Talk From The Rock Room

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Take One: Ronnie Hawkins – The Hawk- 1970 Single ‘Down In the Alley’

In tribute to the 'Hawk', today the 'rock room' is spinning a slab of jukebox vinyl from 1970. The king of rockabilly Ronnie Hawkins recorded two LP's for Coalition in the 1970's. Per his usual practice Hawkins brought together a hot shit collective of musicians for his musical exploits. In the case of the focus of today's Talk from the Rock Room Take One, Ronnie Hawkins is backed by the famed 'Swampers' of Muscle Shoals for his 1970 self titled album. Recorded Barry Beckett and Scott Cushine posted in the keyboard seats, Roger Hawkins on drums, Eddie Hinton, Jimmy Johnson on guitars, David Hood on bass, 'King Biscuit Boy' on harmonica and Duane Allman who is all over the record with slide and lead playing.

Released in February of 1970 as a single b/w 'Matchbox' and produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Towd the single was a double banger of the Hawk's' undistilled brand of rock and roll. With the album and single, 'Down in the Alley', Ronnie was taking advantage of his former students of ‘Hawks’ rock, 'The Band's' recent rise to prominence. A tight rootsy record decorated with many of the finest musicians around taking part. Shades of Elvis Presley's current work From Elvis in Memphis can be discerned on the record, Elvis even covered 'Down In the Alley' as a ‘bonus’ track for his 1966 Spinout soundtrack.

While the mono single release runs on 2:59, the stereo LP version runs a substantial 5:11 with much more music to get excited about. Originally released as a single by ‘The Clovers’ in 1957, 'Down in the Alley' and is credited to Jesse Stone and the Clovers. Jessie Stone is the man who wrote ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ amongst other early rock classics.

The Hawk's version of ‘Down In the Alley’ begins with a heavy-footed stomp down a dampened side street. Duane Allman’s instantly recognizable slide work skims by followed tightly by dizzying piano trilling by Berry Beckett. Hood and Hawkins are the keystone, bearing the load, vice grip tight.

The Hawk swings in singing with a sly 'come hither' attitude. He may be a bit older now, but just as spunky. His lead vocal so tight it almost sounds double tracked and triple pressed. Following verse one the stomping groove veers into a sexy swing where everybody in the band lays way back. Upon the second glance between buildings Berry Beckett drizzles on an Otis Spann-esque splay of notes across the rhythm section.

Another round of jamming takes place following verse two. This time Canadian harp player ‘King Biscuit Boy’ blows long and hard before Duane takes is first swing through the neighborhood. Allman dirties things up a bit with just a taste of his Les Paul. The ‘Hawk’ returns and dispenses of the third verse and Duane reappears to up the ante. A rare occasion of competing and double tracked Duane Allman slide work weaves into a hearty lattice work of blue into the track's fade.

While the ‘Hawk’, had settled into a few years of popular rock obscurity in the mid to late 1960’s. With the release of his 1970 single, ‘Down in the Alley’ he illustrated that he was still able to soar with the best of them. Hawkins also retained his deft nose for sniffing out high quality material and top notch players.

‘Down in the Alley’ is right up the 'rock room's alley. The cut, a perfect rock and roll single. Drums, bass, guitar, jangling piano and killer vocals. John Lennon also agreed with this assessment. Lennon dug the track so much that he recorded a promotional radio spot for the single. The Lennon's had stayed on the Hawkins farm during their ‘peace movement travels’ in December 1969 and enjoyed tracks from the upcoming release with Ronnie. So let’s leave the lead in to Lennon:

‘This is John O Lennon here just muttering about Ronnie Hawkins, and how on our last trip to Canada, somehow it was arranged that we stay at his house. I had a great time, and of course I knew him from way back on record, ‘Forty Days’ and all that. I didn’t know anything about him but he turned out to be a great guy, and it just so happened, as it were, that he’d just made an album, but he didn’t want to play it, he was shy like most musicians or artists are shy, you know. I don’t like playing my record to people. I have to do it because you have that need. I hope this isn’t too long for a promo? Anyway, I was signing these twenty million lithographs, and this album was going on. And I was listening to most of it still signing, until this track ‘Down in The Alley’, and it really sort of buzzed me, you know. And it sounded like now and then, and I like that. So let’s hear it.’

