From the Desk: The Yellow Scream & The Purple Dream

A Tale of Two Albums

Little Richard

I first heard “Tutti Frutti” on a big, ornate Wurlitzer jukebox at Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Pwihelli, Wales, and it fried my eleven year old mind totally and permanently.  I’d already heard a few records emanating from the USA under the catch-all banner of rock ‘n’ roll and was already enamored of Fats Domino, but to my ears Fats was  a jazzy blues artist.  I came from a family of working musicians, so had already been exposed to a quite sophisticated musical landscape by age eleven.  I was exploring piano and was soon to acquire my first guitar as my reward for passing the British 11 Plus Exam – the gateway to higher education for a working-class kid.

The Butlin’s jukebox had Bill Haley and The Comets, some early Presley and Chuck Berry, and the first lukewarm bleatings of British rock music, but I could tell instantly that this record was the real thing:  100 proof, high octane.  The propulsive quality was beyond exciting, with the thick layers of synchronized saxophones driving the improbably frantic, hysterical screaming of one Richard Penniman … the quasar, the thunderbolt … Little Richard.  The B-side (yeah,sure!) was “Long Tall Sally,” and I spent hours pumping coins into the jukebox to hear those two inflammatory pieces of music.  By the time our week-long holiday was over and we returned to Liverpool, I was totally besotted and brainwashed by what had hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

No, I didn’t rush out to buy the disc when we got home.  Although there were gramophones to be found in the neighborhood and the family, my dad had opted for an early Grundig tape recorder instead so he could record classical music from the BBC.  It was expected that I would buckle down to my academic future, which did not include the rampant ravings of Little Richard.

As fate would have it, there was a shop in our part of town called Epstein & Sons, which sold electric appliances of all kinds.  It occupied a large corner lot and consequently had room for big display windows, two fronting the busy thoroughfare of County Road and a third and smaller window facing onto the side street.  This window had recently started featuring musical merchandise of a modest nature:  small Dansette record players and radios, a smattering of down-market guitars and the like, plus a display of records, including some of the new-fangled LP discs.  This side window seemed to be put together with a lot of care, and became a regular stopping place for us incipient teenagers. I lived a couple of blocks away and passed it daily as there was also a bus stop nearby.

At this point I had yet to see a photograph of Little Richard, so when Epstein’s displayed his first LP “Here’s Little Richard” in all its screamingly fluorescent yellow glory, it hit me as the visual embodiment of the music still rooted in my head. The photographic image was outrageous, and I didn’t even know that word yet.  It was a head-shot and, yes, he was screaming for sure!  Eyes closed, mouth wide and extravagantly equipped with pearly whites, a towering pompadour, and a precise toothbrush moustache, it seemed like every bead of sweat on his face was etched in diamond dust.  For grey, dreary Liverpool, in grey, dreary post -war England it was a remarkable, jolting image.  Although it was an exact facsimile of the U.S. cover on Specialty Records, one has to praise the marketing people at Decca Records, who were issuing the discs on their London-American imprint, for letting that cover loose in England untouched.

I could live without a pictureless single, but the actual album I had to have!  I had a source of pocket-money from helping out at a fishmongers, which paid half a crown a week.  At that rate it would take almost a month to save up the price of the LP, so I spent a lot of time staring in that Epstein & Sons window.  The other black face on display was that of Fats Domino, in caricature, which in hindsight was very apt.  Allen Toussaint once famously remarked “Fat’s Domino’s music never harmed man, woman or child,” whereas Little Richard’s look and sound were the diametric opposite.  Dangerous !

-oOo-

In retrospect, there were many extraordinary developments in this twelve-song compilation, which was essentially the A and B sides of his entire output on Specialty up to that time.  The studio cast was basically  the team who had provided Fats Domino’s genial, rolling groove on records since 1949 and the studio in New Orleans, right where it had always been, was Cosimo Mattassa’s – J & M.

Dave Bartholomew was not in charge, however. Bumps Blackwell, who came in as Art Rupe’s producer on the sessions, was initially very doubtful about Richard’s ability on the ivories, and consequently booked the New Orleans piano legend Huey Smith to handle the piano duties. Huey played on the early attempts at recording Richard at J &M, but those takes didn’t get it as far as Art was concerned.  Rupe is quoted as saying that Bumps called that one wrong: “Richard could only play in one key, but he was great in that key!”

