Saturday, 22 May 2021

The Shoebox Files #1: Bobby Cole


The Shoebox Selections is a series of mixes available at, each around the length of one side of a C90 cassette. That was the idea really: to try and capture the feeling of when you would fill up a blank tape with a selection of your favourite things, tracks that you thought a friend or loved one needed to hear.

The plan for the series was to share sounds rediscovered while sorting through old boxes of CDs, all stowed away in cupboards and dusty corners (because not everyone has one of those handsome shelving systems you see in photos people oh so casually post on social media). This, perhaps not surprisingly, all took place during the lockdown that began late in 2020, when charity shops were closed, the postal service was rather awry, Brexit complicated things, and words wouldn’t come, so some other distraction was needed.

It was fun working methodically through the haphazard collections of CDs, and the process was packed with surprises. Some of the discs hadn’t been played in a long, long time, for generally what’s played here are new purchases and fresh discoveries (these days via Spotify, Bandcamp or wherever) or music related to something being worked on. Hence, on one of the mixes, you get Johnny Rotten pointing out that music’s for listening to, not for storing away in a bloody cupboard. Yeah, but Johnny, and anyway there’s only so many hours in a day …

Oddly, some tracks, ones I was delighted to be reunited with, simply left me cold, while others that, well, there was little if any recollection of, sounded unexpectedly fantastic. Things change. Tastes change. The world changes, so why shouldn’t we? There were also some interesting by-products of putting the mixes together. One was a reignited passion for electronic sounds, which is currently being met by catching up with the often truly excellent back catalogue of Peverelist’s Livity Sound label and the tributaries it leads one down, via the work of the incredible Azu Tiwaline, Forest Drive West, Walton, and so on. Another by-product was an obsession with Bobby Cole’s A Point of View.

Bobby Cole’s recording of ‘A Perfect Day’ is a highlight of Volume 7 in The Shoebox Selections. It comes from the compilation Gilles Peterson Digs America, released on Luv N’ Haight in 2005, which really was one of the CDs that seemed to well and truly disappear soon after finding it in a charity shop. Well, it was a promo copy in a cardboard sleeve, so it could easily lie buried somewhere. It features Jon Lucien’s wonderful ‘Search for the Inner Self’ which was one reason why there would be occasional fruitless searches for the disc. Then Bobby Cole’s ‘A Perfect Day’ follows on from Jon’s exquisite song, and wow! It’s something else, and of late I have found myself playing it over and over again, wondering how the hell had I missed this treasure before now!

It’s got that propulsive bluesy piano thing going on, with some suave jazz vocals, perhaps suggestions of Latin or Brazilian rhythms, and it is exactly the sort of thing that you might have expected to turn up on one of those beloved Jazzman 7s compilations, very much in the vein of Fred Johnson’s ‘A Child Runs Free’ or Freddy Cole’s ‘Brother, Where Are You?’. Indeed, being pretty dumb, possibly there was a bit of confusion going on between Bobby and Freddy Cole. Maybe. Mark Murphy sprang to mind, too, but Bobby sounds meaner and nastier, with more of a rasp and an edge in his voice.

There’s a distant and maybe false memory of reading an Andrew Weatherall piece where he’s talking about buying a rare rockabilly 45 for a few hundred pounds and knowing nothing about the singer and wanting to keep it that way. Good for him, I admire that, but it’s never been how things work here. So, inevitably, there was a desire (belatedly) to find out more about Bobby Cole, which is easy enough these days. Anyway, it turned out ‘A Perfect Day’ appears on a 1967 LP of Bobby’s, his only solo LP, which was a collection of his own compositions. It is not on Spotify, but it has been posted in its entirety on YouTube, and again it’s incredible. Indeed, it is very much the kind of record I might well dream about being made. I had to have it. Had to. But it’s only been available, almost inevitably, as a Japanese reissue. Fortunately, there was a reasonably-priced secondhand copy on Discogs, complete with its OBI strip, and it’s not been off the CD player since it arrived.

Ironically, at pretty much exactly the same time I was finding out about Bobby Cole, Sir Tom Jones was releasing his new chart-topping album, a highlight of which is a very moving performance of ‘I’m Growing Old’, a Bobby Cole song, indeed the track that poignantly closes A Point of View. In interviews Tom has spoken of how he was given the song by Bobby backstage in Las Vegas in the early 1970s and had kept it until it seemed the right time to sing it. So, with that, perhaps many other inquisitive souls have been seeking out the late great Mr Cole. Maybe they have been, and maybe they haven’t. Who knows?

