Monday, 31 July 2017

The Mighty Diamonds: Right Time

Recently, I've been immersed in Lloyd Bradley's history of reggae music, Bass Culture. There was one copy on its own in a rather lacklustre remainder bookshop in Romsey and it's every bit as engrossing as I imagined it would on beating the good citizens of the Hampshire market town to the purchase. Like all good music books, in my mind, it's not just about the music but about the whole social, historical and political context in which it came about. I feel now that I know the layout of Kingston, Jamaica, as well as I do that of Kingston, Surrey (where my paternal grandparents, of blessed memory, once lived).

Each chapter of the unfolding evolution of different riddims has sent me scurrying for my own documentary evidence to support the thesis. I've spent way too many a happy hour re-discovering the US-influenced Blue Beat catalogue, all those frantic jerky ska instrumentals that used to get the Queen Mum hopping around her palace, Duke Reid's Treasure Isle of rock steady gems, Clement Coxsone Dodd's incomparable Studio One output, King Tubby's prolific dub experiments, Augustus Pablo's haunting melodica inna quasi-Eastern style and so on. Praise JA – and Jah, if you're that way inclined.

Now that I've reached the technologically more advanced Channel One studio catalogue, I've been reacquainting myself with some of the harmonious vocal-trio glories of the '70s era: a time when I used to buy the cheap Virgin Front Line samplers as a short-cut to all that was on offer then. The Abyssinians, the Heptones, Burning Spear, Culture, the Wailing Souls, possibly the most infectious live band that I ever witnessed, the Gladiators, Black Uhuru, Israel Vibration and many, many more – including of course the Mighty Diamonds, whose Right Time just about takes the natty biscuit.

Both the first, title track and the last track, 'Africa', featured on the first of the Front Line samplers. As every good sampler should do, it tempted me to spend my unearned student florins on the real thing. I was prepared to forego a few pints of lukewarm bitter to subsidise my burgeoning habit. Perhaps the apogee of the vocal-trio's art, Right Time has never, ever disappointed. No, that's a slight lie, because the 30-minute running time has always been a bone of contention. At a mere 2 minutes 5 seconds, the track that opens the second side, 'I Need A Roof', is one of those songs – like 'Knocking On Heaven's Door' – that will ever leave the listener frustrated. Natural transitory mystic. It demands a 12" version – and indeed there are versions galore, including Prince Fatty with Little Roy's 'Roof Over My Head', a personal favourite – but there is nothing long enough to slake my thirst.

Oh well, Right Time wouldn't be the album it is if any track peeped above the four-minute parapet. The opening title track, with its instantly recognisable Sly Dunbar drum motif ushering in the gorgeous harmonies of lead vocalist Donald Sharpe supported by Fitzroy Simpson and Lloyd Ferguson, is just about as long as it gets at 3.15. Half an hour and 10 songs brimming with rhythm and melody. 'Natty dread will never run away.../Dis ya a prophecy'.

The album was produced in 1975 by Joe Joe Hoo Kim at the Channel One studio that he and his brother Ernest founded – in true entrepreneurial Jamaican adaptable stylee – when the government outlawed gaming machines and therefore consigned the brothers' embryonic jukebox and fruit machine business to Babylon. The Hoo Kims gathered around them the customary house band of luminaries, in this case an outfit calling themselves the Revolutionaries that included the likes of Tommy McCook on tenor sax, Sticky Thompson on percussion, Ansell Collins on keyboards and the future riddim twins, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.

On Right Time, the horns are used sparingly and, on tracks like 'Natural Natty', set way, way back in the mix, while the wonderful fluid bass of Robbie and Sly's previous partner, Ranchie McLean, is so prominent in the mix that it almost at times carries the melody. The fact that both are used on the album (and I certainly don't know my bass well enough to tell one from the other) suggests that Right Time is the transition time when Sly and Robbie were just finding each other. There's a marvellous passage in Lloyd Bradley's book when Augustus Pablo's protégé, Junior Delgado, describes the impact of the new rhythm section: 'When Ranchie was there with Sly it was good, but it wasn't wicked. That come with Robbie. As soon as him hook up with Sly they just click, like they both want to try new things and develop their sound. The vibes come offa them was terrible... pure terror, the other studios running for cover as Channel One rockers' sound rule the whole scene in Kingston for maybe two years'.

