Which R&B Star Boxed Under the Name “Little Chocolate”?

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Lee Dorsey epitomized the loose, easygoing charm of New Orleans R&B perhaps more than any other artist of the ’60s. Working with legendary Crescent City producer/writer Allen Toussaint, Dorsey typically offered good-time party tunes with a playful sense of humor and a loping, funky backbeat. Even if he’s remembered chiefly for the signature hit “Working in a Coalmine,” it was a remarkably consistent and winning combination for the vast majority of his recording career.

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Dorsey was born in New Orleans on December 24, 1924 (although some sources list 1926), and was a childhood friend of Fats Domino before moving to Portland, Oregon when he was ten years old.  After serving in the Navy during WWII, Dorsey returned to Portland and became a successful light heavyweight boxer, fighting under the name “Kid Chocolate.” He retired from boxing in 1955 and returned to his birthplace, where he eventually opened a successful auto-body shop.

His first recording was “Rock Pretty Baby/Lonely Evening” on Cosimo Mattasa’s Rex label, in 1958. This was followed by the Allen Toussaint-produced “Lottie Mo/Lover of Love”, for the small Valiant label in late 1960 (picked up by ABC-Paramount in 1961). He pursued a singing career by night and wound up recording singles for several different labels, most of which made little noise. after meeting songwriter and record producer Allen Toussaint at a party, he recorded “Ya Ya“, a song inspired by a group of children chanting nursery rhymes. In 1961, he signed with Bobby Robinson’s Fury label,  ‘Ya Ya” became his first national hit that year.  It went to number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961, sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold reaching the pop Top Ten and hitting number one on the R&B charts. Despite its popularity, following it up turned out to be difficult, and with a large family to support, Dorsey returned to his auto repair business after a few more singles flopped.

Still, Allen Toussaint loved Dorsey’s voice, and kept him in mind for future sessions. Toussaint’s hunch paid off in 1965 when, signed to the Amy label, Dorsey turned “Ride Your Pony” into a Top Ten R&B hit. The accompanying album of the same name sold respectably as well, and Dorsey began cutting a multitude of Toussaint compositions, often with the legendary New Orleans funk ensemble the Meters as his studio backing band. The New Lee Dorsey was released later in 1966, and supplied Dorsey’s best-known song, the irresistible “Working in a Coalmine” (which he co-wrote with Toussaint). With its clanking sound effects and Dorsey’s comic exclamations, “Working in a Coalmine” became his second Top Ten pop hit and signature song, and Dorsey toured internationally with the Meters backing him up. A few follow-ups, particularly “Holy Cow” and “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On),” met with some success, but Dorsey was once again hard pressed to duplicate his big hit, and once again left music for the practical concern of running his business. 1970’s Yes We Can (on Polydor) was his last album for some time, with the title track becoming his last chart single.

After guesting on the Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes cut “How Come You Treat Me So Bad?,” Dorsey attempted a comeback in 1977 with the ABC album Night People, which wasn’t a commercial success despite mostly positive reviews. Still, it was enough to land him supporting slots on tours by the likes of James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even the Clash, whose 1980 tour was his last major concert jaunt. In the meantime, other artists mined his back catalog for covers: “Working in a Coalmine” was redone by robotic new wavers Devo and country duo the Judds; “Ya Ya” by Ike & Tina Turner, John Lennon, and Buckwheat Zydeco; “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On)” by jazzman Lou Donaldson; and “Yes We Can” by the Pointer Sisters (under the new title “Yes We Can Can“). Dorsey continued to perform sporadically, as opportunities presented themselves, until he contracted emphysema; he died in New Orleans on December 1, 1986.

Get Out of My Life, Woman” was performed often by the Jerry Garcia Band, and Robert Palmer had a hit with “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley“. His version of the Allen Toussaint song “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)” is referenced in the Beastie Boys‘ song “Sure Shot“, with the lyric “Everything I do is funky like Lee Dorsey.” “Ya Ya” was spoken by Cheech Marin in Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, as he was waiting for his girlfriend.

Dorsey continued to perform sporadically, as opportunities presented themselves until he contracted emphysema; he died in New Orleans on December 1, 1986.

 

What Legendary Cornet Virtuoso Often Had to Be Awoken in Time to Play His Solos During a Number?

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Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke was one of the most sought after cornetists in the 1920s, although he only became famous many years after his death in 1931. Today he is considered one of the early jazz musicians skilled enough to be compared to the great Louis Armstrong, and his innovative approach helped direct later jazz styles. His life, on the other hand, was one riddled by self-destructive behavior, marked by uncontrollable and fatal alcoholism.

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Raised in Davenport, Iowa by a comfortable middle-class family, Beiderbecke developed skill at the piano at an early age. His knack for learning pieces by ear allowed him to forego intensive training, which would have required him to learn to read music.

He began to play the cornet at 16, inspired by Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jass Band.

His poor grades in school resulted from a lack of interest in everything but music, but in an effort to remedy this, his parents sent him to Lake Forest Academy, a boarding school in Illinois. There he continued to ignore his studies in favor of sneaking off to Chicago to hear jazz in speakeasies. He began to perform more and more in Chicago, and when he was expelled from the academy in 1922, he decided to pursue a career in music. He soaked up the early jazz sounds of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Freddie Keppard, as well as the music of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.

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Beiderbecke joined a band known as the Wolverines in 1923, expanding his exposure to audiences outside of Chicago, and most importantly, in New York. Around this time began his association with C-melody saxophone player Frankie Trumbauer.

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Beiderbecke and Trumbauer were similar in terms of their virtuosity and their refined, dulcet approach, contrasting from the boisterous sounds of hot jazz. Their playing is thought to have contributed to the development of “cool” jazz, a style made popular by Miles Davis and others in later decades.

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Beiderbecke played and recorded with a number of groups in the mid-1920s, and also developed a taste for Prohibition-era alcohol, which was often filled with poisonous contaminants. But while his addiction thrived, so did his career. Apparently, he was able to improve his poor reading ability because, in 1927, he and Trumbauer joined the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, and then the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Both were high-paid professional ensembles with large popular followings. Tellingly, reminders were found written in the 2nd trumpet chart,  to “Wake Up Bix” before it was time for him to solo.

During the late 1920s, Beiderbecke made several recordings on cornet with small groups that often included Trumbauer. The two famously recorded the tune “Singin’ the Blues,” on which their mellifluous tones and melodic sophistication signaled a departure from traditional styles. Beiderbecke also composed works for solo piano, including “In A Mist,” an elaborate piece that injects early jazz with elements of French impressionism.

Despite his successes, his heavy drinking stood in the way of his career, and in 1929, after a nervous breakdown, Beiderbecke was asked to take a leave of absence from the Whiteman Orchestra to recuperate. He never got clean, and two years later, on August 6th, 1931, after a binge on toxic liquor, Beiderbecke died at the age of 28.

What alluded Bix his entire life, was achieving any measure of success in his parent’s eyes, when he desperately craved. A famous anecdote speaks of a visit back home after a number of his recordings became popular around the world. Bix opened the closet to hang his coat, and say there was a pile of his records that he had sent them that were never opened.

