”]”Les Paul and Namesake [Photo: Jim Cooper]In 2002, I interviewed the great American musician, inventor, and raconteur Les Paul on the subject of his good friend and fellow guitar wizard Charlie Christian. By that time, Christian had been dead for 60 years but Les seemed to recall their every significant encounter, beginning with a Bob Wills gig at a Tulsa, Oklahoma ballroom. This interview was included in the booklet that accompanied the Sony Legacy box set Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar.

-> Les Paul on “My Friend Charlie Christian” as told to Andy Schwartz here.

-> New York Times obit by Jon Pareles here.

-> Les Paul Trio plays “Dark Eyes” on YouTube.

-> Les stars in a Coors beer commercial on YouTube [thanks to Al Masocco for this one]Arthur Levy writes: “I watched the CBS Evening News to see how they would handle LP’s passing…They name-checked and photo-checked a slew of guitarists who, they said, played the great Les Paul guitar — Paul McCartney, B.B. King, Keith Richards, Joe Walsh, Steve Miller, several others — and not one photo showed any of them playing a Gibson Les Paul, not one! There were Stratocasters, Telecasters, a Gibson 335 or two, even a Gretsch in there — but not a single Les Paul.”

Photo: Barbara van den Hoek

A Smokin' DeVille (Photo: Barbara van den Hoek)

“Mink DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow — timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quite for a minute. But the fighters always have a shot at turning a corner, and if you holler loud enough, sometimes somebody hears you.

“And truth and love always separate the greats from the neverwases and the neverwillbes.”

By Doc Pomus (March 13, 1978) – Liner notes to Return to Magenta by Mink DeVille (Capitol LP 11780)

I didn’t know Willy DeVille, who died of pancreatic cancer on 8/6/09 in Manhattan. I interviewed him on one occasion in the Mink DeVille days, probably for New York Rocker, and remember him as guarded, suspicious of the press, and quite intimidating — with his hard shell and heroin hauteur — to this relatively clean-living, upper-middle-class kid from Westchester County. (I wouldn’t have guessed that we were the same age or that he’d grown up in Stamford, Connecticut.) At that time, Willy was inseparable from his girlfriend Toots — she may have the been the first tattooed woman I ever met, this was long before you could get inked at any suburban mall. Pehaps I should’ve brought along some vintage R&B records to break the ice for that interview: Back in ’77-’78, there weren’t too many people on the C.B.G.B. scene giving props to James Brown and Ben E. King the way Willy always did.

I saw him live at least three times, a long time ago: at the Longhorn Bar in Minneapolis and at C.B.G.B. with the original band, then with a new lineup at a coke-sodden Upper West Side club called Tracks (Trax? Traxx?) where he was showcasing for a new label. Ahmet Ertegun showed up that night and Willy signed with Atlantic in 1981.

On Stage in 2007 (Photo: Markus Kammerer)

On Stage in 2007 (Photo: Markus Kammerer)

Until William Grimes mentioned it in his NY Times obituary, I’d forgotten that Willy had formed the first version of Mink DeVille in San Francisco, then relocated the band to New York in 1975. But my friend Sally Webster of the San Francisco Mutants remembered him well:

“Mink DeVille was the first band I saw at [SF punk rock venue] the Mabuhay Gardens and that show made a huge impact on me and some of the other people who later formed the Mutants. The band wasn’t really that good musically but Willy had attitude and presence like you wouldn’t believe — he showed us how far that could take you. People would be surprised to hear it, because our sound was nothing like his, but Mink DeVille was a major impetus for the Mutants coming together as a band.”

Upon his pasing, Willy’s French booking agent, the excellently named Caramba Spectacles, told Agence France-Presse (AFP): “Willy DeVille this night joined Edith Piaf, Jack Nitzsche, and Johnny Thunders” — pretty good company, I’d say. “Sing on, brother — play on, drummer…”

All portraits of Jimmy Page found at Flickr.com.

JP by Bret De La Art (2008)

JP by Bret De La Art (2008)

My on-and-off association with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame goes back more than two decades — initially as a voter, then more significantly as managing editor (for a few years) and contributing writer (ongoing) to the program book published for the Hall’s annual induction dinner. I could write at great length about this organization’s pros and cons, ups and downs, and why (The Stooges) (The Hollies) (Jan & Dean) (the New York Dolls) (KISS) (Insert Your Favorite Band Here) still have not been inducted. For the moment, suffice to say I’ve had some memorably great times at these events.  The ceremony held April 5, 2009 in Cleveland was no exception — beginning the day before when, entirely by happenstance, I met Jimmy Page at the Rock Hall itself. This post is based on the notes I took immediately following our encounter.

