Jazz, blues and gumbo in the Deep South

The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music
The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music   GETTY IMAGES

‘So can we go upstairs?” An overworked guide gives me a weary look. “Nobody goes upstairs, nobody but family.” My grown-up daughter and I are on the porch of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, at the end of a road trip through the Deep South that has brought us to the second most visited house in America.

I know from the books that above us is the “death bathroom” where a heart attack felled Elvis Presley, supposedly as he read A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus on the loo. With no chance of inappropriate selfies, we settled into our basic $43.75 tour.

The first striking fact is that, unlike everything else in America, Graceland is smaller than you expect: a solid suburban home gussied up by a portico with four Corinthian columns. The second surprise is that for all the green shag carpeting on ceilings, the white settees, the faux fur upholstery and the indoor waterfall, the interior is really rather intimate and homely. You can see why Elvis loved the place.

Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died
Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died   MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Long before reaching Presley’s doorstep, music and food had become the twin Corinthian pillars of our trip from Louisiana up Highway 61, the old “blues highway” through Mississippi. The adventure had begun, as many do, in New Orleans, specifically on that garish slash of neon, Bourbon Street, which cuts through the picturesque and otherwise charming French Quarter. Just off the plane, we went to the Desire Oyster Bar for our Welcome to Louisiana meal. Its no-nonsense menu was not for the weak-stomached: firecracker oysters, fried alligator (like chicken but saltier) and gumbo (southern stew). When a towering plate of shrimp and grits (similar to polenta) and a case of over-ambitious ordering defeated me, Kentrell, the oyster man, told me about the diner who downed nine orders of a dozen oysters. Yes, but that probably wasn’t at 3am UK time.

The next day we ventured farther into the French Quarter. In the balmy sun, surrounded by colourful, flower-bedecked antique buildings, you would have to try hard not to have a good time. Music was, of course, everywhere — a funky brass band, country blues buskers. Yes, this is tourist land but the standard was high, save for a lone trumpeter in Woldenberg Park by the Mississippi who seemed to slip into Baa, Baa, Black Sheep every time inspiration flagged. Even the living statues were a cut above, though the one we admired most, an eccentric figure in Canal Street, turned out, in fact, to be just a statue.

The restaurants too have their surprises. At ancient Napoleon House they showed us the upstairs chambers supposedly prepared for Bonaparte’s exile (never used after he died in St Helena). Above Arnaud’s Jazz Bistro there is a museum showing the costumes worn by the founder’s daughter at Mardi Gras balls. We inspected rows of ghostly mannequins clad as a mix of Disney princesses and Marie Antoinette.

John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61
John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61

By now, however, the road was calling — Highway 61, the legendary road as revisited by Bob Dylan. At first, however, the journey was dull unless you are a fan of swamp and low-budget ribbon development. However, excitement grew as it began to rain — and rain. By the time we reached picturesque Natchez, tornado warnings were gusting all over cable TV. Our hotel, the Grand, sat on a bluff high over the Mississippi, which was not, as in the Paul Simon song, “shining like a National guitar”. Instead Ol’ Man River brooded grey and ominous.

Natchez is known for the glories of its plantation houses — not so glorious if you were one of the four million slaves in the South labouring amid the cotton and sugar cane. The most spectacular residence we saw was Longwood, a six-storey mansion designed in Moorish style that comes with a poignant backstory. Only the basement was fitted out internally when the Civil War broke out and the northern builders fled. Its owner then died and his wife, reduced to penury, lived on with the children in the basement — as did their descendants for 100 years — never having the money to complete the interiors. The grand and ghostly upper floors are now a favourite for vampire movie-makers.

On we drove, the road taking us past more swamp and shacks and what looked in places like picturesque poverty, but real poverty nonetheless. We stopped at little Greenwood where the Alluvian was a fine boutique hotel, much-loved by weekending Americans. However, the rest of this little cotton city was a puzzle. For all its period buildings, the centre has been “hollowed out” by suburban growth. Trying to walk to a shop where you could buy, say, a banana or even (mad idea) a newspaper proved impossible. Instead we took the car to the Museum of the Mississippi Delta where they had the skeleton of a local mastodon, a re-creation of a swamp, and made a game attempt at explaining the convulsions of the Civil War and the bitter civil rights struggle in these parts.

