From The Archives…Still Chirpin’ After All these Years

Still Chirpin’ After All These Years

Originally published in Metro Mag 1986 (Metro was a stand-alone weekly, a predecessor of Nashville Scene)

by Michael Snow

Buddy Holly and the Crickets
By Coral Records [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Crickets have been part of my musical sensibility for almost thirty years, since first hearing “That’ll Be The Day” and seeing the cover of “The Chirping Crickets” with its impossibly blue-skied backdrop and the four young men posed almost formally in neat grey suits and skinny red ties. Arguably the first white, self-contained rock ‘n roll group, their Stratocaster based sound was the prototype for much that followed. As I had also known them casually since 1978, I was naturally delighted when Metro asked me to write a piece on them. I have always thought that the group has been too long ignored in print, the emphasis being increasingly on Buddy Holly as the years have passed.

The preparation for the story coincided with the spate of interest in the Rock ‘n Rock Hall of Fame for which Bernie Walters has labored long and hard, only to be upstaged by a New York consortium who are soon to announce their first list of inductees, which at the time of writing includes Buddy Holly but not The Crickets.  There is a serious miscarriage of justice in the works which must be addressed, for not only were the bulk of the records which form Buddy Holly’s legacy issued simply as “The Crickets,” but the writing of those timeless songs was usually a collaboration between group members – this well before Lennon and McCartney. The group has survived for thirty years with occasional hiatuses and with a surprising number of alumni, but they have always had that distinctive sound, no matter the line-up, and Jerry (J.I.) Allison has always piloted the band from his drum kit. It is especially unfair that the group may be ignored by this “Hall of Fame” now, since the line-up from 1977 until the present has been virtually the original: J.I. Allison on drums, Joe B. Mauldin on upright bass and Sonny Curtis on guitar. While Holly’s untimely demise eventually gave him the status of an international cult figure and Pop icon, it served to diminish the stature of a seminal rock ‘n roll band, a state of affairs that should not be allowed to continue. So, what started as a biographical piece has become an apologia for the restoration of The Crickets to their rightful place in the rock pantheon.

The all-too-brief “Golden Age” lasted just eighteen months and has been documented exhaustively, with varying degrees of accuracy, in print, on film, and most joyously on vinyl, where they truly live on forever young. They were the first white group to play the Apollo Theater in Harlem, J.I. and Joe B. were a yardstick by which fledgling rhythm sections measured themselves and the thunder of J.I.’s drums on the intro to “Peggy Sue” remains one of the great moments in rock ‘n roll. Four young Liverpool musicians were so much under their spell that they named themselves the Beatles in homage to their similarly insect-named idols (and that’s a fact).

Buddy’s death and the disarray caused by the draft, with Joe B., Sonny, and J.I. all being inducted at different times over a five-year period, would have finished a lesser group, but somehow the records kept coming, including “Love’s Made A Fool Of You” and the evanescent “Please Don’t Ever Change,” both of which stand tall with their other classics, despite being made with shifting personnel.

A List of Cricket’s alumni is a revelation. At different times, Earl Sinks, Jerry Naylor, David Box, Ernest Hall, Niki Sullivan, Buzz Cason, Glenn Campbell, Cliff Reynolds, Mike Curb, Trini Lopez, Tommy Allsup, Joe Osborne, J.J. Cale, Steve Kerkorian, Ric Grech, and Albert Lee have passed through the ranks, and the band had fruitful collaborations with the Everly Brothers and Bobby Vee along the way.

Certainly that is some array of talent, but they were usually on board one or two at a time with J.I. and usually Sonny as a nucleus. Glen D. Hardin was also a regular member for several years before settling in with Elvis.

Joe B., although a charter member, spent the longest time away from the fold, not leaving the army until 1965 and then spending ten more years in L.A. as a music publishing operative, session contractor, and as a studio engineer at the famed “Gold Star” where he worked on tracks with Herb Alpert, Leon Russell, The Baja Marimba Band, John Lennon, Burt Bacharach, and Bobby Russell, among others.

J.I., while always acting as keeper of the flame, managed stints on the drums with Johnny Rivers, Roger Miller, John Stewart, and Ray Stevens during periods of hiatus, and continued to husband his publishing interests.

Although Sonny’s connection with Buddy Holly pre-dates even the formation of The Crickets, and his involvement with the group began immediately after Buddy’s death, he has always maintained a successful solo career. As early as 1959 he had penned “Walk Right Back” for the Everly Brothers, and in the early Sixties he had major writing successes with “More Than I Can Say,” “I Fought The Law,” “When You Ask About Love,” and “Baby, My Heart.” 1964 saw major solo hits with “The Straight Life” and “Hung Up In Your Eyes.” He also provided the theme for the blockbuster Mary Tyler Moore series, “Love Is All Around.” The Seventies saw him making waves as a very successful jingle writer and an early Eighties pact with Elektra resulted in three solid country hits, “The Real Buddy Holly Story,” “Love Is,” and the top-tenner “Good Ol’ Girls.”

