Elijah Wald Rock, R&B, and associated pieces

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Eartha Kitt (1997)

Elijah Wald

NEW YORK--It may be the last bastion of cafe society: the Cafe Carlyle, with its pastel murals of minstrels and ballerinas, its quietly efficient waiters, and the tables of well-dressed customers murmuring in a blend of Continental accents. There was a time when New York had a dozen rooms like this, though none of tonight's customers look old enough to remember them. Eartha Kitt remembers them well.

Kitt, who begins a four-night stint at Scullers Jazz Club this Thursday, got her professional start over fifty years ago, as a dancer with the Katherine Dunham troupe. By 1950, she had become a featured performer, and in Paris she left the troupe to begin a solo career. She was a sensation, and soon found herself starring opposite Orson Welles in his production of "Dr. Faust'' as an archetypal heroine who was a schoolgirl one moment, Helen of Troy the next. Welles called her "the most exciting woman in the world.''

Certainly, she was like no one else. Her voice, face and style were captivatingly odd, indefinably exotic. She was often described as "ageless,'' and time has proved the point. At the Carlyle, she walks confidently to the stage, and begins to sing: "I've got a voice that says 'Yes', '' she purrs, homing in on a young man at a front table--"a walk that says 'Maybe' ''--her hips swivel a hint of invitation--"but a look that says 'Uh-uh!' '' Kitt's eyes flash danger, and she turns her back on her rejected admirer. The audience laughs, then leans forward, entranced. Kitt is magic, and her powers are untouched by time. It is more than a great performance; it feels like a voyage to a vanished age.

Later, one cannot help asking: The illusion is perfect, but is this really what it was like in the classic period of New York cabaret, the days when Billie Holiday was at one club, Edith Piaf at the next, and Kitt at a third? "Yes, it is,'' Kitt says firmly. "And you won't get it anymore when I'm gone, because I'm the last of the Mohicans. So, if I were you young kids, I'd keep me around.''

Kitt is speaking on the telephone, from her room at the Carlyle. She seems friendly and forthright, but declined to be interviewed in person. The voice is enough, though. Whether one first heard her singing her Turkish hit, "Uska Dara,'' or growling her way through the role of Catwoman on TV's "Batman,'' Kitt has a voice that cannot be forgotten.

Kitt is quick to point out that, in terms of her career, that has not always been a good thing. "Being an individual can work against you,'' she says. "Agents say 'We don't know how to cast you.' Recording companies say 'Who's gonna buy that voice? We don't know whom to sell it to.' When I first came back to America, I was cancelled out of La Vie en Rose because I was singing in seven languages, and they had never seen anything like me. They thought 'What is it?' ''

To her fans, though, that is her strength. She is not a jazz singer or a nightclub chanteuse, a comedienne or a dancer; she is simply Eartha Kitt. "I have no category,'' she says. "Just as I've always said I have no color. I don't belong to a race, creed or color; I am me. There is nothing to compare me to, so there is nothing for me to compete with except myself.''

If Kitt was always unique, this has only become more obvious with the years. Few performers of her generation are still working; virtually none are devoting the same focused energy and attention to their performances that they did in their youth. There are no dead spots in her show, no coasting on her legend. Even a song like "C'est Si Bon,'' which she has sung at every show for over forty years, will have a new twist every night, an ad lib or a bit of unscripted interplay with the audience.

"There is so much spontaneity in what she does,'' says Daryl Waters, her pianist of eleven years standing. Waters is co-composer of the Broadway hit "Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk,'' and is currently up for a Grammy, but he says there is nothing he prefers to backing up Kitt's show. "There's nothing that charges me like that. We can do the same songs, and the performance will never be the same; it's like trying to always be in sync with this really living creature that you can never anticipate their next move. Whatever she does has a dramatic flair to it, and it's always coming from within who she is.''

Waters has heard Kitt described as "difficult'' and worse, but says their relationship has been excellent. "Often, what people call being difficult is an artist trying to deal with their own insecurities or trying to deal with the unprofessionalism of other people. She has every right sometimes to not be smiling in your face like you'd like her to be. A lot of times what people classify as being overly difficult is just the fact that you have a different opinion, and because she's a women is she not allowed to have a different opinion?''

Kitt herself can recall many times she has run into trouble for stating her views. Some were professional: There was the time she proposed a white star to play opposite her in a production of "Salome,'' and her agent said, "Eartha, don't you know what color you are?'' She still seethes at the memory. "I wasn't thinking about color. I don't think an artist has a color. But there you are. So I went out myself and found a director at one of the most prestigious shows on television. And the William Morris Agency called me a bitch, said I was shrewd, I was mean, because I went around them. You're a strong person and you know what you want to do and you go after it, so you're considered a bitch.''

Kitt's worst setback came from her outspokenness in another forum. Invited by Ladybird Johnson to a women's conference on urban youth in 1968, she pointed out that it was impossible to persuade young people to avoid crime if the reward for having a clean police record was to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. Johnson was shocked to the point of tears, and Kitt found herself vilified in the press and virtually blacklisted from American television. She took refuge in Europe, where she remained a top star, but her American career has never recovered from the interruption.

Hence the Carlyle and Scullers. Kitt says she loves the intimacy of the small clubs, but she would clearly prefer to be playing Symphony Hall, or starring on Broadway (she would like to do an integrated "Mame''). Fortunately, she seems to be moving in that direction. Her film career is picking up speed, with recent performances in "Unzipped'' and "Harriet the Spy,'' she is getting a lot of television work, and her 28th album, "Back in Business,'' was nominated for a Grammy last year. It is easy to think, watching her at the Carlyle, that she will soon be too big for the room.

The only barrier is time, and Kitt is doing an astonishing job of surmounting it. Halfway through the show, she announces a recent birthday, proudly declaring herself to have "reached the beautiful, most wonderful age of 70.'' She later explains that she can only approximate that figure, having no record of her early years as a poverty-stricken orphan in South Carolina, but that she must be somewhere in that vicinity. And she sees no reason to conceal or mask her longevity.

"I was very lucky to be called 'the most exciting woman in the world,' because I don't have to play any games about anything,'' she says. "I don't have to worry about whether I'm 70 years old or 30 years, because the lines that are coming to my face mean that I am maturing, I'm growing, and I'm still here. It's the map of life. I like the maturing side of me. I don't believe in fighting nature except to stay healthy, to do everything that is natural to maintain the youthful look and the agility and all of that and also the state of mind. I am very proud that I have been able to sustain, and the public has kept supporting me, so I don't have anything to lie about''

She has no doubts that, given an opportunity, she could go head to head with the young pop stars of the 1990s. She has had European dance club hits in recent years, and is confident that quality can win out. "Today, the business in general is a lot of noise, a lot of hype, a lot of packaging,'' she says. "I still don't know what Michael Jackson is capable of doing, because I've never seen him do anything that is not flying in the air or a 4th of July kind of thing.

"Now, everybody sings exactly like screaming their heads off, and I find there is nothing to compete with because the more they scream the more they're putting themselves in a situation that that pony is gonna drop dead real fast. Everybody is riding the same pony and we are not creating individuals anymore. And generally it's downgrading, dumbing down the teenagers, because if you never get to see someone like me and make your own evaluation between me and somebody else who is contemporary, then there is nothing for you intellectually to play with--all you're getting is that one pony.''

Kitt does not sound irritated as she says this. On the contrary, she sounds confident and somewhat amused. "We are living in a very interesting time,'' she says. "That's why I'm very glad I'm still here and still doing the same things I did 30, 40 years ago and people are loving it, including the young people. The younger people really do want quality, and when they see it and they find it, they cater to it and they bring their friends and their friends' friends. It's absolutely marvelous, but they make me feel as though I should be around for another 70 years.''

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Dale Hawkins (1997)

By Elijah Wald

Dale Hawkins makes his return to New England Saturday, appearing on an "oldies'' bill at Lowell Memorial Auditorium with Frankie "Sea Cruise'' Ford. On the phone, though, he sounds nothing like an "oldies'' artist. There is none of the smooth professionalism, the air of a practiced entertainer who has been pleasing his fans for 40 years. Hawkins still sounds like a stone rockabilly, as wild as he was when he stormed the charts in 1957 with one of the most primal hits ever cut by a white rocker, "Suzie Q.''

