A musical Damascus moment

As I hope this blog makes abundantly clear, music is – to quote Frank Zappa – ‘the best’.

Consequently, I type this surrounded by my guitars, recording equipment, amps and shelves and shelves full of recorded music.

Several years ago – when I had hundreds of cassettes and vinyl LPs (remember those?)  – I once worked out that I could play my collection for several weeks and not hear the same track twice.

Now, it’s several months at least…there’s music on MP3 CDs, MP3 DVDs and hard disc drives.

We’re not talking mere gigabytes here – it’s terabytes of the stuff…

So, there’s a shitload of music here – and of all kinds, from classical to avant-garde jazz.

Indeed, to coin a phrase, from Abba to Zappa.

My current tastes have been steadily with me for a few years now. I find myself listening to a lot of blues, some country and a hell of a lot of jazz.

Heh…I suppose I’m in a bit of a rut – albeit a very, very pleasant one.

However, I’ve just had my musical world totally fucking rocked by what’s probably the most refreshing and involving album I’ve heard in years.

It’s giving me major goosebumps right now listening to it, and I think I could quite happily get marooned on a desert island with nothing but this beautiful music to keep me company.

Basically, it’s an album of Steely Dan songs sung by two Swedish women with minimal accompaniment – mostly piano.

It’s this:

fire-in-the-hole

It’s called ‘Fire in the Hole’ and it’s by Sara Isaksson and Rebecka Törnqvist – although they don’t look like the cover seems to suggest they do.

Here they are:

 

rebecka-sara

 

That’s better, isn’t it?

Here’s the Dan songs they cover:

  • Rose Darling
  • Barrytown
  • Gaucho
  • Green Earrings
  • Your Gold Teeth
  • Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)
  • Don’t Take Me Alive
  • Josie
  • Do It Again
  • Fire In The Hole
  • Pearl Of The Quarter
  • Midnite Cruiser

What surprised me was that if someone asked me to list a dozen Dan songs I’d like to hear covers of, very few of the above would have made it to my list.

However, Isaksson and Törnqvist make the songs their own, and, with minimal accompaniment, the songs are stripped down to the essentials – melody, harmonies and chord changes – and then sung in such a way that each one becomes a small jewel of dazzlingly radiant beauty.

They’ve made me aware of subtleties in songs that I very often skip through when listening to the original albums on which the tunes appeared. I just know that I’ll revisit the Dan versions with fresh ears now.

Their voices are simultaneously plaintive, vulnerable and sensuous but with an inner strength that supports a format of basically two female voices and an acoustic piano.

Yes, there are other instruments – occasionally you’ll hear a mandolin, a sax, a clarinet, an acoustic guitar, a synth, an electric piano or a kick drum – but it’s basically kept very simple and these other instruments just used for texture and seasoning.

Even the voices reinforce this simplicity, with solo and unison singing used when appropriate, and so the glorious harmony sections are made to really stand out .

Some of the instrumental lines – such as the guitar figure in ‘Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)’ – get sung in a vaguely ‘scat’ way, although what could have been a ‘jazz’ album gets elevated to a sort of a melodic purity by dint of the clarity of the singing and an overriding urge to display the inner lyricism of the tunes.

It’s an absolutely fantastic piece of work.

Fortunately, I can share it (sort of) with you on here.

YouTube has a couple of live versions which are almost as good as on the album.

Here they are:

 

The album’s not a work of genius – it’s something a bit more unique than that.

Just as the planets will occasionally align, the sun will be eclipsed and you get a phone call from someone you were thinking about a minute before the phone rang, it just happened – because it did.

The two voices came together on a few pieces of music and something just happened – something so unique that it became more than just a series of circumstances or a fortunate situation.

Call it serendipity or coincidence, but whatever it was, it all gave rise to some of the most beautiful music I‘ve ever heard…

PS I’ve just read this on a blog regarding this musical gem and I agree 100%:

The fact that it even exists gives me hope for the future of humanity.