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Although not fully recognized during his short life, Beiderbecke’s talent is hailed today. His restrained and reflective style has served as a model for countless followers, as has his melding of jazz and classical music influences. He died young, but his musical legacy endures.

A Recording That is Guaranteed to Have Your Lover Melt in Your Arms

 

If you and your lover are sitting by the fire on Christmas Eve anticipating the madness of the next day or on Christmas Evening decompressing from all the fun, pour a glass of brandy for both of you. Then let this music wash all over you – The results will be gorgeous…

At the time of his death in 1983, Johnny Hartman was already a ghost. A supreme interpreter of ballads with a lush, velvety baritone, Hartman combated indifference for nearly forty years, his one moment in the sun a 1963 collaboration with saxophonist John Coltrane’s classic quartet. That album, the superb John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, is Hartman’s definitive statement and remains, along with a glass of white wine and a crackling fire, an essential aid to seduction. For all that, Hartman’s post-Coltrane efforts, on the Impulse! label and otherwise failed to earn him the fame he deserved. His passing was a murmur; a whimper rather than a bang. The anonymity he struggled against claimed him, and the world was none the wiser.

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In 1961, jazz writer John Tynan scathingly referred to John Coltrane’s recent recordings as “anti-jazz,” “horrifying” and “gobbledegook.” Taking umbrage at this criticism and others similar in tone, Impulse Records producer and chief executive Bob Thiele steered Coltrane toward making a series of albums featuring ballads and standard tunes. As described in his autobiography, What a Wonderful World, Thiele said, “We decided to straighten these guys out once and for all by showing them that John was as great and complete a jazz artist as we already knew, and it was one of the few times he accepted a producer’s concept.” The first offering, Ballads, featured instrumentals performed by Coltrane’s classic quartet consisting of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. The second album paired the seemingly disparate styles of Coltrane and Duke Ellington. It was during the sessions with Ellington that Coltrane became comfortable recording only one or two takes of a song. According to Thiele, this was an important step in Coltrane’s development, because previously, “[He] would ask for one take after another, with each subsequent take inevitably less exciting and genuine than the previous attempt.”

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After the success of these two albums, Coltrane described why he felt a follow-up was necessary: “And these ballads that came out were definitely ones which I felt at this time. I chose them; it seemed to be something that was laying around in my mind—from my youth, or somewhere—and I just had to do them. They came at this time when the confidence in what I was doing on the horn had flagged; it seemed to be the time to clean that out.” To further this act of cleansing, Coltrane and Thiele began considering another album of ballads but this time with a vocalist, something Coltrane had never done on recordings under his own name (and would never do again). According to one account, all of Thiele’s early vocalist suggestions, including Sarah Vaughan, were declined by the saxophonist. Coltrane later described how he came to decide on the right singer: “Johnny Hartman—a man that I had stuck up in my mind somewhere—I just felt something about him, I don’t know what it was. I liked his sound, I thought there was something there I had to hear.” On another occasion, Coltrane offered simple but heartfelt reasoning for seeking out Hartman: “He’s a fine singer, and I wanted him to make a comeback.”

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Thiele gave his own recollections of the circumstances: “We had both agreed on some singers, but one night, John says, ‘There’s a guy that I think is great,’ and he described the background—where he heard him and why he liked him. So I contacted Johnny and that was the Hartman-Coltrane album.” Thiele provided further details in his autobiography: “Trane, who always wanted to record with a singer, chose as his collaborator an old comrade who was experiencing some hard times, the veteran balladeer Johnny Hartman.” Referring to both personal and musical reasons for the choice, Thiele continued, “Aside from the generous friendly gesture, Coltrane considered Hartman’s rich baritone and musicianly phrasing of lyrics to be the closest approximation of his saxophone sound.” As record producer and friend of Coltrane, Thiele’s comments must be seriously considered, but he was certainly incorrect on one point—Hartman and Coltrane were not old comrades. The myth that the two performed together in Dizzy’s orchestra perpetuated over the years, in no small part because of Thiele, but Hartman had left the group several months before Coltrane joined. Although they would have had the opportunity to hear each other perform at the Apollo Theater in March 1950, according to Hartman’s 1978 interview with Frank Kofsky (the only man to interview the two principals and producer of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman), he and Coltrane had never met or performed together before the 1963 album project.

Today, Johnny Hartman ‘ while still a relatively obscure figure ‘ is better known than at any time during his life. The CD era resurrected him, and his records are heard by jazz fans the world over. He is still best known for John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, but several other albums ( I Just Stopped By To Say Hello, And I Thought About You  (The Voice That Is ) have joined that classic in the pantheon of great vocal jazz recordings.

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Hartman is considered an acquired taste by some. His romantic sound isn’t to everyone’s taste, yet the best of his work lives on in boudoirs everywhere. One might call Hartman the thinking person’s Barry White. I can tell from personal experience that the first two bars of ‘They Say It’s Wonderful’ are enough to melt any woman. Still, there is more to the Hartman revival than superb mood music. This music endures because Hartman was an artist of the highest order. His elegant phrasing enlivens any tune.

Take, for example, Fats Waller’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin”, which Hartman recorded twice (once for Bethlehem on Songs from the Heart and again for ABC/Paramount on The Unforgettable Johnny Hartman ). As recorded by Waller on RCA in 1943, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” is a transparent lie. One imagines Waller’s fingers crossed behind is back as he tells his love that he’s ‘got no place to go’ and that he is ‘home about eight, just [him] and [his] radio.’ ‘Of course, I’m faithful, sugar!’ Waller’s classic tune declares with a wink, ‘Don’t you believe me?’ By contrast, Hartman’s rendition is jaded, yet sincere. It is a declaration of fidelity from a world-weary playboy. ‘Your kisses are worth waiting for,’ he sings, ‘Why don’t you believe me?’ The real difference lies in the way Waller and Hartman pronounce the word ‘believe’ in their recordings. Waller razzes the word, blubbering his lips over the initial ‘b’. Hartman caresses the word, extending it over three beats. The singer in Hartman’s version is wounded when his beloved doesn’t buy his story. Waller is a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

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In the decades that followed Hartman’s collaboration with Coltrane, hemade a number of albums designed to capitalize on that success. The best were the ones that immediately followed it on the Impulse! label. I Just Dropped By To Say Hello follows the formula of the Coltrane album, and does so with considerable success. The Voice That Is is marred by trendy arrangements on the second side, but succeeds overall despite this, thanks largely to the strength of the material. After a string of disappointing attempts to lend his sound to contemporary pop tunes (a strategy that worked for very few of Hartman’s generation) and a few strong collaborations with Japanese musicians (although never a household name in the United States, Hartman was ‘ in the immortal words of Tom Waits ‘ big in Japan), Hartman had receded from the public’s ear. The man who had once seemed the natural heir apparent to Billy Eckstine was fast becoming an invisible man.

