Hellhound On My Trail: Walter Hill’s CROSSROADS (Columbia 1986)

‘Well the blues had a baby/and they named it rock and roll” –

Muddy Waters

Hi, my name’s Gary, and I’m a bluesoholic! Whether it’s Deep South Delta or Electric Chicago, distilled in Great Britain or Sunny California, the blues has always been the foundation upon which rock’n’roll was built. Yet there aren’t a lot of films out there depicting this totally original American art form. One I viewed recently was 1986’s CROSSROADS, directed by another American original whose work I enjoy, Walter Hill.

Hill was responsible for cult classics filled with violence and laced with humor, like HARD TIMES (with Charles Bronson as a 1930’s bare knuckles brawler), the highly stylized THE WARRIORS , the gritty Western THE LONG RIDERS, and SOUTHERN COMFORT (a kind of MOST DANGEROUS GAME On The Bayou). He scored box office gold with the 1982 action-comedy 48 HRS, making a movie star out of SNL’s Eddie Murphy (for better or worse), but his  follow up STREETS OF FIRE (a “rock and roll fable”) tanked at theaters.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues (1911-1938)

CROSSROADS is a different type of Walter Hill film. While keeping the ‘buddy movie’ aspect and the humor, Hill tones down the violence quotient considerably to tell his tale, based somewhat loosely on the legend of Robert Johnson. the seminal Mississippi bluesman who allegedly “sold his soul to the devil” to achieve fame and fortune. Johnson’s output of music recorded before his death in 1938 at age 27 consists of just 29 songs, including future blues standards “Come On In My Kitchen”, “Dust My Broom”, “Love in Vain”, ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, and of course “Crossroad Blues”.

CROSSROADS is about a quest to discover Johnson’s missing thirtieth song, as a young Julliard student named Eugene Martone, who wants to be a bluesman, finds elderly Willie Brown (aka Blind Dog Fulton), Johnson’s former harmonica player, in an old folks home. Martone is obsessed with finding the lost song, and the crusty, crotchety Willie agrees to help him, if he’ll help Willie escape from the home. He does, and they go ‘hoboing’ down the backroads headed to the Mississippi Delta, where Willie claims he, like Robert Johnson, once sold his soul to the devil, and now wants it back!

Along the way, they meet young runaway Frances, and go on the adventure of a lifetime, as Eugene (dubbed by Willie ‘The Lighting Kid’) learns what it’s really like to live the life of an itinerant  bluesman. Willie finally makes it back to the crossroads, coming face to face with The Devil himself, and a mystical, mojo-fueled guitar duel takes place between Eugene and The Devil’s own shredder (demonically played by guitar whiz Steve Vai) for both their immortal souls…

Joe Seneca is marvelous as cranky Willie, full of piss and vinegar, and makes a totally believable bluesman. Ralph Macchio, who I usually find quite annoying, as Eugene is good as well. Jami Gertz (LESS THAN ZERO) is appealing as the runaway Frances. Joe Morton (BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET) is The Devil’s Assistant, while Robert Judd (who acted with Seneca in the original Broadway production of MA RAINY’S BLACK BOTTOM) makes an evil, leering Devil (here called Scratch). And it’s a real treat to see veteran Harry Carey Jr. pop up in the brief role of the bartender in a redneck country joint!

Slide guitarist extraordinaire Ry Cooder contributes the rootsy soundtrack, aided immensely by the harp blowing of legendary bluesman Sonny Terry. Other musicians contributing include Frank Frost (harp), Otis Taylor (guitar), and Jim Keltner (drums). Walter Hill has crafted a totally likable musical fairy tale with CROSSROADS, a must-see for lovers of the blues.

In Memoriam 2018: Music

There was no bigger loss in the music world than the death of ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin at age 76. Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, Aretha originally sang Gospel at her father Rev. C.L. Franklin’s revivals. She signed on with Columbia Records, who tried to pigeonhole her with safe Easy Listening standards. Moving over to Atlantic Records in 1966, Aretha began recording at Muscle Shoals for producer Jerry Wexler, and belted out R&B hit after hit: the raucous “Respect”, “Baby I Love You”, “Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, “Since You’ve Been Gone”, “Think”, “Spanish Harlem”, “Until You Come Back to Me”. Hitting a slump in the mid-70’s, Aretha came back strong with 80’s successes “Jump To It”, “Freeway of Love”, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who”, and duets with Eurythmics (“Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”) and George Michael (‘I Knew You Were Waiting for Me”). The word “icon” gets tossed around all too frequently these days, but Aretha Franklin was a true pop icon, with a booming voice that will not be silenced as long as there are fans of music around.

