Ry Cooder Put Me On It (Part 2)

Before Ry Cooder released his first solo LP in 1970 he had an already established reputation as an outstanding exponent of the bottleneck guitar. His work with Taj Mahal in the Rising Sons, on Captain Beefheart’s “Safe As Milk” & sessions for the Rolling Stones, most notably with Jagger’s “Memo From Turner” from the “Performance” soundtrack, marked him as an eloquent young stylist & one to watch. The “Ry Cooder” LP showed him to be a student & an archivist of marginalised American music from the early twentieth century. Side 2 includes songs by Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Arthur “Blind” Blake, Sleepy John Estes & Blind Willie Johnson, all fine Blues names. I was a student too, I knew about these guys. There was another blind musician who was new to me…

 

 

Image result for blind alfred reedAlfred Reed was born blind in 1880 & learned to play the violin on the farm in West Virginia where he grew up. He played at fairs, churches, on street corners, selling the sheet music of his compositions. It was 1927 before he recorded any tracks, 4 in July, 5 more in December. Two years later a couple of sessions produced 12 more sides & that’s all there is. “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”, heavily re-shuffled by Ry, using only 3 of the 8 verses, is a topical protest song recorded just a week after Black Tuesday, the Wall St Crash & the onset of the Depression. Reed was a conservative Christian, “Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls ?”, a warning that a woman’s short hair is against His will, is now anachronistic & funny. His colloquial, unvarnished lyrics hit the spot & his lament for the working man, “can hardly get our breath, taxed and schooled and preached to death”, certainly still resonates. Reed’s brief collected work, accompanied by his son Arville, includes more of this good country roots stuff & is certainly worth checking.

 

Ry Cooder was not finished with Alfred Reed. In 1976 he recorded “Always Lift Him Up”, a lovely, sympathetic lyric, & last year he was performing “You Must Unload”, more Appalachian wisdom concerning the road to Heaven for the wealthy churchgoer. “How Can…” has remained a centrepiece of his live sets, sometimes extended to a 10 minute showcase of fine musicality. In 1987 the noted documentarist Les Blank pointed his cameras at the Moula Banda Rhythm Aces for a version which makes space available for the keyboard of Van Dyke Parks & the singular accordion of my good friend (well, I spent one evening in his company) Flaco Jimenez as well as Cooder’s inimitable guitar work.

 

 

Cooder’s 2nd LP “Into the Purple Valley” continued his excavations of the Blues & the Dustbowl while incorporating a couple of Caribbean classics. “How Can You Keep On Moving” & “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Us All” were both on the 1959 LP “Songs From the Depression” by folk trio the New Lost City Ramblers which also featured 2 songs by Reed including “How Can a Poor Man…”. “Denomination Blues”, a direct, mocking commentary on 57 varieties of Christianity, was a perfect candidate for revival. “Well, the Primitive Baptists they believe that you can’t go to heaven ‘less you wash your feet & that’s all”. Funny because it’s true ? I couldn’t say. This song was my introduction to the unique talent of Washington Phillips.

 

Phillips was born in 1880 too, down in Teague Texas. He was a jack-leg preacher, looking for a temporary church gig or delivering street corner sermons. Like Blind Alfred Reed his only recordings, just 15 songs, were made between 1927 & 1929.I guess that his music is gospel-blues & he had some success with “Take Your Burden to the Lord”, a popular hymn. There is no supplication to the spirit of the Lord, moral homilies are delivered in a calm, mature, assured voice. I am not the most religious of men but I’m always open to advice about Life & how to live it from those who have knocked about a bit.From his lyrics Washington Phillips seems to have been a smart man & there’s an eerie beauty about “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” that just enchants me out of my secular socks whenever I listen to it. Then there’s the mysterious matter of his instrument of choice…

 

 

Image result for washington phillipsWell, there it is in the one of the surviving photos of Mr Phillips. The technical term is, I believe, 2 big old zithers welded together. It has been variously identified as a dulceola/dolceola, a celestaphone for the right hand, a phonoharp for the left. It does seem that the original instruments were intended to be played with a hammer but Wash chose to strum & pluck them. Whatever he called it the effect is individual & wonderful, providing a gentle, floating accompaniment to his lyrics. Gospel & Blues for sure, in this melodic, mature music I hear the roots of modern popular music & that is something.

