TNAG Notes #12 by Stephen Bennett
Irony alert! Today’s “Notes” is nibbling around the crust of a potentially meaty theme. Let’s call it, “Too Good To Be Forgotten”. And (for ten points) who had a hit with that one in 1974? For a million points, who had a hit with the remake in 1986? Too good to be forgotten? Hardly. Answers at the end, quiz fans. Meanwhile…
What could possibly have led to your favourite guitar blog considering this weighty concept, you ask? Two things. First, the current short TNAG video extolling the virtues of the Lame Horse Gitjo, maddeningly-covetable six-string hybrid that it is, and second, an advert for a recent New York tribute gig to one Danny Barker who, as a result of which all-star gathering, continues to be far from forgotten but, dare we suggest, hardly boasts the household-name status of many of his contemporaries.
Danny Barker’s career as one of the most revered and influential exponents of New Orleans-style jazz spanned almost the entire 20th century. He played rhythm guitar behind the likes of Cab Calloway, Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker in the 30s and 40s but was most known for his mastery of the six-string banjo. He helped set the Marsalis brothers on the path to stardom by establishing a youth education project that would eventually morph into the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Danny’s there in the recordings of Jelly Roll Morton, Billy Holiday and the Creole/Indian Mardi Gras collectives. Where is his music now? Everywhere. And it’s in this rarely acknowledged fact that our earlier question was born, alongside the notion that talent and public recognition, in the guitar world as in so many other walks of life, have never been an automatic pairing. Far from it. We have (with a few notable exceptions) an entire contemporary chart-pop industry as proof.
Is fame, like comedy (to rehash the old line), all about timing? Django Reinhardt is quite possibly the only Jazz Manouche guitarist most people could name. A genius, for sure, but how much of that mystique is stirred by romantic images (at this safe distance) of Occupied Paris, the gypsy caravan and the fire-damaged hand? Oscar Alemán, not unlike Emmet Ray in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown”, had the misfortune to be pursuing his own career in the French capital while Django was in his pomp. His recordings are just as lively, his sense of style and melody just as dazzling. He even had his trademark National Tricone resonator confiscated by the Nazis (surely, a PR execs dream!) and yet mention of his name is more likely to conjure blank looks than dreamy nostalgic reflection. So, now, Oscar’s up (or down) there, jamming with Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson, Carl Kress, Roy Smeck and Nick Lucas – each one a true maestro in his own right yet none of them ever as famous as Django, or even their iconic Hollywood contemporary, Rin Tin Tin. And that’s just in jazz.
Spare a thought – or better, a few minutes on YouTube – for Sam Maghett. Maybe 1967 wasn’t the best time for a black Chicago bluesman to break into to the white-boy revivalist blues-rock world (though it didn’t seem to do Buddy Guy any harm). The album he released that year, “West Side Soul” by Magic Sam, as Maghett was better known, is an upbeat, urban R&B gem. Unfortunately, Sam would never get to build on its breakthrough success. He died suddenly, of a heart-attack, two years later. While his lead licks stutter and sting with the best of them, Sam’s light, warbling tenor comes across like a Motown Muddy Waters. And though he delves even further into commercial territory on the classy, Sam Cooke-influenced foot-tapper, “That’s All I Need”, the signature washed-out tremolo of “All Your Love” is clearly a template for more than one generation of imitators. Yet, should a hundred people list their ten giants of the electric blues, Magic Sam’s name might feature once. Probably here.
We could go on. And as you’re by now all too aware, we often do. Yet you’ll no doubt forgive the one earlier New Orleans thought triggering another, i.e. the death of the great Doctor John, last month. Talk about influence? Come in, Paul Weller and a thousand others. Yet he, too, is rarely remembered as the guitar player he always dreamed of being. The one-time child-model (really!) Malcolm Rebennack only turned his musical focus towards the keys after a dressing room altercation (between an irate husband and Mac’s band’s wife-distracting singer, Ronnie Barron) ended up with a gun going off and nearly taking the future Doctor’s left-hand ring-finger with it. No doubt we all wish we had such stories, until, that is, we consider we might be better off staying boring with all our digits intact.
So that’s another true original gone. The youngest A&R man in recording history (he was sixteen) and one of only a tiny handful to be awarded the ultimate accolade of having their own dedicated Muppet. Fortunately, the desitively bonnaroo Dr. Teeth, like the music of his human inspiration, remains immortal.
Did we mention guitars?
Here’s one. The Harmony Sovereign H1260. How much more North American Guitar can you get? None more (as they say). Most notable, perhaps, for those fabled opening bars of “Stairway To Heaven”, the wide-waisted, Chicago-built dreadnought with the huge bass response was something of a legend in the 60s and has been a leader in the hens’-teeth rarity stakes ever since. Pete Townsend had one, Mance Lipscomb played virtually nothing else and Big Joe Williams stuck an extra three strings on his. The accepted wisdom goes that every other Harmony model was pretty ropey while, somehow, the Sovereign got everything right. Rumour also had it that the woods used in its construction (Adirondack spruce top, one-piece Honduran mahogany back-and-sides) had been acquired in a job lot from Martin during their factory-shifting upheaval of 1964. For obvious reasons, confirmation thereof was never forthcoming. What we do know, however, is that the ladder-braced Sovereign soon won a reputation, tone-wise, as a match for the way-more-expansive Martins and Gibsons of the day. Despite the quality woods, however, they were somewhat ‘thrown together’ and few have lasted this long without serious neck-joint issues (Gaps..? Just whack a bit more glue in there) but, should you find one, grab it. Any necessary repair work will be worth the trouble and what’s more, next time you’re banging out your uncannily accurate, Jimmy Page-inspired party-piece…er…
Okay, ignore that last bit. Please, spare your long-suffering friends and have a beer, instead.
This Fortnight’s Fab Five is training its funky focus firmly on…
…on Soul. We’ve already extolled, in “Notes” passim, the myriad virtues of stalwart rhythm-machines like the incomparable Steve Cropper and (Marc Bolan favourite) Little Beaver but it does seem that any discussion of what makes Soul – and perhaps dance-music in general – such a powerful musical force, tends to ignore, or at least understate, the contribution of the many brilliant guitarists whose work is such an essential component of “the groove”.
- First out of the blocks, Ernie Isley, younger Brother in the original Ohio set-up but soon established as one of the five (plus an in-law) who turned out a string of disco-soul hits that began with “It’s Your Thing” in 1969 (on which he played bass). Ernie’s soaring, phased, flanged, kitchen-synced soloing on “That Lady” and “Summer Breeze” is possibly the most instantly recognisable electric guitar sound of the 1970s. Now there’s controversial!
- Less instantly familiar but covering a far wider range of styles and technique, the work of Shuggie Otis is long-overdue the recognition it deserves. Though why anyone would want to change their name from Johnny Veliotes remains a mystery. Son of R&B giant Johnny Otis and, like Prince (see below), a gifted multi-instrumentalist, Shuggie was only fifteen when Al Kooper – who knew talent when he saw it – drafted him in for the follow-up to “Super Session”. He recorded with artists as varied as Louis Jordan, Etta James and Frank Zappa (that’s him playing bass on “Hot Rats”) but it’s the early ‘70s stuff – “Freedom Flight” and “Information Inspiration” that really showcases Otis’s blues-based brand of psychedelic funk-soul to the max. Keys tracks, “Strawberry Letter 23” and “Aht Uh Mi Hed” conjure the spirit of Sly Stone but it’s on the wild and wonderful, “Ice Cream Party” that Shuggie’s 70s ‘Heir to Hendrix’ monicker starts to make sense.
- Nile Rogers does enough trumpet-blowing on his own behalf so, in our humble opinion, he hereby gives up what should be his rightful place in this list to the more self-effacing, though equally (if not more) influential, Curtis Mayfield. George Clinton said that, in the 60s, everybody who picked up a guitar wanted to sound like Curtis. What took most of them a while to figure out, if they ever did, was that his signature (middle pick-up, Twin Reverb) Strat sound – all wah-wah and double-stops - was based on a tuning he’d taken (and stuck with) from the black keys on his mother’s piano; F#-A#-C#-F#-A#-F#. Not exactly a band-friendly set-up but certainly a useful pointer to the compositional roots of a unique style. Three words, “Move On Up”. Three other words, “People Get Ready”. Say no more.
- Then, of course, there’s Prince. It was said, by Matt Busby, about the great George Best, that he was the number one player at the club in every position, including goalkeeper. Transfer that to a band context and Prince qualifies pretty much the same way; guitar, keyboards, bass, drums, the lot. What makes Prince so special for discerning (guitar-biased) listeners, is his constant capacity to surprise. You always knew he was good but…that good? Try and find his ‘perfect excuse for a solo’ live version of The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination”. And as you start to think the flash little git can’t get any better…surprise!
- Finally, and still very much a fully-functioning force, how about Scott Sharrard? Until recently the lead guitarist and MD of the Gregg Allman Band, Sharrard, as you might expect, brings a Southern Rock guitar sensibility to his love of all things Soul-ful. It’s a winning combination as both ‘schools’, at their best, essentially rest on the twin pillars of rhythm and melody. His take on The Band’s melancholy masterpiece, “It Makes No Difference” (from the album, “Ante Up”) is a tasteful, tear-stained model of how the lead guitar should always serve the song, while the loose, Muscle Shoals swagger of “She Can’t Wait” (from “Saving Grace”) evokes the fantasy dream-ticket of an Allman Brothers/Jimmy Ruffin gig.
That song? The Chi-Lites in 74, Amazulu in 86. Admit it…you’d forgotten. See you next time.
See you next time.
by Stephen Bennett