Friday, October 22, 2010

All Is Vanity

In the dressing room for Earl Carroll's Vanities, 1925, in Washington, DC.
That's Earl himself instructing his showgirls. From Shorpy

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King: Solomon Burke (Philadelphia, March 21, 1940 – Schiphol Airport, October 10, 2010)

Sad news this otherwise beautiful Sunday morning: the self- styled King of Rock and Soul, Solomon Burke died on a plane at Schipol Airport, outside of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Schipol is a pretty nice airport, so if you have to go in an airplane, I guess it's as good as any. Still, the King deserved better, in my opinion. At least he was on his way to a gig, a show in Amsterdam, a city that knows how to balance the sacred and the profane as well as any, and therefore a place where, I'm sure, Solomon Burke would be right at home.

The sacred and the profane. Soul singer, preacher. A man of the cloth and a man devoted to the pleasures this life has to offer.
I can't say much about King Solomon that hasn't been said much better by Peter Guralnick, in his book Sweet Soul Music, one of the finest music books ever written. In many ways this book is a valentine not just to the amazing music, but specifically to Otis Redding, of course, and, most notably, Solomon Burke.

Mr. Guralnick provides insight into the tightrope walk between the sacred and the profane that Solomon Burke had mastered from his early days onward. Part man of the cloth, part hustler, all genius and possessed with one of the three or four greatest voices in the history of the idiom, Burke divided his time between the church and the stage, selling his blessings backstage at the Apollo during breaks from performing his great hits, like Cry to Me and Got to Get You Off My Mind.

Literally larger than life in every way, Burke had been confined to a wheelchair in his later years. In typical royal fashion, the chair was made to resemble a throne, and Burke would sit regally onstage, exhorting his audiences into a frenzy, as only a true King can.

If you think that I am in ANY way exaggerating, then check out this video from Great Britain's venerable Top of the Pops, February of 2003.

Even the harp player (a real harp, not a harmonica) is grooving! Not only that, who even has a harpist in their band? The King does, that's who.

I have to say, this video made me cry. This is the reason I learned to sing, the reason I'm a musician, the reason I care about the craft of singing, moving an audience, working the show. It's because of  what King Solomon Burke did to me. This is it, the whole thing. And this is what it looks like when the magic trick is performed by a master magician: it is flawless.

Let's just let the man and his music speak for themselves:

Finally, from the Paradiso in Amsterdam:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Come See About Junior

Let's talk about Junior.

Raconteur, oral historian, royal timekeeper, harmonicist extraordinaire, devoted son.

Gang leader, fighter, alcoholic, trouble maker, screw-up.

Which was the real Junior?

I can't answer that. The obvious reply is, "All of them," but that's a little too trite, if you ask me. I witnessed many of these Juniors (not the fighter, but I saw the potential, and also saw the ex-gang leader's temper explode on occasion.)

He was also very kind to me, requesting that my band open shows for him at the late, lamented Tornado Alley club in Wheaton, MD, and giving me harmonica lessons in the dressing room between our sets.

I had idolized Junior since I first heard him on an FM station in 1967 playing Help Me or, as it was called, Tribute to Sonny Boy, from the Chicago, the Blues Today collection on Vanguard records. I was waiting for  Eric Hall in the dorm room at St. Albans, and he had his radio tuned to WGTB, the Georgetown University campus radio station.

What a white boy/ elitist introduction to Junior Wells!

I had been learning blues harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II and Paul Butterfield recordings, but this stuff of Junior's, albeit familiar, was a different take. For one thing, it was way more percussive. It smacked of backbeat and rhythm. Then there was that one plaintive note, over and over again. Tension/ release, tension/ release.

There was also that little gem of an intro, where he refers to Sonny Boy as "an old pharoah." What the fuck?! An old pharoah? Years later, in the dressing room of Tornado Alley, I asked him what a pharoah was. He said it was a term of respect, given to a king, "You know, like in Egypt."

When Bobby Radcliff and I started the Northside Blues Band in 1968, we patterned it on the Junior Wells/ Buddy Guy shows we had seen. Lots of space between notes. Keeping it lean and sparse.

I saw a lot of Junior and Buddy after that. Saw some great shows, like the one at the Newport Folk Festival in 1968 with Freddie Below, Jack Myers and A. C. Reed on sax, or another amazing show at the old 9:30 Club in DC, where Junior sang his version of Muddy Waters' Just to Be with You, which Junior called Ships on the Ocean, one of my all- time favorites. It was a sublime moment.

We stayed for the second set, but Junior had been drinking in the dressing room. He stumbled out, played harp in the wrong key for a few minutes and then we left.