If you look up Bobby on the Internet you will surely see that he was a favourite of Sinatra’s and was for a long while the resident performer at Jilly’s, the bistro or restaurant Frank frequented, and there will also be plenty of mentions of Bobby working with Judy Garland in the 1960s, and sure enough on YouTube there are clips of them together from her TV show, and the chemistry there between them is quite something. And yet Bobby’s only solo LP came out on a tiny independent label, Concentric, which was set up for that purpose by the illustrator Jack Lonshein. So much for connections.

Jack’s striking portrait of Bobby adorns the cover of A Point of View. It is one of many great sleeve illustrations Jack produced in the 1960s. He often did LP designs for Mainstream, where his work includes covers for some of my favourites like The Artistry of Helen Merrill and Irene Kral’s Wonderful Life. Coincidentally, Irene’s ‘Going To California’, a highlight of the LP, appears on the second volume of Gilles Peterson Digs America.

By the mid-to-late 1960s sketched or painted portraits were nothing new on LP sleeves, and there was a bit of a tradition with illustrations for Frank Sinatra’s records. The Jim Jonson portrait of him on the cover of Where Are You? is a particular favourite.  Anyway, Jack Lonshein’s artwork for A Point of View captures Bobby in action, with a sort of mod Caesar crew cut, and the few photos I have seen of a young Bobby are very much in the cool casual Ivy league style, except where he is appropriately dressed for saloon singing in best bow-tie and dinner jacket.

Sinatra once said on his Trilogy triple that he sang love songs, mostly after dark, mostly in saloons. It seems that certainly was the case for Bobby Cole, and presumably this LP captures the feel of a small club performance. As an LP released in 1967-or-so it is odd, and in the jazz world a real rarity, featuring just Bobby’s own songs, recorded starkly in a trio format, with no embellishment except, on a handful of tracks, where Kathy Kelly provides a vocal counterpoint, adding some light and shade, as on ‘A Perfect Day’.

Bobby sings and is on piano, Arnie Wise on drums with Ralf Rost on bass, and I am particularly fond of Arnie’s contributions, which are discreet and inventive. Appropriately, around the same time Arnie was playing with Chuck Israels in Bill Evans’ trio, and can be heard (just) on the terrific Bill Evans at Town Hall set. In the same timeframe Arnie also appears on Helen Merrill’s incredible The Feeling is Mutual LP, replacing Pete LaRoca on ‘Baltimore Oriole’ and ‘The Winter of My Discontent’, all of which fits perfectly.

The Bobby Cole LP has a very intimate feel, a bonus for those of us who are very much in favour of small jazz ensembles rather than big band blare, while with classical music very much preferring chamber pieces to large orchestral settings. A Point of View is very exposed, a mix of menace and tenderness, which feels at once both an anachronism and very forward looking, with the singer-songwriter era on the horizon, with Laura Nyro, David Ackles, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and so on. And Bobby’s spoken word introduction to ‘Lover Boy’ feels ahead of its time.

Mose Allison was another who liked the piano trio form, though that great songwriter had a fondness for recording instrumentals and covers. Are there similarities between Mose and Bobby? Mose was renowned for his sardonic, sly wit, but there was a softness there, but Bobby was hardboiled. On his LP he demonstrates a great way with words, with flashes of mordant humour. The songs are often cynical and cutting, with a mix of driving piano-led propulsive tracks and torch ballads. It is very much adult entertainment, lyrically often in the tradition of Cole Porter’s withering wit. Interestingly though it is the simple sadness Bobby captures on ‘You Could Hear A Pindrop’ where he sounds most moving. And in a nice twist of fate Freddy Cole recorded this song many years later, remembering it from hearing Bobby sing it at Jilly’s.

Maybe partly it’s the appeal of a lost record and an ignored singer, but such a magnificently moody record is a gift for those of us who love the work of David Goodis, the existentialists, nouveau vague and film noir, and all those damaged hardboiled tough guys, down on their luck, drinking too much, smoking too much, taking refuge in wisecracks while perversely quoting poets and philosophers: contrary cats with their own moral code, and a soft-centre.

