Sunday, April 15, 2018

Doowop and much more in New England

I'm three days into my latest US music trip (with Alan Lloyd, John Howard and Gordon Fleming) and   I've been busy, the highlight being a highly enjoyable Doowop show last night in New Bedford, Massachusetts. We flew in to Boston on Thursday, picked up a car and drove the 30 odd miles to the small town of Mansfield, where we are staying in New England - much cheaper than downtown Boston. Next day we toured Boston on a trolley tour and were impressed  by the actors at the Tea Party experience: touristy, but fun. Back in Mansfield we had a superb Italian meal.
Yesterday we drove south to Providence, state capital of Rhode Island, for breakfast and then circumnavigated the tiny state, taking in Jamestown and Newport, famous for its jazz and folk festivals. It was a sunny day and the up market resort was busy, so we continued to New Bedford, once the centre of the whaling industry, where we toured the whaling museum. It's quite impressive but manages to glamourise the gory trade. We went to have a good Portuguese meal locally.
The Doowop show, in the Zeiterion Theater, is the 16th such show organised by enthusiast Todd Baptista, and featured four acts, each performing 8 or 9 songs. It's a good format which gives the acts a better chance to show off their repertoire than the Hauppagge shows, where only three or four are the norm. First up were The Orlons, not really a Doowop group perhaps, but good pop performers, featuring original members Stephen Caldwell and Jean Brickley. They were excellent on hits such as Not Me, Crossfire, Wah Watusi, Don't Hang Up and South Street and also included a couple of more obscure numbers - their 1961 debut number (Soldier Boy) I'll Be There and (Happy Birthday) Mr 21. Next up were The Mystics, from Brooklyn, with a lineup including original lead singer Phil Cracolici and second tenor George Galfo. They harmonised sweetly on Tonight, Don't Take The Stars, Chapel Of Dreams, All Through The Night and a dramatic Cara Mia. They did a quick take on Teenager In Love, a song written for them by Pomus and Shuman but given to label mates Dion and the Belmonts they said, before ending with their own smash Pomus and Shuman song Hushabye and Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart.
The second half began with the first appearance in 22 years by members of the Del Vikings including originals Ritzy Lee, Doug White and Joe Lopes (now in a wheel chair). The set included hits such as Whispering Bells, I'm Spinning, Cool Shake, Sunday Kind Of Love and, of course, Come Go With Me. There were also less well known tracks including the very similar Come Along With Me, Bring Back Your Heart (featuring soaring tenor by Terry Jones, one of the newer members), The Sun and Kiss Me, from their ABC Paramount era. Superb stuff. The final act was the wonderful La La Brooks, still in great voice and looking fabulous in a shiny silver trouser suit, who joined The Crystals aged 13 and sang lead on Then He Kissed Me, Da Doo Ron Ron,  Little Boy and I Wonder, all of which she sang to perfection. Other numbers included There's No Other Like My Baby, Uptown and Be My Baby before ending with an exciting version of Proud Mary, during which she mingled with a rapturous crowd. Great stuff from a great artist and overall a really great show. Todd insists on the acts singing their original material and on them meeting the fans in the foyer afterwards, all of which contribute to the success of his shows.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Off on a US road trip (again)

I'm off on another US road trip tomorrow, with Alan Lloyd, John Howard and Gordon Fleming. This has become a twice yearly event for me since I retired a few years ago, and long may these visits continue. This time we are starting off in the Boston area - a city I haven't visited before. The musical highlight of this part of the trip will be a doowop show at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford where the Orlons, the Del Vikings, the Mystics and La La Brooks are performing. (Photo shows La La with me at last year's Doowop Weekend in Long Island). I will no doubt catch up with my Boston friend Noah Shaffer, who has advised us of some more shows which are on while we are in Massachusetts. Keep an eye open for future reports.
After Boston we fly to Las Vegas where we shall be going to Viva Las Vegas, undoubtedly the biggest rockabilly festival in the world, for the fifth year running. Big names from the rock and roll era who are performing include Jerry Lee Lewis, Duane Eddy, Carl Mann, Narvel Felts, Hayden Thompson, the Eldorados, Norman Fox and Roddy Jackson, but there are dozens of other, younger acts, including the Stray Cats, our own Jackson Sloan, Big Sandy, Deke Dickerson, Lil Mo and the Dynaflos and Paul Ansell. And then there's the fabulous Burlesque Showcase which is a sight for sore eyes. The photo below shows Jerry Lee on his 'farewell' 80th birthday visit to the UK two years ago. at the London Palladium.
After Vegas we are heading out to California. Not sure where exactly at the moment, but we will probably take in Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles, from where we fly home in three weeks time.
To say this is a pensioner's outing is a little insulting, but undoubtedly true. I will be the youngest of the four on tour and I turned 72 this week! We all believe in growing old disgracefully, but I hope that we won't get escorted from a hotel at gunpoint, as happened in Nashville a few years ago, or threatened with a hurricane, as we were in New Orleans last year. Let the good times roll, as they say down there. Keep on eye on regular reports on The Vinyl Word, with lots of photos following, probably when we get back.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