Unfortunately, this was all too often the case. Junior was not a good drinker. I read where (I think it was) Dick Waterman claimed that Junior needed to drink because of stage fright, but whatever the reason, he just fell apart when he drank. And, after Buddy left, he drank all the time.

I used to get the impression that the Wells/ Guy relationship was a classic love/ hate thing. Sometimes it just seemed like they were going through the motions. Of course, nowadays, when I see Buddy Guy, he always seems to be going through the motions.

It must be hard to sustain great or even good blues throughout a long career.

So... Junior and I finally really meet backstasge at Tornado Alley. We hit it off. I got to know his nephew/ road manager Michael Blakemore (Junior's real name was Amos Blakemore) and we hit it off too. One night Junior sang Early in the Morning while I played harp. Another time we discussed the first Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Williamson, who died in 1948 in an assault on his way home from a gig in Chicago. "He was small, Bret," said Junior. "Even smaller than me!"

Junior was a teaser, an expert in the dozens, and if you couldn't keep up with him, then he'd turn his attention elsewhere. One time, when we talking about Little Walter, I asked him, "I heard that Walter didn't like people bigger than him." Junior thought for a moment and said, "No, he just didn't like big fat white harp players who don't know what they're talking about."

I said, "Well, little as you are, he must have loved you." We both laughed. That's what he liked.

He made me march around with him to improve my time. He told me to dress better. He said he used first and third position in playing harmonica to keep the songs closer to his vocal range. He made me drink sloe gin from a little flask he carried. He wouldn't touch marijuana (as opposed to another ex- Muddy Waters harp player, btw.) He told me what a pharoah was.

His nephew used to tell me, "He's like a little boy, he can't be controlled." Junior would just smile and nod. "I'm the baby, " he'd  say. 

He said the next time I was in Chicago to call him. He said he'd show me a Chicago I'd never see otherwise. I believed him.

Sadly, that night never took place.

Now, in 2010, we have a "new" Junior Wells recording, Live in Boston. Actually, it should be called Live in Cambridge, because that's where it was recorded at the Club 47.

These recordings have been floating around as bootlegs for years, but they sound much better on this disc, although the sound is far from perfect.

This was an important gig for Junior and he took an important band into Cambridge that weekend, his first great band, the Aces. The Aces, brothers Louis and Dave Myers along with Professor Fred Below on drums, had left Junior in the '50's to back up and record with Little Walter. Consequently, they're on some of the finest blues recordings ever made.

Here they are- Junior riding on the coattails of his first crossover album, Hoodoo Man Blues, reunited with his old bandmates. It's 1966, he's young, fresh. Straight out of Chicago. Full of piss and vinegar.

It's just a great record of a great show. Junior tells stories. Junior improvises. At one point he gives a long, twisted introduction to a Sonny Boy Williamson song, Fattening Frogs for Snakes, and then sings a completely different song! Remembering lyrics was never his strong suit, but forgetting the whole song... well, probably there was a flask of sloe gin in there somewhere.

Doesn't much matter. The Aces are incredible as advertised. It gives me an insight into what a live Little Walter show might have been like. They hit every curve ball Junior pitches into the bleachers, most notably a thing titled Junior's Whoop, really just a play on the old Mellow Down Easy riff that seems to be improvised from about the second bar onward.

Good packaging, and fine notes from Scott Dirks round out the CD, but make no mistake, Little Junior Wells is the star of the show.

Thanks to Bob Koester and the folks at Delmark for legitimising this one and getting it out there.

I surely miss Junior Wells. Of all the alpha harp players I've spoken to, he was the only one who really became a friend, and I think about my friend all the time. Now he's the old Pharoah, and I'm the person saying, "Goodbye, old man."

Let's leave it with this:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Juke Box Comics

I found this online- a six issue run of Juke Box Comics.  I'd never heard of JBC before, and, evidently, neither has anyone else, as there is little information through the usual sources.

According to the inside cover, the six issues were published by Famous Funnies Comics, located at the auspicious- sounding 500 Fifth Avenue, NY, 18, NY. The Grand Comics Database lists the publishers as Eastern Color. They were published in 1948.

Here is the cover to the last issue, number 6:

Wow! Not only do we get a story on Desi Arnaz, son of Cuban aristocrats, but look- -there's Fagin-esque harmonica player and Johnny Puleo exploiter Borrah Minevitch!

The art is overall, uh, well, third rate, despite an early appearance by Alex Toth, who signed his artwork "Sandy" Toth. There's also a Fred Guardineer story, but it's pretty bad.

However, each comic has at least one feature on an African- American artist, that, at least to my ear, treats the artist with same respect as the other entertainers.

They are no more caricatured than the white entertainers (in fact, there's a Betty Hutton story drawn by someone who clearly hated Miss Hutton), no big white lips, no googly eyes. No dialect.