 

 

I Dunno…

One of my favourite Georgia Satellite songs performed by my favourite Satellite, Dan Baird, with one of my favourite guitarists, Warner E Hodges (also in Jason and the Scorchers – another one of my favourite bands):

 

As Dan sings…

Good to see ya back again in the land of salvation and sin

…I’m reminded that we’ll be going back to our own land of ‘salvation and sin’ next week and catching up with the family before Christmas.

100 Great Guitar Moments – #80 to 71

Yes, it’s that time again when another 10 guitaristic delights get featured here for your listening pleasure.

It’s worth reiterating that this is a very personal choice that will vary over time and the great guitar moments are placed in no particular order of merit – apart from the last one, of course, which will be my current all-time favourite.

Steve Winwood – Night Train: He was great with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith, but it’s his solo work which has some obscure but essential gems scattered amongst it. This track from his second solo album showcases him as a guitarist, although he played all the other instruments himself. It’s really just a jam, but it shows that he can play as well as any of his contemporaries – including Clapton.

 

The J.B.s – Doin’ it to Death: Two guitarists for the price of one here – the legendary Jimmy Nolen and the lesser-known Hearlon "Cheese" Martin. This is funk, with an illuminated capital ‘F’. OK, it’s simple stuff, but decidedly tricky to play for so long and keep the groove. Of course, this is really a James Brown song, but dear old James created so many band offshoots that it’s hard to keep track. Without JB’s prescription for funk, no Funkadelic, no RHCP – no funk at all. Dig the key change from F down to D. Take it to the fridge! Er…bridge!

 

Steve Vai – Blue Powder: I could have picked quite a few tracks by Vai to illustrate why he’s one of the few shredders who has something to say and not just wank away at. This version was issued as an exclusive Guitar player flexidisc and I prefer it to the later album version. It’s not exactly soothing music, but it has little lagoons of calmness within it. I love the subtle and Hendrixy guitar at 1:55 and the way the whammy bar opens this section. Vai plays with feeling here, but also a great deal of humour, and – to my mind at least – that’s an important and rather rare quality in rock music.

 

Robert Johnson – Stop Breakin’ Down: OK, Johnson’s been hyped and mythologised way more than anyone deserves. There are plenty of other great singers, writers and guitarists who contributed to the blues in a significant way. However, that doesn’t mean that Johnson isn’t worthy of all the plaudits that have come his way since his untimely death. It’s hard to listen to his guitar playing when the vocals are so plaintive and prominent, but it’s worth the effort. That’s real driving guitar and his thumb keeps a rock steady rhythm throughout. Essential blues guitar.

 

Les Paul and Mary Ford – How High the Moon: It’s Les’s tone which blows me away in particular. No-one before him had such a deep, rich sound and so much tonal variation. I have this hunch that he had his amp turned up almost to the point of distortion – certainly his guitar has an edge to it that no-one else had at the time. Of course, that’s all without actually mentioning the superb playing and the groundbreaking multitracking…

 

Duane Eddy – Peter Gunn: OK, it’s really easy to play, but tone is all here, with Duane playing the riff in unison with a piano, a bass, another guitar (I think) and possibly even another guitar – a six string bass? Whatever’s going on in the mix, it all adds up to a monster riff that just powers along. Sometimes less really is more…

 

XTC – The Mayor of Simpleton: Two for the price of one! Dave Gregory plays electric 12 string against Colin Moulding’s highly complex bass lines to produce a swirling piece of poptastic goodness. Gregory’s an excellent player who’s taken onboard virtually every style of playing but still manages to sound original. The lines he plays at about 1:50 – the end of the bridge section – are just beautiful. Moulding’s bass playing is just as uplifting and original. Throw in Andy Partridge’s clever lyrics and immaculate vocals and you have pop perfection. Andy’s no slouch on guitar, either…

 

 

Deep Purple – Highway Star: The line up with Blackmore that produced this track has to be one of the all time greatest hard rock bands ever. Yes, it’s headbanging music, but it’s intelligent too. The solo section starting at 3:50 with the harmony guitars is Richie Blackmore in a nutshell – no overt pentatonics, a dash of classical influence and melodicism in spades. At 4.43, he starts a rapid picking section which deserves special attention as the double-tracked guitars play catch up with each other and what seems ostensibly straight forward is really quite complex. There’s a multitrack of this knocking about on the net which will enable you to isolate the guitar tracks and study Blackmore’s contribution in depth.