Penniman’s relentless piano pounding and generally manic triads jack-hammering along with his over-the-top vocals, affected the way Earl Palmer was able to play the drum parts.  In his biography Backbeat Palmer stated that Richard’s rough and ready approach was as exciting in the studio as on stage, and in order to accommodate the artist’s unique perception he had to come up with an approach that is now considered to be the inventive template for rock drumming.  Palmer moved the right hand emphasis away from the ride cymbal to the hi-hat because Richard had already filled that acoustic space with those relentless triads.  To all intents and purposes, this was the beginning of rock drumming as we know it today, the looser, splashy swing of a ride cymbal replaced by the more clipped hi-hat sound, which also changed the perception of syncopation for the whole band.

Fats and the other New Orleans piano “Perfessors” were much better technicians than Richard and had the rich history of piano playing in the area on which to base their styles.  Penniman was a Georgia country boy out of Macon; he’d been knocking around on the southern circuit for quite some time and had even cut some sides with his road band, The Upsetters, so his own approach was pretty much set by the time he began working with the sophisticated musicians at J & M.  It was down to them to accommodate his way of doing it, which is probably why the studio band sounded so radically different on Richard’s records than on those of Fats and Bartholomew.  Bumps Blackwell was also a stranger to the area, a gun for hire, so he was also free of preconceptions as to how the music should turn out.

The resulting juggernaut of sound flattened everything else that  hit the record stores and airwaves.  Cosimo’s monophonic mixes are still a marvel … never listen to this stuff in stereo, by the way!  This was genuinely unhinged, wild and crazy shit.

Presley , Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins were coming out of an  established form (country and western), Chuck Berry’s music had strains of country and small combo jump blues, and Fats couldn’t have been more rooted in his hometown of New Orleans.  Only Bo Diddley was as truly iconoclastic as Little Richard Penniman, but Bo’s palate was much more limited and restricted, although no less exciting in its way.

Drop a needle anywhere on this platter, it doesn’t matter … the barn is burnin’ wherever you land.

-oOo-

It isn’t just the music either.  I soon realized that within the rapid-fire nonsense syllables was a cast of characters worthy of Chaucer (I’d just started reading The Canterbury Tales).  Bald‑headed Sally, Uncle John, Aunt Mary, Miss Anne, Ready Teddy, Jenny, and the narrator himself, who frequently puts himself in the thick of the action.  It also seemed that the word “ball” served equally as noun or verb; in short, I could tell these were not paeans to pure innocence.  They were nasty songs about nasty people doing nasty things … grown-up people doing grown-up stuff, and apparently having a ball ballin’, slippin’ and slidin’, peepin’ and a hidin’, and so on.  This was a big ol’ slice of black American life served pipin’ hot.  There was another subtext I couldn’t put my finger on just yet, but “Little Richard – Volume 2” was soon to clarify that for me.

-oOo-

When “Little Richard – Volume 2” took its place beside the Yellow Scream in the display window at Epstein & Sons, the visual contrast was extremely noticeable.  Haloed in a purple haze, the headshot was air-brushed to a svelte smoothness with the addition of what looked suspiciously like a liberal use of cosmetics.  In retrospect, it seems to have provided the template for the look that Prince took to the bank thirty years later, whether by accident or design.

The music was pretty much as explosive as before, blasting off with “Keep A Knockin'” delivered at a blistering pace, and throughout the collection there were enough incendiary performances to keep my rock ‘n’ roll heart happy.  However, Art Rupe must have been aware that Fats Domino was having a string of huge successes with rocking re-vamps of standards and evergreens, so in the mix this time were “By The Light Of The Silvery Moon” and “Baby Face.” Fats’s style was such that songs from an older generation fitted very well with his approach, whereas Richard’s take on these standards came across  as camp, although I didn’t know that word yet in its socio-sexual context.  Most disconcerting to my still-innocent sensibilities was the ending of “Ooh, My Soul” where his otherwise flame-thrower vocal dissolved into a girlish simpering giggle.  At that point in time, homosexual behavior was generally very discreet in the U.K. and especially in an über-macho environment like Liverpool, so it took awhile for the penny to drop that Richard was gay, but so what?  In hindsight, and in the historical context, there are clues scattered throughout his work, but his persona and sound were so exotic and wildly flamboyant anyway, that we just accepted it as part of the package.

Obviously, a sophisticate like Brian Epstein would have been in on the skinny; he must have got a kick displaying those subversive album covers openly in staid, Irish-Catholic North Liverpool!

What is undeniable is the fervor and pulse of the music, arguably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded, and as scalding hot today as it was sixty years ago.  Although ostensibly a non-stop paean to rampant hedonism, most of Richard’s stylistic devices came directly out of the black Pentecostal church tradition, which was still a hidden, unknown quantity to the world at large before Richard let the genie out of the bottle.  The black church seems to have made its peace between the sacred and profane early on, making it possible for such a unique artist as Little Richard Penniman to emerge fully formed from that background.

