My Photo

the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

Follow 1michaelgray1 on Twitter

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Tomorrow (the last day of January) is the 75th birthday of Rick Hall, born in Tishimingo, Mississippi - the man behind Fame Studios and thereby the person who gave the late great Arthur Alexander his chance to record (for which he was amply repaid: see below). So happy birthday to Mr. Hall, and let me offer a brief account of his part in the Arthur Alexander story by reprinting the AA entry from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Alexander, Arthur [1940 - 1993]
Arthur Alexander was born on May 10, 1940 in Florence, Alabama, just five miles from Sheffield and Muscle Shoals. His father played gospel slide guitar (using the neck of a whiskey bottle); his mother and sister sang in a local church choir.

Dylan covers Arthur Alexander’s début single, ‘Sally Sue Brown’, made in 1959 and released under his nickname June Alexander (short for Junior), on his Down In The Groove album. You can’t say he pays tribute to Alexander with this, because he makes such a poor job of reviving it...

It was really with ‘You Better Move On’ that Arthur Alexander made himself an indispensable artist. He wrote this exquisite classic while working as a bell-hop in the Muscle Shoals Hotel. And then he made a perfect record out of it, produced by Rick Hall at his original Fame studio (an acronym for Florence, Alabama Music Enterprises), which was an old tobacco barn out on Wilson Dam Highway. Leased to Dot Records in 1961, ‘You Better Move On’ was a hit and helped Hall to build his bigger Fame Studio, which later attracted the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. In 1969 Fame’s studio musicians opened their own independent studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, where Dylan would later make his gospel albums Slow Train Coming and Saved.

Despite this hit and its influence on other artists, however, while an EP of his work was highly sought-after in the UK, Arthur Alexander was generally received with indifference by the US public and his career stagnated. After years of personal struggle with drugs and health problems (he was hospitalized several times in the mid-1960s, sometimes at his own request, in a mental health facility in southern Alabama), he returned in the 1970s, first with an album on Warner Brothers and then with a minor hit single in 1975, ‘Every Day I Have To Cry Some’.

One of Arthur Alexander’s innovations as a songwriter was the simple use of the word ‘girl’ for the addressee in his songs. When he first used it, it had a function: it was a statement of directness, it instantly implied a relationship; but soon, passed down through Lennon and McCartney to every 1964 beat-group in existence, it became a meaningless suffix, a rhyme to be paired off with ‘world’ as automatically as ‘baby’ with ‘maybe’. This couldn’t impair the precision with which Arthur Alexander wrote, the moral scrupulousness, the distinctive, careful way that he delineated the dilemmas in eternal-triangle songs with such finesse and economy. All this sung in his unique, restrained, deeply affecting voice. Rarely has moral probity sounded so appealing, so human, as in his work. Listen not only to ‘You Better Move On’ but to the equally impeccable ‘Anna’ and ‘Go Home Girl’ and the funkier but still characteristic ‘The Other Woman’.

Arthur Alexander is also one of the many R&B artists whose work was happy to incorporate children’s song, as so much of Dylan’s work does (most especially, of course, the album Under The Red Sky in 1990). Alexander’s 1966 single ‘For You’ incorporates the title line and the next from the children’s rhyming prayer ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ (the next line is ‘And pray the Lord my soul to keep’), which first appeared in print in Thomas Fleet’s The New-England Primer in 1737.

The Rolling Stone covered ‘You Better Move On’; The Beatles covered ‘Anna’; and it was after Arthur Alexander cut Dennis Linde’s song ‘Burning Love’ in 1972 that Elvis Presley covered that one. Add to that the fact that Dylan covered ‘Sally Sue Brown’, and you have a pretty extraordinary level of coverage for an artist who remains so far from a household name.

After his 1975 hit, he went back on the road briefly but didn’t enjoy it; he felt he’d received no money from the record’s success and meanwhile he ‘had found religion and got myself completely straight’, so he quit the music business and moved north. By the 1980s he was driving a bus for a social services agency in Cleveland, Ohio, when, to his surprise, Ace Records issued its collection of his early classics, A Shot Of Rhythm and Soul - which included reissue of that first (and by now super-rare) single, ‘Sally Sue Brown’. His attempt at another comeback, in the early 1990s, yielded an appearance at the Bottom Line in New York City, another in Austin, Texas, and the Nonesuch album Lonely Just Like Me, which included several re-recordings. ‘Sally Sue Brown’ was one of them. As on the original ‘You Better Move On’, the musicians included Spooner Oldham.

