September 23, 2009

"I Must Have Been the Luckiest" — Eddie Locke

During one of my New York City interview trips back in January of 2001, I had the privilege of interviewing drummer Eddie Locke. Though his was a familiar name from LP liner notes, I can’t honestly say I knew of his work. Other interviewees suggested he might be a good candidate to interview for our archive.

This year, for the first time, Eddie was scheduled to come to Hamilton for our annual Fallcoming event October 2. When he called in July saying he had to cancel the gig, I didn’t realize how sick he was. I wanted to hold the date open for him, thinking whatever illness he had he was likely to overcome in three months. Sadly, last week we learned he passed.

Trying not to be over-the-top with superlatives, I will say that Eddie is our (my wife and my) favorite interview. He was spontaneous, funny, and deeply appreciative of the mentoring he received from Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, Coleman Hawkins and others. Eddie may have been the youngest musician to have appeared in the famous Art Kane photograph “A Great Day in Harlem,” photographed in 1958. He claims he didn’t belong there; the only reason he was included was because at the time he was hanging out with Jo Jones, sometimes literally carrying his drums. Still, Eddie was there, and he was not one of the random toddlers sitting along the curb with Count Basie. At the time he would have been around 28 years old, and had been in New York City for four years.

Eddie was deeply respectful of what his mentors explained by example; perhaps the last of a group of musicians who learned by mentorship. They dressed impeccably. They carried themselves in a dignified manner. They respected their audience, even when the crowd was thimble-sized. Sharing the stage with musicians of more experience and stature, Eddie learned his craft from the stimulating environment in New York City in the 1950’s. For most of his life he was a sideman, though there are a few LP’s listed under Eddie’s own name.

In our interview, Eddie related his experience of coming from his hometown of Detroit to New York for the first time as one half of the duo “Bop and Locke,” and his wonderment at what imploded his senses at first:

EL:       We came here in ’54.

MR:       Okay.

EL:       But we got booked into the Apollo Theater which was unheard of. That was one of the biggest Vaudeville houses that’s ever been. And we didn’t have no name. We only had played once in Detroit. And this agent saw us there. And we played at the Colonial Theater. And then he submitted us to the Apollo. And they accepted us. And that was really something you know, just to come right from Detroit to the Apollo Theater, in New York City like that, it was like astounding for me.

MR:       Were you guys nervous?

EL:       Whew. Was I nervous. When we got off the train, we rode the train here, we got off at Park Avenue and 125th Street. And when we came down those steps I was scared. I never had seen that many people. It was in July. I had never seen that many people on the street before in my life. It was like wooh, I wanted to go right back up those steps man. I was very, very funny to see. And I asked somebody, was it a parade? Because I’d never seen that many people on the street at one time like that. And that was the beginning. And we played the Apollo, and we made the whole week. You know after the first show at the Apollo, Mr. Schifman, he always watched the first show. That was the guy that owned the Apollo. And then if he called you into the office it was usually to tell you that you’ve got to go. He would pay you, but he didn’t want you. If he didn’t like the act you had to go. And after we did our first show, they had a little speaker system you know, they said “Bop and Locke? This is Schifman’s office.” And all the other acts in the other show said, “Oh, man, I feel sorry for you guys, man.” Because usually when he called —. But when we went in his office, you know, he said “you know, you guys got a nice little act, I’ll tell you one thing though, cut out those jokes.” We had some terrible jokes. And you know where we got the jokes from? We sent off for them, you know, years ago in the back of comedy books and things, you could send off for a joke book. That’s what we did. And I’ve still got it.

MR:       You’ve still got the book?

EL:       Yeah, I’ve still got the joke book. Yeah.

MR:       Oh, great.

EL:       He said “you can stay, you can do the dancing and the drumming, singing. No more jokes.”

