The Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions." --American Statesman Daniel Webster (1782-1852)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Monday Music 2 fer. "Rubber Biscuit" and "Walking in Memphis"

This was an eventful week.  My mother in law went into the hospital for complications relating to her first round of chemo and 36 hours later had crossed over.  It was real sudden, she was in good health before the chemo.  She was an advocate for the deaf community and was loved and respected by all that knew her.  I enjoyed her company and she was a classy lady, there was a running joke with the spousal unit and myself.  She would tell other people  " If he and I divorce, my mom would take his side."   I wrote the obituary since I have a modicum of talent in writing and having the ability to turn a phrase, and was amazed by what she had accomplished.  She had bridged the deaf and hearing worlds and was respected by all. 
 Also today was a bit bittersweet, I sold my little black Ranger, my "Disgruntled Veterans" truck that I used for many camping trips and other adventures. I loved that little truck and she was a good truck, but I needed a bigger truck.  So I will use my $$$ from the sale plus my bonus and buy a newer F150.  Still I wish the little truck well on her new journey.
                                            " Soo long and thanks for the Adventures...."
Leaving my driveway for the last time....

I decided to roll 2 songs, both bracketed my favorite decade the 80's.  First off was "Rubber Biscuit" that the Blues Brothers sang...I loved the movie and the movie has become a cult classic and still hilarious today.  I also used Marc Cohn from the early 90's .  Both are excellent songs.

"Rubber Biscuit" is a doo-wop song by The Chips, recorded in 1956. It was famously covered by The Blues Brothers (on their debut album, Briefcase Full of Blues), among many other artists as well as featuring in the 1973 film Mean Streets. Label credit for writing the song was given to Chips lead singer Charles Johnson and Adam R. Levy. Levy, though, was the son of label owner Morris Levy, who was notorious for adding either his or his son's names to songwriting credits in order to claim partial, or in some cases all composer royalties on songs they did not write. There is no evidence that Morris or Adam ever wrote any songs.

Few of the lyrics can actually be understood, as they are sung in the scat manner. The scat is interrupted every few bars for short one-liners, most of which are implicit references to the singer's poverty and the low-grade food he eats: a "wish sandwich" (where one has two slices of bread and wishes for meat in between the slices of bread), a "ricochet biscuit" (which is supposed to bounce off the wall and into one's mouth, and when it doesn't, "you go hungry"), a "cold-water sandwich" (or a "cool-water sandwich") and a "Sunday-go-to-meeting-bun". The song closes with the question "What do you want for nothing? A rubber biscuit?"
"Rubber Biscuit" became the theme tune to Jimmy's Food Factory, a programme about supermarket's food tricks on BBC One. It is The Chips' version that is played at the beginning and end of each show. It was also featured in the 1990 John Waters film, Cry-Baby.
The Chips were teenage friends in New York: Charles Johnson (lead vocal), Nathaniel Epps (baritone), Paul Fulton (bass), Sammy Strain and Shedrick Lincoln (tenors). "Rubber Biscuit" started life as Johnson's answer to the marching rhythms of the Warwick School For Delinquent Teenagers while he was an intern there.

When Josie Records heard the tune they signed the group and the record was issued in September 1956. Although it did not chart, "Rubber Biscuit" became an instant east coast radio favourite, and saw its performers touring alongside The Dells, The Cadillacs and Bo Diddley, but the momentum gained by their debut single was waning and the group broke up at the end of 1957. Only Sammy Strain went on to success in the music industry, as a member of Little Anthony & The Imperials from about 1961 to 1972, when he left to join The O'Jays. Strain left the O'Jays in 1992 to return to The Imperials, where he remained until his retirement in 2004.

Marc Cohn was inspired to write "Walking in Memphis" by a 1985 visit to the Memphis, Tennessee area: he was then based in New York City working as a session singer while pursuing a recording contract - "(quote) One night while listening to all of my demos, I came to the realization that I shouldn’t be signed, because I didn’t have any great songs yet. My voice was good and the demos were interesting, but the songs were only just okay. I was 28 years old and not in love with my songs. James Taylor had written 'Fire and Rain' when he was 18, and Jackson Browne wrote 'These Days' when he was only 17. I thought: 'I'm already ten years older than these geniuses. It's never going to happen for me.' So it was a pretty desperate time, and I went to Memphis with that struggle at the forefront of my mind." Cohn made his first excursion to Memphis after reading an interview with James Taylor in which Taylor stated he overcame writer's block by "go[ing] somewhere I’ve never been, hoping to find some idea I wouldn’t get just by sitting at home": Cohn emulated Taylor, choosing Memphis as his destination - "I always knew it was a place I had to visit because so much of my favorite music came from there. From Al Green, Ann Peebles, and everything on Hi Records, to Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, and the Stax catalog, an almost endless stream of brilliance and soul came out of Memphis. I was aware early on that...there was something going on in Memphis that was utterly inexplicable. It was part of what made me want to be a musician in the first place."