Their pure righteous terror certainly propels the Mighty Diamonds and creates a lovely easy rolling momentum to each one of the 10 tracks. Perhaps because the vocal harmonies are so rich, the sound is much fuller than the basic instrumentation might suggest. When you listen hard to ('weeping and wailing and moaning and') 'Gnashing of Teeth', for example, it's quite a surprise to discover that it's just drum and bass and a very sparse piano playing the kind of choppy refrain you usually associate with a rhythm guitar.

Despite a mere half hour of rhythmic and harmonic joy, Right Time still stands as a supreme flowering of the reggae art form. It represents a time in the mid '70s when, to the musical yout' like me, reggae seemed so new and fresh and downright exciting. Albums like this haven't lost their lustre. 'When the right time comes, Lord/Some a go charge fe treason...' Treasonable perhaps for any self-respecting reggae enthusiast not to have this one in their collection.

Friday, 9 June 2017

William DeVaughn: Be Thankful for What You Got

A friend of mine suggested the other day at a vide grenier (or attic sale) that nothing in life quite beat the sense of anticipation you experience between buying a record and bringing it home to play it. I can think of one or two other things, but I know what he meant. I experienced it that Sunday, in fact, when I found a clutch of old jazz records. All I wanted to do was to get home and put them on the turntable. Oblivious to conversation, everything else seemed a mere distraction. Impatience, it was my middle name.

I still keenly remember the experience of stumbling upon a whole stack of vinyl cut-outs at the vegetable stall I used to frequent in Kensington Gardens, Brighton. There I went with my bag, expecting to buy potatoes and onions, and I found instead records by the likes of Ben E. King, Blue Magic, Margie Joseph, the Rascals and William DeVaughn. You don't see them these days, the record covers in which a little nick or hole is made when the company decides that enough is enough. No more will be re-printed by our firm. They usually went for a song. I think I paid about 50p for each of my prizes. Records are now boutique items and far too valuable for such profligacy.

Most of that haul were Atlantic-label records, but Be Thankful was on the little seen Roxbury label, part of the little known Chelsea Records Corporation of Los Angeles, which probably went out of business decades ago. So it's a precious record even if the album itself is somewhat disappointing. It was bound to be. That sense of anticipation couldn't possibly be fulfilled.

It was anticipation based on a love for the single, which is – despite the fact that Dave Marsh omits it from his book of the 1,001 greatest singles ever made (and he has known to be hasty or downright wrong in his judgements) – one of the greatest soul records of the '70s, or any other decade for that matter. It's got to be. Don't take my word for it, check out Massive Attack's re-make/re-model or watch Rumer's rendition of it on YouTube at Darryl Hall's house. If anything, my love for it has grown even stronger over time.

Although nothing, alas, quite comes close to it on the album, it's nevertheless a good album and one that I still play more often than most. It was recorded at Sigma Sound Studios with Phillysound house musicians of the calibre of guitarists Bobby Eli and Norman Harris, drummer Earl Young and the great Vince Montana, whose vibes are probably the signature sound of the album. As a Philly record, it's arguably as good as anything by Harold Melvin, the O'Jays and Billy Paul, whose unsurpassable 'Me & Mrs. Jones' is echoed on DeVaughn's own 'Kiss & Make Up' and 'We Are His Children'.

The sentiments of the latter give a strong clue about Mr. DeVaughn, who is now remembered – if at all – only for 'Be Thankful' and just possibly for 'Crème de Crème', a great single that came out eight years later in the UK on the still more obscure Excaliber Records. Born in Washington D.C., I'm sure I read somewhere that he was a Jehovah's Witness. Certainly his songs have a strong moral, even religious theme. The follow-up single to 'Be Thankful', 'Blood is Thicker Than Water' (which sounds like a 'Be Thankful' that's lost and scratching around for its bearings), for example, suggests that 'blood may be thicker than water/But nothing's thicker than love'.

This much we do know. He had a sweet-soul voice that could have easily been mistaken for Curtis Mayfield's. In the album's opener, 'Give the Little Man a Great Big Hand', DeVaughn could almost be singing about himself. He started and, when he became disenchanted with the music industry and gave up on his search for that elusive million-selling follow-up smash, ended his career as a humble office worker. If you've searched on YouTube for a live performance of 'Be Thankful', you may have stumbled upon a very bizarre video of DeVaughn dressed in a long white double-breasted coat, singing his masterpiece over a backing track at what appears to be his retirement party.

One has to hope that William DeVaughn is enjoying his retirement. At least he can tell grandchildren on his knee that he wrote and recorded a song that sold almost 2 million copies. I wouldn't know how many copies the album sold. Not nearly so many presumably, since it was remaindered. If there's one thing, however, that the album has over the single it's the fact that the album version is roughly twice as long. It opens the second side and, at 7 minutes, it's still frustratingly short. Were it not for 'You Can Do It', a Mayfield song if ever there wasn't quite one, I would be thankful if it occupied the entire side. Not only is it a wonderful melody with memorable lyrics and a timeless message, but the musical performance is second to none. The way that the opening conga ushers in first the driving bass line and the swirling organ, and then the choppy wah-wah guitar and that heavy insistent tom-tom beat that pushes towards the extended break when the guitar and Vince Montana's vibes take over the melody line until DeVaughn is ready to come back in. But when the bass kicks up a notch and there's a flurry of drums, you know that the end sadly is nigh.

The brief liner notes suggest that 'William DeVaughn has the imagination and creative ability to translate the soul and feelings of everyone's life into words and music'. He may have been only a minor figure in the panoply of black music, but be thankful that he dug the scene with a gangster lean to give us this one diamond of a song. Give this (figuratively) little man a great big hand.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Nightfly

My brother and I don't agree about certain things in life, but when it comes to Donald Fagen's 1982 classic we're both in accord. Without doubt, it's the best solo album every recorded by a white Jewish member of a recording duo with an passion for jazz and black music.

By 1982, Steely Dan's time was up. And then there were two had become and then there were none. Two years before, the duo of Fagen and Walter Becker had released Gaucho, almost my favourite of the albums they'd released thus far during the course of roughly a decade. it sold well enough, but reviews were mixed and it seemed that Steely Dan were a spent force. Donald Fagen then went on to demonstrate that he could do it just as well (if not better) as one by writing similarly impenetrable catchy songs and hiring the best session musicians to play them.

No. In fact, the eight songs on the album are actually rather more penetrable than Steely Dan's customary obtuse, enigmatic affairs. There's a remarkably transparent note from the author on the inner sleeve that 'the songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build'. And it's appropriate that Fagen chose to resurrect a gorgeous Lieber and Stoller song for the Drifters about yearning for a probably unobtainable member of the opposite sex. 'Ruby Ruby when will you be mine?'

He does the jaunty original thorough justice and his own songs, 'Green Flower Street', 'Maxine', 'New Frontier' and 'Walk Between the Raindrops', speak of similar amorous concerns, but with the hindsight of adult maturity. Fagen always had a great way with an image and both songs are full of little gems like 'While the world is sleeping/We meet at Lincoln Mall', 'There where neon bends in daylight sky/ In that sunny room she soothes me/Cools me with her fan' and ''That happy day we'll find each other on that Florida shore/ You'll open your umbrella/And we'll walk between the raindrops back to your door'.

'New Frontier' opens the second side and it's a particular favourite for the intensity of the future songwriter's cherche for la femme. I recognise the awkward ardour of his come-on lines: 'Have you got a steady boyfriend/ Cause honey I've been watching you/I hear you're mad about Brubeck/I like your eyes I like him too'. And I revel in the couplet, 'Introduce me to that big blonde/She's got a touch of Tuesday Weld...' I was too young at the time to be in love with teen America's sweetheart, but have always loved the name (even if it wasn't her real one). Reputedly, Stanley Kubrick wanted her for the lead in Lolita, but Tuesday turned it down by suggesting, 'I didn't have to play it. I was Lolita'.

I can't speak for Sunken Condos, his fourth and possibly even final solo album, but perhaps one of the reasons why The Nightfly works better than the otherwise worthy successors, Kamakiriad and Morph The Cat, is this unity of theme and concept. It's easy to grasp and nicely captured by a great cover: Fagen posing as 'Lester the Nightfly' talking to his nocturnal listeners from 'an independent station... with jazz and conversation/From the foot of Mt. Belzoni'. There's a Sonny Rollins album cover sitting artfully with the ashtray and the open pack of Chesterfields by the retro microphone and the old-fashioned turntable. It was a time of Fagen's young life, apparently, when he would take a bus to Manhattan from the New Jersey suburbs to see Rollins and other jazz giants of the time. The lucky man got to see the holy trinity of Miles, Mingus and Monk.

Two of the other numbers on The Nightfly appear to set the time of Donald Fagen's youth in a wider social and global context. 'The Goodbye Look' seems to be about the change of regime in Cuba (where 'tonight they're arranging a small reception just for me/Behind the big casino by the sea'). The horn section on the opening 'I.G.Y.' exemplifies the kind of musical class on show throughout the album: the Brecker Brothers plus George Benson and Eddie Palmieri's go-to baritone saxophonist, Ronnie Cuber, and Carla Bley's trusty trombonist, Dave Bargeron. Fagen helpfully explains that 'I.G.Y.' stands for International Geophysical Year, and the song is all about a blithely absurd late '50s vision of the future. A world where travel takes 'ninety minutes from New York to Paris', with 'perfect weather for a streamlined world where 'we'll be eternally free yes and eternally young'. Ah, yes... 'What a beautiful world this'll be/What a glorious time to be free'. Indeed.

Recording The Nightfly seems to have been a sunny affair and by all accounts much less fraught and protracted than Gaucho. There's a lovely happy, lively quality that makes the first Fagen such an unqualified and lasting success. I doubt whether before or since, whether with or without Walter Becker, Donald Fagen achieved what was in his complex mind with such apparent ease and joie de vivre. I've kept my treasured copy in its cellophane wrapper.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Van Morrison: A Night In San Francisco

Isn't it a-bout time, as Steve Stills once sang when with his band, Manassas, surely a-bout time to feature a live album? They're a hit-and-miss affair, live albums, and probably worthy of a separate category. Playing and being recorded live is, musically speaking, the final frontier. When a live album's not up to scratch, you question whether the band is worth your admiration or allegiance. But when a live album fires on all cylinders, it's quite another matter.

There are some legendary live albums that stand out of the pack, some of which are happily in my collection and may feature in subsequent slots: B.B. King's Live at the Regal, James Brown's Live at the Apollo, King Curtis's Live at the Fillmore West, Donny Hathaway Live, the Fania All-Stars live either at the Yankee Stadium or the Cheetah Club, Pharoah Sanders' incendiary quartet of 1981, und so weiter. There are, too, some surprisingly lacklustre affairs by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century: Bobby 'Blue' Bland's and Marvin Gaye's live offerings, for example, might leave you wondering what all the fuss was about.

As a teenager, I learnt to play on my tennis racquet the guitar parts of both John Cippolina and Gary Duncan, as featured extensively on Quicksilver Messenger Service's mainly live Happy Trails album. These days, as I approach codger-dom, there's one live album that consistently lifts me out of my chair and gets me contorting my face and barking unnecessarily. That said, I'm possibly the only person who would lobby for A Night in San Francisco as the most exciting live album of all time.

It came out in 1994 as a double CD, ironically not long after I saw the little man at Sheffield City Hall. It was one of those notorious occasions when the Irishman couldn't really be bothered. He was off at around the hour mark, using the old clichéd encore trick to generate a bit of enthusiasm and value-for-money, and though it was good to say that you'd seen him live, it left a slightly sour taste and a feeling that you'd been short-changed.

Of course, Sir Van has always blown hot and cold, presumably depending on his mood (which is customarily curmudgeonly). At least his reputation is such that he can assemble a great band, which always helps. I bought the double album, It's Too Late To Stop Now, back in 1975, the year after it came out. Now there's one that does garner many a critical vote for one of the best albums of all time. It was recorded with Van's trusty Caledonian Soul Orchestra: a most consistent and dependable of outfits.

I can't remember much about the band that night in Sheffield. Teena Lyle was there on keyboards and vibes, but there was certainly no Georgie Fame (or Fay-emm, as the man from Belfast calls him) on organ, and it's Georgie to my mind who seems to be the real powerhouse behind some of Van's greatest performances. I submit as evidence a film recording of a blistering concert by Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames in New York supported by the Belfast man at his committed best.