 

Ry Cooder agreed & in 1974 he & producer Russ Titelman re-worked Phillips’ “You Can’t Stop A Tattler” into the classy & classic “The Tattler”. We’ll end with that & then you can get on to the Y-tube & discover more about 2 great musicians who deserve a wider hearing.

 

 

 

 

A Little Faith (John Hiatt)

By 1987 John Hiatt had released 7 LPs of his songs to some critical acclaim but little commercial success. Hiatt had moved to Nashville from Indianapolis, Indiana when he was 18 years old. In a couple of years he had written a hit song for 3 Dog Night & scored a record deal for himself. His debut record “Hangin’ Around the Observatory” (1974) covered a lot of bases, folk, country, R&B, without establishing a distinct individuality. After a 4 year hiatus 1979’s “Slug Line” hooked up with the New Wave & John was inappropriately tagged as an American Elvis Costello. His songs were hook-filled, his lyrics succinct & cynical but they lacked The Imposter’s range & acerbity. A number of reputable producers added an 80’s gloss, synthesized swirls, thumb-plucked bass, which did few favours to music that was essentially rootsy American rock.

 

Hiatt was most effective on the 2nd side of “Riding With the King” (1983). It was recorded in West London with Nick Lowe whose Cowboy Outfit, Martin Belmont, Paul Carrack & Bobby Irwin, provided a no-frills but still imaginative support, allowing the songs to stand by themselves. On a European tour this band called in on German TV’s “Rockpalast” & “The Love That Harms” shows that live & uncontrived John Hiatt was pretty, pretty good.

 

 

It was John’s standing in Europe which helped him when, after a further release, he was dropped by Geffen. Demon Records pledged $30,000 towards new recordings & he spent the money well. Nick Lowe came over to Los Angeles with his bass guitar while Jim Keltner had been the session drummer for the stars, including 3 former Beatles, for over 15 years. Throughout the 80’s Ry Cooder had concentrated on film soundtracks. For “The Border” (Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates…enough said) the standout “Across the Borderline” was written by Cooder in collaboration with Jim Dickinson & Hiatt himself. His contributions as a sideman to “Safe As Milk” with the Magic Band & to the “Performance” movie score were 20 years since & were still notable. Obtaining the services of an ace, a distinctive, distinguished guitarist, was a real stroke, a guarantee of quality.

 

“Bring the Family” was recorded in just 4 days. The opening track “Memphis in the Meantime” states an intention to get “good & greasy” & the whole LP does just that thing. John was in his mid-thirties, personally & professionally he had seen some things & he knew how to get to the heart of them in his writing. The maturity & consistency of Hiatt’s songs is consolidated by the cohesive unit in the studio. There had always, even on his more commercial records, a touch of musical curatorship about Ry Cooder. His soundtrack for “Paris, Texas” (1985) is a delicate, almost ambient delight. His later collaborations with Ali Farka Toure & the Buena Vista crew are a lovely introduction to outstanding non- First World talents. On “Bring the Family” Cooder is a rock & roll guitarist, just one of the best.  In “Memphis…” John sang “I don’t think Ronnie Milsap’s gonna ever record this song”. There were others on the LP that would suit those Nashville cats. “Lipstick Sunset” is one of them but they would have to go some to match Hiatt’s vocals & Cooder’s impeccable slide accompaniment.

 

 

The LP was Hiatt’s most successful to date but his studio band were busy men. He toured with a new band, the Goners, which featured Sonny Landreth, a virtuoso slide guitarist of great reputation. The live clips of songs from “Bring the Family” are with this group & well, Sonny is good, if a little flashy for my taste but he ain’t Ry Cooder. Hiatt recorded 2 more LPs before, in 1992, the “…Family” band got back together as Little Village for another record. This time around the songwriting was more democratic, though John provided most of the vocals & the set lacked the immediacy of their previous outing. It was a damp, desultory, sparsely attended Sunday at the Crystal Palace Bowl when we saw Little Village. They were never going to be John Hiatt’s backing band & individually Hiatt, Lowe, Keltner & Cooder are all top-ranked musicians. You can never have too many opportunities to see quality like this & they were great. It’s just a shame they didn’t play those songs like “Thing Called Love”, “Have A Little Faith In Me” or “Your Dad Did”.