 

Albert Collins – Collins’ Mix: To be frank, Albert was a bit of a one-trick pony, but when the trick’s so good, you don’t really give a fuck. Playing with a capo and a tuning all his very own, Collins cranks out angular lines which sort of spit out at you but sit well over a funky accompaniment with organ and horns. Collins started out as an organ player and it shows in his playing. I wish he’d explored the idea of a small organ/guitar combo rather more than he did. I have this idea that with the right person, he’d have ended up with the blues equivalent of Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Smith…a blues organ combo – now that’s a very tasty prospect indeed!

 

 

Masters of Reality – Kill the King: Stoner rock from its uncrowned king, Chris Goss. I have no idea what he’s singing about but the guitar lines are just beautiful, with acoustic, whammy bar lead and what is absolutely one of the monster riffs of all time. There have been occasions when I’ve played this track upwards of a dozen times in a row, cranked up to the absolute max.

 

9 other things to do with a guitar

It’s all very well being able to play a guitar, but what else can you do with one?

1. You can spin around with it or even just spin it around:

 

2. You can perform acrobatics with it:

 

3. You can twat somebody with it:

 

4. You can take a chainsaw to it:

 

5. You can just smash it up:

 

6. You can blow it up:

 

7. You can use it for background music whilst you juggle:

 

8. You can make a bike ride more entertaining:

 

9. You can attach an outboard motor to a 20 foot long guitar (if you have one handy) and go for a cruise on the river:

 

100 Great Guitar Moments – #90 to 81

Time for another 10 in the list – an eclectic mix ranging from jazz through rock to psychedelia.

The Shadows – The Savage: There’s nothing wrong with a simple job well done, but sometimes, musically, it can be a tad lacklustre. That’s how I normally feel about the Shadows, but this track is an exception. Employing a strange, rather percussive tone, Hank Marvin plays his socks off on this track and takes a fantastic solo at 0.55. The rest of the band is great, too – especially Bruce Welch’s rhythm playing.

 

 

Martha and the Muffins – Echo Beach: This was the first song I ever knowingly heard with a chorus effect on guitar, and the fretted and open string riff that opens and punctuates is one of those ‘That’s nice – how did he play that?’ moments. It’s simple, but effective, and just one of those things that encapsulates 1980 for me, when you still had punk attitude, but the music was getting a little less basic.

 

Jimmy Smith – Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Hammond magnificence from the late Jimmy Smith set against a superbly-arranged (much kudos to Oliver Nelson) backdrop of horns and a rhythm section. This includes some sterling rhythm work from guitarist Quentin Warren which could well have been played on a Stratocaster as the live video posted here shows him playing one. Unusual in jazz, especially in the early 1960s. Warren kicks the whole thing along really well with a lot of funk feel and choppy chords.

 

 

Magic Sam – Lookin’ Good: A bit of an obscure one, this. Magic Sam Maghett was a young blues guitarist hotly tipped for fame when he died soon after his breakthrough appearance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969. If you want to hear the original of this, then you’re on your own, as it’s not on YouTube or Spotify. However, YouTube does have a similar and equally brilliant version of this tune at 2:40 in. It’s like John Lee Hooker on speed and played on a borrowed guitar – the late Earl Hooker’s who was, coincidentally, a cousin of John Lee…it gets incestuous, don’t it?

