Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Jackie Brenston, Trouble Up the Road.

The story of one of fortune's fools: Jackie Brenston was a 21-year-old singer and saxophonist working in Clarksdale, Mississippi, when he landed a gig with Ike Turner's band. The band drove up to Memphis to cut some records for a new producer named Sam Phillips, and one track they cut was Brenston's rewrite of Jimmy Liggins' "Cadillac Boogie": "Rocket 88", which became an enormous R&B hit, one which essentially founded Sun Records and, some would argue, rock & roll itself.

The problem was that the single was credited to "Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats," not "Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm," a fact that galled Turner, and which became even more irritating when "Rocket 88" was a hit. Unsurprisingly, Turner and Brenston parted company soon afterward. But Brenston was still basically a tyro musician, and his attempts at a follow-up hit came to nothing. So by the late '50s, Brenston was back playing saxophone in Ike Turner's band--only this time Turner made sure his name was on the records. The band sometimes would play "Rocket 88" live, and Turner never let Brenston sing it.

Ike did let Brenston revive a song originally called "You've Got To Lose" that Turner's band had recorded (with Brenston singing) in 1958. (You can still hear it on Boogie Woogie Flu's tribute to Ike Turner). Renamed "Trouble Up the Road," and recorded during a break in an Ike & Tina session in 1961, it's a dress rehearsal for the rest of the decade. Brenston reorients the track, parking the percussive guitar riff on center stage and eliminating the secondary piano line, jacking up the beat and just making the whole piece louder and more propulsive. It's essentially what Pete Townshend, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton would do in a few years, in what Townshend would call "maximum R&B."

The world, however, is rarely interested its future, and the single only made it to #118 on the national charts. Turner and Brenston split up again, and Brenston began playing with Sid Wallace, making it through dreary gigs by getting drunk on a bottle of wine each night. He became a part-time truck driver, a full-time alcoholic. Brenston eventually drifted back to Clarksdale and Memphis, and it was in Memphis, where he had cut "Rocket 88", where he died in a V.A. hospital in 1979.

As the man sang: You got to lose/you can't win all the time.

Released under the name "Jackie Brensten" (for unknown but likely legal reasons), "Trouble" was issued as Sue 736 c/w "You Ain't the One"; on Bubbling Under.

Coming soon: the end of '61, summer songs, and a new, utterly random theme series.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, Crazy Rhythm (1937).
Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, Crazy Rhythm (1961).
Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, Honeysuckle Rose (1937).
Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, Honeysuckle Rose (1961).

One day in springtime, in Paris, 1937, two expatriate American saxophone players met to immortalize an afternoon. Coleman Hawkins had left the U.S. in 1934, sailing to the U.K. to play in the Jack Hylton Orchestra and then touring the Continent for years, using The Hague as a base of operations; Benny Carter had sailed to Paris in 1935 and had been jumping around Europe in the years since.

The French jazz fanatics Hugues Panassié and Charles Delaunay (son of the painter) had organized a session in which Hawkins and Carter would play with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. The latter four had been jamming in after-hours sessions at the Pigalle club Swing Time; one musician recalled the players battling one night for supremacy, running through a pop tune called "I Won't Dance" over and over again, endlessly changing keys, until only Carter and Reinhardt were left standing. "Benny played in almost every key with typical relaxation, but Django was indifferent to the key. He played just as well in any key without once making a mistake. He was truly unbeatable." (from Michael Dregni's Django.)

For the recording session, Carter's arrangement called for four saxophones (two tenors, two altos) and four rhythm players, and the result was a legend as soon as the last note was played, if not before (Panassié always regretted that the first thing Hawkins played when he arrived at the session--a duet with Grappelli on "Honeysuckle Rose"--wasn't recorded, as he claimed it was a masterpiece). "Honeysuckle Rose" features a Hawkins solo that presages his track-long improvisation on "Body and Soul" two years later--like a happy conversation, it ranges widely and offers a new insight just when you think it's run its course. Reinhardt (who's fairly subdued on this track) gets two chances to interject, and Carter uses his eight bars to perform a miniature.

