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August 15, 2006

Book Notes - Michael Gray ("The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia")

If ever an American singer-songwriter merited his own encyclopedia, it would be Bob Dylan. Michael Gray has gathered the tendrils that built Dylan's universe into one book, and the resulting text is weighty without being overbearing. Gray is obviously an expert on Dylan, and shares his expertise in a conversational tone that is truly a pleasure to read.

Michael Gray will be doing a North American book tour beginning in late August:

August 30: Cleveland (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame)
August 31: Minneapolis (Magers and Quinn Booksellers)
September 2: Woodstock (Kleinert/James Arts Center)
September 5: New York (New School)
September 7: Austin (University of Texas)
September 8: San Francisco (Booksmith)
September 9: Berkeley (Black Oak Books)
September 10: Portland (Powell's)
September 12: Toronto (Pages Bookstore)

Here is Michael Gray's Book Notes contribution, excerpts from his book, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Ace, Johnny [1929 - 1954]
The death, by Russian roulette, of R&B singer and pianist Johnny Ace, backstage in Houston, Texas at Christmas, 1954, is better known now than at the time, though Ace had scored many R&B hits in his brief recording career. Signed to Duke Records in 1952, the following year saw his first hit, ‘My Song’, after which came 8 hits in a row, including ‘Cross My Heart’ ‘Please Forgive Me’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’.

Born John Marshall Alexander Jr. in Memphis on June 29, 1929, Johnny Ace shot himself on December 24 during a break in the show he was a part of, and died on Christmas Day. ‘Pledging My Love’ became, posthumously, his biggest hit, in 1955.

His ‘Never Let Me Go’ was performed as a duet by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at 21 of 1975’s Rolling Thunder Revue shows.

[Johnny Ace: ‘Never Let Me Go’, Houston, 1954, Duke 132, Houston, 1954.]

Diddley, Bo [1928 - ]
Otha Ellas Bates, later known as Ellas or Elias McDaniel, aka Bo Diddley, was born near McComb, Mississippi, on December 30, 1928, was adopted by his mother’s cousin in infancy and moved to Chicago in childhood. From 1946 to 1951 he played in The Washboard Trio but signed to Chess Records’ Checker label in 1955, swiftly establishing his reputation and imposing his defiantly zany persona on the worlds of R&B and rock’n’roll with the eponymous hit ‘Bo Diddley’, which utilised a distinctive and ‘primitive’ shuffle beat and laid down a blueprint for much of his own subsequent work as well as for records by others, notably including Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’. Bo Diddley employed an array of preposterously-shaped electric guitars (mostly custom Gretsches) and was an early live exponent, long before JIMI HENDRIX, of playing his instrument behind his head and with his teeth.

In Chronicles Volume One, 2004, Dylan recalls that one of his Minnesota-based singer friends, Dave Ray, was ‘a high school kid who sang… Bo Diddley songs on a twelve-string guitar, probably the only twelve-string guitar in the entire Midwest’. Bob Dylan, Bo Diddley: spoken aloud, they’re strangely similar names.

At the rehearsal for his unusual Supper Club gigs in New York City in 1993 Dylan played an instrumental version of ‘Bo Diddley’. More significantly, George White’s 1995 book Bo Diddley - Living Legend claims that the debt of Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde track ‘Obviously 5 Believers’ is to a 1956 Bo Diddley track, ‘She’s Fine, She’s Mine’.

If Bo Diddley and Bob Dylan both look back here to MEMPHIS MINNIE and her ‘Me And My Chauffeur Blues’, they also share the more unlikely repertoire item ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. Diddley, appearing live on the Ed Sullivan TV Show after having been told at rehearsal by the irrascible Sullivan to stop singing ‘Bo Diddley’ because it was wrong to sing a song mentioning his own name all the time, and to sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ instead, duly did so - but segued into ‘Bo Diddley’ in the middle. Bob Dylan recorded ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ at a Los Angeles session for the 1990 album Under The Red Sky during March-April 1990; it remains uncirculated.