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n August of 1980, three years before his death, Johnny Hartman entered a New York City recording studio to create one of his last great albums. Once In Every Life is a recording that delivers what even the best of Hartman’s post-Coltrane albums only promised. Fronting a small jazz combo, the context that best captured his unique sound, Hartman is completely at his ease. He is a little older, perhaps, but certainly wiser. The musicians on the date, particularly the great Billy Taylor on piano, compliment Hartman’s maturity. Their playing displays great artistry and great taste. These are gentlemen of the old school, completely at home in one another’s company. The atmosphere is one of romance, but not that of a schoolboy crush. It is the sound of something more adult; something that only comes from years of experience. The ballads, particularly “Wave”, “I See Your Face Before Me”, and “Moonlight In Vermont”, display Hartman’s mellow vocals to perfection. His duet with Al Gafa’s guitar on the aforementioned “Moonlight In Vermont” stands as one of the album’s most beautiful and satisfying moments. Once In Every Life will never displace John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman for most listeners, yet it stands among Hartman’s best and most consistent work. His voice is deeper and richer than before. His readings of familiar material (Hartman had recorded ‘I See Your Face Before Me‘ and ‘Moonlight In Vermont‘ while on Bethlehem nearly thirty years before) become definitive.

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Sadly, Once In Every Life has been out of print in the United States for years and has never been released on CD in its original form. Fortunately, the entire album is available spread out over two CDs: The 1995 soundtrack album to Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County and a second collection titled Remembering Madison County. While the two soundtrack discs can be enjoyed in their own right (the first disc features, in addition to the Hartman numbers, three recordings by Dinah Washington while the second includes two gems from Ahmad Jamal), the enterprising Hartman fan can, with the aid of a CD burner, reconstruct the album in its original sequence. Once In Every Life can then be enjoyed as nature intended. It is a fine addition to Hartman’s discography, and we can only hope that it will be reissued under its own title in the near future.

Hartman’s legacy will always be one of artistic triumph balanced against commercial disappointment. Thankfully, there are plenty of excellent recordings for future generations to discover and enjoy. So long as they do, Hartman’s ghost will never completely fade.

Which Blues Guitarist Was Known As the “Iceman”?

With our recent below freezing temperatures, I felt that this would be a good time to look at the life and career of the performer who earned the nickname the “Iceman”.

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There has never been and may never be again a bluesman quite like Albert Collins, “The Master of the Telecaster.” Although he went largely unrecognized by the general public during most of his career, the Texas-born musician Albert Collins eventually was acknowledged as one of the most talented and distinctive blues guitarists of his era. He established his fame by creating a unique sound with his Fender Telecaster guitar that was based on unusual tunings and scorching solos. His nickname “Iceman” was bestowed on him because his guitar sounds were piercing and could scorch the ears, just as icicles were sharp and could burn.

Peter Watrous wrote in the New York Times that “Mr. Collins made his reputation by combining savage, unpredictable improvisations with an immediately identifiable tone, cold and pure.” “In the Iceman’s powerful hands,” said Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player, “that battered Tele could sass and scold like Shakespeare’s fire, jab harder than Joe Louis, squawk like a scared chicken, or raise a graveyard howl.”

Musicians ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Canned Heat to Robert Cray have cited Collins as having a major influence on their styles. He was especially known for his frenzied live performances, during which he would often stroll into the audience and dance with the fans, his playing arena extended by a 100-foot extension cord attached to his electric guitar. Often he would start talking a blue streak, regaling his fans with hilarious and lewd remarks.

While his crowd-pleasing improvisations made him an extremely popular performer over the years, his recordings sold erratically until late in his career. His ultimate fame was also delayed by the long-time domination of Chicago blues over the Texas-based version. While the Chicago blues of performers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf emphasized group jam sessions, the Texas variety was more of a showcase for individual talent where guitarists tried to outplay each other. Few could compete with Collins in these “bouts,” but his talent didn’t bring him widespread fame until he was brought to the attention of rock fans in the late 1960s.

A pianist in his church, his idol when he was a teen was Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy McGriff, but his interest in that instrument waned after his organ was stolen.

Later, he learned about playing guitar from his cousins, blues guitarists Willow Young and Lightnin’ Hopkins. His cousins turned out to be major influences on Collins’s trademark style. He emulated Young’s style of playing without a pick and learned to tune the guitar in a minor key from Hopkins. By using his fingers rather than a pick, his playing developed a more percussive sound.

Collins claimed in Guitar Player that he made his first guitar out of a cigar box, using hay-baling wire for strings. This seems questionable, considering his cousins were successful guitarists and he had somehow managed to get an organ easy enough!

While Collins said that his greatest influence was Detroit’s John Lee Hooker, he spent much of his youth listening to the big band music of artists such as Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, and Tommy Dorsey. At one time he considered becoming a jazz guitarist, and his playing often shifted between blues and the horn-driven sound of a jazz big band.

After Collins switched from acoustic to electric guitar, he began listening to T-Bone Walker, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and B.B. King to refine his talent. Brown was a key influence due to his horn-driven sound that Collins found especially exciting. Collins emulated Brown by starting to play with a capo and a Fender guitar, an instrument that would become inextricably linked to him. Since he couldn’t afford to buy the guitar at that time, he started by having a Fender Telecaster neck put on another guitar. Throughout this time, he absorbed the sounds of Mississippi, Chicago, and especially Texas.

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By age 15 Collins was playing at local blues club with Brown. Then he formed his own group, the Rhythm Rockers, in 1952, with which he performed at honky tonks in Houston’s all-black Third Ward on weekends while working during the week as a ranch hand and truck driver. Next on his career path was three years of touring with singer Piney Brown’s band.

In the early 1950s, Collins’s talent earned him positions as session players with performers such as Big Mama Thornton. He later replaced future guitar great Jimi Hendrix in Little Richard’s band. By this time Collins had established himself as a great eclectic who could produce unusual sounds with his guitar playing. As David Gates wrote in Newsweek, Collins “tore at the string with his bare hands instead of the ostensibly speedier pick, used unorthodox minor tunings instead of the more versatile standard ones and unashamedly clamped on a capo (a bar across the fingerboard, which raises the pitch of the strings), making the already stinging Telecaster sound even more bright and piercing.”

Collins cashed in on the popularity of instrumentals ushered in by performers such Booker T., Duane Eddy, and Link Wray in the late 1950s. His first recording, an instrumental called “The Freeze,” featured extended notes played in a high register. Collins told Guitar Player that the record sold about 150,000 copies in a mere three weeks.

Albert lost a chance to play with soul music star James Brown in the late 1950s because he couldn’t read music.

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Then he hit the blues big time with his recording of “Frosty,” released in 1962, that sold over a million copies and became a popular blues standard. Teenagers Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter, both raised in Beaumont, supposedly, were in the studio when he recorded the song. According to Albert, Janis correctly predicted that the single would become a hit.

This song confirmed his reputation as a player of “cold blues,” and his producer urged him to continue this theme in his song and album titles. He even named his backup band The Icebreakers.

With just his fingers and his capo that he would move up and down the neck of his guitar, Collins produced a wide range of effects ranging from the sound of car horns to footsteps in the snow. He released a series of singles for small record labels such as Kangaroo, Great Scott, Hall, Fox, Imperial, and Tumbleweed that had moderate success at the regional level. Meanwhile, he still didn’t feel that he could make his living entirely from guitar playing and continued working as a truck driver and as a mixer of paint for automobiles.  He continued playing through the 1960s, but recording very sporadically and was unable to tour because of his day job.