London International Ska Festival

It's 50 years since Trojan was launched as a reggae and ska record label and 30 years since the inaugural London International Ska Festival took place. Now a regular fixture over the Easter weekend, this year's festival has featured some of the bigger names of sixties ska, including the Clarendonians, Doreen Shaffer of the Skatalites, Otis Gayle, Derrick Morgan, Freddie Notes, Horace Andy and Johnny Clarke.
Last night's show, at the O2 Academy in Islington, starred Ken Boothe and the original Aces, who backed Desmond Dekker back in the day. And an enjoyable evening it was too, once the rather annoying two tone group  who were on stage when I arrived finished. Presenting a full set, before backing Ken and the Aces, were Pama International a fairly authentic ska band of recent vintage who have recorded for Trojan. Featuring a horn section and two female singers (pictured below), the eight piece band sounded just about right on Phoenix City and several big hits from the ska era sung by Cara, a dreadlocked young lady who danced around the stage and got the large crowd well involved. Numbers included Let Your Yeah Be Yeah, John Holt's version of Help Me Make It Through the Night, two classic Phyllis Dillon songs, Perfidia and Don't Stay Away, Just My Imagination and the Melodians' Sweet Sensation. The second singer, who also played guitar, sang Susan Cadogan's take on Hurt So Good, a little screechily I thought, but effective none the less.
The band stayed on stage to support the star acts and it was time for the original Aces - three of them dressed in red shirts and black waist coats, including two lead singers and a guitarist. It was a short set, featuring just three Desmond Dekker hits - It Miek, The Israelites and 007 (Shanty Town) - but highly enjoyable, their voices strong and melodic. A singalong section on 007 went down particularly well and their 15 minutes on stage was rather less than most of us wanted. I for one could have happily listened to double that.
Any disappointment was soon forgotten, however, as they gave way to Ken Boothe, now aged 70, who looked slim and trim, wearing a pale blue suit and white silk scarf. After a subdued first number, which revealed that his voice is a little ragged these days, he got the audience swaying along to one of his best known songs Crying Over You. His next number, the upbeat Artibella, showed that Ken can still move with the best of them, and his final number Everything I Own went down a storm with an appreciative audience, who, it has to be said, never stopped swaying and dancing all evening. The main criticism I have was that Ken was on stage for less than half an hour so it was not particularly good value for money.
It's clear that ska and rocksteady continue to have a big following, even though I suspect that most of the audience came to it via the two tone movement rather than from sixties originals, judging by the average age of the audience. If only transport in London worked properly over the Easter weekend I would go to more of the festival events, but at least I beat the lack of trains by driving up to town on this occasion.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