At the time he was 17, and just returned to his native Shreveport, Louisiana, after an underage stint in the navy. "I was trying to go to school, and work too,'' he says. "But hell, all I wanted to do was play music. I had a band. Some of us weren't old enough to get in the clubs, so the ones that could, well, we went in the front and the rest of 'em we pulled in the bathroom window.''

One of the younger ones was a 15-year-old friend, James Burton, who would go on to be one of the most acclaimed guitarists in rock. He was the first of Hawkins' incredible string of lead guitarists, which also included Roy Buchanan and Scotty Moore, as well as Boston's Kenny Paulsen. (He met Paulsen on a tour through Boston with Chuck Berry in 1957, the last time, to the best of his recollection, that he has been in this area.)

How did he get so lucky? "Hell,'' he says, "there weren't no luck to it. See, I was a structure person. By structure, I mean you got to play it this way. Ain't no other way to play it, because it's wrong if you do. I was really hated by most all the guys that played guitar with me, because I'd just make em play it till I got it like I wanted it. But they all turned out to be great guitar players. Sure did. You know, I'd take these guys, like 14 years old or so, and me, I wasn't a great guitar player by any means, but I could get a lick going. And then I could say 'Take it, and let me do this other thing.' Because you just couldn't do it all yourself. That's like rubbing your stomach and trying to pat your head. Not too many Chuck Berrys around.''

Like Berry, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters, Hawkins was signed to a record deal by Leonard Chess, becoming the only white artist on the label. As he remembers, this led to some confusion. "Everybody, all the jocks, they thought I was black. I was in Philadelphia, one of the first places we stopped to promote the record, and I went in the station and the guy behind the board, he points at me and says, 'You're Dale Haw-aw-aw?!' Man, he almost rolled on the floor. He interviewed me and -- dig this -- I started getting phone calls, and some of the mothers would call and say, 'We just love your music, but you really should improve on your diction, for your race.' I was flipping out! I says 'I sure will, ma'am.' ''

Hawkins laughs long and hard. He clearly loves to talk about those days, though many of his best punch lines will not make it into a family newspaper. While Shreveport was best known for the country sound of the Louisiana Hayride, where he worked for a while parking cars, blues had always been his first love, both older artists like Lonnie Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins the new sound of Jackie Brenston, Junior Parker and Johnny Ace. He was in seventh heaven when Chess brought him to Chicago and he got to record with musicians like Willie Dixon and jam in clubs with Little Walter.

Asked whether it was not unusual in those days to be playing in an integrated setting, he gets serious for a moment. "A lot of people still don't understand,'' he says. "Sure it was segregated, but for the music, it's really just where you're from, and how you was raised. I'm not trying to tell you any philosophy or [junk], but if you take and research most artists from that era, white or black, you will find they came from kind of the poor side of their families, had to work hard, taught to respect. You know, you have to have that light in there for it to come out. And we came from an era of leaving the door unlocked, where you trusted people. Of course, all of us got [cheated], but still it was better than picking cotton.''

Hawkins followed "Suzie Q'' with a string of lesser hits, becoming a regular visitor to American Bandstand and touring like crazy ("If I believed in a song, I could sell that sucker to a mule,'' he says happily). By 1960, though, his run was over. He turned to producing, charting records for artists including Bruce Channel ("Hey! Baby'') and the Five Americans ("Western Union''). Then, by the 1980s, he was fighting a serious amphetamine habit, and he dropped out of the business.

Now, he is back with a vengeance. He has opened a recording studio in Little Rock and is preparing his first album of new material in 25 years. He has toured Europe, and is raring to get back on the road in the U.S. On this visit, he will not have his own band, but he hopes to bring them through soon and show the youngsters how it oughta be done. "I'm enjoying myself,'' he says. "The new stuff I just got through recording, I just call it 'American music,' but it's country blues. Because people don't understand, man, where it came from. You know, the 1950s was a turn-around era, and I was just fortunate enough to be there and love it enought that I didn't care how it turned out. I did it like I wanted to do it, I guess you might say.''

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Eric Burdon (1997)

By Elijah Wald

Globe Correspondent

"Can you hang on a second?'' Eric Burdon asks, answering the phone in his Palm Springs home. "I just want to finish making a drink and I'll get right back to you.''

So what is Burdon drinking these days? "Lemon juice and water,'' he says, then realizes he is disappointing the listener. "Well, last night I was drinking tequila,'' he adds cheerfully. "And I was working. You know, you gotta keep up appearances.''

Burdon, who comes to House of Blues this Thursday, is one of the legends of rock 'n' roll, a proto-punk rocker from Newcastle, England, who remembers back to the days when he and Mick Jagger were eager kids sharing a guest spot with Alexis Korner's seminal English blues band. In the 1960s, he led the Animals on over a dozen hits, and cracked the top 10 again in 1970 as front man of the funk band War. He also wrote the most entertaining memoir of those times, a chronicle of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll called "I Used to Be an Animal, but I'm All Right Now.''

Today, unlike his surviving "British invasion'' peers, Burdon is neither playing stadiums nor nostalgia packages. At 56, he is still sweating it out in the clubs, shouting blues and rock lyrics over a crack band that includes Frank Zappa sideman Aynsley Dunbar on drums.

Burdon has mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, he says, "I love working clubs; I love in-your-face gigs.'' On the other, he is hoping that a new album he is recording will put him back up on the charts beside his erstwhile compatriots, and he feels he has paid enough dues to deserve some payback.

"I'm not trying to make any excuses,'' he says, after outlining a string of bad record deals in the 25 years since leaving War. "I [messed] up big time as a businessman. We all did, the Stones being the one exception because Mick went to the [adjective] London School of Economics. But it ain't over till it's over. I'm living a life in the works. I went for what I went for, and went through what I went through. The thing is, I've never been able to look at this business as a business. As Rahsaan Roland Kirk said, 'The business ain't nothing but the blues.' ''

There are not a lot of contemporary rockers quoting Roland Kirk, but Burdon's generation were music fanatics before they were singing stars. "That's all we lived for,'' he says. "At school, back in like 1958, I had a student union movement that had 'John Lee Hooker for President' sweatshirts made up. It was our vocation; we were preaching the word. I remember the Beatles, for Christ sake, on stage, John Lennon walking up to the microphone and telling the audience to 'Shut the [adjective] up and listen to this song, and, if you like it, go out and buy it tomorrow by a guy named Chuck Berry, 'cause he did the original and he did it much better than us.' With [their manager] Brian Epstein in the wings, pissing himself, going 'I told John not to say that. He's gonna blow the whole thing.' ''

In those days, rock 'n' roll was not about money and fame. It was still an underground scene, catering to a small group of record collectors and social outcasts united by an almost religious belief in the music and the people who made it. Burdon's generation was fighting to break out of the middle class mediocrity of the post-war years, and he notes that African-American music was only one of several working class "roots'' styles that attracted him.

"I started out as a folk fanatic,'' he says. "And I wasn't listening to Dylan and people like that. When I was a folk fan, the thing I was listening to were the pit miners in my local town. A guy who was a pit deputy, working at the pit face, who would sing local ballads about shipwrecks in the North Sea, stuff like that. That was important to me, because I realized one thing about folk music. No matter what the BBC were telling me the news was, folk singers from all around the world were telling you the real story.

"That's what clued me in to John Lee Hooker -- he was telling me real life stories of what the American working man's experience was. I saw in American r&b what was beginning to get lost in English folk music. One day, that guy who was the pit deputy folk singer, he came walking into the folk club with a silk suit on and a guitar and started singing 'Heartbreak Hotel.' And that was the beginning of it all; this whole new thing had arrived.''

Burdon's love for the music took him in quite different directions from those of most British rockers. For him, the highlight of the Animals' first U.S. tour was not the huge rock shows, but the chance to be the only English band to play Harlem's Apollo Theatre. When the Animals broke up, rather than taking the obvious step of hiring more English sidemen he joined with War, a black funk outfit. Later, he would record a fine duet album with bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon. His most recent distributed album, "Lost Within the Halls of Fame'' (which is dated 1995, but he says was recorded in the 1980s, and which he is not happy with), has him trying his hand at rap as he leads the listener through a musical autobiography.

Clearly, his devotion to African-American music is deep and continuing, rather than simply a matter of raiding a few hot licks and vocal inflections. Equally clearly, Burdon has tried not to rest on his laurels. All of this makes it a bit disappointing that his latest release, "The Official Live Bootleg,'' which he put out this year to sell at gigs, is simply a bar-band rehash of Animals hits. It rocks hard, but is hardly innovative or adventurous.

