Friday, January 30, 2009

How I Learned To Sing The Blues

Drifting through the town
Drinking up the night

Trying not to drown...

- "The Ballad of Sad Young Men" by Frances Landesman

by Sonny Smith

The way I learned piano was that a kid I knew handed me a demo tape by John Allair who played on some Van Morrison records. On this homemade tape, Mr. Allair was playing old blues covers and something about how simple the renditions were made me give it a try myself. I was already into blues music and played guitar but something about this tape made me want to try singing and playing piano.

As I slowly failed out of my freshman year of college, so did I slowly learn the piano. I was living in a mountain town in Colorado. This was 1991. There wasn’t much culture. I met a very large woman with long hair parted in the middle named Robin at an AA meeting who played Saturday nights at a real chi-chi bourgeois ski-town hotel and bar place with dazzling copper all over the place and rich people in ski boots hobbling around like sunburned retards. She sat on a stool in the corner next to the gimpy little piano and played Eagles covers and Jackson Browne tunes on flute. She played quite well.

She explained to me after a meeting that she didn’t want her gig anymore cause it was tempting her to drink so I showed up on a snowy winters night at the club and told them I was there to take Robin's gig. I had to play three hours and I only knew about four songs: "Key to the Highway" (Memphis Slim), "Mellow Down Easy" (Jimmy Walters), "Bus Driver" (Muddy Waters), and "Corrina, Corinna," a spectacular version I learned from the Taj Mahal record Natch'l Blues.

I played these songs over and over again for three hours. I was horrible. A total farce. Days later the bartender slapped an old sounding blues nickname on me for the add in the local paper: ‘Sonnyland’ Smith it read, “plays and sings the blues every Friday and Saturday night”, and thus my new self was born. I was acutely aware of being white and singing blues songs (so badly)- I wasn’t, I felt, too far away from a minstrel in black face… on the other hand I was so excited by this new transformation into entertainer that I let it go. I severed the ‘land’ part and kept the name Sonny.

At this same time I went and got a radio show on the college station, the blues show on Sunday nights, and methodically stole about seven hundred blues records one backpack full at a time over the course of a year. The station's entire blues section on vinyl. I felt absolutely no guilt or hesitation, I don’t know why. I stole some stereo equipment from a condemned office building around this time so I guess I was dabbling in criminality anyway. Later I returned all the ones I didn’t want. About ninety five percent of them. The most important record I discovered from this dubious campaign was Jimmy Yancey.

A Chicago blues man, Yancey’s left hand is a wonderful display of blues minimalism, completely sparse and un-fancy yet totally driving. That left hand is incomparable. It’s impressive to me, like it has a no-nonsense job to do, like a well-oiled machine, yet it’s also full of grace and nuance and feel. It also liberates his right hand to be totally relaxed with the delivery of the melodies or the responses to the lyrics. He created an illusion for me that the right hand was like a character, a character who could take or leave the whole scene, but since we’re all here perhaps this character will tell you a little story. And then zing, the story is short, economical and marvelous. Mysteriously, every song ends in E flat.

Sometimes his wife sings and sometimes, like on Joseph Spence recordings, you can hear his wife chiming in on vocals from another room as if she’s doing something else (cooking or ironing I imagine…but who knows).

I began making trips into Denver every couple weeks all by myself to go buy records with my new gig money. I bought Jimmy Yancey, Memphis Slim, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins, all the greats. I had a really messed up face in those years, severe acne and other weird dermal issues that kept me totally anti-social and separated from joining any kind of group of people. I was an utter loner. I was so embarrassed by my physical appearance that I didn’t even allow my parents to take photographs around holiday visits and such. To add to this freakish feeling I became obsessed with this unhip music. No one I knew liked the blues. Old blues was kind of a drag to young folks. While they might have respected it, no one sat around and listened to it intently. I should make a distinction here between the sad laments and the barrelhouse boogie. I didn’t really give a shit about barrelhouse boogie and fast played blues. I just liked the really sparse simple sad ones.