In the ensuing five decades of life in New York, Eddie never lost that youthful enthusiasm and reverence for the music, even as he became an inspiration to other musicians. Here Eddie speaks of his relationship with Roy Eldridge:

EL:       I must have been the luckiest — and I thank God for it. I mean I don’t go to church all the time, but I do thank God for it all the time. Because that was really luck. You’ve got to be good but you’ve got to be lucky too.

MR:       Roy had quite a competitive spirit, didn’t he?

EL:       I’ve never played with anyone that loved to play as much as him. Never. And my greatest story, every time I tell somebody this, they always, they love it, but I’m going to tell this so this will be on film forever. I will never forget, we were playing in a place and there was no one in the place, just like this room we’re in now, with the band. We were up there playing. And I was just like that [scats]. And he turned around and he leaned over the drumset at me and he said “what are you doing?” And I said “well Roy” I says, “there’s nobody in here.” He looked me right in — I mean he got closer — he said, “I’M HERE!” That was the scariest thing, I mean and the way he said it, you know what I mean? But it made a difference in me. He said “I’m here.” Let’s play. Because that’s what he did. I mean I’ve heard him play some of the greatest music I ever heard, in a room just like this with nobody in it. He loved that horn. It was just like — that’s why at his funeral, when Dizzy said, He said “y’all gotta find something else to do now,” he said “because this is the only person that was ever named Jazz.” And that’s what he was. I’ve seen him, I mean Jo Jones told me, he said “one of these days you’re going to be playing with him, man, and he’s going to take you out of that drum seat. He’s going to rip you right out of that drum seat.” I said now that is really deep. I didn’t pay that much attention. But he did. Right up in Toronto one time. Oh God. I had this feature on “Caravan” that we did, and when he got to the bridge one time boy, I mean it was just like it was so dynamic. It was just like I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even play. It just took me away, I’m telling you. It was unbelievable. I never felt nothing like that before in my life. It was just — his presence when he played was just like unbelievable. Unbelievable. Like I said, I heard him every night. I never played with him — you know how long I played with him — but I had played with him before I played in Ryan’s. And never a night — he’s the only person I’ve ever been around like that — it was never a night where sometime during the night I said “wow.” Do you know what I mean? I mean he would do something that I’d never heard him do before. Like this stuff so dynamic that it would be just like woah. That was amazing. He was amazing.

 “Lucky” are the young drummers who chose Eddie as their mentor.


September 4, 2009

The Best Recording Ever

Okay, I picked a provocative title, and if you clicked on this blog entry you probably came to it with the understandable attitude that there is no way you are going to agree with my choice for best song ever recorded. In fact I was inspired to pick such a title because I am in the midst of reading a book by music author Elijah Wald entitled How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll -- an alternative history of American popular music. If you’re in Borders and you see a book about The Beatles destroying Rock & Roll, there’s no way you won’t pick it up, which I think was the point of the title. (I am two-thirds of the way through the book and The Beatles have barely been mentioned.)

One particular song has fascinated me for years, and I will eliminate other possibilities by narrowing my choice to instrumentals. The instrumental radio hit is almost a thing of the past, becoming rarer as time passes. In the fifties and sixties it was a different story. Instrumental tunes like “Honky Tonk,” “Stranger on the Shore,” “Tequila,” and “Harlem Nocturne” could be heard on AM radio and showed up on Billboard’s Top 100 List, almost always one-hit wonders for the artist. In 1962 Booker T and the MG’s recorded and released an instrumental song called “Green Onions” on the Stax label. I know you’ve all heard it, you might not even be aware what it was called, but this song has musical magic in every measure.

“Green Onions” has received its share of attention over the years. “Rolling Stone” places it #181 out of 500 on their choice of best songs ever. Movie-wise it has been used in the films “Quadrophenia,” and “Get Shorty,” it’s been in numerous commercials, as radio bumper music, and is still played at ballparks across the country.

