Monday, August 22, 2011

R.I.P. Jerry Leiber

They mightn't have been the first names that spring to mind when it comes to those questions about people you'd make interesting dinner party guests but anyone who's seen Jerry Leiber (25 April 1933 – 22 August 2011) and his songwriter Mike Stoller on one of those birth of rock or popular music since World War Two documentaries would know they'd have made a pretty good double act as dinner party raconteurs.

They weren't that shabby in the songwriting department either, but now that Jerry Leiber has left us it'd be down to Mike Stoller to recount single-handed the story about his holiday in Europe, paid for from the songwriting royalties from a song called Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots, covered as L'Homme à la Moto by Edith Piaf and another number called Bazoom (I Need Your Lovin') by The Cheers.

Stoller travelled with his first wife, met Edith Piaf while they were over there and returned to New York on the Andrea Doria, the liner that collided with the east-bound MS Stockholm off the fog bound coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

After the collision, with the ship listing heavily to starboard, half the lifeboats were useless, but the design of the ship allowed it to stay afloat for eleven hours, long enough to rescue 1,660 passengers and crew. Forty-six passengers were killed in the collision, but with the survivors being ferried into New York it would come as no surprise to find concerned family  members and friends at the disembarkation point to greet the survivors.

Leiber met Stoller with a dry suit and the news that they'd just scored a Number one hit with Hound Dog. The response from Stoller went something like What? Big Mama Thornton got to Number One?

No, Leiber replied. Some kid called Elvis Presley.

Given the extent and quality of their writing catalogue and their production work for Atlantic and their own Red Bird Records they'd undoubtedly have had a wealth of tales about The Coasters The Drifters, Ben E. King, Phil Spector, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun.

And then there was their work with Mr Presley, including Jailhouse Rock and King Creole.

Born in Baltimore, Leiber met Long Island native Stoller in Los Angeles in 1950. Leiber was a high school senior working part time in a record store while the piano playing Stoller was a college freshman.
After his family moved west, Leiber had started writing lyrics, based on what he heard on the radio and his own childhood bacck east, but needed someone to write the music. A drummer friend recommended Stoller, a skilled pianist with a penchant for boogie-woogie, jazz and blues and the rest, as they say, is history.

They were capable of coming up with a song in a couple of minutes, and when producer Jean Aberbach and his brother turned up looking for the songs Leiber and Stoller were supposedly writing for the Jailhouse Rock movie, refusing to leave without them, Jerry and Mike knocked out four songs over the next couple of hours, including Jailhouse Rock and (You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care.

They'd been too busy doing the jazz club circuit to get around to the writing any earlier.

Their first recorded effort was Real Ugly Woman, recorded by Jimmy Witherspoon and their first success came with Hard Times by Charles Brown in 1952. They also had minor hits with Hound Dog and Kansas City (first recorded as K. C. Loving) before Elvis took Big Mama Thornton's number to the top of the charts.

From there, of course, there was their work with The Coasters, theatrical little teenage vignettes like Charlie Brown, Young Blood, Along Came Jones, Poison Ivy (though an ocean of calamine lotion won't be much help in dealing with a social disease), Little Egypt, Searchin' and Yakety Yak.

In that fifties environment where black music was crossing over into the pop charts those songs, essentially rhythm and blues tunes with radio-friendly pop lyrics, were major landmarks, and from there they moved into the girl group era, working out of the Brill Building, producing their own material as well as songs churned out by a stable of writers including Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Carole King and Gerry Goffin,  Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and influencing Phil Spector along the way.

A collaboration with Lester Sill (later the les in the Philles label partnership with Phil Spector) in Spark Records produced Smokey Joe's Cafe and Riot in Cell Block #9 by The Robins before Atlantic bought the label in a deal that brought Leiber and Stoller into the Atlantic stable while still allowing them to work for other labels as, effectively, the first independent record producers.

For Atlantic, they morphed The Robins into The Coasters, co-wrote and produced hits for Ben E. King (Stand By Me and Spanish Harlem) and came up with On Broadway (another co-write with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil), There Goes My Baby and Dance With Me for The Drifters.

After Atlantic they produced and wrote records for United Artists including Tell Him by The Exciters and Love Potion #9 for The Clovers before setting up Red Bird Records, which released the Shangri-Las' Leader of the Pack and Chapel of Love by the Dixie Cups.