 

Charlie Christian – Solo Flight: Seminal stuff, this. Although it might sound a tad ‘polite’ to those raised on rock and distortion, Christian’s playing is both raw and adventurous, with his melodic but bluesy lines charting the transition from swing to bebop. Also of note is the way he plays across the rhythm and leaves plenty of space inside and between his lines. It took a long time before jazz guitar re-emerged from the blandness that followed Christian and regained its freshness and vibrancy, even though the price it largely paid was selling out to ‘fusion’.

 

The Cars – Tonight She Comes: A pop band with rock and punk sensibilities but also a true grasp of melody. Eliot Easton is a very tasty player indeed and his solo in this song both soars and twists with some particularly fine use of the whammy bar at 2:00 in on the video below. Nice to hear the ‘idiot stick’ used to add to a line, rather than dominate it gratuitously.

 

 

David Grissom – Video end titles music: You’ll have to go on YouTube for this as it’s taken from the end of a tuition video that Grissom made several years ago. OK, it’s just a jam but, with that tone and feel, he could record nursery rhymes and they’d sound fucking fantastic. Very bluesy, but with country flourishes, he’s another player who makes you ask, ‘What the fuck did he do there???’ A descending lick at about 0:55 in the first video below is the first of many such moments. Also, listen to the chords Grissom uses – lots of open strings.

 

Davy Graham – Angi: Ask people who wrote Angi and most will say Bert Jansch or, perhaps, Paul Simon. However, it was Davy Graham and this is the original version, played by the composer. Simple – it’s not the most challenging piece – but effective and it’s all down to the execution of the composition. Here, Graham gives it a bittersweet quality by combing the melodicism inherent in the chord structure with a very bluesy feel.

 

The Lemon Pipers – Through With You: Obscurity time again, with the band most famous for ‘Green Tambourine’ playing perhaps the best song the Byrds never wrote or recorded, and stretching out into a 9 minute raga rock piece with wah-wah 12 string electric guitar, delay effects and panning. Add to that vocals which sound very like Keith Relf of the Yardbirds and you have something very special indeed.

 

Pantera – Walk: The late Dimebag Darrell could be a very quirky player and his solo in ‘Walk’ is one of my all time favourites. It’s just plain loopy, but in all the right ways, played with great skill, feel and an almost classical sense of melody, with that diminished run towards the end.

 

Well, 20 down…80 to go…

100 Great Guitar Moments – #100 to 91

Well, here goes…

Mansun – Wide open Space: Although I rate this song very highly – likewise the band and their brief recorded career – it’s the guitar intro that particularly appeals to me. Dissonance is the key here, with an alternately-picked guitar going from an unsettling E played against an F to a totally harmonious major triad. It sets the whole song up very nicely and suits the subject matter very well.

 

David Bowie – Drive-in Saturday: Sometimes the guitar can be used orchestrally, as in this example. The stellar Mick Ronson (RIP) plays some big beefy lines and chords in the chorus – starting at 0:54 – that could have been played by a string section using mainly cellos and double bass but weren’t, thank goodness. A better-known example from him is the title track from the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album, but I prefer the guitar in this song.

 

The Smiths – This Charming Man: Again, it’s all in the intro with Johnny Marr playing a mutated mix of African High-Life music and the Byrds, although the whole track is an exercise in creative rhythm guitar playing. Who needs a solo when you’ve got guitar playing like this?

 

The Beatles – And Your Bird Can Sing: I’m not a Beatles fan, but the harmony guitars throughout are a reminder that Wishbone Ash didn’t invent the concept. George and Paul play the lines on a Lennon composition that he described as "another of my throwaways…fancy paper around an empty box". In which case, I’m very happy with the paper, bugger the absence of a present…

 

 Frank Zappa – Zoot Allures: This time: the whole damn track! From the beautifully-bizarre arpeggiated chord at the beginning, through the controlled feedback to the plaintive concluding solo, this is probably as good as rock guitar playing gets and it’s not bludgeoning its way into your consciousness with speed, volume and distortion all the time.