I was lined up with rest of the Liverpool musical youth, when Richard headlined at Liverpool Empire, backed by Sounds Incorporated and a barely teenage Billy Preston on Hammond Organ, with The Beatles making their first concert appearance anywhere, ever, as the opening act.  In the late 60s, when I was deep into the Pentecostal soul scene as Doris Troy’s pianist and band‑leader(and was consequently under the Apple umbrella along with Billy Preston), I had the great pleasure of spending quite a bit of time with Billy (always a monster talent), and he had fond memories of his time with Little Richard.  He reckoned that without touring with Richard he probably would never have linked up with The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.

These two Little Richard albums are essential listening for anyone interested in the vibrant heart of rock ‘n’ roll!

-oOo-

As promised, this piece is dedicated to R. Stevie Moore, who knows his rock ‘n’ roll and who triggered this memory by posting a picture of The Yellow Scream on Facebook a couple of weeks ago.

Pub Stories…What IS a Skelly?

Michael Snow, The Skelly,  at The Sherlock Holmes Pub
Michael Snow, The Skelly, at The Sherlock Holmes Pub

WHAT’S A SKELLY?

Since recording The Skelly Trilogy (1999-2005) I’ve fielded this question more than once, so here’s the lowdown.

In 1998, some local developers in Nashville were creating a high-end Irish-themed pub and restaurant at a prime site on Lower Broadway. The place was to be called Seanachie (Storyteller) and it was a no-expenses spared venture. Irish artisans were brought over to hand-build the interior, and the man in charge was a fellow from Northern Ireland who’d successfully brought the concept to various locations in mainland Europe and the Far East. One of the investors was a lawyer with whom my wife was acquainted, and as a result I became an unofficial consultant as the project developed, advising on the entertainment aspects of the venture.

The first time I met the Ulsterman, he heard my Liverpool accent and said what I heard as “Ah! A skelly scouse….I love you skellies” The phrase was new to me, although the word scouse was not, so I asked “What’s a skelly ?” “Well, you are” he replied “A Liverpool-Irish lad, a bit of a rogue, y’know.” Although I’d never heard the term used in Liverpool, it had a nice ring to it, and as Skelly was a fairly common surname around our patch, I assumed what I’d misheard was correct, and in no time I’d written what became the title song of the first record “Here Comes The Skelly”. More importantly The Skelly became a character, an all-purpose Liverpool-Irish Everyman on whom I could hang the various narratives in song that were manifesting themselves at an alarming rate.

After the first album was issued I started to get queries about who or what The Skelly was. I did a bit of research and to my dismay, discovered that the phrase, coined by native-born Irish to denote their Liverpool cousins, was actually scally scouse, scally being a shortening of “scalawag” … but the Ulsterman’s accent had rendered it as skelly to my ears.

Well, The Skelly Scouse had become a cornerstone of this particular musical endeavor, so I was happily stuck with him for two more albums, and I simply explained the character away as a bit of a lovable Liverpool rogue, so I was true to the original intent, although I’d misheard and consequently misspelled the original word.

When Seanachie was completed, and a wonderful place it was, I had the pleasure and honor of assembling and leading the backing band for Matt Molloy, the Chieftain’s esteemed flute player, who was the guest artist on the gala opening night.

Sadly Seanachie is no more, but that’s where The Skelly originated.

 

From The Archives…A Liverpool Tribute to Buddy Holly

A Liverpool Tribute to Buddy Holly
A Liverpool Tribute to Buddy Holly

20th of March 2008
Royal Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

I am basking in the applause of a sold-out house after a performance of “Valley of Tears” at the 50th Anniversary Tribute Concert celebrating the epochal performance by Buddy Holly an the Crickets…(excerpt from Mersey Me! A Liverpool Lad on the Loose in The Swinging 60’s)

Pub Story…A Western Soujourn

Through the Bottom of a Glass photo by JOtwell (click to buy)
Through the Bottom of a Glass photo by JOtwell (click to buy)

A Western Sojourn

Once upon a time many years past, I found myself being a tour guide of sorts to a wealthy American studio owner, making his virgin voyage across the pond. For some reason he’d decided that this pilgrimage would be enhanced by my presence, particularly as far as Liverpool went, but also on side trips to London and Ireland. Well, business was a little slow at the time in question, so the prospect of an all expense paid trip to the old stomping grounds, with first class transportation and hotels, plus a most generous per diem, was rather hard to turn down, so I signed on. As he was an avid collector of all things Beatle, and generally infatuated with the mystique of the old home town, Liverpool was the main focus for him, and there’s more than a story or two about our time there, and similarly about London, but my focus here and now is about the adventure in Ireland, most specifically when I shepherded him to the Wild West of County Mayo, to sample the traditional Irish music that is so plentiful in that area.

