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In Memoriam – December 2011

January 5th, 2012 14 comments

December”s headline death probably is that of the great Cesária Évora, who emerged from the tiny West African island of Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony.

But as a soul fan, percussion maestro Ralph MacDonald is my headline departure of the month. He wrote some stone-cold classics and appeared on an impressive catalogue of soul and fusion albums, including those released in their heyday by Bill Withers, George Benson, Donny Hathaway, Ashford & Simpson, Brothers Johnson, Margie Joseph, Patti Austin, Grover Washington, Maynard Ferguson, The Crusaders, Michael Franks,  Eric Gale, Bob James,  Herbie Mann, Earl Klugh, and Sadao Watanabe, as well as on pop albums by the likes of Billy Joel (The Stranger, 52nd Street, Innocent Man) and Paul Simon (Still Crazy”¦, One Trick Pony, Graceland).

The Ragovoy curse struck again. First the great songwriter died in July; then his occasional collaborator Jimmy Norman, with whom he wrote Time Is On My Side, died in November; in December singer Howard Tate, for whom Ragovoy wrote and produced several songs (including Get It While You Can, which Janis Joplin later covered, and 8 Days On The Road) passed away at 72.

Three of the world”s longest-performing artists died in December: Myra Taylor first took to the stage as a 14-year-old in 1931; she made her final performance in a career spanning 70 years on 24 July this year. Fans of The Originals will appreciate the first recording of the great Ink Spots hit I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire, which featured Myra Taylor on vocals (originals fans will also enjoy Ruby and the Romantics” Our Day Will Come, covered by Amy Winehouse on her new posthumous album) .

Johannes Heesters, who died at 108, had been a huge star in Nazi Germany and counted Nazi leaders among his friends ““ a stigma that followed him to his death. Hated in his native Holland, he was still hugely popular in West Germany.  He still toured as a centenarian, and performed to the age of 105.

Bill Tapia, dead at 103, was a ukulele maestro. Check out his version of Stars and Stripes Forever, from just two years ago, which he introduces as having played during World War I ““ the audience laughs, but the guy isn”t joking. He has been performing since 1918.

Among the more bizarre deaths is that of Willie Nelson”s drummer Dan Spears, who fell outside his house and, unable to move, froze to death.

Sadly, this will be the final monthly In Memoriam. Compiling each instalment simply takes up much more time than I can afford to spend, so this is a decision I had to make ““ with much regret, because I don”t think anyone is doing it quite this way on the Internet.

 Michal “˜Michal the Girl” Friedman, singer, from complication during the birth of twins on November 25
ATB ““ The Autumn Leaves (2004)

Howard Tate, 72, soul singer, on December 2
Howard Tate – 8 Days On The Road (1971)

Bill Tapia, 103, legendary ukulele player, on December 2
Bill Tapia – Stars And Stripes

Ronald Mosley, 72, baritone and guitarist with Ruby & the Romantics, on December 3
Ruby and the Romantics – Our Day Will Come (1963)

Hubert Sumlin, 80, legendary blues guitarist (with Howlin” Wolf), on December 4
Howlin’ Wolf – The Red Rooster (1962, as guitarist)
Hubert Sumlin – Down In The Bottom (1987)
R.J. Rosales, 37, Filipino-born Australian singer and actor, on December 4

Violetta Villas, 73, Belgian-born Polish diva, on December 5
Violetta Villas – Przyjdzie Na To Czas (1964)

Dobie Gray, 71, soul singer (Drift Away, The In-Crowd), on December 6
Dobie Gray – River Deep, Mountain High (1973)

Bob Burnett, 71, member of “60s folk group The Highwaymen, on December 7
The Highwaymen – Universal Soldier (1964)

Dan “˜Bee” Spears, 62, long-time bassist for Willie Nelson, on December 8
Willie Nelson – Remember Me (1975, as bassist)
Dick Sims, 60, keyboard player for Eric Clapton, Bob Seger a.o., on December 8
Eric Clapton – Wonderful Tonight (1977, as keyboardist)

Alan Styles, Pink Floyd roadie and subject of Alan”s Psychedelic Breakfast, on December 8
Pink Floyd – Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast (1970)

Myra Taylor, 94, jazz singer and actress, on December 9
Harlan Leonard and his Rockets – I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire (1940, as vocalist)

Dustin Hengst, drummer of pop-punk band Damone, on December 9

Karryl “˜Special One” Smith, member of hip hop duo The Conscious Daughters, on December 10
The Conscious Daughters – Somthin’ To Ride To (Fonky Expidition) (1993)
Billie Jo Spears, 74, country singer, on December 14
Billie Jo Spears – Blanket On The Ground (1975)

Bob Brookmeyer, 81, jazz trombonist, on December 16
Lalo Schifrin & Bob Brookmeyer – Samba Para Dos (1963)

Slim Dunkin, 24, rapper with 1017 Brick Squad, shot dead on December 16

Cesária Évora, 70, Cape Verdean singer, on December 17
Cesária Évora – Nho Antone Escade (1999)
Cesária Évora – Cabo Verde Terra Estimada (1988)