Next came blues day. We drove out of town to the rustic little Zion Missionary Church to pay our respects at what may be the grave of the commercially insignificant but hugely influential bluesman Robert Johnson. There are two other alleged burial sites to choose from. Our route then took us past the crossroads where Johnson is said to have met the Devil to sell his soul in return for supernatural musical powers. Today Beelzebub would be crushed by the 18-wheelers trundling past before he could make the deal.

Halfway to Memphis we stopped at Clarksdale, touted as the birthplace of blues music. At the Delta Museum they were handing out fairy cakes to mark the birthday of Muddy Waters. The Ground Zero club is one part tourist trap, one part blues cliché and one part a very good time. We sipped root beer and listened to some righteous guitaring.

In Memphis we arrived at the new Napoleon Hotel, which pulls off the trick of being homely and hip. We told the valet we wanted to visit Sun Studio, cradle of early rock’n’roll. He pointed down the street. But it was one of those American urban forays via crumbling or non-existent sidewalks and past wandering lost souls that proved impossible for us. So we retreated and caught a bus. Sun Studio is small and airless, bedecked with pictures of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and sundry lost legends. At one end is a drum kit left behind when U2 rattled and hummed here in 1987; at the other end our guide, Nina, unveiled an ancient Shure 55 mike that Elvis may or may not have sung into. “Do not kiss it or lick it,” she implored, as the holy relic was passed round.

Downtown Memphis was smart and shiny, the rest was not. We ate a decent plate of gumbo in Beale Street, the music quarter, which is heavily touristy. But the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, is hugely moving. King’s bedroom is preserved as on the day of his death. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, celebrating the mighty local label, was also $13 well spent.

After our Graceland foray, it was a six-hour straight drive down the Interstate 55 for another brief taste of New Orleans. At a final brunch at Commander’s Palace, I drank a potent local Sazerac cocktail, then another, and not surprisingly fell asleep on the plane home. I had a dream that I was back in Graceland and the reincarnated Elvis himself was showing me round upstairs. Yet as we reached his inner sanctum he morphed into an air stewardess who was telling me to buckle up for landing. Some things in the Deep South will for ever remain a deep mystery.


Pattie Boyd was the real-life “Layla,” who married George Harrison and became the romantic obsession of his close friend, Eric Clapton

Beatles guitarist and singer George Harrison with his wife, Patti Boyd. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

During the golden era of rock and roll, there was a muse who captivated two of the most eminent music icons in history.

One of them sang to her “Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like no other lover,” while the other sang, “Layla, you’ve got me on my knees/Layla, I’m begging darling please,” longing for her love.

How does one choose between George Harrison, the unforgettable Beatle, and Eric Clapton, the fierce guitar legend? Well, Pattie Boyd was the woman who was forced to make up her mind between these two.

Patricia Anne “Pattie” Boyd was born on March 17, 1944, in Somerset, England. During the 1960s, her family moved to London, and she soon began a modeling career. First, Boyd worked as a shampoo girl in Elizabeth Arden’s salon, but when a client from the fashion industry spotted her beauty, she was launched into the world of modeling. She worked in London, New York, and Paris, side by side with the world’s top models. Boyd appeared in the UK and Italian editions of Voguemagazine, as well as in several commercials.Pattie Boyd wearing a Ossie Clark dress back in 1973.

Her turning point came in 1964 when she was cast in a very small part in the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night, where she met George Harrison. Pattie was immediately attracted to him, and she explains that he was incredibly good-looking but rather shy.

Harrison was also swept off his feet by the gorgeous Boyd, but there was an obstacle in the way. At the time, Boyd was still dating the photographer Eric Swayne, and thus, she refused Harrison’s proposal. According to her, he said, “Will you marry me? Well, if you won’t marry me, will you have dinner with me tonight?”

Several days later, she broke up with Swayne and went out with Harrison. On Jan. 21, 1966, Boyd and Harrison sealed their intense romance with a wedding, with Paul McCartney as their best man. Harrison’s young love for Boyd inspired him to write “Something,” one of the Beatles’ best songs.

