July 18, 2020
Greetings Spy Vibers! I hope everyone is well and staying safe. I've been super busy lately working on the Spy Vibe book. This week was all about diving into the sets, costumes, and interior designs of quite a few iconic films from the 1960s. I'll try to post a few hints soon; I think you will enjoy seeing some images from old faves. Recently I posted about the new collections of Fleetway comics from the UK. Some of the detective stories were set within the Trad Jazz scene in London, and I wanted to bounce back to that topic briefly. I'm a huge fan of British Trad and a collector of vintage records, programs, and autographs. If I could live within one film's universe it would be A Hard Day's Night. But if I had a Tardis, I think I would be frequenting the jazz clubs as much as catching the early days of The Beatles. Just imagine a time, especially between the early 1950s and the beat boom, when Trad was the ruckus, rowdy, and irresistible sound that drew kids to the clubs and dance halls. In some of the films of that era, such as The Hypnotist (Scotland Yard Dragnet/1957) and Mama Don't Allow (1956), the jazz scene seemed subversive and exciting. For a period it probably competed alongside early rock and roll for parent disapproval. Behind the scenes, this was a bunch a dedicated musicians who were major fans of original New Orleans jazz and blues; so much so they dedicated their lives to spreading the forms and even building upon them. One of the band leaders, who continued touring until last summer when he had to retire, was one of my great heroes, Chris Barber. Barber would eventually also bring over American artists like Muddy Waters, Sonny and Brownie, and Rosetta Tharpe to champion blues and gospel music. A central figure in the Barber band in the early-mid 50s was Lonnie Donegan, a talented singer, guitarist and banjo player. In the intervals at their shows, Barber and Donegan devoted time to American roots music. Dubbed "Skiffle" music, Donegan's powerful voice would belt out tunes by Leadbelly and others. While recording an album at Decca in July, 1954, Lonnie recorded Rock Island Line and the tune was not only a hit- the first gold certified record in the UK- it also launched a major phenomenon. As Billy Bragg pointed out in his recent book about the era, Skiffle empowered a new youth generation that suddenly found themselves free of rationing, earning their own pocket money, and ready to express their identities through a DIY sensibility and a new symbol of independence- the guitar! Sales of acoustic guitars went from about 5,000 per year to 250,000 per year. Among those kids playing Skiffle were the likes of Van Morrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, and the list goes on and on. Both Paul and George would remember fondly seeing Lonnie perform in Liverpool when they were kids. I recently visited The British Music Experience in Liverpool where I got to see many artifacts from this era. The most impressive breadcrumb was John Lennon's personal copy of Donegan's Rock Island Line 78 record. Lennon had sold it to Rod Davis, one of his fellow Quarrymen skiffle group members back in the day. And there it was! The stuff of legends. The record that launched John Lennon and eventually dominoed into thousands of other bands. The evolution of 1960s pop culture would have been dramatically different without these roots in Trad and Skiffle. I also attended the 65th anniversary concert on July 13, 2019 to celebrate Rock Island Line, as well as the unveiling of a blue plaque that has been placed on the site of Decca studios to mark its special spot in history. The concert was led by one of Lonnie's immensley talented sons, Peter Donegan (The Voice UK), who did a masterful job performing and facilitating a cohesive night of music. I'd been moved to see Peter performing one of his dad's tunes with Tom Jones on The Voice, but it was even more impressive to watch him segue the dynamics of musical moments between artists on stage, knowing when to let others shine and when to interject his own energy to keep things flowing. Peter is sincere, musically powerful, and humble- a great guy. Others on the bill included Billy Bragg, Van Morrison, Jim Carter, Mike Read, Chris Farlowe, Paul Jones, and many others. This was a night to look forward to! I got my ticket early, 4th row center, and it was a highlight of my summer in the UK last year. Well, I also got pickpocketed on the tube that night, but the music and celebrating my hero with many other heroes and fans got me through it. Plus, my pals picked me up at the station late that night and took good care of me. As I mentioned, Chris Barber's health has declined recently and he retired last summer. I think of him often and send him my very best wishes and good mojo. Lonnie sadly passed away in 2002. Although their paths may have diverged eventually, our cultural timeline was very much shaped by the passion and love each of those guys had for music and for bringing various traditions to new audiences. I've been meaning to share some of my photos from last summer, so better late than never. I photographed many more events and locations, which I promise to get to soon. Below: One of my copies of the original 78 record, the new blue plaque and the Decca building, John Lennon's copy of the record (with Lonnie's guitar), Lonnie's banjo at the British Music Experience, Peter and Van on stage, Jim Carter on stage, a few of the old club locations in London where many of the great Trad and early Rock artists played, and Ken Colyer's plaque. Learn more: Check out Billy Bragg's recent book. I was also lucky to meet up with him while he was doing a book tour in the Bay Area and it was pleasure to hear about his research and discoveries and to chat about Trad and Skiffle. Also check out my piece about the British Music Experience in Liverpool and a rare comic for the Chris Barber website. Check out discographies for Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber. Recommended CD listening. Lonnie: This Here De Story (2004), The Skiffle Sessions (w Van and Chris/2000), More Than Pye in The Sky (Bear Family set/1993), Puttin' On the Style (w/Ringo, Ron Wood, Elton/1978); Chris Barber: Seven Classic Albums (2015), Radio Luxembourg Sessions (2012), Chris Barber at the BBC (1998), Take Me Back to New Orleans (w/ Dr. John/1981), Chris Barber Presents V.1&2 (with Sonny, Brownie, Muddy Waters, Rosetta Tharpe/2008), Battersea Rain Dance (w/McCartney and Brian Auger/1969). Also check out The Pye Anthology Trad series covering Chris Barber, Kenny Ball, George Melly, Bob Wallis, and Acker Bilk. And of special note: Richard Lester's 1962 film, It's Trad Dad, featuring Gene Vincent, Chubby Checker, Helen Shapiro, and many Trad bands like Chris Barber, Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, and The Temperance Seven. Enjoy!
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