Saturday, 14 April 2018

Pre-Flamingos recording of Dream of a Lifetime

If you have already read my series discussing the Flamingos' early recordings (full list of posts here) you may not be aware of a postscript recently added to the piece about Dream of a Lifetime. The Flamingos recorded it in July 1954 for Parrot Records and remade it a couple of years later during their time at Chess, but I lazily presumed the number was written around the time of recording it. In fact there is a 1947 recording of the song, credited to Bill Johnson and His Musical Notes with "Vocal refrain by Gus Gordon and Trio." The composition is credited only to "Gene Rowland", however; Mack Kemp's name does not appear on the record label.

It's a beautiful performance in a style which brings the Ravens to mind: Gordon's lead may not be quite as distinctive as Maithe Marshall's but the gently jazzy backing has a similar feel to many records by the better-known group even if there's no fathoms-deep bass to provide vocal variety.

Coming to it after long familiarity with Sollie McElroy's take on the song, however, it strikes me that Gus Gordon seems calm and untroubled: celebrating a thing of beauty without being distracted by any strong passion during his task. Looking at the Flamingos' two recordings in an earlier post I described McElroy's vocal on the Parrot side as:
... not hesitant but slow, as though surprising himself with the boldness of the declarations he is framing ...

In fairness to Gus Gordon perhaps it should be pointed out that the Flamingos had more advanced technology on their side. The Parrot recording was engineered by Bill Putnam, a man whose pioneering work in creating reverb effects greatly enhanced their early recordings. (He was responsible for the Harmonicats' Peg O' My Heart, which some may remember from Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective.)

By the time of the Chess Records remake of Dream of a Lifetime, in July 1956, Nate Nelson had taken over as lead. His performance is, to my ears, less exciting than Sollie McElroy's - though in Nelson's defence the notion of what constituted a rock'n'roll backing had become more rigidly defined by the time he took over. Nelson is renowned for his smooth singing style but it may be that the brisker, more teen-friendly tempo offered him less opportunity to be as adventurous, in his own way, as McElroy.

Related posts and links:

Original post about Dream of a Lifetime here. 
Guide to Flamingos posts, described by Marv Goldberg as "a wonderful analysis of all their Chance and Parrot material", here.

Marv's peerless R&B Notebooks site includes a page about Bill Johnson and The Musical Notes here.
A post about Bill Putnam, who engineered or produced many doo wop records including those of the Flamingos, here.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Spencer's Risk by Andy Greenhalgh

I don't normally review fiction on this blog but I'm going to make an exception for Spencer's Risk, a hugely enjoyable first novel by the actor Andy Greenhalgh. An essentially comic tale of a man on the run to escape a gambling debt, this is no heartless romp, more an accidental voyage of discovery for its self-destructive hero with many unexpected twists and turns en route to keep the reader guessing right till the last page. It is also rich in descriptive detail, creating a convincing world: those with a toe in drama teaching will surely recognise Greenhalgh's hilarious account of its indignities, anxieties and infrequent triumphs.

There are touching moments, too, as we are taken more deeply into Spencer's struggles and the characters he meets along the way, catching glimpses of the person this loveable loser has the potential to become - if it's not too late. And throughout the story, the tempo is well judged: Greenhalgh has a surefooted sense of when to dwell on particular moments, comic or dark, and when to power on to the next curveball. Highly recommended.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman documentary and books

I have just watched AKA Doc Pomus, a documentary about the songwriter best known for his partnership with Mort Shuman in the late 50s and early 60s and the spate of pop gems which resulted. The mix of images, interviews and the obvious taking of pains has resulted in a compelling account: we see, for example, not only footage of Pomus's wedding but also the song ideas he scrawled on the backs of unused wedding invites - including the one which was to result in Save The Last Dance For Me, perhaps one of Ben E King's finest moments as well as Pomus and Shuman's. And if that isn't enough Pomus's wife, the addressee of the song, is on hand to talk with understandable emotion about her response to the song, although here and elsewhere you never feel the director is exploiting the situation, merely recording the depth of feeling which these songs and their creator evoked in so many.