According to Peter Watrous in the New York Times, Collins’ first significant album was Truckin with Albert Collins in 1965. The album featured what would become famous blues recording of his previously released “Frosty,” “Sno-Cone,” and other songs. Following the release of his compilation album, The Cool Sound of Albert Collins, he quit his paint job and moved to Kansas City in 1966. While there he met his future wife, Gwendolyn, who would become an important motivator for him as well the composer of some of his best-known songs. Among her compositions for Collins were “There’s Gotta Be a Change” and “Mastercharge.”

Blues music gained popularity in the late 1960s due to various rock performers such as Jimi Hendrix and Canned Heat stressing the importance of blues as inspiration for their work.  A major boost to Collins’ career came as the result of interest in him by Bob Hite. Hite recommended Collins to the Imperial, which was affiliated with Canned Heat’s label, Liberty/USA. His understated singing style showed up on a recording for the first time on Love Can Be Found Anywhere Even in a Guitar, the first of three albums that he recorded for Imperial. Later he recorded albums for Blue Thumb, then Bill Szymczyk’s Tumbleweed label in Chicago in 1972.

In 1968 and 1969, the ’60s blues revival was still going on, and Albert got wider exposure opening for groups like the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival and at Fillmore West in 1969 gained Collins more exposure and acceptance with young rock audiences. He also appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1975.

As late as 1971, when he was 39 years old, Collins found it necessary to work in construction because he couldn’t make a sufficient living from his music.

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But Albert’s greatest success came after he signed with Alligator in 1978 and cut Ice Pickin’. It won the Best Blues Album of the Year Award from the Montreux Jazz Festival and was nominated for a Grammy. His following Alligator albums helped earn Collins every award the blues world had to offer. And, along with Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray (who decided on a career as a bluesman after seeing Collins play his high school prom) Collins cut the Grammy-winning Showdown!

More comfortable playing for small audiences than mass gatherings, Collins nevertheless agreed to perform in the 1985 Live Aid Concert with George Thurogood which was aired to an estimated 1.8 billion viewers. Right into his fifties, he maintained his flamboyant stage presence. Eventually, Collins was well established as the leading blues celebrity second only to guitarist B.B. King.

Albert Collins was the subject of television documentary on PBS, Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, 1980s.

Even after he was firmly established as a major modern bluesman, Collins never got too big for his fans and friends, and never took things easy. And he never relinquished the wheel of his battered tour bus that he loved to drive so much. Along with his band, The Icebreakers, Collins’ live shows — driven by his kinetic stage presence — were legendary testaments to the power of the blues.

Although he’d spent far too much time in the 1970s without recording, Collins could sense that the blues were coming back stronger in the mid-’80s, with interest in Stevie Ray Vaughn at an all-time high. He enjoyed some media celebrity in the last few years of his life, via concert appearances at Carnegie Hall, on Late Night with David Letterman, in the Touchstone film, Adventures in Babysitting, and in a classy Seagram’s Wine Cooler commercial with the actor Bruce Willis. The blues revival that Collins, Vaughan, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds helped bring about in the mid-’80s continued into the mid-’90s. But sadly, Albert was not able to take part in the ongoing evolution of the music.

 Check out the young, thin Bruce Willis!

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“The Master of the Telecaster,” “The Iceman,” and “The Razor Blade” was robbed of his best years as a blues performer by a bout with liver cancer that ended with his premature death on November 24, 1993. He was just 61 years old. The highly influential, totally original Albert Collins was on the cusp of a much wider worldwide following via his deal with Virgin Records’ Pointblank subsidiary.

Albert left behind a blues legacy that continues to amaze and delight blues fans all over the world.

 

Who Was Known As the “World’s Greatest Bar Band”?

Any lingering delusions concerning the silly charade that is the “Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame” can be quickly dispelled by a single ludicrous oversight: NRBQ, short for the New Rhythm And Blues Quartet, has never made it onto a single ballot. Over the course of four decades, the band’s vibrant, unruly take on everything from power pop to barrel house blues to free jazz has inspired generations of younger artists to emulate their infectious spontaneity. Peerless as musicians and songwriters, and unforgettable as performers, the group’s classic line up of pianist Terry Adams, bassist Joey Spampinato, guitarist Al Anderson and drummer Tommy Ardolino was a musical Mount Rushmore, regularly drawing thousands of fans throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s to see their live spectacle, usually with little or no backing from a music industry too myopic to recognize their extraordinary appeal. When Anderson departed amicably in 1994 in order to pursue a highly successful career as a Nashville songwriter, Joey’s brother, Johnny Spampinato nimbly replaced him on guitar, and NRBQ rolled on gloriously for nearly another decade.

Often called “the world’s greatest bar band,” NRBQ are that rare group that’s eclectic, stylistically innovative, and creatively ambitious while also sounding thoroughly unpretentious and accessible. At its best, NRBQ’s music casually mixes up barrelhouse R&B, British Invasion pop, fourth-gear rockabilly, exploratory free jazz, and dozens of other flavors while giving it all a stomp-down rhythm that makes fans want to dance and expressing a sense of joy and easy good humor that comes straight from the heart. Over the course of a career that’s lasted more than 40 years, the band has barely flirted with mainstream success, but has still earned a sizable, passionate cult of fans.

It remains nearly impossible to overstate the devotion that the name NRBQ inspires in their ardent fan base. Counted within this coterie of admirers is a startlingly impressive cross-section of fellow artists and musicians, whose diversity and high-ptofile are a tribute to the band’s protean agility. Paul Westerberg and Elvis Costello have borne witness to the band’s genius, and Keith Richards once handpicked Joey Spampinato to man the bass for his Chuck Berry tribute concert film Hail, Hail Rock And Roll. Everyone from Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt to Steve Earle to She and Him  covered their songs. Mike Scully, producer of “The Simpsons” counts the band as one of his very favorites, and has used NRBQ songs in multiple episodes. This is unsurprising – amongst other attributes – NRBQ songs are often hilarious.

It’s perhaps appropriate for an operation as idiosyncratic as NRBQ that their origins feel somewhat murky. What is known and agreed upon is that in 1966, a 17-year-old Terry Adams “had a vision to put together a band that plays whatever it wants, whenever it wants.”  Adams recruited a few players from his neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, including Keith Spring and his horn-playing brother Donn soon to be known as the Whole Wheat Horns, along with his classmate, guitarist Steve Ferguson.  “When Steve and I first met,” recalls Adams, “we brought out the best in each other. I was the brains and he was the heart of the early NRBQ.” Later members of the band echo the pivotal nature of Ferguson’s role in formulating NRBQ’s unique aesthetic. To this day Al Anderson, who replaced Ferguson in 1971, says that his favorite NRBQ records are the ones Ferguson plays on, before he joined. Adams summarizes Ferguson’s contribution this way: “He defined what the guitar in NRBQ is supposed to sound like.”