Burdon concurs, but explains that he is "a victim of today's technology. There are kids out there in the audience with DAT machines, and you do a new song in Germany, you go back next year and it's out on a CD. That's why I have to keep playing the old Animals catalog; because a) it's what people want to hear, b) you know that it's gonna make for plain sailing on stage every night, and c) the songs are so strong that you can do what you want with them, I can chop and change and improvise, and as long as I deliver the chorus where everybody gets to sing along, they're happy. And I'm happy. But don't think that I don't want to move forward and that I haven't got new things to say.''

Indeed, Burdon feels that he is musically as strong as ever, and he is looking towards the future rather than the past. "I'm currently in the studio doing some material that's right up to the minute and very much me,'' he says. "It's a conglomeration of all sorts of things: A jazz track, a pseudo-punk track, a country and western-influenced track, reggae. And I'm happy it's that way because my intention was to [mess] up people's minds, and have them go 'How can we categorize this?' Because that's one bad thing this business does; it always has to pigeon hole and categorize.''

Burdon still likes to challenge the listener and, with a lifetime of experience to draw on, he sees no reason why his best work should not still be ahead. "To me, the music never smacked of pure youth,'' he says. "All the guys that I came up on, like Muddy Waters, when I heard him he was already 40-odd. Rock 'n' roll, yeah, is supposed to be the music of youth, but blues and rhythm & blues and jazz are eternal. People confuse artists with athletic jocks these days, and that's not right. As an artist, you're not supposed to get worse as you get older, you're supposed to get better.''

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TED HAWKINS PROFILE (written for Acoustic Guitar in 1994)

Ted Hawkins is an imposing figure. Tall and handsome, his dark brown face framed with a white beard, he walks onstage and seats himself on the same milk crate he used in his days as a Venice Beach street musician. As he takes his guitar and begins to tune, one notices that the nails of his right hand thumb and index finger are incredibly long and thick, like natural picks. On his left hand he wears a leather glove, a relic of the days when 12-hour street sessions lacerated his fingertips. He pours some powder on the glove and, smiling, flicks a little white cloud into the air.

Suddenly, Hawkins whips his body to the left and freezes, his black-gloved finger pointing and his eyes locked on some horrible sight. "There!" he shouts, his voice impossibly loud. The startled crowd tenses. "...stands the glass," he sings, sliding smoothly into the Webb Pierce country tearjerker that is a highlight of his new Geffen album, "The Next Hundred Years."

"You got to know how to stop the people," Hawkins says, repeating a lesson from his street days. "And it ain't enough to just stop 'em, you gotta hold 'em there. Now that I'm in the clubs I don't have to sing my guts out like that, but I do it because I'm used to it."

To illustrate his point, Hawkins tells a story: "One time at Venice Beach there were some teenagers that were standing over me," he remembers. "I heard the leader tell them, 'Wait until he get off into the song, then get his bucket.' My bucket's always full of money, you know. So I started singing 'All I Have to Offer You Is Me,' and I sung it like somebody was whuppin' me. He got a funny look on his face and a tear fell, and he say, with a shaking voice, 'Not him, man. Not him.'"

It is that kind of soulful, wrenching power that brought Hawkins to international attention in the early 1980s, and that made him a star in England. Now, back in the U.S. after years in Europe, Hawkins is hoping that, at 58, he may finally get a taste of success at home. The time seems right. "Unplugged" is the word of the day, and Hawkins is the greatest acoustically-backed soul singer ever to record. With his Sam Cooke-inflected vocals, his solid rhythm guitar work, and his deeply personal songwriting, his music is unique and instantly appealing.

Ted Hawkins's story is the stuff of fiction: Born dirt poor in rural Mississippi, he never knew his father and his mother died while he was doing time in the notorious Parchman prison farm. After years of hoboing, he ended up in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s and cut a few singles which went nowhere, then spent the next few years drifting in and out of prison. Redemption came on the Venice boardwalk, where he attracted a following that led to four albums and a five-star listing in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Though often called a blues singer, Hawkins has always stuck to his own special blend of Southern soul and classic country, sung straight from the heart.

As he tours behind the new album, it seems that finally Hawkins's years of dues-paying are bringing some return. "All that time on the beach, it was like I was getting ready for a main event," he says. "Everybody that stood before me, I was building up fans and now they're scattered abroad and they're glad Ted Hawkins is making it. And I'm still playing like I always was. I never had no band; I'm my own band, just me and the guitar. These days, everybody seems to be clowning and cursing and cutting up, and I believe somebody in the world is sick of all that. Somebody in the world is thirsty and hungry for a good song, and those are the people I'm trying to reach."

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JOE ELY INTERVIEW (written for Acoustic Guitar in 1995)

by Elijah Wald

People who know Joe Ely only from his records may not think of him as an acoustic guitarist, but those who have seen his solo live shows know better. Though he describes his music as "plain old Texas rock 'n' roll" and normally tours with high-volume electric backing, Ely is at his hardest-edged and most passionate when he is alone on stage without a band to get in his way. Other rockers get maudlin and folkie when they pull out the acoustic guitar; Ely plays the same mix of roadhouse rock and soulful country as he does with a band, and he turns up the energy a notch. The result recalls his first hero, Jerry Lee Lewis, or fellow Lubbock native Buddy Holly, both stripped-down players who dominated a stage with the sheer intensity of their personalities.

"It's a whole different way of approaching stuff," Ely says. He is sitting in a hotel dining room eating breakfast. On stage last night, in a packed bar of screaming fans, he was bareheaded, his black curls falling over a forehead drenched in sweat. Now he is wearing a cowboy hat, and his voice is quiet, with a warm Texas drawl. "A lot of times, with a band, when we want that energy we'll just get louder and everybody'll play harder. Acoustically, if you want that kind of energy you have to play softer, in order for the words to come out. The dynamics are really kind of all you have with acoustic stuff. And I have to think about the song more. With the band you hear the guitars play and feel the whole beat of it, but acoustically you really get straight into the song, right into every single lyric."

Ely's classic early MCA albums blended an electric and acoustic approach, but in recent years his recordings have been strongly on the rock side. Now, Ely is returning to his roots with "Letter to Laredo," a largely acoustic album that evokes the sounds and mood of the Texas-Mexican border. "My dad had a used clothing store in downtown Lubbock," he remembers. "And he would put me to work when I was ten or eleven years old, running the cash register. We were right down in the area where all the Mexican laborers would come and buy these ten cent pairs of shoes and stuff. There was this music that was going around in these little cantinas down in the lower Broadway part of town, and I fell in love with the romance of Spanish guitars and accordians and all that."

"Letter to Laredo" is both lyrically and musically tied to that border sound. A flamenco guitarist named Teye provides the principal instrumental voice, accompanied by Ely's acoustic rhythm guitar and old partners Lloyd Maines and Ponty Bone on steel guitar and accordion. With drums and electric bass hitting hard in the background, and Bruce Springsteen adding vocal harmonies on two songs, it is by no means a folk album, but the emphasis is on the words and the instrumental interplay rather than electric pyrotechnics. Ely has rarely sounded more relaxed, and the songs fit together beautifully. "In a lot of ways, I feel this is the best record I've made since 'Honky Tonk Masquerade,'" Ely says happily. "There's a lot of records in between that have captured the period of time I was in, but this one definitely creates an entire mood for the entire record."

While Ely still loves the full electric band approach, the acoustic setting pushes him to do his most complex and lyrically compelling work. "You can get away with a lot by using a band," he says. "A song has to be much stronger lyrically to hold up without that band kicking it along. When I listen to the radio, I often think 'I can't imagine that guy playing that song by himself without all the band; it just wouldn't work, because it's all built around a riff.' In fact with a band it works better if a song is more pared down, not as lyrically intense but just with a good strong chorus. But I try to write every song to hold up acoustic or electric."

The secret to Ely's writing is that he makes every word count, whether he is writing a gentle Panhandle ballad, or a honky tonk hell-raiser. "The hardest thing for me is to pare something down," he says. "I'll take something and I'll find myself going through and just marking out stuff that is not necessary. I always write out the words first. Very occasionally I'll start with a riff, but 90 percent of the time I'll get a song to where it is lyrically totally complete. As I'm writing lyrics I'll write melodies in my head, but I don't actually sit down with an instrument while I'm writing. I've always loved playing the guitar, but I've never really been a student of it. I use it just as an instrument for lyics.