 

Al Stewart – Rocks in the Ocean: Time for a solo – and one from one of my many guitar heroes, the highly-talented Tim Renwick. I love the melodicism that he puts into his playing and this solo is a prime example at 3:06. His playing soars on this and it’s definitely one of those guitar moments that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

 

Eric Johnson – Cliffs of Dover: I used to get ‘Guitar Player’ magazine every month back in the 1980s and one of the great things about it was the free flexi-discs that used to accompany it. Often exclusive recordings, this very track was featured one month. Johnson re-recorded it for his second album, but it wasn’t a patch on this version. Again, melodicism is at work and amidst all the technical skill, there’s a tuneful thread weaving its way through the piece, constantly changing and shifting. Beautiful playing!

 

 Blind Blake – Blind Arthur’s Breakdown: Time for some acoustic goodness with a stunning piece of ragtime guitar from 1929. Yes, that’s just one guitar, although you could swear that sometimes it’s two players going at full chat. The guy was a true genius and some 90 years later, there’s still no-one to better him!

 

King Crimson – Red: Say ‘power trio’ and people immediately think of Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience. However, during the final stage of the first flowering of Robert Fripp’s King Crimson, they were ‘reduced’ to a line up of Fripp on guitar (and occasional keyboards), Bill Bruford on drums and John Wetton on bass and vocals. Not that this caused their output to suffer any decline in quality. This track has that dissonant quality that few people can use effectively and as a written guitar instrumental is a million miles away from what most people expect one to be. Nothing flashy, just very muscular playing.

 

Django Reinhardt – Limehouse Blues: I’m a sucker for Jazz Manouche. There are many great gypsy jazz guitarists, past and present, but all roads ultimately lead to Django and this is one of my favourite pieces of his. Sounding as fresh as it must have done way back in the 1930s, this has it all. Sublime soloing from Django, great violin by Grapelli and that rhythm – la pompe. Who needs a drummer? I especially like the dischords Django plays at about 1:50 and then he solos again, along with Grapelli. Stunning stuff and, above all, such happy music!

 

Well, there you go.

That’s the first 10 and only 90 to go.

The next 10 will come just as soon as I can make the time.

Meanwhile, enjoy the choices and try and find more by all these people to listen to. It’ll be worth it!

Another good one gone…Bert Jansch RIP

A person would be a moron not to appreciate McLaughlin’s technique. The guy has certainly found out how to operate a guitar as if it were a machine gun. But I’m not always enthusiastic about the lines I hear or the ways in which they’re used. I don’t think you can fault him, though, for the amount of time and effort it must have taken to play an instrument that fast. I think anybody who can play that fast is just wonderful. And I’m sure 90% of teenage America would agree, since the whole trend in the business has been "faster is better."

So said the late, great Frank Zappa about fellow guitarist John McLaughlin in 1977.

Frank had a point as it seems, since then, that one only has to plug in an electric guitar, strike a few dramatic poses, gurn a lot and play very loud and very fast and you too can immediately become a guitar god.

Remember the worst excesses of shred?

For every talented shredder like Steve Vai…

 

…there were several of these…

 

…and, if you were really very fucking unlucky, one of these sorry-ass motherfuckers…

 

But what if you never went electric in the first place?

Well, that question can be answered by going back some dozen years before Uncle Frank said it like it was.

Never mind guitar gods, I’m talking the Holy Fucking Trinity here…

Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn.

I’ve blogged about Davey here already on the sad occasion of his death, and now he’s been joined by Bert.

Together with Renbourn they represented the flowering of solo steel string acoustic guitar playing that came to prominence in the early to mid 1960s and established the instrument as a worthy antidote to some of the excesses of the electric guitar.

Jansch and Renbourn teamed up as a duo, in fact, and then went on to form an acoustic band called ‘Pentangle’, which gigged alongside the usual suspects, including a certain Jimi Hendrix, and in the same haunts both in the UK and the US.

 

 

But back to Bert – solo.