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The band landed a recording contract with Columbia Records, and in 1969 NRBQ released their self-titled debut; displaying a stylistic range that would become the band’s hallmark, the first two tunes found them covering Eddie Cochran and Sun Ra, with numbers by Carla Bley, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and Bruce Channel, and popping up elsewhere alongside a handful of group originals. The album was well reviewed but sales were spotty, and for their second LP Columbia hoped to trade on a revival of interest in first-era rock & roll by pairing the band in the studio with rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins. Boppin’ the Blues was an interesting experiment that didn’t fare much better than NRBQ’s debut, and they parted ways with Columbia.

nrbq-scraps                                wildweeds

Despite the large footprints left by Ferguson’s departure, the band’s greatest notoriety came in its next iteration. When Big Al Anderson joined the band, a former member of Connecticut white soul heroes  the Wildweeds (one of my favorite one-semi-hit-wonder bands) took over on lead guitar for 1972’s Scraps on Kama Sutra Records, playing his first gig on September 10, 1971, a legend was born: Four distinct (and distinctly unusual-looking) musicians playing unfashionable, brilliant music, in a manner with little precedent. When questioned about the compelling uniqueness of NRBQ’s live act, Terry Adams says, “Music should be anything but boring. I can get bored listening to a great band if they don’t know how to vary their great sound.” NRBQ was famous for never having a set list and for offering their audience a “magic box” where they could handwrite requests for any songs (not necessarily NRBQ songs) and the band would be obliged to play them. The outcome of this approach to playing live was challenging, exciting and above all, spontaneous. It is the sort of high-wire gymnastic act that contemporary indie rock bands have managed to make into a commercial virtue. But for Anderson, the devil-may-care approach that resonates with present-day musicians was, in his words, “the death of us. We played all different kinds of music and at the time, that was against the law.”

Released in 1973, Workshop  featured a minor hit single in the topical novelty rocker “Get That Gasoline Blues,” but it was also the band’s last album for Kama Sutra due to disappointing sales.

By the time they released another album, 1977’s All Hopped Up, NRBQ had relocated to the Northeast, they were recording for their own Red Rooster label, and new drummer Tom Ardolino (a fan who impulsively hopped up on stage and sat in on the traps during an encore at a gig) had signed on, solidifying a lineup that would remain stable until 1994. One number from All Hopped Up, “Riding in My Car,” attracted enough regional notice that Mercury signed the band and tacked the tune onto its next album, the marvelous NRBQ at Yankee Stadium (they didn’t play there; they just sat in the stands). Of all their records, this one is my personal favorite.

 

The Mercury signing proved to be a one-off, and Red Rooster struck up a distribution deal with the respected roots music label Rounder Records; outside of Grooves in Orbit, released by Bearsville Records in 1983 (shortly before they went out of business), Red Rooster/Rounder would be their home for the better part of 20 years as they released a steady stream of independent albums and played seemingly every club in the United States at one time or another, building a well-deserved reputation as a stellar and wildly unpredictable live act.

wild-weekend             grooves

In 1989, NRBQ took one last chance with the major labels, signing with Virgin for the album Wild Weekend. The album fared better commercially than most of their LPs, but it was still well short of a hit, and their next disc was an archival live release for Rykodisc, 1992’s Honest Dollar. In 1994, Rhino Records (who had previously compiled an excellent NRBQ anthology, Peek-A-Boo) released Message for the Mess Age, which proved to be Al Anderson’s last album with NRBQ. Anderson was tired of the band’s busy touring schedule and left the group to work as a contract songwriter in Nashville, penning hits for Carlene Carter, Trisha Yearwood, the Mavericks, and LeAnn Rimes among many others. (Anderson told a reporter he left NRBQ on good terms, adding “It was a great band before, and will be a great band after.”)

Al was replaced by Joey Spampinato younger brother Johnny, already an esteemed guitarist in the power pop band The Incredible Casuals. At the outset, the line-up shift perhaps seemed precarious – Anderson was literally and figuratively a gigantic presence and it was difficult to imagine the band without him, but there could be no better replacement in terms of retaining the NRBQ gestalt. Johnny had been a fan of the band from an early age and coveted the chance to play with his brother. “I didn’t want to let the boys down. I was influenced by Steve Ferguson and by Al,” Johnny recollects. “You want to fill the hole for what was there, but you want to be yourself.”

The band continued to tour regularly and record sporadically They also began popping up regularly on the popular television series The Simpsons; one of the show’s top writers, Mike Scully, was a major fan, and he recruited them to record several numbers for the show, as well as appearing on the show in both animated and live-action form (they even wrote a tune specifically for The Simpsons, “Mayonnaise and Marmalade”). The band formed a new label, Edisun Records, to release 2002’s Atsa My Band and 2004’s Dummy , and in 2004, NRBQ staged a pair of 35th anniversary concerts in Northampton, Massachusetts, which featured appearances by every current and former member of the group.

This, for Joey Spampinato, is the “essence”  of NRBQ. “There were different versions of the band,” he says, “but it always had the same spirit. After Al left, my brother came into the band and picked up on the spirit. ” Terry Adams feels similarly with regard to the changes in the band personnel over time. “It’s always so difficult. But as great as Steve Ferguson was, we would have never had Al Anderson. We would have never had Tommy Ardolino. If Al hadn’t left, we wouldn’t have had Johnny.” And for Joey, “You can interchange people, as long as the spirit’s there, it works.”

Terry Adams considers NRBQ to be his life’s work. For him, the vision that he had in 1966 when he started NRBQ is the vision that he maintains to this day, “That desire to make music, any music we want, any style, any time, regardless of the consequences, is a philosophy I am not going to let go of at any time. I love the idea of playing reunions and playing the old songs, but I can’t say that really satisfies my purpose. I need to keep NRBQ going and make new songs that apply to now, and move forward.” To this end, Adams has in recent years rechristened the Terry Adams Quartet the “New NRBQ,” released the positively-received studio album Keep this love Going in 2012, as well as a 2013 live record documenting the largely successful touring with the new lineup. Audiences seem enthused, but the question remains, for some, can this be considered the “real deal?”

.Joey Spampinato and his brother Johnny put together their own foursome called The Spampinato Brothers and worked together on a series of ambitious recordings. Al Anderson’s star continued to rise in Nashville, where he wrote several award-winning songs, and released a handful of well-received solo albums. Each of the principal members has recollections of what was, what might have been, and what the future holds

“I guess nothing can really last forever,” says Joey Spampinato, who in 2011 played a series of highly successful shows with his brother and his old band mate Al Anderson. Joey is an equal claimant to NRBQ’s extraordinary legacy, having participated in the band’s earliest recordings and staying on for nearly four decades. He recalls, “I met Terry Adams in ’67. We thought the same. We put that band together. The two of us were what kept it going when other people weren’t there anymore. But things have changed today. Terry’s gone on now [as NRBQ] and I hear the band is great. When he decided to change the name to NRBQ I was a little bit put off and I was hurt, but I’ve come to terms with it and I’m ready to move on. If he needs that, he should have it.”

When Tommy Ardolino, NRBQ’s longtime drummer succumbed to a variety of illnesses on January 6, 2012, fans and band members alike experienced an outpouring of grief that reflected his stature as a truly singular performer and the loveable linchpin to the band’s greatest achievements.