Under The Red Sky was the album on which Dylan explored nursery rhyme. One of the many African-American recording artists who preceded him with a more conventionally playful (and often suggestive) recycling of better-known nursery rhymes was our friend Bo. A song called ‘Nursery Rhyme’ is on one Diddley album, while ‘Babes In The Woods’ and ‘Hey, Red Riding Hood’ are on others - this last on an album titled 500% More Man. Ronnie Hawkins may or may not have known this when he made his immortal remark: ‘Abraham Lincoln said all men were created equal, but he never saw Bo Diddley in the shower.’

[Bo Diddley: ‘She’s Fine, She’s Mine’, Chicago, 10 May 1955, Checker 819, Chicago, 1956.]

Frizzell, Lefty [1928 - 1975]
William Orville Frizzell, born March 31, 1928 in Corsicana, TX, became a highly influential honky-tonk singer of the 1950s, an idiosyncratic vocalist whose mark can be detected on the work of Merle Haggard and people like Randy Travis and who must count among those who had a subliminal influence on Dylan. He came out of the dance-halls of Texas, and ‘If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time’ made him a star in 1950. (This song was in Roy Orbison’s early repertoire, across the other side of Texas from Buddy Holly’s Lubbock homebase).

He had about thirty subsequent smaller hits, and within weeks of Holly cutting the great ‘Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues’ in 1957, Frizzell covered it (though his cover remained unissued until 1992).

He was one of the first to record a song much associated with The Band and performed by Dylan, ‘Long Black Veil’. Frizzell reached no.6 in the US country charts with it in 1959. Dylan débuted it in concert in Wheeling, West Virginia on April 28, 1997. He also performed Frizzell’s song ‘You’re Too Late’ in concert on January 29, 1999, at Daytona Beach, Florida.

Lefty Frizzell more or less drank himself to death at 47, suffering a fatal alcohol-triggered stroke on July 19, 1975, in Nashville.

[Lefty Frizzell: ‘Long Black Veil’, Nashville, 3 Mar,1959.]

‘Jumpin’ Judy’
Dylan’s inwardness with the world of the blues is modestly revealed in his enrolment of ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ into 1965’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ (released on Biograph 20 years later). She is not one of those ‘made-up’ quirky names, so many of which throng the populous world of mid-1960s Dylan songs.

Jumpin’ Judy was one of the heroines of the Southern convict farms, where, amid the savagery of the régime, was the allowing in of ‘wives’ at weekends. She was celebrated in many a blues song, as in this commonstock stanza: ‘It’s Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Judy / She was a mighty fine girl / Oh well she brought that jumpin’ / Baby to the whole round world.’

There is a commercial recording, by Wiley and Wiley [Arnold and Irene], titled ‘Jumpin’ Judy Blues’ from 1931; Allen Prothro’s performance of ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ was field-recorded by John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress at the Nashville State Penitentiary in 1933; an unidentified group of convicts was field-recorded singing the same song at the Shelby County Workhouse, Memphis, a couple of days earlier; and Kelly Pace’s ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ was field-recorded by John Lomax at Cumins State Farm, Gould, Arkansas in 1934. Another version, by prisoners known as Tangle Eye, Fuzzy Red, Hard Hair & group were field-recorded singing it on Parchman Farm, probably in 1947. A version by Richard Fariña & Eric Von Schmidt (with lead vocal by von Schmidt) was recorded in London in 1963.

The verse quoted above can be found incorporated into other songs too: for instance, as Dylan would have been aware, into Leadbelly’s 1940 version of ‘Midnight Special’.

This mythic heroine is ‘immortalized in song for her innovations’, as Alan Lomax puts it. Or as Dylan puts it in ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, ‘Jumpin’ Judy can’t go no higher’. This line, so casual and unemphasised, thus manages a three-layer play on ‘higher’, acknowledging Jumpin’ Judy as a figure who has achieved immortality in blues folklore, like Stagolee or John Henry, as well as punning on being stoned and alluding to literal jumping.

[Bob Dylan: ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, NY, 5 Oct 1965, Biograph, 1985.]

