Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Midnight Gardens

Forty years ago I graduated from St. Albans School in Washington DC by the skin of my teeth. Every school day was a terrifying effort for me and had it not been for my good friends and some compassionate teachers I never would have gotten through it.

This weekend marks the 40th reunion of my class, which I probably won't attend for many good reasons.

One of the really fine aspects of the school was its grounds, especially a walled- off but not inaccessible area called the Bishop's Garden. You walked through a door in the wall and suddenly you were very far away from the perils of the school.

I've gone back hundreds of times, to meditate, cogitate, romance and generally leave behind whatever baggage I'm carrying.

Last year I decided to photograph there after dark, using long exposures and my digital Canon 5D. Above are some of the results. I'm going to resume the project this week now that the weather is warming up (not today though- it's raining). Keep tuned to this space, or my professional website,

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Charley Patton

Charley Patton, who may have been born in 1887, or 1891 0r in April or May, depending on the source, died on this date in Indianola MS in 1934.

He left a rich legacy of music, recorded on the Paramount label, so we know what he sounded like, at least on record. He was a small man with a huge voice whose unamplified singing and guitar playing could fill a plantation hall or jukejoint. He would play one song for as long as 45 minutes, "trance music," if the dancers kept dancing.

Although he was himself mentored by another guitar player named Henry Sloan, who, as far as I know, went unrecorded, we think of Patton today as the "Father of Delta Blues", the inspiration for Robert Johnson, Son House, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and many, many others. He was, in fact, the very persona of the itinerant, hard- drinking, womanizing, charismatic Bluesman, a convenient description for a man who was actually very complicated and contradictory. But people love those types of descriptions, and they tend to stick.

There are only two known photographs of Charley (or Charlie) Patton. The one above was shown cropped on many of his Paramount ads, until the original full- length portrait was discovered very recently. What a beautiful photograph! Check out those shoes! Judging from this, Patton, who's grandmother was a full- blooded Cherokee Indian, was a handsome, clean- shaven man. In the other picture however, he's a heavy set, mustachioed individual. I wasn't able to find a reproduction, and many think it might not actually be Patton.

Son House, who was his contemporary and even recorded with him, remembered him as more of a showman than a musician. Patton had all the tricks, playing behind his back, throwing his guitar up and catching it, etc. House disparaged his musicianship until a collector played some of Patton's 78's. House acknowledged Patton's virtuosity, saying, "I didn't remember him being that good."

The illustration is from R. Crumb's great distilling of the Calt/ Wardlow Patton biography.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Banana Man

A. Robins (Adolph Proper), AKA the Banana Man was a vaudeville performer and toymaker, who sold his act and the suit that contained it to another performer in the mid 1940's. Or, he may have franchised his act to other clowns around this time. Or he may not have ever been the Banana Man at all. Or... well... I think you get the picture.

The character I saw as a child on Captain Kangaroo was a performer named Sam Levine, who was managed by a Max Roth. Roth himself may have also done the act prior to Levine's stint. The Banana Man's costume was found intact with his other props stored in a locker in Brooklyn, apparently as part of Roth's estate.

Mr. Robins himself was profiled as a custom toy maker in an article from Mechanix Illustrated in 1945.

His act, or at least the one I saw on the Captain's show, was as strange, surreal and disturbing as anything I saw as a child, with the exception of the "Wanna Be a Member?" sequence in a Betty Boop cartoon featuring Bimbo. The Banana Man made high pitched noises, never spoke, conjured items out of thin air, changed genders and produced lots of obviously fake bananas. No wonder we were all so ready for LSD by 1965... no Sesame Street for us!

The clip above is probably the real A. Robins. It's from "Seeing Red", a vaudeville compilation hosted by Red Skelton, another neurotic and disturbing person from my youth.

There is another clip on YouTube from the Captain Kangaroo Show with Levine here:
. Not even the Captain's even disposition can soften the impact of the Banana Man's trip to Weirdsville.

Much of my information comes from a very interesting site:

Yes, Louis, I do know

I wish I were in New Orleans right now.

Since 2006, I've been able to get to New Orleans at precisely this time of year, from the first Saturday of Jazz Fest until the following Friday morning. Then I would wend my way back to DC, usually by car, to be home in time for the monthly Big Boy Little Band gig at the Zoo Bar that Saturday.

During that week, I'd go to Jazz Fest, attend a pig roast, play harmonica with a legendary musician in the Quarter, jam w/ a well- named chanteuse at an annual party also in the Quarter, eat like a king (one of the ones that eat really well, not some deposed one in prison or something), take some meaningless pictures and get home happy and rested for a change.