Aretha with Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy (and The Blues Brothers)

Rock’n’roll lost some true pioneers this past year. D.J. Fontana (87) played drums in a band called The Blue Moon Boys with guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and a young singer named Elvis Presley. Fontana spent 14 years as Elvis’s drummer, laying down the beats on classics “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, and so many others. Nokie Edwards (82) was the innovative lead guitarist for instrumental group The Ventures, whose hits include “Walk Don’t Run” (on which Edwards played bass) and “Theme from Hawaii 5-0”. Matt “Guitar” Murphy (88) joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band in 1948, and was a sideman for blues legends Memphis Slim and James Cotton before hitting it big later in life as a member of The Blues Brothers.

Roy Clark  (85) was a multi-talented instrumentalist who had a #1 hit singing the melancholic “Yesterday, When I Was Young”, as well as co-hosting the long-running country music program HEE HAW. Singer Marty Balin (76) soared to fame with Jefferson Airplane (and later incarnation Jefferson Starship). Ray Thomas (76) of The Moody Blues sang and played flute, notably on the group’s “Nights in White Satin”, which was a hit in two different decades. Cranberries lead vocalist Delores O’Riordan (46) died far too soon. Hugh Masekela (78) brought the sounds of South Africa to America, wowing the hippie crowd at the ’67 Monterrey Pop Festival with his trumpeting prowess, and scoring a #1 hit with “Grazing in the Grass”. Dennis Edwards (74) lent his soulful singing to such Temptations hits as “Cloud Nine”, “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Psychedelic Shack”, “Ball of Confusion”, and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” during the Motown group’s most creative period.

DJ Avicci (top); crooner Vic Damone (bottom)

Techno artist/DJ Avicii  had a huge following; his life was tragically cut short at age 28 by suicide due to mental health issues. On the other side of the spectrum, singer Vic Damone lived to the ripe old age of 89; the popular crooner counted a #1 hit (1949’s “You’re Breaking My Heart”) among his many Top Ten tunes, and was regularly featured on TV, in movies, and Las Vegas. Other voices stilled by death include France’s Charles Aznavour (94), Scott Boyer of Cowboy (70), Cajun legend Vin Bruce (87), Big Band vocalist Don Cherry (94), Buzz Clifford (75, “Baby Sittin’ Boogie”), Gospel’s Del Delker (93), Jimmy Farrar of Molly Hatchet (67), rockabilly’s Billy Hancock (71), country’s Freddie Hart (91, “Easy Loving”, “My Hang Up is You”), Mike Harrison of Spooky Tooth (72), Edwin Hawkins (74, who had a surprise hit with the Gospel tune “Oh, Happy Day”), Scott Hutchinson (36, Frightened Rabbit), Hawaiian superstar Ed Kenney (85), Leah LeBelle (34, AMERICAN IDOL runner-up), Dean Lima of LFO (41), Reggae’s Trevor McNaughton (77), Tom Netherton (70, THE LAWRENCE WELK SHOW), death metal’s Frank “Killjoy” Pucci (48), Tom Rapp (70, Pearls Before Swine), bluegrass star Randy Scruggs (64), Gayle Shepherd of the Shepherd Sisters (81, “Alone”), soulful Lowrell Simon (75), Daryle Singletary (46, “I Let Her Lie”, “Too Much Fun”, “Amen Kind of Love”), Mark E. Smith of The Fall (60), jazz legend Nancy Wilson (81), Lari White (52, “That’s My Baby”, “Now I Know”), Tony Joe White (75, “Polk Salad Annie”), and Betty Willis (76).

Funk Brothers Wah Wah Watson (top), Eddie Willis (bottom)

If there’s a rock’n’roll heaven, you know they’ve got a hell of a band with the additions of guitarists Tim Calvert (52, Nevermore), Eddie Clark (67, Motorhead), Ed King (68, Strawberry Alarm Clock , Lynnrd Skynnrd), Danny Kirwan (68, Fleetwood Mac), Glenn Schwartz (78, Pacific Gas & Electric), Wah Wah Watson (67) and Eddie Willis (82) of The Funk Brothers, Fred Weiland (75, The Strangers), and Todd Youth (47, Danzig); bassists Max Bennett (90, LA Express, Wrecking Crew), Mars Cowling (72, Pat Travers Band), Alan Longmuir (70, Bay City Rollers), Craig McGregor (68, Foghat), Jim Rodford (76, Argent, The Kinks); keyboard wizard Roy Webb (70, Lanny Kravitz, Suzy Quatro); sax players Ace Cannon (84, Bill Black’s Combo) and Charles Neville (79, The Neville Brothers); drummers Mickey Jones (76, The First Edition, who later enjoyed an acting career), Nick Knox (60, The Cramps), Vinnie Paul (54, Pantera), Jabo Starks (79, James Brown’s Famous Flames), Pat Torpey (64, Mr. Big), Charlie Quintana (56, Social Distortion); multi-instrumentalist Maartin Allcock (61, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull); and cellist Hugh McDowell of ELO (65).