"It's funny; it seems like the minute I start writing a song I get some kind of melody that just seems to go with it. But a lot of times I'll alter it considerably as I go on with it. In some cases I'll write all the verses to a song but not have a chorus, and I'll actually go over and rob a chorus from another song."

An example of this approach comes in "Sleepless in Love," from his "Love and Danger" album. He had written a serious song that had not quite gelled. Then one day he was goofing around, thinking up unusual metaphors. He stuck the metaphors together, tacked on the chorus of the old song, and ended up with a song that is funny, clever, and eerily moving. It is a trick Ely has often used, mixing humor with his most heartfelt and serious ideas, and it gives his songs a lively realness that sets them apart. "I often find that if I do the whole thing really seriously it becomes kind of a little tedious," Ely says, laughing. "So I have to kinda of play with it, slap it around a little bit. That is what is so fun about putting songs together: the unexpected things that happen while the process is going on."

Though he has always relied heavily on his original material, Ely increases the range and contrast in his albums and live shows by mixing in a liberal sprinkling of songs by other writers, especially his old Lubbock buddies and bandmates Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. "Every time I approach a record, I start out writing the whole thing myself," Ely says. "And then after I get that body of work together and know what direction I want to go, I start thinking about what would make it feel more complete as a record. I never think that I have to do the whole record myself."

Though other people may have written the songs, when Ely sings them they become personal statements. "There are certain songs, like [Hancock's] "Boxcars," that I just feel so much like I was there, the song is so much a part of me, that I really have taken it on as my own experience," he says. "And I can sing it night after night and still feel that way. When you completely engulf yourself in a song, you try to make it your own. I'm just eternally grateful that Butch wrote some of those, because they are beautiful songs, and one-of-a-kind things."

Now, with the new album done, Ely is hoping to go out on the road with a more acoustic band. Whether or not that works out, he says he will always do occasional solo shows, if only because of the freedom it allows him. His repertoire is large enough that no band could learn and rehearse all of it, and the solo format has a looseness and an intimacy that Ely finds particularly attractive. "I never have any concern on a solo show," he says. "I don't care if I miss a chord or miss a verse, or try a song that I shouldn't be trying. I learned a long time ago that if you strive for perfection you'll never get any song finished. Cause nothing is ever perfect. So I just try to get the feeling of sitting around in a living room with a bunch of people.

"I don't like the whole idea of a performance, where you separate yourself from the audience. I like to try to bring them in, make them comfortable. The thing that makes an audience uncomfortable the quickest is if you are uncomfortable, so I just try to make everybody feel like, well, I'm gonna screw up, hit some wrong chords, try stuff, forget stuff, and so what? I know some people that if they miss something--like hit a wrong note--it completely shatters them. It affects the rest of their night. I try to blow off things like that and look at it as, hey, what the hell, it's the song that counts. It ain't always gone be the same."

The looseness and unpredictability give his solo concerts a tightrope-walking quality, as if at any moment he might go too far, and this breeds a raw energy and excitement that is contagious. A great Ely show leaves the crowd gasping and exhausted. There are chances taken, choices made, that few other performers could pull off, but Ely triumphs through his obvious commitment to his audience, the quality of his songs, his relentless energy, and his ability to laugh at himself even as he displays the stance and attitude of the ultimate rock 'n' roll hero. "For me, that's the only way I can do it," Ely says. "I'm up there with just an acoustic guitar, and it's like I have to look around and think, 'I'm up here all by myself; I can either be scared to death or just attack it.'"

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DAN HICKS INTERVIEW (written for Acoustic Guitar in 1996)

by Elijah Wald

Dan Hicks is a hard guy to figure. Famous for his lighting-fast, wickedly funny lyrics, hot acoustic jazz ensembles, and oddball, dead-pan stage patter, offstage he shuffles around like a large, rather sleepy bear, his hipster drawl slowing to the pace of cold molasses. He seems friendly and helpful, trying to answer questions as honestly as possible, but his delivery sometimes makes you wonder if he is putting you on. He acts cheerfully optimistic one moment, semi-depressed the next. When the humor surfaces, it is usually self-deprecating, absolutely dead-pan, and often so elliptical that it is hard to tell that he is joking.

For instance, a discussion of his recent forays into re-interpreting jazz standards slides into somewhat gloomy introspection, then veers off into fantasy land: "I want to be a better jazz singer, want to keep working on my chops," he says. "For me, that's where you gotta keep dreaming or aspiring. 'Cause in a way, I can feel stuck real easily. I can play the same gigs, have the same kind of band as twenty years ago. You know, I haven't put out so many records that I've got a big stockpile of material." Suddenly, he becomes animated. "Oh, yeh! I have all that. You know my Spanish albums? Or when I did those couple of gospel albums, man? Let's do a couple of tunes from that."

Hicks has never, as far as I know, recorded a Spanish or gospel song, much less an album. "I was just thinking," he says. "You know how sometimes in writing about performers they use the phrase, 're-invented himself, re-invented herself?' I say 'Wait a minute, why can't I do that?' Because sometimes I feel like I'm the guy that has to play 'Payday Blues' and 'I Scare Myself,' once a night. But then, in a way, that's because I'm doing the tunes I like to do."

The conversation is moving in circles. And Hicks' attitude seems a little odd when one considers that his last album, the live "Shootin' Straight," featured entirely new material and was hailed by a lot of people as his best album ever. Admittedly, it has not received the attention of his 1970s recordings with the Hot Licks, but taking a 17-year hiatus from recording is not the sort of thing that helps maintain career momentum. Plus, even in the 1970s, Hicks' mainstream success was something of a fluke. After all, how many people were performing on the rock scene with a band devoted exclusively to acoustic jazz and western swing?

"It was surprising for me," Hicks admits. "I was somehow being included in Rolling Stone magazine, getting in the rock category, the popular-type thing. I guess it could have been because I was in the Charlatans and started with a name."

The Charlatans were a popular Bay Area rock band in the 1960s, and Hicks was the group's drummer and occasional vocalist. Before that, he had played drums in a high school dance band, and had continued playing general business gigs through college, getting a firm grounding in swing and big band standards. Along the way, though, he had branched out into guitar, and it was as a guitarist and singer that he made his real splash.

"I started out with kind of a folk repertoire," he says. "A few Kingston Trio tunes, a few tunes out of a book. I taught myself and then one time a guy kinda showed me the basics of finger picking. I used to do stuff like 'San Francisco Bay Blues,' 'Grizzly Bear.' I was doing a single act around the Bay area, as a side thing from the Charlatans, just me and my guitar. Then I started adding to that. I added a violin somewhere along the way; I guess I got the ensemble idea maybe a little bit from Django Reinhardt-Stephan Grappelli. It was just stuff I thought was tasteful."

The Hot Licks had a tight, swinging blend of acoustic string virtuosity and hot, three part harmonies, but it was Hicks' songs that made the group special. He seems to have a gift for odd and complex rhymes, and for using the swing/jive vocabulary to deal with subjects and viewpoints that are unique, to say the least. On the new album, for instance, the first song begins "My mother died from asbestos/My father's name was Estes/ And I don't know if that messed us/ Up, or what it did." Then he gets to a song about alien abductions, called "Hell, I'd Go!"

Hicks says he doesn't know where his songwriting style came from. "I can't really think of anyone who influenced me," he says. "Except maybe sort of subliminally, or collectively. Every now and then I've written a song and said well, 'This has got kind of a Mose Allison cool about it,' or 'This could be a Roy Orbison tune.' I'll do that. And I've always liked the standards. I learned from all the good lyrics in there, the melodies, although I don't aspire to write them, I don't come up with like a straight 32-bar form, which is usually what the standards were."

Though the complexity of his lyrics is a Hicks trademark, he says that, if anything, the melodies come to him first. "I always have some kind of melody going," he explains. "And hopefully the lyrics come along with it. Often, I'll get a verse or two pretty easily, and then I'll need to work to finish it. For me, it's very easy to just get discouraged, and say 'Well, this ain't coming, I'm not getting anything' after about 15 minutes. But then I have to say to myself 'No I'm gonna stay here for two hours. I'm gonna write, I'm not gonna put the guitar down then come back tomorrow or something.' 'Cause that's the only way I'm gonna get it done. The days of doing it every day and wanting to do it are kind of past--or at least, there was more of a time, but even back then my guitar would sit in the case for a couple of weeks sometimes."