I could do this because of the generosity of these two friends I have, a married couple who seemed to enjoy my company as well as the company of a motley parade of artists, bohemians, musicians and the kind of eccentrics one finds thriving in New Orleans like banana plants in the Garden District.

This year I can't go because of too many reasons- more than one, less than twenty, and it's, as they say in shrink circles, OK. I guess. But I sure miss my friends (let's call them the Freeland- Archers: not their real names, but I wouldn't want them to be embarrassed), the two best reasons to go to New Orleans.

There's a slightly better than slim chance I can get there next month, I'll keep you posted here, and do some paid photography and see my friends. I won't go to Jazz Fest, not a big loss, really (see Thursday's blog) but I'll still do the other stuff. Well... not the jam w/ the chanteuse, but that's not a huge loss either. The best thing will be spending time with my friends and the legendary musician, whose name is Irving Banister, by the way. His real name.

So, yeah, Mr. Armstrong, I do know what it means to miss, etc.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Happy Birthday, Albert King

Bluesman Albert King (April 25, 1923December 21, 1992), pictured with his Gibson Flying V guitar. Like a lot of the rediscovered bluesmen of the '60's and '70's, King put on uneven shows in larger mostly white rock concert venues around the country, most notably Bill Graham's Fillmores. When he was good though, he was very very good.

His early records on Bobbin and later Chess are classics for sure, but the killer stuff is, I think, the Stax releases. Booker T drummer Al Jackson figured out a new approach to blues, well within the Stax house sound, but still completely authentic and yet contemporary. If you think that's easy, just listen to any contemporary blues record today. Most try for the early '50's Chess sound, or Cosimo Mattassa's New Orleans' sound. King's records blended right into any southern radio station's playlist, sandwiched between Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett.

But Albert King wasn't interested in revisionist music; he wanted hits, and felt he deserved them. "Born Under a Bad Sign" was a hit and one of the breaths of fresh blues air (like "Scratch My Back" and "Grits Ain't Groceries") on the soul stations here in DC, especially WOL, the home of the Nighthawk (now there's a story).

The cut that really conveyed the impact of King's guitar style was a slow blues from the "Bad Sign" record called "Personal Manager". He delivers a blistering two verse solo ("Head's up!" he says at the start) that sums up all his best trademarks: the bent strings, the octave slides, the signature scale runs, and the brevity of his licks. The Stax house band of Booker T (who played bass on "Born Under"), Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson and Isaac Hayes, along with the sweet, languid lines of the Memphis Horns keep the cut uncluttered but rock solid. This was a huge contrast to the BB King recordings of the time, which still adhered to the dictates set down by Maxwell Davis's late '50's arrangements. Albert King's recordings sounded fresh in comparison, thanks to Al Jackson's production.

The live shows were another story. Some performers, like BB King for instance, project enormous warmth onstage. Tony Bennett is another. You want to hang out with these guys, they seem so decent. Albert King wasn't like that. He glared at his bands, fired personnel onstage during shows and collected his money with a gun in his hand. "You don't need that here, Albert," Bill Graham allegedly told him, as he counted out the band's pay.

Towards the end of his career he seemed to mellow a bit, found a good road band out of Memphis made of former Hi Records musicians and a protege, Little Jimmy King (formerly Gales), who ran his band until he died in 1992. He forged a genuine friendship with Stevie Ray Vaughn, and stopped bad- mouthing his contemporaries and admirers. The shows that I saw were all uniformly good and very entertaining.

So, happy birthday to you, Albert. Happy 86th birthday, wherever you are. Head's up!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Freddie Scott

Freddie Scott (April 24, 1933 - June 4, 2007), recorded a landmark single with producer/ songwriter Bert Berns called "Are You Lonely for Me Baby?" on Berns' Shout label. One of the great soul performances of all times, the tune was covered by others, including Chuck Jackson, but no one ever nailed it quite like Freddie.

Also on the same album, the Best of Freddie Scott (Columbia/Legacy, CK 65241), is his version of "Cry to Me", another Berns song, which I first heard by Solomon Burke.

One night I was driving home from my weekly Zoo Bar gig, and Freddie's version of "Cry to Me" came on the radio. Now, as everyone knows, it's much cooler to hear something you love on the radio than on a CD or your Ipod when you're driving. It plugs you back into the cosmic forces of the universe for one thing and for another, it can really help your drive.

I'm a big fan of King Solomon, but I have to say, Freddie's take was so deep, so in the late- night-driving- home- from- your- gig groove that I had to stop the car to listen. I was driving through Rock Creek Park at that moment, and a herd of deer leisurely walked up to the car, obviously Freddie Scott fans.