Blues giant Otis Rush

On the blues side of town, legendary singer/guitarist Otis Rush (83) wrote and recorded such now-standards as “Double Trouble” and “All Your Loving”. Denise LaSalle (78) had mainstream success with the hit “Trapped By A Thing Called Love”. Big Jay McNeely (91) honked his badass saxophone on countless blues records. Maurice Reedus (65) played his sax on Cleveland street corners, so well a documentary was made about him (THE SAX MAN). Little Sammy Davis (89) blew his harp for blues lovers for over seventy years, while Lazy Lester (85) did it for sixty. Guitarist Preston Shannon (70) backed Shirley Brown before striking out on his own, while Floyd Miles (74) played with Clarence Carter and Gregg Allman. And we must give a tip of our porkpie hats to Louisiana’s Jewel Records owner Stan Lewis (91), who released hits from Lowell Fulsom (“Reconsider Baby”), Dale Hawkins (“Suzie-Q”), and John Fred & His Playboy Band (“Judy in Disguise”), and Arkansas’s Sunshine Sonny Payne (92), who hosted the seminal “King Biscuit Time” on radio’s KFFA for over fifty years!

Jazz greats Sonny Fortune (top), Cecil Taylor (bottom)

Jazz buffs are mourning the losses of Big Bill Bissonnette (81, trombone), Shelly Cohen (84, clarinetist and assistant music director for Johnny Carson’s TONIGHT SHOW), Nathan Davis (81, sax), Bill Hughes (87, trombonist for Count Basie), Sonny Fortune (79, sax), Coco Schumann (93, guitarist and Holocaust survivor), Tommy Smith (81, Canadian pianist), Cecil Taylor (89, avant-garde pianist), and Bill Watruss (79, trombone). Producer and songwriter Rich Hall (85) was known as “The Father of Muscle Shoals”. Harvey Schmidt (88) composed the long-running musical “The Fantasticks”; Carol Hall (82) wrote the music and lyrics for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”. Kenny O’Dell (73) wrote country classics “Behind Closed Doors” and “Mama He’s Crazy”. Scott English (81) wrote rock hits “Bend Me Shape Me”, “Help Me Girl”, and Barry Manilow’s “Mandy”.

Gary Burden’s cover for The Doors’ “Morrison Hotel”

In the studio, engineer Geoff Emerick (72) worked with The Beatles beginning with 1966’s “Revolver”. Jimmy Robinson (67) engineered recordings for Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, and Led Zeppelin. David Bianco (64) produced albums by Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Mick Jagger, and many other artists. Gary Burden (84) created iconic album covers for Steppenwolf, The Doors, CSNY, Joni Mitchell, and most notably Neil Young. Peter Simon (71) was a noted rock photographer closely associated with The Grateful Dead. Joe Jackson (89) was patriarch of the musical Jackson family.

Barbara Cope served the music industry in her own way during the heyday of psychedelic hard rock. Barbara was a famed groupie known as “The Dallas Butter Queen” (use your imagination!). She was ‘friendly’ with Hendrix, Zeppelin, David Cassidy (whaaat!), Joe Cocker, and other luminaries, and was immortalized in the Rolling Stones song “Rip This Joint”:

Leaving the rock scene behind in 1972, Barbara sold her vast collection of rock memorabilia to make ends meet, keeping her private memories instead. She died in a house fire on January 14 in East Dallas at age 67, gone but not forgotten. Rock’n’roll forever, Barbara!

Tomorrow: Pop Culture 

Rockin’ in the Film World #2: THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS (1968)

lighnin1

“The blues had a baby”, sang Muddy Waters, “and they called it rock’n’roll”. One of rock’s many parents was the legendary Texas country bluesman Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins. Lightnin’s phenomenal guitar wizardry is heard echoing in everything from The Animals to Led Zeppelin and beyond, and it’s given a fine showcase in this 45 minute documentary by filmmaker Les Blank. Blank gives us an amazing time capsule of life in 1960’s Centerville, Texas, a predominately black rural community midway between Dallas and Houston. We follow Lightnin’, with his ever-present shades and hip flask of whiskey, as he visits his hometown, jamming with friends like Mance Lipscomb, greeting relatives, attending a rodeo, and playing at a BBQ party. This short, cinema verite film lets the man himself tell the story through his music and tales of a life in the blues.

lightnin2

Les Blank began as an industrial filmmaker before deciding to follow his own muse. Blank focused on musicians in many of his films, including Leon Russell, Ry Cooder, and Huey Lewis & The News, as well as regional genres like New Orleans jazz, San Francisco psychedelic, Afro-Cuban stylings, Tex-Mex, and Polka (yes, polka!). Blank also did documentaries on subjects as diverse as a garlic festival in California, gap-toothed women, and two spotlighting the German director Werner Herzog (WERNER HERZOG EATS HIS SHOE and BURDEN OF DREAMS).

If you love the blues as much as I do, THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS is a must-see film. Even if it’s not your kind of music, you’ll enjoy this well-made documentary for a glimpse into a bygone era. Who knows, you might even end up getting converted to the blues after watching!

Here’s a small sample. Check out that washboard player!: