Sunday, 26 August 2018

Jackie Wilson's Reet Petite

Van Morrison constantly refers to singers and songs in his own song lyrics. A good example is  Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile) released as a single in 1972 and included on Van’s sixth solo studio album St Dominic’s Preview also released in 1972.  

In the song he obviously refers to the great R'n'B singer Jackie Wilson but also to his song with the curious title of Reet Petite.  

Jackie Wilson said
It was "Reet-Petite"
Kinda love you got
Knock me off my feet
Let it all hang out

So what was Reet Petite? Here's a bit of history and detail about Jackie Wilson's song which obviously influenced Van

Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl in Town) (originally subtitled The Finest Girl You Ever Want to Meet) was Jackie Wilson's first solo hit after leaving the legendary R&B group the Dominoes and became his biggest international chart success.

The song was written by Berry Gordy and Wilson's cousin Roquel "Billy" Davis (though credited under his pseudonym Tyran Carlo on the record). The title was taken from a Louis Jordan song called Reet, Petite and Gone. It was Jackie Wilson's first recording as a solo artist. The song peaked at #62 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in September 1957 and reached #6 on the UK singles chart. Supposedly, with the success of the song, Gordy was able to fund the launch of Motown Records.

The song was reissued in 1986 following the showing of a clay animation video on the BBC Two documentary series Arena. The video was directed by Giblets, a London-based animation studio. The reissued version proved so popular that in December 1986, almost three years after Wilson's death, the song became #1 in the UK for four weeks, some 29 years after its chart debut. 

Singles Release

Original release
A Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want to Meet) 2:40
B By the Light of the Silvery Moon 2:17
1986 re-release
A Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl in Town) 2:40 
B1 You Brought about a Change in Me 2:46
B2 I'm the One to Do It 2:34

Chart success

Billboard Hot 100 September 1957 #62

United Kingdom November 1957 #6
United Kingdom November 1986 #1 (4 weeks)
Ireland December 21, 1986 #1
The Netherlands February 14, 1987 #1 (2 weeks)
Switzerland March 8, 1987 #3 
Austria March 15, 1987 #3 
France April 11, 1987 #24
Germany March 1987 #4
Norway February 1987 #5 
New Zealand May 31, 1987 #4

Saturday, 18 August 2018


Gunter Becker is known for his incredible Van Morrison database site which has an impressive array of statistics about Van’s concert performances.  The site also has preserved the old glossary section of Michael Hayward’s A Man and His Music site. Here’s the entry under ‘Them’.


This band originally came together in Belfast in 1963. They started a regular blues club at Belfast's Maritime Hotel and their mission was to convert the city to the blues to which vocalist Van Morrison added a soulful tinge. Morrison had previously played in an outfit called Georgie and The Monarchs, who had a 45, Boo-Zooh (Hully Gully)/Twingy Baby (CBS 1307), which was only released in Germany and Holland. Them soon established a good live reputation locally with a 15 minute version of Bobby Bland's Turn On Your Lovelight, their tour de force. A demo tape was also made of this.

In July 1964 Wrixen departed to join The Wheels, and Mellings also left to become a milkman. Decca's Dick Rowe, having seen them perform at the Maritime, arranged a recording audition in London and to find a debut single. Seven songs were recorded - Groovin', You Can't Judge A Book, a shortened version of Turn On Your Lovelight, Gloria, One Two Brown Eyes, Philosophy and Don't Start Crying Now. This last frenetic number was chosen for their first 45. It failed to break through nationally but sold well in Belfast. It's now their most valuable and sought-after 45.

Them finally split in June 1966 but later re-grouped in Los Angeles with Belfast vocalist Ken McDowell in Morrison's place. This line-up cut two albums on Tower and continued, based in the US, into the seventies. The Now And Them album was a curious mixture of blues-rock and psychedelia. Most notable in the latter category was Square Room, a 10-minute Eastern-sounding group composition. This album is now highly collectable. Prior to the follow-up Roy Elliot departed and the band became a quartet. By the time of their second Tower album, Them were a fully fledged psychedelic rock band. Like its predecessor it's recommended to fans of the psychedelic genre. 