Happy Birthday, Freddie!

Mrs. Tom Brown

It's really not my intention to have this blog be a repository of odd pictures, or even an exclusively safe haven for boxing women, or, by extension, wrestling women as well, but this image was just too good to resist.

Agnes Brown was the wife of Tom Brown, a classic New Orleans jazz trombonist. She's seen here holding a stuffed alligator in her front yard. That's actually not that unusual in New Orleans- lots of people had stuffed alligators. I think what makes it unusual is the top hat, but it could also be those cute white socks.

I would have liked to have known the Browns, because they seem like funny people.

Another cool image from the Louisiana Digital Library.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

More Women Boxing

Perhaps even more inexplicable than the first picture. Note the spit bucket on the lower right, and the jolly headgear on the men and women. The men are still holding luxuriant towels. Could this be an early towel ad?

This time they're squaring off in someone's yard and it's definitely a black dress vs. white dress bout. I can't call this one. Pretty even match, I'd say.

I'm not going to Jazz Fest this year

The great Herb Hardesty, longtime lynchpin of the Fats Domino Band

Barbara Lynn with her left-handed Strat (thanks, Kevin).

When I heard the announcement earlier this year that Jon Bon Jovi would be added to the JazzFest line-up this year, I felt relieved. I knew I wouldn't be going, I can't even begin to afford or justify a trip like that right now, but the inclusion of Jon Bon Jovi angered me so much that I knew I could claim musical boycott and feel noble.

Okay, I'm a snob, a big-time music snob, a music fascist, as a former friend once pointed out. I may prefer the more genteel description of purist, but you know, whatever. There I am. So the thought of Jon Bon Jovi, James "I'm so sensitive" Taylor, Joe "Sloppy Drunk" Cocker, Dave Matthews, and the unbelievably pretentious John Mayall playing at Jazz Fest makes me want to spew. Yeah, that's right, it makes me literally nauseous. If these people were playing a festival down the street from me and I got free tickets, backstage passes and an invite to get trashed with Joe, I still wouldn't go.

But the worst is Jon Bon Jovi, former New Jersey hairdresser. And he replaced Aretha when she pulled out! Jon Bon Jovi! What does Bon Jovi have to do with New Orleans? Absolutely nothing.

Quint Davis, who used to manage Professor Longhair but sold out around the time he began dating Linda Ronstadt has explained that the Fest needs these big name acts to stay afloat, that they bring in the corporate sponsorship (read "big bucks") that helps pay for the New Orleans artists that people like me want to hear.

And I can buy that... I didn't get this upset when Rod Stewart headlined two years ago, or when Bruce Springsteen came through. I just went to another part of the grounds and saw Pharoah Sanders and the Meters (the original Meters) respectively. And, yes, among the other non- New Orleans acts this year is Tony Bennett whom I'd give my eye teeth to hear (as if teeth had any value these days), and Etta James who still sounds exactly like Etta James.

But, Jeese... Jon Bon Jovi?

These photographs are from last year's Fest, just a little smattering of shots before the rains came. I hope you enjoy them.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Buffalo Bill's Farewell

Buffalo Bill Cody, a peculiarly American genius, bowing his head in a farewell performance. At least that's the caption on the back of this remarkable photograph from the Louisiana Digital Library collection. Even the horse is posing for the camera in what must have been a long exposure of not less than ten seconds and probably more.

Was Bill a relentlessly commercial showman, cagily and falsely romanticizing an already bygone era or was he a sincere genius bringing an all- American- larger- than- life spectacle to an eager public? Well, evidently, he was both. And toward the end he became the regal figure we see here.

Lloyd Fonvielle has recently published another photograph from the Wild West Show archives of Annie Oakley, so this pic is a shout out to Lloyd and his wonderful blog

Mike Mitchell

This incredible photograph is from my friend Mike Mitchell's website, which you can find by clicking on his name.
Like all the best magicians, Mike can turn seeing and believing into a mystical experience.

Two Women Boxing

From "The Commons", Flickr's archival photography site, comes this bucolic image of two women boxing, courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum.

This looks like a stage or silent film setting, with absolutely no tension inherent. The men stand by with luxuriant towels as the two family groups look on.

What the hell is going on here? Who even came up with this? And why? I can't figure out any plausible scenario for this obviously staged event. And I'm not even going to try.

I will say, however, that judging from the slightly aggressive tilt of the shoulder on the woman at our right, that the woman in white is in for it.