Down In the Alley Album Version

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Put the Boot In: Grateful Dead - January 8, 1966 Fillmore Auditorium 'Electric Dixieland'

Spinning today in the 'rock room' is the earliest circulating live recording of the 'Grateful Dead'. While the group played their first live show in May of 1965, here we find the first recorded documentation of a 'Primal Dead' show. Taking place at the 'Fillmore Auditorium' in San Francisco on January 8, 1966 we find the 'Dead' as the house band for an early acid test. The tapes of the groups earliest show’s sometimes feel like turning the key in a car that been put up in the barn for the winter. There is some grinding, some strange noises and maybe even a strange fluid leaking out from a crack somewhere. But once that engine warms up and everything starts to mesh at an optimal level you can start to discern an unique rock and blues band.

The quintessential quintet, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir and Ron 'Pig Pen' McKernan made up phase one of this Grateful Dead. In spite of the virtuosic talents of Garcia, Lesh and Kreutzmann, these guys were really amateurs on electric instruments. The band’s eventual second sight and learned ability to play off one another was born of learning how to play their instruments with each other. Hard months of practice during the winter of 1966 paid dividends in the available circulating recording we are playing today.

These guys worked hard at developing their craft. This is an underappreciated aspect of the ‘Warlocks/Grateful Dead journey. These moments of captured on stage musical clairvoyance were the result of hours of musical discussion and off stage practice. The available practice tapes recorded in January and February 1966 show a band willing to talk a out and a stern  Camaraderie in turn breeded a stern accountability as can be heard on the recordings. Lesh has already asserted himself into a leadership role and aligned himself Garcia’s co-visionary at this early juncture. 

Youth, drugs, enthusiasm and an internal drive to develop a unique musical expression united the group in a common vision. Garcia came from a bluegrass background, Lesh classical (and had never touched a bass), Pigpen the blues and Bill and Bob, 'rockers' for lack of a better term. Vibrato was king and folks can liken the band's aesthetic during 1966  to a charged alien surf band.

As previously stated this first audio documentation that we have of the ‘Grateful Dead’ hails from January 8th, 1966 at the Fillmore Acid Test. Show lists and various documentation show that the band played sonically undocumented shows at the Matrix in the week leading up to this performance. This soundboard line recording throws us into the deep end right into a heady brew of Prankster chaos. This is the first available documentation of the live concert experience that would define the band’s next 30 plus careers together. Prior to the 'Dead' taping all of their shows, the Pranksters took it upon themselves to do so. Thanks Kesey!

Additional handfuls of concert and rehearsal tapes of tapes circulate of the Grateful Dead in 1966. That being said, many more live recordings than most any other bands of the era.  Many are dated poorly or not at all, many have cuts missing songs and missing reels. The sonics emanating from the January 8th Fillmore tape sound like florescent ectoplasm, an electronic wasteland peppered with calls for stage power and an annoyed ‘Pig’. “Stop babbling and fix the microphone” he shouts to Ken Babbs. The recording is littered with LSD inspired chaos. The alchemy of the 'Grateful Dead' and the acid tests is the organic looseness and lack of any sort of order. This freedom allowed the 'Dead' Looking through the multicolored mists of an acid dream we are dropped straight into a loping ‘King Bee’ on the recording. As we will find, a highlight of these early shows, Bill the drummer is extraordinary at galloping along with the white boy blues, but this band is about Garcia and Pig.


It's obvious by looking at the setlists of the available recordings ‘King Bee’ was a focus of the early Grateful Dead performances. Probably one of the first songs learned collaboratively the Slim Harpo number played to the band's strengths at this point in time.. These guys were the 'Pigpen Blues Band' at this early juncture. The song was a straight blues in which they could stretch their legs as well as developing a sympatico with one another. In the song's framework there was ample opportunity for exploring the song's changes, eliciting call and response moments as well as sharpening their blues chops. 'King Bee' skips on Bill the drummers nimble snare work. Already a stellar rock drummer, the tapes bear out that he was already on par with the much more practiced Garcia.