Founding member Ferguson died of cancer at his home in Louisville on October 7, 2009 at the age of 60. Adams also struggled with health problems; he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004, though in 2011 he announced he was free from the illness. Joey and Johnny, meanwhile, hit the road as the Spampinato Brothers and released a fine album, 2010’s Pie in the Sky. In the spring of 2011, Adams announced that The Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet had been renamed NRBQ, and they released an album under their new moniker, Keep This Love Goin’, in May of that year. Longtime drummer Tom Ardolino appeared on two tracks and drew the album’s cover art, but health problems prevented him from touring; he died on January 6, 2012 in Springfield, Massachusetts at the age of 56. Ardolino final recordings with the new edition of NRBQ appeared on 2012’s We Travel the Spaceways, with the band members once again indulging their fondness for Sun Ra on the title cut. Adams’ NRBQ’ returned to action in 2014 with the album Brass Tacks. In 2016, NRBQ hit the road for a well received tour in tandem with masked instrumental rockers Los Straitjackets. Later that same year, Omnivore Recordings commemorated NRBQ’s golden anniversary with a five-disc, career-spanning box set, High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective.

Between the members, a complicated cocktail of long-standing enmity, sympathy, bitterness and admiration continues to persist. This is only too understandable: for the outsider, there is no imagining the fallout from all of the exultations and frustrations incubated throughout forty hard years on the road. But for longtime fans, the seemingly implausible hope of a reunion will remain a paramount fascination. We have tragically lost Tommy Ardolino, but with the remaining members hale, hearty and practicing their craft at the highest level, it is nearly impossible to not dream of Anderson, Adams and the Spampinato’s working together again. They might not feel that they need or can even stand one another. But for an audience nourished on the uninhibited joy of their inimitable music, only NRBQ puts the good in us all. Our love is never-ending.

 

 

Which Successful Female Singer Started her Career Playing “The Stomach Steinway?”

Today is Connie Francis’ 78th birthday. For those of us who really too young to remember her in her prime in the late 50’s, it is hard to appreciate how talented and popular she was.She really is the prototype for the female pop singer of today. In 1958, she earned her first million dollars, topped polls for Favorite Female Singer and received 5,000 fan letters a week. I must admit that listening to her music with today’s ear, it is high on the schmaltz scale, but she cave the people what they wanted during those years.

At the height of her chart popularity in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Francis was unique as a female recording artist, amassing record sales equal to or surpassing those of many of her male contemporaries. Ultimately, she branched into other styles of music — big band, country, ethnic, and more. She still challenges Madonna as the biggest-selling female recording artist of all time.

She was originally supposed to be born in Brooklyn, where her family lived at the time. However, her mother was visiting relatives in Newark, NJ, and attended an all-night dance when she went into labor.

Like Madonna,  Concetta Rosemarie Franconero came from an Italian-American background and a very strict family. She was not allowed to attend her high school prom by her parents but was permitted to attend her school’s weekly chaperoned “Beehive” dances.

Connie started her music career at three, playing an accordion bought for her by her contractor father, George.She was asked by him if she would rather have piano or accordion lessons. Since her father was an accordion player and often played to her, she chose the “Stomach Steinway”, a decision she said she has come to regret. Her father’s dream was not for his daughter to become a star, but for Connie to become independent of men as an adult with her own accordion school of music. .

At age ten, she was accepted on Startime, a New York City television show that featured talented child singers and performers. The show had no one else who played an accordion. Its host, legendary TV talent scout Arthur Godfrey, had difficulty pronouncing her name and suggested something “easy and Irish,” which turned into Francis. After three weeks on Startime, the show’s producer (and her’ would-be manager advised her to dump the accordion and concentrate on singing. Connie performed weekly on Startime for four years.

When she was first making demos, a New Jersey mobster approached her father and offered to place Connie’s songs in every jukebox along the East Coast. Mr. Franconero protested, stating that if his daughter was going to make it he wanted to see her do it on her own.

After being turned down by almost every record label she approached, 16-year-old Francis signed a record contract with MGM, only because one of the songs on her demo, “Freddy,” also happened to be the name of the president’s son. “Freddy” was released in June 1955 as the singer’s first single. After a series of flop singles, on October 2, 1957 she undertook what was to be her last session for MGM.

Speaking about her MGM record contract she said ” I never paid for anything. There was never any recoupment for all the sessions I did. Not one penny. I had four people I hired to work for me on letters and on foreign releases. They paid for every photograph and I kept the photos. Travel, everything, was paid for. Even if it wasn’t on MGM business, it was paid for. Gowns-bills were sent to MGM because I needed them for album covers. I bought them, and wore them. I could record where I wanted, however many songs I wanted, in whatever country, in whatever language, with whatever arranger, and then the bottom line was, if I didn’t like any of it, I didn’t have to release it. I didn’t abuse it. I tried to release even the garbage so that I wouldn’t just be recording and not releasing stuff.”

Ms. Francis had recently accepted a premed scholarship to New York University and was contemplating the end of her career as a singer. Having recorded two songs, she thanked the technicians and musicians, hoping not to have to record the third song her father had in mind, an old tune from 1923. After a false start, she sang it in one take. When Dick Clark played “Who’s Sorry Now?” on American Bandstand, he told the show’s eight million viewers that Connie Francis was “a new girl singer that is heading straight for the number one spot.”

When she first appeared on the scene she was written up in several magazines as being the new Judy Garland. Unfortunately she fell into some of the same traps that Judy did. Speaking about Hollywood trying to get her thin, she said ” I didn’t know anything about speed or diet pills, but they gave me these little red pills, like Benzedrine, that you can only buy in Mexico now.”

“Who’s Sorry Now?” was the first of Connie’s long string of worldwide hits. By 1967, she had sold 35 million worldwide, with 35 U.S. Top 40 hits and several number ones (“Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own,” “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You,””Lipstick On Your Collar,” and “Stupid Cupid”) to her credit.Singer/songwriter Neil Sedaka was originally hesitant to offer her the song, as he thought it was much too juvenile for her.

The news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination reached her on the set of her third MGM film, Looking for Love (1964). She recorded the single “In The Summer of His Years” in honor of the fallen president and packaged it in a conservative gold sleeve with no photos. All proceeds from the song were donated to the family of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippitt, who had been shot and killed by alleged Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald..

Ms. Francis had an affinity for languages and was one of the first pop singers to record her songs in other languages; 1961’s title song from the movie Where the Boys Are was recorded in six languages. She starred in four (nondescript) films, sang voice-overs in movies for actresses who could not sing, and was a guest star on innumerable TV shows. She had appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”) a total of 26 times.

One of the guests shown on the episode of This Is Your Life  spotlighting Connie was her fourth-grade teacher. Connie said that she always appreciated her support over the years, as the teacher she had the year previous told her that she’d never make it.

When show host Perry Como wanted her to sing the Italian song “Mama” on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall (1948), she was very hesitant as she didn’t want to be labeled an ethnic singer. The performance gained such a positive response that she released several records in Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese and a number of other languages.

“Overseas, especially in England, I was an adult star before I was an adult star in America. But here, they didn’t take me seriously until that night on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall. I remember it was a Wednesday night, and I had a concert at Carnegie Hall the following Sunday and only 200 seats had been sold. Within 24 hours after doing “The Perry Como Show” they were scalping tickets to get into my show at Carnegie Hall.