Here's a few favorites:

So Duke had Al Hibbler help him pick his clothing? Who would've guessed? I also like the way he mentions my hometown, Washington, DC.

Good old Barney Bigard- it's Louis' award and no one going to get it but Louis! "Messieurs", says the French attache, in obviously phonetic French. Later on they use the contraction,"M'sieu" correctly. Strange.

Dig that French cat's skull!

Don't fret, dear reader- Louis is found safe and sound- he was just doing a little jamming with a French musician he heard through a hotel room door.

Here, Count Basie saves his trumpet player from drowning during a fishing expedition near Atlantic City.

Who was the trumpet player? Buck Clayton? Snooky Young? Ed Wilson?
I can't find any online confirmation of this story.

The payoff is that Basie is able to break the fishing line because his hands are so strong from- you guessed it!- playing the piano!

In this one, Cab is able to send his valet for the money without the college bigwigs catching on, because he tells him in jive! Only the professor of languages realizes what's happened, because jive is evidently a language all its own.

I'm reprinting this last one in its entirety because a) it's actually fairly accurate, b) I like the unselfconcious interaction between Mr. Hampton and the white people in the story and c) it manages to include Brenny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. It's very refreshing, given the times.

I'd like to think that the audience for these stories were white and black middle class teenagers and that the comics sent out a positive message. I've always felt music (and everything else) should be above racist concerns, and evidently, so did the mysterious creators of Juke Box Comics. At least for six issues.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Googling Art

One of my favorite interweb sites is The Big Picture, a labor of love by Boston Globe picture editor/ webmaster Alan Taylor. Mr. Taylor collects photographs from various sources, mostly the wire services and publishes them with a theme, whether it's London aerials or the Blessing of the Waves. The photographs are uniformly incredible. They restore an aging photographer's faith in the medium of the still photograph and re- affirm the simple fact that there is still good and great photography, and, further, that most published photography today is crap.

Earlier this week Mr. Taylor published photographs of different parts of Florida that he had pulled from Google Earth. As usual, he built the essay around a theme, "Boom and Bust", and, as usual, he chose incredible images, all from the satellites. I was struck by this use of Google Earth, which I had just thought of as a way to show different locations in mediocre television programs and to check if the streetview of my house has me in it. (It does, by the way.)

So I did the post on Storyville, seen below this one, and, as I was surfing the satellite images, I was amazed at beauty of portions of our globe. I choose a small few. Here they are:

Las Vegas, bordered by West Harmon on top with the Vegas Freeway on the left, and Las Vegas Boulevard on the right.

The western desert of Egypt

The Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles


Arizona, the Grand Canyon is to the left

Pyramids, Egypt

Off the California Coast

Switzerland, The Alps

Monday, October 4, 2010

Storyville, Part II

This is Storyville in New Orleans, with thanks to Google Earth.

Or more accurately, this was Storyville. From 1898 until 1917, Storyville was host to the largest, and only, area legally set aside for prostitution in the United States of America.

In what was possibly the strangest social experiment in our nation's history, the city fathers of New Orleans set aside this tract of land, bordered by Basin, Canal, St. Louis Streets and Claiborne Avenue in an effort to confine vice to one single, intense area. Oddly enough, it worked.

In the map above, we see the area still surrounded by cemeteries, St. Louis #1 and #2
(on the upper part of the picture). St.Louis # 1,  on the right side of the development (now a  site of low- income project housing), hosts the graves of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, and Rhythm and Blues singer Ernie K-Doe among others. This is pretty much all that's left of Storyville today.

The green spots in the middle of the streets are the neutral ground, or the grassy area dividing Basin. In it's heyday, Storyville hosted a train station, where gentlemen travellers were met by "steerers" who would entice them to the bordellos.

This map, from Al Rose's magnificent history of Storyville, Storyville, New Orleans, shows approximately where everything was.

Everything about Storyville, or the District, as it was known, is fascinating. In many ways it is the beginning of the legend of New Orleans as the vice capital of the US, not to mention the cradle of Jazz, whose rise to prominence coincided with the rise of Storyville.

Jazz was played nightly in the District, by Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson in the bordellos and Joe "King" Oliver in the saloons, among others. Killings were routine and yet crime on Basin itself was kept to a minimum by vice- king Tom Anderson, an oil executive who functioned as the "mayor" of the District. Certainly the city has had worse mayors.

The art of the great photographer E. J. Bellocq flourished in the sporting houses, and it is his photographs of nude and clothed prostitutes, as lovingly crafted as Roman statues,  that provide much of the mystique and romance that haunts New Orleans today.

I'm going to New Orleans later this month, and I will be making a pilgrimage, as I always do, to St. Louis Cemetery #1. If I sit there long enough, I can begin to imagine myself on the edge of the great experiment.