Happy Birthday Doris Troy

Doris Troy
Doris Troy from an article by Roger St. Pierre

January 6th. would have been Doris Troy’s 77th birthday….those of you who know me personally are aware of the impact she had on my early career, in so many ways, which I detail in my book ” Mersey Me!”,  from her first tour in the U.K. with The Stones and The Hollies, where she wiped the floor with them every gig, to the glory years of the late sixties, when I served as her musical director and pianist.

She earned the title “Mama Soul”, or ” Mother Soul” in the U.K. , where she spent the most fruitful part of her career, after her classic association with Atlantic Records, which resulted in her string of self-written, much covered solo hits, but also her background vocal expertise on records by Solomon Burke and many others. It was well-earned….in the U.K., she was ground zero for the aspiring vocal talents who arrived from the States, and built a formidable Rolodex of savvy studio singers, who she shepherded masterfully through the sometimes stodgy world of British studio recording at that time.

She knew more than most of the producers did about BGV, ( vocal background recording), both as a leader and vocal arranger, and the list of recordings that she contributed to, either solo, or with her team, is quite dizzying. Try John Lennon and Pink Floyd, for starters, and look the rest up !

Larger than life, both in stature and attitude, she made a huge impact in the gradually expanding London recording scene….a queen bee in some ways; she was amazingly inclusive, at home working with Roger Waters or Zombies guru Chris White, Beatles, Stones and on and on.

She was godmother to my daughter Celeste, and always sent gifts at appropriate life landmarks. Celeste visited her in Vegas not long before Doris passed, and I treasure the phone call, which I taped, of that visit.

She lit up my life in so many ways, with her humor, bravery and great talent. It will always be my honor to have known her. Happy Birthday, Angel Face!

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The Skelly Suggests… The Written Word

 

After a wonderful weekend at the Southern Festival of Books I thought a playlist to celebrate the written word was just the thing to close out the festivities. If I missed a favorite of yours please add it to the comments section!

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:

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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!

Louis Armstrong Never Got It Wrong – Part 2 of 4

Portrait of Louis Armstrong, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. July 1946 William P. Gottlieb Collection

I’ve been meditating on Pops lately for a variety of reasons. I’ve been watching a wonderful DVD of his 70th birthday celebration, held at the Newport Jazz Festival, with a staggering array of talent on hand; the whole thing lovingly organized by George Wein (a legend in his own right). The bonus materials fill a second disc, and it’s all superb and sublime. The title is “Good Evening Everybody” from his famous catch-phrase intro, and even if jazz ain’t your bag, it’s a master entertainer doing just that . . . entertaining at the highest level.

When I was writing my book “Mersey Me!”, I revisited the occasion in Juan Les Pins where I actually got to meet him after his performance at the Antibes Jazz Festival, when he played a midnight matinee at the Voom Voom Club, where I was gigging with Ferris Wheel. He shared our dressing room and invited us stage-side for his set with The All Stars . . . talk about sitting at the feet of a master!

Mersey Me! Excerpt from “War Stories”

The defining Voom Voom memory is the Louis Armstrong moment … one year our stint happened to coincide with the Jazz Festival, so as our band didn’t hit until 9.30, Dave and I would spend the bulk of the day at the festival site, digging all the big boys, and there were some big boys there that year. My wife Patti arrived in June towards the end of the festival, so fortunately she got to share “the moment.” The club owner, an old swashbuckler from Marseilles – Rene, as I recall – had booked the incomparable Satchmo for a midnight matinee after his Festival appearance. Now, Mr. Armstrong was in his later years at this time, but had recently had the most commercial successes of his career with “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World,” so Pops was still hot (was he ever not?). We were all well pumped at the idea of seeing such a legendary musician up close, but also to catch the All-Stars, at that time with Tyree Glenn on trombone, Barrett Deems on drums, and all those other killers. It was a Friday, I believe, and we were set to wind up our set at eleven thirty, with Louis on at midnight. Now, a Ferris Wheel set was a pretty energetic affair, so we usually hit the dressing room with our reasonably elaborate costumes, and our less elaborate bodies, soaked through. A minute to get changed and compose ourselves was a virtual necessity. Well, this night we were barely off, in the stage-side dressing room, when a phalanx of French security people burst in to clear the space for “Le Armstrong.” We were all literally undressed, Diane too, when these goons made their aggressive appearance, closely followed by His Highness, who cut that shit off at the knees. “Hey boys, can’t you see these folks been workin’ their asses off? This is their room, an’ I just need a little table to set my horn on, and any old chair.” He shoo’ed the security detail off, smoked a joint with us, joking, especially with our black members, “Ofay, Ofay, never gonna go away, heh, heh” and shaking his head. Then came the magic moment … “y’all wanna sit on the stageside, ya welcome.” We did indeed, and Patti and I got to be barely feet away from Louis Armstrong for a wonderful ninety-minute performance, one of those things you can’t really put a price on, can you?