It all came too late. Arthur Alexander died of a heart attack in Nashville on June 9, 1993. A few months earlier, on February 20, his biographer, Richard Younger, went to interview him, at a Cleveland Holiday Inn. ‘He told me,’ wrote Younger, that ‘he had no old photos of himself, nor any of his old records, and had never even heard many of the cover versions of his songs. I had anticipated this and brought along a copy of Bob Dylan’s version of “Sally Sue Brown”. With the headphones pressed to his ears, Arthur moved back and forth in his seat. “Bob’s really rocking,” he said.’ It was a generous verdict.


[Arthur Alexander: ‘Sally Sue Brown’, Sheffield AL, 1959, Judd 1020, US, 1960; ‘You Better Move On’ c/w ‘A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues’, Muscle Shoals AL, Oct 2 1961, Dot 16309, US, 1962; ‘Anna’, Nashville, Jul 1962, Dot 16387, 1962; ‘Go Home Girl’, Nashville, c.Sep 1962, Dot 16425, 1963; ‘(Baby) For You’ c/w ‘The Other Woman’, Nashville, 29 Oct 1965, Sound Stage 7 2556, US, 1965; ‘Burning Love’, Memphis, Aug 1971, on Arthur Alexander, Warner Bros. 2592, US, 1972; ‘Every Day I Have To Cry Some’, Muscle Shoals, Jul 1975, Buddah 492, US, 1975; A Shot of Rhythm and Soul, Ace CH66, London, 1982; Nashville, 12-17 Feb 1992, Lonely Just Like Me, Elektra Nonesuch 7559-61475-2, 1993. Special thanks for input & detail to Richard Younger, author of Get a Shot of Rhythm & Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story, Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2000; quote is p.168.]

Friday, January 26, 2007


Comments posted to this blog sometimes get overlooked if they relate to something from several posts earlier, so although this one is now up in the Comments section under the posting about Bob's big Scottish house, I'm highlighting it here too. Here it is:

"We had reservations to stay at Aultmore House the weekend of June 2-3, 2006, at a rate of 115 pounds for the best room, the McKay room. When we arrived, after an all day drive, the proprietress told us we couldn't stay there because she had just sold the property and the American purchaser wanted it inventoried that weekend. Since it was a Saturday night and all the better lodging was all booked up, needless to say we were upset. Now we know who to blame--Bob Dylan. A shame he couldn't have allowed Aultmore House to honor its last few B&B reservations rather than turn guests away at the door."

Interesting - though I think that previous proprietress should take the blame, not Bob (or David Zimmerman). She shouldn't have agreed to have the inventory done when she had a firm guest booking. It's extraordinary how many deeply inhospitable people go in for running pubs and B&Bs.

Monday, January 22, 2007


Had he lived, the other great Blind Willie would have been 110 years old today. There's a Bob Dylan Encyclopedia entry on him.

For help with much detail, thanks go to Michael Corcoran for new information researched & published in ‘The Soul of Blind Willie Johnson: Retracing the life of the Texas music icon’, Austin American-Statesman, Austin TX, & an e-mail exchange we had in August 2003. I finally met Mr. Corcoran last September, when he came to my gig on the university campus at Austin and gave me a copy of his very readable book All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (Austin: UT Press, 2005), in which he includes a version of his piece on Blind Willie Johnson. Here's mine:

Johnson, Blind Willie [1897 - 1945]
Willie Johnson was born on a farm in the tiny community of Independence, Texas (halfway between Austin and Houston) on January 22, 1897. He is said to have been blinded by his stepmother at the age of 7, but grew up to become one of the finest bottleneck guitarists ever recorded, and therefore an influence on everyone from those who knew him to Duane Allman, Jimmy Page, Ry Cooder, Eric Clapton and all the usual suspects. He was also a singer of thrilling, controlled power and great dignity. Indeed he could produce two distinctly different singing voices (as mentioned in the entry Simon, Paul, as it happens).

Johnson recorded thirty sides between 1927 and 1930, some with his first wife, Willie B. Harris, and then never recorded again, though his first release, ‘If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down’, coupled with ‘Mother’s [a mistranscription of ‘Motherless’] Children Have A Hard Time’, sold 15,000 copies, and he continued to travel, preach and sing all the way ‘from Maine to the Mobile Bay’, to quote his old friend Blind Willie McTell, and he was a regular broadcaster on KTEM in Temple and in church services broadcast on KPLC in Lake Charles.

By the early 1960s he had become one of the best-known pre-war gospel bluesmen, because he had made an appearance on both the crucial vinyl compilations of the 1950s. First, Harry Smith's American Folk Music reissued Johnson’s ‘John The Revelator’ in 1952; then Sam Charters’ 1959 LP The Country Blues included his ‘You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond’. Both tracks had been recorded in Atlanta in 1930.

