Category Archives: 1950’s

Elmore James – Shake Your Moneymaker: The Best of the Fire Sessions – Classic Music Review

I am temporarily suspending my boycott of American music for one day, for two very good reasons:

  • I wanted to acknowledge the ray of hope ignited by Nancy Pelosi. My former congresswoman finally got off her bony little ass and kick-started the painfully long-overdue impeachment process of he-who-shall-not-be-named.
  • But just like he-who-shall-not-be-named . . . I was BAITED BY A TWEET!

My response was succinct and immediate (accounting for the time difference):

Though I clearly and unashamedly state on the blog’s front page that my top priorities in life are sex and music (with baseball now a distant third), the wording gives the impression that I view sex and music as separate and distinct experiences. It’s more accurate to describe the relationship as partially symbiotic: I can enjoy music that doesn’t ignite my libido, but I can’t imagine fucking without music. While the origins of this inter-dependency probably lie in not wanting my parents to hear the grunts, groans and cries of delight emanating from my bedroom when I was fucking boys and girls in my teens (not that they would have given a shit), I eventually learned that certain kinds of music can add tension, drama and color to the sexual experience. This is particularly true in BDSM, where lengthy scenes integrating foreplay and various forms of orgasmic stimulation are the norm. I love to make my entrance to music, to pose suggestively to music and get my rocks off while the music is throbbing in the background, mirroring the throbbing of the bodies engaged in the act.

Most of the music I use in a scene is kick-ass rock, jazz, samba, R&B, soul and Chicago blues—music that makes your hips grind, music with attitude. And no single artist appears more often on my fuck playlists than Elmore James, a man who had attitude down pat.

It’s stunning that we still lack a full-blown biography of the man who influenced a generation of rock and blues guitarists, but from the bits and pieces in encyclopedia entries, we can conclude Elmore James was an introvert, rather bashful type who only emerged from his shell when he had a guitar in hand and a microphone close to his lips. Introversion is one of those good things/bad things, for while introverts tend to have an exceptional ability to concentrate that allows them to explore a given field in depth, they also tend to keep many thoughts and feelings to themselves, building up a huge amount of pressure in the inner boiler that often manifests itself in physical breakdowns. Elmore James was diagnosed with heart disease in 1957 at the age of thirty-nine; six years later he was dead at the age of forty-five, having ignored the doctor’s advice to cut down on his drinking and chill out.

You might say, “Gee, if only Elmore had taken care of himself, he could have lived to a ripe old age.” To which I respond, “Yeah, but he wouldn’t have been Elmore James.” The introverted intensity that defined his life and manifested itself with crystal clarity through his music may have killed him, but had he become a frightened middle-aged musician trying to hang on for dear life, we’d remember Elmore James as someone who lived way past his prime rather than a guy who left it all on the playing field.

The thought process that led Elmore James to attach a pickup to a Kay dreadnought guitar with high action and then opt to fingerpick in order to achieve the fat, raunchy sound he wanted is not available to us, but it clearly marks him as a man who refused to be stopped in the pursuit of the sound he wanted to achieve. Slide players back in Elmore’s day couldn’t go to Sweetwater.com, read the online guide “How to Choose the Right Guitar Slide for You” and then select from a wide range of state-of-the-art slides in glass, brass and porcelain. Well, when you ain’t got nothin’ you look around the house for something that will do (like those plastic bread clips you can use as an emergency guitar pick). According to Hal Leonard’s tabs-and-techniques manual, Elmore James – Master of the Electric Slide Guitar, “Elmore’s slide was the metal slip that fits over a tube in old radios and record players. These tube covers were made of light metal, often aluminum, and if one was too small for his finger, Elmore sawed it open with a hacksaw.” This sounds like a setup that most people today would associate with a desperate busker trying to earn a few pennies from the charitably-minded, but in the hands of Elmore James, it sounds like the guitar equivalent of a Stradivarius. The Kay wasn’t his only ax, but it’s the one he probably used for “most of his slide playing, both performing and recording,” and is now part of the treasure trove in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

James learned at the feet of Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson II during his youth on the Mississippi Delta, and though you can certainly hear their influence in his music (especially in the early 50’s recordings), his expression of the blues at this later stage of his career is all his own. This is particularly noticeable in his vocals, which are marked by an unusual intensity and unbridled confidence. In many of his vocals, there is an undeniable urgency in his timbre, perhaps a manifestation of all that internal pressure, or perhaps fueled by the knowledge that he was living on borrowed time. Whatever the cause, listening to Elmore James sing gives you the impression that this is a man who needs to impart a message that is essential to his very existence. As he wrote most of his material—material that strictly adheres to blues norms—the result was a fresh take on the art that demonstrated the enduring vitality of the blues.

The Best of the Fire Sessions features most of his signature songs, some in the form of remakes of earlier releases. As these are from multiple recording sessions, the album features a variety of backing musicians depending on who happened to be in town on the recording date. No matter—Elmore James was an accomplished bandleader who worked with some of the best blues musicians of the time, and when you work for a leader with a clear artistic vision, it’s a lot easier to figure out where you fit in and what you can add to the mix.

