“Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe.” That’s a wonderful line from The Commitments, a sweet little film about a ragtag assortment of Dubliners who form a soul band. Just think about it: like African Americans, the Irish have lived The Blues for centuries. And it shows…in their soul-fire poetry, prose, and music. So, you’re probably thinking “Van Morrison.” No. Today I want you to think “Rory Gallagher.” Heard of him? I hope so. But if not, listen up: he was one of the greatest blues-rock guitarists of all time and is a national folk hero in Ireland. Today would have been his 67th birthday, so let’s take a moment to pay homage to this passionate workingman of the guitar.
An important event on this date kicked off what would become an indispensable element of rock-n-roll music for time immemorial. On March 2, 1955, legendary R&B master Bo Diddley entered a Universal recording studio in Chicago and burned onto vinyl his song “Bo Diddley.” With it’s distinctive five-accent rhythm beat, it launched a thousand rock songs. The sound sprang from traditional African clave rhythms and gave way to a style known as “hambone” – a technique of making music by slapping one’s arms, legs, cheeks and chest while singing simple rhyming songs. Say the phrase, “shave and a HAIR CUT…TWO BITS” and you get a simple idea of the rhythm. Lots of Diddley-based tunes are obvious, like “Willy and the Hand Jive” and Bo’s own “Who Do You Love?” But you may not realize just how many songs have been fueled by that distinctive beat. No rocker can resist it! Here’s a collection of my favorite Bo Babies. Turn your speakers up loud and go crazy, man, crazy!
The name Stax Records is synonymous with soul music. But did you know that the legendary label of black artists like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, and Isaac Hayes was co-founded by a white woman who began her career as a school teacher? In the late 1950s, Estelle Axton began investing in Satellite Records, a small label started by her brother Jim Stewart, a former bank clerk. Satellite evolved into Stax, a premiere recording studio specializing in soul, R&B, funk, jazz, and gospel music. Said Booker T. Jones of the M.G.s, “I doubt there would have been a Stax Records without Estelle Axton.” The woman known as “Lady A” marketed the business, ran the Stax record shop, helped choose and develop the label’s artists, and provided inspiration, advice, and encouragement to writers and musicians.
Yes, I know that Brian Jones had nothing to do with the recording of the Rolling Stones song “Wild Horses,” but I couldn’t resist using the pun to get your attention as I introduce my birthday tribute to the band’s founder and high priest of psychedelic ’60s fashion. I reckon that Brian Jones was the dandiest heterosexual of the 20th century. And one of the randiest, too, having fathered at least five children with five different women by the time he was 23. But there was also real talent behind that foppish Casanova facade. Brian was one of Britain’s earliest practitioners of Delta blues. A natural musician, he was arguably the most versatile member of the band he formed and christened The Rollin Stones in 1962. And while he didn’t write, sing lead, or play solo on a single song during his career, his prowess as a multi-instrumentalist was unmatched in the rock world. Today would have been his 73rd birthday.
“I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want to me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.” That’s the way George Harrison sarcastically responded to Paul McCartney’s request that he alter his style of playing on “Two of Us,” a song recorded during the tension-filled sessions that would eventually spawn The Beatles’ “Let it Be” album and documentary film. By the time the band entered their late ’60s period, relationships among all four members had become downright hostile. The situation had become so tense that even the usually unflappable Ringo walked out in frustration during the recording of the “White Album” in 1968, planning not to return. Eleven months later, in the midst of what Paul referred to as the “Get Back” sessions, the situation had deteriorated. Following arguments with Paul, and heated exchanges with John that nearly resulted in fisticuffs, it was George’s turn to break free of the band. He left the studio one day and returned with an old friend whose phenomenal playing and gregarious nature brought about some much needed harmony. No one would dare bicker while Billy Preston was on the scene.
Question: what’s the next best thing to seeing your favorite artist perform at a rock concert? Answer: receiving a copy of the show’s program from a friend who attended the gig. Okay, I know that’s a stretch. Sure, you can drool over a concert program all you like, flip its pages till they fall out, and take it to bed and read it under the covers with a flashlight. But it will never sing to you. It won’t make your ears ring for hours on end. And it will never blind you with pyrotechnics. Nevertheless, I experienced a true rock-shock when my friend Tony Vigliotti walked into sixth period French class and presented me with a souvenir concert program from the Queen show he’d seen the night before at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theater. Nobody but a fellow rockaholic like Tony could have imagined how much I wanted to see that concert.
Oh, take me on a journey to a place where I can “lay my burden down, legalize my lows, and let the music wash my soul.” In other words, “Take Me to the Mardi Gras.” That’s the name of a song written and recorded by Paul Simon for his 1973 “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” LP. Paul may not possess one drop of Cajun/Creole blood, but his love song to The Big Easy is as soulful as that of any N’awlins native. It’s one of those songs that makes my heart ache with dreams of escaping to a place of primordial pleasure, a place where a swampy voodoo vibe percolates just beneath the surface of even the most festive of ceremonies. Bawdy ol’ New Orleans is such a land — perhaps the most culturally-unique city in America.
“No, Spiardi. I bought MYSELF a ring that’s too big.” This is how Miss S.S. sarcastically answered when I asked if her boyfriend bought her the yarn-wrapped ring she was sporting on her finger. It had never occurred to me that the fuzzy bands worn by the A-list girls began their lives as one-size-fits-all pieces of cheap metal, purchased by hormone-raging boys to give to their pubescent paramours. The crafty lasses wrapped their tokens of love with angora yarn to obtain the proper fit, thus creating one of the most sought after status symbols of junior high school life: the mohair “going-steady” ring. Well, I ended up with something better – something that outlived any old chintzy, dime-a-dozen ring.
“Boy, if we ever hit number one, we’d love to be on the Joe Franklin Show!” That’s what J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf quipped to the host of TV’s longest running talk show, on the night he and his bandmates hijacked Franklin’s late-night program. Was the jive-talking rocker being straight, or was he merely mocking the institution that was Joe Franklin? There was no doubt in my mind that Peter “Woofa Goofa” Wolf was dead-on serious. I mean, who wouldn’t want to join the ranks of the top-tier celebrities who once graced Joe Franklin’s couch? From 1950 through his last show on August 6, 1993, he hosted 21,425th episodes, interviewing legends like Cary Grant, John Wayne, Muhammad Ali, Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Elvis, John and Yoko, Andy Warhol, and five U.S presidents. Joe was one of the people who helped fuel my knowledge and love of performers – big or small, A-list or D-list – who hailed from an entertainment era that’s long gone. Here’s my tribute to the talk show king, who died on January 24, 2015, at age 88.
Okay, this is a strange story, but yer blogger is a pretty spooky gal, and she’d feel remiss if she didn’t pass on this ghoulish, but essential, piece of trivia regarding Buddy Holly’s “possibly” avoidable death-by-aircraft on February 3, 1959. Yep, 56 years ago today. The tale begins with a man named Joe Meek….