Sunday, 25 October 2009

Hot Joe (sporadically 1987 - 94)

It's a curious and oddly satisfying thing to have a band take shape around you, and then to watch it take on a life of its own in your absence, both when you're out of the country and also back in again. Such was the case with Hot Joe, still one of Memphis' finest and weirdest groups, in my humble and probably irrelevant opinion.

As a natural extension of the friendship between Linda Heck and The Train Wreck and K9 Arts, I started hanging out with K9 guitarist Jim Duckworth and my band mate John McClure in 1987 and working up some songs, mostly old standards, with me as the vocalist. Jim had an amazing music collection and an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz from its earliest roots to the modern experimental scene, and he turned me on to a lot of wonderful music. These afternoons spent at Jim's house were usually accompanied by copious amounts of coffee, so naming the group was a very easy exercise indeed.

Our first gig was with Rich Trosper on drums, I believe at some sort of art opening or party in Downtown Memphis, though the venue and occasion totally evades me, probably because I was fairly terrified at the time by the prospect of fronting a band as vocalist for only the second time ever. I can't recall exactly what our set was, but it contained "Cheek to Cheek," "Moody's Mood for Love," "Strawberry Fields Forever" (yes, a straight jazz version), and God knows what else. At some point we debuted a version of "Ornithology" with original lyrics by me, which so exited an apparently well-known local "jazz dude" in the audience that said enthusiast mounted the stage and commandeered the microphone to "scat". I've always hated scat. I was very irritated by this man at the time, but ended up being mightily amused by the fact that, whenever the imperious scat-cat wannabe in question ordered (rather than requested) Rich to "lay out," Rich responded with a very loud rim-shot or flam of some sort to piss the interloper off. Eventually he gave up and left the stage.

From these humble beginnings arose Hot Joe, and the group, in various permutations, began to get real paying gigs, mostly weddings and cocktail receptions, which, in addition to a civilized audience and a guaranteed pay check, also typically included free food and drink - not a bad alternative to the thankless smoke-filled dives we were used to. The line-up of the group evolved over time, though the core was typically Jim and John, plus Jim Spake on saxes and either Ross Johnson or Doug Garrison on drums (sometimes both together). On a couple of occasions Jim Duckworth had other obligations, and I recall doing two nice gigs with John Gaskill (a wedding) and Ed Finney (some sort of corporate event in the garden at Brooks Museum) on guitar. I was intrigued by Ed, who wore a compass on his wrist as opposed to a watch - which he explained something along the lines of "I may not be on time, but at least I know which way I'm headed."

Sometime after I left for Japan in 1988, Robert Palmer turned up in Memphis and became part of the band - his skronky clarinet an interesting foil to Jim Spake's refined playing. This line-up, which often included both drummers, became very popular over the next two years, and while maintaining the civilized paying gigs, also played harder-edged material in the clubs. They worked up a rocking mash-up of two of the best Mingus tunes, "Better Get Hit in Your Soul" and "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," a very fast, Klezmeric version of "Over, Under, Sideways, Down," with Jim Spake and Bob Palmer trading solos, and expanded "Strawberry Fields" into a long medley improbably including "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough," "Haitian Fight Song," "The Immigrant Song," and "When the Saints Go Marching In." There were also a few fine originals by Jim Duckworth, including "Mimi" (a K9 Arts song) and "Jonah," which was a beautiful song, and Linda Heck's "Look Out for Love."

In the summer of 1989, I came back to Memphis during the summer break, and the guys very kindly arranged a recording session while I was in town, and we also played a gig at the P&H Cafe, which I think might have been a WEVL benefit. I don't remember that much about the gig, apart from the fact that we played versions of "My Favorite Things" and "'Round Midnight" with original lyrics I had written. The recording session, on the other hand, I remember very well, and still have tapes from it to remind me of what a pleasant experience it was. The full line-up (Jim D., Jim S., John, Ross, Doug, Bob, me and Linda Heck) went into Doug Easley's studio behind his house on Marion Street off South Highland on a Saturday night and recorded into the wee hours. We cut "Better Get Hit/Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," "Over, Under, Sideways, Down," "Mimi," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "'Round Midnight" (with my lyrics), "Ornithology" (ditto), an old Linda Heck and The Train Wreck song "My Crying is Done," two versions of "Look Out for Love" (one with Linda on vocals, and an "answer version" with me substituting my own lyrics), and a very short "Cottontail." It was a blast, and the music still sounds wonderful today.

Jim Duckworth drove me back to my parents' house that night, and Bob Palmer, who was along for the ride, regaled us with some very funny stories of his adventures. My parents' house is not far from the home of the late Sam Phillips, whom I saw many times over the years mowing his own grass, and this triggered an anecdote from Bob, which he attributed to Sam Phillips himself. It seems that when Fidel Castro was in New York City in 1959, Sam Phillips managed to get the number of his hotel room, and possibly somewhat the worse for wear at the time, called it. Bob claimed that Fidel's brother Raul had answered the phone, and told Sam that Fidel was unavailable, to which Sam apparently said, "Well, I just want to wish him well with that revolution down in Cuba, but tell him that if it doesn't work out, he always has a home in Memphis, Tennessee, and that comes from Sam C. Phillips."

I have no idea whether this story was true at all, but I found Bob Palmer to be a delightful storyteller and a very funny man. And he was into Persian classical music, as was I, and I seem to recall we ended up talking about parallels between the Charles Mingus band in 1964 and Persian classical ensemble performances, which are punctuated by unaccompanied solo segments from each of the instruments. That was the sort of conversational side alley you could find yourself wandering down when talking to Bob Palmer. Wish I'd had a chance to get to know him better.

I would really like to see a comprehensive list of all the songs played during the life of Hot Joe, because it would almost certainly run to hundreds. The paying gigs, when they required a vocalist (which was by no means always the case) often came with an obligation to learn some new songs, and I recall that we worked up a really nice version of "I've Never Been in Love Before" for some newlyweds' first dance, and another couple wanted the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't it be Nice?" for their first song. We played it faithfully, and luckily I have a pretty wide vocal range, because it's a hell of a song to sing as the first of the night.

The paying gigs, particularly the corporate stuff, gave license for some fairly subversive material, because typically no one was really paying attention, so it was not uncommon to hear the likes of "See Emily Play" slipped in among the Chet Baker numbers. It was also an interesting opportunity to observe people, because the band members were typically ignored and I was singing maybe one in three songs, so I had ample opportunity to look around the room. At one wedding reception, I remember Jim Spake was featured on a particularly fine version of (I think) "In a Sentimental Mood" and a very old woman stood close by and cried her eyes out until someone took her back to her seat to comfort her.

My abiding memory of the remarkable experiences I had with this group, beyond the awesome recording session, was a Christmas show we did on Wally Hall's Memphis Beat program on WEVL, I believe in 1991. The full line-up was there, minus Bob Palmer, and Linda Heck and I traded vocal duties, teaming up on "Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow" and "Christmas Time is Here." The evening ended with me behind Ross' drum kit beside Doug Garrison as we all accompanied Ross doing a predictably hilarious reading of "The Night Before Christmas" (including ad libs such as in the description of Santa Claus, "There were broken veins in his nose - he'd been drinkin'") which I have on tape somewhere and is still one of the funniest things I have ever heard.

I always enjoyed getting to see these guys play up close - being allowed to sing with them, and even getting paid, was purely a bonus.

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