QUIXOTIC INCLINATIONS…or, it isn’t always about the money

Think About The Future by JOtwell
Think About The Future by JOtwell (click to buy)

There are some people who follow the artistic path out of a conviction that they have something original that they have to get out of themselves, whether anybody else cares or not. That can be a long and lonely journey, particularly if your vision doesn’t coincide with the mainstream, or even the sidestream.

I remember hearing Ornette Coleman for the first  time, when he was being howled down for not even being one who could aspire to the title of ‘musician”. Time has been kind to him. You could say the same about many a painter, graffiti artist and author (Sam Beckett, anyone?).

There are instances of people with impeccable pedigrees, conservatory trained, masters of the conventional skills, and proven employable individuals in their field, who are possessed by an inexplicable muse to follow the Star Trek template….” go where no man has gone before”, and they frequently pay a high price for their inclinations.

I’ve known one such maverick for many years, a guy by the name of Steve Dellavecchia, a quintessential Italian-American from Philly, with the kind of pedigree I detailed above…a guy who could have made it in the business on many different levels, but one whose sense of principle (which could as easily be attributed to hard-headedness as righteousness) is such that he’s turned down more opportunities over the years than he’s taken up.

When I first ran into him, he was almost a caricature of the perfect arena-ready rock drummer. Blond and body-builder sculpted, with great physical power and stamina, he was also thoroughly schooled in the finer points of dynamics, time signatures, sight reading and actual old-school drum technique. He was hanging out with the bunch of highly competent young guns who arrived in Nashville in the late seventies: Bassist Michael Rhodes, unrelated guitarist Danny Rhodes, and guitarist Kenny Stinson (all of who hailed from Monroe,LA), percussionists, Kirby Shelstad and Tom Roady, and the various guys who coalesced around the Charlie Daniels “Volunteer Jam” phenomenon, such as the Winters Brothers and Jimmy Hall.

I worked with him in the studios, on big-band dates and in rock concert settings, so I knew he had the goods, yet over time, as his musical vision became more extreme, he pretty much abandoned any interest in any kind of mainstream to follow his own very tough muse.

I got where he was coming from to a degree (I must have, as I’ve played on various of his experimental recordings in recent years), but I’d sometimes hear stuff by him that I didn’t get at all, which bothered me, as I’ve always prided myself on being a good listener. He managed to go to places at times that made me wonder if he was putting people on, but then again, I couldn’t figure what he might gain from such musical brinkmanship, so I ended up taking it at face value.

What he committed to tape is not for the faint of heart, as he insisted on employing a collection of old, frequently off-brand synthesizers, in his exclusively instrumental creations, almost perversely parading their antique tackiness as a counterpoint to the power and slickness of his Cobham-esque drum chops. Sing along ? Not a chance…dance to it ? Good luck !

Steve characterizes his music as jazz….could be, depending on your definition. Avant-garde, certainly….atonal, frequently….user-friendly, maybe not so much….intriguing, yes.

I’m not citing Steve as a role model for aspiring newcomers, nor as a cautionary tale about opportunity missed because of snobbishly high standards, but I do think that there’s a strange nobility to his stance vis-a-vis the goals people aspire to in the music game. If riches are the motivation, one sets oneself up for crushing disappointment if said riches don’t materialize; notoriety and celebrity are a better gamble, but too much of that can get old in a hurry. Art, however, won’t let you down if you keep that gift as your focus, and that has always been Steve’s compass, for better or worse.

Over the course of a lifetime pursuing the creative arts, most of us try to strike a balance between “Art for art’s sake, money for God’s sake”, as the old truism goes; directions are followed then abandoned, styles are tried on for size, then discarded, experiments work, experiments fail…but if we’re lucky enough, the creative spark continues to fire and we keep creating, even if it’s only for our own edification. Steve has soldiered on defiantly,and should you come across Dellavecchia’s music on-line, as you may, don’t be scared to give him a listen. It will undoubtedly bend your ears, but a bit of ear-bending now and then can be a good thing.

Instrumental Musings…BOUZOUKI by BARDSONG

Bouzouki photo by JOtwell
Bouzouki photo by JOtwell

BOUZOUKI by BARDSONG

I designed this unique instrument, incorporating various Celtic motifs, and it was beautifully constructed by the luthiers of Bardsong. They allowed me to hand-pick the fine exotic woods from their on-site inventory, and they worked from my scale drawings.

