Friday, June 30, 2017

Right: Night Time is the Right Time

Ray Charles: Night Time is the Right Time


Aretha Franklin: Night Time is the Right Time


Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas: Night Time is the Right Time


Count Basie and Big Joe Turner: Night Time is the Right Time


R&B, the musical genre, bears no resemblance today to its origin as Rhythm and Blues. In particular, all traces of actual blues have been scrubbed out of today’s R&B. But it was not always this way, and Night Time is the Right Time is a perfect song to make the point. The earliest recorded version of the song was a midtempo blues by Roosevelt Sykes in 1937. From there, many other blues artists of the day recorded their versions, with varying lyrics and moods. Nappy Brown added the background singers, and chose the lyrics we know now in 1957. But it was Ray Charles the following year who created the version that has become the starting point for any subsequent versions. Normally, when you perform the song, you are covering Ray Charles in some way, at that is certainly the case with all of the versions I have chosen. Charles sped up Nappy Brown’s version, giving the song the feel it has now.

Aretha Franklin takes the song and turns it into a piano blues, but her vocal line reveals her roots in gospel. It is a combination that has real power. Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas showcase the state of Rhythm and Blues in 1964 with their version, and show how the song can work as a duet. Finally, in 1974, there is this wonderful take by Count Basie and Big Joe Turner. Basie and Turner go way back. They often worked together during the big band era, with a full band behind them. But, in 1974, such artists who were even still around were working with much smaller groups. Basie and Turner did not fight that here. The album this is from featured a four piece horn section, but they are not heard on this track. Instead, Basie and Turner offer a stripped down version that takes the song back to its blues roots.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


I don't know what colour the devil's right hand may be, but it would not surprise me if it were, too, red, what with what he has in it, as the theme moves to another right hand. (And there are a few other right hands out there, should the rest of the team choose to follow.....)

The song, 'Devil's Right Hand', written by Steve Earle in the very early 80's, yet appearing first on 1989's 'Copperhead Road', down to an earlier record label owning the rights to it, on an album they never released. So already typically part of the Earle paradigm of paradox, luck never quite in step with his profligate writing talents. And, since then, much as Earle's fortunes have changed in every which way, down, up and sideways, so the song has morphed with him, appearing in many styles and with, often, subtle symbolic shifts in the lyric.  It was still his encore when I saw him live last year.

At face value it is a simple and almost traditional folk ballad, warning of the dangers of gunplay. Earle himself fought initially shy of citing it an overt anti-firearms/anti-handgun song. But, at at time when his own private life was under some federal scrutiny, there came a surprising life imitates art moment.  I will let Earle take up the tale:

And I make no bones about including a 3rd version, this time the re-recording for the 'Brokeback Mountain'. Why a re-recording? It seems there was some disquietude in having a film set between 1963 and 1983 featuring a song (nominally) from after that time. This faster version is designed to be in the style of relevant time period. (And you thought filmmakers just slap any old song in to fit a mood, with neither thought nor consistency! Well, of course most do......)

With a song of this sort, a message with a moral, a good ol' tale of ornery folk, it has been hardly surprising that it has been much covered by the great and the good, with the royalty of country outlaw chic leading the way. Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings have each performed it separately, as well as together, in tandem with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, as the Highwaymen. Webb Wilder, Bob Seger and, english folk giants, Show of Hands (not on youtube), have also done the song proud. (Strangely, and I cannot quite see why, youtube shows me that not a few white supremacist bands have taken it up. I had never quite seen them on that side of the gun lobby, not least as I might be reasonably happy to see them all shoot themselves up, but I digress...)

Devil's Right Hand, buy it and make him one-handed!! Even more versions than featured here!!!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Right: Red Right Hand

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Red Right Hand
[purchase the album]
[purchase Seasons 1-3 of Peaky Blinders]

Sometimes, a song seems to have been written for a specific event, but it turns out to be a coincidence. I remember just after 9/11, at least three songs were being played on the radio that appeared to relate to the attack—Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” with its references to tall buildings shaking, skyscrapers scraping together and smoke, Afro-Celt Sound System and Peter Gabriel’s “When You’re Falling,” with its references to falling off of buildings through smoke and clouds, and Ryan Adams’ “New York, New York,” which sounds like a love song to the devastated city. But each of these songs was written before the attack and have nothing to do with it (the Ryan Adams song is actually a love song to a city resident, and the video was shot 4 days before, and includes shots of the World Trade Center).