 

 

John Hiatt continued to be prolific. His extensive range meant that in 2003 he was recording with Irish folk giants the Chieftains & in the following year contributed to a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute.  Sometimes his songs have had a wider reach than his dedicated audience. 1988’s “Tennessee Plates” is on the “Thelma & Louise” soundtrack, “Cry Love” (1995) is probably the hit that got away, The rocking “My Old Friend” (2001) remains a personal favourite. There have been around 15 LPs in the 22 years since Little Village & he’s a master at crafting wry, pithy observations with tight, no-frills tunes. Each of them reward closer listening but it’s “Bring the Family”, 4 great musicians getting together & playing for the fun & the creativity of it, that remains his most enduring masterwork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just singing the some old song he always sang before. The last of the hard-core troubadours ( flaco jimenez)

In the 80s my girlfriend lucked into a job in the music business. The deal was sealed when, as part of the interview, she was introduced to Mick Hucknall off of Simply Red. She was neither flustered in the presence of a “celebrity” nor gave the ginger soul boy the poke in the eye with a sharp stick he deserved. Her sang froid in her dealings with pampered popsters impressed her employers. She once asked me just who Ozzy Osbourne was for him to get so pissed off about her calling him “Ollie” all day ! It was the time she answered  the phone & a voice said “Hello, this is Ry Cooder calling from Los Angeles” that her cover was blown. Ms Cool became a fan-girl, the phone was dropped, papers went flying & the best she could come up with was a very lame “Hi Ry” !

She worked on a Cooder tour which was just the (complimentary) ticket…twice…Brighton & London, fantastic. We often ligged around backstage at these things, sometimes there was free booze & it was always of a better quality than that sold to the hoi-polloi out there. Not this time. There were legends in that band, Chris Ethridge, the 2  Jims, Keltner & Dickinson, Harry Dean Stanton showed out at Wembley , the Repo Man for Jah’s sake. I was better out of those places. I have enough self-awareness to know that my inner idiot drops by at times like these. I would rather Travis off of “Paris Texas” is blissfully unaware of my existence than remember me as that jerk who said that dumb thing .

Anyway, the next year we did get the chance to meet one of the band & what a fine night out we had.

My first Ry Cooder concert was on the “Chicken Skin Revue” tour, January 1977, Birmingham Odeon. He was still playing the solo acoustic dustbowl Depression blues of his first records but his more recent LPs  “Paradise & Lunch” & “Chicken Skin Music” broadened his palette. He was ready to put on a show, world-class guitar picking is just great but Ry wanted to play with a band. The guys he chose were quite a sight at a rock concert in the 70s. It wasn’t satin & tat or denim & hair but these big Mexican dudes in pastel lee-zure suits sure could play. At the heart of the music was Flaco Jimenez who is now probably the most eminent accordionist around.

Flaco is a Tex-Mex/conjunto/tejano (my ear is not yet developed enough to know the difference) musician. It’s a family affair, his father, Santiago, wrote the rulebook for this folk-dance music while brother Santiago Jr knows his way around a squeezebox. Conjunto (group) music is an infectious mix of Mexican & European influences. The Germans brought the button accordion & the polka rhythm to Texas, those already resident absorbed them. Flaco is a master player. If anyone, the Stones, Dylan, Dr John & others, needed a smack of the Texan border then he was the guy. When Ry Cooder takes centre stage & solos it is what you have paid your dollars for. There were 3 singers there to help his voice along but if you are going toe-to-toe with a master you had better be able to bring it. Flaco Jimenez is that good.

Our part of the city was more “Mean Streets” than “Manhattan” & we liked it just fine. London’s glittering West End was just up the Walworth Road, Big Ben, Nelson’s Column, St Paul’s Cathedral…ain’t that pretty at all. We had the Hohner factory, where the best harmonicas & accordions in the world are created…that’s enough. One Friday night we are going about our business, listening to some fine, fine music, getting ready to go see Flaco play at a local venue. Benedicte (lovely name, lovely woman) said that Flaco had called her that day…”and” says I…he needed some spares for his accordion…”and”…I rang Hohner & put him on to them…”and”…we are on the guest list tonight. That seals the deal, this one’s a keeper !