I liked to walk around Denver in the old skid row district after my gigs and go to weird bars. I was into the beat writers and I imagined this was where Neal Cassidy or Allen Ginsburg came up (along with the blues I was obsessed with beat writers). Looking back, I can now see, I was more or less a teenage drunk. (Actually I just turned twenty-one by the time I got to Denver.) I got wasted at these shows, and I got into a few fights around town. I guess I was a rather dark young man. Songs like "Mother Earth" by Memphis Slim were really beautiful gothic songs. I suppose they fit my temperament.

Yes, the music was dark and eerie, but it was also funny music to me for some reason. It made me laugh. Professor Longhair, Sunnyland Slim, Cow Cow Davenport, and Yancey with their songs like "Lean Bacon" or "Everlasting Blues." It’s a kind of art that is funny and sad, earthy and elegant at the same time, which is my favorite kind of art. Above all blues is about purging. At least if it’s done right. It's about emotion. You've got to have guts to get the poison out of you. It can be a cathartic transformation if there is some personal truth being bloodletted ("Crossroads" by Robert Johnson) or it can be just stupid pandering bullshit if nothing personal is risked ("Crossroads" by Eric Clapton). Anyhow, for whatever reasons, rock ‘n’ roll didn’t even affect me back then. I didn’t even consider it. I didn’t even register that it existed, while old slow blues songs became a private back room to adjourn to.

Well, pretty soon I moved to Denver and found a couple weekly stints around town playing blues piano. I got a lot better and didn’t feel like such a fake. For no completely conscious reason I stopped drinking too much. I started riding my bike a lot. I took a few classical piano lessons from an eccentric Hungarian pianist. I went to a dermatologist who sold me some super duper high-powered drugs that cleared up my face. I came out of my shell a bit and acquired a girlfriend. It didn’t last, but it changed some things. I made some friends. A neighbor turned me onto Leonard Cohen. After a year or two I began writing my own songs which didn’t come out as blues songs at all, just weird folky fragments full of unripened lyrics.

And presto, after a while I really began to discover music in its entirety, and verily I left that small corner I was living in, the slow dark emotional blues, and ventured into the giant breathing cosmos of music with it’s infinite amount of mysterious solar systems floating inside.


"I Received A Letter" mp3
by Jimmy Yancey, 1940.
available on Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1939-1940)

"Mother Earth" mp3
by Memphis Slim, 1950.
out of print

"Slim's Blues" mp3
by Memphis Slim, 1950.
out of print

"Thinking Blues" mp3
by Bessie Smith, 1928.
available on Empress Of The Blues Volume 2

"The Ballad of Sad Young Men" mp3
by Rickie Lee Jones, 1991.
available on Pop Pop

"Corrina, Corinna" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1963.
available on The Freewheelin Bob Dylan Outtakes

"This Is My Story, This Is My Song" mp3
by Sonny Smith, 2002.
available on This Is My Story, This Is My Song

photo: © David Fenton

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Birds / Byrds / Thunderbyrd

Three singles today:

I was surprised and delighted, when I put on Neil Young's "Birds" to find a totally different arrangement from the the spare piano version on After The Goldrush. This abbreviated take features guitar, bass, and drums - and is probably an early one - with only one verse and one chorus.


"Birds" mp3
by Neil Young, 1970.
alternate take - non LP B-Side

The b-side to The Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn!" single is an early Gene Clark masterpiece, that turned up on their box set in a different version. Clark recorded it again later on his Roadmaster LP in 1972. You can hear echoes of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" which was the #1 record in the US, shortly before The Byrds started sessions for their second record. The 12 string sound on "Ticket to Ride" owes a huge debt to the Jim (soon to be Roger) McGuinn. The Byrds, on "She Don't Care About Time," are in turn emulating a Beatles record, or more precisely, a Beatles record that emulates a Byrds record.

"She Don't Care About Time" mp3
by The Byrds, 1965.
available on Turn! Turn! Turn!