Johnson’s ‘Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed’, cut in Dallas three years earlier, duly became ‘In My Time Of Dyin’’ on Dylan’s début album. ‘Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed’ - often spelt as ‘Dying-Bed’: a compound noun like ‘praying-ground’ and ‘cooling-board’ - was an old spiritual that had been recorded by a large number of jubilee and gospel groups, sermons-with-singing preachers and many individual singers, among them Charley Patton, a figure as early and as eminent as Blind Willie Johnson, though not so early onto disc with this particular song. (His ‘Jesus Is A Dying-Bed Maker’ was cut in 1929.) At the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village in October 1962, Dylan performed ‘Motherless Children’.

In late 1980, approaching Christian songs from a changed perspective, Dylan brought Maria Muldaur onstage at one of his San Francisco concerts, to sing ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’; in 1992, in a studio in Chicago, Dylan recorded it himself (a recording that remains unreleased and uncirculated). Twelve years later, at the Bonnaroo 2004 Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, he gave a worthy performance of ‘If I Had My Way I Would Tear The Building Down’.

Johnson remains a mysterious figure, though second wife Angeline was interviewed by Sam Charters at her shack in Beaumont, Texas in 1955 (from which Charters concluded mistakenly that she had been the singer who had accompanied him on some of his sides). The interview was issued on a Folkways album, Blind Willie Johnson: His Story, in 1957 (and is transcribed in the notes to the 1993 CD-set The Complete Blind Willie Johnson). His last known address was in Beaumont, Texas, where he ran a House of Prayer. He died in Beaumont of malarial fever, exacerbated by syphilis, on September 18, 1945.

In 1977 Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)’, a compelling synthesis of guitar-work plus wordless humming and moaning cut at his début session in early December fifty years earlier, was included in the "Sounds of Earth" compilation sent into space aboard Voyager One.

[Blind Willie Johnson: ‘John The Revelator’ & ‘You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond’, Atlanta, 20 Apr 1930; ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, ‘Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time’, ‘If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down’ & ‘Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)’, Dallas, 3 Dec 1927; all tracks CD-reissued The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, Columbia Legacy Roots N’ Blues Series 472190 2, NY, 1993. Blind Willie Johnson: His Story, Folkways FG3585, NY, 1957. Charley Patton: ‘Jesus Is A Dying-Bed Maker’, Grafton WI, c.Oct 1929. Bob Dylan: ‘Motherless Children’, NYC, Oct 1962, unissued; ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, Chicago, Apr 1992, unissued; ‘If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down’, Manchester TN, 6 Nov 2004. Maria Muldaur with Dylan & band: ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, live, San Francisco, 19 Nov 1980.]

Saturday, January 20, 2007


I thought of Dylan immediately when I read this in the latest edition of that most interesting weekly newsletter World Wide Words:

OY GEVALT! Last Monday's New York Times reported that: "In certain precincts of the Jewish community, a person who insists that the sky is falling, despite ample evidence to the contrary, is said to gevaltize - a neologism derived from the famous Yiddish cry of shock or alarm."

Thinking of Dylan's readingess to walk around with a sandwich-board (artistically speaking) declaring that the end of the world is nigh, this provides a new label to apply to this side of him - Dylan the Gevaltizer.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


I have learnt that it was not Suze Rotolo but Susan Zuckerman (now Susan Green) who attended the April 1961 meeting of the New York University Folk Music Club and met Bob Dylan there. A high school friend of hers, Judith Zahler, was a member and invited her along to hear a new singer in town. They found that they had both chatted with him - he "looked all of 15 years old at that point" - just the previous week at the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village.

At NYU, there were only about six in the audience, sitting on the floor and listening to someone who "sounded utterly unlike any folk performer we’d ever witnessed before." Susan began following Bob around town - for example, to afternoon hootenannies at the Cafe Wha, where he played harmonica as backup for musician Fred Neil - and told Suze about him.

When they went to Gerde’s Folk City together, Susan was dazzled by Dylan while Suze had a crush on Mark Spoelstra. But a few months after Susan returned to college in Vermont, where she lives now, Suze hooked up with Bob.

Suze and Susan picketed Woolworth’s every Saturday while still in high school to protest lunch counter segregation in the South, shook Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand as teen volunteer ushers at a SANE rally in Madison Square Garden, and traveled to the August 1963 March on Washington aboard a theatrical union bus.

Susan Green last saw Bob in 1976, when she joined his Rolling Thunder Revue as the tour herbalist.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Bob's purchase of this house even made the BBC Radio 4 midnight news last night, complete with tales of its £3,000 per night rental cost. But on the Scottish Accommodation Index website, things sound more modest:

"Aultmore is a renovated Edwardian mansion in 25 acres of grounds and is
graded 5 star by STB. All of the bedrooms are individually decorated and en suite.