Mersey Me! is available for purchase in e-book or hardcopy.

Pub Stories – Under the Gun in the Studio

It’s been well documented that the sixties was the time when recording studios came of age, when the innovations came thick and fast, when the studio itself evolved into an instrument. I cut my studio teeth during that revolutionary period, at first in bands, then gradually working my way into the session game.  At first, my only ambition was to set foot in Abbey Road, and once that had happened, rather quickly, I’m glad to say, I found myself drawn more and more to that side of things.  Initially, the rarified world of the session musician wasn’t even a consideration.  They were an elite apart, older than the rock upstarts, and protective of their hard-won turf.  The string and brass players were particularly scornful of the long-haired interlopers, showing their disdain and lack of involvement by studiously poring over their reading matter, whether it be Amateur Photographer, The Racing Form, or the daily crossword, keeping one eye on the chart until seconds before their written entry, then nonchalantly hitting their marks on time.  It was their way of letting us know that they were members of a club whose membership rolls were closed.  The openings, though few and far between, came about when some of the new maverick producers started to realize that the stalwarts, especially the rhythm sections and lead guitarists, didn’t really sound authentic playing a lot of the new music, so those producers, god bless ‘em, began looking farther afield for appropriate musicians.  It certainly wasn’t for everybody, as discipline, punctuality, and grace under pressure were just as important as the ability to deliver a good part to order.  I got my first little tastes of independent studio work through Simon Napier Bell on the Diane Ferraz and Nicky Scott project, working with a very impressive multi instrumentalist named John Paul Jones, who, along with Jimmy Page, was in the vanguard of the new type of session guy, closer to the street, closer to rock.  Those two were still ages away from Led Zeppelin, but were already making a mark in the studios.

I’d been able to get a great deal of studio experience during my time with Ferris Wheel, not only on the band’s own albums and singles, under the guidance of “young veteran” producers John Schroeder and Ian Samwell, but also on the outside projects that came the band’s way due to the fact that our musicianship was high quality, and we could handle ourselves in the studio.  My first film dub session was with the Wheel, at a time when a film dub involved a big screen, on which the scenes were projected while the musicians synchronized to the action.  The film was a “Swinging London” artifact called “The Touchables,” and the episode in question was a nightclub scene (of course), in which the action had been shot and edited to Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect.”  After they’d finished the movie, they found that they couldn’t, for whatever reason, license her version, so we were summoned to reproduce it in every detail, every nuance … a pretty tall order, if you think about it!  The session was called at De Lane Lea Studios in Holborn, one of the very few facilities in Central London with film-synch capabilities, and we arrived and set up facing the big screen, as instructed.  Ken Thorne, a well-known composer/arranger, who had served as M.D. on “Help!”, was the musical director for the film, so he was there to conduct us … basically, he had the synch stripe in his earphones, and we had just the band in ours, so it was his job to keep us in exact frame time.  Now, soul music, by it’s very name and definition, wasn’t intended to be played to a waving baton, and Ken knew this, so he was very accommodating, knowing we had a very tough assignment.  We also figured that Diane would be good for about five passes, tops, before her pipes gave out (she was singing live with the band) so it was pressure all around.  The temptation to look at the nubile, half-dressed beauties writhing on the screen was intense, but we had to keep our eyes on Mr. Thorne, while he got to eyeball the screen … some guys have all the luck!  That was my first experience of really being under the gun in the studio, and it was a real confidence builder when we nailed it on the third take … our version also appeared on the soundtrack album on Stateside Records, so it was a satisfactory day’s work that stood me in good stead later on when I was in the pressure cooker on a regular basis.