It was a violently wet and windy Friday afternoon on the shores of Lake Erie, and the museum was crowded — not surprising, given the week-long local buzz surrounding only the second Hall of Fame induction to be held in Cleveland in the event’s 23-year history. I was strolling alone through the exhibits when I spotted a friend, chief curator Howard Kramer, leading a guided tour for a small group.

“Andy!” he hailed me, “Great to see you — have you met Jimmy Page?” In fact, I had not.

pagedrawing5jpg1

JP by A-Dog (2008)

I shook hands with the founder of Led Zeppelin, a well-preserved 65-year-old wearing his silver-gray hair in a ponytail. Unprompted, Howard gave me the Big Build-Up, effusively describing my recent work on the Rock Hall’s Soho annex. After some uncontrolled fan-boy babble noting about seeing Led Zeppelin opening for Iron Butterfly at the Fillmore East (1.31.1969) I explained to Pagey that I’d written the site descriptions for the Annex’s 26-foot-long scale model of historic “Rock and Roll Manhattan.”

“You must have Steve Paul’s The Scene on there, I’m sure,” said Jimmy, and I hastened to assure him that this legendary West 46th Street nightspot is included in the installation.

“Great club!” Pagey continued, with genuine enthusiasm. “That’s where I saw Howlin’ Wolf for the first time. He’d been to England a few times but I’d never gotten the chance to see him there. I still remember, he and [guitarist] Hubert Sumlin had had some sort of falling-out and I was a bit disappointed that Hubert wasn’t on the gig that night at The Scene.

JP by Oro Okoyasu (2008)

JP by Oro Okoyasu (2008)

“I was sitting there slack-jawed, watching Wolf just tear it up, when Buddy Miles came in. Some guy comes over and says to me, ‘y’know, we can get this guy’ — meaning Howlin’ Wolf — off the stage so that you and Buddy can jam.’ I couldn’t believe it — I’m sure I told him to fuck off!” I asked Jimmy if he’d ever jammed at The Scene on another occasion, but he said no, it was a place he went to hang out and listen rather than play.

“Y’know, Andy, a lot of Mafia punks used to frequent The Scene — these young guys pouring out piles of coke on their tables. Some people wouldn’t go there because of that element.”

Jimmy’s thoughts shifted to another, more short-lived Manhattan venue,  the heavily Mobbed-up West Village rock club Salvation. (Salvation only lasted about a year as a live music venue but during that time, it was a favorite hangout for Jimi Hendrix. Although I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his account, author Jerry Hopkins wrote at length about Salvation’s troubled history in Chapter 13 of his  1996 biography The Jimi Hendrix Experience.)

Page: “I may have been there only once but I remember that Jimi came in, or rather was led in by some people” — and here he assumed the heavy-lidded, open-mouthed expression of a very loaded Hendrix. “He was at another table and someone came over and asked if I wanted to join him, as we’d never met before.

“But I said no, because Jimi seemed really out of it and I just didn’t want to meet him under those circumstances. Unfortunately, I never got another chance — really too bad.”

JP by Hans Holbein the Younger (1527)

JP by Hans Holbein the Younger (1527?)

Page seemed happy to go on in this vein for a while: He engaged directly with me the whole time, never looking at his watch, checking his PDA, staring into space, or otherwise signaling that the conversaion was now over. However, photographer Ross Halfin and Jimmy’s female companion (we weren’t introduced) were ready to move on. As we shook hands once more and said goodbye, I urged him to check out the Rock Annex on his next visit to New York. A few days later, the NY Daily News reported that Jimmy Page had toured the Mercer Street museum, stopping at the gift shop to purchase five Led Zeppelin t-shirts (I guess he can afford them).

Wardell Quezergue, Honored While Living

Wardell Quezergue (Honored While Living)

Sunday night’s Tribute to Wardell Quezergue at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall was a triumph for all concerned, and my hat’s off to Dr. Ike and the Ponderosa Stomp crew for the concept, planning, and execution of this memorable concert. A nine-piece band (including five-man horn section) was assembled and imported from New Orleans to give flawless support to a stellar lineup of vocalists including Dr. John, Robert Parker, Jean Knight, the Dixie Cups, Dorothy Moore, Tony Owens, and Tami Lynn. All these performers had worked with veteran writer/arranger/bandleader/producer Quezergue (on sessions dating back to at least the early Sixties) and all of them showed They’ve Still Got It — “it” being the right combination of vocal chops, enthusiasm for the stage, and the physical ability to deliver an engaging if sometimes too-brief performance.