On the guest list…funny…we were the bloody list. The Cricketers Arms in Kennington was a pub gig, a good music place but pretty small. We were early, even if 1 of the 4 Mexican guys at the bar had not been Flaco Jimenez they would still have been the people to talk to. My companion was Flaco’s London contact (oh yes), I wanted to buy this man a beer, so let’s get over there & press the flesh. We had a running start, Benny had helped him out & I knew where Texas was (you would be surprised). The band were glad to talk & we were glad to listen, the next hour was just a breeze. Of course I wanted to hear some stories about Ry Cooder & I got to do that. These polite, unassuming guys were travelling the world, playing their music & had their own interesting, funny stories too. They also had a Friday night audience in London to entertain.

It was a night where the more you drank the better the music sounded. These 4 guys from Texas were the perfect bar band. You remember the group from the Titty Twister in “From Dusk Till Dawn” ? Like them (Tito & Tarantula) only regular, nice blokes not vampires. The clips on the Y-tube of Flaco Jimenez tend to sound a little ” folky”, good but lacking a little attack. Their full set was relentless, an invitation to grab your best gal & to hit the dancefloor. Musically Texas has quite a mix of rock, country & Mexican influences & they all showed out, sometimes in the same song. In the clip we see the Texas Tornados, Flaco with Freddy Fender, Augie Meyers & Doug Sahm, the aristocracy of South Texan music.

It’s cool when you meet someone who’s art you admire & they turn out to be good people. Flaco Jimenez was a charming self-effacing man who’s ability has taken him from San Antonio to give performances all over the world. He has played with some heavy duty musicians but it’s only in houses like mine that he is himself a household name. The only regret he had was that there was so much work that he did not spend as much time in Texas with his family as he would like. He knew that as a working musician he had it pretty good. Man, his father was a respected musician too but I’m sure he never saw the audiences & the places his son had. The following month Flaco was playing in Japan & an Edokko couple would be walking home happy after a proper live musical experience just as this pair of South Londoners were…a nice thought.

Ry Cooder Was Here First

I am on a Ry Cooder roll now. He recorded songs from throughout the 20th century & found a new audience for many of them. One LP “Jazz” contains transpositions to the guitar of the 1920s compositions for trumpet of Bix Beiderbecke, a jazz legend. This time round I want to showcase three R & B songs from the late 50s & the 60s that I did not previously know. It was not as if I had not been listening but Ry certainly had a good ear for potential in a neglected song.

Howard Tate’s music did not make it over to the UK in the 60s. Motown & Stax were established enough to get a release  and a hearing for anything that came with those labels’ endorsement. Tate recorded for Verve in New York a label with less clout. In fact on You Tube there are no American TV clips of him despite having several R & B chart hits. Tate, from Macon, Georgia (the hometown of Otis Redding) moved north to record with Jerry Ragevoy the noted writer/producer. Ragevoy wrote the songs for Tate and wrote many other notable songs. He was Janis Joplin’s go-to man & she recorded 5 of his songs.

“Look At Granny Run Run” is, indeed, a little (just 2min 16 secs) gem of a song. It is a pre-Viagra story of a re-vitalised pensioner & the necessary action taken by his perturbed wife. Ry Cooder hammed up the sit -com nature of this making it more of a breathless and funny rush than the original. I love the underplayed humour of Tate’s version. If there is any sexual innuendo then the listener has to find it for his or herself. The playing, by the New York studio stalwarts including Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey & Eric Gale is nothing else but exemplary. The song reminds me of the those coming out of New Orleans with a similar restraint &  humour. I think that I prefer the short &  oh so sweet version of Tate to that which led me to it.

Arthur Alexander is possibly the least known of the artists who influenced the creative rush of the 60s which laid the foundation for the rock & indeed the roll which has enchanted us for almost 50 years. He is the only songwriter to have had his songs covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones & Bob Dylan. He recorded the first hit to come from the legendary Fame studios in Muscle Shoals. His simple and very effective style encouraged those British beat boys to emulate him and write their own songs.