However, a few years later, their marriage began to disintegrate, due to alcohol and drug overuse as well as numerous affairs. During this period, Harrison became a close friend of Eric Clapton, writing music and performing with him.

One day, Boyd received a letter in which someone, who signed just as “E,” declared his love for her. Boyd assumed that she just had a secret admirer, until one evening at a party in Clapton’s manager’s house, when Eric, whom she thought of as a friend, showed up and asked her if she had received his letter.

Boyd was shocked but at the same time flattered. She could not hide the unfolding melodrama from Harrison, who saw what was happening at the party. She was asked to decide who she was going to go home with that night and she decided upon Harrison. She says about that night, “I held marriage very dearly but felt torn at that moment.”

In 1974, Boyd decided to separate from Harrison due to his endless infidelities, including with Ringo Starr’s wife. She described the last year of her marriage with Harrison as “fueled by alcohol and intolerable.”

Clapton was madly in love with Boyd. She was the muse who inspired him to create the legendary songs “Wonderful Tonight,” “Layla,” and “Bell Bottom Blues.”

Before she made the decision to leave Harrison, Boyd had refused Clapton’s advances, and the fragile musician descended into heroin addiction and deep depression.

In 1979, though, Boyd decided to move in with Clapton and married him. Тhe period of love’s delusion and sweet delight was soon over, though, when the couple faced marriage struggles.

Regular drug and alcohol abuse, as well as Clapton’s many affairs, provoked Boyd to leave him in 1987 and later divorce him in 1989. In a recent interview, when Boyd was asked to answer who her greatest love was, she said, “That is so difficult, but I would say [Harrison]. He will always stay with me.”

In 2007, Boyd published her autobiography Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me.  After the intensity and turmoil of Boyd’s relationship with both Clapton and Harrison, she had decided to stay with neither of them, marrying for the third time in 2015 a property developer named Rod Weston she’d known for a long time. It’s almost our silver anniversary, so we thought we had better get on with it,” her husband declared jokingly.

By Brad Smithfield

A century before Beatlemania, there was Lisztomania

A century before Beatlemania, there was Lisztomania

When the popularity of the British rock band The Beatles started to grow big and fans all over the world gathered around them, a new term was invented to describe this frenzy: Beatlemania. What is more interesting is that the use of the term “mania” to describe the popularity of an artist wasn’t invented in the 1960s, but in fact appeared hundred years earlier.

It was during the first half of…

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A century before Beatlemania, there was Lisztomania

When the popularity of the British rock band The Beatles started to grow big and fans all over the world gathered around them, a new term was invented to describe this frenzy: Beatlemania. What is more interesting is that the use of the term “mania” to describe the popularity of an artist wasn’t invented in the 1960s, but in fact appeared hundred years earlier.

It was during the first half of the 19th century that Franz Liszt’s prodigious virtuosic skill as a pianist lifted him to stardom and helped him cement his place in the annals of music history as one of the most talented composers and pianists to have ever existed. Soon, his virtuosity started to attract huge crowds in the concert venues where he performed, which further strengthened his reputation as an excellent performer.

Starting from 1839, Liszt began nearly a decade-long tour across Europe, receiving numerous honors and awards thanks to his amazing talent. These nine years of his life brought him big success and it was during this period of his life that people started to notice how intensely crowds reacted to his performances and the term “Lisztomania” was coined.

The first photograph of Liszt taken in 1843, during the peak of his career

Most contemporary sources agree that the charismatic Franz Liszt was adored by women and there are several accounts about the frenzies evoked by his concerts. His concert performances amazed crowds and had the power to make women go a little weak at the knees. Additionally, obsessive Liszt devotees, who were mainly female, allegedly threw their underwear at Liszt and occasionally fainted. Sounds familiar? No, we are not talking about Beatlemania. This time it is all about “Lisztomania,” a phenomenon that occurred over a century before the Beatles became famous. As reported, it was the year of 1841 and the place was Berlin where “Lisztomania” happened for the first time. This mania was accompanied by high levels of hysteria, similar to the one that fans of modern-day celebrities display, but not imaginable for musicians of that era.

