So there I was opening for Mose Allison at Palms Playhouse in Davis, California, back in 1983, and I wanted to play something appropriate for his audience and obviously couldn’t fall back on “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy…” so I turned to Bill Morrissey.
Bill was one of my closest friends at that point, and I was doing at least one of his songs in pretty much every set — usually “Oil Money” or “Texas Blues,” but there were plenty of other options, because his lyrics were so well crafted that I would hear him sing something a couple or three times and find I knew it all the way through, without making any effort to learn it. (The most striking example being his early masterpiece, “Small Town on the River.”)
In the early 1980s Bill was becoming pretty well known as a singer-songwriter in the post-Dylan mode, but one of the things that brought us together was his affection for old blues and jazz. He could play decent clarinet, sax, and even a bit of trumpet, and he’d fronted a ragtag aggregation in Newmarket, New Hampshire, (sometimes called the Mental Retreads) that played a unique country/jazz/folk/hipster pastiche. He’d been influenced by Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Beatles, but also by Slim Gaillard, Dan Hicks, and Tom Waits — not to mention Dave Van Ronk, whose shared friendship and mentorship originally brought us together.
Until he died in 2011, I’d get a call from Bill every year or so complaining about how bored he was by the folk scene and announcing that his new album would have jazzier stuff, including some of the old New Hampshire jive numbers — maybe “Sweaty Woman” or “Morrissey Takes a Dive” (which he recorded with the Retreads, and I’ve posted from their very lo-fi cassette), or his regional vout masterpiece, “Candlepin Swing.” He’d be practicing clarinet and talking with horn players who could sit in — his last album included a song he wrote for a collaboration with a sax player he’d found who’d toured with Billie Holiday, “He’s Not From Kansas City” — but then the album would come out, playing it safe again, with a mellow singer-songwriter or soft rock vibe.
I loved and admired Bill, and I’m glad he had some success on the singer-songwriter scene, but I wish he’d taken more artistic chances after the early days, and written more stuff like “King Jelly’s Good Morning Irene Song.” I’m guessing this was written under the influence of Dan Hicks, whom we both liked, and our friend Geoff Bartley recorded a fine version with Mike Turk on harmonica.
I have lots more about Bill in other posts, but meanwhile, getting back to my story, I played this for Mose’s crowd and it went over gangbusters, as well it should have:
I’m standing on a corner thinkin’ ’bout all the women in France
On Guggenheim grants,
When a guy come struttin’ down the street
Like he was tryin’ to shake loose
A broken roll of change from the leg of his pants…