'Going For A Song' by Garth Cartwright

Going For A Song was once the name of a TV show dedicated to antiques. Now it's the title of a fascinating book chronicling the rise and fall of a venerable institution which is itself largely a thing of days gone by - the record shop. Numbers of record shops have more than halved since the turn of the century. Those that are hanging on are grateful for the upsurge of interest in vinyl records in recent years, but challenged by the internet, the decline of the CD and the likes of Spotify and ITunes.
Garth Cartwright's book, however, focuses on the people and retail outlets of the golden era, from the earliest wax cylinder productions of the 1890s, the opening of the first HMV store in London in 1921, the characters who made their mark in the sixties and beyond, through to the decline of big names such as Our Price, Woolworth's and Tower. Along the way he tells the stories not only of the store chains, but of some of the people who not only ran record stores, but played important roles in the development of record production in the UK. For although the big four of EMI, Decca, Pye and Philips dominated record sales in the sixties, small independents also made their mark, developing significant record labels from their specialist record shops.
There was Emil Shalit, an Austrian Jew whose Melodisc label issued the stuff that the big record companies were not interested in, including early blues, folk and Hungarian gypsy music and who launched the Kalypso and Blue Beat labels, which brought Trinidadian and Jamaican music to the many West Indian immigrants. Or Rita and Benny King, who ran a tiny shop in Stamford Hill and who set up the ironically named R and B label, featuring blues and ska records, and a string of other labels including Giant, King, Ska Beat and Caltone. And the Levy's of Whitechapel, whose Oriole label once had the rights to issuing Tamla Motown records in the UK. Later there were more mainstream entrepreneurs such as Brian Epstein, with his NEMS record store, stars such as Shirley Bassey and Kenny Lynch, who had their own record shops for a while, and specialists in the soul field such as Dave Godin (Soul City) and John Abbey (Contempo).
Garth's journey through the record shops of the UK takes in jazz specialist such as Dobells and Mole Jazz, rock chains such as Virgin and Beggars Banquet, punk specialists such as Rough Trade and Good Vibrations, and brings back bitter sweet memories of many record shops that have disappeared over the years, including all of those in Hanway Street in London, the chaotic Cheapo Cheapo in Soho, many of those in Berwick Street, Beano's in Croydon and most of the branches of Reckless and Music and Video Exchange - all places where I have parted with cash in recent years. He includes quotes from dozens of people who have been involved in the record store business over the decades.
Garth, whose earlier book about an American music road trip More Miles Than Money is well worth a read, has a style that grabs you, even if record shops aren't your thing, and I am very much enjoying it. It's published today by Flood Gallery Publishing and costs around a tenner. Money well spent I would say. Photo shows Garth at the book launch in the Kings Head, Marylebone, earlier this week.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Latest music deaths

It's been a couple of weeks in which several famous people have died, including theoretical physicist and guest on shows such as The Simpsons, Stephen Hawking, Bullseye presenter Jim Bowen and the last of the music hall greats, Sir Ken Dodd. Doddy of course was not only a comedian but a very successful singer with no fewer than 18 top 40 records. His hits, such as Love Is Like A Violin in 1960, his only number one Tears (the third best selling UK hit of the sixties), The River and Happiness, were certainly not to me taste, but they sold in large quantities, as any visit to a car boot sale will attest. I prefer to remember him for his one liners.
More significantly, musically speaking, were the deaths of a number of musicians. Nokie Edwards,
who has died aged 82, was bass guitarist with the Ventures before taking over as lead guitar in 1961. The group's instrumental sound sold millions of singles in the early sixties, beginning with Walk Don't Run and following up with Perfidia, Ram Bunk Shush, Lullaby Of The Leaves and Hawaii Five-0 among others. Their regular stream of albums ensured that they remained popular for many more years, particularly in Japan, with variations on a theme, including titles such as The Colourful Ventures, Twist With The Ventures, Going To A Ventures Dance Party, Surfing, The Ventures In Space, Ventures A-Go-Go,, Guitar Freakout and Super Psychedelics. Nokie left and rejoined the Ventures a couple of times and found success as a solo artist in the early 2000s with two Grammy nominations. The Ventures were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. Nokie often appeared with  Deke Dickerson in recent years, including at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans in 2005 (see photo) and on Deke's regular Guitar Geek events.
Dickie Bishop is something of a forgotten name in the early history of British pop music, having
replaced Lonnie Donegan as banjo player in Chris Barber's band, before forming his own skiffle outfit the Sidekicks. His real claim to fame is that he recorded and co-wrote what was probably the best British record of the era (1957), No Other Baby, a song, that was later recorded by Paul McCartney among others. No Other Baby was officially the B side of Dickie's version of Cumberland Gap, but still stands up today. Later records were unsuccessful and Dickie's moment of magic had passed. He later moved to Germany.
Another near forgotten name from the early sixties is Maggie Stredder, who was a member of the Vernons Girls and, later, the Ladybirds. She was instantly recognisable at the time as 'the one with the glasses' and the trio worked on the Benny Hill Show for many years. Their mostly forgettable singles included Lady Bird, The White Cliffs of Dover and Memories.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Farewell to the NME