So without further ado . . .

“Shake Your Moneymaker”: The collection is bookended by two classics, but though one could argue that “Dust My Broom” should have come first due to its status as Elmore’s first hit, the album version is a remake, so the timeline hardly matters. My review of “Shake Your Moneymaker” in the Dad’s 45’s series wasn’t as much a review as an emotional-sexual reaction to both the orgasmic experience of finding the record in his collection and the orgasmic experience of the song itself. “I had been planning to do a full review of Elmore James’ The Best of the Fire Sessions, but every time I started to write it, it sounded more like porn than a music review,” I wrote, and my commentary on the song suffered from trying to write in bitch-in-heat mode.

What is unique about Elmore’s vocal approach to this song is his restraint, eschewing the gravelly belt-out approach featured in many of his classics. He sounds cool and collected, like a man sitting in a tall, upholstered leather chair with cognac and cigar, savoring the merchandise. Although some women may find it offensive to refer to a woman’s nether regions as a “moneymaker,” the lyrics clearly indicate that Elmore was unsuccessful in fulfilling his desire to plunge his member into the honeypots and back ends of two different women. This tells me he was attempting to maintain his self-esteem by writing the whole thing off to the cynical motivation of unliberated women to trade pussy for a payoff. So while Elmore may pride himself on having the biggest dick in town, he knows he can’t compete in the financial arena, so he’s shit out of luck and headed for the (cold) showers.

The music is subtly inviting, and before long you’ll be shaking your moneymaker with abandon. Elmore uses his go-to tuning (open D); his 12th fret call-and-response bending slides are sweet and expressive. Johnny “Big Moose” Walker defies his nickname and gives us a smooth, rolling boogie on the piano, syncing perfectly with King Mose on the skins. While Jeremy Spencer’s tribute performance on Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac rocks harder, it doesn’t come close to capturing the sheer sexuality of the original.

“Look on Yonder Wall”: James modified the lyrics to this Memphis Jimmy tale of a wounded veteran returning home from WWII who shacks up with another veteran’s squeeze only to learn that hubby is on his way back to the States to reclaim his property. Not to worry: Elmore’s already made other arrangements and will gladly step aside for a fellow vet:

Your husband went to the war, and you know it was tough
I don’t know how many men he killed but I know he killed enough
Look on yonder wall and hand me down my walking came
I got me another woman, now baby, yon come your man

War does tend to throw all the usual norms out the window for a while. I hope there wasn’t a sequel featuring the hubby hunting down Elmore to “thank” him for services rendered to the missus in his absence.

James’ version is slightly more upbeat than the original, and the comparatively rare appearance of an accompanying harmonica (courtesy of Sammy Myers) gives this piece a front porch feel. I absolutely love the nimble display of Elmore’s fretboard skills in the introduction.

“The Sky Is Crying”: This is a James classic that was played at Duane Allman’s funeral, and has been covered by other luminaries such as The Yardbirds, Albert King, Little Walter, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Etta James. The debate about Elmore’s slide setup rages on, with Homesick James claiming studio accident, others claiming a different amp and Ry Cooder insisting that Elmore had abandoned the Kay setup for this recording. I think all three views have validity: it certainly isn’t his Kay guitar; James certainly could have plugged into a different amp; and the omnipresence of reverb could indicate an acoustic interaction with open space, intensifying any reverb coming through the amp. Whatever it is, it sounds fucking great—a distant, terribly lonely expression of loss. James’ lyrical imagery—“The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street”—was inspired by one of those tremendous downpours that often accompany thunderstorms in Chicago and the greater Midwest, a powerful symbol of the destructive power of loss and the consequent helplessness. Elmore’s vocal balances command and heartfelt emotion, his phrasing emphatic without crossing the line into histrionics. Here he is backed by his usual guys, The Broomdusters, and the synergy inherent in a trusting relationship shines throughout the song. The boys knew their man and his tendencies, and provide just enough backing for you to know that if they weren’t there they would be sorely missed . . . and no more. That support gives Elmore plenty of room to rip, and “The Sky Is Crying” is full of fills that absolutely knock me out. Kudos to The Broomdusters: J. T. Brown on saxophone, Johnny Jones on piano, Odie Payne on drums, and Homesick James on bass.

“Rollin’ and Tumblin'”: A blues classic recorded by a slew of artists, the Muddy Watters and Cream versions are probably the most familiar to the listening audience. James’ version is certainly more intense than Muddy’s but not over-the-top like Cream’s. The Johnny Winter version is . . . well, meh . . . and the latest rendition featuring Jeff Beck on guitar and Imogen Heap on vocals is like . . . what the fuck? Personally, I’ll take the 1925 original “Roll and Tumble Blues” by Hambone Willie Newbern for its authenticity and continue to wonder why this particular song has generated so many cover versions. Not my favorite Elmore James contribution.