While Hicks' songs have been recorded by artists ranging from Maria Muldaur to Bette Midler to Thomas Dolby, he says he regards himself principally as a performer rather than a writer. "That's what I do the most of, you know, that's where I seem to get the most money," he says. "I write the tunes so I'll have something to sing. It's just like part of the stage thing."

While the writing has attracted a broader audience, guitar players are often struck by Hicks' unorthodox instrumental technique. He plays with a drummer's sure rhythmic sense, using a thumb pick and finger picks in a mix of strumming and fingerpicking. "I got started with the finger picks in the early days, playing 'Freight Train' or something like that," he says. "And I just kept them on. I never used a flat pick, never aspired to play any lead. And I don't think you can get the same thing from a flat pick. I can accent stuff with the bass and still pick or strum or squeeze the chords."

As for the left hand, Hicks' straight-ahead, almost folky chord shapes are an unusual cushion for the Djangoesque excursions of his lead player, Paul Robinson. "My chord knowledge is kind of limited," he acknowledges. "I really don't play a lot of different chords and I don't play a lot of different little moves, like to where there's different chords every beat of something. I sometimes say 'I've got you fooled, because I do all this rhythm stuff with my right hand so it sounds like maybe I know more than I know.' Usually, also, I've got a really good guitar player with me, good musicians. And, you know, I play more jazz chords than Johnny Cash does."

Anyway, Hicks is well aware that his audiences don't come to gape at his flying fingers. A good Hicks show is like a bit of musical theatre, with the songs blending seamlessly into his relaxed, wryly funny shtick. Once in a while he will even put the guitar aside, and lackadaisically swish a drummer's brush on the head of a tambourine while singing an old standard like "Give Me the Simple Life," then promise to include the tune on his next album, "Dan Hicks: For Lovers Only." ("That's just the working title," he adds.)

"I try to be spontaneous," he says of his showmanship. "I think I'm doing a good job if I'm working with the room and things are going good. Every now and then I'll fall back on something I've used before, some line or something, but most of it is just ad lib city. I'm more on my toes when I'm up on the stage, I think faster, because it's sort of a do or die situation. I've gone ahead and put my name on the whole thing, so I've gotta come through."

And, if he is not a superstar, he knew what the gig was when he started. "Being an acoustic musician is hard," he says. "Even my girlfriend, I complain about having no money and she says, 'Well, you chose to be acoustic; acoustic is harder to sell.' I don't know. I guess I could go up there with a little amp and a electric guitar, right. But so what? I think I'm commercial enough. Doing a good show is commercial. Not starting every song with a bass solo is commercial."

'Nuff said. "I hope you got something there," Hicks says, unfolding himself from the hotel armchair. "Now I better go down to the sound check."

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By Elijah Wald
Published in the Boston Globe, January1998

   They're back, like the ghosts of rock 'n' roll past: More than three decades after "96 Tears'' hit number one on the charts, ? and the Mysterians have reformed and a new album finds them looking virtually unchanged and sounding as raw and energetic as ever.
   "We were like a bright star that shone for only the millionth of a second,'' ? says, on the phone from his home near Flint, Michigan. "But that light has carried on through all these years, and people remember what they saw, and a lot of people haven't seen it and now they're catching up.''

"96 Tears,'' with its infectious two-note organ riff and ?'s soul scream driving home a hypnotically repetitive lyric, was three minutes of pure teen energy, the defining garage rock single of the 1960s. The group went on to make three albums, including one for Ray Charles's Tangerine label, but never equaled that first success. Their place in history was assured, though, when rock critic Dave Marsh saw ? (backed by a somewhat different group) in 1971 and referred to his music as "punk rock,'' apparently the first time the term was used in print. Marsh also called ? "the greatest dancer in the history of rock and roll,'' and the years have done little to slow down the skinny frontman's acrobatic, split-laden routines.

The superlatives Marsh and others have heaped on him, though, are easily bettered by ?'s own view of his work. He will point out that "96 Tears'' was the culminating point of rock 'n' roll; after that the music could go no further and became simply "rock." And that is only part of the story. "I created 'hip' in rock 'n' roll,'' he says. "Which a lot of people don't realize. I said, 'OK, there's got to be a change, this is too stale.' So I put that attitude in there. Then, as far as the writing, I did songs like '8 Teen,' written with the '8' and the 'Teen.' Now everybody does things like that, but I was doing it long before Prince or anybody else.''
Speaking of he-who-once-was-Prince, ? was also the first to use a symbol rather than a name. "People don't realize that I actually was the symbol, and I still am,'' he says. "But it's kind of hard to communicate with Earthlings if they don't know how to telepathically pick your thoughts up. Like if I called you and I said [extended pause] . . . I'm telling you, 'This is Question Mark,' but you can't pick me up because you don't have that ability yet.''
Anyone perplexed by that "Earthlings'' reference deserves an explanation. The Mysterians are usually described as the great Chicano rock band, a group of Mexican immigrants based in Michigan. As ? explains, though, that is not really correct. "The other four guys were born in Texas,'' he says. "And I'm from Mars.''
He prefers not to expand on that theme, as he is trying to get two books published and doesn't want to give away his secrets, but he quotes from a New York Times interview in which he said "I was born on Mars many eons ago. I've lived many different lives. I was around when dinosaurs were around.'' Among other bits of personal information he will let drop is the fact that he is telepathically in touch with people from the future and is trying to reach the Pope and the President to pass on vital messages.
In the fast-paced and protean monologue that constitutes a ? interview, he does occasionally say a few words about his music. He started out as a dancer, with dreams of appearing on American Bandstand, before voices (he only recently realized they were from the future) told him to take up singing. He enjoyed Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Bill Haley, and other early rock 'n' rollers, but says that from the first he had his own sound.
"My only influence was being Catholic; the church organ, you know. Then after church we would go to the ice cream parlor, and next door they had a Baptist church and you could hear the people wailing, the tambourine, and I said 'Man, why can't we do our music like that in our church?' And then when my mom took me to see Gone with the Wind, I was so captured by that music, the sound. So, with those three elements, that was my influence.''
It is the organ as much as anything that propelled "96 Tears'' to the top of the charts, and this tour marks the first time in almost 30 years that Frank Rodriguez Jr., who played the original riff, is back in the band. "Little Frank [as distinguished from bassist Frank Lugo], he moved down to Texas because he didn't like the cold weather up here,'' ? says. "So it was kind of hard to have practice sessions.''
Rodriguez moved back to Michigan a year ago, and soon the classic band was back together, with Lugo, rhythm guitarist Robert Balderrama, and drummer Robert Martinez. While ? had been touring off and on with various pseudo-Mysterians, this was the moment the fans had been waiting for. Soon the band was back in the studio and out on the road (plus the internet, at www.96tears.com). Another album is planned this year, featuring all new material, and ? is ready to conquer a new generation.
"I really want to reach the young kids,'' he says. "I have a lot of messages for them, and I want to teach them what music should be all about. Because what's out there right now, it's not music, it's just blech, trash. You turn on the radio, and subconciously you know it's shit, but you accept it, because without music what are you gonna do? But hopefully, in the back of your mind, you're thinking, 'When is something good gonna come along again?' And if you wonder why we're coming back, that's the reason. Because we've got real good music. We always had good music. And we're resurfacing again because we want to let people know what music is all about.''

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Buddy Miles

By Elijah Wald

Globe Correspondent

"You’re calling from Boston? Yo, is it cold there? You got a sweater?"

Buddy Miles is safe and warm in Fort Worth, but swears he is looking forward to coming north. A Boston resident for a while in the 1960s, Miles has nothing but fond memories. "Boston was a groovy city in them days," he says, before reeling off the names of local clubs where he used to play.

At that time, Miles was among the top drummers in rock. Michael Bloomfield picked him out of Wilson Pickett’s band to play and sing in his super group, the Electric Flag. From there, Miles led the Buddy Miles Express, anchored Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies, made a popular duet album with Carlos Santana, and, in an odd detour, went on to become the lead voice of the California Raisins.

There were also hassles, though, including some prison time, and, while he never stopped playing, Miles disappeared from mainstream view. "There was a lot of drama and a lot of pros and cons in my life," he says. "And, you know, out of place, out of space, out of touch, out of mind. I feel bad that I haven't been able to give more, but when you're on a rebellion you can definitely go on the dark side sometimes, rather than the force being with you."