Sean Bonniwell, 71, American guitarist and singer of “60s rock band Music Machine, on December 17
Ralph MacDonald, 67, percussionist, songwriter and producer, on December 18
Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway ““ Where Is The Love (1972, as songwriter)
Grover Washington Jr with Bill Withers ““ Just The Two Of Us (1980, as songwriter)
Billy Joel ““ Rosalinda”s Eyes (1978, as percussionist)

Johnny Silvo, 75, folk singer and children”s TV presenter, on December 18

Clem DeRosa, 86, jazz drummer, arranger, bandleader and music educator, on December 20

David Gold, 31, singer and guitarist of Canadian death-metal band Woods of Ypres, on December 22
Johannes Heesters, 108, Dutch-born actor and singer, on December 24
Johannes Heesters – Ich werde jede Nacht von Ihnen träumen (1937)

Jody Rainwater, 92, bluegrass musician (with the Foggy Mountain Boys) and radio DJ, on December 24

Jim “˜Motorhead” Sherwood, 69, saxophone player for Frank Zappa”s Mothers of Invention, on December 25
Frank Zappa ““ Conehead

Sam Rivers, 88, jazz musician and composer, on December 26
Sam Rivers – Verve (1980)

Barbara Lea, 82, jazz singer and actress, on December 26
Betty McQuade, 70, Australian singer, on December 26
Betty McQuade – Blue Train

Dan Terry, 87, American jazz trumpeter and big band leader, on December 27

Kaye Stevens, 79, singer and actress (frequent guest of the Rat Pack), on December 28

Christine Rosholt, 46, jazz singer, on December 28

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Step back to 1980 – Part 2

November 8th, 2011 7 comments

In past instalments of this series I have been very careful to issue a caveat about the music that I would feature, emphasising that the songs were chosen not because I endorsed them, but because they had the power to transport me back to a particular time or place. This caveat still applies, but it is becoming less necessary than before as the series goes on. This episode features some of my all-time favourite singles, and a few songs which I don”t mind hearing again. There is only among these eight songs from which I”d emphatically have to distance myself. During the second quarter of 1980, which is the time period we”re dealing with now, I turned 14. As ever, music and football were about the only bright lights in my teenage dejection.

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The Vapors ““ Turning Japanese.mp3
Sometimes you go through life with a fresh-faced innocence until your face doesn”t look so fresh any longer. And so it”s only a couple of years since I discovered that Turning Japanese is not an ode to acquiring a taste for sushi and saki (which in The Vapors” case would have been quite visionary), nor   a narrative about the notoriously difficult act of assimilating to life in Tokyo, Osaka or Fukuoka. Turning Japanese apparently refers to the narrowing of the male”s eyes as he reaches the point of orgasm (in the case of the song brought about by masturbation). I cannot verify that this is indeed an accurate description of the physiological response to the point of climax, as I have no habit of observing other specimen of my genus as they engage in sexual activity, nor have I filmed or photographed myself in the act of copulation (and actors in movies of the pornographic genre cannot be depended upon to convey an accurate portrayal of the man in the throes of base relief).

Apparently, however, men”s toes tend to curl at the point of orgasm. I don”t suppose The Vapors had any bright ideas as to how ascribe that physical reflex to a racial or ethnic characteristic. “Turning poor Chinese girl whose feet are deformed so as to appear dainty to misogynist patriarchs” does lack the zip of the title the Guildford quartet had their hit with.

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New Musik ““ Living By Numbers.mp3
This is one catchy new wave song, before that genre demanded the application of extravagant make-up, overdoses of hair gel, silly facial growths (yes, you, Midge Ure) and often injudicious use of synthethizers. I dig the sound of Living By Numbers, with its judicious use of synth. One of New Musik”s former members was Nick Straker ““ he left the group in 1979 ““ who had a disco hit later in 1980 with A Walk In The Park.

The lyrics of Living By Numbers are perfectly situated in 1980: the paranoia of the 1970s anticipating the computer age of the 1980s. Towards the end, there is a series of different English-accented individuals proclaiming: “They don”t want your name” (they want “just your numbah”, apparently). I derive much fun from imitating the different voices as I sing along, with correctly locating the strangely shrill and nasal women”s moment at 2:46 being a moment of particular personal triumph.

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Marti Webb ““ Take That Look Off Your Face.mp3
In early 1980 our family joined the video generation. An acquaintance was selling his video recorder, with his video tape collection. I don”t know whether the man opted for VHS or the system with the flamboyantly futuristic moniker Beta 2000. I do know that the video reorder he sold us conformed to neither system. The clunky cassettes we got with the bargain included such films Psycho and The World of Suzie Wong, an instalment in the Angelique series, and a hardcore porn movie, the first I had ever seen and the dialogue of which has equipped my brother and me with a bunch of good catchphrases which obviously make no sense to anybody else (it also had a funny cartoon interlude involving a Sex Olympics for medieval knights). And one of the first things we recorded was an episode of the legendary German music show Musikladen, which ran on Thursday nights.