“Held My Baby Last Night”: Goddamn—this is one seriously sexy breakup song. Elmore is in fine voice as he belts out this lament for a relationship on the skids, and once again The Broomdusters provide a suitable background for the emotional dynamic expressed through his vocal pleas for freedom and the heartfelt riffs delivered between lines. The drone of J. T. Brown’s saxophone establishes a mournful mood of a love gone wrong while Odie Payne’s more active drumming reinforces the stutter-stop communication that invariably accompanies separation. I like to put this one at the end of fuck playlists when my lover and I are finishing off the booze and enjoying our post-fuck cigarettes while stroking each other with messages of reassurance.

“I’m Worried”: This track from the posthumous release The Sky Is Crying is a tightly played number featuring Elmore laying out some classic blues figures and a few clever variations from the norm toward the end of the song. I think the song could have been a stronger track with The Broomdusters; alas and alack, Homesick James is pretty much on his own, surrounded by unknown studio musicians who do their bit, pick up their checks and move on. This so-so support places Elmore in the position of having to save the song, which he does with aplomb because he’s Elmore Fucking James, people!

“Done Somebody Wrong”: Powerful stuff here. A black man trying to reconcile the teachings of Christ with the cruelty-laden apartheid of Jim Crow faces a task equivalent to Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill for all eternity. The downside of having a sense of moral responsibility is that the morally responsible person develops a tendency to feel responsible for every misfortune that comes their way, particularly when frightened. Here Elmore is blaming himself for the loss of his baby, but the story is easily translatable to the African-American experience. “Man, what did I do wrong?” is a sadly pathetic question for which there is no answer because no, you didn’t do anything wrong. The syncopated two-beat-rest pattern certainly draws the listener’s interest, but Elmore’s vocal is the main attraction—a pleading, anxiety-ridden expression of the search for meaning and forgiveness.

“Fine Little Mama”: The flip side to “Done Somebody Wrong” features a nice easy mid-tempo beat, outstanding guitar work and two renditions of Elmore’s delightful groans of satisfaction: “Hmmmm-hmm.” I love to hear that sound from any man I fuck, as it’s a foreplay cue that tells me I’ve found his sweet spot with either hand or mouth. Apparently his Fine Little Mama knows exactly what to do, as confirmed in the closing verse when Elmore admits, “Well, when she start the lovin’/My love come tumblin’ down.”

Uh oh. Sounds like premature ejaculation or a guy that can’t hold back long enough to give me some deep thrust pleasure. THAT IS NOT MY IMAGE OF ELMORE JAMES. Well, she is a “red hot mama,” and hot women do have a tendency to overwhelm even the best of men, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Shit, this is turning into a porn review, but goddamnit, that’s how I respond to Elmore James.

“Anna Lee”: The b-side of the final single Elmore released in his lifetime features erotic, groaning baritone sax from Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams and smoky jazz-tinged trumpet from Danny Moore, who would go on to play with Yusef Lateef, Les McCann and Wes Montgomery. Elmore more than holds his own in the presence of these jazz musicians and the timbre of his strong and confident vocal tells us that he loved working with a larger combo and was thrilled to the expand the blues with greater sonic variation. I can’t leave the song without extending appreciation to drummer Johnny Williams, who kills the finish with an emphatic run that truly seals the deal. I have no doubt that had Elmore James lived a bit longer he would have steered his core blues arrangements towards jazz sensibilities.

“Stranger Blues”: Tampa Red had to find a way into this collection, and this modified version of one of his lesser-known songs pays suitable tribute to one of the earliest (single-string) slide players (and one of the first to use the National steel guitar). Red did a lot of what were called “hokum” songs—bawdy tunes filled with double entendres like “Tight Like That” by Ma Rainey. This song takes on a darker cast as it deals with the mass migration of African-Americans to the northern states in search of jobs during the WWII manufacturing boom. Elmore’s version opens with a riff that sounds very close to the main riff of “What’d I Say?” and soon settles into an aggressive samba-like beat enhanced by the jazz trumpet offerings of Danny Moore. The baseline story is that the narrator feels like an outcast in northern climes and decides to return to the Deep South “if I wear out 99 pairs of shoes.” You may wonder any African-American would want to return to the land of Jim Crow and the KKK, but though they didn’t have to worry too much about white terrorism up north, they experienced the more subtle and insidious forms of racism, particularly when it came to choosing a neighborhood. And for many people, there is an inexorable pull towards home, no matter how shitty a place it might have been. That paradox would give anyone the blues, and choosing to record this song at the dawn of the activist phase of the Civil Rights Movement formed a coded but clear message that Elmore James felt the sting of second-class citizenship and wanted to say something about that intolerable condition.

“Something Inside of Me”: I don’t mean to engage in a weird form of schadenfreude, but this “my baby left me” slow blues is one sexy bitch of a song. Elmore gives it everything he’s got and then some—a full-throated passionate vocal married to a cascading variety of riffs from nearly every spot on the fretboard. Some of the riffs sound like a man trying to hold it together; others go deep down the bottom strings to capture the darker thoughts of bitterness and despair; still others try to rise to the heavens but are held back by hints of dissonance. At brief moments Elmore gives the rhythm a push, indicating he is totally immersed in the overall flow of the song. An absolutely hypnotic grinder that makes you want to get oh so close to your baby.