Sadly, it marked the end of this line-up who split in 1968, disillusioned by their financial situation. Armstrong and McDowell formed Sk'boo back in Belfast, but Henderson recorded another album, Them, on Happy Tiger with Jerry Cole, a respected LA session man on guitar and vocals and an unnamed drummer. The album ranged from rock'n'roll through country to soul and Ry Cooder and Jack Nitzsche played on some tracks uncredited. However, the album was less interesting than what had preceded it and also failed to chart. Henderson's final effort, In Reality, is now their rarest album but was probably Them's worst.

Their US albums on Happy Tiger, Them and In Reality, have been reissued on one CD (Synton 1610973) 1997.

Van Morrison, of course, launched a successful solo career. What of the rest? Well, when the American-based line-up split, Henderson recorded a grandiose double Jesus-rock opera project with Ray Ruff (who'd produced all of Them's US-only albums), entitled Truth Of Truths on Oak Records. It was a total disaster! He then spent several years on a Connecticut farm, but reformed Them with original members Eric Wrixen and Billy Hamilton in the late seventies. They travelled to Hamburg (some of Them's singles had successfully been reissued in Germany) to record Shut Your Mouth, a competent blues-rock album. After this reformation collapsed, Billy Harrison made a solo album, Billy Who? (Vagabond VRLPS 80001) 1980. 

After his time in the Belfast Gypsies, Pat McAuley withdrew from the music business and sadly drowned in Donegal in 1984. Jackie McAuley was later in Cult (who did not record), Trader Horne and also made a solo album in 1971. In the late seventies, Armstrong formed Light, whose 1978 album featured much of his fine guitar playing. John Wilson was later involved in Taste and Stud, and Peter Bardens, who'd previously been in Peter B's and Shotgun Express, recorded three solo albums during the seventies as well as playing for Camel.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Sopranos and Van Morrison

Here’s a 2007 Van post from Tim’s now defunct Short Shrift blog:

The Sopranos and Van Morrison

My favourite TV show ended this week, an HBO mob-themed drama set in New Jersey. I won't add any superlatives about the show being the greatest dramatic achievement in the history of television, how the show's characters gave viewers a vicarious glimpse into the life of the criminal underworld/angst-ridden upper-middle-class, or how the cable-serial format in its various broadcast and digital forms has become the 21st-century equivalent of the realist novel. Because all of that goes without saying now, don't you think?

No, instead I'll just call The Sopranos my favourite television show. (It was better, really, when it was just a small obsession a handful of us shared? I guess there's always The Wire.) And a lot of people are upset with how the show ended. Probably because it ended with a Journey song -- even if it didn't somehow manage to lend "Don't Stop Believin' a surprising dose of ambiguity.

The musical reference I thought of, though, wasn't Steve Perry, but the singer who has probably been featured most often (and most prominently) in the history of the show -- Van Morrison. (See Gloria, Mystic Eyes, Glad Tidings, and notably, this season's Morrison cover of Comfortably Numb.) Chase is clearly a fan. And forgive me, but Chase's build-up-and-cut-off ending takes a page right out of Van the Man's book. But it involves a Van Morrison song that's never (so far as I can remember) been used on the show.

I'll defer to Lester Bangs's classic account of Morrison's live shows from the early 1970s:

Now we get to see three of four songs from a set by Van Morrison. He climaxes, as he always did in those days, with Cyprus Avenue from Astral Weeks. After going through all the verses, he drives the song, the band, and himself to a finish which has since become one of his trademarks and one of the all-time classic rock 'n' roll set-closers. With consummate dynamics that allow him to snap from indescribably eccentric throwaway phrasing to sheer passion in the very next breath he brings the music surging up through crescendo after crescendo, stopping and starting and stopping and starting the song again and again, imposing long maniacal silences like giant question marks between the stops and starts and ruling the room through sheer tension, building to a shout of "It's too late to stop now!," and just when you think it's all going to surge over the top, he cuts it off stone cold dead, the hollow of a murdered explosion, throws the microphone down and stalks off the stage. It is truly one of the most perverse things I have ever seen a performer do in my life. And, of course, it's sensational: our guts are knotted up, we're crazed and clawing for more, but we damn well know we've seen and felt something.