Rooms with tea, coffee, hot chocolate, fruit teas. Still and sparkling mineral water and a selection of magazines. Selection of toiletries bathrobes and slippers Prices from £42.50 person/night.

Aultmore House Nethy Bridge Inverness-shire PH25 3ED"

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


photo by Ken Regan

Tomorrow - Jan 17 - is the great Muhammad Ali's 65th birthday. Here is the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942. He grew up to be one of the greatest athletes in history: a boxer so talented, handsome and lithe that he made a whole generation of people who didn’t like boxing watch the sport; a pioneering African-American celebrity who, in the Civil Rights era, lent his name to the cause by changing it, from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali - throwing off the heritage of slavery at the height of his initial fame, and so scandalising the forces of reaction in white America; a commoner who refused to bow down before the machine - refusing to fight in the unjust war in Vietnam and facing gaol, death threats and persecution instead; an intelligent, witty, charming, immensely gifted man who brought a new style of outrageous boastfulness, undercut by sly self-mockery, to the promotion of his fights and the discomfiture of his opponents, and who ran rings around the standard expectation that, well, OK, you could escape the ghetto by becoming a fighter but only if you minded your ps & qs and played by a set of rules stacked high against you.

In ‘I Shall Be Free No.10’ on Another Side Of Bob Dylan in 1964, Dylan gives him a playful namecheck as Cassius Clay - the name under which he was a Gold Medallist at the Rome Olympics of 1960, only to return to a segregated Louisville that failed to welcome him home as an American hero; the name under which he won his next 19 fights, 15 by knockouts; under which the brash 22-year-old knocked out the supposedly invincible Sonny Liston in the seventh round on February 25, 1964.

Dylan’s song, recorded on June 9 the same year, says this: ‘I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day / I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay / I said “Fee, fie, fo, fum, / Cassius Clay, here I come / 26, 27, 28, 29, I’m gonna make your face look just like mine / 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Cassius Clay you’d better run / 99, 100, 101, 102, your ma won’t even recognize you / 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, gonna knock him clean right out of his spleen.”’

Clay announced his conversion to Islam and his taking of the name Muhammad Ali shortly afterwards. His title was revoked in 1967 when, citing his faith, he refused induction into the US military and was fined $10,000 and sentenced to a five-year prison term (which he didn’t, in the end, have to serve). The US Supreme Court did not officially reverse his conviction for draft evasion until 1971 but Ali resumed fighting in 1970, knocking out Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonaven to earn a chance to regain his heavyweight crown. On March 8, 1971, Ali suffered the first loss of his career, losing to Joe Frazier in 15 rounds, but regained the heavyweight championship on October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the so-called Democratic Republic of the Congo), knocking out George Foreman in ‘the rumble in the jungle’. Ali defended his title ten times in the following four years, including victory over Joe Frazier in 1975 in the Philippines. In 1977 he played himself in a competent bio-pic based on his own book, The Greatest. He lost his crown again to Leon Spinks in Las Vegas in early 1978 but, unbelievably, regained it one more time that September at their rematch in New Orleans. He was the only fighter to ever win the heavyweight crown three times. He announced his retirement from boxing in June 1979, but within a year challenged champion Larry Holmes for the crown. On October 2, 1980, in Las Vegas, Nevada, Ali suffered the worst, most punishing loss of his career. Ali retired permanently at the end of 1981.

When he was reigning heavyweight champion of the world, he appeared at Bob Dylan’s fundraising benefit concert for RUBIN ‘HURRICANE’ CARTER at the end of the first Rolling Thunder Revue, at Madison Square Garden, New York City, on December 8, 1975: the ‘Night of the Hurricane’. Addressing the overwhelmingly white crowd, Ali declared: ‘You’ve got the connections, and the complexion, to get the protection!’ Backstage, Ali and Dylan posed together for photographer KEN REGAN, for what turned out to include an utterly charming, evocative, funny, touching picture of the two, standing like brothers in arms, looking right into the camera.

MIKE MARQUSEE’s book Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties makes articulate and telling comparisons between the two figures, who are a mere eight months apart in age.

[Michael Marqusee: Redemption Song (London: Verso, 1999)]

Saturday, January 06, 2007


Apologies for the lack of postings this year - I'm spending virtually every waking moment working on the manuscript of my investigative biography of Blind Willie McTell. It has to be finished and delivered to Bloomsbury (London) at the end of the month... and there's an insane amount still to cover. (This time last year I was similarly close to the finishing post with the writing of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia.) The book is not only Willie's story, but the story of getting the story - so for the first time, at book length anyway, it allows me to combine writing about music and about travel. It's called HAND ME MY TRAVELIN' SHOES: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell (the title being a phrase from his great 'Statesboro Blues'). It should be published in the UK this summer.