Lesh plays a loopy legato slide, playing much nearer to the root that usual. Pig lays down gritty harp, but once Garcia comes in for his first solo, flashing images of the future Grateful Dead flitter in the atmosphere. Pig screams soulfully in the background as Lesh and Garcia probe the 12 bar for clandestine doorways to new avenues of expression. Here the 'Dead' dig into a basic blues, but played with a unique renegade attitude. 

Amidst the charged atmospherics of the recording, the tape then cuts in with the band playing ‘Hog For you Baby’, a Leiber and Stoller hailing classic from Pig’s fathers record collection I’m sure. This reading contains all of the groovy hallmarks of later Dead covers such as 'Walkin' the Dog' and 'Big Boy Pete' This one sways like a go go girl's behind, with a delectable groove and ‘Pigpen’ with both hands on the wheel and in full control of the band. Garcia’s soloing is scattershot, excitable and glittery. In the solo break Garcia lays down a strip of candied dots across the percolating strobing grooves. Grateful Dead dance band at your service. Even at this early juncture the group is definitely practiced, abundantly eager, yet garage basic.

A highlight of the tape and a discernable distant gleam can be witnessed though what is one of the band’s first collaborative original songs and their first improvisational pieces, ‘Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)’. Obviously influenced by the song, 'Gypsy Eyes' off of 'Them's' 1965 debut The Angry Young Them, the jam is a clanging of rail joints and squats as the train rounds the bend. Based around an amphetamine 'Bo Diddley' groove, the 'Dead' peeled their arrangement from Van Morrison's blueprints.  

A studio recording of the song is available as it was attempted during the ‘Warlocks’ debut visit to the recording studio in 1965. Even in the confines of the sterile studio the song contained a certain amount of ‘it’. This introductory live concert version cuts in during an already bubbling jam heavy with attitude and wining Pig harp. The band is frothing with energy. Garcia enters with brash prickly scrubs as the band passes the ball around the room before meeting the middle and hitting on an agreed up lick.

Weir’s guitar is somewhat inaudible, but Lesh and Bill continue propelling the jam forward. The group is pulsing while some off mic yelling can be discerned, I’m sure we can’t even begin to imagine what is taking place around the stage among the hipsters, tripsters, and real cool chicks. The band disseminates some ‘Yardbird’ like adolescent ‘rave ups’ with plentiful Mississippi saxophone by ‘Pig’. There is no doubt that at this juncture, that ‘Pigpen’ was in full control of the band, but something outside of jug band and rock and blues realm is observing from the peripheral. 

The genealogy of  these early ‘Caution’ jams  is an important focus when listening to the initial concert excursions of ‘Grateful Dead’. As Pig drives the intensity higher Garcia responds encouraging the band into a whirling dervish of sound. Around three minutes Weir gets into it with some slashing excitable rhythms. Garcia soon let's loose with the recognizable 'Caution' siren that signals the music to drop and Pig  to let the assembled crowd know 'what they need'. Following Pig's lyrics an eager jam follows with Pig and Jerry trading twisted blues quotes while the audience cheers them on initiating an additional Pig diatribe.

Closing the available recording from January 8, is our first available rendition of Reverend Gary Davis’s ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’, a idol of many if not all of the folkies come rockers around the San Francisco scene. This is not definitely not party music, but this is an early example of the ‘Grateful Dead’ taking delicate concert attendees to the precipices of ‘Ying and Yang’. On the available recording as Garcia hits the ascending opening lick into the song you can here Babbs close by the mic let out a laugh, obviously tickled deep by Garcia's sonic jab. The song falls directly out of 'Caution' and surpasses nine minutes. 

Highlighted by Pig's horror show organ and Garcia's youthful and invested vocals, 'Death Don't' is just the dose of musical reality the band would become famous for administering. Screams of delight come from the crowd as the group rises and falls with Garcia's almost unbelievable screaming of the verses. Wobbly chorused notes pour from Garcia's vessel as Lesh and Kreutzmann bring the groove down low. The mood shifts to introspective for Garcia's second trip around the cemetery lot. Lesh shadows him, supports his patient riffing before landing at the appropriate place at the perfect time together.