Flying into Dublin, seriously stoked on early morning pints after pulling a cocaine-fueled all-nighter at Liverpool’s four-star Adelphi Hotel with an Irish comedy troupe who’d been performing a few gigs in the ‘Pool, we checked into Blooms Hotel in the heart of Temple Bar, down by the Liffy, fired and wired. We careened around the town, Dame Street, Grafton Street, over the Ha’penny Bridge to the rough and tumble of O’Connell Street and so on, for forty-eight hours, barely seeing the inside of our hotel rooms, much less disturbing the perfection of our expensive bed linens.

In this long gone time the marching dust was not only legal, but barely known in Ireland, so we tooted and booted with no concern at all for legal repercussions, which made it possible to put the bevy down in spectacular quantity, while remaining relatively sharp and on the case.

On the third morning we repaired to Amiens Street Railway station for the trip west, a journey I was most familiar with, having done it year after year in my childhood. We had first class tickets, but soon repaired to the bar car, via smoking carriages that were blue with fumes, Ireland still being a resolutely tobacco-using nation at the time. Drink was taken as we rattled along past the areas and stations that had been long implanted in my consciousness (The whole route is memorialized in “Haveran’s House” from my album “Here Comes the Skelly”). We finally pulled into Westport, County Mayo, at about four in the afternoon, the fresh sea air from Clew Bay an immediate bracer.

My man, in his particular fashion, approached the only cabbie on station, as there wasn’t much call for independent transportation at that particular time of the year, and immediately hired him, Declan being his name, to be our personal driver, on call at all times, sealing the deal with two hundred crisp Punt ( the Irish currency before the Euro). Well, Declan was immediately our man, as they don’t breed fools in the Far West, and after bringing us to our luxurious hotel overlooking Clew Bay and the wide western expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, he assured us that he was totally at our service at any hour, giving us his card with its minimal phone number.

Westport is a lovely town, the first planned town in Ireland, built from scratch in the mid nineteenth century, but like many things Irish, it had attained an age and mystique in a hurry, so by this time it inhabited it’s space most enchantingly, and, along with Doolin down the coast, had become a hotbed of the resurgent Irish traditional music scene, anchored by ‘Matt Malloy’s’, an eponymous pub owned by the celebrated flautist of the Chieftains, with whom I’ve shared a stage from time to time.

There were many venues featuring the trad. however, and after a freshener of sorts, we summoned Declan to take us down the hill to the bounty of music pubs that awaited. After a skim around, it seemed like Matt’s place was already besieged by tourists, so on our chauffeur’s recommendation we landed hard by The Octagon (the town square, basically,) at Dunning’s.

It felt and smelled good to me from the get-go, and as it was only about six, we settled in at the bar for a little sustenance, both solid and liquid. We chose a couple of pies and a couple of pints that were served by a barmaid equipped like the figurehead of a Viking long ship….flaming red hair, sea-green eyes, sturdy and sensationally shapely, standing a good five ten in her cuban-heel boots, with an accent you could spread on your morning toast…it was that buttery and tasty. A bit unusual in that part of the island, as the Viking strain is usually more prevalent on the eastern coast, but there she was, and my traveling companion was immediately gob-smacked. Like many an American tourist, he wasn’t shy about flashing the cash, which I’d tried to advise him against, to no avail, in Liverpool, and he seemed to think that a display of largesse might be a path to this young lady’s bounty.

My own attention was diverted by the arrival of a gnomic fellow, hovering in the vicinity of my less occupied elbow. He waited patiently until eye-contact was made. “You would be a musicianer, sor.” A somewhat archaic form of address was not uncommon in those parts and as a large chunk of my family hailed from nearby, outside Tuam, County Galway, I was familiar with it. His lilt was somewhere between a statement and a question, without being either, or maybe being both, so I replied in kind “I would, indeed, and thank you for asking.” He gave a satisfied nod “And what would be your instrument, sor?” I replied that I played several.  “What would be your choice if you were to play here tonight?”, he persisted politely. “Well, if you were talking a seisun, I’d probably play bodhran, but I don’t have one with me….do have a tipper though.” It’s always been my practice to have a tipper handy in Ireland. The double-headed wooden beater slips easily into a pocket, and can double as a weapon should the need arise. I brandished mine briefly, which once again drew a satisfied nod from the little fella. “ I’ll be back presently, so…ye’ll still be here?” A little bemused, I replied that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, and he scuttled off out the door.