Sad to hear that New Musical Express will no longer exist in print form. It's a sign of the times, as print journalism can't compete with online any more. But for someone whose passion for music began in the sixties it's a sad day. The NME reached a peak circulation of over 300,000 in 1964 with its coverage of the Beatles and the Stones. And music writers such as Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill and Charles Shaar Murray ensured that its place as a champion of progressive music and punk in the seventies, as well as its left wing stance, gave it a pre-eminent place as a thought leader of the era. It was the place where 'gonzo' journalism thrived.
Yet, for me, the NME was only of real significance for a few years in the early sixties when its top 30 chart was what I looked for when it dropped through my letter box every week. It had some good writers, but as soul and R and B developed I lost interest. I moved to the New Record Mirror, as it was called for a couple of years, because it covered black music, while the NME was stuck in the British beat scene. Record Mirror, the name it reclaimed in 1963, also had some excellent writers, including Norman Jopling and Peter Jones, but what swung it for me, as well as the coverage of soul, was the inclusion of the top 50 charts, for both the UK and and US, plus other music lists. I always was a fan of lists! Other music magazines of the era, such as Melody Maker (rather too jazz orientated for me) and the chart focused Disc, were occasional reads, rather than regulars, and NME became of less interest as the decade wore on.
I no longer have my original NMEs, or my Record Mirrors for that matter, But I came across the NME annual for 1961, which offers a glimpse of just how boring NME, and British pop music, was in those days. Writers such as Derek Johnson, Mike Gowers (who I later worked with at Barclays), and Keith Goodwin, wrote glowing, non controversial articles about stars of the day such as Elvis, Cliff, Lonnie Donegan, Tommy Steele, Adam Faith, Bobby Darin, Connie Francis and Eddie Cochran, and also artists who by no means could be described as teen idols. These included  Bing Crosby, Max Bygraves, Frankie Vaughan, Russ Conway and Sammy Davis Jr. There were inaccurate predictions of future stardom ( whatever happened to Dick Jordan or Johnny Shanly?), a look back to the first UK hit parade in 1952 (produced by the NME and topped by Al Martino), a run down of chart success in 1960 (the top five were Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley and Anthony Newley) and, in this pre-Beatles age, the rather thin successes of UK artists overseas. It was all rather lame, but at the time it was all we had. Or rather it was what the NME believed we wanted. Very little about rock and roll, nothing about R and B and precious little about US music.
NME will, no doubt, be missed by lovers of seventies music. It was ground breaking at the time. But for me, it lost its appeal a decade or so earlier and never really regained it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

There's No Other...Barbara Alston and others

As the snow sweeps in from the east and we freeze here in the UK (quite unusual these days), it's time I caught up on a few deaths in recent weeks. These include two guys who were members of the Woodies roots music group, of which I am also a member, and who will be sadly missed.
But first, some music legends who have passed away. Barbara Alston, who has died aged 74, was the first lead singer of the Crystals and took the lead on There's No Other (Like My Baby), Uptown and the controversial He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss). Without asking, Phil Spector handed the group's name to Darlene Love and the Blossoms for He's A Rebel as the real Crystals were touring, and the naturally shy Barbara handed over the role of lead singer to La La Brooks, who still performs today and looks fantastic, for Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me and other later tracks. Barbara left the group in 1965, but her importance in one of the greatest of all girl groups cannot be underestimated.
Eddy Amoo, who has died aged 73, grew up in the largely black area of Toxteth, Liverpool 8, a place
I knew well in the seventies before it was largely destroyed by the 1981 riots, and formed the doowop group the Chants. Although they never had a major hit, Pye releases such as I Don't Care, I Could Write A Book and Sweet Was The Wine attracted quite a lot of interest and the band was popular in Liverpool, even having the Beatles back them on occasions. Eddie's brother Chris formed his own band The Real Thing in 1975 and won Opportunity Knocks on TV. Eddy joined the band and they had huge disco hits with You To Me Are Everything and Can't Get By Without You. Later hits such as You'll Never Know What You're Missing, Love's A Wonderful Thing and Can You Feel The Force, were written by the Amoo brothers.
Another death is that of Martin Willis, a Sun stalwart, who played sax with Billy Lee Riley and Bill Black's Combo. Martin began his career playing with Conway Twitty when he was still known as Harold Jenkins, and toured with him before becoming part of Sam Phillips' Sun stable.
Woodie Cliff White (left) was an award winning soul music journalist whose name can be found on the sleeve notes of any number of Charly compilations, from the Tams to the Showmen, and who was responsible for the ground breaking James Brown Star Time box set, for which he won a Grammy. He wrote for New Musical Express and Black Music, among other titles, and was just about the most knowledgeable soul man I've ever met - and I've met a few. A great loss, aged 72.
And now I hear that one of our American Woodies, Jay McCaddin has died. Jay lived in Mobile, Alabama, and, as a former Navy man, dressed in full naval uniform when he attended the Rhythm Riot a few years ago. I met up with Jay in the States on several occasions, including the 2013 Ponderosa Stomp and at a bar in Oceans Springs a couple of years later. Another great loss. The photo below shows Jay with me outside the Prytania Hotel in New Orleans in 2013.
The Vinyl Word raises its traditional glass to them all, and to crooner Vic Damone, who has also died aged 89.