John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Play With My Mind”

The late Lou Whitney and his band The Skeletons, were American classics.

By - Oct 16th, 2014 10:28 am
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Lou Whitney. Photo from thestudiospringfield.com.

Lou Whitney. Photo from thestudiospringfield.com.

I’ve been meaning to write about a phenomenon out of Springfield, Missouri, a group that goes around with a couple names, The Skeletons and The Morells. It’s a story that’s personal to me, because I’ve been loving these guys ever since The R&B Cadets opened for them in Chicago and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. If you think cool is leather pants or loud Marshall amps, this probably isn’t your kind of article and might want to wait till next week when a serious appreciation of Jimi Hendrix is in the pipeline. I scrapped that idea when I heard about the passing of the Grandfather Of Cool, Lou Whitney.

Lou was a father figure to guys just a little younger than him and maybe even some his age or older. You see, he had the secret. He was like the Humphrey Bogart apparition in Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam — all-knowing, unflappable and a dispenser of of sage advice. In the movie, Bogie mostly coached Woody on how to attract “dames.” Lou, on the other hand, was all over the place and usually right about everything. But his specialty was rock’n’roll and he was overqualified.

In his early days he had played beach music with artists like Major Lance and Otis Redding protege Arthur Conley. When he arrived in the Southwestern corner of Missouri in the ‘70s, he started being the Lou who has literally hundreds of almost-as-cool folks pinning up stories and things he said (nowadays it would be on their Facebook page). He put bands together and got a great studio up and running. Already a solid bass player, he became a no-BS producer of note. Everyone from Jonathan Richman to Boxcar Willie made records with him and his extraordinarily tight band.

After that fateful Chicago concert, we struck up a friendship with Lou and the rest of his band. What a band it was. It included D.Clinton Thompson, whom Lou claimed was one of the six best guitarists in America. I think he was being modest on Donnie’s behalf. I usually put him right at the top and the trail of broken-hearted axemen who saw him and despaired will back me up on that.

Others in his band, like Joe Terry on keys and Bobby Lloyd Hicks, were all good enough to get hired by the likes of Dave Alvin and Steve Forbert. When they all converged on the studio for a session, they were pretty much the best house band north of Memphis and between the coasts. I had dreams of going to Springfield to record with them. Not dreams as in “vague wishes to one day do something.” Actual nighttime fully unconscious REM dreams where I was in the studio and hanging out in this town I‘d never been in and being an honorary Skeleton. In 2003 that dream came true.

Michael Feldman, the only other guy I know as funny as Lou and the host of NPR’s Whad’ya Know, wanted to get a bunch of the songs we had written on a disc with Lou and the boys backing me. Who was I to argue? So I went and got to experience a little bit of the magic that seems to hang in the air down there. The result, called Her Country, still one of my favorite albums, was joy to make. Aside from the musicianship and sage advice from Lou, there was the rare opportunity to witness a unique meeting of the minds. As I sat between Lou and Mike, a latter day Groucho, and listened to them riff on current events, I felt no need to speak. Not that I could have anyway, I was laughing too hard.

One of the obvious things that Lou told me long ago stays with me to this day. I had called him in the middle of some turbulent period in my career. In our conversation I was trying to get to what made his band so damned good. He told me, “John, when somebody brings in something they like and they want to do it, we just all go for it.” Stunning in it’s simplicity and the very definition of teamwork — but in the world of music, where egos and thin skin seem to be the rule, way harder than it sounds.

The bands Lou and Donnie and the rest of these Ozark savants were in, were very hard to pin down. The word “eclectic” is a cliche and should be retired in most cases, but they were just that. They could play straight country, soul, garage and psychedelic rock with equal aplomb and the thread that ran through it was a loose brand of very casual humor. The music was tight as a drum, but they were chewing gum on stage, looking like it was the most common thing in the world. Lou’s stage patter was golden and I wish I’d written down his intros. One, for a song called Ugly and Slouchy, described the kind of girl who stood outside the stockyard gates with scratches around her ankles, threw a mattress to the ground and hollered “Curb service!” Not the most highbrow thing I ever heard, but you can imagine it, even if you can’t hear his perfect delivery.

To get an idea of the tossed-off feel his one liners had, here is a video of one of my favorite Morells songs, Play With My Mind. The intro is, as usual, almost as good as the song. He quotes his friend, the writer of the tune, Cornell Hurd, “This song goes out to anyone who is recovering from anything… anywhere.” It’ll be a while before we recover from the loss of the ultimate mensch, Lou Whitney, but watching this video helps.

Note: While writing this piece I received news that Larry Penn, the object of another of my essays also passed away. It’s hard to lose two heroes in the same week, I can only wish their families the best and hope that in the weeks to come things slow down a little. Here is the piece about Milwaukee’s greatest folk singer and one of his many wonderful songs, Rondinellie’s Castle.

Play With My Mind

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