By: Alan Swyer
“On va te montrer un endroit extraordinaire,” my French girlfriend, Marie-Denise, said on an evening that, after many years, still feels like twenty minutes ago. We were young, carefree as I would ever be, and spending time in a village called Ramatuelle in what’s known in France as le midi — which for reasons I’ve never understood is referred to in English as the French Riviera.
Despite waking up in a cold sweat every so often at 3 A.M., fearing I was spending another summer driving a truck in industrial New Jersey, I was happier than I’d ever dreamed possible.
I was living with Marie-Denise and her family, with whom I was infinitely more comfortable than I’d ever been with my own. Beyond merely speaking French, I’d actually reached the point where I was even dreaming in the language I’d used almost exclusively while researching the Paris section of a travel guide for the American youth market.
The plan that balmy Tuesday evening in July was to hook up with a couple of Marie-Denise’s friends in front of the mimosa tree where a French heartthrob from an earlier age, Gerard Phillipe, was buried. From there we would drive in a Deux Cheveux into what, thanks largely to Brigitte Bardot, was starting to become the hottest beach town in Europe.
I figured we’d walk around, see a bit of Saint-Tropez, have dinner somewhere, then grab a cognac before heading back — making it a typical French vacation night.
Happily, I figured wrong.
Not yet completely overtaken by the commercialism that was rapidly encroaching, Saint-Tropez looked, as we were neared, like a Raoul Dufy painting come to life. With its colorful sailboats, plus the docks that remained from its days as a quiet fishing village, as well as the absence of the additional cars that had started pouring into its narrow streets on weekends, it bore as much resemblance to the beach towns of my youth as I did to Elvis.
The four of us strolled over to gaze at the harbor, then wandered past shops and cafes until we sat down for a meal not easily found in Trenton, Camden, or Newark: moules marinieres, frites, and a pizza-like dish called pissaladiere, which instead of cheese was topped with caramelized onions, olives, garlic, and anchovies, as well as a seemingly endless supply of local rose`.
With a glow, we then set out in search of a cafe near the water, so as to finish what had been a perfect evening. But our plans changed abruptly when Joelle and Francois heard music blasting not far from the docks. The source, I discovered, was a phenomenon that was not merely new to me, but also to much of the world: a discotheque.
“On a entendu parler de ca,” Joelle said happily as she pointed at Le Papagayo. “On y va?”
Cringing not merely at the decibel level of the overly percussive beats, but also at the sight of the Ferraris and Lamborghinis pulling up in front, I shook my head. “C’est pour vous trois,” I stated.
“Et toi?” asked Marie-Denise.
“Je vais prendre un pot quelque part,” I replied, making it clear that I’d rather wander solo around the older, sleepier parts of town. Then off I went with a pledge to meet them at the car in an hour.
Strolling down cobblestone streets and dimly lit alleys that often led to cul de sacs, I was thinking about the Saint-Tropez that was, and how it differed from the one into which it was evolving. That led me to ponder the contrast between the person I’d been during my years in Jersey and the one I’d become during my time in France — not to mention the me that might, if my dreams were to come true, somehow eventually emerge.
Those thoughts opened the door first to questions, then uncertainty, and finally confusion. But my ruminations came to an abrupt end when, upon turning a corner, I began to hear something far more pleasing than the pulsations that had poured forth from the disco: a live version of Muddy Waters’ Rock Me Baby.
Curious, I approached a small club. “Qui est-ce qui joue?” I asked the taciturn guy standing by the door, hoping to get the name of the group that was playing.
“Sais pas,” he mumbled with a Gauloise dangling from his lip. “Des anglais.”
Not bothering to thank him for his blase` description of Some English guys, I stepped into the smoky boite, which had only a handful of patrons, none of whom seemed the least bit interested in the music made by a black guy on guitar and vocals, or his two white band mates.
The musicians, in turn, made little effort to bother with patter between songs or to curry favor with stage antics. Focused, they performed rousing cover versions of songs I knew and loved: a John Lee Hooker, then a T-Bone Walker, and finally one that would soon be covered by the Rolling Stones, Don Covay’s Mercy Mercy.
Getting a beer from a bartender whose attitude gave new meaning to the word lassitude, I listened to the rest of the set, then watched the two white guys — the bass player and drummer — head toward the rear door, presumably to light up whatever they intended to smoke.
The black guy glanced at the sparsely populated room for a moment, then walked slowly toward the bar.
