Jimmy LaFave, Proponent of “Red Dirt Music”

“River Road” – Watch on YouTube

Jimmy LaFave was a beloved, Austin-based musician who blended country, rock ‘n’ roll, and blues into a form of Americana that became known as “red dirt music.”

Born in Texas, LaFave spent his formative years in Stillwater, OK, in the region that produced music legends Woody Guthrie, Chet Baker, J.J. Cale  and Leon Russell.

LaFave was a singer-songwriter and guitarist. He was known for his original songs and interpretations of others’ work. One of his most streamed songs is “Walk Away Renée” on his Austin Skyline album (itself a takeoff on Dylan’s Nashville classic). He recorded albums for both Rounder Records and Red House Records.

Jimmy LaFave, July 12, 1955-May 21, 2017

“Walk Away Renée” on Spotify

Chuck Berry, Bottled The Essence of Rock And Roll

Chuck Berry on The Tonight Show (1987) – Watch on YouTube

I usually try to keep my videos to a shorter length, but the above video of Chuck Berry on The Tonight Show is worth watching in full. First, you get to hear Berry perform three full songs, but you also hear Berry talk at length about his many influences. Among them:

Louis Jordan, for his lyrics. Here’s Jordan’s “G.I. Jive.”

Nat King Cole, for his voice. Here’s Cole’s “Orange-Colored Sky.”

Charlie Christian, for his electric guitar work with Benny Goodman. Here’s Christian with Goodman in “Wholly Cats.”

Carl Hogan, for his guitar riffs as part of Jordan’s Tympani Five. You’ll hear the prototype for the “Johnny B. Goode” intro in Hogan’s opening to “Ain’t it Just Like a Woman.”

Muddy Waters, for his soul. Waters introduced Berry to Chess Records, and “Maybellene,” Berry’s first hit, was the result. Here’s Waters on “Sugar Sweet” recorded in 1955, around the time he met Berry.

Berry doesn’t mention it on The Tonight Show, but according to the New York Times, “Maybellene” was a variant of the old country tune “Ida Red”, here performed by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys.

I appreciate Elvis and what he did to kickstart the rock-and-roll era, but to me Berry is really the one who put it all together: the irreverent attitude, the primacy of the guitar, the focus on youth, the melting pot of genres. Elvis would become a crooner, but Berry kept on rockin’, as his 1987 appearance on Carson – when he was 60 years old and still able to “duck walk” – says it all. The audience was having so much fun that Carson dropped his last two guests and let Berry stay on and perform “Johnny B. Goode.”

“Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news…” –Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry, October 18, 1926-March 18, 2007.

 

“Maybellene”on Spotify

Holly Dunn, Country Singer of “Daddy’s Hands”

“You Really Had Me Going” Official Video–Watch on YouTube

Holly Dunn’s wrote her biggest hit, “Daddy’s Hands,” on her way to work one morning. She made a tape of it and slipped into a Father’s Day card to her dad. The song only made it to #7 on the Country Charts in 1986 (the year it was released), but it earned her nominations for two Grammys – Best Country Song and Best Country Vocal Performance, Female.

In a post on niume, Texas music exec A. Michael Uhlmann relates a conversation with Dunn, in which she recalls that when she was growing up, her San Antonio home was open to many musicians, including Sonny James, Roy Orbison and Porter Waggoner. But, according to Uhlmann, Dunn was also influenced by singers closer to her generation – James Taylor, Carole King and The Beatles.

She often collaborated with her brother Chris Waters, and the duo penned a number of her hits, including “Playing for Keeps,” “Strangers Again” and “(It’s Always Gonna Be) Someday.”

Dunn was named “Top New Female Vocalist” in 1986, won the CMA Horizon Award in the same year and joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1989.

“Daddy’s Hands” on Spotify

Mose Allison, Jazz and Blues Piano Player with a Rock Fan Club

“I Don’t Worry About a Thing” on Soundstage–Watch on YouTube

According to Richard Skelly in the All Music Guide to Jazz, Mose Allison “suffered from a ‘categorization problem'”–a boogie-woogie, beboppin’  jazz and bluesman who was also a great songwriter. His admirers include John Mayall, Pete Townshend, Tom Waits, the Rolling Stones, Diana Krall, Van Morrison, The Clash and another excellent pianist/songwriter, the late Leon Russell.

Born in Tippo, Mississippi, Allison (November 11, 1927-November 15, 2016) picked up piano in the first grade. He moved to New York in 1956 and released his debut album Back Country Suite the next year. He recorded and performed until his retirement in 2012 and became an NEA Jazz Master in 2013.

Despite his rock cred and blues leanings, Allison considered himself a jazzman. “My definition of jazz is music that’s felt, thought and performed simultaneously, ” he said in a 2006 BBC documentary. “And that’s what I’m looking for every night.”

“Parchman Farm” on Spotify

Leonard Cohen, “Master of Erotic Despair”

“Suzanne” Live–Watch on YouTube

I have to admit I was never a big fan of Leonard Cohen’s. I found him to be a tad morose, and I (at least at the time) was more drawn to driving, uptempo beats. But I tolerated him to get close to a girl I had a crush on and who would subject me to side after side of Cohen.

I did like “Bird on a Wire,” a song my rock hero Joe Cocker recorded beautifully in spite of his croaky voice. And, of course, Judy Collins had turned the world on to Cohen by recording her own version of “Suzanne.

Over the years, I have warmed to Cohen. One of the most moving performances I’ve ever heard was k.d. lang’s rendition of “Hallelujah,” which she sang at, of all places, the Target National Sales Meeting. At 10 in the morning, in front of thousands of rowdy store managers and caffeinated executives, lang walked out in bare feet and began to softly sing to the accompaniment of a piano. The audience was more accustomed to cheerleader acts like Black Eyed Peas at their annual shindig, and I thought, “Oh God, this is going to bomb.”

But lang, lifted by Cohen’s amazing lyrics, completely captured the crowd. As her voice crescendoed through the verses, the basketball arena where we had gathered grew silent in awe. I could feel the hair on my arm stand on end, and as I looked around me, I sensed others felt the same way.

“Hallelujah” Live Verson by k.d. lang on Spotify

My Memories of Leon Russell in 11 Songs

 

I first discover Leon in the record bin of Boury’s Appliance Store in Wheeling, WV. I’ve never heard of him before, but I’m struck by the man looking back at me on the album cover. When I put needle to vinyl, I’m as captivated by his music as I am by him.

My friend Eddie and I chance upon Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the documentary about Joe Cocker’s world tour, at the Victoria Theater in Wheeling. In his stovepipe hat, Holy Trinity basketball jersey, Les Paul Gibson, and  his “hippy commune” of musicians and singers, he represents the type of free-spirited life I aspire to.

B.B. King is my other teenage musical idol, and I’m thrilled to see Leon playing piano for him as King performs a Russell song, “Hummingbird,” on The Mike Douglas Show. 

Here’s Leon’s original version.

During my freshman year at West Virginia University, a friend and I spend the better part of the year listening to Leon Live while drinking daiquiris and learning the Swahili chorus of “Out in the Woods.”

I see Leon for the first of five times at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. He and his carnival of a band open for Three Dog Night, which seemed a reversal of the natural order. One of the things that appeal to me about Leon is how he blends and celebrates country, rock, blues, classical, jazz and gospel, as he does when he gives the stage here to the Rev. Patrick Henderson.

Leon goes on tour to promote The Wedding Album, an record he produced with his then-wife Mary McCreary. I see them at Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota with my then-wife. They would also perform the song on one of the earliest episodes of Saturday Night Live.

In the early aughts, I catch Leon at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis. He has aged considerably, is drawing a much smaller crowd and rushes through his setlist on an electric piano. A highlight for the audience (and I’m sure him) is one of his daughters, who supplies backup vocals and a few solos. After playing sold-out stadiums and mingling with musicians from George Harrison to Eric Clapton, he must have felt like he was in a strange land indeed.

A Netflix documentary, The Wrecking Crew, celebrates a largely unknown group of LA studio musicians who backed and provided the sound to many of our favorite songs. Turns out, Leon was one of them, recording on tracks for The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Monkees–even Sinatra and The Rolling Stones.

At the Trylon Microcinema, I see A Poem is a Naked Person, the surrealistic rock documentary by Les Blank. Produced by Russell and Denny Cordell, Leon kept it from release for 40 years. While the film  was ostensibly about Leon, he’s rarely in it. With his subject on a worldwide tour, Blank didn’t have the budget to travel along–most of the footage focuses on Russell’s home base and studio in Tulsa.

Leon has a late-life revival, when Elton John repays the kindness Leon had showed him as a young artist. Their joint album, recorded as Russell recovered from brain surgery, is highly acclaimed and puts Leon back in the spotlight. John makes sure Leon can afford to tour in a respectable bus with a real grand piano. Leon is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (introduced by Sir Elton) and Songwriters Hall of Fame.

I see Leon for a few last times, at the Dakota and Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. He seems happy to be on stage with an adoring audience before him. RIP, Leon, I will miss you, but your music will always live on for me.

Bap Kennedy, Singer-Songwriter from Belfast

“Long Time Coming” Live from The Empire Belfast–Watch on YouTube

Bap Kennedy was a critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter who never achieved commercial fame despite the help of some very influential friends. Steve Earle produced his first solo album, Domestic Blues, which he recorded in Nashville in 1998. Van Morrison, a long-time fan and supporter, recorded Kennedy’s The Big Picture at his home studio and co-wrote the song “Milky Way.” And Mark Knopfler, with whom Kennedy toured, produced The Sailor’s Revenge.

One of Kennedy’s songs, “Moonlight Kiss,” made it onto the soundtrack of the John Cusack/Kate Beckinsale romantic comedy Serendipity.

Before going solo, Kennedy was part of the Irish bands 10 Past 7 and Energy Orchard, a band he formed in London.

“Moonlight Kiss” on Spotify

Curly Putman, Wrote “Green, Green Grass of Home” and Other Country Classics

“Green, Green Grass of Home”–Watch on YouTube

Curly Putman’s classic hit, “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” was first recorded by Johnny Darrell in 1965. But it has had a long life, with interpretations by a lengthy list of stars, including Elvis, Porter Wagoner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Jones, Gram Parsons and even the Grateful Dead.

Putman (November 20, 1930-October 30, 2016) was no one-hit wonder. He either wrote or co-wrote some of country music’s most-enduring classics, including Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Putnam’s songwriting earned him a spot in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976. Mostly known as a songwriter, Putman did have a short recording career, beginning with a minor hit “The Prison Song,” which he recorded in 1960 for the Cherokee label.

“Made for Loving You” (feat. Dolly Parton) on Spotify

Robert Bateman, Co-Wrote “Please, Mr. Postman” for Tamla Motown

“Please, Mr. Postman” with The Stubbs–Watch on YouTube

In 1959, The Satintones, a five-singer band that included Robert Bateman, became the first to sign on with Barry Gordy’s Tamla label. According to his obituary in The Telegraph, Bateman and his band helped out at the fledgling studio “while waiting for fame to strike.”

Bateman (April 30, 1936-October 12, 2016) was sound engineer on hits like “Money,” “Do You Love Me?” and “Shop Around.” But he also filled in as road manager, bus driver, backup singer, producer and talent scout.

“Please, Mr. Postman,” which was written by Bateman and four others, was recorded in 1961 by The Marvelettes, a group Bateman had recommended to Gordy. It became Motown’s first #1 hit on the Top 100, setting the stage for many more mainstream hits to come from black performers. The song was famously covered by The Beatles in 1963 and reached #1 again in 1975 when recorded by The Carpenters.

“Motor City” on Spotify

Don Ciccone, Guitarist and Vocalist for The Critters

“Younger Girl” from 1966–Watch on YouTube

Don Ciccone was a founding member of The Critters, one of a surge of American counterattacks to the British Invasion. The group offered up soft, “nice boy” vocals backed by the standard lineup of two guitars, bass, keyboards and drums.

The Critters were relatively short-lived (1964-1967), succumbing to the college and military careers of its members. But in that time they had several hits, including a cover of John Sebastian’s “Younger Girl” and their own oddly-titled single “Mr. Dieingly Sad,” which Ciccone wrote. (When Ciccone formed a new version of The Critters decades later, the title was slightly changed to “Mr. Dyingly Sad.”)

After The Critters, Ciccone was vocalist, guitarist and bassist for Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. He was the original vocal for their hit “Who Loves You” until record exec Mike Curb insisted Valli front the song. Ciccone (February 28, 1946-October 8, 2016) was later bassist for Tommy James and the Shondells. According to his website, Ciccone participated in the production of 40 hits, representing over 100 million in record sales.

“Mr. Dieingly Sad” on Spotify