Midler, Bette [1945 - ]

Bette Midler was born on December 1, 1945, in New Jersey, but grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she majored in drama at university. Moving to New York City in the second half of the 1960s she soon made Broadway (in Fiddler on the Roof), but really made her name as a hyper-cabaret artiste in a gay bathhouse. She slid over to the mainstream via records (her first album went platinum, and in 1989 she had a no.1 hit single, ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’), theatre and eventually film (among many others, she starred in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People and Outrageous Fortune in the second half of the 1980s, worked with Woody Allen in the early 1990s and appeared in the remake of The Stepford Wives in 2004).

When Dylan was first asked to duet with Midler, he wanted them to record a version of ‘Friends’, a song she’d put two versions of on her début album, The Divine Miss M in 1973. After rehearsing it, they swapped to ‘Buckets Of Rain’ instead, giving it a pleasing, relaxed but rollocking pace and an appealing melody line - it would be country if Midler’s arranger and producer had been less mainstream showbiz - and with an altered lyric far more flirtatiously throwaway than the original, not least in singing of ‘nuggets’ instead of ‘buckets’, and ending with this spoken exchange:

Bob: ‘Hum, meany.’

Bette: ‘Oooh, you don’t even know. You have no idea.’

Bob: ‘I don’t want to know . . . . .You and Paul Simon should have done this one.’

This was not the last flirtation between the two, though it seems to have been very one-sided. Ms Midler was quoted in British tabloid newspaper The Sun in 1982 as saying that she had tried and failed to seduce Bob: ‘I got close . . . a couple of first bases in the front of his Cadillac.’ At the end of the 1985 recording of ‘We Are The World’, the charity fund-raising single in response to famine in Ethiopia, Dylan avoids the embrace of many an over-excited fellow star, but cannot ‘evade a block tackle by linebacker Bette Midler… This time her determination proves irresistible.’ She hugs him and tells him ‘Goodnight, dearest.’

An earlier take of their duet on ‘Buckets Of Rain’, with more conversation, has circulated among collectors.

[Better Midler & Bob Dylan: ‘Buckets Of Rain’, NYC, Oct 1975, Songs For The New Depression, Atlantic SD 18155, US (Atlantic K50212, UK), 1976; CD-reissued Atlantic 82784-2, US, 1997.]

Price, Alan [1941 - ]
Alan Price was born in the delightfully-named Fatfield, on Tyneside in the North-East of England, on April 19, 1941. He was in various local Newcastle-based groups before personnel from several mutated into The Animals. Alan Price was the organist on, and the credited arranger for, their second single, a fine electric version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’. The credit ‘Traditional, arranged Price’ was the source of much discontent in the group, since they felt that the arrangement had been collaboratvely arrived at. Nonetheless, Alan Price has always taken 100% of the writing royalties on this international no.1 record.

Price quit the Animals in 1965, reportedly because of his fear of flying, and became a hanger-on during Dylan’s visit to Britain that year, filmed by D.A. Pennebaker as Dont Look Back. He therefore appears in the film. Indeed he disappears in the film too: we see Dylan at his least appealing, shouting and throwing his weight around in his hotel because someone had dropped a wine glass out of the window and into the street; and when a drunken Price finally confesses, Dylan kicks him out.

Price made an immediately successful solo career, beginning by copying an American record, as UK artists were still wont to do even in the mid-1960s. In this case Price took Randy Newman’s savagely sarcastic ‘Simon Smith and his Amazing Dancing Bear’ and made a jolly hit single out of it, renouncing his marvellously grungy organ sound for a twinkling piano and clinching his image as a professional Geordie.

Reed, Jimmy [1925 - 1976]
Jimmy Reed was born on September 6, 1925 on a plantation at Dunleith, Mississippi. He was a hugely influential, popular artist. His hits, on which he played guitar & harmonica and sang, began in 1955 with ‘You Don’t Have To Go’ and ‘Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby’; his many others include ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’ (1960), ‘Big Boss Man’, ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ and his biggest US crossover (into pop) hit, ‘Honest I Do’ (1955), all made for Vee Jay Records. His only scrape into the British charts was with ‘Shame Shame Shame’, which peaked at no.45 in 1964. The Rolling Stones revived ‘Honest I Do’ on their first album, The Rolling Stones, the same year.

Dylan’s Basement Tapes rock song ‘Odds And Ends’ uses the title of a prominent 1957 Reed record - prominent for the splendidly-named Remo Biondi ‘playing the electric violin’, and for Jimmy Reed’s harp. Indeed his relentless, pulsating, slow harmonica-work on this moody alligator of an instrumental record is surely the model for Bob Dylan’s on that masterly Blonde On Blonde blues, ‘Pledging My Time’.

The figures Reed relied on more than Remo Biondi were his long-time guitarist partner Eddie Taylor, whose distinctive riffs often ‘make’ Reed’s records, and his wife, Mary Lee Mama Reed, who wrote much of his material. An epileptic with an alcohol problem, Jimmy Reed died from respiratory failure on August 29, 1976 in Oakland, California. He was 50.

[Jimmy Reed: ‘Odds And Ends’, Chicago, 3/4/57, Vee Jay 298, Chicago, 1957.]

Rogers, Weldon [1927 - ]
The bass riff used on Dylan’s Oh Mercy track ‘Everything Is Broken’, and relied upon far more heavily in live performance of the same song, is taken from the Weldon Rogers song Dylan often used, perversely, to greet his 1986 US tour audiences: ‘So Long, Good Luck & Goodbye’. Rogers cut his own record of it at Norman Petty’s legendary custom-studio in Clovis, New Mexico some time in the first half of that marvellous music year, 1957.

He is an impressively obscure rockabilly (or old-fashioned country wannabille) artist for even Bob Dylan to have picked up on. Born in Marietta, Oklahoma on October 30, 1927, he learnt to play guitar while serving in Italy in World War II. Returning to the States, he drifted around for many years but then, in Texas with his accordion-playing girlfriend Jean, founded Jewel Records (‘Je’ from Jean, ‘wel’ from Weldon), which used Norman Petty’s studios and issued ROY ORBISON & the Teen Kings’ ‘Ooby Dooby’ before the far larger Sun Records (no giant itself) stepped in when the record was beginning to do well, signed Orbison and halted sales of the Jewel label pressing.

Rogers, who had previously been a Seminole, Texas, DJ and cut two 1955 sides for the Quenn label in San Antonio, then cut a duet with his brother Willie on Jewel, before persuading Lew Chudd of Imperial Records to sign him up by pretending that Orbison’s ‘Ooby Dooby’ B-side, ‘Trying To Get To You’, was his own. Chudd paid for Rogers, now backed by the Teen Kings (whom Orbison had dumped), to go back into the Clovis studios. On the way there, Weldon wrote ‘So Long, Good Luck & Goodbye’. It was issued with Orbison’s version of ‘Trying To Get To You’ on the B-side. Consequent ructions meant that despite the A-side’s moderate success, it was the end of Weldon Rogers’ Imperial Records career.

Later, with his wife Wanda Wolfe duetting, he made records (back on Jewel), such as ‘Everybody Wants You’, as by Weldon Rogers & Wanda Wolfe, with the then-unknown Glen Campbell on lead guitar. From 1961, he started moving around again, taking day-jobs as a radio DJ and making records now and then - in Farmington, NM; Pueblo, Colorado and Medford, Oregon. There last recordings were in 1972, and in the 1980s the radio-station jobs became as station manager instead of DJ. He retired in 1989, the same year Bob Dylan recorded ‘Everything Is Broken’, finally settling back in the Texas panhandle in 1991.

When Dylan picked up Rogers’ ‘So Long, Good Luck & Goodbye’ and re-used its riff over thirty years on, he was suggesting that even one-hit rockabilly stars are not forgotten - and that not everything is broken.

[Weldon Rogers: ‘So Long, Good Luck & Goodbye’, Clovis NM, 1957, Imperial X5451, 1957.]

see also:

Village Voice review
Interview with the author

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)