Cigarette!

“Early One Morning”: A nice little pick-me-up (assuming you and your baby have exhausted every drop of passion) in the form of mid-tempo blues . . . until you get tired of the saxophone repeating the same fucking figure ad infinitum. Still, Elmore gives a powerful vocal performance, making the short trip more than worthwhile.

“Sunnyland”: Robert Johnson’s influence is obvious in this straight-up, don’t mess with me rollicking blues number. This was another posthumous release featuring King Mose and Big Moose Walker, a remake of a 1954 b-side (originally titled “Sunny Land”). Sunnyland, by the way, was the name of the train that Elmore’s baby used to hightail it out of town. The delightful twist in the story comes when baby writes to Elmore to say she’s coming home . . . under one condition: “Cool down papa, you better change your ways.” Like the aforementioned Mr. Johnson (who admitted he wanted to beat his woman till he got satisfied), Elmore took the first step towards toxic male recovery by admitting he’d been a fucking asshole.

“Standing at the Crossroads”: This (remake) was the A-side of the “Sunny Land” single back in its 1954 form, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it was the first concept single. Both songs deal with the uniquely masculine choice: do I beat the crap out of my unsatisfactory baby or do I move on to a hotter, more compliant babe? Elmore’s tale omits the Johnsonian pleas for assistance from a higher being, preferring to work things out for himself. I love how he leaves us hanging right there on the crossroads, clueless as to what he’s going to do next. Despite his dismissal of the lord’s assistance, Elmore sounds remarkably like a hell-fire preacher (and just as horny).

“My Bleeding Heart”: I find it unbelievable that one of Elmore James’ greatest songs wasn’t rushed into the stores as soon as the master was finished but had to wait four long years to see daylight as a posthumous release. It’s no wonder that Jimi Hendrix made several attempts to duplicate its intensity while fashioning his unique interpretation of the original, finally getting it right in the live versions. Elmore’s original is intensity squared, opening with a disarming, understated set of riffs, gradually raising the heat through a no-holds-barred vocal performance that builds to a hard-picked bending crescendo as the horns of Danny Moore and Johnny Williams cry out in parallel agony. The blues rarely gets better than this.

“Dust My Broom”: This remake of Elmore’s first big hit is a radical departure from the original, which landed somewhere between the Delta and Chi-town. The Fire remake is 100% Chicago with horns blaring, percussion thumping, and Elmore ripping it like there’s no tomorrow. The difference between the two vocals couldn’t be greater, as young Elmore was terrified of recording, and his comparatively thin voice was further hampered by a common early-fifties recording technique: direct-to-disc with everyone on the same microphone. What is special about the original is the slide guitar on overdrive with that famous repeating triplet figure simmering in vibrato and delivered machine-gun style. The remake features Elmore with his fully-matured voice, laying out the vocal with complete command. While I appreciate the inventiveness of the original, I’m forever attracted to hot-and-steamy as well as a man in total command of all his faculties, whether real or in my imagination.

The Best of the Fire Sessions is a fully engaging listening experience, whether you’re libidinially oriented, emotionally centered or a music aficionado searching for excellence. The tragic aspect of his short existence comes through clearly in his stylistic development and the late-stage jazz leanings that reveal tremendous potential, but the sheer joy of listening to a man expressing heart, soul and fire through his music moves the discussion from what could have been to oh, my fucking god, listen to what this man is laying down.

And now, back to the Brits.

Cliff Richard and The Shadows – Singles & EP’s Collection 1958-1962 – Classic Music Review

In many Beatles biographies penned by American authors or targeted to the American market, you will find passing mention of a guy who went by the name Cliff Richard. The accompanying narrative goes something like this: “Before the Beatles, British birds idolized an Elvis imitator named Cliff Richard who manufactured cheap knock-offs of American hits but failed to make a dent in the American market.” The implication behind the mention is clear: Cliff Richard is a footnote to a more important historical event, so don’t waste your time listening to any of his records because really, it’s not worth the trouble unless you’re training for championship-level Trivial Pursuit.

That narrative was extraordinarily effective in blacklisting early Cliff Richard music in the United States. The other day I was rummaging through various news sites, wound up at The Guardian and read a story about the BBC having to pay Cliff £2m in legal costs for invading his privacy “after it used a helicopter in 2014 to film a police raid on his home and reported that he was being investigated over historical child sexual assault claims.” He was never charged, so Cliff sued their asses and won a pyrrhic victory in court that only covered half his legal tab. I felt bad for the guy, but beneath the empathy lay a nagging thought: I couldn’t remember ever hearing a Cliff Richard record, and if I had, I didn’t know it was Cliff Richard. My brain had apparently filed him away under Beatles, subfolder Background, sub-sub folder British Pop Culture History, sub-sub-sub folder Curiosities.

