In less than a fortnight in the summer three people whose music was – and is – very important to me passed away.
They were Nanci, Don and Charlie. Their names written together like that suggest a folk trio though I don’t think they ever worked together. But between them they crossed musical boundaries of folk, rock, country, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, standards, blues, rockabilly, rhythm & blues and big band.
One of them, a solo artist, wrote some of the most affecting songs I know. Another, part of a duo with his brother, influenced so many of the world’s biggest performers with his singing and harmonies. The third laid down the rhythm for what could be the world’s biggest rock band, while playing jazz in his spare time.
You may have worked out who we are talking about: Nanci Griffith, who died on 13 August aged 68; Don Everly, who died on 21 August aged 84; and Charlie Watts, who died on 24 August aged 80.
They were all artists I was privileged to see in concert – ten, three and one time respectively – all in London except the last time I saw Nanci, when I was briefly introduced to her, in San Diego, California.
The death of well-known individuals brings out a range of reactions in those left behind from indifference to disbelief. Sometimes, when an older entertainer dies, I have to admit that I thought they had died some years before. But not these ones – their loss is keenly felt.
When I lived in London I kept a note in my Filofax – remember those? – of the shows and concerts I attended. This is how I know I saw Nanci ten times and, as it happens, the musical Les Miserables nine times (plus, much later, a tenth time, an excellent amateur production of Les Mis in Orkney). I was obviously a big fan of both.
Listening to the public reaction on radio programmes reflecting on Nanci’s legacy – in particular the excellent Another Country With Ricky Ross on BBC Radio Scotland – it was notable how personally invested people were in her music and upset to lose her, even though she had not been active musically in recent years due, I think, to ill health.
Many people contacted the presenters with stories of how much one or another of Nanci’s songs meant to them, and lots of the correspondents mentioned the wonderful personal and family stories she would tell in concert as she introduced her songs.
Listening again to her material, for example There’s A Light Beyond These Words (Mary Margaret) or Love At The Five And Dime, I was surprised how emotional I became.
Nanci could also be political, not in-your-face but in a more subtle way. It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go is a thoughtful take on being an American in the late 20th century. While writing this blog I came across a specially-made video for the song which I had never seen before.
At one of the first concerts I attended I was sat close enough to the stage to notice that Nanci was wearing an LBJ badge to remember President Lyndon B Johnson. LBJ and Nanci were both proud Texans but nevertheless the badge surprised me given Johnson’s involvement with Vietnam. But afterwards I did some reading and discovered he pushed through civil rights legislation in the US against great opposition.
The music of Nanci is also the reason I met my wife, Kathie Touin. It’s a long story which I will try to summarise…
Back in the 1990s, before internet access became mainstream, emails made an appearance in my office. I somehow learned of a Nanci Griffith fans email group called the NanciNet and subscribed. And, no, it was not strictly relevant to my work.
When Nanci played at the Barbican in 1998 a get-together was arranged for members of the NanciNet who were attending the concert. We met in one of the restaurants. And that is where fate took a hand. I went with my then girlfriend and my parents, who were visiting me, and as there were four of us we had to join a less crowded table where two folk were sat. These turned out to be a female Nanci fan visiting from the United States and a guy from Belgium.
To cut a long story short, we all became friends, and the Belgian guy and myself visited the American in San Diego – this is where I briefly met Nanci (and Rodney Crowell). Later I made a return visit to the States by which time the American lived near Seattle, Washington and there I met her daughter’s piano teacher – Kathie. A year later we were married.
Nanci’s songs sit somewhere between country, folk and rockabilly, she was hard to define. As well as writing brilliant songs of her own she had a knack of choosing other people’s songs to record and perform which she made her own – From A Distance (written by Julie Gold) would be the best known example, others include Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness (John Prine) and Boots Of Spanish Leather (Bob Dylan).
She also had excellent musicians to play with her touring band. Some, such as the late singer-songwriter Frank Christian, were very talented performers in their own right. And others making guest appearances with her on stage included The Crickets, Odetta and Ralph McTell.
I will enjoy listening back to my many Nanci Griffith albums. We will miss her.
My Filofax records are clearly not infallible because they show two Everly Brothers concerts but I know for sure I saw them twice before I met Kathie. One of the shows had a stand-up comedian as the support act, which struck me as strange. Their band included legendary pedal-steel player Buddy Emmons, the great British guitarist Albert Lee and keyboard player Pete Wingfield.
Do you remember Pete Wingfield’s only hit single? If you do, you are older than you are letting on. It was Eighteen With A Bullet (1975) but, to be fair, he did much else in his career, including writing To Be Or Not To Be with Mel Brooks!
I know I saw the Everly Brothers twice in London because I remember on the other occasion the keyboard player was Ian McLagan, formerly of The Small Faces and The Faces.
Later Kathie and I saw the brothers perform, in Oxford in 2005, possibly the last time they toured in the UK? I remember that Sir Tim Rice was sat a few rows behind us, which gives you an in idea of how well thought of they were. Phil Everly died in 2014.
It should also be noted that though many Everly hits were written by others – notably Felice and Boudleaux Bryant – Don Everly also wrote some wonderful songs, for example the huge hit Cathy’s Clown and the beautifully sad So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad).
And the third member of my trio, Charlie Watts. We all know, or feel we know, The Rolling Stones though Charlie Watts was the most private member of the band. I saw them in concert at the old Wembley Stadium in 1999.
He was a great drummer, not the big flashy drum kit for Charlie, but he was a vital part of the Stones’ sound and I’m not sure how they will manage without him (though early reports are encouraging).
Here’s an expert, drummer Stewart Copeland, explaining Charlie’s technique in an interview for The Guardian: “Technically, what it is, is that he leads with his right foot on the kick drum, which pushes the band forward. Meanwhile his left hand on the snare, the backbeat, is a little relaxed, a little lazy – and that combination of propulsion and relaxation is the technical definition of what he’s doing. But you can try it yourself, all you want, and it ain’t going to sound like Charlie.”
Perhaps that is the way to describe Nanci and Don, as well as Charlie. You can try it yourself, all you want, but they were unique and cannot be copied.
But we can treasure the music they left behind.
To find out more
Stewart Copeland and Max Weinberg on Charlie Watts in The Guardian:
Another Country With Ricky Ross…
And from Wikipedia…