“Buy you one?” I asked, raising my bottle of Stella Artois.
“Didn’t expect to hear another American,” he said, catching my New Jersey accent.
“Neither did I, since they told me you were a Brit.”
I gestured to the bartender, who brought forth another beer in slow-mo, then raised mine to toast.
“To Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, and Little Richard?” I asked.
“I played with Richard,” he said with a shrug.
“And lived to tell the tale?”
“Barely,” he replied with a laugh. “I’m Jimmy.”
“So what in the world are you brings you here?” I asked after introducing myself.
“A record label sent us to get our act together.”
“You mean to woodshed?”
“Ain’t heard that since I was a kid!” he exclaimed with a laugh. “Tell me how –?”
“– I know it? Same way I know about Joe Tex, Guitar Slim, and Percy Mayfield.”
“Which must be proof of something.”
“A misspent youth.” I replied with a laugh. “I remember hearing about some blind keyboard player getting turned down by Lucky Millinder for imitating Nat Cole and Charles Brown –”
“– Then woodshedding until he became Ray Charles. You know your shit.”
“For a white boy?”
“White, black, green — don’t matter. Who sang Lipstick Traces?”
“ And There Is Something On Your Mind?”
“Damn!” Jimmy exclaimed, chuckling for a moment, then turning serious. “You like it around here?”
“Love it. Not you?”
“I don’t speak a word of French,” he said with a frown. “And I’m kind of shy.”
“Not when you’re playing.”
“Different story. So tell me what you want to hear in the next set.”
“Let’s hold that for next time.”
“Got to meet with friends.”
Music is what saved my life. That’s not an exaggeration, nor is it a figure of speech. Simply put, it’s a statement of fact.
Growing up in a neighborhood that, due to a phenomenon known as white flight, had already changed from mixed to almost entirely black, my destination of choice when I had some spending money — and sometimes even when I didn’t — was a soul food joint that featured not just smothered chicken, biscuits, and candied yams, but also a jukebox that was my ticket to a realm of joy and passion, excitement and pain. The exuberance of Professor Longhair, the heartbreak of Dinah Washington, the bawdiness of Wynonie Harris, the bluesiness of Big Joe Turner — that’s what showed me an alternative to the criticizing, belittling, and screaming that dominated my family’s cramped apartment.
Searching for more of those sounds led me to radio stations like WNJR in Newark and WADO in Harlem, where I reveled in music my parents considered anathema: Clyde McPhatter, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Big Maybelle, and so on. Lying in bed with a radio tucked under the covers, I would escape my unhappiness thanks to songs that evoked, for me at least, a universe filled with pleasures and possibilities that I wanted for my own.
When we moved to what my parents deemed a better area, I was crushed. As if being away from the places, people, and sounds I cherished wasn’t bad enough, I found myself amidst classmates who thought that music began with the Four Seasons and the Temptations. Even when the British Invasion hit, I was the one who knew that Arthur Alexander had done better versions of Anna and You Better Move On before the Beatles and the Stones, that the Isleys had done the original Twist & Shout, that Irma Thomas first recorded Time Is On My Side, and that Benny Spellman had sung the real Fortune Teller.
It was feeling like an outsider, coupled with the reading I did on the sly while wearing the protective coloration of jock and wiseass at school, that led to a dream of moving to France. That fantasy became reality when I managed to convince the book editor who ultimately hired me that the wise choice would be to have people new to cities such as Paris — people like me — discover the best spots rather than relying on selections made by jaded denizens who probably took those places for granted.
Was there any truth to the line I peddled? I couldn’t have cared less. What mattered was that the gig allowed me to be the only impoverished young American in Paris with a mandate to do everything imaginable. And on top of that, an expense account to make it possible.
Though my intention was to return to the club in Saint-Tropez where Jimmy was playing before the week was over, it was actually ten days later that I finally got back there.
The crowd was still sparse, but the music seemed considerably stronger. Instead of three guys simply playing one song or another, they were coalescing — playing together — which was proof that the woodshedding was paying off.
Yet though the sound was richer and more satisfying, after a set that included tunes by Elmore James, Slim Harpo, and Lowell Fulson, it was clear to me that the bonds were professional, but still not personal. The moment it was time for a break, the Brits made for the rear door, leaving Jimmy to head once more toward the bar.
“Sounding better and better,” I said as he approached.
“Better’s not good enough. We need what I call a sound.”
“That’s what separates the good ones from the greats.”
“That, and a feeling.”