Now, Miles says, the force is back. He is enthusiastic about his career, and the words come tumbling out of him in a cascade that mixes street slang, song lyrics, and polysyllabic words, often of his own construction. He is a showy talker, but when it comes to music he is dead serious, as he proved last month when he astonished roots music fans by showing up at Johnny D’s with retro honky-tonker Junior Brown. Sitting behind a single snare drum, he just sat back and kept the country beat, making the band swing without ever taking a solo or displaying any star pyrotechnics.

"I've always looked at myself as -- if you looked at pro ball -- an interior man," Miles says. "I'm like part of the team, and that's what's important. And I love that responsibility that a drummer ascertains."

Saturday night at Johnny D’s, he will be back leading his own band, playing guitar and singing as well as holding down the drum chair. Nonetheless, Miles remains a drummer first and foremost. As the interview progresses, he talks about people he has worked with, from the Ink Spots to B.B., Freddie, and Albert King, to John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, and Clapton. Until prompted, he barely mentions his career as a bandleader, or the days when his "Them Changes" was becoming something of a soul-rock classic.

"That's not what's really important to me," he says. "Because hit records are like Bic pens: they only last so long. It's nice to be successful, as far as values go and money and fame and fortune, that's fantastic, but it only makes a difference if you can genre longevity and get something out of it."

At 51, Miles can trace a career leading back to the Midwest and his debut as a pre-teen drummer with his father’s bebop combo. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, he was raised in a house full of music. His mother listened to r&b, and his father played the hard-driving Kansas City jazz styles of the Count Basie Band and Charlie Parker.

"I’m very familiar with all that, because it’s in my blood," Miles says, pausing to scat-sing a snatch of Thelonious Monk. "Every weekend, my dad and a couple of other guys, they'd come to my house and they’d jam. They used to put their sunglasses on, because they'd be full of that wine spo-de-o-dee, you know what I mean? So, I got an in-depth, close-up look at what a musician goes through, and I said, ‘I want that.’

"When I was about nine, we were living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and they had a jam session at my house, and I sat behind these drums and just started picking up. My dad couldn't believe his eyes. I just sat back and played me some basic swing with them and it blew him away, and ever since that I was in hog heaven. When I went to school, man, couldn’t nobody say nothing to me, because I knew I was a bona fide funketeer and jazzette."

Miles left South Dakota with the Ink Spots, and went on to play with the Dick Clark Revue before joining Pickett in 1965. Bloomfield came along two years later, and the rest is history. For Miles, though, the greatest thrill was always sitting down behind his drums, and he says that it is his commitment to that basic craft that has assured his continued employability.

"What makes a great a drummer?" he asks, echoing a question. "It's very, very simple. Being able to keep time and keep it perceptic. Absolutely. In other words, simplicity is the key.

"See, now, today there's a lot of cosmotometry and procurement in pop music, all the styles and fusion and all the different styles of playing music. But as far as I'm concerned, you have to give yourself a breathing chance, and first off you have to understand pocket [where the beat is] and understand your basic format. You see, drumming is a responsibility, because you're selling the band. You have the most important position in the band. Because I don't give a damn what type of music you play, it is all about basic foundation."

Now, Miles wants to get back on the road and show the young folks how it is done. "I've got a lot of time invested in myself, and I'm playing to a whole new generation of rockers and R&Bers and funketeers," he says. "I've been one of the forefathers of a lot of those genres, and I'm very proud of that. But, to me, the main body of success is being alive and having that everyday fulfillment, and giving joy and spreading something out of it. I don't have time to dwell on what was. I think it's a lot safer to ‘keep on pushing straight ahead,’ as Mr. Hendrix has told us with so many other beautiful things."

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Wilson Pickett

By Elijah Wald

Globe Correspondent

Wilson Pickett is back. Not back in Boston, at least not yet. But the wildest, hardest soul shouter of them all has a new album, his first in 12 years, an appearance on David Letterman next Tuesday (oct 12), a New York date the following night, and hopes to do a lot more U.S. touring in the near future. And that is reason enough to get excited, because, 38 years after he came screaming onto the national scene and racked up a string of hits including "In the Midnight Hour," "Mustang Sally," and "Funky Broadway," the Wicked One is still among the greatest soul singers alive.

Pickett is really old school: He came up as a teenaged singer in the 1950s gospel world. Asked how, at 58, he can still scream with a power that would tear most voices to rags in a minute, he lays it all to that upbringing: "We developed those kind of lungs and vocal cords in the church," he says, his voice gravelly on the phone from his Virginia home. "We sang hard in the church -- and that was every week, so you develop that.

"And also I guess you’re born with that kind of gift, like from God. I seen the time, the more I sing the better my voice got. It would never run out or get hoarse or anything like that. So yeah, I'm glad I'm blessed. Especially now, after being off that long, to have something when I came back. ’Cause really, I didn't know how I was gonna sound. I was scared as hell."

On the new album, "It’s Harder Now" (Bullseye), Pickett belies the title, sounding as powerful as ever. The band, while perfectly competent, is a revivalist group that neither brings anything new nor matches Pickett’s 1960s studio outfits, and the material, despite contributions from Dan Penn and Don Covay, is often uninspired or tritely raunchy. The man himself , though, is untouched by time singing with the same searing power that made him soul man number one through. So, one wonders, why has he been away so long?

"I got very depressed with the business," Pickett says. "It began changing, and record companies began to shuck and jive around, and it was too much for me. They handcuffed the radio announcers with the programming [replacing DJ choice with required playlists] and you had all this different kind of music running around all over the place -- which I don't mind, far as I'm concerned there is room in the business for all the music -- But any time you can try and kill a music like R&B you gotta be out of your mind.

"You could not hear any R&B on the radio for years. There was disco and all that stuff, and it was either you do disco or you’re out of the race. So that made me feel like ‘Hell, I wasted a goddamn career here,’ you know what I mean? ’Cause you can't hop from one music to another like that."

The disco boom of the 1970s spelt the end of the soul era, and Pickett found himself in limbo. He had a variety of record deals, but they were never satisfying either artistically or financially. By the 1980s, he had all but disappeared, at least as far as his American fans were concerned. He explains that he spent the missing years working where people still supported his classic sound, in "Europe, Australia, Japan, Brazil, places like that." His career got a boost from "The Commitments," the film about an Irish soul band in which he did not appear, but loomed as a mythic presence offscreen. And finally Rounder, the Cambridge roots label of which Bullseye is a subsidiary, came through with an offer that interested him. He teamed up with the guitar and bass duo of John and Sally Tiven, wrote a bunch of new songs, and cut most of the album live in the studio, the old-fashioned way.

The process took over a year, which Pickett found a bit disconcerting. "Before, it was just, you cut a record, you mix it and master it, and it’s out inside of three months," he says, recalling the pressure cooker days when a song like "Midnight Hour" would be written the night before a session, cut in an afternoon, and shipped right to the pressing plant. "So what it is now is backward, and I’m still trying to understand that. But if it throws a few more dollars in my pocket, I don’t care which way it goes."

That might sound cavalier, but Pickett has learned the hard way that great records do not always make for rich artists. As detailed in Peter Guralnick’s "Sweet Soul Music," he was one of many pioneering R&B stars to find that, once their biggest hits were behind them, their record companies gave them not a huge check, but instead a bill for old recording expenses. Pickett says that he still loves the music as much as ever, but this time around he is watching his back.

Indeed, he comes out of a diatribe against modern recording methods, with their computer samples, programming, and electronic modifications, on a studiedly mercenary note: "I'm not saying that I would never do something like that, because if enough money is in something I'll do it," he says, without a trace of apology. "If Rounder said, ‘Pickett we want you to do this this way, and we gonna up your contract another half a million dollars,’ you got yourself a boy.

"That's what we’re in the business for, you know. We need money. Back in the time, record companies used to love for us to say, ‘I love it. I love music.' And in the meanwhile you had the white rock bands and the white managers putting millions of dollars in their pocket, you know? They loved music, too. But they loved money. Well, I love money, too!"

Whether the new album is going to put enough in Pickett’s pocket to get him out on the road in the U.S. remains an open question. "There's money in this country," he says. "More money than you ever seen in your life or known about in your lifetime." And yet, he is the first to add that very little of it is being spent on soul legends. So, for now, he is taking the few high-profile gigs that come his way, tearing the songs to bits with that astonishing voice, and waiting to see what the contemporary scene will make of his return.

"I’m not complaining," he says. "I didn’t do anything to my singing, and people still love me, and I’m proud to have, I guess, one of my records in about every home in America or all over the world. I’m happy with that. So now my plan is just to get behind this particular CD and try to do some work with it."