Which is a long way around saying that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ song, “Red Right Hand,” sounds like it was written specifically to be the theme song for the BBC TV show, Peaky Blinders, but, in fact, was written two decades earlier.

For those of you who are living under a rock, or under an outdated belief that television sucks, it is currently the age of “Peak TV,” where there is just so much great stuff available to watch, on streaming platforms, cable, and even on broadcast TV, that it is literally impossible to see everything good. A few years ago, my friend Tom suggested that I watch Peaky Blinders, a show about a Romani/Irish gang run by the Shelby family in Birmingham, England, after World War I, and I decided to give it a try. The Peaky Blinders gang, which actually existed, supposedly derived their name from the practice of stitching razor blades into the peak of their flat caps to use as weapons, but that story may be apocryphal.

I was hooked, immediately. The central character, Tommy Shelby, a damaged, decorated veteran, is ambitious, ruthless and apparently fearless. His goal appears to be to consolidate the family power, then to expand their influence to London, and maybe further. As is common in such stories, such as The Godfather, or Boardwalk Empire (to which it is often compared), there is a plan to begin to move toward engaging in legitimate business, which turns out to never be as easy as it seems. They are opposed not only by other criminal gangs, but also by the authorities, who want to both use the Blinders for their own agenda, while ultimately bringing them down. This ambiguity includes an uneasy relationship with Winston Churchill.

The show is, often, over the top, with choreographed and hyper-dramatic scenes of violence and mayhem, but it is also a family drama, as Tommy needs to deal with his brothers and other gang members, a headstrong sister who ran off with a Marxist, and his aunt, who ran the gang while the men were off at war, and still wields substantial power. There are, of course, love interests and interactions with Downton Abbey-esque nobility, Italian and Jewish gangsters, and IRA fighters.

In any event, Tommy Shelby, as played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, is one scary motherfucker. And “Red Right Hand,” describes

A tall handsome man 
In a dusty black coat with 
A red right hand 

The rest of the lyrics describe this man as terrifying, mysterious and dangerous:

You'll see him in your nightmares 
You'll see him in your dreams 
He'll appear out of nowhere but 
He ain't what he seems 

Not to mention the fact that the music, as is typical for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, is eerie and filled with foreboding. It sets a perfect tone for the show, and the song, and other Cave songs, are used throughout the series to great effect. There have been three seasons, so far, with two more promised.

But, as I said, the song was released in 1994, when Cillian Murphy was playing in rock bands, two years before he got his first acting gig. Prior to Peaky Blinders, the song was used in a number of films, including Dumb and Dumber, and the Scream franchise, and in an episode of The X-Files. It has even been used by the South Australian Tourist Board for a commercial campaign.

I have to admit that before watching the show, I was no fan of Cave. And I still don’t love all of his music—some of it is just too dark and strange for me. But Peaky Blinders turned me on to “Red Right Hand,” and other songs of his that I’ve grown to love.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Right: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues

Billie Holiday: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues


Our new theme offers a wonderful variety of possibilities. That’s because the word right has multiple meanings. You can put three of these meanings together in one not very profound sentence: I had the right to make a right turn, but was it the right thing to do? From that sentence, I have chosen to start us off with the first meaning.

In recent years, there has been an attempt to restore to the Broadway show a place it once had in popular culture as a birthplace of popular songs. The music on Broadway has become more varied, and there is more of a contemporary influence. But that is still a far cry from where things stood 85 years ago. Earl Carroll’s Vanities was an annual event on Broadway. It was a revue, a mix of sketches, songs, and dance numbers. The 1932 edition had music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by the less known Ted Koehler. A house band backed all of the singers, and the actor in the cast that you might have heard of was Milton Berle. The playbill called Lillian Shade “the most promising of young singers in modern American music.” She came on after a comedy sketch called The Hospital to sing I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.

I think it’s fair to say that the song was an immediate hit, although it did not make Lillian Shade the star that the playbill suggested she would be. Vanities debuted in September, and Ethel Merman and Cab Calloway had their versions out before the end of the year, with Louis Armstrong following in January of 1933. The Merman version was the first recorded, and this is where the title got changed to I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues. Billie Holliday did not record her version until 1939, but she immediately took possession of the song. Holliday validates the feelings of every woman who ever had her heart broken with this performance. The sound quality is remarkably good for a recording of that vintage. Holliday is probably more heard of than heard these days. I hope this post will make you want to hear more of her work.