I thought I must have been mistaken because surely my record junkie and Beatlemaniac father would have collected some samples of Cliff Richard’s music, and with the stereo playing around the clock during the eighteen or so years I lived at home, I must have heard the guy at one time or another. Much to my surprise, Dad confessed that he’d heard one or two of Cliff’s songs but didn’t see the point in adding him to his collection. “The same with Tommy Steele. They were obviously imitators, so why bother? All I have from that period is a Lonnie Donegan record, An Englishman Sings American Folk Songs. I was curious about the skiffle phase, and I knew Lonnie Donegan from ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?’ I loved that song and it had a great influence on my life. After hearing it, I started keeping my Topps baseball card gum on the bedpost to see if it still had its flavor when I woke up.”

“That’s disgusting!”

“Didn’t seem so at the time—it was a cool thing to do. I remember seeing old chewing gum crud on my buddies’ bedposts turn gray with dust and dirt. And even though the flavor fell a little short of fresh, there was enough there to remind me of that wonderful smell when you open a fresh pack of baseball cards, so I always woke up in a good mood.”

“Well, I’m fucking thrilled to hear about the origins of your sunny disposition, but the bottom line is if I want to explore Cliff Richard, I’m going to have to fork out some bucks.”

“Correction. Euros.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Thanks for nothing, dad.”

So I went back to work and surfed for a Cliff Richard collection, which is how I learned about the existence of The Shadows. I wasn’t sure I’d heard them either, but I certainly knew more about them than Cliff Richard, thanks to a guy who goes by his real name, one Ian Anderson:

When bombs were banned every Sunday
And The Shadows played F.B.I.

Memory now tickled, I knew I had heard “F.B.I” and translated that experience into the belief The Shadows were some kind of instrumental group a la The Ventures.

My ignorance grew more embarrassing when I looked at U. K. record sales history. Cliff Richard remains in the top ten, and The Shadows are still a respectable #59. I learned that Cliff Richard still leads Coldplay in sales by about five million, a factoid I found particularly delightful.

I will not let that juicy little tidbit sway my critical appraisal in any way.

Well, maybe a little.

The main takeaway from my reintroduction to Cliff Richard and The Shadows is that they had enormous influence in the UK, serving as a beacon of hope to budding musicians that Englishmen could make it big in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. Since many of those budding musicians became part of the British Invasion that finally smashed the seemingly impenetrable barrier of the U. S. market, it’s impossible to omit Cliff and the Shadows from any serious discussion of the development of British popular music.

While Cliff Richard and the Shadows have had extraordinarily long careers in the business (together and separately), this 4-CD set focuses on the period between 1958 and 1962 when they dominated the British charts. Cliff and The Shadows (also known as The Drifters before the American Drifters threatened legal action) had eighteen Top 10 hits during this period, and The Shadows added another nine all by their little ol’ lonesomes. This compilation consists of 140 tracks, including all their singles and EP’s, songs targeting the West German market and a few live performances. The first two discs feature Cliff and company; the last two discs are all Shadows. Readers will be delighted to learn that I have no intention of reviewing all 140 tracks, but will organize the review by CD and cherry-pick the tracks I think are most relevant to understanding their stylistic leanings and the source of their influence. I will say that after having immersed myself in the package by letting it run nonstop on my audio system for a week, I concluded that the collection forms a fairly coherent and pleasing tapestry of late ’50s/early ’60’s music, so if you feel like time-traveling back to the malt shop, this is a nice way to get there. As for myself, I noticed that I felt strangely motivated to put my hair in a ponytail and scrounge up a pair of pedal pushers.

I can summarize my general critical opinion in a few bullet points:

  • Cliff’s music is highly derivative. If you’re looking for unique contributions to popular music, you will find nothing of the kind in his catalog. Producer/arranger Norrie Paramor made sure that Cliff stuck to the American formulae in vogue at the time.
  • The Shadows, on the other hand, did some very innovative work with their twin guitar attack. Duane Eddy and Dick Dale were obvious influences, but they eventually crafted a signature sound of their own.
  • Cliff was able to vary his vocal style well enough to do somewhat credible imitations of all the big American teen idols: Elvis (especially Elvis), Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Darin, Gene Vincent . . . they’re all there.
  • Cliff had a nice voice and hit most of the notes, but wasn’t particularly good on the glides.
  • I have no idea why British lasses found the guy attractive. Early Cliff looks kinda pudgy and nondescript to me. He became much more handsome in his 30’s.
  • From a technical perspective, Cliff’s best vocals in the collection appear in the songs he sings in German, probably because there was no one to imitate.
  • Most of the kick in Cliff Richard records comes from The Shadows, in one form or another. Not only did they know how to rock, but had the ability to motivate Cliff to get off his ass and rock the fuck out.
  • Above all, Cliff Richard and The Shadows were reliable. During this four-year period, the consumer could feel comfortable that the next record would have the same kind of music delivered with the same level of professionalism as the last record. Cliff evolved in the same way other American artists evolved during the era, moving from sock hop hits with a snappy beat to slow and mid-tempo numbers covering the teenage angst inherent in the boy-girl relationships of the era
  • The American crooners of this period were expected to grow up and become Sinatra knock-offs; when Cliff’s star began to fade with the advent of The Beatles and their cohorts, he balanced his work with The Shadows by shifting to Christian music. Same diff: he went soft.