Cohn recalls that on arrival in Memphis: "I did all the [expected] touristy things...I went to Graceland, and I saw Elvis Presley’s tomb and his airplanes" - (Cohn would express misgivings after, eventually referencing Presley in the lyrics of "Walking in Memphis": "To me, the song is so minimally about him, but I worry that it gets cast off as another Elvis tribute. It's a testament to the power of his name, even if you just mention it in one verse, the song becomes about him because people focus on it.") - "But a friend told me there were two things in particular that I had to do, things that would forever change me. They would later become the centerpieces of 'Walking in Memphis'. The first thing was go to the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on a Sunday morning to hear the Reverend Al Green preach...I [soon] had chills running up and down my spine. The service was so deeply moving that I found myself with sweat running down my face and tears in my eyes, totally enveloped by everything I was seeing and hearing. There was something incredibly powerful about Al Green’s voice in that context. Even after three hours of continuous singing, his voice only got stronger and his band only got better. I sat there crying in the church, aware of the irony of how I used to cry in Synagogue in Cleveland as a kid — but because I wanted to get the heck out of there! Al Green’s service was one of the great experiences of my life."

The second advisement of his friend was that Cohn visit the Hollywood Café in Robinsonville, Mississippi, 35 miles south of Memphis, to see Muriel Davis Wilkins, a retired school teacher who performed at the cafe on Friday nights: "When I arrived, Muriel, who...was in her 60s, was onstage playing a beat-up old upright piano and singing gospel standards... I felt an immediate connection to her voice, her spirit, her face, and her smile. I was totally transfixed by her music. While many of the patrons were busy eating and not paying close attention to Muriel, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. During her breaks, the two of us would talk. Muriel asked me why I was there, and I told her I was a songwriter trying to find inspiration. I also told her a little bit about my childhood — how when I was two and a half years old, my mom had passed away very unexpectedly, and about ten years later, my dad had passed away and I’d been raised by a stepmother. My mother’s death was a central event in my life, and I’d been writing a lot about it over the years, both in songs and in journals. I think a part of me felt stuck in time, like I’d never quite been able to work through that loss....By midnight, the Hollywood was still packed, and Muriel asked me to join her onstage. We soon realized that there wasn’t a song in the universe that both of us knew in common. A quick thinker, Muriel started feeding me lyrics to gospel songs so that I could catch up in time to sing somewhat in rhythm with her and make up my own version of the melody. Some songs I was vaguely familiar with, and some I didn’t know at all. The very last song we sang together that night was 'Amazing Grace'. After we finished and people were applauding, Muriel leaned over and whispered in my ear: 'Child, you can let go now.' It was an incredibly maternal thing for her to say to me. Just like sitting in Revered Al Green’s church, I was again transformed. It was almost as if my mother was whispering in my ear. From the time I left Memphis and went back home to New York City, I knew I had a song in me about my experience there."
 Soon after returning to New York City, Cohn began constructing the melody for his Memphis song on his guitar: "I started playing an arpeggiated figure that I liked, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t play it very well on guitar. So I went to the piano, where that kind of rolling rhythm was easier for me to play. Then I added that first line to the piano riff and I was off to the races. The music for 'Walking in Memphis', except for the bridge, is really just the same thing over and over again. It’s an attempt to keep things simple so that the narrative is what the listener focuses on. The story keeps changing; it goes from one scenario to another, all following the thread of my elation, described in the lyric 'Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale'. What’s being expressed is my love of music and the spiritual transformation I’ve always felt through it. The line: 'Tell me are you a Christian child, and I said 'Ma’am I am tonight' - even in the moment I wrote it down, I knew I was getting closer to finding my songwriting voice. To this day, people still ask me if I am a Christian. While I have to admit that I enjoy the confusion the lyric brings, the thing that makes that line work is the fact that I’m a Jew. So many great artists over the years needed to hide the fact that they were Jewish to protect themselves and their families from anti-Semitism, so I’m proud of the fact that I could come right out and practically announce my religion on the first song I ever released." Cohn wrote numerous drafts before he had a set of lyrics which satisfied him: "When I finished the song, I felt like I had completed a jigsaw puzzle. I wasn’t sure if it was a hit, because I was still years away from being signed to Atlantic Records. Six months later [in 1986], after I wrote many of the songs that would later comprise my album 'Marc Cohn', I went back to the Hollywood Café to play them all for Muriel. After I finished, Muriel said to me: 'You know the one where you mention me at the end? That’s the best one you got!'" (Muriel Davis Wilkins, born 6 December 1923, would die 1 October 1990, five months before the release of "Walking in Memphis"


  1. Good music, Mr. G. I am very saddened about your mother in law. It seems when someone embarks on treatment that it is an optimistic time and to suddenly pass after the first round of chemo is shocking. I am sorry for your loss. Lots of prayers and love go out to you and your family. I hope you still continue with truck stories after you get your new one. Your Ford Ranger was the heart of a lot of adventure. The Blues Brothers seem fitting today.

  2. Good music, Mr. G. I am very saddened about your mother in law. It seems when someone embarks on treatment that it is an optimistic time and to suddenly pass after the first round of chemo is shocking. I am sorry for your loss. Lots of prayers and love go out to you and your family. I hope you still continue with truck stories after you get your new one. Your Ford Ranger was the heart of a lot of adventure. The Blues Brothers seem fitting today.

  3. Sorry Buddy. Please pass on my regards to the spousal unit and the boy. Terribly sorry. Also, feel free to borrow my Danger Ranger if you need a streak of nostalgia.