The instrument is strung in three double courses: octave low D, octave A and octave high D, which gives it a range similar to a 12-string guitar, but with the open-fifth tuning, sitar effects are possible, in addition to the traditional bouzouki voicings.

It has full electronic capability, with two piezo pickups, and outboard tone and volume controls.

To accommodate the low D course, the neck measures 27″ from nut to bridge.

The pewter headstock escutcheon of Celtic design was a gift from noted Irish traditional singer Elizabeth Reed, after I produced one of her albums: Go raibh maithe agat, Eilis!

The Skelly Suggests…What’s In A Name (Les Girls)

Church Hats - photo by JOtwell
Church Hats – photo by JOtwell

What’s In A Name (Les Girls)

1. MAYBELLENE                                              Chuck Berry

2.JUDY IN DISGUISE                                     John Fred & The PlayboyBand

3. BARBARA ANNE                                         The Regents

4. HELP ME RHONDA                                     Beach Boys

5. MESSAGE TO MARTHA                             Lou Johnson

6. LOUIE, LOUIE                                              Kingsmen

7. ANGIE                                                           Rolling Stones

8. BONY MARONIE                                          Larry Williams

9. BETTY’S BEING BAD                                  Marshall Chapman

10. VISIONS OF JOHANNA                            Bob Dylan

From The Desk…SOLDIER OF LOVE

 

Album Cover art for Arthur Alexander The Greatest Ace Records/ Photo Michael Ochs Archives
Album Cover art for Arthur Alexander The Greatest Ace Records/ Photo Michael Ochs Archives

 

The other evening I chose (not for the first time) a CD of Arthur Alexander’s most notable recordings for my bed-time soothe,and it brought back a series of memories that I feel to be well worth re-telling.

My dear friend Dave Durocher, who was just taking over the driving seat at Bug Music back at the time of which I speak, mentioned one day that he was working on resurrecting the catalog, and possibly the career of the legendary, but rather obscure early sixties soul singer and composer, Arthur Alexander.

Danny Kahn, at Elektra Nonesuch had signed Arthur to record his first album since his “Rainbow Road” disc for Warner Bros.,in the ‘80’s. Ben Vaughn, a longtime Bug client was set to produce, which is how Bug had got into the loop, and Dave was coming from an altruistic place, as well as a business one, as he was a die-hard fan of Arthur’s music.

I immediately got my two cents in, telling Dave what a huge influence Alexander had on the nascent Liverpool music scene in the very early ‘60’s. To guys like me, Arthur Alexander was anything but obscure; he had been, in fact, one of the most notable of our heroes, and any band worth their salt would have had a go at “ You Better Move On” and the sinuous, yet anthemic “ Shot Of Rhythm and Blues” (a record that I first heard at NEMS one Saturday, and bought at once, wearing the groove out by Monday morning). Only Lennon had the confidence to take on the majestic “Anna” which he recorded with telling effect on The Beatles’ first album“Please Please Me” but we all loved ourselves some A.A. back in that day.

I don’t think Dave had sussed that the Arthur Alexander thing was quite as international in its scope, but over the next few months we happily enjoyed our shared devotion for Arthur’s body of work, while Dave patiently went about his task of gaining Arthur’s trust and bringing him back into the public eye, with the help of a list of like-minded supporters, such as Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts,Thomas Caine and Al Cooley.

Bug’s specialty was recouping long-uncollected royalties and restoring as much copyright ownership as possible to the author, so that was the area to which Dave devoted his greatest energy… We’re not just talking about Beatles albums, either. The Stones had dipped into the songbook too, and the recently released “ The Beatles At The Beeb”series of C.D.s had brought“ Soldier Of Love” ( co-incidentally written by two of my Nashville mates, Buzz Cason and Tony Moon) back into the limelight in addition to Arthur’s more widely known efforts, as interpreted by the lads from Liverpool in their early prime.

Arthur’s return to the studio for the “Lonely Just Like Me” project was turning out very well, the new recordings showing him to still be a master of his craft, particularly on the heart-wrenching ballad style that had so informed Lennon’s own approach to the art of the soul ballad. I mean, just listen….Arthur is totally ingrained in Lennon’s way with a ballad.