Those were exciting days: I watched that recording repeatedly, until the novelty wore off. It made such an impression that three songs from that show feature in this instalment, though I had already bought the single of one of them, Living By Numbers. I quite liked Marti Webb”s song, and I still do, cheerfully disregarding the fact that it was written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber (for the flop musical Tell Me On A Sunday). I hope the dreadful Lloyd-Webber produced this single, so that I can hold him personally responsible for one of the worst fade-outs of all time: just as Webb is hitting a big theatrical note, the song does a two-second fade out (normally a fade-out takes something like five seconds). It”s a song from a stage musical: it shouldn”t even have a fade out.

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Godley & Creme ““ An Englishman In New York.mp3
An Englishman In New York (no relation to the Sting number) was the other song we recorded from Musikladen that day. It”s a strange song, and was even stranger then. In fact, it sounds as though pieces of three different songs were cobbled together by the two ex-10cc men. The performance on Musikladen was even more bizarre, featuring mannequins playing instruments, as did the groundbreaking promotional video of the song (something like THIS).

Eric and Lol would later produce another groundbreaking video, for 1985″s Cry, which featured morphing heads (a technique later used in Michael Jackson”s Black And White video). They also produced videos for hits such as The Police”s Every Breath You Take and Wrapped Around Your Finger, Duran Duran”s Girls On Film and A View To A Kill, Herbie Hancock”s Rockit, Go West”s We Close Our Eyes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood”s Two Tribes and The Power of Love, and Sting”s If You Love Somebody Set Them Free.

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Ramones ““ Baby I Love You.mp3
For some reason I had no idea at the time that this was a cover version of The Ronettes” 1963 hit, even as I did know Be My Baby. So, to me, Baby I Love You will always be firstly a Ramones song. And I love their version, which appeared on the punk pioneers” album End Of The Century (a point in time not all of them would live to see), produced by Phil Spector. The Ronettes” version was, of course, also produced by Spector. It seems none of the Ramones except for singer Joey appear on Baby I Love You. Dee Dee later expressed his hatred for the cover version, and for the album in general. He also claimed that at one stage during the sessions, Spector held him and Joey at gunpoint ““ a claim which we now know is not as outlandish as it might have appeared when Dee Dee made it. It”s safe to say that the recording sessions were not a happy time for either Spector or the Ramones.

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Dexys Midnight Runners – Geno.mp3
This is my favourite single ever. Now, when I call Geno my favourite single ever, I am not saying that it”s the best single ever, or even that it is my favourite song to be released as a single. It is my favourite single because never before or after have I loved a single “” as an item and a song at a particular place and time ““ as much as Geno. I remember clearly buying it and sitting on the bus home, anxious not so much to play it, but to own it, to place it in my collection of singles, as if this new acquisition was going to complete it.

The song may be somewhat derivative, but it sounded like nothing I had ever heard before: the stirring yet sad brass, the urgent chants of the titular name, and then Kevin Rowland”s distinctive style of staccato singing. It caused a weird sensation in my guts. I”ve heard Geno many, many times since then, but I can still feel that sensation. Incidentally, the line “You were Michael the lover, the fighter that won” refers to a track called Michael (The Lover) which had been a UK Top 40 hit in 1967for the subject of the song, soul singer Geno Washington.

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Johnny Logan – What’s Another Year.mp3
Before it became the cultish reality TV circus it is now, it used to be the righteous option to criticise the Eurovision Song Contest for producing horrible, banal music. Still, winners have included such greats as ABBA and Sandie Shaw, and the 1978 winner, Izhar Cohen’s A-Ba-Ni-Bi, was quite excellent as well (I”ll even confess to having a soft spot for Brotherhood of Man). The year after, Cohen”s Israeli compatriots Milk & Honey won with the utterly wretched Hallelujah, and then it was Ireland”s turn, with the clean-cut, Australian-born Johnny Logan.

At the time, I thought What”s Another Year was a pretty good song (though evidently not good enough to buy the record). It isn”t really, though. It is by-the-numbers US soft rock, but of the kind which Christopher Cross and Air Supply might have scoffed at for being too soft. It even has a saxophone solo which sounds like those featured, by some unwritten law, in every hip film of the 1980s starring members of the Brat Pack. Kenny G certainly has done an impressive job turning the coolest musical instrument of the “80s into the lamest ever since. Anyway, Logan made music history when he won the Eurovision Song Contest a second time in 1987, with an utteerly forgettable ditty called Hold Me Now.

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Frank Zappa – Bobby Brown.mp3
Incredibly, Bobby Brown received extensive airplay on West German radio. I can understand why the terminology of “golden shower” or “she had my dick in the vice” went over the heads of the German censors. But were they really happy to pass a line like “I”ve got a cheerleader here, wants to help with my paper. Let her do all the work, and maybe later I”ll rape her”? Zappa was not endorsing the sentiments of his protagonist, of course, and recording Bobby Brown was his prerogative (yes, I just did that). I’m sure Zappa, who is delivering a great vocal performance on Bobby Brown, was tickled to know it was being played on foreign radio. It”s a nasty and incredibly catchy song.

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