Back at the Chicken Shack

Jimmy Smith : Back at the Chicken Shack (#28)

Jimmy Smith | Back at the Chicken Shack (April 1960)
Blue Note (USA)

Jazz / Soul Jazz / Hard Bop – 38:02

“What is the least often heard sentence in the English language? That would be: Say, isn’t that the banjo player’s Porsche parked outside?”

There are certain instruments which everyone wishes they could play. It may be a regret that you never had the chance to blast on a trumpet or create the gentle tones of the violin. It could be a wish to show off with a little virtuoso piano tinkling or a desire to be surrounded by screaming fans as you pluck a few licks on lead guitar. It may even be that you’re happy to hide in the background, yet confident that you are the backbone of the sound as you beat the percussion. There are many instruments to choose which could propel you on to the stage as you make sweet music. And then there are the more obscure ones – the balalaika, for example, or the theremin. How many children stand before their parents, begging to play the crwth (it’s an ancient stringed instrument from Wales, in case you’re wondering)?

For me, it has always been the banjo; if not a truly bizarre choice, then certainly one which sits slightly left of centre. As I’ve already mentioned, I can play guitar (albeit at a very basic level), so clearly these string instruments hold a fascination to me. My real desire is simply to tell people who ask if I can play anything, no doubt waiting for something mundane, that I am able to knock out a tune that would place me in the midst of characters from Deliverance rather than the London Philharmonic Orchestra. There is a desire to do something which raises an eyebrow. However, I would never dream of turning such an instrument into something which could be called ‘cool’. Yet that is exactly what Jimmy Smith managed when he selected as his instrument of choice the Hammond B-3 electric organ.

As others have pointed out, the organ is not something you would associate with pop music – and certainly not jazz, which seems to cry out for serious instrumentation. But Smith was able to take a maligned music machine and take it a million miles away from the stuffy and cheesy reputation it has acquired. It is a reputation which, sadly still stands today; even in the middle of England, far away from the culture of the United States, I’m still acutely aware of the ‘tune’ (and I use the term in the loosest possible manner) which accompanies baseball games. This is not something which instills confidence. But rather than becoming a model of retro cheese, Smith was able to use the organ to not just bring a sense of early 1960s swing to his sound, but to effectively create a link between the cool jazz of the late 1950s to the soulful melodies being produced by the middle of the following decade. If ever there was a sense of a new sound emerging, then Back at the Chicken Shack is definitely it. It is for a reason that he is referred to as the Father of Acid Jazz.

Jimmy Smith originally learned to play piano, playing in a number of bands before he discovered the Hammond organ in the 1950s. By 1960, he had ten years of honing his skill under his belt. Settling into the studio with guitarist Kenny Burrell, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and drummer Donald Bailey, he set about recording Back at the Chicken Shack. It is certainly true that having three incredibly talented musicians with him was a help in producing such a great album. The four men play tightly, with each one worthy of mention during the album. Each has a chance to shine (Minor Chant is a wonderful example of this – from Turrentine’s grooving harmonics through to the fantastic drum solos of Bailey, the track is one of the standouts). But it is Smith who really comes to the fore, producing some fantastic sounds from the organ that bring out a mix of soul, jazz and blues. His mastery of the instrument is clear from the opening notes of the opening title track.

It would be easy to dismiss this album based on the instrument which its key player uses; my initial reaction before I started listening was, I admit, one of a sinking heart. But this is one of those album which catches your attention within moments of starting and simply does not let go. There may be only five numbers on the entire album (it lasts just 43 minutes), but each one is a classic in its own right. Some albums can be played on a loop without every growing tired or repetitive and Back at the Chicken Shack is one such number. The laid back style of the playing and the gentle sound of the instruments themselves help to produce an album that evokes lazy summer Sunday mornings, sipping cups of coffee, even on a cold winter night. From its rather strange cover (Smith is pictured sitting in front of an actual chicken shed) through to its obscure choice of main instrument, this is an album which transcends its image to become a must listen to piece and one which deserves its place on this list.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Back at the Chicken Shack here:

Next time: Muddy Waters at Newport by Muddy Waters

a date with the everly brothers

The Everly Brothers : A Date with The Everly Brothers (#27)

The Everly Brothers | A Date with The Everly Brothers (October 1960)
Warner Bros (USA)
Rock / Close Harmony – 27:55

“Don and I are infamous for our split, but we’re closer than most brothers. Harmony singing requires that you enlarge yourself, not use any kind of suppression. Harmony is the ultimate love.”