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Wild Magnolias

By Elijah Wald

Anyone who has been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras or Jazzfest, or who has seen pictures or film of either, knows the Mardi Gras Indians, the black men dressed in spectacular, feathered costumes who parade through the streets. Anyone who has heard Dr. John, the Meters, or the Neville Brothers sing "Iko Iko," "Brother John," or "Meet the Boys on the Battlefront," knows their rocking, call-and-response chants. Of all the Indian gangs, the most popular on record and on the touring scene has long been the Wild Magnolias, led by its gruff-voiced "Big Chief," Bo Dollis.

Mardi Gras is less than a month away, so Dollis is a busy man. "You’ll have no trouble reaching him," says the Magnolias’ agent. "He’s home right now, sewing."

Seeing the big, strong men who lead the Indian gangs, it is a bit hard to imagine them sitting for hours on end, month after month, wielding a needle and thread, but that is the key to prominence as an Indian. "That’s a real big part of it," Dollis says, speaking of his election as Big Chief back in 1964 at the age of 20. "During that time I was the youngest chief they had in the city, but a lot of older guys respected me and they loved the way I made my costume. It’s mostly about the costume, and then once they elect you you own that [title] as long as you keep masking [appearing as an Indian]."

The Indian tradition reaches back at least into the 19th century. It’s origins are unclear, but it is often said that it arose as a sign of respect in New Orleans’s black community for the Native Americans who had sheltered runaway slaves. Be that as it may, the vocal style and rhythms of the Indian chants are among the most purely African sounds in modern America.

When Dollis started masking, the Indians were still a local folk tradition within the black community, but he brought them to a wider audience when he went into a studio in 1972 and recorded "Handa Wanda," the first single by a genuine Indian band ("Iko Iko" had been a hit in the 1960s, but the performers were not Indians). With the success of that record, the Indian style began to change.

"We mostly sing the same songs that we sang back in the ’50s, the songs that was handed down from generation to generation" Dollis says. "Only thing we did was put a little more electronics. You know, during that time ’most all they had was tambourine, but now we do it more commercial. The music changed from just tambourine to a bass drum, cow bells, conga drums, guitars, it changed a whole lot."

The Magnolia’s new album, "Life Is a Carnival" (Metro Blue) blends traditional chants with more recent Indian-style songs. Guest stars include Dr. John, the Band (a rare reunion of Robbie Robertson and his old partners), Allen Toussaint, Marva Wright, and the Black Bottom Brass Band of Osaka, Japan, along with the regular backing group that comes to Somerville tonight. The key figures, as always, are Dollis and his partner Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, and bass drummer Norwood "Geechie" Johnson.

Considering that Indian bands have traditionally been fierce competitors, and death sometimes resulted when members of one band set foot on another’s turf, it is a bit surprising to find a Magnolia and an Eagle teamed in one group, but Dollis says that he and Boudreaux grew up in the same neighborhood and never thought twice about singing together.

"There’s no rivalry, just we try to out-sew each other around carnival," he says. "We still keep our costume a secret before the Mardi Gras Day and we still try to outdo each other, try to be more elaborate than the other guy."

While Dollis promises that some of his group will be in costume, he says that he does not wear one onstage. "The costume is too heavy for me to do the show the way I want to do it," he says. "A costume weigh all the way up from 150 to 200 pounds. When I first started masking we used to wear sequins and all kind of costume jewelry to decorate the aprons, but now everything is rhinestones, beadwork and it’s heavy, heavy, heavy. Everybody wants to be the prettiest Indian, you know, so you gotta keep up with the times. At one time it may have cost you like about 500 dollars to make a costume, and now it’s up in the thousands."

Still, even after four decades masking, and heavy as the costume may be, Dollis has no intentions of retiring his headdress. So far, he has never missed a Mardi Gras, and he says that one of his Second Chiefs got so tired of waiting to substitute for him that the poor guy left and formed a new tribe, the Geronimo Hunters.

What is more, over the last two decades he has carried the music of the Mardi Gras Indians all over the United States and on around the world. "I thought New Orleans would be the only place that cared about this music," he says. "But music what sound good to your ear, it can catch on, because it’s so joyful and you can really just let yourself go when you hear it. One newspaper report about us say, ‘One of New Orleans best kept secrets.’ But now it’s not a best kept secret no more."

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Sam Phillips/Peter Guralnick

By Elijah Wald

Globe Correspondent

It is an inspired teaming: Peter Guralnick, the finest writer on American roots music, has written and co-produced a documentary program on Sam Phillips. A lot of people may be unfamiliar with that name, but the piece, which shows next Sunday at 8 p.m. on A&E, is called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll."

That is quite a claim, but look at a few of the artists who made their recording debuts in Phillips’s tiny Memphis studio: First came the black performers: B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, Rufus Thomas, Roscoe Gordon, and Ike Turner, whose Phillips-produced "Rocket 88" (with Jackie Brenston) is often cited as the first rock ’n’ roll record. Then came the white singers: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich.

What does Phillips himself think of the title? "I believe that Peter suggested that," he says, speaking by phone from his Memphis home. "I had not thought of it that way, and when I first looked at it I thought, ‘Well now, I don’t know about this.’ But when I thought about the ingredients and the personality, the understanding, the lifetime up to that time when I started in dealing with what it took to do what we ultimately did, I thought, ‘Well, you know, I don’t care whether it’s Sam Phillips, but, when you think about it, "invented" is probably the best term that can be used.’ Because we’re talking about something that you had to take the parts of this, the parts of that, the ingredients, and the kneading like you would a bread or something to put it all together, and we came up with -- we ‘invented,’ in my opinion -- something that was really entirely different."

Phillips talks slowly and clearly, but his phrases can loop elliptically around his subject until the listener loses track of the sense and just listens to the music. He always comes back to the point, but it can be a strange and interesting journey getting there. In a way, that is the way he worked as a producer as well. From the first days, cutting records to be released by other companies, then forming his own Sun label, Phillips was not the kind of person who goes into the studio with a finished product in mind. He believed in serendipity, in playing around, experimenting, waiting for the right moment, then capturing that moment on tape.

"I’ve made probably more mistakes than I have things that have come out on the right side," he says. "But at the same time there is a certain dimension that you get from your mistakes that I think has made me whatever it is that I am. That’s the point that I really like to emphasize, is that you don’t have to be perfect to be awfully interesting and awfully convincing and awfully effective."

It was more than just music; Guralnick wrote a piece on Phillips in his first book, 1971’s "Feel Like Going Home," and another in 1979’s "Lost Highway," which he co-dedicated to Phillips and Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf). That was because what he heard in Phillips’s work was the expression of an ideal.

"I see it as a dedication to the freedom of the individual," Guralnick says, seated in his home in West Newbury. "A dedication to bringing out the best in the individual and to respecting, or almost honoring, the difference. You see the person being encouraged to find something in himself that he may not know is even there. With someone like Elvis, you see someone who at the age of 19 could have gone in any number of different directions, and Sam had the patience and foresight to wait for the right moment to come, and when that moment happened to seize on it, to encourage it, to bring out everything there was to bring out in it."

Watching the documentary, Phillips’s own individuality is what stands out. He is a tall man with the beard, hair and fanatical gaze of an Old Testament prophet, and everyone he has worked with speaks of him with a cerain awe -- sometimes wry, sometimes even angry, but never as if Phillips was just another record man. Some criticize him, but none would suggest that anyone else could have done what he did.

But what was it? Phillips agrees with Guralnick’s summation, and goes on to put it in the context of its place and time. Born in 1923 on a farm near Florence, Alabama, he always felt that he had an unusual understanding of the world around him, of the poor sharecroppers, black and white, who had grown up through the Depression. He never accepted the Southern racial division, but it was more than that: "I think that some of us come into this world with certain talents that keep you close to what nature should be. And the idea of people that are on this earth that are so gifted in so many ways, that because of a societal breakdown over the years, that is overlooked. Never exposed. It’s never put out where people can make a choice.

"Now, I’m not a revolutionist or anything like that. There are certain normal processes that have to take place in life, and if they didn’t I guess life might not be as important to us as it is. But I knew that there was something there that really had to be tried on my part, in order for me to satisfy a certain longing. [At first,] I wanted to become a criminal defense lawyer, to defend people that had no means to defend themselves, but when I couldn’t do that because of a lack of funds, I found it in music."