This sold-out concert topped a Ponderosa Stomp triple-header at Lincoln Center, following on the R&B-themed The Get Down (7/16) and rockabilly party The Best Dance in Town (7/17) — both presented by the estimable Bill Bragin as part of his summer-long Lincoln Center Out Of Doors series in Damrosch Park. Jon Pareles wrote a thougtful and detailed NY Times review of Sunday’s show but I’ll add a few personal highlights:

Tony Owens & New Fan at Alice Tully Hall

Tony Owens Meets A New Fan

Although previously unknown to me, Tony Owens met the considerable challenge of standing in for several New Orleans singers now gone on to that Golden Juke Joint In The Sky. He did fine with Earl King‘s “Trick Bag,” less well with Willie Tee‘s “Thank You John” (Willie’s pimp-flavored insouciance seemingly impossible to recreate), but laid me out with a truly soul-stirring version of Danny White‘s immortal “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” Come back soon, Tony, you hear?!

Dorothy Moore sang her career-making hits of 1976, “Misty Blue” (#2 R&B/#3 Pop) and Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” (#7 R&B/#58 Pop). “Misty Blue” was lovely but “Funny…” just killed me. Dorothy’s rich, dark voice hovered near the celestial territory of Mahalia Jackson, had Mahalia ever sung a secular country-soul ballad (she didn’t).
I’ve heard Tami Lynn live three or four times since her surprise appearance at a Willie Tee show in the fall of 2005. But she’s never sounded (or looked) better than in her three-song set on Sunday, with old friends Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack) on piano and the incredible Zigaboo Modeliste on drums: “Mojo Hannah” was especially intense, with Mac adding flawlessly funky keyboard flourishes while Zig pounded out the rhythm on his floor tom, never touching his snare.
And speaking of Zigaboo: The ex-Meter’s powerful lead vocal and fierce drumming on “Hey Pocky Way” brought the raw street feel of the Mardi Gras Indians to this prestigious concert stage — the roughest, toughest moment of the evening.

Born January 1, 1925 – New York, NY
Died October 27, 2002 – Aventura, FL

Tom Dowd At The Controls

Dowd At The Controls

“Sometimes,” Ahmet Ertegun once said, “the guy who brings the coffee produces the session.” At the Atlantic Records of Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, such creative serendipity often balanced precariously on the narrow but sturdy shoulders of Tom Dowd. One of the most gifted and innovative engineer/producers in recording history, he died October 27, 2002 at a nursing home in Aventura, Florida after a prolonged respiratory illness.

A youthful prodigy in physics and electronics, the New York City native graduated Stuyvesant High School at age 16 (my father, Howard Schwartz, graduated from the same school at the same age) and attended City College of New York before being drafted into the Army in 1942. Instead of being shipped overseas, Dowd was able to continue his work and studies in the physics labs of Columbia University as part of the US government-sponsored task force known as the Manhattan Project in the development of the atomic bomb. Dowd was also a trained musician (violin, piano, string bass, sousaphone) who performed with the Columbia band and orchestra. His horror at the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 is said to have led him to abandon nuclear physics and enter the recording field.

Beginning circa 1948, Tom toiled in various small New York studios recording everything from radio adverts to groundbreaking jazz dates with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music credits him with engineering the first stereo album, by the Wilbur De Paris Dixieland Band, “which required customized equipment, including two needles, to play it.” Dowd joined Atlantic as a full-time employee in 1954 (about a year after Jerry Wexler), when the label’s New York office still sometimes doubled as its recording studio. He became, in Wexler’s words, “the architect of the Atlantic sound,” bringing an unparalleled clarity and concision to the recording of r&b and jazz.

“Tom pushed those pots [volume controls] like a painter sorting colors,” wrote Wexler in his 1993 autobiography Rhythm and The Blues,  co-authored with David Ritz. “He turned microphone placement into an art…When it came to sound, he displayed an exquisite sensitivity.”

In an October 1999 interview for MIX magazine, Dowd noted that “in February of ’58, the first [Atlantic] session on 8-track was Lavern Baker. Within the next 90 days, I went through Bobby Darin, the Coasters, Charlie Mingus, Ray Charles…I would be sitting in the studio doing the Coasters at 2 o’clock in the afternoon with Mike [Stoller] and Jerry [Leiber]. Ahmet would call me up and say, ‘Ten o’clock tonight, we’re going to do Mingus.’ You want culture shock? Go from the Coasters to Charlie Mingus in ten hours!” Dowd designed Atlantic’s first 8-track studio on West 60th Street in 1959 and began recording there the following year.