“Go Home Girl” tells a simple story very simply. Ry Cooder recorded this tale of the impossible love of a best friend’s girl on “Bop Till You Drop”. He did a fine job of it too, adding flourishes of arrangement but retaining the emotional directness of the original. When Arthur was recording in the early 60s “soul music” had not really developed yet. His vocal may not entreat & implore like those who succeeded him but , boy, this is a good song. I knew he had written “Anna” & “You Better Move On” but he was not around by the time Mersey Beat changed the music. Now I can hear the influence he had on John Lennon in the almost conversational openings to, say “Help” & “No Reply”. The first Jagger/Richard composition, “Tell Me” also bears his mark. I have checked for Arthur more in the last 10 years than I did the previous 30. It’s been a rewarding time, he was just great.

Wow, Wow & again Wow! ” Ev’ry woman I know is crazy ’bout automobiles & here I am standing with nothing but rubber heels”. This is a great record & was not a success on release in 1955. Maybe it was ahead of it’s time. It is not just urban it is urbane. African Americans maybe didn’t get aspirant until some time later. Rather than this sophisticated Chicago sound it was the Detroit Motown sound that reflected this new mood in the early 60s. I hear the progression from Louis Jordan, from Big Joe Turner, an assured self-deprecating R & B with elements of Chuck Berry’s lyrical knowingness. I think this record is just brilliant. It was Ry Cooder’s version on “Borderline” which put me on it. Thank you Ry.

Billy “the Kid” Emerson is still alive, a preacher in his 80s. I would like to shake his hand for writing this song. However he also wrote “my gal is red hot. Your gal ain’t doodly squat”. A rockabilly classic. I would like to give the man a hug.

The Same Song But Different.

In 1979 Ry Cooder had more commercial success than he usually had with his solo LPs with the release of “Bop Till You Drop”. This was the first digitally recorded Lp in popular music. The resulting vinyl pinged out at you clearly and brightly. You would play the LP in company & people would want to know what they were listening to. It made a good impression. Over the next few years Ry released 3 more solo albums of well produced, exquisitely played, quite mainstream music. He was never the most prolific of writers and had a music fan’s eye for a classic tune. Here is one he chose to cover.

“That’s The way Loved Turned Out For Me” is from “The Slide Area” (1982). The LP is not his best work. If you are going to cover songs like Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman” and Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” then you are not going to make the same impact as the originals however well produced or played. This song though became a big personal favourite. It takes it’s time,there’s a lovely restraint about the song. Ry was assembling an impressive touring band at this time. The backing vocals of Bobby King & Terry Evans were a welcome addition to his recordings and his live show.The use of strings is rare for Cooder but suit the slow build of a song of lost love. To praise the guitar solo is like saying you like to breathe…it’s Ry Cooder ! The 90 second play out is hardly the big soul pleading finish but it raises the pace just enough. The ending is not long enough for me.

I knew that this was not an original song but the writing credits included Ry’s name alongside Quentin Claunch & David Hall. I knew Claunch was closely involved with Goldwax records in the 60s. Nowadays Mr Google sorts out these little mysteries for you. In the 1980s a little more investigation was needed. This is the original version of the song.

What a classic slab of Memphis soul. The almost gospel pleading of the vocal. The guitar, organ & brass section which had made the Memphis sound the only rival to Motown in popular black music of the late 60s. James Carr produced a run of outstanding singles for Goldwax. His most enduring song was “Dark End of the Street” the Dan Penn/Chips Moman song. “Dark End” was written for Carr (in Quentin Claunch’s hotel room) and has been recorded by many different artists. “That’s the Way” was the B-side of the 1969 single “Freedom Train”. Carr suffered from bipolar disorder which gave him a reputation as a difficult man to work with. His personal problems worsened in the early 70s and he stopped recording. If you can obtain a collection of his work for Goldwax you will hear that James possessed one of the great soul voices.

Ry Cooder changed the song completely. He kept the first verse and made it the third one, writing completely new ones to precede it. He ditched the rest of the original lyrics too. Is this taking liberties with a song ? I don’t think so. Ry’s voice & the tone of his music would not suit such an emotional soul vocal. He did, however, love soul music & knew a good song when he heard it. What we have here is two versions of a song which are very different,musically & lyrically, & which are both fine examples of each artist’s work. I don’t have to prefer one over the other I think they are both very good songs.

