The music world was saddened at the end of January by the loss of Pete Seeger, one of the pillars of the US folk revival during the 1950s and early 1960s. Spookily perhaps, his death coincided with the opening of the Coen Brothers latest movie Inside Llewyn Davis, which focuses on the hand-to-mouth existence of a Greenwich Village guitar picker in 1961. Together the two events throw a spotlight on a usually overlooked period in the history of American popular music shortly before the emergence of Bob Dylan and the Beatles-led British Invasion.
Among the many (now) unsung figures from back in that day was one Malvina Reynolds, a resident of San Francisco and an alumnus of another hotbed of folk protest: the University of California, Berkeley. There, in her late 40s, she started studying musical theory (having already gained a Phd in English Literature) and soon blossomed into a songwriter who could marry serious subjects with deceptively simple melodies and lyrics.
From a pacifist family and married to a union organizer, Reynolds leant at least as far to the left as her great friend Pete Seeger and so he was the obvious choice to record her satirical number Little Boxes in 1963. A carefully considered criticism of middle class suburban values, complete with clever repetition of the words ‘ticky tacky’, …Boxes gave Seeger his biggest ever hit, peaking at number 70 on the Billboard charts.
More was to follow. Now in her 60s, Reynolds again caught the mood of the times with What Have They Done To The Rain? Originally written as part of a campaign to stop nuclear testing, it was subsequently covered by The Searchers who took it into the Top 20 in the UK and the Top 30 in the US in 1964 and 1965 respectively.
But the Reynolds’ oeuvre stretched beyond the overtly political into writing for children. It was one of these gentler songs, Morningtown Ride, which proved to be her most successful British record ever when The Seekers very nearly had a Christmas Number One with it in 1966 – only to be pipped to the post by Tom Jones and Green, Green Grass Of Home.
Before the decade was out Reynolds had also cut a couple of albums herself for US Columbia (now available on the august Smithsonian Folkways label) and among these tracks can be found Love Is Something (Magic Penny) which is the winsome ditty, originally written in 1949, featured in Nat West Cashback’s mother-and-daughter-shopping-trip littlethankyous spot currently doing the rounds.
A political activist all her life, Reynolds was pushing 80 when she died in 1978. If she were alive today, would this former mainstay of the American Left approve of her song being used in a feelgood ad to promote a bank? We can only guess. But the odds are Pete Seeger might have had a word to say about it.
It would also be interesting to know the great man’s thoughts on soul music, given that he was so disgusted by Bob Dylan’s debut electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival that he allegedly tried to take an axe to the power cable! But even Seeger would have found it hard to deny that the fusion of country, gospel and rhythm and blues styles which was forged in the Southern states during the middle 1960s exactly reflected the emancipation of black Americans for which the civil rights movement long campaigned.
Soul’s greatest figures, Otis, Wilson, James, Eddie, Isaac and, of course, Sam and Dave, are immediately recognizable by their Christian names. But one ordinary Joe is too often forgotten…and that’s the inestimable Joe Tex.
Look him up in the chart books and you’ll find he only had one 40 hit in the UK and that was in 1977 with a disco track Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman) which barely needs thinking about!
But, between 1964 and 1972, (when he converted to Islam and retired from showbusiness for a while) the man born Joseph Arrington Jnr enjoyed eight US Top 40 titles, almost all of which he wrote himself.
Hold On To What You Got, A Sweet Woman Like You (Is Hard To Find), Show Me, S.Y.S.L.J.F.M. (The Letter Song) and the rest all appeared on Atlantic’s Dial subsidiary. Recorded for the most part in the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, they featured carefully calculated, pared-back arrangements and exhibited Tex’s velvety, often doubletracked, voice, his mischievous chuckle and invariably a short spoken passage or two which, some claim, presaged rap by over 20 years.
Tex was also a consummate showman who got his first break as an 18 year old after winning the Apollo Theatre’s prestigious talent contest four times in a row in 1956. He signed to King records which led him into conflict with label mate James Brown over which of them could claim the mantle of ‘Soul Brother No 1’. The feud escalated after Tex took to rolling about on stage in a cape and Brown chased him round a nightclub brandishing a pistol. Behind the drama was a row over a woman, Tex's ex-wife to be precise,whom Brown had signed as a singer. The argument even made it to record, with Tex cutting You Keep Her for Checker in 1963, in which he addressed Brown by name.
But the reason we’ve got him under the spotlight here is because the latest Walkers commercial – which stars Gary Lineker being accosted from all sides by people trying to win £1m by suggesting outrageous new potato crisp flavours – is underpinned by an out and out rocker that Tex cut for Ace in 1959 called Yum Yum. Sharp-eared viewers will recognize a New Orleans beat when they hear one but may not realise that this was recorded in the Crescent City not just with Little Richard’s backing band in attendance but with a young Allen Toussaint on organ.
Oddly enough Yum Yum didn’t receive a British release (on Sue, no less) until 1965 when, stylistically, it was well past its sell-by-date. But if you’ve got a copy of it in mint condition it’s worth about 40 quid. Which could buy you a lot of crisps.