For the night at The Masonic Auditorium in 'Frisco, special guest stars pop up of the calibre of the Dutch saxophonist, Candy Dulfer, and of R&B legends John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and the mighty Jimmy Witherspoon. It probably only lacked Mose Allison and Ray Charles for Van's dream team. And you can hear how he just revels in their company. 'The blues, the whole blues and nothing but the blues,' he exuberates at one point. Apart from 'Spoon and John Lee and Georgie himself, there are supplementary vocals from Van's seeming protégé, Brian Kennedy (whose voice is admittedly too wet for such raw rhythm & blues), a friend's chum, James Hunter, and the proud dad's daughter, Shana (on 'Beautiful Vision'). I suspect that they were recruited to give the Man's pipes a bit of a rest, but it doesn't matter: the ensemble work in largely perfect harmony.

The great thing about a live album is that it allows an artist to stretch out and improvise outside the more regimented confines of a studio recording. Most of the numbers, particularly on the second disc, are amalgams either of his own numbers or of R&B standards or of both, as in for example the two epics on the first disc, the first when Van's 'See Me Through' segues into his 'Soldier of Fortune' and then into a snippet of Sly Stone's 'Thank You Faletttinme Be Mice Elf Again'; and the second a glorious segue from the ever-dependable 'Moondance' into Rogers and Hart's immortal 'My Funny Valentine'.

'It's too late to stop now!' Van hollers towards the end of the longest work-out of the night on the second disc, and there just so happen to be a couple of throwbacks to the earlier album on Disc 1: his own 'I've Been Working', in itself as authentic a piece of R&B as you'd wish from the composer of 'Gloria', and Sonny Boy Williamson's funkiest of all funky blues numbers, 'Help Me'. (To avoid disappointment, seek out an extraordinary ballistic version by Sugar Blue, the harmonica player used by the Rolling Stones on 'Miss You'.)

Everything simmers beautifully on the first disc before coming to the boil on the second. 'It Fills You Up' indeed. All 70-plus minutes of it, from Georgie Fame's opening bit of vocalese on 'Jumpin' With Symphony Sid' to the almost predictable 'Gloria' that brings everything to a standing, stomping conclusion. But it's not just 'Gloria'. In conjunction, less predictably, with Johnny Kidd & the Pirates' 'Shakin' All Over', it's probably the finest version of Van's youthful smash in the world. 'Some decorum, please!' the Man reiterates during the proceedings and it's clear just how much he's enjoying himself on one hand, and how funny the old curmudgeon can be in moods like this.

Sandwiched between beginning and end, in among a bevy of transcendent performances, are 31 minutes that beat almost anything I've ever heard on a live album. 'I first heard this song by Bobby Bland in '64' (probably while he was still cleaning windows), Sir Van announces in a typically matter-of-fact manner before launching into a monumental 16-minute version of 'I'll Take Care Of You', intertwined with James Brown's 'It's A Man's Man's Man's World', that knocks the socks off the timeless original. 'It's hustle time!' for sure. There's a deliciously unexpected vibes solo from Tina Lyle, a honking sax solo by Candy Dulfer and some terrific secondary vocals from James Hunter.

It couldn't possibly get any better than this. But it does, by jingo it does! Doc Pomus' 'Lonely Avenue' has always been one of my favourite Ray Charles numbers. But no one out there does it better than Mr. Morrison. Over almost 15 minutes – and incorporating wonderful trumpet, sax and organ solos – the cast roils a simmering stew, just keeping you in a delicious state of tension as you anticipate boiling point. It's a rollercoaster ride from 'Lonely Avenue' through 'Be Bop a Lula', then Van's lazy '4 O'Clock In The Morning' and a brief snippet of Sly's 'Family Affair' before Van's 'You Give Me Nothing But The Blues' is followed by Jimmy Witherspoon's' entrance for 'When Will I Become A Man?' and 'Sooner Or Later'. Then it's back to 'Nothing But The Blues' followed by a dash of Roy Orbison's 'Down The Line' before we're led hollering and screaming back to 'Lonely Avenue' for a suitable rousing finale.

'Did you feel the spirit in the house tonight!?' the MC demands at a suitable point in the proceedings. Van and his band did over those two nights, and the audience certainly did. I defy anyone who loves soul and R&B not to feel that same spirit as they listen to this livest of live albums. No wonder Van was knighted for services rendered. No wonder he's consistently named among the finest soul singers of the age – and stage.