Less jazz, blues and classically orientated than Graham, and less mannered than Renbourn, Jansch adopted a more melodic and lyrical approach towards the instrument and used it a lot to support his vocals, as he was a prolific songwriter.

My favourite Jansch recordings are mainly his take on traditional tunes. You may have thought that Jimmy Page’s solo showcase with Led Zeppelin was original, but he actually ripped off Bert’s arrangement as on the second clip here…

 

Are you listening, Jimmy?

In my own personal context, I was listening to Bert alongside Clapton with Mayall, Bloomfield with Butterfield, Dylan – newly gone electric – and Simon and Garfunkel.

The electric guitar dominated my formative playing years, so Bert’s influence was minimal – for one thing, I lacked the ability to copy him and the skill to try. That’s still the case, but it’s not stopped me enjoying the man’s music for over 45 years and for those with more proficiency on the acoustic guitar than I have, his influence is destined to last a lot longer.

One last one from Bert…

 

A bun in the oven?

Little did we know 10 months ago, that when we bought our house we also bought this:

 

P1020257

 

Although it doesn’t look much, this unprepossessing structure is actually a four à pain, or bread oven.

It stands on the end of the boundary between our neighbour’s sister’s land, on the left in the picture, and our other piece of land, with our barn, on the right.

We’d always assumed that it belonged to someone else and the estate agent we dealt with seemed to think it did, too. However, whilst we were clearing the area yesterday our neighbour passed by and we learned the truth about it.

Yes, we now have our very own four à pain.

It stands about 6 feet high and is circular with a diameter of about 10 feet.

Originally, we suspect that it looked something more like this:

 

four-a-pain-bannalec

However, the domed roof has collapsed and the front stonework forming the doorway has gone, assuming it was there, although there’s an outside chance that it may all have fallen inside.

We spent a while clearing the back of it this morning and revealed a wall made of thin stones, which makes sense as there are vast deposits of slate and other sedimentary rocks locally.

 

P1020262

Apart from the obvious differences in the building materials, it looks remarkably like the example shown above, with the remnants of a dome clearly visible, and the overall shape seeming to be a good match.

Date wise I’m assuming that it’s contemporary with our house, which predates 1840 at least – if the Napoleonic cadastral plans are any guide. Our neighbours informed us that a M. Boulaye who lived in our house used to bake bread for the local people and as our house was the main dwelling in our lieu-dit then I’m making a guess that the bread oven has been here for a long time. The shape of it certainly looks like other 19th century examples I’ve found online.

We plan to strip off all the brambles – evil, evil fuckers that’ll rip your arms to shreds – and the ivy and weeds and then have a dig about inside it. There may be some collapsed stones and who knows what else.

At the very least, it should make a nice feature along the communal road here and possibly get planted up with something colourful – Ipomoea is the current favourite, although I fancy growing strawberries in it.

Song of the day – Kevin Gilbert’s Toy Matinee with ‘Last Plane Out’. Great playing, vocals, composition, production…what’s not to like?

I’m now cooking dinner – baked smoked gammon, Noirmoutier potatoes and haricots verts from our neighbours’ garden; all washed down with cheap rose.

 

Climb up on my knee…

CCF06302006_00001

It’s a sad fact that with the recent death of Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, the genre of music called ‘the Blues’ lost someone who was probably our last link with the people who have made the music what it is today and enriched its legacy out of all proportion to its humble beginnings.

Honeyboy was the last of the Delta bluesmen – as far as we know – and he actually knew and played with people like Robert Johnson. In fact, he stated that he was actually with Johnson when he drank the poisoned whiskey that allegedly killed him.

RobertJohson

Having said all that, the world of the itinerant black blues musician in the 1930s and 1940s was so badly recorded (indeed, why would anyone grasp the significance of musical events at this time and preserve it for posterity?) that rumour, speculation and even lies have often obscured the real version of events.

What we’re left with is a mish-mash of anecdotal histories and biographies that both fascinates and frustrates.

Take a blues great like Elmore James, for example.

