This morning’s shuffle opened with Harry Nilsson singing ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ from his 1974 album Pussy Cats which was produced by John Lennon, although my version comes from a double Nilsson compilation CD called Personal Best. I’d forgotten how dreadful it was. At this point in his life Harry was on a downward spiral that had ruined his voice and, indeed, he had ruptured a vocal cord while trying to record this album with John in LA. His vocal is hoarse and strained, and it sounds to me as if John is duetting with him here and there in an effort to shore up the vocal track. That probably explains the fat production too, Lennon having wisely decided to throw in everything bar the kitchen sink to mask the shortcomings in his pal’s voice. Either way it pales in comparison to the marvellous Jimmy Cliff version on his album The Harder They Come, the first reggae album I ever owned and still one of the best ever.
As it happened The Harder They Come was on heavy rotation on the deck in my flat in Bayswater around the time I found myself being whisked off to the Theatre Antique at Chateau Vallon near Toulon in France to witness the opening night of the first European tour by Wings on July 9, 1972, after which I grabbed a word with their leader, name of Paul, who was surrounded by journalists poking microphones in his face. Somehow the talk turned to reggae, Wings having recorded a reggae inflected version of ‘Love Is Strange’ on their recent Wildlife album, and I found myself in discussion with Mrs McCartney about the merits of this album and whether or not it was ‘politically correct’ – we wouldn’t have used that expression then but you know what I mean – to like Paul Simon’s ‘Mother And Child Reunion’. We decided it was but we both preferred Jimmy Cliff, and I remember telling Linda how back in 1967 I used to dance to ‘007 (Shanty Town)’ by Desmond Dekker at a discotheque in Ilkley in a pub called The Cow And Calf.
Back on the iPod Harry’s desperate ‘Many Rivers…’ was followed by more ska, The Specials’ ‘Too Much Too Young’, with its surprisingly ‘traditional’ rock guitar solo, so I got to thinking about how The Specials were no doubt inspired by Jimmy Cliff and this strange connection between John and Paul Beatle, a California singer-songwriter, a Jamaican reggae star and an English 2-Tone band from Coventry and how music really is like a great big ocean in which the currents ebb and flow, all mixed together in one way or another.
Then I got to thinking about John and Harry’s friendship and how, if I’m not mistaken, Harry asked John to accompany him to a meeting with RCA’s top brass convened to consider Harry’s future with the label after disappointing record sales. Aware of this, Harry turned the meeting around, suggesting that if they resigned him John might sign with RCA too, to which John nodded in agreement. Falling over themselves with glee, the RCA men agreed to resign Harry and promptly offered him a generous advance so as to keep in with John. Harry waltzed off to the bank with his check, and soon afterwards John went into hibernation. What it is to have friends like that…
I think the picture was taken by my mate Dougal Butler.