In 1963, on his first visit to Stax Records in Memphis, Tom performed emergency repairs on the label’s archaic mono equipment and the next day cut Rufus Thomas on “Walkin’ The Dog.” Two years later, in July 1965, Dowd installed the first two-track stereo tape recorder at Stax, then broke in the new setup by recording Otis Redding’s entire Otis Blue album in two marathon sessions within 24 hours.

During his Atlantic years, Tom Dowd engineered landmark sessions by John Coltrane (including “Giant Steps” and “My Favorite Things”), Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the (Young) Rascals, Dusty Springfield (including Dusty In Memphis), and Cream (including Disraeli Gears, which “was finished in one weekend” according to Eric Clapton). Some less celebrated albums from his immense Atlantic discography include The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby, Suddenly the Blues by Leo Wright, Cher’s 3614 Jackson Highway, Latin Bugalu by Charlie Palmieri, Blues From The Gutter by Champion Jack Dupree, and High On The Hog by Black Oak Arkansas. Dowd was never admitted to the Atlantic partnership and did not share in the rewards from the $17 million sale of the label in 1967. He remained a high-salaried employee until the mid-Seventies, when he left Atlantic to pursue independent production.

Musicians loved him for his great patience, his peerless technical ability, and his total dedication to the task at hand. It was Tom Dowd who introduced Duane Allman to Eric Clapton, and who a short time later produced Derek & the Dominoes’ 1970 double album Layla, And Other Assorted Love Songs. The Dowd/Clapton partnership persisted into the Eighties through such albums as 461 Ocean Boulevard, EC Was Here, and Money and Cigarettes.

“For better or worse, the strength of [Layla] rested almost entirely on Tom’s faith in me,” wrote Eric Clapton in an essay published on the occasion of NARAS (the Grammy organization) presenting Dowd with its 2002 Trustees Award. “I had no finished songs, no real concept or idea of where I was going, nothing but an abstract burning passion for live, spontaneous music.”

“On top of everything else, I refused to make the record under my own name, and was developing a powerful drink and drug problem – not a great position for any record producer to be placed in, but Tom pulled it off. He saw the potential and exercised the most incredible patience in getting through the obstacles that I would constantly place in front of him. It’s little wonder that I eventually came to look on him as a father figure.”

Dowd formed a similar long-lasting bond with another gifted but troubled musician, Gregg Allman, beginning in 1970 when Tom produced the Allman Brothers Band’s second album Idlewild South. Producer and group soldiered on through four more LPs, including the classic 1971 live double At Fillmore East. The band split in 1980, then regrouped nine years later—and Dowd took the controls once again for a pair of live sets and three more studio albums. (Where It All Begins, from 1994, ranks with the ABB’s best post-Duane Allman recordings.) Their final, touching reunion came September 13, 2002 when Tom—now using a wheelchair and and an oxygen tank—attended an Allman Brothers Band performance in West Palm Beach, Florida.

A less affectionate but even more lucrative affiliation was with Lynyrd Skynyrd for the albums Gimme Back My Bullets, One More From the Road, and the original band’s final testament Street Survivors. Dowd also made numerous dully-professional albums with the likes of Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, and Chicago. But in his last professional decade, working with the Allmans, Primal Scream, and Joe Bonamassa, Tom returned to the forceful, blues-based electric music that he had helped bring to prominence twenty years before.

As an album producer, Tom Dowd shared in other people’s Grammy Awards like Allmans’ 1995 win for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Incredibly, Dowd never won his own Grammy Award in the Producer and/or Engineering categories. His only elective Grammy, for Best Album Notes of 1992, was earned for his contribution to the liner booklet for the Aretha Franklin box set Queen Of Soul – The Atlantic Recordings—an award he shared with six other contributors. Ten years later, in a belated attempt to correct this gross oversight, NARAS presented Tom with both a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and the Trustees Award. He was also the subject of the 2003 documentary film, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, directed by Mark Moormann.

“There is a tribe of musicians, spread all over the world, who have been fostered and nurtured by Tom Dowd,” wrote Eric Clapton. “We know who we are, and we are proud of who we are, but most of all, we are proud of him. I am honored and privileged to be one of them.”