By the middle of 1977, J.I. and Sonny had arrived in Nashville, acquiring farms to the west of the city.  Joe B. accepted an offer from Bobby Russell to join him in a studio venture in Nashville soon after, and so the stage was set for a remarkable resurgence which I was able to witness first hand, having been hired by Russell to work in his publishing company and arriving at the same time as Joe B.

The sequence of events had an inexorable quality. Paul McCartney, having acquired the Holly/Crickets catalogue, launched an annual “Buddy Holly Week” in England and contacted J.I. to see if The Crickets would attend. J.I. ran it by the others and, lo and behold, a few weeks later The Crickets was reborn (for one performance, they believed) on the stage of London’s Kilburn Gaumont Theater. Returning to Nashville, pleased with the reaction in London, they were approached by Bill Justis to appear at the NARAS benefit, and were the hit of the evening. Soon thereafter the news came that Waylon Jennings was going to include a Crickets’ medley (which had been cut with Sonny and J.I. back in ’72) on his upcoming album “I’ve Always Been Crazy.”

He had the notion to debut the medley in concert with the guys and asked if they would consider going on the road “for a few day.” Those few days turned into five years of solid touring with Waylon and introduced a whole new audience to the irresistible sound of The Crickets.

Joe B. Mauldin and Michael Snow at The Sherlock Holmes Pub
Joe B. Mauldin and Michael Snow at The Sherlock Holmes Pub

I had a chance to witness the chemistry first hand while working the board on the first recording session they did after re-forming. At first they were tentative, J.I. and Joe B. probing for that groove, a little rusty perhaps; Sonny calm and patient, willing to wait for the sparks to fly. They were working on a new song of J.I.’s called “Cruise In It”, and they had made a few passes that no one was happy with. Maybe it had been too long. Then suddenly something happened – I still don’t know what – and they fell into a sublime, streamlined rockabilly groove. The years fell away and they sounded young, slick, and SO good. (Incidentally, “Cruise In It” backed with “Ollie V.” was only issued on a limited scale in England. Some enterprising company should re-release it – it’s a rockabilly masterpiece.)

Their live shows, nostalgic but not nostalgia, became a highlight of Waylon’s revue, with very strong audience response. Complementing the situation, “The Buddy Holly Story,” starring Gary Busey, went into general release, becoming a hit movie and fanning the flame. The guys have mixed feelings about the film. It obviously helped business, but was made without their permission, probably violating their trademark rights (the name is jointly owned by J.I and Joe B.) and certainly violating their privacy as the on screen portrayal of the fictional Crickets was wildly inaccurate, and there were major inconsistencies in the delineation of Buddy’s character too. Although the film was loosely based on John Goldrosen’s book Buddy Holly: His Life and Music, on which they had collaborated, the movie was more fiction than fact, and they were snubbed by the producers, not even being invited to the premier in their home state of Texas.

To add to the intense activity, M.C.A. issued “20 Golden Greats/Buddy Holly Lives” in the U.K. in 1979 and the album rampaged to the top of the album charts, giving the band surprisingly their first gold and platinum records. The following year the album duplicated its performance in the States and continues to sell heavily worldwide. They returned to London in 1979 and were joined onstage for a show-stopping jam by Paul and Linda McCartney , Denny Laine, Moody Blues’ Ray Thomas, Ronny Lane, and Rik Gretsch, then with Blind Faith.

That ill-fated super group’s only album included a cover of “Well…Alright,” co-written by J.I., Joe B., Buddy, and Norman Petty. Other acts who had big hits mining The Crickets’ catalogue include Linda Rondstadt with smash version of “That’ll Be The Day” and “It’s So Easy,” Blondie with “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” and Leo Sayer with “More Than I Can Say.”

1983 saw the end of the most intense period of Cricket activity since the early days, with Waylon coming off the road and the group taking a sabbatical to follow individual interests. J.I. is working his 185 acre farm, hunting and fishing and writing with ex-Waylor Gordon Payne and Sonny. Joe B. and his wife Jane are heavily involved in real estate, and Sonny has formed the Karat Corporation and Steem Records. There have already been two releases in the U.S. and U.K., and Sonny is excited about developing the company.

But, true to form, there are rumblings of activity in The Crickets camp. The classic “Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets” was recently re-released in England to strong response, and there are plans for a second volume of unreleased cuts, and a brand new Bobby Vee/Crickets album. Vee recently returned from a successful European tour with an offer for a Bobby Vee/Crickets tour in the spring of this year. It is probable that the next edition of the band will be minus Sonny as his contractual obligations make it difficult, but Gordon Payne has been tapped to occupy his slot. In addition, the BBC has completed a documentary history of Buddy Holly and The Crickets, and so the stage is set for the next phase.