Regarding her version of “God Bless America”,  In an interview published in the September 1991 issue of DISCoveries Magazine, Connie tells ‘Jerry Osborne’: Irving Berlin had a fit when he found out I was doing it. He called my manager and said, “If that teenybopper louses up my beautiful ‘God Bless America’ the way she did poor Harry Ruby’s ‘Who’s Sorry Now’, I’m going to have a stroke”. My manager said, “Please, Irving, relax. You’ll be the first to hear it.” “I just don’t want it loused up with any of that ‘Stupid Cupid’ crap!”, said Irving. Then when the record came out, my manager sent it directly to him and he said, “She did it just the way I thought she’d do it. It stinks! It’s worse than that.” I can’t even tell you what he said. So, when it made the Top 10 in Variety, Irving called my manager and says, “George, do you think she can do ‘God Bless America’ on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall?”

Elvis Presley attended one of her concerts and had to leave for emotional reasons once he heard her sing the song “Mama” as his mother had just recently died. The next day Elvis sent Connie two dozen yellow roses with a note apologizing for his abrupt exit.

Music critics who didn’t take kindly to her pop music years were eventually won over by her versatility. Her Italian and Jewish albums transformed Francis from a teenage idol to a mature performer at leading nightspots around the world. She has also had a long history being a composer’s first choice to interpret songs that went on to become major hits for other artists, including “Somewhere My Love,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Angel in the Morning,” and “When Will the Apples Fall.”

where-the-boys-are On the set of “Where the Boys Are”

While the recording of “Who’s Sorry Now?” in 1957 was planned to be her final session for MGM, she actually ended that relationship in 1969, choosing not to renew her contract when MGM was taken over by Polydor. She opted instead for domestic life with her third husband. Francis didn’t return to the recording studio until 1973 when the writers of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” longtime friends, wrote “The Answer” especially for her.

connie-dusty

 Connie Francis & Dusty Springfield during the “Big Hair” days

In 1974, her husband encouraged her to return to the stage, with disastrous consequences. After her third performance, at the Westbury Music Fair in New York, she was raped at knifepoint at the Howard Johnson Motel where she was staying. She subsequently sued the hotel chain for failing to provide adequate security when she learned that a year after the rape occurred, the broken lock to her former room had never been repaired. She was awarded a reported $3 million..

She was on the comeback trail in 1981 when her brother, George, was brutally murdered.  “He had the greatest sense of humor in the world. When he heard that I was getting married for the third time, he said, “Let me ask you a question”, he said. “Don’t you think it would be a good idea if you bought a drip-dry wedding dress?” I said, “Don’t get cute, Georgie”. Then he said, “Is Anita going to be my best friend? Is Anita going to be your Matron of Honor again?” I said, “Yes”. He said, “It is a nice thing you keep doing for Anita. Everybody needs a steady job.”

Connie Francis has been married and divorced four times. (I guess she was “sorry now” quite often!) She previously dated singer Bobby Darin, who quickly ended the relationship once her father ran him off from one of her shows with a pistol.

She finally made her return to the stage and recording in 1989, and Connie Francis has continued to sing to sold-out audiences into the new millennium. She has recorded more than 70 LPs.

connie-today

Connie Francis is still performing these days.

Which Famous British Bluesman Lived in a Treehouse while a Teenager and Later as an Adult With His Wife?

A few veteran blues musicians could still introduce a number by saying: “This is a song I wrote about bad experiences in the army …” and they’d probably be referring to Vietnam. But not many – if any – could say: “when they sent me to Korea”.

However, John Mayall was conscripted to serve in the British army in Korea between 1950 and 1953. He recently cued his song One Life to Live with a reference to Korea – “The age thing doesn’t come into this. I’m working as hard as I usually do and playing as many gigs as I usually do, not just because it’s my 83.”  Mayall still sings the song with a poignant anger and severity at odds with his normal performing exuberance.

But that is the essence of John Mayall, as it was the way of the blues master who influenced him more than any other – JB Lenoir: “You sing about your life, and your time”, Mayall says. “A lot of the critics thought that song was rather trite, but I thought: ‘I’ve got to have a song about this,’ and what I write about in this song never changes. That’s the whole point.

“It’s part of what the blues does, to write about these things. JB Lenoir was the main one in this regard – he wrote about Korea, too, in fact. Songs that reflect these current situations – in his case, racial issues for the most part: in my case, what has happened to me, and I was in Korea.”

Shot in 1968 on Rick Shaw’s “Saturday Hop”, Miami, FL. John was 34 years old and had a young looking Bluesbreaker band that didn’t look too enthusiastic being on TV. Check out Mick Taylor on the guitar. Sooo young and talented.

But, of course, we do just that because no Brit can be rightly called an institution in the history of the blues like John Mayall. Mayall made these people, and many more, and took his place among the veterans in America. Like the blues, he never went, and has not gone away.

cyril-davies-alex-korner Cyril Davies & Alex Korner

There is this mystery. Why was it, back in the early 1960s, that great black blues musicians – playing acoustic in the Delta and electric in Chicago – could barely get a gig outside the ghetto in their own country, but set aflame the imagination of young white musicians in England? The answer had something to do with the fact that Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, and John Mayall had come upon the blues several years before, and started the white blues revival.

Mayall was born in Macclesfield and grew up in Manchester – his father was a lover of jazz and a good jazz guitarist. Young Mayall learned early: piano, guitar, and mouth harp. He went to junior art college and in 1956 founded the Powerhouse Four, an R&B dance band. As an interesting aside, wanting his own space Mayall moved into the backyard treehouse at his family home age 15. The Manchester Evening News wrote a story about the treehouse home and after the Korean War, he and his first wife lived there, also.

He got work window dressing for a department store and in a studio attached to an advertising agency before the army called. When he returned, aged 29, he formed the Blues Syndicate in Manchester before being persuaded by Alexis Korner to come to London. There, in 1963, Mayall formed the Bluesbreakers and set out along the road on which he remains.

“The blues fitted in with the early 60s, the social way of life at the time,” Mayall says. “Things were changing anyway – in fashion, art, political views. We in Britain had spent the 1950s listening to trad jazz – Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies were part of the jazz scene, and this interest in the blues emerged from that jazz scene. It happened here, rather than in America, because at the time, the scene in America was racially segregated – over there, never the twain would meet. In Europe, however – not just England – the black blues began to be heard by an audience that was not listening to them in America. We discovered Elmore James, Freddie King, JB Lenoir, and they spoke to our feelings, our life stories and that was it. Hooked.”

The first time I ever heard this, I had to play it three times. It just blew me away and still does today. No oubt Freddie King enjoyed the royalties!

The first Bluesbreakers album, “John Mayall plays John Mayall”, was released in 1965, then, in April 1966, Mayall released a second album to introduce a guitarist, a troubled young man who played like a hurricane, Eric Clapton. After hearing his work with the Yardbirds, Mayall heavily recruited him for the Bluesbreakers.By this point in his career, Clapton wanted to play the blues. Clapton has since recalled how he came to the blues, staying in a tiny room with Mayall and family, immersed in Mayall’s record collection: “We would listen to lots of blues and pick songs that were right for the stage. He was keen to draw me out and find out what I thought. It was most unusual.”  The first single recorded with Clapton, “I’m Your Witchdoctor” (Oct. 1965) on the new Immediate label was produced by a future Yardbird, Jimmy Page.

