The Singer, June/July 2009
Mmm, I know. I will record the defining version of Gershwin's Summertime. This will be the one, that almost a century after his death, will deem all other versions… Sarah Vaughan, Jessye Norman,Sinatra, The Fun Boy three (the what? Google it, I did) mere musical mincemeat. Mine will go on… and on. It will reshape and modify all notions, present and future, of vocal interpretation. Will it buffalo.
I must mend the banging gate. This wouldn't be a problem in my little flat in London. My gate in London squeaks, in a Londoney way. No one really hears it. It's part of the hiss and roar of traffic on my road, which eventually becomes Westminster Bridge. I have learned how to close it, and not have it squeak, almost like the late-night aftercare of an alcohol fuelled friend, who is brimming with anecdotes and sometimes a well known song. I put the gate quietly to sleep and I lead my friend, now muttering, down the basement steps. One, two, oops, three. Then she is led, blinking like a surprised mole, not squeaking though, to the safety of my sofa. I fall asleep in my room next door ,to the calming snores of a drunk and beloved friend and the audible bongs of Big Ben.
I am now in my little library-cum-living room in what would be called, in a quainter world, a country(-ish, for there is sea involved) retreat. An escape from the hectic hullaballo that is London. It is, to all in tents and caravans, a cottage. There are no roses around the door but there is an overly invasive wisteria that sucks the lifeforce from my pegtiles and eases budding fronds through any crack or cranny. My friends happily decamp here from their city boltholes, and it is here I hide to cleanse my liver, watch old movies, walk on the beach, buy smoked cheese and sit in Julian Clary's garden, lightly gossiping and marvelling at his poultry.
I have come down here this week, against the shrieking of the alsatian sized seagulls and the permapong of fish and chips(so agonizing as I am dieting… and have been since I was eighteen) to try and crystallize all thoughts new albumward. It is time again to commit to disc another suspended fifty-odd minutes of masterly magic. This time the fans will surge in their trillions to camp outside the record shop at dawn. They will stampede in at nine, bypassing Will Young and Girls Aloud, in order to secure a brand new Ian album. Dream On Darlings. The hardware of Buying A CD, the Record Shop (therein lies an irony all of its own of course) is gone gone gone. Whilst the recording industry as we knew it, is in tatters, with such legendary beacons as Olympic Studios in Barnes being morphed into Starchucks or Whether-Or-Notspoons, we must valiantly continue to paddle in the shallow waters of the music we, and a host of others, love. Music created so far away from the pappity poppity arena of The Charts. Music like jazz, blues, folk, cabaret, musical theatre. We record it in garages, sheds, living rooms. We mustn't spend too much on it. We must have total artistic control. We must put it out on our new label "Soddit Records".
We are now firmly camped in the download world. Apparently nothing at all wrong with this. Can't see my lovely old ma nipping onto Napster or eyeing up the latest on iTunes though. She's just mastered the recording DVD player. (Haven't the heart to tell her that it became almost obsolete as she drove it off the forecourt.) And what with the unutterable demise of Woolies… where now can I buy a water filter, support tights and a lawn mower. And I now have to drive to Watford Gap Services for pic and mix. Ununtterable.
There was, until recently, a cafe and jazz record and CD shop in Foyles on Charing Cross Road. It seemed an oasis so perfect and so right, nothing could take it away. Many a meeting I have had there over a soya latte and a healthy sarnie. Wooden benches gave it a timeless quality and the expert ears and Tigger-like enthusiasm of Paul Pace (himself a jazz singer, now happily enteamed at Ronnie Scott's) made it the perfect, almost San Francisco-like indy coffeeshop. The extensive record and CD stock, along with the wondrous Mr Pace, was shunted upstairs. Why not just sell it to Starshucks and have done? Never mind Woolies.
Pray also tell me where I can get the glorious 1973 Tosca with the rather marvellous Leontyne Price. I know it exists, I had it on boxset as a student. I trawled the net. Nothing. I WANT IT NOW. A glorious thing happened. I was meeting my friend Laura to hear about her recent scuba-diving adventures, and happened to pass one of those nice, rather starchy record shops in WC2. I asked the lovely Jeremy. It was ordered. He called. I picked it up. Done deal. We even discussed his sartorial shift from cream roll-necks to the more Glyndebourne Cable Knit Butch. So much better for the middle years manbust, we concurred. That shop has six months to go. So much for Woolies.
My first ever recording session was at a converted cowshed in the charming Bounds Green in north London. It was 1984 and I had been singing in pubs and bars with a bonkers pianist called Johnny Miller, who'd been part of Harvey And the Wallbangers, a Cambridge formed jazz cabaret band that had been storming Edinburgh and its Festival. We recorded a CASSETTE of our songs. Much excitement was had in that little studio and nearly twenty five years on, the excitement is still there. The Cowshed is now presided over by Biba and Joe Leach,a delightfully eccentric husband and wife team,with such warmth and skill, it makes it almost impossible to want to record anywhere else. Charlotte Church, Jamie Cullum, Marcella Detroit, and while we're at it, Barb Jungr and Antonia Couling (ring any bells?) have all been milked dry and creamed off great vocal albums, full fat and unpasteurised. Of COURSE the new landlords have been sharking about, demanding unrealistic top-up rent. Of COURSE they couldn't give a jester's jot for The Cowshed's microcosmic musical magnificance. Joe and Biba march on with a resilience that would shame the itsy bitsy spider.
Because I am a huge enthusiast, nay, anorak of certain artists, my curiosity has always extended to an almost unfathomable urge to know exactly what happened in these now legendary recording sessions. I love the fact that Dusty Springfield was such a perfectionist and often recorded word by word takes, a concept that must have seemed so alien in the early sixties, as pop music was shifting from the lighter skiffle and rock and roll to a more US influenced soul vocal style. I love knowing that for her three biggest and defining hits, Aretha Franklin had a terrible flu and was more concerned as to where her man was, than the task in hand. When I listen to her version of Carol King's "You've Got A Friend", surely the fact that (and I ain't the only one who thinks this) you can listen to it over and over again is wholly and only because of this backstage tattle. You hear her pain through the flu. Can I hear this in Duffy, the delightfully crafted and honourably honed "new Dusty who always seems to have a heavy cold"? Heavens no. Shouldn't she blow her nose before singing? Does she have to do that falsetto vibrato every time? Shouldn't I be more supportive and less critical. She is, after all from North Wales, just like me. So is Aled Jones. Anyway, I pretended to be from Liverpool when I first came to London. Much cooler.
I think back to the endless sessions I have found myself in. The humility of calling my headphones "tins" instead of "cans" in one of my earliest jingle sessions, Chewing gum, cars, sanitary towels, dog food, Saga holidays, British Beef… all vocally extolled. The mad, yet deliriously happy notion that I could, and should record the last remaining tracks of one of my American albums after a now legendary and oft recounted drinking session with the eminent Ferrari of US jazz pianists, Cedar Walton. We wrapped at dinner time, found a rather sparkling bar off Green Street, down in the village, and downed the sparkling contents of three bottles of very good champagne. Back to the studio. Can't quite recall the next five hours, but it's all there, sounding… just fine, on record.
It's almost midnight. The seagulls seem to be asleep. I am preposterously awake. I have not one single new song in my head I want to commit to tape. My banging gate is banging, and I know it is a source of annoyance to the doctor's Dutch wife opposite. For some reason, this occasional banging is a comforting noise and it breaks up the deathly stillness of this sleepy seaside town.
Time to go back to London I think. Where did I put the car?