I returned my attention to my traveling companion, who was now focused intently on the barmaid, and tried to divert him a little. “I wouldn’t waste time and money on this one…she’s probably a good Catholic girl, and half the guys in here are probably blood relations, you know?” He wasn’t in the mood to pay attention to any of that of course, so I envisioned a later time in the proceedings when I might have to extricate him (not for the first time) from a social contretemps.

Within a few minutes, however, the little man was back, sporting a beautiful bodhran, which he extracted from a pillow case, handing it to me reverently. It was a finely made drum, with intricate Celtic decoration on the taut goatskin, and I’m sure he felt my appreciation as I handled it, examining the finer points of its structure. I was wondering if he was going to try to sell it to me, but he said “So now, the seisun will be starting beyond in the back room presently. Will ye come along”. I turned to my besotted fellow traveler, asking him to come on back for the music, which was why we were there in the first place, but he brushed me off. “I’ll come in a while. You go have fun.” Fair enough; I’d done my bit in that regard, so I was ready for a play.

My new friend threaded through the growing throng ahead of me, like he was leading a prize horse he’d come upon. The large back room was already well populated and a steady stream of newcomers were finding chairs and tables as he led me to the musicians’ circle. A pair of unmistakable brothers, if not twins, were wedged together on a wooden settee, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, each with an accordion to hand; a teenage fiddle player was applying rosin to his bow. There was a balding cittern player, who looked like he knew his business, and a young woman sat at a table with an array of musical bones and spoons in front of her. My mentor got me seated without a word to the musicians or anyone else, and the players seemed intent on avoiding eye contact with me at any cost.

There was no P.A. and no microphones, so I assumed that this was going to be strictly instrumental. There was also no compere or apparent band leader; nobody calling the shots, or calling the tune. As a pint manifested itself in front of me, the brothers struck up a jig, and we were off. This team could all play seriously well, so it was no problem for me to grab the groove and get stuck in. Tune followed tune, running the gamut…jigs, reels, hornpipes, ballad airs, and the notoriously tricky slip-jigs, with the occasional refreshment stop the only respite, and all with nary a word or look exchanged, except for a wisp of a smile from her with the bones from time to time when I executed a particularly adventurous pattern. The pints kept arriving on the table around which we were assembled, from whence I knew not.

Playing bodhran is a strenuous exercise at the least of times, but in this context it was turning into a rather intense aerobic workout, so the ale wasn’t having any great effect on me as we burned through the evening. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for lover boy in the front bar, who had not ventured back to the music room as far as I could see.

After about an hour or so of hell-for-leather, there was a respite for a tobacco break, and my mysterious little pal hove to and led me outside to a tiled courtyard where the players were busily firing up pipes and ciggies. I was surprised to notice that the young lady who was so fluid with the bones and spoons walked with a halting spastic gait, which just goes to show you, and the assemblage, though hardly effusive, complemented me on my playing, which was pleasing to me, as I viewed this encounter as the real thing, much more intense than the seisuns I’d experienced in American-Irish pubs. When I mentioned that I lived in Nashville, the atmosphere loosened even more as I found myself peppered with questions about Music City, and we all returned for the second stanza in fine fettle.

By the time it came to call it a night, and I handed the bodhran back to my benefactor, I realized that I’d not seen hide nor hair of my fellow traveler for hours. I worked my way back to the front bar, where he was face-down on the counter, dead to the world and legless in the virtually empty room, the Viking barmaid long gone, and his wallet considerably lighter, as the bar-back informed me he’d been buying drinks for the house. My little friend had disappeared as quickly as he’d first shown up, so it was now down to me to get my slathered road kill back to the hotel, which was situated above the town, so walking was out of the question. Fortunately, I had Declan’s card, and he showed up reasonably quickly and between us we were able to manhandle our semi-comatose charge into the taxi, and thence to the hotel.

I bade Declan goodnight with a sense of foreboding, as we were due to head with him to Limerick the following day, via Tuam and the scenic coastal vistas of Galway and Clare, and my co-passenger’s present condition boded ill for the enterprise. I needn’t have worried…the restorative powers of a hearty Irish breakfast and a few stiff toots of the marching dust had him up and at it when Declan’s taxi arrived at the appointed time, and we headed southwest to face whatever adventures lay ahead.

On The Fly…Father’s Day

Father's Day

A piece about Father’s Day, they said….a piece about fathers and sons making music together, they said….