Judging by the stray YouTube comments and info elsewhere (with a tip of the hat to the Ill Folks blog, which incidentally has lots on Phil Ochs too) Bobby could be an awkward sod, a funny guy, but complex, difficult, self-destructive, and possibly a snob and a perfectionist. He was no fool either, with a classical musical background and a literary bent, hence the W.H. Davies quote on the back of A Point of View in lieu of any biographical information and publicity puff.

Davies’ Autobiography of a Supertramp is largely about his life as a hobo in the States, so seems to fit perfectly with Bobby’s next move, which was to record Jerry Jeff Walker’s ‘Mr Bojangles’, the lyrics of which could easily be a tale from the book. So, the story goes, Bobby heard the young troubadour singing ‘Mr Bojangles’ in a New York club and recognised its potential.  There’s a story in that, too, surely?  Did Bobby make a habit of checking out the young singers in the Greenwich Village folk clubs? Was that his way of relaxing? I must confess that would be more me than a night at Jilly’s, despite an enduring fascination with Sinatra’s milieu and the saloon singing tradition. It was a smart move picking up on that song early, and it is surely the case that the saddest folk songs are closely related to the best torch ballads. Just have a listen to The Artistry of Helen Merrill.

Bobby’s world-weary grrravel-voiced delivery perfectly suits ‘Mr Bojangles’, and his inventive arrangement with hints of carnival hurdy gurdy music and ghostly echoes of the medicine shows, fits the song’s sentimental mood perfectly. Bobby recorded it for Concentric again, and it got taken up by Columbia who put it out as a single on their Date subsidiary. It did okay, but it probably would have been a bigger hit if Jerry’s own recording hadn’t been released simultaneously. When you hear Bobby’s version, you realise you’ve been hearing it in your head all your life, and that so few other interpretations really have the requisite sadness. Bob Dylan’s version is great, though, and maybe he took his lead from Bobby Cole who just might have been better in the dark than either Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt.

The single’s B-side was one of Bobby’s own songs, ‘Bus 22 to Bethlehem’, a lovely folk rock number, a wry satire on crass commercialisation, which fans of Phil Ochs’ humour will appreciate. It is also easy to imagine Bobby Darin doing it during his own folk rock period. The follow-up for Columbia, in late 1968, was ‘Holly’, a gorgeous piece of sweet paisley pop with a lovely arrangement by Bobby which has almost a gentle Northern Soul thing going on. It’s got a bit more bite to it than the one Andy Williams had a minor hit with it.

‘Holly’ was a Craig Smith composition (now there’s a man with a story) while on the flipside is one of Bobby’s own songs, ‘The Omen’, which is incredible. A haunting composition, given a jazzy folk rock arrangement, with lovely flute embellishments and abstract poetics, which begs the question: “Why the hell isn’t it better known?” As b-sides go, it has to be up there with Scott Walker’s ‘The Plague’, and indeed the two songs seem as if they belong together.

Would Scott have been aware of Bobby? Quite possibly. Who else would have been listening back in the day? Tom Waits, Ben Sidran, that sort of a character? Possibly. Larry Jon Wilson? You never know. And perhaps Lou Reed? Well, he had his ‘Perfect Day’ and both singers very much had a New York state of mind. It would also fit a pet theory of Lou as a frustrated saloon singer, what with those beautiful Velvets’ torch ballads of his, and those titles which come straight from the Great American Song Book: ‘Beginning To See The Light’, ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’. And, of course, ‘After Hours’.

After ‘Holly’ / ‘The Omen’ Bobby Cole somehow kept on going, one way or another, performing in bars, saloons, restaurants, in and around New York, by all accounts singing other people’s songs but not making new records. Did opportunities come his way? After all, Audiophile made records with most of the old jazz singers still in circulation, even the elusive Jackie Paris, but maybe that wasn’t for Bobby. Perhaps on one of his latterday recordings (which feature as bonus tracks on the Japanese CD of A Point of View) Bobby explains it all. His ‘Hole in the Corner Man’ seems autobiographical and starts off with the line: “Spent my life resisting irresistible forces”. I don’t know. I just wish I had discovered him sooner, which will teach me to file CDs away unplayed! You see, Johnny Rotten was right, after all!










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