Like many of his peers, such as James Ray and Joe Tex, Arthur had obviously absorbed his share of the Grand Ole Opry, and there was always a country flavor to his singing and song writing, not to mention the many hard country songs he chose to cover on record, so his vocal style was possibly more user-friendly to the white boys than the tonsil-shredding assaults of a James Brown or Wilson Pickett.

Dave had mentioned that Arthur had been out of music entirely for many years, despite a half hearted attempt at a comeback in the ‘80s, when he was briefly signed to Warner Bros. for the aforementioned “Rainbow Road” album, but he was apparently quite content with his gig as a school-bus driver, and had no yen for the bright lights.

However, he was making the occasional foray into Nashville for publishing business, as that was  Dave’s main focus for Arthur, so I got to meet him a time or two at the Bug Music office, a big, diffident man with very little in the way of show-biz pretensions, if any. He seemed vaguely amused and maybe a little uncomfortable, when I regaled him about how influential his music had been in Liverpool, and I thought to myself that I was a lucky guy to be experiencing something that had been denied John Lennon, who never encountered Arthur Alexander in the flesh, to my knowledge.

As Dave Durocher was a notable studio drummer in addition to being a publishing executive, I knew he was itching to have a play with A.A., and a situation presented itself in the form of an outdoor concert series “ Summer Lights” which was held on the closed-off streets of downtown in June…twenty years ago, coming up. Dave somehow persuaded Arthur to headline one of the shows, and assembled a backing band of elegant simplicity for the occasion, Dave providing percussion via a cardboard box and brushes, with Ben Vaughn and Gary Nicholson filling things out with acoustic guitars. For once, I was only too happy to be in the audience to actually see Arthur performing his legendary catalog, and on a beautiful late afternoon, shaded by the skyscraper canyons, Arthur Alexander took the stage- as it turned out, for the final time.

The audience was full of musos as eager to see the legendary singer as I was, and I spent most of the performance with a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye, as he did them all, his voice as stirring as ever, the simple accompaniment serving the songs ideally, especially on “Anna” and “ You Better Move On”.

I shook hands with him and congratulated him backstage afterwards and spent the balance of the weekend savoring a unique experience I could only have imagined all those years before in Liverpool.

Late on the following Monday afternoon I got a call from an obviously shell-shocked Durocher, who told me that Arthur had taken ill in Dave’s office after lunch, and had died across the street at Vanderbilt Medical Center of myocardial infarction-just like that.
********
It was hard to comprehend, hard to digest, and particularly hard on Dave, as one can imagine, yet there will always be the memory of that sun-dappled afternoon twenty years ago, when Arthur Alexander sang his soul for the last time.

Toots Thielmanns, “ Live at Chapiteau Opera, Liege”

Toots Thielmanns illustration by JOtwell (click to buy)
Toots Thielmanns illustration by JOtwell (click to buy)

Imagine, if you will, a frail silver-haired ,ninety year old Belgian harmonica player, confined to a wheelchair, yet still the undisputed master of a notoriously difficult instrument, the chromatic harmonica.

There have been very few players to reach the heights on this instrument…Larry Adler and Stevie Wonder come to mind, but this old guy, Toots Thielmanns, was , and still is, the guy. Ask anybody.

He celebrated his ninetieth birthday with a live concert in Liege, which has recently become available on DVD. “ Live at Chapiteau Opera, Liege”

Not only a wonderful testament to a monumental musician, but living proof that if the musical spirit is deep in your soul, age ain’t got nothin’ to do with  it.

Totally recommended at every level. Feed your souls with this remarkable performance.

Instrumental Musings … Springfield EWJ-20CE

Springfield EWJ-20CE
Springfield EWJ-20CE photographed by JOtwell (click to buy)

SPRINGFIELD EWJ-20CE

Clive Gregson and I had heard rumors that there was a store in the sleepy town of Springfield, TN, that  was importing and distributing a hot line of Korean-made instruments of very high quality, so we headed up into the country one fine summers’ day to investigate. We found the store in the old town square, and there was, indeed a shop full of gorgeous guitars, acoustic basses, and mandolins, all bearing the logo “Springfield”. We were the only customers, and they seemed pleased to have two Brits in their backwater as we sat down and began trying things out. At the end of a pleasant afternoon of playing, I had test driven every acoustic bass they had, and this one just stood out, and the price was sooo right. It came with a beautiful case, too- can’t go wrong, can you?