There is plentiful archive footage of Pomus himself as well as interviews with family members, not to mention a high calibre of other talking heads including Dave Marsh and Peter Guralnick. This telling doesn't focus on the Brill Building glory years of the late fifties and early sixties to the exclusion of all else: we get a lot about his childhood, the polio which was to affect the rest of his life, and the epiphany of Big Joe Turner's 1944 recording of Piney Brown Blues, bookended by the information that Pomus actively helped Turner and other artists in later life by chasing up payments on their behalf. He was even aggrieved enough to call in a fake bomb warning to a club one night when they were insisting singer play a third show on the same night to maximise their profits. Turner's 1944 Decca recording had inspired Pomus to become a blues shouter himself, and he never forgot his debt.

I was already aware that Ben E King had been a friend of Pomus's, keenly appreciative of the fact that he was the only Brill Building writer to go to his gigs. King is an interviewee here, as well as being glimpsed in photographs as a party guest. Leiber and Stoller also appear to sing the Doc's praises (Jerry Leiber looking particularly frail by the time this was filmed), and at the end there is footage of Phil Spector and others speaking at Pomus's funeral; Spector says something to the effect that Pomus made him a better person, "believe it or not".

There is a strong sense throughout the film, in fact, that Doc Pomus inspired a great deal of love and affection in all those artists with whom he came into contact. Dr John, a particularly close companion and collaborator late in Doc's life, announces at the funeral that he is going to give up heroin and sings the Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson song My Buddy by way of tribute. There is a kind of link to Judd Appatow's recent documentary about Garry Shandling, which I may write about in a later post: whatever their considerable achievements in their own right, both Shandling and Pomus made a significant additional contribution to the arts as mentors, freely and unselfishly dispensing their hardwon knowledge to help many others achieve their own potential.

Before the hookup with Dr John it is odd to learn that there was a time when Pomus was making his living mostly from a poker club held in his home; new participants who didn't know their host beforehand would look around in astonishment at the gold records on the wall. When Elvis died Pomus assumed that his and Shuman's royalties from that sector would dry up but the event actually triggered a surge in record sales and his healthier bank balance eventually meant he was able to give up the poker nights and songwriting came back into his life, leading to collaborations with Dr John and others.

There are, as far as I know, two major books about Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman currently available. The first is Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus by Alex Halberstadt, published in 2007; the second is Pomus & Shuman: Hitmakers: Together and Apart by Graham Vickers, which came out in 2013.

Lonely Avenue is the better written, with access to more original research materials, but Graham Vickers, author of the  joint biography, contends that Pomus has been unfairly considered the senior partner (in terms of overall accomplishment) and it's possible that he may view Halberstadt's book and the documentary as ammunition in a kind of propaganda war by Pomus's friends. As a result, Pomus is given short shrift in the latter half of Vickers' book although, in fairness, the author does make absolutely clear from the off where his sympathies lie: taking into account his subsequent career Shuman's achievements "in the end, were the greater" and the book is a conscious attempt to correct the impression of his being no more than "a colourful note in the margins of Doc's life."

So we learn a great deal about Shuman as a translator of Jacques Brel's lyrics and as a major star in his own right in France, and as there is no dedicated biography of Shuman in English - not that I know of, anyway - this book certainly fills a gap, even if the writing is no more than serviceable.

I certainly learnt from it - which sort of proves Vickers' point. Because of his fame as translator of many of Jacques Brel's lyrics I had always vaguely assumed Shuman was responsible for the words and Pomus the music in their partnership, but it seems that Pomus was usually the lyricist and Shuman the composer even if each would offer advice to the other.

And partnerships are funny things: the right suggestion at the right time can transform a workmanlike number in something special. Dennis Norden has talked about the way in which, for a time, writing duos can be far greater than the sum of their parts. Mr Vickers thinks the lyrics are generally less important than the music in securing a song's immortality but I wouldn't be too sure about that. Dave Marsh and others have, in the past, talked about how some of those songs for the Drifters give the deliberate impression of having been translated from some foreign language, looking ever so slightly odd and stilted in English. That is certainly a strong part of the exotic charm of the songs Pomus and Shuman wrote for them.

To sum up: if you have been hovering between purchasing Lonely Avenue or Pomus and Shuman: Hitmakers,  I'd say you would need to buy both in order get a full picture of their separate careers. But if you are not particulary interested in What Mortie Did Next (or even that Mortie did Next), then Lonely Avenue is the better read.