The third single of today's selections I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago. In 1977, Roger McGuinn, perhaps a little lost, and looking for inspiration again from those that he had inspired, made his final solo record, Thunderbyrd, before retreating from recording for another 13 or so years. "American Girl" is his take on a Tom Petty song from his debut of the previous year. It's no secret that Petty's early sound was hugely indebted to McGuinn and the Byrds. McGuinn's 12 string sound is large and instantly recognizable.

"American Girl" mp3
by Roger McGuinn, 1977.
available on Thunderbyrd


"Birds" mp3
by Neil Young, 1970.
available on After the Gold Rush

"She Don't Care About Time"
by Gene Clark, 1972.
available on Roadmaster

"American Girl" mp3
by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976.
available on Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

top photograph: Alabama Hills, California, 2004. © Ted Barron

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Waitin' For My Gin To Hit Me

I recently came across an early version of Ronnie Self's "Waitin For My Gin To hit Me." I knew he had written it, but the only version I had previously heard was by The Skeletons. I asked around to people who might know about this recording and was directed to Bobby Lloyd Hicks.

Here's what he had to say about it:

One day (I'm guessing around '70/'71) Ronnie came by Wayne Carson's Top Talent studio in Springfield, Missouri, with three of his boys in tow. They were just little kids, maybe ages 7,8, that range. After a while he asked me, "Can you run that thing?", referring to the eight-track machine. I told him I did know how to record with the two-track, so he says, "Well set it up. I got something for ya." I ran a couple of mics for his vocal and acoustic guitar and a mic for the boys to sing along into. While I was doing this a call came in from a prospective buyer of the studio (which was for sale at the time) who asked if he could come by and show the place to a possible investor. Sure.

I got the tape rolling and went into the studio with Ronnie and the kids. The businessmen walked in at that point and you hear the guy who had called punch the talkback button and call, "Lloyd?" as if to say "We're here." Ronnie knew this guy and didn't particularly like him, so he's telling the guy to chill out. "Tape's a' rolling [ass****]. Everything's cool..."

Sadly, not long after, I loaned the only reel to reel copy to someone to play on their radio show and it got lost. So whatever exists now are copies of the song that I happened to record off the radio the night it was broadcast.

At home Ronnie and his 7 kids had a ritual. They'd all sit in a circle on the floor, and pass a Coke around sharing sips and sing his songs. I witnessed this one evening and was amazed at how many of his songs these little kids knew, and sang along with enthusiasm.

AND, a couple of years ago there was an episode of The Chris Issak Show, in which Chris' manager leaves her daughter in the care of the band for the afternoon. When she returns the band has taught her "Waitin' For My Gin to Hit Me." My guess is that through the years someone connected with that show had heard the version of Ronnie and the kids.


"Waiting For My Gin To Hit Me" mp3
by Ronnie Self, ca. 1971.
available on Mr. Frantic Is Boppin' the Blues

"Waiting For My Gin To Hit Me" mp3
by The Skeletons, 1992.
available on Waiting

Bobby Lloyd Hicks is in The Skeletons.
He plays the drums.

"I Play The Drums" mp3
by The Skeletons, 1986.
available on In the Flesh!


Backstory to the Backstory

In 1995 my girlfriend, future ex-wife, and the mother of my son, Kit Keith and I were married in a joyous and beautiful ceremony in our hometown of St. Louis Missouri. When planning our nuptials, certain priorities arose. Originally, it was my idea to be married by a Justice of the Peace. Kit didn't go for that, and our ceremony was presided over by both a Rabbi and a Minister: all bases were covered. I chose my battle wisely, and instead focused my energy on who would entertain our guests. When searching for a band to perform at our wedding, I asked around as to who was available in St. Louis. We lived in Brooklyn and friends and family helped us in our search to book the entertainment. We tried to get Tommy Bankhead and The Blues Eldorados. For some reason that didn't work out, and I asked a friend to see if The Skeletons - who hadn't been playing gigs much at that time - were available. He said they were, we were thrilled and booked them. For those of you who don't know, The Skeletons (formerly The Morells) were a celebrated bar band whose only peers I can think of were NRBQ, and have at times backed (among others) Dave Alvin, Syd Straw and Jonathan Richman. After dinner and toasts, we convened on the dance floor. At this time, (band leader) Lou Whitney asked me if we had a song we wanted for our wedding dance. In all the chaos and anxiety leading up to the wedding, this detail had eluded me and I was at a loss. He chose "Theme from A Place Summer Place" (their repertoire was deep) and we danced our dance. After this, my eccentric and elderly hillbilly father in law, who was a retired sign painter, and had taken to wearing a beret and playing the bongos with lounge bands around Sarasota, Florida, sat in with the boys on a version of their song, "Outta My Way." The band then tore through their set sprinkled with covers of Merle Haggard, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Sonny Bono, Jimmy Dickens, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys and everything good that they knew and did. Some of the details of the evening are a little hazy, but I have a vague memory of the local inveterate terpsichorean Beatle Bob trying to crash our wedding on account of the evening's entertainment. He was duly ejected before entering. As the evening wore on and the older guests filtered out, The Skeletons finished their long set, as usual, with this strange and mesmerizing tune by Ronnie Self.


"Outta My Way" mp3
by The Skeletons, 1986.
available on In the Flesh!

"St. Louis" mp3
by The Skeletons, 1992.
available on Waiting

"It's The Little Things" mp3
by The Skeletons, 1992.
available on Waiting

"Thirty Days In The Workhouse" mp3
by The Skeletons, 1986.
available on In the Flesh!

More on The Skeletons HERE

More from Ronnie Self HERE

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Namesake (anniversary)

It's two years now since we began broadcasting here from Fluville.

I usually mark this day with some Elvis, since I started this on his birthday (Happy Birthday Elvis), but instead, today we'll pay tribute to an infectious little number (pun intended) by our patron saint Huey 'Piano' Smith. I've gathered up a few versions of "Rockin' Pneumonia and The Boogie Woogie Flu," for your listening pleasure.

First, the original in its original 78 RPM issue. It rocks, but you know that already. Next, The Clowns' drag-queen lead singer Bobby Marchan's funk remake from ten years later where the Boogie Woogie Flu gets updated to the Boogaloo Flu. Then, a version of BWF part 2 from a budgety compilation by a pre-Frankenstein Edgar Winter, probably from the mid-sixties, and probably with brother Johnny, although I don't know anything about the origin of this recording - if any of you scholars out there do, feel free fill in the gaps. English blued-eyed soul singer Chris Farlowe sings the shit out of this one - invoking both Tom Jones and James Brown - on an Andrew Loog Oldham produced extravaganva from 1966. Larry Williams condenses parts one and two into a pretty faithful copy made the same year as the original, and Mac Rebennack gives it some of his own mojo in a solo piano rendition. The Grateful Dead, take a plodding, half speed approach, in a performance from their last tour with biker/founding member Pigpen, who died the next year of the Rockin Pneumonia and the Liver Failure Blues at the ripe age of 27. Then, there's Fess' version, which is a bit like when Roger McGuinn covered Tom Petty, considering that the piano style of Huey Smith originates from that of Professor Longhair. It's great, and if you don't own Rock n' Roll Gumbo, you are seriously missing one of the great records of all time. And finally, Johnny Rivers' top ten version from 1972. I've always had a soft spot for this one, because it's the first one I heard, and it came out around the same time that I discovered the radio. I listened to it on KSLQ and KADI in St. Louis.

So, two years into this thing, and I'm not quite sure where it's going. It's been nice having my friends contribute here this past year, and you can expect to see more of that. Honestly, this is a lot of work and if it weren't for all the nice comments and emails I receive, I probably would have quit this a long time ago. But as the song says, "I would be runnin' but my feets too slow."


