Thursday, June 07, 2007

More Songs To Learn And Sing #7

Gaily swanning along with these selections of songs the hoi polloi must know about, ignoring that at the moment we're going to run out in the middle of next week (hint, hint), here's a contribution from Thomas of "erratic and too-often neglected weblog-based cavalcade of pop jubilation" Hey Charlie!:

Stanley Winston - No More Ghettos In America

I, like many an e-colleague from various vast swathes of the ‘blogosphere’ (yep, hello again breakfast), spend a great deal of time writing about the influence of the late John Peel, and this entry into Songs To Learn And Sing, I’m afraid, will be no exception.

Floating around somewhere on YouTube (other time-wasting opportunities are available) is part of a Channel 4 documentary called John Peel’s Record Box, which - somewhat reasonably, given its title - examined the contents of a bulky wooden receptacle housed beneath Mr Ravenscroft’s desk, containing as it did the seven inch singles that the man held most dear to him: one copy of ‘Popatop’ by Andy Capp; three copies of ‘Teenage Kicks’, all pretty much worn out; dozens of White Stripes discs; a copy of ‘O Superman’ by Laurie Anderson that he once spent an entire day trying to count the number of ‘huh’s from; that sort of thing. Just a couple of hundred hand-picked singles from a collection that easily reached into five figures. There’s an opening montage in the show where artists championed by Peelie (Damon Albarn, Billy Bragg, Mark E. and Brix, even Status Quo) are shown leafing through the box and playing their own personal selection on a portable turntable, cut with footage of an autonomous hand pulling out some of the lesser-known songs and letting the artist name or title linger on camera. So far, so slick and cosy and well-produced. Yet in the middle of this sequence the hand grasped hold of one particular record, and when I read what was on the label my heart felt like it was trying to do a back-flip straight out of my throat.

Stanley Winston. ‘No More Ghettos In America’.

The story of Stanley Winston is curious and intriguing, principally because there isn’t one. Or rather, nobody knows anything about him. We know that the single ‘No More Ghettos..’ and the accompanying B-side ‘It’s Alright’ were recorded in Louisiana sometime during 1970 for the Jewel label. That’s it. Even the most thorough of soul music collectors have absolutely no extra scraps of information about him, and every attempt to discover his whereabouts and track him down have resulted in nothing. The record spent one week at number 82 in the soul charts over in the USA before it, and its creator, plummeted to a level of obscurity that, considering its beauty, is almost frightening. Suffice to say, you’re more likely to find rocking horse shit studded with a hen’s back molars on your next visit to any vinyl emporium, anywhere. No wonder Peelie kept it near him.

Actually, strike that. Peelie kept it near him because it’s a shimmering, fraught, mournful, hopeful, utterly heartbreaking record. I happened to record the tail end of the song onto a cassette one night about four or five years ago and, even though I only had half of it, I listened to it again and again and there wasn’t a single time I could manage to keep a dry eye. I memorised the name. I looked it up in record collection books, where you might as well have created an entry for ‘WINSTON, Stanley’ with the photograph of a wizened soul aficionado laughing in your face. Turns out that the song had been re-issued on an Andy Kershaw compilation in 2002 all along, but at least it was a nice surprise.

Around the time when Simply Red’s ascendance had placed them both high in the charts and on the Q Magazine cover every other month - usually accompanied by an announcement about how highly they thought of themselves - John apparently pointed out on radio that the warmth, longing, melancholy and sheer undiluted soul in Stanley Winston’s voice on ‘No More Ghettos...’ put Mick Hucknall’s entire career to shame within the first thirty seconds. That might be a bit of a back-handed compliment, but he’s right; the power in the song is not through vocal force alone like many gospel standards encourage, it’s not even by giving a strong performance, but instead by channelling all the hurt and sadness and desperation of this man’s experience through his voice and turning it into a means of communicating hope for an entire nation. I still reckon that, despite it not being the most technically impressive vocal performance ever put to wax, the howl of yearning he makes before the chorus kicks in is one of the most gut-wrenchingly emotive I’ve ever heard. And, perhaps, you’ll ever hear too.

On a surface level it looks to me like a very punk sort of gesture, making one knockout tune and never being heard of again. But as Bianca, the reciprocal half of Hey Charlie!, pointed out to me upon hearing about Stanley Winston’s disappearance, there is something very astoundingly poetic about it. In our minds he was the Everyman of the States, a factory worker or a labourer or simply someone struggling to keep on, saddened every day at having to face the poverty around him. Someone who just happened to get the chance to be a star, and yes, maybe on many people’s terms he’d failed. But for these three minutes and twenty seconds, he burns with a brilliance that has arguably rarely been surpassed. Well, he’s better than Mick Hucknall anyway.

The complete collection

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