“They” are the team at Celebelle, who keep my various balls in the air at all times, if you’ll pardon the expression, and they usually ring my creative bell with their suggestions and gentle prodding. In this instance, a proximity of dates ( June 13th., my son’s thirty-sixth birthday, and June 16th., Father’s Day) sparked their idea for a piece ( or two?). As often happens, a day or so of mulling, both figuratively and literally, can result in – well, something like this:

********************

To put it mildly, I did not have the best of relationships with my own father. Like many of his generation, in the aftermath of WW II, he found a rapidly changing playing field when it came to fatherhood. The authoritarian model, particularly in the working class, was about to be challenged as never before, and many a dad found himself in a situation where his word was no longer necessarily law, which inevitably led to confrontational relationships between fathers and sons. In the patriarchal, immigrant Irish parishes of North Liverpool, the young generation of males were restive and not prepared to settle for what their parents had been willing to accept.

Should you be interested, I go into detail about this social dynamic, particularly as it applied to me, in my book “ Mersey Me! A Liverpool Lad On The Loose In The Swingin’ 60’s”, but in the interest of brevity, my dad and I parted ways irrevocably when I gave up a Scholarship to Leeds University to follow the siren song of rock ‘n’ roll at the beginning of The Beat Boom, which hit Liverpool like a ton of bricks ( as some of you might remember).

Although my dad came from a family that numbered several musicians, professional and otherwise, over a couple of generations, he didn’t take kindly to the thought of me following in their footsteps, and did everything he could to prevent it, which doomed our interaction rather early on. I was an only child, , so he invested his own thwarted academic ambitions , heavy-handedly, in me. As far as I was concerned, I kept my end up with consistently good schoolwork, navigating the various levels of the British school system of the time with comparative ease, all the way through to University acceptance, and kept my nose clean in the hurley-burley action of the Liverpool streets into the bargain. But by 1960 I’d made up my mind as to my future direction….rather than support me, or even discuss the situation in a rational manner, the old man chose to go Cold War on my ass, which made me even more determined. Although the lure of being “a guitar player in a rock ‘n’roll band” had among it’s components the cliche elements of sex, drugs and that devil rhythm, I was in it for the love of music and playing- if it hadn’t been rock, I would probably have played jazz, as a part-timer, I suppose, but the Beat Boom and then The British Invasion, gave some of us a lifelong career in music as professionals, and as such we worked at our craft, and expanded our capabilities as we matured from beat kids to adult musicians. To me, being a working musician never precluded the thought that I would one day marry and raise a family, and while I fully enjoyed the early rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle as a carefree bachelor, by the time I’d somewhat established myself in my chosen profession I found myself ready for marriage at twenty-eight. Our first child, a daughter, was born three years later, and our son seven years after that. By the nature of the job I was an absentee daddy quite a bit when the kids were small, but the traveling aspect of the gig gradually diminished as I became more involved in song writing, studio work and then production, so I didn’t miss their growing up any more than most fathers.

To my delight they were both smart, talented and well-behaved, the latter thanks to my wife’s mothering skills, I’m sure, and neither was ever a problem child. Both showed early promise in the graphic arts, and while they were each musically inclined, my son exhibited a particular affinity for that old devil rhythm.

As a result of my bruised and bruising experience with my dad, I had promised myself two things; one, that I would always listen to my children’s opinion on matters directly concerning their education options and, two, that I would never force them into life choices that ran counter to their own aspirations. That didn’t mean that I intended to be a “hands-off” dad, rather I intended that respect and consideration would play a larger role in my interactions with them than the possible bully pulpit which parenthood can become.

The seven year age difference between them meant that I was at different stages of my own career development when each reached their various milestones. When my daughter began high school we were living in an urban environment and although I was off the road I conducted my business in the studios and publishing offices of Music Row. By contrast, as my son’s high school years got under way, we had relocated about ten miles out of town, where I built a home studio, and subsequently did the bulk of my work there. As a result he got used to seeing some of the inner workings of the music business which my daughter had not.

She possessed a good musical ear and a fine singing voice, which she ably employed in school theatricals, but was also athletic, especially at volleyball, which she played at both high school and college level. She chose to study Economics at University.

My son’s visual and graphic skills were becoming increasingly impressive, but he also had an innate sense of rhythm, so I was not surprised when he first brought up the subject of acquiring a drum kit. He had already had the chance to observe some of the best drummers and percussionists in the city when they were working in my studio, and the chance to see players like Steve Turner, Pat McInerney and Mellow Mel Owens up close was very influential on him, I’m sure. One thing I knew for certain  was that an aspiring musician will do better when possessing good equipment, and as a good drum kit doesn’t come cheap, I put two conditions on him before agreeing to getting him a kit. I wanted him to give me a written reason as to why he wanted drums, and also required that he repay what he could via odd jobs etc. towards the cost of the gear.I gave him the two months leading up to his fifteenth birthday to meet the requirements, and he did, establishing a ‘drum fund’, which showed willing, and writing his reasons for wanting the drums, the details of which I’ll keep to myself, but which were most convincing to me.