But right now the guys are concerned about the possible omission of the band from the projected Hall of Fame. Now, there’s no way they could ever be accused of being glory-seekers or petty-minded men. They are good old boys in the best sense and even their complaints are couched in self-deprecating humor, but they do have a sense of their history and they feel, rightly in my opinion, that there has been a distortion in the perspective of the band’s importance vis-a-vis Buddy Holly.

While never attempting to diminish Buddy’s massive impact, they point out that The Crickets came first, it was a co-op band, and The Crickets had more hits than Buddy Holly, although the only difference in the records was the labelling. They have been on the receiving end of injustices before, from the Norman Petty era through the film situation, to their omission to date from the “Walk of Fame” in their home town of Lubbock. (There’s a statue of Buddy, Waylon, saxist Bobby Keyes, and a lady who sang with Lawrence Welk have sidewalk stars, but The Crickets are nowhere mentioned.)

The powers that be (who are they?) of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can redress some old inequities and prevent a new one by elevating The Crickets along with Buddy Holly. Whether they do or do not, one thing is certain: The Crickets will survive, as they have for thirty years. Don’t be surprised when that old West Texas groove machine fires up again.

The Crickets were not inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame until 2012

 

 

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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.

THE AMERICANA MUSIC TRIANGLE

Americana
Americana by Janin Otwell (click to buy)

  THE AMERICANA MUSIC TRIANGLE

Today’s feature in The Tennessean on the efforts of Aubrey Preston and Jed Hilley of the Americana Music Association to solidify The Triangle as a bona fide tourist destination took me back forty years to when I arrived in the States as a true rock ‘n’roll and r’n’b disciple, determined to put down roots in the birthplace of the music which had irrevocably changed my life … the very triangle of which we now speak.

The music had already offered me some success in my native England, where I’d been part of the rock ‘n’ roll boom, then the Soul boom, but with the bloom going off the swingin’ sixties, and waning interest in the gritty, great music to which I was forever committed, I determined that I had to go where that music had emerged and continued to thrive. So, with my young American wife and three-year-old daughter in tow, I set my sights on my personal Land Of Dreams.

With my in-laws’ home in Sarasota, Florida, serving as our staging area, we arrived at Christmas-time 1972 to begin our great adventure. We bought a used Toyota station wagon with the idea of working our way by road to who knew where.  But I already had my pilgrimage planned:  from New Orleans, Congo Square and the Quarter, to the Greyhound bus station in Macon, Georgia, where Little Richard had been a dish washer (that town also being the birthplace of James Brown and my beloved Otis Redding);  to Beale Street in Memphis and Highway 61, with all that those legendary roads implied; then on to West Memphis Arkansas, following the footsteps of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins up Highway 70 via Jackson, to Nashville- just starting to stake it’s international claim as Music City, U.S.A.

Once we arrived in Davidson County, I realized that Nashville was the geographic hub of it all, in easy reach of all the key areas that embodied the roots and branches of the music that had transformed me. In 1973, Jefferson Street was still one of the great thoroughfares of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues, Soul, and Rock ‘n’Roll, and they welcomed this white boy (with the funny Beatles accent ) with open arms. I felt like I was home where I belonged, and even though the racial situation was still tense, especially to the sensibilities of a liberal Northern European and his Yankee wife, it just felt likethe place we were meant to be.

I had the advantage of an already-established friendship and working relationship with Buzz Cason, the pioneering producer, writer and studio owner, already a great success in the pop, soul and r’n’b genres, so I wasn’t limited to trying to make it in “straight country,” with which I couldn’t claim as much affinity as other genres thatsprang from the fertile lands of the Deep South. But Brenda Lee, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name just a few, were classic rock ‘n’rollers in my book anyway, and if Charlie Rich was classified as a country singer, then I was O.K. with country, too.

It was a time of a growing influx of out-of-towners … the Muscle Shoals and Memphis boys, the early transplants from L.A. and N.Y.C., and very soon fellow Brits such as Roger Cook, Ray Flacke, Ralph Murphy, Pat McInerney and Tony Newman, who took care of any pangs of home-sickness I might have felt, although those pangs were always few and far between!

It was inevitable that what is now being labeled as Americana should crystallize as a movement in and around the Nashville area, because all the strains that weave into Americana are from around these parts, as they’ve always been.

The resurgence of the “Americana Triangle” bodes well for the future of music in general, as our region opens its arms once more to those that play it and sing it from the heart. I feel blessed to still be around to see it happen in my beloved adopted home.