Before Liszt arrived in Berlin for a concert around Christmas in 1841, news about his arrival started to circulate. The night he arrived a group of around 30 students gathered and serenaded him with his song “Rheinweinlied.” On December 27, 1841, Liszt played his first concert in Berlin in front of a crowd that went crazy. From this moment on, Lisztomania spread all over Europe.

Liszt in 1858

Wherever he played, Liszt attracted huge crowds and put the audience in a state of ecstasy. Whenever admirers saw him, they would gather around him and struggle to take his handkerchief or one of his gloves. They even wore brooches and cameos with his portrait. Women devised plans to obtain locks of his hair, and if he broke a piano string, everybody would try to get it and make a bracelet out of it. Some women also used to carry glass phials with Liszt’s coffee dregs.

Franz Liszt’s fundraising concert for the flood victims of Pest, where he was the conductor of the orchestra, Vigadó Concert Hall, Pest, Hungary 1839.

The level of devotion people had towards Liszt so great that, as written in Alan Walker’s Franz Liszt: The virtuoso years, 1811-1847, “Liszt once threw away an old cigar stump in the street under the watchful eyes of an infatuated lady-in-waiting, who reverently picked the offensive weed out of the gutter, had it encased in a locket and surrounded with the monogram “F.L.” in diamonds, and went about her courtly duties unaware of the sickly odor it gave forth.”

Heinrich Heine-Oppenheim

It has been officially accepted that the term “Lisztomania” was coined by the German critic Heinrich Heine, who described the effect Liszt had on his audience. Heine wanted to discuss and describe the music of his time, so he began writing series of musical feuilletons that lasted for several years. His review of the 1844 Parisian concert season is the first account where the term and phenomenon of “Lisztomania” is used and described for the first time.

Thus I explained this Lisztomania and looked on it as a sign of the politically unfree conditions existing beyond the Rhine. Yet I was mistaken, after all, and I did not notice it until last week, at the Italian Opera House, where Liszt gave his first concert.

Franz Liszt Fantasizing at the Piano (1840), by Danhauser

From the above, we can conclude that the amazing Franz Liszt was a genuine music celebrity in his days and one that can compete with, and maybe even overshadow, today’s celebrities.

(Having this in mind, take a moment and listen to some of Liszt’s compositions, such as Liebestraum(Love Dream) or La Campanella, and check if he can get you to a state of ecstasy.)

 Boban Docevski   The Vintage News

Hip-hop takes centre stage in China for the first time

Hip-hop takes centre stage in China for the first time

Poster for Rap of ChinaImage copyrightIQIYI

A hugely successful internet reality show has put hip-hop music into the national spotlight for the first time in China.

With more than 2.5 billion views on China’s largest online video hosting website, iQiyi, the Rap of China has seen dozens of Chinese rappers shoot to stardom.

Showcasing young and feisty contestants locked in rap battle in front of a panel of celebrity…

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Hip-hop takes centre stage in China for the first time

Poster for Rap of ChinaImage copyrightIQIYI

A hugely successful internet reality show has put hip-hop music into the national spotlight for the first time in China.

With more than 2.5 billion views on China’s largest online video hosting website, iQiyi, the Rap of China has seen dozens of Chinese rappers shoot to stardom.

Showcasing young and feisty contestants locked in rap battle in front of a panel of celebrity judges, the show sparked debate, memes and catchphrases across the Chinese-speaking web.

“Can you freestyle?” became a buzzword, after one of the celebrity judges, Kris Wu, used it to repeatedly grill contestants as he was questioned over his own hip hop legitimacy. Hip hop terms like “diss” – to put someone down – have crept into everyday conversation.

Tapping a gold mine

The 12-episode show, which wrapped up last weekend, was hugely successful in bringing underground rappers such as HipHopMan, Tizzy T, PG One, Jony J, or VAVA to public attention.

Media captionIs the world ready for Chinese hip hop?

“It’s like they ripped open a gap and found it full of gold,” Wang Ke, or MC Bigdog, one of the contestants featured in the show, told the BBC.