ElmoreJames(in color)

James was a seminal figure in the Blues, with his trademark slide riffs, his poetic lyrics and his frail but commanding voice. He cut dozens upon dozens of sides for a multitude of record labels – often recording the same songs or slightly adapted versions – and learned his craft in the company of Johnson and other Delta notables of the 1930s and 40s.

However, dig just a little deeper and an interview with his elder cousin ‘Homesick’ James casts some doubt on how much kudos Elmore should really have. Homesick claims that he taught his younger cousin how to play slide, that he either co-wrote or wrote classic Elmore James songs like ‘Dust my Broom’ and played as much, if not more slide as Elmore on record and at gigs.

Quite how much Homesick is to be believed is hard to say. There are obvious financial incentives to be economical with the truth, and no-one ever wrote down what actually went on at the time.

Thus, we’re left with stories that may or may not be true but can never be verified.

And that’s part of the pleasure I get from early blues music and the study of its proponents.

It’s a sort of mythology and as long as you’re content to accept that much of it has little basis in truth then it’s as fascinating, in its way, as any Greek or Roman tale of heroism and divine machination.

One of the most interesting characters in blues history – and one who epitomises everything I find engrossing about it – is Sonny Boy Williamson.

To be exact, Sonny Boy Williamson II.

Actually, to be even more exact, Aleck or Alex or Willie Rice Miller or Ford.

(When I say exact, I mean as exact as Sonny Boy II wanted to be about himself…)

He was also known variously as Sonny Boy Williams, Willie Williamson, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, The Goat and Footsie, but that’s another whole shitload of stories that’ll have to keep for another time…

However, I hear you ask, if Aleck was known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, was there a Sonny Boy Williamson I?

To which I can truthfully reply, yes there certainly fucking was.

Sonny Boy the First was actually born John Lee Curtis Williamson in 1914, dying in 1948.

Sonny Boy Williamson sonnyboy_3

Like Sonny Boy II, Sonny Boy I was a harmonica player and singer who pioneered the instrument as a solo player, had a great deal of success with his many recordings and kept such illustrious company as Muddy Waters throughout his relatively short professional life.

So, Sonny Boy I and II were both significant harp players and singers, but they weren’t even remotely related.

Why then did Sonny Boy II ‘borrow’ Sonny Boy I’s stage name?

Well, if you thought “money”, then you’ve guessed the reason.

As this very informative article puts it:

By the early ’40s, he was the star of KFFA`s King Biscuit Time, the first live blues radio show to hit the American airwaves. As one of the major ruses to occur in blues history, his sponsor-the Interstate Grocery Company-felt they could push more sacks of their King Biscuit Flour with Miller posing as Chicago harmonica star John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson.

It was a rather clumsy deception, but it obviously worked as the name stuck with Miller and there don’t seem to have been any lawsuits. Although the Insterstate Grocery Company didn’t actually pay him much, they allowed him to plug his gigs on air and this helped push up his earnings by getting bigger crowds to see him.

Indeed, such ruses involving aliases and stage names weren’t uncommon, with such luminaries as the late, great John Lee Hooker recording for different record companies under a variety of names early on in his career.

As well as his own name, he recorded under the names of Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar, Johnny Williams, The Boogie Man, Johnny Lee (getting slightly less imaginative now), John Lee, and even John Lee Booker and John Lee Cooker.

The latter two names must have taken fucking ages to think up…

Anyway, to his grave, Sonny Boy II dubbed himself the ‘real Sonny Boy Williamson’, in spite of appropriating Sonny Boy I’s stage name whilst #1 was at the height of his career.

It probably helped both men that Sonny Boy #2 didn’t start recording until long after #1 was dead and buried, although his recording career didn’t exactly set the world alight. In fact, somewhat ironically, it wasn’t until his contract was sold on to Checker Records – a subsidiary of the famous Chess Records Company – because he was so difficult to work with that he started to get blues chart success.