Things went relatively quiet after they sold Red Bird, but the pair continued working in an independent operation, working with artists as diverse as Peggy Lee (Is That All There Is?), Stealers Wheel (Stuck in the Middle With You), and Elkie Brooks before being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985 and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

There were, as you'd expect, any number of other awards along the way and in 1995 a musical, Smokey Joe's Cafe, based on that song catalogue, enjoyed an extended run on Broadway and the soundtrack album picked up a Grammy in 1996.

2009's Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, written with David Ritz is sitting on the iPad as I type, right at the top of the Read These ASAP list.

Son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Jerry Leiber grew up on the edge of the Baltimore ghetto, where his widowed mother ran a grocery store and was the only shopkeeper in the area who'd extend credit to blacks, picked up his musical inspiration through exposure to black culture during his childhood and teenage years, was responsible, along with partner Mike Stoller for fifteen #1 hits by ten different artists, had songs recorded by, among others, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisandand James Taylor and died, surrounded by family, he died of cardiopulmonary failure in a Los Angeles hospital, survived by three children and two grandchildren and generations of music fans on 22 August 2011.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Three Period Pieces: Beyond the Fringe, Scaffold & The Liverpool Scene

Nostalgia, according to some, isn't what it used to be, but then again things in general ain't the way they used to be either, which is probably the point behind the whole nostalgia thing anyway.

I'm not sure about anyone else, but when I get nostalgic it's an exercise in recalling the way things used to be and figuring out how they've changed, which is basically the motivation behind my Interesting Times project as I try to make sense of some of the things that I've been on the fringe of over the past fifty-odd years.

Some of them, as the reader may imagine, were very odd indeed, and reconnection with Steve and Rhonda Doyle at Bloodwood brought back memories of JCUNQ Commem Week Revues, gentlemen named Charlie and Kimbo and Saturday night’s Underworld in St Matthew's Church Hall.

Underworld was the scene where Hughesy indulged in the odd spot of poetry reading, and while most of the source volumes are long since lost, I still have a copy of Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound and a slim volume of verse from Roger McGough.

I haven't revisited those recently, and haven't looked too far when it comes to tracking down copies of The Children of Albion anthology, Pete Brown's Let It Roll, Kafka, or Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture, all of which were key texts in that particular time and place but reminiscences of hirsute gentlemen proclaiming For mine brother Jacob is an hairy man had me heading over to the iTunes Store to check the availability of various early sixties British comedy.

A quick perusal had Hughesy purchasing the soundtrack from Beyond The Fringe (remarkable value for 42 tracks at $8.99), The Amazing Adventures of the Liverpool Scene ($35.99, but 33 tracks. over two and a half hours of material) and Scaffold At Abbey Road 1966 to 1971 ($10.99).

Now, what's under discussion here isn't going to be everybody's cup of tea, and playing through Beyond the Fringe seems to deliver sequential variations on the same sketch from different sources, but as content to throw some different elements into your shuffle mode listening it works just fine. If Hughesy was still polluting the local airwaves Bowen listeners would probably be subjected to repeated musings on Peter Cook's lack of Latin for the judging, and the memorable Peter Cook and Dudley Moore one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan sketch.

We're talking close to fifty years after the act, which was topical at the time, so there's a certain amount of datedness kicking in, but a wander through the tracklisting is, at least as far as Hughesy's concerned, a chance to revisit some of the classic years of British anti-establishment humour.

Tracking down The Liverpool Scene and Scaffold, on the other hand, was prompted by a largely forgotten fascination with the poetry of Adrian Henri (Liverpool Scene) and Roger McGough (Scaffold) and it's interesting to note how the works of the two gentlemen have aged over the years.

The Mersey Poets were, largely, working in pop poetry mode, which was what made them ideal for Hughesy's Underworld readings, and a glance through the index of Penguin Modern Poets 10 reveals a preponderance of McGough over Henri when it went to pieces actually read.

Given the time gap there's no way of fathoming why that should be so, and using pencilled asterisks in the index isn't the most scientific research tool, but I suspect McGough's rather poppier offerings worked better in that setting than Henri's more consciously poetic approach.

Interesting, because forty years later a listen to both albums suggests Henri's Liverpool Scene have aged rather better than McGough's Scaffold.