Mayall remembers: “We listened to those records in the early days at my house when we were woodshedding in the Bluesbreakers. He’d say: ‘Listen to this Otis Rush one’ – they would be obscure things to most people, but I had those records and Eric and I used to listen to them.”

jm-and-keefThe Bluesbreakers with Keef Hartley  

jm-clapton This album was also known as “The Beano Album”, due to the comic book Clapton is reading on its cover. It is the only album he recorded with the band.

jm-aynse

The Bluesbreakers with Aynsley Dunbar

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The Bluesbreakers with Mick Taylor

Mayall was very upset upon hearing Clapton was leaving the band. He agreed to stay on until a replacement could be found. After missing numerous shows, however, Eric was fired. Clapton  then formed Cream with Jack Bruce (also briefly a Bluesbreaker) and Ginger Baker.

Mayall found and recruited the other top-flight British blues guitarist Peter Green. Being more of a blues fan (and with some persuasion), Green accepted the offer to join the Bluesbreakers full time in July 1966. In late 1965 with Clapton on vacation, Green filled in for a couple of months with the band.And those two were just the starriest of a list of Bluesbreakers that would also include Mick Taylor, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Keef Hartley and Aynsley Dunbar – anyone who was anyone in British blues was part of Mayall’s orbit.

In June 1966, Taylor went to see Mayall perform (Clapton was a no-show). His friends encouraged him to ask Mayall if he could sit in; Mayall let him and Taylor played well. After the show, he disappeared before Mayall could get his name and phone number. Remembering how well he played, Mayall put an ad in ‘Melody Maker’ to find him. Taylor answered and soon joined the Bluesbreakers.

Drummer Aynsley Dunbar joined the Bluesbreakers in Sep. 1966. In April 1967 he was let go for playing too complexly and dominating the band’s sound. Mayall wanted a drummer who played in a simpler manner. Fleetwood was embarrassed about the replacement, thinking Dunbar was a far better drummer (which he was!)

Cream in 1968. In spite of personalities that did not mesh, and a lunatic on the drum kit, the band’s musicality, and talent changed music forever.

“If you go into blues history,” he reflects, “you find bands formed around the bandleaders, trying to realize the sound they wanted. They put the band together to enact what they had in mind. The main man chose the musicians to create a specific sound – I had certain ideas and I needed to go out and find the right people to realize them. I was a bandleader in that traditional role, as well as a front man. I used my ears to pick out what I thought would work and I suppose that in the long term the careers of the people involved show that I managed to pick out some pretty special people.”

In the mid-60s, the term to “break a record” meant to get it out there, to put it in front of a wide public. So the name of Mayall’s band was didactic: he wanted his music to abound, he wanted his little-known inspirations and their renderings of the blues to “break”. He even called his fourth album Crusade, in that vein. “That’s the whole purpose,” he says. “To use my position to draw attention to people who are lesser known than they should be.”

With the Bluesbreakers going towards a “jazzy” sound Peter Green gave notice he was leaving the band in June 1967. He wanted to form a new band with Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. Green and Fleetwood named the band Fleetwood Mac (McVie) as a way to get McVie to join them. McVie stayed with the Bluesbreakers until Sep. 1967 before joining Fleetwood Mac.

In Jan. 1968, the Bluesbreakers toured the U.S. for the first time. They broke attendance records at Café Au-Go-Go in New York, played in Detroit, Los Angeles, and finally San Francisco. During these dates the band first jammed with Jimi Hendrix, Freddie King, and Albert King.

During the late 1960s, following his move to California, Mayall produced three albums that constitute the core of his early career: Blues from Laurel Canyon, Bare Wires and Looking Back. They contain tributes in the style of his heroes – such as “Mr. James”, for Elmore James – but here Mayall forged his own inimitable and quintessential sound, within the tradition, but bound to no one, writing much of his own material.

On June 21 1968, the Bluesbreakers released “Bare Wires” which went to number three in the U.K. and number 59 in the U.S. This album was more jazz than blues featuring a horn section. Mayall was discouraged he had all these talented musicians, but, could only have so many solos. Soon he was back with a stripped down band and would continue to change lineups and musical styles until reforming the Bluesbreakers in 1982.

In 1969, the Rolling Stones were getting ready to tour North America. Because of visa and other problems for Brian Jones, Mick Jagger came to Mayall and asked his advice for a new guitarist for the Stones. Mick Taylor was invited by Jagger to a recording session, thinking they wanted session work done. He then realized he was being auditioned as their new guitarist. Jagger and Keith Richards were impressed and told him to come back the next day. He continued recording and rehearsing with the Stones for the rest of the summer. The song “Country Honk” from “Let It Bleed” 1969 was drastically altered when Taylor experimented with it. The new version of the song became “Honky Tonk Women”, Billboard number one July 26, 1969. They fired Jones in June 1969.

“Those albums were a natural development,” Mayall says. “I’ve never thought the blues was a matter of copying other people. The blues singer should sing songs about his own life. And once the ball got rolling, I felt confident enough to do that as well as cover other people’s songs, and the tributes. You’ve got to think about representing your own life in the music, and for me, that meant bringing in an element of jazz; I was brought up on jazz, it was my father’s work, it was in the house.”

This short biographical video gives a peek into the classic “Room to Move” from Mayall’s classic album Turning Point.

It showed up on one of Mayall’s greatest albums. Everyone who remembers the blues scene of the late 60s recalls the disbelief when Mayall ditched drums and lead guitar to release The Turning Point in 1969, led by mellifluous sax and finger-picking guitar. “The promoters didn’t think it would work,” he says. “They thought it would flop. But I was inspired by Jazz on a Summer’s Day by Jimmy Giuffre. He showed that you didn’t need drums to drive a rhythm, create that warm sound, play a jazz-blues fusion.”

Through the 70s, Mayall worked mainly with local musicians, making fusion music, before forming a new Bluesbreakers in 1984, keeping the name going until 2008, until it was once more dropped. “I thought it was a bit churlish to use the name of the Bluesbreakers – it seemed wrong in the light of the originals,” he says. “After a while, it started to stand still for me. You must reflect the times in your music – and if you are working as much as I do, and every year you are playing these tunes … You have to move on, do something different.”

And so Mayall arrived at his latest incarnation: John Mayall and his band. “I went back to being just John Mayall again, as it had been for most of the time. And I wanted to sing about life – and my life. Put all the ideas in the same basket.”

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John Mayall is known as “The Godfather of British Blues” – a moniker he doesn;t particularly care for….

Mayall is one of those musicians who prefers playing music to talking about it. But he does entertain that question to which there is no answer. What is it about the blues that takes you, claims you and never lets you go? “It’s about – and it’s always been about – that raw honesty with which the blues express our experiences in life, something which all comes together in this music, in the words as well. Something that is connected to us, common to our experiences. To be honest, though, I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what it is. I just can’t stop playing it.”