Recording with the likes of Willie Dixon and Robert Lockwood Jr, Sonny Boy II wrote and released many songs which have become blues standards – all marked by witty, sometimes desolate lyrics, a quavering baritone and sharp piercing harp lines. Notable successes include ‘Eyesight to the Blind’, ‘Help Me’, ‘Checkin’ up on my Baby’, Nine Below Zero’, ‘Don’t Start me to Talkin’’ and ‘Bring it on Home’, the latter covered by Led Zeppelin on their second album, but attributed to Page and Plant…

Sonny Boy II was a real showman. He’d play with the harp inside his mouth and up his nose.

Here he is from the early 1960s:

He spent a lot of time in Europe towards the end of his career and acquired a rather eccentric image for which he sported a chequerboard suit, a bowler hat, a furled umbrella and a briefcase which held his harps and a bottle of whiskey.

Sonny Boy Williamson  4

sonny boy

And yes, Sonny Boy #2 liked a drink…in fact, as well as being a drinker he was a gambler, conman, brawler (wiry, but 6 feet tall and often armed with a blade) and ladies man, with a wicked sense of humour,

He was backed by some of the early UK beat groups when he toured the country and dubbed the Animals the ‘Mammimals’ and, with reference to the Yardbirds, he had this to say:

“These British want to play the blues so bad…and they play the blues so bad!”

He died in 1965 soon after he returned to the US, but even his gravestone is somewhat ambivalent – not about his name, but about the year of his birth. Although it states 1908, Sonny Boy #2 claimed it was 1899, although census evidence suggests it was 1912.

If it was 1912, then 53 years of hard living had certainly taken their toll!

However, amongst all the hard living, subterfuge and other roguish antics, Sonny Boy II was generous when it came to helping his fellow players. He mentored a young Howlin’ Wolf – who seems to have been his brother-in-law – and also helped spread the word about a guitarist and singer who went on to be known as BB King.

So, Sonny Boy II was many things throughout his life, but his constant was his music.

As usual, to conclude this post by letting the music do the talking, here’s Aleck, Rice, Sonny Boy II, whoever he was, with one of his classic compositions.

Just him and his harp…

Firebirds and hair

Whilst ferreting about on YouTube trying to find videos to illustrate yesterday’s post about Glen Campbell, I stumbled across a video clip I’d never seen before and that I’d only heard.

It features Cream guesting on the Glen Campbell Show in 1968 performing ‘Sunshine of your Love’ live and was something I’d only ever heard on the Cream box set retrospective ‘Those Were the Days’.

It’s an interesting piece of footage for several reasons.

Clapton is the hairiest he’s ever been and looks somewhat like this:

Eric Clapton eric_clapton_cream

The guy’s a bit like a human chameleon – he’s gone through what seem like dozens of ‘images’ and never seems to look the same for very long.

He’s also toting a Gibson Firebird – as in the photo above.

Here’s a better picture:

eric18ps

There are lots more photos of a Cream-era Clapton with his Firebird here.

Associated with Les Pauls and SG Les Pauls up until then, Clapton seemed to like his Firebird a lot. He used it extensively in Cream’s last two tours right up until the RAH gigs in London when he used it for the early show, switching to the red ES335 for the late show – which is the one I saw.

It seems pretty obvious that the producer of the Glen Campbell Show told the band to play quietly – or at least turn it down – as Clapton’s tone lacks the distortion which was part of his signature sound at that time. In fact, it’s downright wimpy and takes all the OOOMPH out of the performance which was by the band at its height – after they’d been gigging extensively in the US and before their badly-rehearsed farewell tour when they seemed to be going through the motions.

Anyway, here’s the video in question – a fascinating document that I didn’t know existed, but fascinating for the wrong reasons!

To make up for the rather lacklustre performance, here’s a bit of video someone has cobbled together, featuring some interesting photos and a performance of ‘Sunshine’ that’s very early and very energetic! In fact, the band’s on absolutely blinding form – on fucking fire – with Bruce playing some great bass and Clapton freewheeling all over the top of it.

Stunning!