Disc One: Cliff Richard, Rock Idol

Disc One features most of the period of chart dominance, loaded with the big hits from 1958-1961. If you want to build a case for a Cliff Richard and the Shadows plaque in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, this is your best evidence.

I don’t know why anyone would want to be honored by such a corrupt organization, but I’m sure it would thrill the pants off Sir Cliff.

The best of the best evidence comes in the form of “Move It,” a song Cliff refers to as “my one outstanding rock ‘n’ roll classic” (not true—I count at least three) and trumpeted as the first real British rock ‘n’ roll record by none other than John Lennon himself. Written by then-Drifters rhythm guitarist Ian Samwell (who would later wind up in the 70’s band America), “Move It” combines crunchy bottom-oriented rhythm guitar, what are now classic rock guitar licks and a Cliff Richard vocal delivered in the Tupelo dialect. Elvis did kick-ass songs like this before his induction into the army, but never one with such emphasis on the power of a six-string electric. It’s important to note that only two of the Drifters/Shadows play on the original track (Samwell and drummer Terry Smart), as Paramor was rather fond of session musicians. While Ernie Shear and Frank Clarke get the job done, the song is ten times more powerful when long-time Shadows Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch handle the guitar work . . . as vividly demonstrated in the following video:

“Move It” is so frigging hot that you might think that making it the A-side would have been a slam-dunk, no-brainer decision. Apparently Norrie Paramor was unfamiliar with basketball jargon and a victim of brain freeze: he wanted to give the song “Schoolboy Crush” top billing, oblivious to the fact that American country singer Bobby Helms (the “Jingle Bell Rock” guy) had just successfully penetrated the charts with that song only a few months before. That should have put the kibosh on the idea, but what should have been more obvious is the simple truth that “Schoolboy Crush” is a fucking dreadful song to begin with. Adding a chorus of female singers in that Ray Conniff style responsible for ruining a good chunk of Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music made Cliff’s version of “Schoolboy Crush” the musical equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space—so bad, it hurts.

The next single featured “High Class Baby” and “My Feet Hit the Ground,” the first written by Samwell and the second a Samwell-Paramor collaboration (the latter under a pseudonym). In a burst of democratic fervor, neither side was designated the A-side, allowing the DJ’s and the fans to sort it out. Cliff overdoes it with the Elvis imitation on both, a flaw amplified by the use of stop time vocals a la “Heartbreak Hotel” and “All Shook Up.” The Drifters attempt to replicate The Jordanaires with little success, not having earned their stripes in gospel vocals as The Jordanaires did. “High Class Baby” won out, probably because of the “surprise” tempo shift to high speed rock ‘n roll, but really, this was a purposeless coin flip of a competition.

“Livin’ Lovin’ Doll” is where Paramor poured Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” into the music test tube, “At the Hop” into the lyrics test tube and wound up with a botched experiment that barely squeaked into the Top 20. Samwell took a page from Tommy Sands and contributed “Steady with You” for the B-side, a classic ’50s teen ballad where all the cliches about love = possession (“life would be so heavenly, if you were mine to keep”) and rejection = doom (“the future holds for me nothing but loneliness”) are dragged out in a maudlin display of self-pity accentuated by a very awkward performance by Cliff.

Top 10 success returned with the “Mean Streak”/”Never Mind” single. This is the point in history when the connection between Cliff and The Shadows (still The Drifters for a little while longer) is solidified, with tremendous results. “Mean Streak” is initially marked by a two-note reverberating guitar riff further distorted by bends that appears in a call-and-response dialogue with Cliff during the verses. You notice that Cliff has toned down the Elvis act and seems somewhat restrained in comparison to previous vocals right up to the guitar solo. Hank Marvin then takes over and demonstrates he knows how to play a helluva lot more than two notes, ripping out a solo comparable to some of Chuck Berry’s best. When Cliff returns to the mike, he’s a different man, one drenched in all the testosterone a young man of eighteen can generate—he has found his mojo and rocks his ass off. That energy carries over into “Never Mind,” another upbeat rocker featuring another fabulous Marvin solo backed up by unusually audible bass (for the time) and solid drumming from Terry Smart. Cliff goes wild encouraging the band in the second go-round, channeling back to his first rock hit by shouting “Let’s move it!” While the songs only reached #10 and #21 on the UK charts, this is my favorite single combination in the entire package—a kick-ass 45 that rocks so hard that if I had been a teen when this sucker hit the shelves, I would have flipped that 45 over again and again while sliding out of my pedal pushers to masturbate until I turned blind.