“Think so?” he asked.
“You gonna tell me that Armstrong, or Billie Holiday, or Ray Charles, or Nina Simone has technically the best voice ever? But one bar –”
“And you damn well know it’s them!”
“And when you’re listening, what’s the first thing that hits you?”
“You tell me.”
Jimmy slammed his fist down on the bar. “Which is exactly what I’m looking for.”
“If it were easy,” I said, “every jerk would have it. But think of it this way — the guys who don’t bother to look –”
“What about ’em?
“They sure as hell never find it.”
“True,” Jimmy said. “And a lot of those guys?”
“I spent time backing ’em up. Plus, fortunately, a couple who actually had it.”
That was the start of a conversation that continued, on and off, throughout the summer. Sometimes I’d venture into Saint-Tropez alone, sometimes Marie-Denise would accompany me, and on a couple of occasions Jimmy came out to join us in Ramatuelle.
There were days when we’d talk about the differences between the States and France, and especially about the things that we missed — foremost among them New York pizza, sweet potato pie, and pastrami — which made me realize that at heart I was, and always would be, very much an American. At other times we’d simply hang. But more often than not, the conversation would return to music. Since Jimmy had backed up people whose hits I enjoyed, whereas I had really only known one musician of note — an expatriate Bluesman named Memphis Slim, who held court at a club in Paris — it was hard for me to feel that the two of us were on equal footing. But aside from comparing notes (with me championing Howlin’ Wolf, while Jimmy leaned toward Muddy Waters), and debating degrees of influence (he favored Elmore James, while I went with Lowell Fulson), as well as listing personal preferences (I loved Slim Harpo and Bobby “Blue” Bland, but Jimmy was fonder of Lazy Lester and B.B. King) we also did a lot of brainstorming.
Though Jimmy was right to strive for a voice of his own, the challenge he faced was far more complicated than using feedback in different way when wailing on his guitar, or finding a novel use for a wah-wah pedal. First and foremost, was the inescapable: he was a black American playing with two Brits. Second, instead of the band consisting of three musicians with shared musical interests and goals, it was product, masterminded by a record company whose sole goal was marketing. That required gearing it not simply toward an all-white audience, but specifically toward one craving psychedelics — which meant endless overblown guitar solos, rather than the spare and understated mastery that Jimmy admired in the work of T-Bone Walker or Hubert Sumlin.
Worst of all, Jimmy acknowledged one afternoon, turning his back on the music he loved probably meant losing the audience he wanted most. For unlike hippie crowds, black crowds chose music that made them want to get up and dance.
Fusion, Jimmy was realizing painfully, invariably led to confusion. And that was making him glum and demoralized, to the point where he became paralyzed creatively.
When he reached out for help, my suggestion was simple. Rather than focusing on what he didn’t want to be, or feared he might become, he should go back to basics. Why play blues and R&B classics if respect for the originals would hold him back? And why worry about what an audience — any audience — might want or expect, before finding how he, himself, wanted to play?
The ideal, he and I came to understand, would be for him to write new songs — the kind that would fit the sound he was conceiving as his own. But those songs couldn’t be written until the sound somehow presented itself. Or materialized. Or landed on his head while he was playing, napping, or simply walking down the street.
In the meantime, I suggested, he should find songs that weren’t sacrosanct — songs not identified with icons like Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, or T-Bone. What he needed were good songs with no real identity. Tunes that, for whatever reason, had been overlooked. That he could make his own.
Over a period of time, he and I started kicking titles back and forth — songs from the past that never hit the charts, or were under-appreciated, or simply hadn’t been done right or well in the versions that were released.
“Am I ever gonna get there?” he asked more than once, clearly down.
“Absolutely,” I answered, telling him what he needed to hear, even though I had doubts of my own.
Slowly, a few of the songs we came up with were added to the band’s repertoire. Initially they were mere replicas of the originals. But bit by bit, as the musicians started to explore their possibilities, they began to take on a life of their own.
And sure enough, a distinctive sound started to emerge.
I’d like to take credit for having played a part in helping Jimmy find a voice that was his own. And I’d love to say that I could honestly predict stardom for him.
But the truth is that at a certain point he and I started to see significantly less of each other.
There was never a falling out, nor any sort of problem. Marie-Denise and I started making more and more runs to Paris, necessitated by acting jobs for her, as well as re-writing and editing that needed to be done on my travel guide.