The available tape ends with additional Prankster madness while they clear the house. Kesey, Weir and others make the exit of the 'test' a most interesting way of leaving. Weir askes Jerry if they should play 'On the Road Again' to get everyone on the road. The rest of the reel is quite discombobulating with mindless chaos, liquid verbalizations, hallucinations and concluding with a demonic reading of the 'Star Spangled Banner'. 

This recording reveals the early aural tentacles of the Grateful Dead reaching out and making critical connections. It acts as proof of the band’s first developmental steps in helping to understand their connections as artists and disseminators of some greater musical cosmic truth. Always reaching for an unknowable golden ring that when caught can lift both artist and receptor to storying heights. The band was beginning to understand what powers their talents and collaborative strengths provided them and how they could use them for the greater good.

By July, the formative foundations hailing from all of the five members shared performing experiences would begin to pay dividends in ways beyond their wildest dreams. Based on my analysis, within just weeks the band would take a stiff blues aesthetic and elasticize it to far reaching corners of multifarious genres and cosmic sonics not yet curated by a normal rock and roll band. This was only the beginning. 

Grateful Dead January 8, 1966

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Take One: Sonny Boy Williamson II - Don't Start Me Talkin' - 1955 Checker Record 284

Spinning in the 'rock room' today is an influential and important 7" cut during the heyday of early  electric blues. Aleck Miler, Alex Miller, aka Rice Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson II was a master harmonica player and songwriter in the blues idiom. This is the man who taught Howlin' Wolf how to play the harp as well as the man who carried 12 harps and a bottle of whisky in his briefcase.

Sonny Boy Williamson II's first single for Checker Records (a subsidiary of Chess Records) 'Don't Start Me Talkin', Checker 824 was released in September of 1955. Sometimes referred to as 'Don't Start Me To Talkin', the single was b/w 'All My Love In Vain' and was featured in the September 24, 1955 edition of 'Billboard', Williamson has a very funny side here, as he warns the gossips of the neighborhood of the dirt he is going to spread about them if they don't stop talking around his back. The aforementioned 'A' side would eventually climb to number three on the R and B charts. It would also be featured on Sonny Boy's 1959's full length LP Down and Out Blues, an album that would collect a number of his early singles.

The needle drops and the song begins sounding like we have caught the band already in progress. The well defined guitars develop a circular lick in conjunction Sonny Boy's harp line before falling into the start and top rhythm of the verse. The Chess band collected on this single features a venerable 'who's who' of the blues. The rhythm section is comprised of Willie Dixon (bass) and Fred Below (drums), Jimmy Rogers and Muddy Waters (guitars), Otis Spann (piano) and Sonny Boy on vocals and harmonica. Oh my lord!

Keith Richards refers to the 'ancient art of (guitar) weaving and it is on formative display on 'Don't Start Me Talkin' as Waters and Rogers tie the stringy two guitar attack into a tight knot. Mellow but rustically funky Spann comes alive in the turnarounds splaying his well known runs into a tinkling downpour soaking the chugging arrangement. The Chess sound in alive and moving with an honest urgency, the talent of the backing band obvious.

The song features a flashy cast of characters including Rosie, Fanny Mae, Jack, Jim and our good ol' reliable narrator. Sonny Boy slyly warns his fellow friends and enemies at the end of each verse, 'I'm gonna break up this signifying, cause somebody's got to go'. Williamson composed a complex small hood narrative of back stabbing, cheating and dire warnings lending the accelerate and then break groove of the arrangement a sharpened edge. The group as to be expected is tight but loose. The guitar and piano work is especially busy with detailed coloring running continuously through the darker reaches of the mix. A classic sound and performance.

In addition, a fine later era performance that can be found here is Sonny Boy II's December 1963 performance on UK television with a backing band made up of British cats. While the arrangement is straight, Sonny Boy lays down a one man clinic on harp for his British fans. The definitely don't make 7" like 'Don't Start Me Talkin' anymore says the 'rock room' curator while yelling at clouds. Featuring an almost unbelievable cast of musicians as well as a funky smooth reading by the one and only Sonny Boy II, the track is an essential and foundational block of electric blues.