For those of you new to the blog, I just gave Cliff and the Shadows the ultimate compliment.

Up to this point, the compilers had strictly followed the timeline, but for some unknown reason we now jump ahead to 1962 and “I’m Looking Out the Window,” a Cliff Richard solo release (with the Norrie Paramor Orchestra, of course). The song was a Peggy Lee B-side a few years prior to Cliff’s effort, and in comparing the two there turns out to be no comparison: Peggy Lee by a landslide. Peggy was a jazz singer with superb phrasing skills, fully capable of handling the song’s extensive melodic range; Cliff sings the song with the precision of a choir boy, sounds bloody awful on the low notes and is quite stiff in his delivery. The historical value of the release is that it told the younger set that Cliff was definitely going square, as did Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon and all the others.

Cliff and the Shadows didn’t reach the top of the charts until “Living Doll” put them there in the summer of 1959. Written by Lionel Bart (of Oliver! fame), this is song that falls somewhere between pop and easy listening; it lopes along pleasantly enough, with Cliff hitting those pesky low notes with due precision. Hank Marvin gets to work on his country-western chops and gives a passable performance. I find the song incredibly dull, but it’s better than the B-side, a tune by the name of “Apron Strings” where Cliff suffers from a severe attack of Elvis Impersonator Syndrome. With Paramor’s eyes firmly glued to the record sales figures, the boys followed up with another lope-along country-ish song called “Travelin’ Light,” which also hit #1. I tend to fall asleep somewhere in the second verse, but the B-side—a Samwell rocker called “Dynamite”—is definitely worth a spin, with Cliff going Gene Vincent in the vocal and The Shadows going delightfully insane in the instrumental break.

My level of interest in Disc One steadily decreases from this point forward, as the songs generally become softer and more formulaic. The few highlights consist of “Please Don’t Tease,” a song that clearly anticipates the style of the lurking British Invasion; “Peace Pipe,” a Shadows instrumental with some amazing picking from Hank Marvin; and “Nine Times Out of Ten,” simply because it rocks like a bitch in heat. Lowlights include the Bo Diddley ripoff songs “Mad About You” and “Mumblin’ Mosie,” the latter a horrid creation of Johnny Otis that pokes fun at a stutterer. Comic relief comes in the form of another Otis cover, “Willie and the Hand Jive,” where I could swear Cliff repeatedly replaces the phrase “hand jive” with “hand job.”

At least we know Cliff didn’t go blind in the process.

Disc Two: Cliff Richard, Mr. Predictable

Disc Two largely chronicles the purely commercial period full of string-laden sap, lope-alongs and a rancid cover version of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance.” Cliff was a film star by now, so we get the theme from the highly popular movie The Young Ones. Think of it as the vocal complement to Percy Faith’s “Theme for a Summer Place” in order to appreciate the insipidity of it all. In addition to singles, you get a run of songs that appeared on various EP’s, including three in a row with the word “dream” in the title. My assumption is that because Cliff had a hit with a song called “Theme For a Dream,” “dream” became a primitive version of a keyword designed to lure collectors of dream songs. All three were very successful in luring me to sleep, so I guess it worked.

There are some valuable moments on Disc Two. Cliff’s German renditions of a few of his hits are rather charming, and better than the original English versions in my always-humble opinion. But the best stuff on Disc Two comes from The Shadows, who by this time had established themselves as a major draw with a string of instrumental hits and two #1 albums. They perform their duties as a backing band with professionalism and flair, providing several splashes of excitement in the midst of the overwhelming predictability of the cliché-rich music. By the end of Disc Two, you feel an irrisistible urge to grab your genie lamp, rub the hell out of it and cry, “Oh, Genie, I’d sure like to hear The Shadows without Cliff butting in.”

Poof! When the smoke clears, you find yourself holding a copy of Disc Three in your grubby little mitts.

Discs Three and Four: The Shadows

The last two discs are completely devoted to The Shadows, a beautifully compiled tribute to this fascinating and influential group of musicians.

You’ll notice that the first two tracks are attributed to The Five Chesternuts. You feel an irresistible urge to shout, “Genie! Get your ass out of that lamp! You owe me one!” Calm down. The Five Chesternuts were a group formed by a drummer named Pete Chester who had the brains and good taste to hire a couple of talented teens by the names of Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch to handle the gee-tars. Marvin and Bruce were clearly the most influential members of The Shadows, so sit back, relax and listen to their relatively obscure maiden visit to the studio.