Plus Jimmy was less and less available, having started keeping the company of a German model whose beauty was exceeded only by her need for constant attention.
With autumn drawing near, and our stay in Ramatuelle coming to an end, I kept meaning to make one more trip into Saint-Tropez to say goodbye and wish Jimmy well. But that plan kept getting pushed back until finally it was too late.
Though I always knew that my stay in France would be finite, it was still with more than a measure of sadness that I headed back to the East Coast. But at least I did it in style, having purchased, for fifty cents on the dollar, an expiring ticket on the S.S. France.
While I missed Marie-Denise and her family, and of course the amazing life I led, my culture shock was softened by a new and unexpected offer. Thanks to the success of the European travel guide, there was to be a sequel. Once again I would have both a mandate and the means to explore a vibrant place: Manhattan.
With a combination of naivete and youthful arrogance — but no experience other than an amateurish 16 mm short I made while in Paris — I started spending whatever free time I could muster in the cramped studio I sublet on the Upper West Side. There, I fumbled through what I hoped one day would resemble a screenplay.
Draft followed draft as I tried to blend autobiography with some semblance of craft, all the while fearing that I would have either the world’s first forty- or four-hundred-page script. Then at last something emerged that seemed presentable.
Thanks to events even less likely than my stint in France, I hit what seemed to be the jackpot. Ten days after turning in my pages for the new travel guide, a guy I knew from a weekly pick-up basketball game sent my attempt at screenwriting to a friend in Hollywood. To my astonishment, the guy’s agent, after reading twenty pages, called to tell me that I had it, whatever that meant. A week later, with my New York sublet about to end, I headed west armed with option money, plus an offer to develop a script about a dead rock & roll star.
My education in the strange ways of Hollywood started instantly. After being patted on the head and praised as a fresh voice, the story I’d written about growing up white in a black area was assigned to a black playwright. His task? To flip the situation so that it would be a tale of a black kid coming of age in a fading industrial town that was predominately white.
Saint-Tropez felt like ancient history when, after the option was extended three times, then purchased outright when I refused to grant an additional six months for free, the project, for reasons I alone seemed to understand, never got made.
Even so, I was seen as having heat. That, as luck would have it, led to a chance to fly in a completely different style — first-class — when a New York-based production company asked me to wing in for a meeting.
Wanting to maximize my short stay in New York, I called a friend there to see if we could have dinner.
“Got something better,” Heidi gloated, promising she could get us into a record company party celebrating a new release.
“Who’s the artist?” I inquired.
“Some guy with a funny name.”
“Know what it is?”
“As long as there are free food and drinks, who gives a shit?” she said, clearly not a music aficionado.
Having had little exposure to the extravagance of the burgeoning world of rock, I was far from prepared for the spectacle that greeted Heidi and me when we stepped into the hotel ballroom where the event was held. Drinks, drugs, and decolletage abounded, as did armada of servers carrying an orgy of appetizers.
While Heidi wolfed Champagne, caviar, and foie gras, all the while gaping at celebrities, I excused myself to head to the men’s room. That gave me a chance to wander among people in whose eyes I was totally invisible.
Realizing that this was nothing I wanted to be a part of, I was about to tell Heidi I’d rather spring for a quiet dinner when something caught my eye.
In a far corner, desperate to look inconspicuous despite a bright purple shirt and a newly electrified head of hair, was a familiar-looking guy whose back was against the wall both literally figuratively.
Seeing that he was staring into a glass of wine so as to avoid meeting anyone’s gaze, I made a point of approaching gingerly.
“Excuse me,” I said softly as I neared. “Are you Little Richard?”
Stunned, my old friend from Saint-Tropez burst into a smile.
“Somebody turns up in the strangest damn places,” Jimmy said, putting down his glass to give me a hug.
“That makes two of us. So what’s with this J-I-M-I spelling?”
“They say it makes me exotic.”
“But do you feel exotic?”
“I feel like running for my life,” he answered with a shrug. “In town for a while?”
“I leave for LA tomorrow.”
“Be great if we could hang.”
“Give me a number.”
Before Jimmy could do so, two execs from the label swooped in and grabbed him so that he could get ready to take the stage for a couple of songs.
I wish I could say that the two of us stayed in touch, just as I wish I could have somehow let him know that in the years that followed I got to work with several of the people we used to talk about, among them Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Billy Preston.
But soon he was famous, and famously busy, then not that long afterward he was dead.
So instead I’ll have to settle for memories, especially those of a summer spent in the south of France.
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