"Rockin' Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu Pt 1" mp3
by Huey 'Piano' Smith and the Clowns, 1957.
available on Having a Good Time

"Rockin' Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu Pt 2" mp3
by Huey 'Piano' Smith and the Clowns, 1957.
available on Having a Good Time

"Rockin' Pneumonia" mp3
by Bobby Marchan, 1967.
out of print

"Rockin' Pneumonia" mp3
by Edgar Winter, date unknown.
available on Harlem Nocturne

"Rockin' Pneumonia" mp3
by Chris Farlowe, 1966.
available on 14 Things to Think About

"Rockin' Pneumonia" mp3
by Larry Williams, 1957.
available on Specialty Profiles

"Rockin' Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu" mp3
by Dr. John, 1981.
available on Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack Vol. 2

"Rockin' Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu" mp3
by The Grateful Dead, 1972.
available on Steppin' Out with the Grateful Dead: England '72

"Rockin' Pneumonia" mp3
by Professor Longhair, 1974.
available on Rock 'n Roll Gumbo

"Rockin' Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu" mp3
by Johnny Rivers, 1972.
available on L.A. Reggae


UPDATE: 1.10.09

I just received this from Robert in Reno today. Thanks!

"Rockin' Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu" mp3
by Jerry Lee Lewis, 1965.
available on The Locust Years & Return To The Promised Land


...and two more from JM and Gerald. Thanks fellas.

"Rockin' Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu"
by PJ Proby, 1965.
available on I Am P.J. Proby

"Rockin' Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu" mp3
by The Flamin' Goovies, 1970.
available on Flamingo

UPDATE: 1-11-09

another PJ, another planet.

"Rockin' Pneumonia & The Boogie Woogie Flu" mp3
by PJ and The Galaxies, 1964.
available on American Surf Treasures Vol 1

UPDATE: 1-17-09

I got this from pianist Pete Wingfield yesterday.

" a fellow long-time sufferer of said Degenerate Record Collector's Disease, I considered myself duty-bound to add to your historical collection of Boogie Woogie Flu breakouts . This particular little-known instance was actually recorded by my own band Jellybread for the Blue Horizon label here in the UK in 1970. No epidemic resulted."

"Rockin' Pnuemonia & The Boogie Woogie Flu"
by Jellybread, 1970.
available on Complete Blue Horizon Sessions

and from Bruce, uptown...

"Rockin' Pnuemonia & The Boogie Woogie Flu"
by Shocking Blue, 1968.
available on Beat With Us
out of print


top photograph:
by Lee Friedlander, New York City, 1982.
from Letters From The People
D.A.P./ Distributed Art Publishing, Inc. © 1993.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Jesus Loves The Stooges

...and so does the Boogie Woogie Flu.

I'm sick of writing about dead people, but given that most of the music here at this blog was made by people that are up there in their ages, didn't live lily-white existences, or have already passed on, that's the way it goes. More on the late, great, Ron Asheton and The Stooges over at The Hound Blog

Ron Asheton R.I.P.


"Not Right" mp3
by The Stooges, 1969.
available on The Stooges

"Real Cool Time" mp3
by The Stooges, 1969.
available on The Stooges

"Down The Street (Take 8)"
by The Stooges, 1970.
available on Fun House(deluxe)

"Loose (Take 2)" mp3
by The Stooges, 1970.
available on The Complete Fun House Sessions

"See That Cat (T.V. Eye)" mp3
by The Stooges, 1970.
available on 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions

"T.V. Eye (Takes 7 & 8)" mp3
by The Stooges, 1970.
available on Fun House(deluxe)

"1970 (Take 4)" mp3
by The Stooges, 1970.
available on The Complete Fun House Sessions

More from The Stooges HERE

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Set Me Free (manually)

by Will Rigby

Count me among those who consider John Cale's post–Velvet Underground work superior overall to that of Lou Reed. Not to belittle "Dirty Boulevard" or "Waves of Fear" or "Kicks" or all the other LR songs I love (and I can't say I've gone ga-ga over a JC album in years), but Cale's albums from the '70s find their way onto my speakers more often. There is an unhinged side to him that screams a lot, and another that composes formal music; those are not the ones we're featuring today. He can write (or in some of the instances here, sing) very beautiful songs/melodies.