Getting along with one another is difficult at the best of times. Trying to work alongside people who have their own ideas about what they want can be a recipe for disaster. Throw in creativity and you are looking at some tense moments: stories are rife involving movie stars throwing tantrums on set at one another or authors concentrating their words on venomously attacking a fellow writer. Musicians are among the worst with tales of spates spilling out between everyone from The Beatles to The Eagles (following a bust-up on their 1980 tour, Don Henley said the band would only work together again when Hell froze over; apparently it did, as their live 1994 album saw them put their differences behind them and return to the stage). Things are so bad between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel that any reunion tours are scrapped barely before they begin. No wonder ‘creative differences’ are so often cited in the break-up of many talented groups; egos that big simply cannot allow anyone else to have the final say. So add in the mix of ‘brotherly love’ and you may as well step back fast. Liam and Noel Gallagher may be famous for their bust ups, but they were by no means the first; given their close harmony singing, Don and Phil Everly could barely stand one another.

Of all their difficulties, it is their lengthy split throughout the 1970s for which the Everly Brothers are most famous. The two fell out spectacularly during a live show in 1973, at Knott’s Berry Farm in California. Don, who had already spoken about his frustration of being part of the pairing, turned up to the show drunk; Phil became so angry that, smashing his guitar, he stormed off the stage. The brothers did not speak again for a decade, only breaking their silence at their father’s funeral in 1975. But this wasn’t the first time they experienced a rough road. As the 1960s began, they were already facing problems with both their management and labels, as well as starting a slow descent into drug addiction. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the King was back and ready to storm the charts again following his stint in the army. It would take a major talent to be able to hold its own in the face of such problems. Fortunately, the Everly Brothers had it in spades.

Listening to Don and Phil perform, it doesn’t take much of a musical master to spot the exquisite harmonies the pair displayed. Rather than relying on traditional harmonies, they instead relied on allowing each of them to sing in such a way that each line can stand as a melody by itself; Don taking the baritone while Phil focusing on the tenor (Made to Love is one of the few times they swapped). It sounds incredible and you can hear why future groups, such as The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, were keen to emulate them. In fact, as the pair sing, this could easily be an early recording by either of the groups. And it is this beautiful sound which brings the songs to life.

Perhaps it is their relationship which helped them to achieve this incredible harmony. Connections between siblings can be stronger than any other. Of course, they are aided by the strength of the songs themselves, including many they had written themselves after realising that they were desperately short of the number needed to complete the album. The structure to opening number Made to Love, a fun and up-beat number, would be echoed by Lennon and McCartney a couple of years later with their early tracks. Things slow down for That’s Just Too Much, which itself seems to echo Buddy Holly’s earlier work (a musician they had toured with before his untimely death). In fact, as the album progresses, it becomes glaringly obvious, from this viewpoint 65 years later, how much of a template the Everly Brothers had created. While it looks back to the rock and roll artists of the late 1950s who had inspired them, it also set the scene for the coming years of the early 1960s and, ultimately, the British invasion that was just a handful of months away. True, Elvis may have been the one who many were waiting for but, in comparison to A Date with The Everly Brothers, his recording (Elvis is Back!) sounds positively out-of-date. They may have felt threatened by his return, but this album doesn’t show it.

Stick With Me Baby may be a weaker number, but their version of Baby What You Want Me To Do, originally a hit a year earlier for its writer, Jimmy Reed, is superb. Taking the blues feel, their harmonies breathe a depth to the track that helps elevate it beyond its simple premise. While numerous artists would go on to record it – including Elvis himself – there is something haunting about the melodies which the Everly Brothers bring to it. The following track, Sigh, Cry, Almost Die, shows once again that the boys were able to match other song writers of the time with a song that sounds ahead of its time. The softer sound of Always It’s You continues to emphasis the beauty of their harmonies while Love Hurts, another song which would go on to have numerous interpretations recorded by other artists, remains at its heart an Everly Brothers classic, once again seeming to reflect their influence from Buddy Holly. Their versions of Lucille and So How Come (No One Loves Me) are both bright and breezy numbers that keep the shoulders swaying and the album moving on. Donna Donna is a highlight of the album, once again pointing the way to the way music was to develop over the following few years into the Swinging Sixties. Things come to a close with Cathy’s Clown, which proved to be the boys’ biggest hit and one which would become the basis for the arrangement of the Beatles’ Please Please Me. It may have been popular but, despite its strength as a song (moving through different paces as it progresses), is clearly not the strongest on the album.

A Date with The Everly Brothers is an album which, while looking back to the short history of rock and roll which existed in 1960, managed to create a prototype for the many bands who were to follow in the following few years. But while their influence on modern music was enormous, at its heart this is an album of glorious melodies and beautiful harmonies. If you haven’t heard it yet, then this is one album you definitely need to book a date with.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to A Date with The Everly Brothers here:

Next time: Back at the Chicken Shack by Jimmy Smith