Excerpt from Mersey Me! A Liverpool Lad On The Loose In The Swingin’ 60s

It All Began with Tutti Frutti – Happy Birthday Little Richard

Little Richard Yellow ScreamExcerpt from Mersey Me! –

A short walk down our local main drag, County Road, would bring you to Epstein and Sons furniture store, which contained a small music department, rather grandly named North End Music Store, and managed by their prodigal son Brian. The corner display window, facing the junction, was his territory, and as 1956 rolled around, it took on a youthful vitality. The student band instruments began losing space to guitars and harmonicas, along with the sleeves of 10 and 12 inch LPs including the fluorescent yellow scream that was “Here’s Little Richard.”  The previous summer, while visiting Butlin’s holiday camp in North Wales with my parents, I’d had an epiphany.  There was a big Wurlitzer jukebox in the coffee bar and among the lackluster array of British pop hackery was “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard, a thunderbolt of a record that hit me like a ton of bricks.  I couldn’t get enough of that pile driving, piano-pounding beat, with the thick honking saxes, and the manic, overheated screamer riding atop it all.  I’d pump my cadged coins in and punch it up repeatedly, the older jitterbugging youths, would respond by choosing it themselves, and I’d stand there for hours, letting this glory wash over me.

Now, I could stand in front of the NEMS window and drink in the display; the tastefully positioned, shiny cheap guitars, a rudimentary drum kit … and the yellow scream – the first record I ever owned (and still have), even though we didn’t possess a record player.  Didn’t matter.  There were radiograms around in various homes of family and friends, especially the house in Bootle where my parents’ best pals, Bill and Dinah Montague, lived. They had a heavyweight unit, and on Saturday nights, when they made for the pub, I’d have the place to myself, except for old Auntie Kate, my grandma’s sister and Dinah’s mum, who was off in her own room with her telly, so I’d play Richard non-stop until the folks rolled in.  That’d be my fix for a few days.

But don’t get the idea that I was totally off in a pre-teen rock ‘n’ roll haze.  I was hitting the books hard, getting ready for the 11-plus, that draconian exam, your future determined by one day’s performance, designed by the establishment to separate the working-class brains from the brawn, so there would be a supply of lower class pen-pushers to man the desks of a dwindling empire … educational equality be buggered!  However, it had been impressed upon me by my dad that this was a ticket out, leading to grammar school, and beyond that the possibility of a university place and scholarship, something no one in our family had ever attained.  It sounded like a good idea to me … I didn’t find school a burden, and was usually in the top three in my class.  I’d seen enough of labouring men trudging up the street, dog-tired from a hard day’s graft, to know I didn’t want any of that, thank you very much, so I studied with a will.

There was also the added incentive of the “prezzie,” a city-wide custom. If you passed the 11 plus, you got to choose a present, often a bike, but your parents couldn’t refuse your choice, if it was reasonably in their financial range.  I knew what I wanted … on my frequent window shopping visits to NEMS I’d been taken with an f-hole archtop guitar, with a single cutaway and a DeArmond pickup.  It shone warmly with a sunburst varnish, and cost twelve pounds.  In retrospect, it was a piece of cheap junk, plywood with an awful neck action, guaranteed to cause bleeding fingers, but at the time it looked beautiful to me.  Well, I passed the exam, and duly presented my request.

The old man was not a happy camper – he probably saw the writing on the wall – but noblesse oblige, so he reluctantly forked over the twelve quid, and the guitar was mine.

The piano took a back seat for a while, as I wrangled with a new instrument, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly, in a rudimentary way, and was soon nagging Uncle Jack into letting me sit in with his little dance band on weekends, “short pants and all.”

Jack had already shown me my way around a chord chart, so I got to read and play the band book (number 83, I remember, was “I Got Rhythm”), which covered everything from waltzes and polkas to a little Dixieland and swing.  My cousin John, already turned twenty-one, was the drummer, and when Jack, plus the trumpet player, and the gloriously busty pianist Dot Williams, took their breaks, John and I would stay on and grind out some “Guitar Boogie” and other basic instrumentals for the kids who’d been dragged along to the dance by their folks.  It was invaluable experience for a youngster, as I developed my ear and a reasonably sophisticated sense of chord structure, so when Lonnie Donegan emerged from the ranks of the Chris Barber Jazz Band that year with “Rock Island Line” sparking the skiffle craze, I was readier than some to jump in, and jump in I did!