• Richard Lloyd of Television: “What is country music? It’s always driven by heartache. Rock & roll on the other hand, often exudes a kind of celebration of rebelliousness and debauchery. But what comes after debauchery? Agony. You can’t have one without the other. They call that big angel, big devil where I come from.”
• Hayes Carll: “I take stock of myself and the world around me and write about it. ... I understand a lot of people look to music as an escape, and it can be really upsetting when it feels like that’s disrupted. But I have a really low tolerance for the people who say ‘shut up and sing.’ It minimizes everybody’s voice. We are citizens, and we are artists.”
• Jason Isbell: "Politics is not a football game, and I think that’s where a lot of Americans make a mistake: They root for one side, and when that side wins, they rub it in your face, and when that side loses, they get really pissed off and saying the game was rigged. It’s not a sporting event. It’s real. Whoever wins, we all have to deal with it, for better or for worse. I did what I could so I was able to sleep at night, no matter who won."
• And finally, the late great Joe Strummer: “I used to be just another guy on the street, but now I’m just another LP on the shelf.”
Charles Brown’s presence is felt every year during the holidays thanks to two classic ballads — “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
The list of artists who’ve covered the songs is a “Who’s Who” in music. “Merry Christmas Baby” has been recorded more than 90 times, by artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Bruce Springsteen to Otis Redding and Chuck Berry, to name a few. More than 30 artists have recorded “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Among them: The Eagles, James Brown, Willie Nelson and Bon Jovi.
Released 12 years apart, the origin of both songs is in some dispute. Brown insisted he wrote both, reworking “Merry Christmas Baby” for a friend who needed money for surgery and penning “Please Come Home for Christmas” while being forced to work for a kingpin who ran illegal gambling clubs in Northern Kentucky.
“Merry Christmas Baby” is credited to Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore, the leader of the trio that Brown first recorded with in the mid 1940s. Charles plays piano and sings lead on the song but was denied the writing credit he always claimed he deserved.
“Johnny Moore was illiterate,” Brown told me. “He couldn’t sign his name.”
Brown claimed that he reworked Baxter’s lyrics for a song titled “Merry Xmas Baby” as a favor. Richie Dell Thomas, a friend of Brown’s who I met in the 1990s in Houston, said she remembered him working on the song in her apartment in Los Angeles.
“That song is his as much as it anyone else’s,” Thomas said. “Charles doesn’t lie about that stuff.”
In a December 2017 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, writer William Browning reaches the same conclusion, saying, “At a minimum, I think Brown should have received partial credit for writing the song.”
I did not know the origin of “Please Come Home for Christmas” until I read a 2014 Cincinnati Enquirerarticle by Steven Rosen, who notes that Brown spent time working in gambling clubs owned by the notorious Frank “Screw” Andrews from 1959 to 1961.
By this point, Brown’s star had faded — he had not had a hit since 1952 — and he was in heavy debt due to a lifelong gambling habit. He became Andrews’ house pianist, working with fellow singer/pianist Amos Milburn.
In 1960, Syd Nathan of King Records asked Brown if he could “write something as good as ‘Merry Christmas Baby’.” The result was “Please Come Home for Christmas,” Brown’s last hit as part of a split single with Milburn’s “Christmas Comes but Once a Year.” But on the second song, which Brown claimed was a solo effort, King Records musician Gene Rudd receives a co-writing credit.
Had Brown received proper publishing credit for those two songs — and, if we’re being honest, not gambled as much — the residuals would have left him comfortable financially. But, like other artists who saw potential windfalls vanish without a trace, he didn’t get to benefit from his creation.
An excerpt from Patti Smith's recent book on the creative process:
“Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras had her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed."
I have Starbucks.
More on the creative process, courtesy of John Doe, another of my favorite musicians:
“One of the reasons I'm here is to make stuff. To make songs and to be an actor and do art and things like that, so that's what's important. You shouldn't worry about what your rewards are. Your reward should be having created that thing.
“I hardly ever wake up and think, ‘Oh, today I'm gonna write a song.’ It just happens. And I think it's the same as — again, to get philosophical — a lot of things, the more time you put into it, the more reward comes out of it. So if I'm writing and playing most every day, then more stuff will come out of it. If I put it away, then there's other stuff that's going on in your head. If you have a down period, try not to get frightened of it or don't get spooked by it. Just let it go. Let it go until you feel like playing again.”
Simon Wright, in his “Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” blog, has summed up my musical tastes perfectly: “The uncomfortable reality is that my record collection is peopled with screwed-up individuals who self-medicated themselves into oblivion and/or an early grave but made some fine rock ’n’ roll along the way.”
And finally, a Replacements-related note: Playing the Live at Maxwell’s version of "Hayday" is oddly soothing while shopping at Home Depot, aka the ninth circle of hell. Check it out here and see if you agree.
Since I was out of town yesterday, I didn't get a chance to pay homage to Fats Domino, one of the pioneers of rock and roll who died yesterday at age 89.
Like many people my age, I grew up on "Happy Days," and my first exposure to Fats' music was seeing Ron Howard do "I found my thrill..." on the show. Soon after, my dad played me the "real Fats" on one of his treasured, beaten up 45s that were stacked in the giant home stereo that could have doubled as a buffet stand.
Reading through various tributes this morning, a Facebook friend noted Fats' connection to Elvis Presley, which led to an interesting discussion on race and music. Presley was never a songwriter, but an interpreter of "all kinds" of music — white and black.
Because the music charts were segregated (like everything else in the 50s), white musicians such as Pat Boone, Fabian and Ricky Nelson (among others) covered songs that were moving up the R&B charts. A long list of black musicians who wrote these hits (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats) were often screwed out of royalties — and other things — that should have been given to a song's author.
Presley, however, was different. He was quick to point to his many influences, especially black artists, and Domino was at the top of the list. I picked up the following quotes in reading the tributes to Domino.
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Presley told Jet magazine in 1957. “But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
In 1969, at a news conference to announce the resumption of Presley's live concerts in Las Vegas, Elvis interrupted a reporter who called him “the king.” He pointed to Mr. Domino, who was in the room, and said, “There’s the real king of rock ’n’ roll.”
Some random thoughts on Aug. 16, an infamous day for music fans:
• RIP, Aretha Franklin, and on the anniversary of Elvis' death too. Wow...
• Agree with this statement wholeheartedly: Some days I need the music and some days I need the lyrics. And this song is one of the best examples of that. It's a wonderful tonic for the soul.
• Another music note: If the Dixie Chicks are recording (as has been rumored), I wish they would cover "Young and Angry Again" by Lori McKenna. It’s a great song they could do a lot with from her new album, The Tree.