One plus about living in Music City is that the quality of instruments in the pawn shops is generally quite high, so in the weekends leading up to his birthday we trolled the hock shops together, finally finding a kit that was identical to Pat McInerney’s Premier kit in every particular, at a reasonable price. A corner of the studio was set aside for them, and Pat himself came over to set them up and do an initial tuning. After that, I left the boy pretty much to his own devices, except for letting him know when one of his “drum uncles” would be working in the studio. If it was after school he was welcome to come in and observe. Musicians are usually generous with tips and advice for aspiring players, and his “drum uncles” were just that, but it was up to him to interact and ask the questions he wanted answering. The only time I actively stuck my oar in was when his skill set was becoming quite impressive, but he was experiencing some hand problems…chapping and callousing due to a lack of formal training…so I arranged for him to take a few private lessons from my friend, the late Ian Wallace (of King Crimson fame). These involved warm-up and technique exercises, which helped sort out the incipient problems before they became detrimental. Other than that, he was on his own.

Because of my own listening proclivities, the kids had been exposed to a wide range of music, both stylistically and ethnically over the years, so they picked up on what they liked, and vice versa….I never jammed anything down their throats. My son did the usual rite of passage stuff, got a little high school band together with some pals, played some little gigs around and about, learned how to move a drum kit from place to place efficiently, all that beginner stuff, but invaluable nonetheless. When he went off to art college in Savannah his only percussion tool for the first year was a dumbek, but he had the kit thereafter, and I gather he was prone to setting up on the sands of Tybee Island for a good thrash. He met his future wife at SCAD, and after graduation they moved to Austin, where my daughter had set up shop…thence to the Bay Area, where he played in jazz-rock bands. By the time he returned to Nashville, it had been a good ten years since I’d had any musical interaction with him, although I saw him perform once while on tour with the band First Circle, and it was obvious that by then he knew what he was doing.

Both he and my daughter found their way back to Nashville in recent years and it’s been my pleasure to employ both in the studio since their return. I’ve also teamed with him occasionally in live situations as a rhythm section, and it’s a good feeling to get a righteous groove going, then turn around to see him kicking it behind the tubs.

I’m of the opinion that being a parent is the most important job you can ever have. Some of us make a hash of it, some of us get lucky and can be pleased with the results. Some of us read all the books, some of us trust our instincts. Some rule with an iron hand and view parenthood as a right, rather than as a privilege and a precious gift, and some don’t employ loving correction when it’s needed….it’s a balancing act, just like most things in life. As long as you’re up on the tightrope, keep it steady, and a happy day to ya!

From The Desk… SEAT OF THE PANTS JOURNALISM

A Walk Down Music Row by JOtwell (click to buy)
A Walk Down Music Row by JOtwell (click to buy)

When David Ross launched Music Row Magazine back in the day, as a hand-to-mouth mimeographed ‘zine, I helped him out from time to time. He was a pal of mine, and not too fussy about journalistic credentials, as his venture was more or less a one man operation, and he welcomed any content that might flesh his meager mag out. I was reasonably set up at the time, with a couple of rock and pop artists as production clients on major labels, an office on Elliston Place (Rokblok) that I shared with Steve Gibson and Bill Martin, and my first solely-owned publishing company. However I still had the time and youthful energy to consider other creative avenues, and had always been interested in prose writing, so when Dave suggested I could maybe contribute a feature bit from time to time, I thought it might be fun. I didn’t know how to type, and the new computer technology, into which Dave was starting to delve, scared me to death, so my only tools were legal pads, pencils, and the phone…about as low-tech. as it got, but it was mainly a giggle and a bit of a new experience- no big deal.

I did a couple of little pieces to get my feet wet, and then one day I started thinking about the various connections that The Beatles had forged with country music over time, a subject that, at that point, had largely been ignored, and I mentioned it to Dave as a possible subject, given my ties to Liverpool as Nashville’s resident Scouser, and my personal in-depth knowledge of the popularity of Country and Western music ( as it was then known over the pond) in my home town.