Ry Cooder. The Very Thing That Makes You Rich…

Ry Cooder has been on my musical radar for over 40 years. His work with Captain Beefheart on “Safe As Milk” shattered the blues-rock template & produced a sound which was primal & from the future. He accompanied Mick Jagger on the soundtrack of the film “Performance”. “Memo From Turner” is a classic song which matched the brooding, erotic psychedelia of this marvellous film. His first solo LP, released at the end of 1970, was dominated by covers of traditional blues songs which were unfamiliar even to those listeners who thought they knew their blues. Over the years Ry has released many records, some are of the highest quality, others have brought musical styles from around the world to a new audience. His reputation as a premier guitarist is assured. All his LPs include songs and music which rewards repeated listening.

Now there is a brand new record “Election Special”, his commentary on the up-coming US Presidential election. Ry pins his colours to the mast from the opening track “Mutt Romney’s Blues”, a song from the perspective of the presidential prospect’s pet involved in a bizarre incident in 1983. Here is the fine song and the interesting video.

On a family holiday the Romney family drove for 12 hours with their dog on the roof of their car. The pet was in a carrier with a windshield. After some time the dog’s piss and shit was leaking down the side of the car. Romney stopped, washed down the car and the dog then continued the journey. Mitt’s seeming lack of common sense & an unconvincing defence of his behaviour has been interpreted as a “valuable window into how Romney operates. In everything the guy does, he functions on logic, not emotion”. (Neil Swidey, The Boston Globe)

“Election Special” covers a wide range of issues. The financial crisis, war in Afghanistan, Guantanamo &, in “Kool Aid”, the unquestioning belief  of parts of the electorate (the phrase “drinking the Kool Aid” references the Jonestown massacre”). The songs are not general calls to arms but use characters affected to voice the views. “Cold Cold Feeling” is Barack Obama singing his blues in the White House. It is Cooder’s most overtly political work and, of course, he has been accused of bleeding heart liberalism by critics of his viewpoint.

I feel that this record is noteworthy because there is a lack of involvement with politics in current music. It is not likely that a 65 year old protest singer will have any great effect on the election but it is, at least, an attempt to connect the single issues of opposition in 2012. There is a general dissatisfaction with politics and politicians but no unity of these feelings. To see and hear someone I respect attempt to make such connections is a good thing.

Cooder has always had an affinity with the songs of the Depression era. His early records included not only songs by the poet-laureate of the times, Woody Guthrie, but other wonderful tunes which deserved a wider hearing. He has adapted the Popular Front approach of the 1930s and the style of the songs in his new music (all original compositions) to link contemporary issues. An unlikely protest singer perhaps but “Election Special” is a continuation of concerns which Cooder has been dealing with in more recent years.

“No Banker Left Behind” from his last LP “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down” (great title) channels the spirit and style of Woody Guthrie to illuminate the financial crisis. It sounds like one of the songs he lifted from the 30s catalogue. “Pull Up” and a trilogy of albums about the Latino presence in California had all taken an anti-authoritarian stance on socio-political issues. There is though no po-faced preachifying about his work. The sardonic humour of Guthrie, of the R & B songs he so loves, is an integral and entertaining part of his musical updates.

This final track is from “Election Special”. It directly addresses the billionaire Koch brothers who ride roughshod over environmental violations with the best lawyers money can buy. They use their money to support Romney and to promote libertarian right-wing policies. The song is a re-writing of the “Cross Road Blues” of Robert Johnson. The “prairie town of  Wichita” being the headquarters of Koch Industries. It is, said Ry, “the only logical explanation for the Brothers I could come up with is, they made their deal at the crossroads with Satan.” It is, also, a terrific song and has been my tune of choice since I  first heard it last week.

It is rare for me to show such enthusiasm for brand new music. There is enough good music about for me not to be too concerned with new releases.In 5 months time Ry Cooder may have been shown to be out of touch with the electorate of his country. In 5 years he may be seen to be ahead of his time and a coherent alternative to the policies of the two main political parties will have emerged. For myself it is a pleasure to see an artist I have admired for so long producing work which entertains and shows a conscience and an anger about the way things are. that’s the kind of music I was raised on.