Both, of course, need to be approached as period pieces that are very much a product of the times, with or without a substantial side serving of nostalgia and fond memory.

There's also (one suspects, in the absence of empirical evidence) a degree of difference in approach based on the presence or otherwise of actual musicians with actual chops, a significant variation in the sort of live work each outfit was able to manage and, more than likely, record company issues that differentiated between the EMI-signed Scaffold with the Beatle connection confirmed through Paul McCartney's brother Mike McGear as a member of the trio and the RCA-signed Liverpool Scene.

The third member of Scaffold, apart from poet McGough and singer McGear, was actor John Gorman (allegedly the most loony of the three).

Originated in a Liverpool arts lab, Scaffold found work around colleges, arts festivals but one suspects the recorded output was aimed towards a mainstream audience rather than the fringes around the colleges and festivals and much of the material on At Abbey Road 1966 to 1971 would have worked pretty well in environments like TV variety shows. Alongside the familiar hit singles (Thank U Very Much, Lily the Pink and Do You Remember, catchy little lightweight ditties that were almost guaranteed radio airplay) there's a strong element of Gang Show (Gin Gan Goolie) and Rugby song (2 Day's Monday) in a collection that is rather light on for the pop poetry I was looking for. Still, at $10.99…

Henri's Liverpool Scene, on the other hand, while emerging from the same arts lab scene, headed towards the fringes rather than the mainstream, featuring on underground DJ John Peel's radio shows and included guitarists Andy Roberts and Mike Hart, who had substantial musical chops and went on to develop solo careers.

You'll still find Henri's portentious poetics predominating the mix, but the vocal and instrumental contributions from the others add light and shade to something that's very much a product of its time but provides an interesting listening experience.

Given the price, it's a collection that needs to be approached with caution and sampled at length, but with over two and a half hours of material The Amazing Adventures of the Liverpool Scene weighs in as pretty good value for money as far as Hughesy's concerned.

Your own mileage, of course, may vary.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Neil Young & The International Harvesters "A Treasure"

Your mileage regarding the accuracy of the title may vary, and while I'm firmly in the anything Neil does is worth a couple of listens camp my personal reaction to A Treasure would be to relabel this live compilation from 1985 An Interesting Diversion.

Now, I may be wrong but my understanding of Young's modus operandi runs something like this.

He'll spend some time quietly going around his business on the yacht, the Broken Arrow ranch or wherever he happens to be, and in the process he'll come up with a number of tunes that'll be recorded some time around a full moon in a sort of see how these work in this particular setting approach.

From there he'll take a look at what he's got to figure out how it might translate into an album. When he's got the album together he'll do something about touring behind it, though there's no guarantee that the tour setting will reflect what happened on the album.

The touring bit, as far as I can see, is what pays the bills and keeps the wages bill around the place under control.

This sort of thing is, however, the almost guaranteed to give record company executives the screaming abdabs, particularly when they've got definite ideas about what their artists should be doing. That scenario had David Geffen suing Mr Young for his failure to deliver product that was recognizably Neil Young.

There's a fair chunk of the contrarian in Young's personality, and the threat of legal action to force compliance in a particular genre setting is almost guaranteed to deliver the exact opposite.

Calls for something along the lines of Harvest or an album of electric rock in other words, will result in statements of intention to record and perform nothing but country music.

That's not going to preclude anything from his earlier catalogue, of course, and setlists from the International Harvesters era would also include reworkings of songs like Country Home, Heart of Gold and Down By the River along with the Flying On the Ground Is Wrong and Are You Ready For the Country? that turn up here.

Apart from that, there's a substantial yee-haw factor in tracks like Motor City, Get Back to the Country and Southern Pacific and tracks that had turned up in other incarnations along the way, like It Might Have Been or candidates for a later reworking (Soul of a Woman, which subsequently turned up in The Bluenotes era).

Highlights include the opening Amber Jean, written for Young's infant daughter, and the closing six-minute Grey Riders but there's plenty of interesting listening along the way, though mileages on Let Your Fingers Do the Walking may vary. Young's albums rarely end up labelled as Essential, but there's almost invariably something worth investigating, as is the case here.

You may be inclined to Approach with caution, but it's definitely worth approaching (or giving an evaluatory listen).