"Crazy Rhythm" finds the Europeans raising the ante. Andre Ekyan and Alix Combelle lead off the solos, and though they were in utter awe of the Americans, they hold their ground--Combelle, in particular, has a nice gritty sound further invigorated by Reinhardt's rhythm playing. Carter, the third soloist, is fleet and dazzling.

And then Hawkins closes it out. Hawkins had been coasting a bit in Europe--he was so superior to most of the local players that he had grown accustomed to being the star presence on the bandstand, and few had noticed when he offered an uninspired solo. Now he actually had competition. After the first take of "Crazy Rhythm," Carter had even called him out! "'Man, that ain't the way it should go', [Carter said] as if to make Hawkins realize he'd have to get down to it," Combelle recalled years later. (Details from John Chilton's Song of the Hawk.)

So Hawkins opens with some clipped riffs that he soon broadens into longer, elaborate phrases; he continues to expand, growing in speed and power, until he enters his second chorus (someone in the room yelps in encouragement) and then he just bores in, offering an impasto of dazzling rhythms and half-heard melodies. The cut-off, when the group hastily resumes the original theme, seems like a crime against art.

She says, "You can't repeat the past." I say, "You can't? What do you mean, you can't? Of course you can."

Bob Dylan, "Summer Days."

Decades passed, wars erupted and were wearily ended, empires fell, new countries were cobbled together. A-bombs and television debuted. The two expatriates had long ago come home, and one autumn day in New York, in 1961, they reunited in the studio. Once again, Hawkins and Carter; once again, "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Crazy Rhythm"; once again, four saxes and four rhythm players.

Is it folly to chase after your youth? Perhaps. Hawkins, while he's still in strong form at age 57, can't quite match the highs of his 1937 performance. But there are some improvements to be found: in the '37 recordings, the bassist was almost non-existent, but here Jimmy Garrison offers some fleet, buoyant bass lines that add a new dimension to the piece.

The '61 "Honeysuckle Rose" finds Hawkins jumping in defiantly--it begins with Charlie Rouse and then the young Phil Woods, but when Hawkins begins, he's loud, blustering and still commanding attention. But he's upstaged by Carter. In the '61 "Crazy Rhythm," however, Hawkins goes first, sparring and wheeling around, as if to defy the fates, or at least his collaborators.

The 1937 tracks were recorded on 28 April in Paris, with Ekyan on alto sax, Combelle on tenor, Eugene d'Hellemmes (b) and Tommy Benford (d). On Swing Sessions Vol. 1.

The 1961 tracks were recorded on 13 November and feature Woods and Rouse on sax (tenor and alto, respectively); John Collins has the thankless task of trying to match Reinhardt on guitar; Dick Katz's piano subs for Grappelli's violin; and the veterans Garrison (b) and Jo Jones (d) provide the bedrock. On Carter's Impulse LP Further Definitions.

Monday, May 19, 2008


The Showmen, It Will Stand.
Lee Dorsey, Ya Ya.

Some folks don't understand it,
That's why they don't demand it.

The Showmen.

Why New Orleans rules, part upteenth in a series:

The Showmen were from Norfolk, Va. They came together in the late '50s and were signed to Atlantic, which, however, never released a single record by them. So the band went to New Orleans, auditioned for Minit Records owner Joe Banashak, and cut eight tracks for him. Everyone was hot for one song, "Country Fool," but Banashak's wife pushed for "It Will Stand," which eventually was slated for the b-side. DJs, when they heard the single, agreed with her and played the flip. It became a hit in 1961, again in '64 and again in 1970 (when General Johnson, former lead singer of The Showmen, was on the charts again with The Chairmen of the Board).

"It Will Stand," more than "Rock & Roll All Nite" or "Rock and Roll Music" or "I Love Rock & Roll" or the dozens of other contenders, is for me rock & roll's national anthem--its working philosophy, its Declaration of Principles. Or call it the rock & roll Marseillaise, and play it at full blast at least one day a year.