Related posts and links:

More information about the documentary can be found on film's website here.

A clip of Ben E King singing a reworked version of This Magic Moment at a tribute to Doc Pomus (at the end of a post about Stand By Me) here. (This same performance is described in Geil Marcus's book The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs.)

Notes about Spencer Leigh's 1983 interview with Mort Shuman can be found here.

My review of Always Magic in the Air, Ken Emerson's account of the Brill Building songwriting pairs, can be found here. Emerson is also one of the contributors to the documentary.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Ian Whitcomb and Jim Dawson back on LuxuriaMusic

It has been some time since the writer, singer and all-round force of nature Ian Whitcomb was mentioned in this blog, so this is to alert readers to the happy news is that Ian, along with his pal Jim Dawson, is currently presenting a weekly show on internet radio station LuxuriaMusic which can be downloaded as two one hour podcasts; at the time of writing (March 2018) eight shows have been archived for your listening pleasure and you can help sponsor the show by buying a book or CD via the show's online store here. They are trying to raise enough money to ensure the station continues on air for another year.

Friday, 23 March 2018

More about John Watt and Davey Stewart

After rediscovering the parody of Jennifer Juniper mentioned in the previous post, I looked around to see what else could be found out about its perpetrators, John Watt and Davey Stewart, on the internet, and tried to recall more about the concert in which they featured at the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow around 1976.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Wine + Meat and Two Veg + Trapped Wind = The Berries, Juniperwise

A few days ago, surfing the net in a rare moment of relaxation, I came across a Fairport Convention parody from 2013 by John Watterson, aka Jake Thackray tribute act Fake Thackray. The "refreshed" lyrics make friendly mockery of the toping habits of individual members of the group, with whom he has performed:
In desperation Simon might
Have to resort to Diamond White ...

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Ken Dodd

I was saddened to hear of the death of Ken Dodd, who contributed a generous and funny introduction to Funny Bones, the book I wrote with Freddie Davies; he can be seen, above, with Freddie in a photograph taken for the book at one of Ken's Good Turns charity functions in his beloved (the attraction was mutual) Liverpool.

In the chapter entitled Surviving in the Clubs Freddie talks of the inspiration which Ken's act provided when the younger comedian was still trying to find his way:

Friday, 9 February 2018

Does 1973 McCartney song date back to Beatle days?

Paul McCartney fans may be interested to learn that one of the songs from the Red Rose Speedway album may actually date from Beatle days. McCartney has yet to confirm the story, disclosed to a British newspaper this week by an anonymous source "formerly involved with the Beatles",  but it seems that a photostat of a sheet from one of the exercise books in which Paul used to jot down song ideas has recently come to light - though the precise circumstances of the discovery have not been revealed - and the page contains what is clearly an embryonic version of the song Single Pigeon.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Cheapo Cheapo Records Memories

Oh Lord, Rupert Street 1975. Cheapo Cheapo Records would have been just there on the left, chock full of gold & wonder. I'd give a kidney to get into that pic right now.
Having shared my own feelings about Cheapo in the previous post, here are some extracts from pieces and discussions found online in order to fill out the story.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Cheapo Cheapo Records - the complete story

It's now almost eight years since the death of Phil Cording, owner of Soho's Cheapo Cheapo Records, on the 29th of January, 2009; two months later the shop was closed once for all.

Cheapo had been a kind of haven since I first came to London in 1985: many a Saturday evening had been spent within its doors, ferreting through a mix of tat and marvels. Others have praised its stock of Northern Soul, but for me just about everything had an appeal, possibly because my musical tastes were shaped jointly by David Essex and Hubert Gregg. The film That'll Be The Day started me on a lifelong exploration of rock'n'roll just as Gregg's radio shows were painlessly educating me about the music of the thirties and forties. Cheapo had no shortage of either decade; finding the same LPs I had loved as a teenager in its cramped and dingy surroundings made it a home from home in the middle of the metropolis.

A few months after discovering that Cheapo was no more I began to explore my feelings in this blog, writing about going through through "a kind of mini-grief process", aware of that how ridiculous that sounded. I didn't know then that Phil's death had been the cause; I was mourning the loss of the shop itself and its significance in my life.