What makes this song stand the test of time? First of all, Booker T (I will assume), or perhaps Al Jackson, counted off the perfect tempo. It clocks in at 142 beats per minute. It’s not particularly important to put a number to it, but it is a tempo that is upbeat but not too fast to become frantic. You can snap your fingers on two and four with great ease, and even people with two left feet can move back and forth to its insistent groove. The original tempo will not be heard if you visit YouTube to see live performances of “Green Onions” saved on film. As is usually the case, the live performances of recorded songs are considerably faster and you will hear the difference from the record to live versions by Booker T and his band.

On the recording, the introduction starts with four measures of organ accompanied only by the hi-hat, with a little bit of dirt in the organ sound that made the Hammond B3 the keyboard of choice at the time. The form is our old friend the 12-bar blues. People who’ve read this blog know that I’m a great lover of the 12-bar blues and you can see my entry “Why I Love the Blues” from 3/30/09. There is a particular sound to this opening lick and the following 12 bars that I find fascinating. At the risk of getting too musically technical, the bass line, in quarter notes, plays F-F-A flat-B flat, clearly indicating a minor bass line and an overall minor flavor. At the same time, on the top, the melody (if you could even call it that) starts with a beat of rest followed by quarter notes on F-E flat-D, in a descending line contrasting with the ascending line of the bass. While the bass line is playing in a minor mode, the top three chords underneath the melody tones are all major triads: F, A flat and B flat. I’m convinced that this major on top and the minor on the bottom is what gives this song a certain darkness but also an indefinable hip sound, that’s hip with a capital H. There’s no getting around the fact that the song oozes cool.

After the four-bar intro, the drums, bass and guitar kick in and immediately take it up a notch. Guitarist Steve Cropper found the perfect thing to play over the first 12 bars, as he nails an accented chord on the second half of every beat 4, slightly anticipating beat 1, giving a forward propulsion to the whole affair. Bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn doubles the left hand of the organist in unison on the ascending minor bass notes.

The first 12 bars has to be considered the melody of the song, as simple as it is. After that we launch into two 12-bar choruses of improvised organ solo, single note lines that include a beautifully placed choppy dissonance in the entrance to chorus number two. At the end of Booker T’s first two choruses, someone yells an enthusiastic but barely audible “yeah!” probably picked up by the drum mics. Check it out at 1 minute and 10 seconds into the song.

Al Jackson provides a minimal but forceful beat. These three elements, a unison guitar/bass line on the bottom, a single note solo on top, and the basic backbeat drum groove, may be the ultimate example of the whole equaling more than the sum of its parts.

The guitar steps up in the third chorus and affirms my theory that this song was one-take wonder. When the guitar solo starts you can hear it is significantly too loud, and it takes about five licks before somebody (either the man behind the control board or Steve Cropper himself) fiddles with the volume until the solo balances with the accompaniment. In today’s huge multi-tracking studios and months for making an album, this would never have been allowed. In the final mix there would never be any discrepancies regarding the balance between instruments. Cropper plays his second 12-bars with one lick repeated over and over, transposed up a fourth, back down, up a fifth, etc., in order to match the three basic chords of the 12-bar blues. The organ returns, filling two more 12-bar phrases with single note lines. The song fades out much like the intro. And after 2 minutes and 50 seconds the musical magic is complete.

Steve Cropper credits the name “Green Onions” to an attempt to come up with a title as funky as possible. The fact that Booker T and the MG’s was a quartet that was half black and half white only adds a certain hipness and panache to the song.

It’s nearly impossible to put into words what makes this song so seemingly perfect, and I’m sure there are people out there who think I’ve chosen an odd choice for my nomination for the most perfect song ever recorded. Everyone has a personal short list of songs that belong in “perfect” territory.

Some years ago I was hired to go down to Memphis to provide keyboard parts and string arrangements on a recording for an up-and-coming heavy metal band called “Young Turk.” While I was there one of the engineers happened to point to a Hammond organ sitting in the hallway. “You see that B3?” he said. “That’s the organ Booker T used on ‘Green Onions.’” Do you suppose I succumbed to the childish impulse to run my fingers over the keyboard? I did.