Don't you rename it!
You might as well claim it!
It will be here for ever and ever,
Ain't gonna fade, never no never.

"It Will Stand" was recorded 5 July 1961 and released as Minit 632 in September; it was re-released by Imperial and Liberty Records in 1964 and 1970, respectively, and ought to be re-released again today. On tons of compilations, like Beach Music Sound.

Lee Dorsey, a former prizefighter known in the day as "Kid Chocolate" and an occasional musician, was living in the 9th Ward of New Orleans when Fury Records owner Bobby Robinson visited him and asked if he had any new material. Dorsey didn't, and neither did Robinson. So they sat on Dorsey's porch, listening to kids playing in the street, and hearing them sing a bit of street doggerel: "sittin' on the la la, yeah yeah--sittin' on the la la, yeah yeah."

Dorsey and Robinson went to a bar, had a few beers. Robinson asked the barmaid for a pad and pencil. He began to sketch out a song, remembering what the kids had been singing. They agreed "sitting on your la la" sounded like you were sitting on your ass, so that had to get tweaked. So he and Dorsey changed it up--Sittin' here la la, waitin' for my ya ya. Robinson sold Dorsey on the story--you're waiting for your girlfriend, she's late, you're getting worried. "Baby hurry, don't make me worry."

The next day, Dorsey and Robinson cut a demo, recorded the track soon afterward, and it reached the national Top 10. Dorsey, though he had a number of other big hits in the '60s, kept his bearings--he ran an auto body shop in the 9th Ward and considered that to be his main source of income, with the records as a sideshow.

Released as Fury 1053 c/w "Give Me You"; on Golden Age of American Rock & Roll Vol. 10.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Bob Dylan, Remember Me (When the Candlelights Are Gleaming).
Bob Dylan, Death Don't Have No Mercy.
Bob Dylan, Talking Columbia.
Bob Dylan with Ramblin' Jack Elliot, The Great Divide.
Bob Dylan (with Oscar Brand interview), Sally Gal.
Bob Dylan, In the Pines.
Bob Dylan, Long Time A Growin'.
Bob Dylan, House Carpenter.
Bob Dylan, This Land Is Your Land.
Bob Dylan, Dink's Song.
Bob Dylan, Wade in the Water.
Bob Dylan, Black Cross.
Bob Dylan, I Was Young When I Left Home.

At last here I was in New York City, a city like a web too intricate to understand and I wasn't going to try.

It wasn't money or love I was looking for. I had a heightened sense of awareness, was set in my ways, impractical and a visionary to boot. My mind was strong like a trap and I didn't need any guarantee of validity.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles.

He first came to New York as anonymously as we all do. Somewhere on the Upper West Side, on a freezing Tuesday afternoon in January 1961, a four-door Impala lumbers to a stop and disgorges two men carrying duffel bags and guitar cases. They stand and shiver for a few minutes on the street, talk and point, bum cigarettes and ask directions from passersby and then begin walking the sixty blocks or so down to the West Village. One is a folk singer named Fred Underhill, the other is one Robert Zimmerman, late of Madison, Wisconsin. That night, the pair play the open mike at the Cafe Wha?, and when their set is over, the Wha's owner Manny Roth asks the handful of patrons if anyone has room to put them up.

You could say Fred Underhill is the control, Robert Zimmerman the experiment, in an exercise whose results have yet to be fully comprehended.

Over the next nine months, Bob Dylan would meet and play for his idol, Woody Guthrie; he would be written up in the New York Times and would play Carnegie Chapter Hall; and, having been signed by the man who discovered Billie Holiday, would cut his first album for Columbia Records before Thanksgiving.

Bob Dylan's hothouse apprenticeship is bewildering to examine--its speed, its ruthlessness, its audacity. It's saddening as well, to realize that the environment that produced a genius like Dylan--the pass-the-hat coffeehouses, the cold-water flats, the pamphleteers, the mentors and promoters and sympathetic Reds--has all but vanished, so that in 2008, a kid who arrived in NYC from Madison, Wisconsin, broke but bursting with talent, would simply have nowhere to go.

After arriving in NYC, Dylan's first order of business was to establish a line of succession--to meet Woody Guthrie, who was dying in Greystone Hospital. On Sundays, Guthrie was allowed to go to the home of his friends, an electrician named Bob Gleason and his wife Sid. Their house in East Orange, NJ, became one of Dylan's first places to crash, as well as serving as a graduate course--he burned through the Gleasons' folk and blues LP collection, absorbing everything that he heard. On Sundays, he auditioned for history, playing for the likes of Guthrie, Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger and Ramblin' Jack Elliot.

Dylan's take on "Remember Me" was recorded by the Gleasons at some point during Dylan's stay with them in February 1961. While it sounds as though it could be an 18th Century English ballad, "Remember Me" was a near-contemporary country song, written in the early '40s by Scott Wiseman. Dylan sings it in a nasal twang and manages to sound even younger than he is.

By the time he returned to Minnesota in May, Dylan had become a Guthrie apostle, singing like an Okie. A version of Rev. Gary Davis' "Death Don't Have No Mercy," recorded at his friend Bonnie Beecher's apartment in Minneapolis, shows Dylan in flux--he seems as delighted as a neophyte to have mastered the chord changes, but then, when he begins singing of death and despair, he becomes spectral. It's as though, in order to bridge the chasm between his own limited experience and the hard, dark knowledge of songs like "Death Don't Have No Mercy," Dylan submits completely to the song, channeling ghosts, performing a mummery.

Woody Guthrie's "Talking Columbia" is from one of Dylan's first recorded live performances, at the Yale-sponsored Indian Neck Folk Festival, held at the Montowesi Hotel in Branford, CT, on 6 May 1961. (It was here Dylan first met Bob Neuwirth, and likely heard Gary Davis perform.) It's a poor recording, and Dylan's singing is barely audible, but it serves to show how much of a professional veneer Dylan had by this point. It's also a snapshot from the height of Dylan's Guthrie mania--each performance is preceded by "this is a Woody Guthrie song" in the manner of a kid saying a quick grace before a meal.

By the fall of '61, Dylan had been to up to Cambridge, Mass., where he had met Eric Von Schmidt ("in the green pastures of Harvard University") and Richard Fariña, had backed Harry Belafonte in the studio and had established himself as the preeminent up-and-comer in the Village folk scene. He also cannily wooed Robert Shelton, the New York Times' folk music critic, who provided Dylan with LPs, rehearsal space and eventually a Times review.

The duet with Jack Elliot on Guthrie's "Great Divide" is from Dylan's residency at Gerde's Folk City in late September.

The interview with WNYC's Oscar Brand occurred on 29 October 1961, a few days before Dylan's first headline performance at Carnegie Chapter Hall. Dylan's interview, in which he offers a series of shameless fictions about his life, is even more appealing than the version of "Sally Gal" that he eventually offers (and which, in another little audacity, he claims to have written in a carny--it was actually adapted from Guthrie's "Sally Don't You Grieve").

From the Carnegie show itself are the traditional ballads "In the Pines" and "Long Time A-Growin'" (or "Young But Daily Growing")--Dylan would revisit the latter with the Band several years (and several lifetimes) later. The show was a bit of a flop (only 50 or so people attended, mostly friends), but the surviving recording shows Dylan's growing skill as a performer, using charm and digressions to keep his audience hooked.

"In the Pines" or "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" is an Appalachian ballad that dates back to the 1870s, though it was popularized in the mid-20th Century by Leadbelly, whose recording likely influenced Dylan. (The kids likely know this version.)

I just played the guitar and harmonica and sang those songs and that was it. Mr. Hammond asked me if I wanted to sing any of them over again and I said no. I can't see myself singing the same song twice in a row.* That's terrible.

Bob Dylan, 1962, on the recording of his first album.

* Dylan actually did multiple versions of "You're No Good," "House of the Rising Sun," "Talkin' New York," "Man of Constant Sorrow," "Pretty Peggy-O" and "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" during these sessions.

Dylan cut his first LP (which allegedly cost $400 to make) on the evening of 20 November and the afternoon of 22 November 1961. The only original songs taped were "Talkin' New York" and "Song to Woody" and much of the rest of the material were songs that hadn't been in Dylan's regular stage repertoire. So begins a long, endless tale of Dylan being uncomfortable within the confines of the studio and frustrating fans with his selections and deletions.

Case in point: one of the best performances from the sessions, "House Carpenter," was left on the shelf for three decades. "House Carpenter," or "The Demon Lover," is an ancient song, Child Ballad #243--known in the 17th Century as "A Warning for Married Women, being an example of Mrs Jane Reynolds (a West-country woman), born near Plymouth, who, having plighted her troth to a Seaman, was afterwards married to a Carpenter, and at last carried away by a Spirit."

Dylan's version of "This Land Is Your Land" (sadly truncated and marred by some loud thumping) was taped at the home of folk aficionados Eve and Mac McKenzie, in NYC on 4 December 1961.

Finally, Dylan went back to Minneapolis for Christmas; it was a victory procession of sorts, commemorated one night when Dylan, knocking off an entire bottle of Jim Beam, recorded some two dozen performances on a reel-to-reel tape. The session was a valedictory to Guthrie, who Dylan was leaving behind (he ran through all of Guthrie's "V.D." songs), a tribute to Dylan's current influence, Dave Van Ronk, and an indication of future directions, both in the new compositions Dylan was writing and in the utter confidence and power of his playing.

"Wade in the Water" is salvation via apocalypse. while Dylan's take on Lord Buckley's "Black Cross" is a parable without an answer. And Dylan simply inhabits "Dink's Song," a tune he had learned from a John Lomax collection. From Lomax's 1947 book, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter:

I found Dink washing her man's clothes outside their tent on the bank of the Brazos River in Texas. Many other similar tents stood around. The black men and women they sheltered belonged to a levee-building outfit from the Mississippi River Delta, the women having been shipped from Memphis along with the mules and the iron scrapers, while the men, all skillful levee-builders, came from Vicksburg...

Dink, reputedly the best singer in the camp, would give me no songs. 'Today ain't my singin' day,' she would reply to my urging. Finally, a bottle of gin, bought at a nearby plantation commissary, loosed her muse. The bottle of liquor soon disappeared. She sang, as she scrubbed her man's dirty clothes, the pathetic story of a woman deserted by her lover when she needs him most - a very old story. Dink ended the refrain with a subdued cry of despair and longing - the sobbing of a woman deserted by her man.

And finally, "I Was Young When I Left Home," Dylan's reworking of Guthrie's "900 Miles," is one of Dylan's finest early compositions, an early epitaph for a life constantly renewing itself.

Just after the new year began, Dylan went back to New York. Four months later, he wrote "Blowin' in the Wind."

The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.

Dylan, Chronicles.

Most of these recordings remain unreleased, though they are starting to come out in drips and drams. "House Carpenter" is on the first Bootleg Series set; "Wade in the Water" is on Live 1961-2000; and both "I Was Young When I Left Home" and "Dink's Song" are on the No Direction Home soundtrack.

Sources: Olof Bjorner, Hard Times in the City; Clinton Heylin, Behind the Shades; The Recording Sessions; Paul Williams, Performing Artist 1960-1973; Michael Gray, Song and Dance Man III; B. Dylan, Chronicles.

For Chris George ("this is for Leonard, if he's still here")

RIP: Robert Rauschenberg.

Friday, May 09, 2008


Count Basie, Segue in C.
Lennie Tristano, C Minor Complex.

Exuberant thoughts in parallel keys:

This version of "Segue in C" was recorded by Count Basie and his orchestra at Birdland, NYC, on 27 July 1961, and then was shelved and forgotten until the mid-'90s, when it finally turned up on a wonderful, comprehensive, long out-of-print and unaffordable (are there any other kind?) Mosaic compilation.

Basie, who had had to disband his jazz orchestra in the lean postwar years, spent the '50s gradually emerging from exile, building up a new big band whose focus would be on clean, dazzling precision. "Yet he never lost his penchant for economy--his rhythms continued to reflect the wide open spaces, and he often held the full force of his band in reserve, like artillery." (Gary Giddins).

"Segue in C" was a blues written and arranged by Frank Wess, who played alto and tenor saxophone, along with the occasional flute, with Basie's orchestra. Basie, on piano, opens the piece, smiling but intent on writing a few lines in a clean, bright script. Budd Johnson, a ligament in the scheme of jazz anatomy (he started out with Earl Hines and Armstrong during the Depression and made records up through the '80s), offers the main riff on tenor saxophone. Another riff, even sweeter, appears later in the track, carried en masse by the horns.

Featuring, on trumpet, Thad Jones, Sonny Cohn, Lennie Johnson, Snooky Young; on trombone, Quentin Jackson, Henry Coker, Benny Powell; Marshall Royal (alto sax, clar.); Wess (alto sax, tenor sax, flute); Frank Foster, Johnson (tenor sax); Freddie Green (g); Eddie Jones (b) and Sonny Payne (d); On Basie At Birdland.

Lennie Tristano is jazz's equivalent to our cover star J.D. Salinger: he published little, influenced scores, and in his later years rarely left his house. Tristano, blinded as an infant due to the flu epidemic of 1919, became known as a master of performance (he played everything from C melody saxophone to drums) and composition, with a school of disciples including Lee Konitz and Billy Bauer. Tristano's most public phase, when he played with most of the key bebop players like Bird and Fats Navarro, had waned by the early '50s. A 1955 LP for Atlantic was followed by seven years of silence, interrupted only by the occasional odd performance (he played with Konitz in places like the Sing Song Room of New York's Confucius Restaurant). When Tristano died in 1978, only one of his albums was in print, and that was a Japanese import.

"C Minor Complex," recorded at home in the autumn of 1961, is one of Tristano's masterpieces--a work of virtuosity and dexterity, moving at ever-shifting rhythms. Released on the 1962 Atlantic LP The New Tristano; when it was eventually issued on CD as a two-fer compilation, Rhino weirdly decided to omit "C Minor Complex," which would be like reissuing Kind of Blue without "So What"; it's thankfully available on this imported version of The New Tristano.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

1958 (Revisited and Corrected)

Back in January 2007, I wrote a post on the recording of the Beatles' first-ever disc, "That'll Be the Day"/"In Spite of All the Danger." Proving that history is indeed bunk (and that anything published about the Beatles is quite possibly wrong), the Beatles histories I used for background turned out to be incorrect about many of the details of that recording. I know this because one of the original Quarrymen, John "Duff" Lowe, just wrote and set me straight.

So in an attempt to finally get something accurate on the Internet about an event that has become almost entirely consumed in myth, here's Mr. Lowe's account of the facts:

Of the five of us who made the disk, only 3 are still alive, Paul, Colin and me and since I doubt you've been able to talk to Paul, it must have been Colin who gave you the story and he obviously has a bad memory. On the other hand, perhaps Colin never came to rehearsals at Paul's (because of the noise his drums would have made in a terraced house and annoyed Paul's neighbours) and so FOR HIM, it might have been the first time he had heard In Spite of All the Danger (ISOATD).

I can assure you that ISOATD was rehearsed on a number of Sunday afternoons at Paul's house before we went to Percy Phillips to record it. The appointment was made with Phillips specifically to record two numbers, namely That'll be the Day and ISOATD. There was no question of anything being 'sprung' on anyone, except for perhaps Colin. John, Paul George and I were all perfectly happy with what we had to do. Paul had produced ISOATD at one of our regular rehearsals and we proceeded to learn it over 3 or 4 weeks with Paul being quite particular as to what we should play and how.

The original ISOATD runs to just over 4 minutes and because we were recording direct to disc (NOT to tape first) Percy was going frantic and dragging his finger across his throat telling us to finish the song, because he could see that we were going to record off the acetate and onto the middle. The run-off on the record is about 0.5 second before the arm lifts, it was that close. Please feel free to use this as an authoritative account of what actually happened.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Little Milton, So Mean to Me.
June Carter, The Heel.

A session of couples counseling:

He said: you treat me like the dirt down on the ground. How can one woman be so unkind?

Little Milton's "So Mean to Me" was released as Checker 994 c/w "I Need Somebody" (guess things didn't work out); on Greatest Hits.

She said: why must I just sit here and grieve? Why don't I just pack up and leave? That dirty low-down heel.

June Carter's early solo single "The Heel" was released two years before she met Johnny Cash and entered the ring of fire with him. "Heel" is a pretty modern (almost a novelty) record for a Carter Family heiress, with a Wurlitzer organ commenting on the action. Destined to be used in a Tarantino film.

Released as Liberty 55385 c/w "If I Ever See Him Again"; on Keep on the Sunny Side.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


Mighty Sparrow, Royal Jail.
Wanda Jackson, Riot in Cell Block #9.

I done tell my friends and my family, not to worry
Any one of them interfere with me, take it easy.
Don't worry to beg the jury
Save the lawyer fee
And if you have any mail
Send it to me at the Royal Jail.

Mighty Sparrow.

The calypsonian Mighty Sparrow was born Slinger Francisco in Grenada in 1935; his family moved to Trinidad when he was a year old. He first sang in the boys choir of St. Patrick's Catholic Church, whose plainsongs and chants would emerge as echoes in Sparrow's records, and by the age of 14 he was playing in a local steel drum band. He got his nickname because of the way he flitted about as he sang, much to the amusement of his elders.

Sparrow's "Royal Jail" is a demonstration of how time enshrouds life--while its lyric was utterly transparent to Trinidadians of the period, it now seems to be composed of a series of riddles without answers. It may have something to do with government minister Dr. Patrick Solomon, who Sparrow disliked (another record of the time was called "No, Doctor, No", though that was about People's National Party leader Eric Williams); it's also a warning to gangsters to back off, and a boast of triumph over Sparrow's competitors.

"Jail" was one of a string of records Sparrow made in the late '50s and early '60s that won him regional fame and local competitions, such as being crowned Trinidad's Calypso Monarch eight times.

He kept on annotating and documenting the waning century, calling out from the margins, whether living in Trinidad, London or Queens--his songs addressed Trinidadian independence, civil rights, tax schemes, cannibalism, women, Fidel Castro eating bananas, thoughts on how to end apartheid (1982's "Isolate South Africa" was followed by 1986's "Invade South Africa"), the Crown Heights riot in NYC, and capitalism, among other things. His 1979 record "Wanted Dead or Alive" celebrates "the rule of the tyrants decline," marking the domino fall of everyone from the deposed (the Shah, Anastasio Somoza, Idi Amin, Ian Smith) to the assassinated (Ali Bhutto, Park Chung-hee) ("so they corrupt, so they vile/so it's coup after coup all the while"). He just made a record supporting Barack Obama.

"Royal Jail" (the namesake of which still stands in Port of Spain, Trinidad) was released as RCA 7-2049 c/w "Freezing in New York"; on 16 Carnival Hits.

Wanda Jackson turns Leiber and Stoller's "Riot in Cell Block No. 9" into a women's prison revolution, led by Two-Gun Mathilda and the dynamite-tossing Molly. Prison officials, after failing to subdue the women by gunfire, turn to a line of handsome troopers from the state militia as their last line of defense.

While not in the same class as the original version by The Robins (which was part Mad Magazine spoof, part Attica dress rehearsal), Jackson's take is still raucous enough to wake you up. It was recorded on 28 October 1960 and released in February 1961 as Capitol 4520 c/w "Little Charm Bracelet"; on Vintage Collections.

Top: "Axis Sally" (Mildred Gillars), upon release from the Federal Reformatory Prison for Women in Alderson, West Virginia, 10 July 1961. Gillars had spent 11 years in jail after being convicted of treason for broadcasting Nazi propaganda during World War II.