“Chinese rappers have been underestimated and neglected,” Wang said. “Our net worth has grown exponentially after the show, but it should have done so a long time ago.”

Group photo of the celebrity judgesImage copyrightIQIYI
Image captionJudge Kris Wu (centre) was challenged over his legitimacy on the panel

Rappers like MC Bigdog were around long before Rap of China.

The genre started gaining momentum in the early 2000s, influenced by American rappers like Eminem and Jay-Z.

Rappers who did well might be signed to labels, music festivals and fashion brands. Some got to perform in clubs.

The number of hip hop music venues and clubs has grown over the years, and national competitions like the China Iron Mic helped to spur on the scene in many cities.

Yet in a society that doesn’t encourage self expression, the rebel spirit of hip hop never really managed to take centre stage but stayed in its own ecosystem.

For most rappers it has remained a hobby – some would even pay out of their own pockets to record albums.

All for show?

Rap of China, therefore, was a game changer. It was said to be the most expensive reality show in history with an investment of 200 million yuan ($30m; £23.7m). Some 700 aspiring rappers auditioned.

Al Rocco mainly raps in English. He was eliminated in Rap of China in the first round because he didn’t rap in Chinese. He then wrote an expletive-laden song, The Rap of China DISS, to show his contempt for the format.

Rapper Al Rocco
Image captionAl Rocco says the show is about drama, not music

Although the show provided money for hip hop music to grow, “it’s not real hip hop that is in the show,” Al Rocco complains. He thinks the programme focuses on drama rather than the music itself so people who didn’t know about hip hop would tune in to see it.

“China is a hard market,” says Al Rocco, a Hong Kong-born rapper who lives in Shanghai. “Hip hop is so small in China even though we’ve been doing it for so many years. You need money to bring that to the world,” he says.

Adding drama was not the only criticism Rap of China faces. Many have accused it of having an unfair selection process that favoured some contestants, and others pointed out that the set-up and theme were strikingly similar to South Korean hip hop reality TV show Show Me the Money.

But the criticism that matters most to rappers and diehard underground hip hop fans in China is whether going mainstream would mean the end of what they see as “real hip hop”.

Wang Bo, or MC Webber, who many consider to be China’s hip hop authority, was one of the many underground rappers who tried to steer clear of the show.

Wang thinks even Xi Ha, the Chinese translation of “hip hop”, was created to help make a quick profit. Over-commercialising hip hop will drain the creativity of young people and reduce the songs to “fast food music”, he wrote on his microblog.

However, MC Hotdog, who now has his own hip hop business managing rappers and performances, says he’s hopeful about the new changes.

“It was hard to keep hip hop real before in China because of all the politics in China,” MC Hotdog said.

“Now that the money problem is solved, hip hop artists don’t have to worry about their livelihood. They will have more room to keep it real.”

“Real hip hop”, MC Hotdog says, is for those underdogs in society to have a voice of peace, love, independence and unity.

“We are not highly commercialised like in the US where hip hop is just about money and sex,” MC Hotdog says. “What China offers is our long history and deeply cultured literature.”

‘We will make it Chinese’

This is not the only thing that China will offer though. Rap of China also had to face China’s increasingly stringent internet censorship.

MC Sun Bayi
Image captionMC Sun Bayi says yes to hip hop – albeit in line with Socialist values

The latest restriction is for online multimedia content like mini movies, reality shows and commentary programmes to avoid producing content that is vulgar, sensational or political.

The “healthy and positive” environment the authorities require is not entirely in line with what’s considered “real hip hop”, but what we already see is hip hop living in harmony with Chinese characteristics.

“Like Chairman Mao said, borrow what’s good from the West and use it in China,” says one of the contestants MC Sun Bayi, who is known for performing in formal business attire.

“The Chinese invented gunpowder and the Westerners made firearms with it. Now they have hip hop, and we will make it Chinese.”

“I don’t like rapping about what I shouldn’t rap about anyway, especially things not in line with Socialist values,” MC Sun Bayi says, shrugging off concerns that hip hop is losing its edge.

“This is the Chinese version of hip hop,” he concludes.