A little-known track stands out, if that can be said of something that is purposefully obscured. On Hobo Sapiens, his 2003 album that was his first since 1996, the song "Set Me Free" is a hidden track that is before track 1. To hear it you have to hold down the rewind button until it reaches the beginning of the song. John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants explained to me (in 1995) the possibility of a CD having a track in this location because of the way they are formatted, and that playback machines are unable to read them for no special reason other than simplicity. [For a more technical explanation you'll have to look elsewhere.] I suspect that TMBG used this trick too, but I don't know their albums.

The song is accessible musically, however, in a way that most of the album it's technically inaccessible on is not. His current music is a bit angular and machine-driven for my taste (although I must confess that I haven't heard his latest studio recording Black Acetate or his recent live album Circus Live), but he still has some pop sensibility left. Or perhaps it's an old song he's only gotten around to recording.

"Set Me Free" mp3
by John Cale, 2003.
available on Hobo Sapiens

"Empty Bottles" mp3
by John Cale, 1972.
available on Le Bataclan '72

"Set Me Free" compares well to "Empty Bottles," a song he wrote in the early '70s but perversely never recorded; instead, he gave it to Jennifer Warnes (who then went by just her first name) and produced her single of it, which to date I have been unable to find or hear. The only known version of John Cale performing "Empty Bottles" is on the album Le Bataclan '72 (2004), a nonprofessional recording of a spur-of-the-moment reunion of Cale, Reed, and Nico at a 1972 art gallery opening in France. What a shame he didn't record the song properly at the time. [I heartily recommend the fansite Fear Is a Man's Best Friend for more information on John Cale.]

"Sylvia Said" was a non-LP B-side to a 45 of "The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy" from Fear that finally appeared on album on The Island Years in 1996, another beautiful song not generally available before the age of ubiquitous CD rereleases/bonus tracks/anthologies (a description that also applies to "Burned Out Affair," an outtake from Paris 1919 that wasn't released for 33 years!). "Bamboo Floor" is an outtake from Slow Dazzle.

"Sylvia Said" mp3
by John Cale, 1974.
available on The Island Years

"Bamboo Floor" mp3
by John Cale, 1975.
available on The Island Years

"Burned Out Affair" mp3
by John Cale, 1973.
available on Paris 1919

Lou Reed and John Cale in the holiday spirit, 1976.
detail of photo by Kate Simon from the Gillian McCain/Jim Marshall collection.

"Frozen Warnings" is a performance of a Nico song from The Marble Index (which Cale produced and improvised most of the musical accompaniment on) that appears at the end of the documentary Nico/Icon, a humble documentary that is worth watching just to see Nico's grandmother humming along with the first VU album.

"Frozen Warnings" mp3
by John Cale, 1995.
from Nico Icon DVD

Cale has recorded "Hallelujah," Leonard Cohen's most well-known/recorded song, more than once. His studio recording originally appeared on the Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan, and has also been featured on the soundtrack of several movies. This version appears over a wordless scene in Shrek but not on the soundtrack album. There is also a solo piano version on his fine live album Fragments of a Rainy Season. "You Know More Than I Know" is an outtake from Fragments that appeared on a bonus EP and a label compilation.

"Hallelujah" mp3
by John Cale, 1991.
available on I'm Your Fan

"You Know More Than I Know" mp3
by John Cale, 1992.
available on Medium Rare

Fun bonus: In 1963 JC appeared on the TV show I've Got a Secret, in which a panel tried to guess what the guest's secret was. In Cale's case the secret was that he had participated in a marathon performance of Erik Satie's Vexations, in which a series of pianists play a minute-or-so piece 840 times in succession. In the age of YouTube this has become available to us to watch, tittering audience and all.

"Vexations" (Satie) mp3
by John Cale, 1963.
from I've Got A Secret TV Show