Instead of Morrison's It's too late to stop now! the episode closes mid line with "Don't stop...!" Would the other line have been too on the nose? Or would it have been too implausible that the jukebox would have carried a Van Morrison live album? Or, like a thousand other Sopranos fans, am I digging just a foot too deep?

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Ringworm: 1967 or 1968?

Here’s a post from Ryan Walsh who is the author of AstralWeeks: A Secret History of 1968 and is a member of the rock band Hallelujah The Hills. Here’s part of what he had to say about Van’s bizarre and controversial ‘contractural album’ for Bang Records as he seeks to dispel the rumour that the ’album’ was recorded in 1967.  


Dec 30 1967 - Songwriter/Producer and Bang Records owner Bert Berns dies of a heart attack at the age of 38. Van Morrison’s Bang Records contract is passed on to Ilene Berns, the producer’s widow, who believes her husband’s recent fights with Morrison were partly responsible for the heart attack.

Early 1968 - Van Morrison moves to Cambridge, Massachusetts to get away from Bang Records associate and low level mobster, Carmine “Wassel” Denoia who had recently smashed a guitar over the singer’s head, verbally threatened Van, and put bullet holes in the door of his hotel room.

Summer 1968 - Joe Smith of Warner Brothers is interested in signing Morrison to the label but is unsure how to buy the Bang Records contract. Comedian Don Rickles’ manager Joe Scandore helps Smith arrange a meeting. Sometime in early fall, Smith drops $20K in cash off at a NYC warehouse for some well dressed gentlemen who were, as Smith put it, “not in the music business.”

Fall 1968 - Astral Weeks is recorded. Despite the sketchiness of the transaction in which Van was freed from his Bang contract, the deal still contains plenty of official legal language, including a clause in which Morrison is required to record two songs that Bang Records originally recorded/published on his Warner Brothers debut. These songs are Beside You and Madame George. Another clause states that Morrison must write thirty six (!) new songs which will become the property of Bang Records.

According to Morrison’s Boston bass player Tom Kielbania, he watched Morrison improvise all of these contractually obligated new songs in a couple of hours in New York City one afternoon. Winter or spring of 1968 is my best guess for when this happened. But we don’t even need to take Tom’s memory as the gospel here because there’s no way these songs were done in 1967. Why?

1) In one “revenge” song, Morrison sings about a record producer visiting Boston, a city in which he had never set foot in prior to 1968.  “This here’s a story about dum dum George / who came up to Boston one sunny afternoon,” Morrison sings in Dum Dum George. “He was freaky / And he wanted to record me,” the song continues. Van’s Boston guitarist, John Sheldon, connects these lyrics to an actual event that happened that summer in Boston wherein Bang Records sent a bubblegum-pop producer with an outdated Beatles mop-top hair style to Boston to try and coax some new radio hits out of the Belfast singer at Ace Recording Studio.

2) In 1967, Morrison is still under his Bang Contract and Bert Berns is alive. In every account of these “revenge songs,” it’s Ilene Berns who is demanding Van honor the contract’s remaining clauses, not Bert.

3) Astral Weeks producer Lewis Merenstein had a memory of reacting to the songs right after they were recorded, recalling that it was a funny stunt but wildly unprofessional. Ilene Berns agreed, noting “He then turned over a tape to me that…consisted of ten [sic] bursts of nonsense music that weren’t even really songs…there was something about ringworms and then he sang something about ‘I gotta go in and cut this stupid song for this stupid lady.’”

Which brings us to the dark undertone of these songs: while these delightfully idiotic improvised compositions represent the most humorous thing Morrison has ever done, once you correct the timeline to properly note that they were recorded after Bert Berns died, a mean-spirited side emerges. One song mocks Bern’s pop sensibilities and recording techniques that Morrison experienced while cutting Brown Eyed Girl with the producer: “we’ll get three guitars .. and we’ll do the sha, sha-la-la bit.” Another track, Hold on George, is a mocking spoof of Hang on, Sloopy the #1 hit song that Berns had written with Wes Farrell. Elsewhere, Blowin’ Your Nose, of course, is a middle finger to the title Berns slapped on Van’s first solo album in 1967. “It’s got a gorgeous album cover, you should see it,” Morrison sings, in character as a clueless Berns.

Labelling these songs as being recorded in 1967 was likely just a research error that’s been replicated over and over again throughout the years.