Or was it a studio? The quality of the recordings gives credence to the theory that The Five Chesternuts were taped while busking on a street corner somewhere, a street corner completely abandoned by pedestrians who probably took a detour to avoid this scruffy crew. They managed to squeeze in two full performances before the bobbies urged them to move along. Those two performances were captured on the completely unsuccessful single “Jean Dorothy”/”Teenage Love.” While lead singer Gerry Hurst gives earnest performances on both tracks, he was hampered by the awkwardness of the name “Jean Dorothy” (which comes out “Jean Darthy”) and the less-than-scintillating lyrics:

Jean Darthy, you know I love you
Jean Darthy, you know I love you
Jean Darthy, you know I love you
Jean Darthy, you know I love you
You know I love you, yes, I love you true

It’s pretty much the same routine with “Teenage Love,” a poorly executed imitation of The Diamonds where Neil Johnson’s bass oddly disappears at random moments. Hank and Bruce have little to do on either track, and it’s obvious that their skills at this point were understandably rudimentary. The pair were smart enough to figure out that The Five Chesternuts would go no further than that street corner, and they leapt at the chance to join Cliff Richard’s backing band, The Drifters.

After serving solely in a supporting role for a year or so, they signed a separate contract with EMI, and avoided the threat of legal action by changing their name to The Shadows. Their first three singles failed to excite anyone; two were Buddy Holly-ish group vocals, and one (“Driftin'”) was an instrumental spiced with what one might politely refer to as exuberant vocalizations of hormonal overdose. They followed the latter with a similar piece (“Jet Black”) and a couple of further attempts at becoming a vocal group, the last (“Lonesome Fella”) a ho-hum attempt at duplicating The Fleetwoods. It should have become abundantly clear by now that their strength did not lie in their vocal cords, but in the magic fingers of Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch. Although neither of the instrumentals recorded so far were particularly catchy, the guitar sounds really caught the ear. All they needed was a well-crafted instrumental, and one came their way in the form of “Apache.” Composer Jerry Lordan was disappointed with Bert “Play in A Day” Weedon’s rendition, so he tossed it to The Shadows hoping for a more satisfying outcome.

Western-flavored instrumentals would become fairly popular during this period, with Al Caiola leading the way in the States with his versions of “The Theme from the Magnificent Seven” and “Bonanza.” “Apache” is a more challenging composition, and boy, did Hank nail it in a dazzling display of hard, precise picking, superb use of the whammy bar and nimble, tension-building bends. Bruce Welch’s acoustic rhythm guitar is a masterwork in strumming technique that adds palpable depth to the rhythmic foundation. The B-side, “Quartermaster’s Shores” is positively delightful, a lighter melodic piece with lots of bounce. Unfortunately, while this fabulous single topped the U.K. charts for five weeks, The Shadows were denied success in the States because Danish guitarist Jørgen Ingmann benefited from a superior distribution network (not to knock his version, which is first-rate). The Shadows would have to settle for becoming a significant influence on nearly every top-tier guitar player who emerged in the ’60s and ’70s, from Eric Clapton to Brian May.

They accomplished this by making the guitar sound like a seriously cool instrument capable of creating moods through a combination of melody and sonic variation. They created mystery by covering the theme song from the series Edgar Wallace Mysteries (“Mystery Man”), darkening the soundscape through tonal variation that reflects the tension that drives mystery. Marvin’s last solo on that piece is unusually dissonant and raucous for the period, exploring the latent capabilities of the fretboard without restraint. “Mystery Man” appeared on a double A-side single with “The Stranger,” where the bass is marvelously present and Marvin’s work covers an even broader expanse of the fretboard. The self-composed “F.B.I” demonstrated compositional capabilities far beyond the average pop performers of the time, featuring a memorable riff that practically begs for extended improvisation . . . but that goddamned three-minute limit forces the band into a fade. Another ten minutes might have satisfied my cravings.

Sadly, as the CD progresses, the sounds become more predictable and the music much safer, a decline that continues until you get close to the end of Disc Four. There you’ll find four live performances The Shadows gave in Johannesburg, and though the recording quality is understandably primitive, the sheer exuberance of the band’s performance carries the day. The studio version of “Shazam” is something of a yawner, played mid-tempo without a lot of zip . . . but the live version features a manic beat and Hank knocking out blues riffs similar to those heard later in the decade during the British Blues Boom. The follow-up number, “Guitar Boogie”, confirms that these guys knew how to thrill a crowd with kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll. I would have loved to have seen The Shadows in their prime.

I can fully understand why Cliff Richard and the Shadows earned a large following in the U. K. and in many places on the continent. In this early stage of rock, they rocked just hard enough at times to titillate the teens and dialed it down far enough to make them acceptable to the parents. Over time they developed their professional chops and learned how to give their fans what they wanted to hear. Outside of a few bursts of marvelous madness from The Shadows, they played it safe, delivering generally pleasing music marked by simple, hummable tunes and/or something you can dance to, Dick. You certainly can’t call them “sellouts,” because there wasn’t any kind of ethic in place regarding artistic excellence in rock ‘n’ roll. My take is that Cliff is the kind of guy that would have played it safe in any social climate, but The Shadows might have become greater innovators had they hit their prime later in the decade when the rules were bent all to hell.

Bottom line: Cliff Richard and the Shadows inspired a generation that would take rock ‘n’ roll to places no one could have imagined, turning music that most dismissed as nothing more than a hula hoop into one of the great artistic movements of the century. That’s a pretty impressive legacy.

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