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Off the Beaten Tracks: Cooder’s Story Part 2

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RETURNING to Ry Cooder’s early career is a real joy for me; like a conversation with an old and treasured friend.

In my first column about him last April I looked at his first three albums concluding with 1972’s Boomer’s Story.

It was May 1974 when the eagerly awaited fourth arrived – Paradise and Lunch, once again comprising blues and roots standards transformed by Cooder’s magnificent musicianship.

Tamp ’Em Up Solid is indeed a solid opener with strong acoustic guitar work from our Ryland. This is followed by a real cracker, Tattler, an updated version of the song You Can’t Stop a Tattler Part Two recorded by bluesman Washington Phillips in 1929. Cooder’s guitar is superb, of course, but the main revelation is his singing, which has improved immeasurably since his early croaks. His arrangement prompted half a dozen cover versions, the best-known of which is by Linda Ronstadt on her 1976 LP Hasten Down the Wind, whose cover for some reason got young men around the world all of a quiver.

Married Man’s a Fool is a remake of Blind Willie McTell’s attack on female infidelity and then comes Jesus on the Mainline, a song which introduced a gospel chorus led by Bobby King which would become part of Ry’s live shows for many decades to come. It’s All Over Now, written by Bobby and Shirley Womack and popularised by the Rolling Stones, is given a cod reggae treatment.

Fool for a Cigarette/Feelin’ Good kicks off side two while If Walls Could Talk returns to the theme of marital strife as does the lovely Mexican Divorce, written by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard. The closing track, Ditty Wah Ditty, is the longest at almost six minutes and is a smutty piece with lyrics reminiscent of Chuck Berry’s terrible My Ding a Ling. Thankfully it is lifted by the interplay between Cooder’s acoustic guitar and the piano of jazzman Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines.

Two years later came Chicken Skin Music, so named because it brings you out in goosebumps. Sticking with the covers formula, it opens with Lead Belly’s The Bourgeois Blues followed by three excellent tracks, I Got MineAlways Lift Him Up/Kanaka Wai Waifeaturing the legendary Hawaiian guitarist Gabby Pahinui, and the old Jim Reeves number He’ll Have To Go – here in a live version. This was our first glimpse of the brilliant Mexican accordionist Flaco Jimenez, who would be associated with Ry for ever onwards.

Further highlights include a version of Ben E King’s Stand By Me, the lovely Yellow Roses, and another Lead Belly tune to close, Goodnight Irene. 

In December 1976, Ry took his band to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco to record his first live album, Showtime. Rather than restrict himself to his customary pithy guitar fills he went for extended breaks on tracks such as The Dark End of the Street and How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? As I’ve said before, I first saw Cooder perform live in 1977 at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. His lengthy contribution to Dark End was the finest guitar solo I have ever witnessed.

For his next studio effort, 1978’s Jazz, Cooder delved into the world of ragtime, Dixieland and trad. This lacks the impact of earlier LPs and is commercially his least successful release but repeated listening reveals its joys. My favourites are two songs about the plight of the black American, Shine and Nobody, from a genre whose name I wouldn’t dream of mentioning for fear of being thrown into the back of a police van, although to be fair to the Ribble Valley bobbies I am not sure how far the concept of hate crime has penetrated their psyches.

In 1979 Cooder’s attentions moved forward in time to the R and B era for Bop Till You Drop, the first digitally recorded popular music album. True to its title, this is an upbeat outing which begins with the Elvis tune Little Sister. Go Home, Girl, a tribute to loyalty among male pals, comes next followed by the bitter The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor). I Think It’s Going To Work Out Fine is a sweet instrumental version of the Ike and Tina Turner hit from 1961. The only Cooder original on the album, Down in Hollywood, is an attempt at funk which in my view doesn’t come off. Look at Granny Run Run and Trouble, You Can’t Fool Me, however, save the day.

There is a similar feel to the 1980 album Borderline, which features two songs written by Cooder’s future Little Village colleague John Hiatt – the title track and the lovely The Way We Make a Broken Heart. Other favourites include Why Don’t You Try Me, Crazy ’Bout an Automobile, which would become a standard at Ry’s live shows, and the salutary tale The Girls From Texas, narrated by a dead philanderer.

On The Slide Area, released in 1982, there is another unhappy flirtation with funk on UFO Has Landed in the Ghetto before three excellent cover versions – Dylan’s I Need a Woman, Curtis Mayfield’s Gypsy Woman and Carl Perkins’s classic Blue Suede Shoes

For much of the 1980s Ry concentrated on lucrative Hollywood soundtracks, the most successful of which was the score for Wim Wenders’s award-winning 1984 movie Paris, Texas. This was based on Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was The Night, which had made an earlier appearance on Cooder’s debut album and which he described as ‘the most transcendent piece in all American music’. He also dubbed the slide and blues guitar parts for a boy’s celebrated duel with the Devil’s representative Steve Vai in the 1986 film Crossroads. If you’ve never seen or heard this, you’re in for a treat.

In 1987 came the studio album Get Rhythm, whose title track was written by Johnny Cash, or Durex Money, as we witty schoolboys used to call him. Chuck Berry provided the Thirteen Question Method guide to seduction while the co-author of All Shook Up needs no introduction. Uh-huh-huh. Vocals for the wistful Across the Borderline are provided by the actor Harry Dean Stanton.

And that was it so far as studio solo albums went in the 20th century, although Ry remained busy with soundtracks and forays into world music, which I shall describe later this year in the final instalment of Cooder’s Story.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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