outstanding week’s viewing round here. I’ve already handed out the ultimate “masterpiece” tag to Almodovar’s film so I’m reluctant to pin the same accolade on “Parasite”. I’ll probably regret that after another six months of the usual Hollywood dreck but for sure this is another Hit From the Bong (thank you!). Catch it if you can.

Sumpin’ Funky Going On (Donnie Fritts)

Donnie Fritts, the songwriter & musician who sadly died this week, once said that he would retire if Ray Charles ever recorded one of his songs. When this actually did happen Donnie cried tears of joy & thankfully for us all, kept on doing the thing he’s always done. He may not be as familiar a name as some of his contemporaries but the frequency he shows up on record label credits endorses his reputation as a reliable & influential personality beyond his Muscle Shoals base.

 

Donnie Fritts was born in 1942 in Florence, Alabama, a teenage drummer, part of a scene raised on Country & Western, influenced by the Rock & Roll of Elvis Presley & by the R&B played by disc jockeys like Hoss Allen on WLAC in Nashville. This crew of young white boys had a local studio where they could learn how a song went. When Tommy Roe, a teen idol, was sent to the Muscle Shoals FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) studios to record Donnie & his old band mate Dan Penn had a song for him. “Sorry I’m Late Lisa” became the b-side of “Everybody” a 1963 Top 10 hit. Donnie was in at the very start of something big.

 

 

He was around again when Penn moved across to American Studios in Memphis & broke big with a trio of hits for the Box Tops. The bluesy “Choo Choo Train” kept the run going. I liked the Box Tops & I liked this song. So, evidently did Quentin Tarantino as it turns up in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. Donnie always had a song, usually written with someone, for whoever was around. “Behind Every Great Man There’s A Woman” is a great re-write of “When A Man Loves A Woman” for Percy Sledge, all the better for not having heard it a million times. There were others for Percy, a single for Sam & Dave, an album track for Tony Joe White. When Dusty Springfield came to Memphis in 1968 Fritts & regular partner Eddie Hinton brought the languid “Breakfast In Bed”, the next best known song, after “Son of a Preacher Man”, on a landmark record. The following year Atlantic repeated the trick & brought Lulu to Muscle Shoals where the same pair had “Where’s Eddie” waiting for the Scottish songstress.

 

 

Image result for donnie fritts kristoffersonDonnie was a piano player now but there were others, Spooner Oldham, David Briggs, around at Muscle Shoals. As a songwriter the deals were done up in Nashville & it was there he got the gig, which lasted for 25 years, of playing in Kris Kristofferson’s band. Theirs was a close friendship, “Funky” Donnie Fritts is name checked on the introduction to Kris’ “The Pilgrim” (used by Scorsese in “Taxi Driver”) & he had co-writing credits on the early albums. The KK connection took Donnie to Hollywood for small roles in “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid”, two other Peckinpah joints & Monte Hellman’s fantastic “Cockfighter”. Nice work.

 

 

Image result for donnie fritts dan pennIn 1974 Donnie made his own LP. The title track of “Prone To Lean” was written for & about his economy of movement, the Alabama Leaning Man’s propensity to find the nearest wall for support, by Kristofferson. A Muscle Shoals all-star band, including the impeccable rhythm section, David Hood, Barry Beckett & Roger Hawkins, showed out for a swampy Shoals Funk session, a self-possessed’ easygoing, heartfelt collection with no lack of dry humour. Donnie now had a portfolio of melodic songs, simply but strongly constructed, which lent themselves to the full spectra of Country & R&B. Dozens of artists wanted to record them.

 

 

Ray Charles was not the only one who recorded “We Had It All”. Written with Nashville Hall of Famer Troy Seals the ballad originally appeared on “Honky Tonk Heroes” the 1973 album by Waylon Jennings, a milestone of Outlaw Country. It’s been covered by an extensive & diverse range of artists, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Tom Jones, Scott Walker, Tina Turner, I’ll stop there. Oh yeah, in 1978 while recording “Some Girls” Keith Richard showed his love & respect for Heartbreak Country with a wonderful version which didn’t make the final album but is the one that makes the cut here.

 

There was another solo record in 1997 when many of Donnie’s friends, John Prine, Willie Nelson, Waylon, happily gave assistance. In 2004 the old gang had a reunion as the Country Soul Revue, something would have been missing if he had not been involved. He was given the opportunity to to record again in 2015 & was joined by younger artists, Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell, who had grown up listening to & admiring his work.

 

 

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Arthur, Dan & Donnie

Donnie met Arthur Alexander Jr when he was 16. They became teacher & student, friends & collaborators, as “June” made the first hits from Muscle Shoals with his thoroughly modern, influential (the Beatles & the Stones!) Pop Soul songs. In 1972 he contributed to Arthur’s marvellous eponymous LP & again to 1993’s “Lonely Just Like Me” which included their stunning “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way”. Last year, 2018, aged 75, Donnie released a tribute to his friend, a gorgeous, sincere, of course sentimental collection of Southern Soul which makes me smile & then chokes me up.

 

Image result for donnie fritts dan pennDonnie Fritts lived a long & happy life making the music he loved with his friends. Back in the 1950’s, when the alternative was picking cotton, he couldn’t have imagined that his weekend hobby would make him a living, take him around the world & that his songs would endure for & affect generations. He was part of a small, talented group who rode their luck & made their mark on American music. I apologise if there are too many clips in this post, I could have chosen twice as many & I’m sure there are others to be discovered. Funky Donnie Fritts was one of the good guys.