Some people might not see the connection between becoming a defense lawyer and molding a young Elvis Presley, but to Phillips and Guralnick, that was the vision of rock ’n’ roll. Guralnick has written a definitive, two-volume biography of Presley, and it is not simply because he loved the music. To him, growing up in the 1950s, Presley promised a breaking down of barriers, and acted as a sort of clarion call to all that followed: the Civil Rights movement, the 1960s counterculture, and a recognition that vernacular music and art could stand alongside the classics. He likens the Sun label’s breakthrough to the change that came when Dante chose to write in Italian rather than Latin.

When he became a writer, he saw himself continuing the same mission that Phillips had begun. He put blues, rock, country, and soul music side by side, declaring that what was great about Waylon Jennings was the same thing that was great about Robert Johnson or Sam Cooke or Hank Williams. Of course, a big part of this was simply his zeal to introduce people to the music he loved, but there was more to it. He was trying "to communicate a broad vision of a democratic society, both musically and at least by inference politically.

"I never thought of myself as a proselytizer, I’ve never wanted to get up on a soap box and declare my affiliations, but this was a deep-seated belief that grew in me, that was inspired by the music that Sam Phillips made -- or at least my perception of what Sam Phillips’s music was."

Some critics have accused Phillips and his proteges of simply ripping off black music, but that is both oversimplified and innaccurate. The roots of rock ‘n’ roll are in blues, and Elvis had a freedom and passion about him that was new for a white performer, but there was as much hillbilly in him as there was bluesman. It was a new fusion, a new sound, and, though Phillips never played a note, Guralnick is not wrong when he calls it Sam Phillips’s music. Faced with those shy, rather confused country boys, Phillips imagined the future of the world’s popular music; where other people heard mistakes or incompetence, he heard promise. "My venture was hoeing new ground," he says. "I had a lot of stumps and roots and all of that crap, but that’s what made it interesting to me."

One of the best things about the documentary is that it does not focus too much on that moment when Phillips and Presley broke through to the world. Phillips insists that the two "most unique" artists he worked with were Wolf and Rich, and the filmmakers give them equal space alongside the bigger stars. It also shows Johnny Bragg visiting the prison cell where he wrote "Walking in the Rain," recorded by his group, the Prisonaires, under armed guard during a specially arranged trip to Sun. There are sections on the crazed Memphis d.j. Dewey Phillips, and the wrestler Sputnik Monroe, and discussion of the odd guitar style of Johnny Cash’s lead man, Luther Perkins.

All of this went into the wide end of the funnel, and somehow Phillips channelled, guided, and coaxed it through and captured it on some of the most important records of the century. Presley was only one of many artists who never again equaled the energy and excitement of his work on Sun. Exactly how it all came together is never quite explained, nor could it be, though both Guralnick and Phillips regret that more time was not available to try. As Sam says, "We couldn’t really even touch on the real interesting basics of what took place and had to take place before we could have been standing on that right corner on that right day and the wind blowing in that right direction."

Still, he is very, very happy with the final result. He is careful to give credit to the artists for what he captured on Sun, and to director Morgan Neville for the documentary, but in the end, this is a portrait created out of two people who found a special kinship in music.

"I’m an individualist, and it’s very difficult for me to turn myself over to anybody," Phillips says. "But I think that Peter really probably understands me, for better or worse, as much as anybody. With his mind, and having been exposed to me the way he has, without underarm deodorant, he probably does feel somewhat a little twitch of my soul, and I wouldn’t want it to be in better hands."

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Al Cocorochio

By Elijah Wald

Globe Correspondent

SAUGUS -- "Rt. 1: Main Street of the Blues." "The North Shore: Home of Rockabilly." If those are not the tried-and-true cliches of American music, it is not Al Cocorochio’s fault. "The Sam Phillips of the North Shore," as some have called him, has done as much as anyone in New England to keep the classic roots roadhouse sound alive with his Black Rose label, which celebrates its 20th anniversary with a multi-group show this Wednesday at Johnny D’s.

Cocorochio is a compact package of Italian-American energy, and his eyes sparkle with enthusiasm when he talks about music. The workroom in his Saugus home is lined with records and recording equipment, and on the wall is a framed display of original Sun Records 78s, autographed by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. They are trophies of a passion that began in 1956, when Al was 14 and saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show.

"I said, ‘Boy, this guy’s great! I love this stuff!’" Cocorochio says, almost shouting. "And the first record I bought was an Elvis Presley EP, which I still have. Before that, I had more or less listened to a lot of Italian music, because my mother and father both came from Italy. I wasn’t used to listening to rock ’n’ roll -- my mother and father said ‘That’s garbage!’ and used to turn it off on me. Then, when I started wearing sideburns and having a little Bill Haley curl coming down the front and a d.a. in the back, they thought I was a juvenile delinquent and they were gonna have me thrown out of the house."

By then, Cocorochio was going around to record hops, dancing and getting to know a few musicians. The first was a wild piano player named John Lincoln Coughlin, who would later record several albums as Preacher Jack. "I was a junior in high school, and Bobbi Barrett was a senior. Her brother Eddie Barrett was playing drums at that time -- now he’s an editor at the Boston Herald -- and she knew I liked Jerry Lee Lewis, and she said, ‘You gotta come to my house and see this guy that thinks he’s Jerry Lee Lewis,’ And that’s how I met Jack."

Soon Cocorochio was going around to Jack’s shows, helping to carry equipment and lining up a few gigs for the band. He took off four years to go into the Marine Corps, then got right back in the musical world, only quitting when he got married in 1968. He got divorced a few years later, and by 1979 he was ready to get into the music business more seriously.

"I had my house in Malden, and most of the people that lived there were musicians. [Chicago bluesman] J.B. Hutto lived in my house, and that’s how I met the New Hawks. And Preacher Jack used to crash on my living room floor. I decided, ‘I’m gonna get more involved in this. I can’t do it full-time because there’s no money in it, but I’m gonna start doing some booking and stuff,’ and then I started my label in 1980."

The Black Rose roster is made up of the kind of hard-working bands that show up on Rt. 1 or in the suburban blues bars: Aside from Preacher Jack, it includes B.R.M.C. (Boston Rockabilly Music Conspiracy), The New Hawks (in various incarnations), T.H. and the Wreckage, Bobby Fosmire, Maynard Silva, Big Bill’s Band, Alabama Frank, Brewer Phillips, and the Liz Lannon Band. They play blues and old time rock ’n’ roll, usually on weekends after they finish their day jobs.

"No one is getting rich doing this," Cocorochio says. "But we have fun doing it. For the musicians, I think it’s the excitement, the enjoyment of playing out. It’s not like just sitting behind a desk or being a mechanic. It’s like when I work as a disc jockey; I enjoy seeing people happy, seeing them having a good time out there."

Cocorochio certainly has not gotten rich off Black Rose. "I made money on some of the groups, but in the long run I’ve lost a lot of money. When I first started out in the music business I only had $9,000 to play with, and it all went fast. And then I just more or less borrowed, did this, did that. The bands also helped me, they put money into it themselves, and we just kept putting stuff out.

"I mean, I’d like to make some money, we’d all like to have a million-seller -- I’d also like to be nominated for a Grammy someday, or for a Handy Award. I would love something like that, but I made a lot of friends, and that means more to me than the money. The musicians and I, we all do things on a handshake, we’re honest with each other. There’s no contracts, so if they can get a better deal, there’s nothing holding them back. And we all get along great."

A lot of record company owners might talk like that, but Cocorochio’s remarks are echoed by his artists. Vic Layne, of B.R.M.C., describes him first off as "a gentleman. He’s a low-keyed, local guy, and very sincere about the music. He did this because he loved to get guys that were interested in doing the kind of music that he liked and record with them. And we’ll hang with him as long as he’s willing and able to go along with it. Because it’s like a family-type thing."

Wednesday’s show should be the ultimate Cocorochio evening. He has a 20th Anniversary CD prepared for release at the show, and expects a mix of musicians from throughout the Black Rose catalogue to show up, do their acts, or just jam together. When things get jumping, he may even get up and sing a couple of songs himself.

"I know I can’t sing, I don’t get up there and say, ‘Boy, I have a great voice and I want to become a superstar.’ But I like to get up onstage and shake and have fun. I’ll do ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’’ or ‘Tear It Up,’ stuff like that. I don’t know all the words, but I improvise sometimes and we all have fun. That’s the name of the game. I just do it to make people laugh and have a good time."

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