Pub Stories…A Cautionary Tale

nashville-number-system

When I arrived in Nashville in 1973 I had managed to build a pretty solid studio resume in England, and was hopeful of doing something similar in the States. I was also interested in expanding my arsenal of guitars and keyboards by adding  bass guitar to the tools. I’d had a hankering to play bass for quite a while, but the opportunity seldom arose, as I worked so much with George Ford, a superb bassist. As I was the first Brit musician to arrive in Nashville, I figured that the locals who might know my name wouldn’t necessarily know what instruments I’d been playing in the London studio world. So one of my first moves was to acquire a sunburst Fender Jazz  bass and an Ampeg studio amp…

My Nashville friend Buzz Cason had been very generous showing me around and introducing me to some of the local movers and shakers, including John Denny of Cedarwood Music. I began spending time over there and figured I’d ease into the bass thing in low profile situations… demos and such, while I was learning how things worked in this new musical environment.

Didn’t quite work out that way.

My first studio call was to play on a Floyd Cramer track at R.C.A. Studio A. Serious deep end, but I’d  worked in all the key London studios with various high-visibility artists, so the chutzpah kicked in and I went for it. On the appointed day, I showed up an hour before the 2 p.m. downbeat in my London work clothes… midnight blue velvet jacket, black silk pants etc. etc. with my extremely long hair flowing free. The sound engineer was the only one there, and he didn’t seem to be too taken aback by my costuming choices, and we worked quickly and efficiently to get the bass sound, so by one thirty I was on my stool with a music stand before me, feeling pretty confident, as the Nashville Cats began wandering in. They were all extremely casually garbed, with overalls and ball caps seemingly the rule. I was eyed with curiosity, but they all seemed friendly enough, and too professional to question my presence. The producer was an Australian named Bill Walker, and as he got settled behind the console, in walked the great Floyd Cramer, looking like he’d just finished the back nine at McCabe. He exchanged pleasantries with some of the players, glanced briefly in my direction, then sat at the piano and began playing. Hearing that famous slip-note technique in the flesh was very cool, so I sat and enjoyed it, figuring he was warming up.

What I didn’t notice was that the local boys were scribbling away on available scraps of paper, the back of an envelope, the long bill from a grocery store cash register etc. Meanwhile I was waiting for my chart to be delivered to me.

You see, in London, if it wasn’t strictly a head arrangement, one was usually provided  with a formal notation chart, or at the very least a chord chart on staff  paper, and I always carried staff paper with me to sessions. As the clock hit 2, Mr. Walker hit the intercom button, saying “ O.K., Lets run it down” The drummer, who I soon learned was Larry Londin, started to count it down, but I had no chart, so I felt obliged to interrupt. “ I’m sorry, but I don’t have a chart  yet “
Voice on intercom “ Didn’t you get it down while Floyd was playing?’ “ Noooo”

“O.K. Just copy Jerry’s chart “Jerry was Jerry Shook, a great acoustic rhythm guitarist, with whom I later worked a lot. He leaned across and presented what looked to me to be some primitive computer code, rows of numbers grouped in columns of four, with gaps after every four lines, and arcane little squiggles and arcs in the margins. My mind froze… I looked with total incomprehension. Bill Walker, sensing there was something afoot, called me into the control room. “You don’t know the numbers system, do you?” I replied that I didn’t know what he was talking about. “O.K. You got any manuscript paper?” Of course I did, and he kindly sketched out a formal chart, as he was also  a locally prominent orchestral arranger, so I was able to complete the session, although in less than the style I’d envisioned. I immediately realized that I hadn’t researched the Nashville studio scene sufficiently, as our landing up in Nashville had been a bit  random, and country music had not occupied large areas of my listening or playing experience.

For starters, the numbers system was, and largely still is, confined to Nashville, and back then there was no book  to crack the code… you could only get it from another muso, and some of the locals weren’t necessarily falling over themselves to pass it on to an interloper. I also soon realized that there was a very formal protocol, particularly with bass, involved in Nashville studio sessions at that time. Transitional walk-ups and walk -downs had to be whole tone on the way up and the way back  down… a flat third going in either direction was frowned upon.

At the ripe old age of 29 I realized that I had to learn a whole new music methodology, and quickly at that! Initially, I picked up bits and pieces hanging out at Creative Workshop (Buzz Cason’s studio), but in a working environment, guys didn’t usually have time to pause and answer my questions about “the numbers”. Luckily for me, there was a much more laid-back shop, Pine Brothers, right next door to Creative. It was home base to the great Muscle Shoals  r‘n’b songwriting team of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, who were, like me, recent Nashville transplants. Spoon was a particularly easygoing fellow, in addition to being a renowned studio keyboardist, and he unlocked the mystery for me in about twenty minutes flat with no fuss at all, illustrating the nuances of the system at the piano. His patient though succinct explanation showed me how beautifully simple yet infinitely adaptable the numbers system was, and I’ve used it almost exclusively ever since. Once I had the numbers cracked, I was ready to go, and I vowed I’d  never get caught on the hop again.