Any Liverpool musician was familiar with Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and the rockabilly boys-it was all American music to us, and influenced us every bit as much as the Rhythm and Blues music with which Merseybeat later became more closely identified. Ringo was a very knowledgeable fan of the genre, his solo spots with Rory Storm & The Hurricanes usually featuring his take on a country hit of the day, and he brought that repertoire with him into The Beatles. George Harrison was crazy about Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins, and John and Paul’s harmony vocal chops were already informed by the “brother act” tradition of The Everlys and Louvins, to name but a couple. Liverpool even boasted a full-bore country band, Sonny Webb and The Cascades, who had actually traveled to Nashville to cut some sides under the watchful eye of Owen Bradley at his Quonset Hut recording facility.

The magazine was starting to get a bit of a footing, largely due to Dave’s tireless hustling, and he thought it might be an appropriate time to take on a feature that had some depth and scope, while also having a solid hook to Nashville, so he told me to give it a shot.

I was already friendly with Ernie Winfrey, who had worked with Paul McCartney on several tracks during the Wings visit to Nashville in 1970, and I had a nodding acquaintance with Pete Drake, who had put together Ringo’s 1974 homage to country music, “ Beaucoups Of Blues”, also recorded in Music City. Most relevant was the fact that McCartney had just issued his post-Lennon album “ Tug Of War”, which had involved Carl Perkins’ participation in a significant way, so there was also a current reason to examine The Beatles Country Connection, which was what the piece came to be called.

As I assembled a list of my potential sources, my confidence grew that this might be something worthwhile. Getting Ernie on board was no problem, and Pete Drake proved to be quite amenable to sit for an interview, so I figured that getting Carl would be the icing on the cake. Asking around, everyone said that he was the nicest, most easygoing guy you could hope to meet, and I managed to get his home number in Jackson from somebody, so I went ahead and called-cold…stone cold, I swear. The man himself answered, and whether it was my Liverpool accent or what, he agreed to an interview, but explained that as he had no plans to be in Nashville in the immediate future, we should do it by phone.

In addition to my other journalistic shortcomings, I didn’t know how to take shorthand, so I ran over to Radio Shack and bought one of those primitive telephone microphones that could be stuck on a phone, then plugged into a cassette recorder, and prepared for the following day, when Carl allowed he’d be available after he’d mowed the yard .I called after lunch, with a 90 minute cassette loaded….I ended up using three of them, as he was not only a warm-hearted guy and a natural raconteur, but ended up covering his entire history with The Beatles, going back to the start of their career, when he’d attended a party they threw specifically for him, and the session that followed, where they cut their classic Perkins covers with him on hand to witness it. His affection for the lads seemed totally genuine, and over the course of the two and a half hour conversation he gave me a wealth of material, both old and new.(A couple of years later, I actually met Carl face to face at a rockabilly festival at The Brickyard in Indianapolis, where I was playing with Del Shannon on a bill that included The Crickets and Carl. Remembering my name and the circumstances of the interview he said to me “Heck. If I’d known you were a picker, I’d have told you more!”)

Over the following days I transcribed every word in longhand, with rising excitement, so when I met Ernie, and thereafter Pete Drake, I was well pumped. Ernie allowed me to use one of his private photos of the McCartney sessions, and I planned to use as a lead image an early picture I’d snapped at Hamburg’s Star Club of the front line in all their leathered glory.

After the Drake interview, I had a more casual conversation with Jerry Shook, a studio acquaintance of mine who’d participated on the Ringo sessions, and an equally casual chat with the legendary drummer, D.J. Fontana, who’d also been on board. I now had a mountain of yellow legal paper, which I rewrote and edited over and over before presenting the whole thing to David. From his reaction I gathered that this was maybe more than he’d been expecting, but he went at it enthusiastically, and when the magazine hit the street it was well received, and I’d like to think that the timing of the article maybe helped Music Row attain the next level of it’s development.

Seeing a prose piece of mine in print did wonders for my confidence and so my next brainwave was to suggest a feature on the legendary Quonset Hut, which resulted in an interview with Owen Bradley, and a memorable sit-down with the delightful Brenda Lee, plus a more cursory one with Grady Martin, who seemed like he had better things to be doing with his time. Mining my connections, I then tapped Brent Maher for an overview of his career, which also included a cameo print appearance by his then new discoveries,The Judds.

The magazine was experiencing a growth spurt, and David linked up with Robert K. Oermann as a contributor, who was the real thing, a bona fide wordsmith and musical historian, with all the requisite technical skills I was so sorely lacking. David suggested that my stacks of yellow legal pad scribbling were becoming a bit too time consuming for the efficient working of a burgeoning venture, so I went back to my day job, still bereft of the tech. savvy I would need down the road, when I would devote more time to authorship, but with my appetite whetted for the world of prose, having seen those early efforts seductively displayed on the printed page.

It was an eye-opening interlude for me, and probably not something that one could get away with in the much more formal setting of the industry’s current media structure. Great fun!