‘...I loved his smile…I love the fact he never grinned huge cheesy grins, he had a special Elvis grin, and I borrowed that for Patsy in ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ – a little tribute to Elvis‘
One of the first records that English rose bought when she was growing up was ‘Hound Dog’. The star of ‘The Avengers’ and the anarchic ‘Ab Fab’ has remained a fan till this day. And it was she that had me thinking about Mickey; she who sent me off looking for that CD I knew I had somewhere.
In recent years Joanna Lumley has taken to being a tele-traveller and we have accompanied her on a trip riding the Trans Siberian, partnered her to the Arctic Circle to see the Northern Lights and journeyed alongside her through the islands of Japan from Hokkaido to Okinawa, And due to her love of the guy, last year she invited us to Graceland, too, ‘… on a very personal journey for an intimate insight into Elvis Presley, the man behind the legend.’ This was a one hour documentary screened on Auntie – and very enjoyable watching it was. But this scribbling isn’t about Joanna or Elvis, it’s about Mickey – but the doco, nonetheless, is worth checking out.
As Joanna talked to Priscilla; to the King’s best mate during his school days and to his first girlfriend, the interviews were interspersed with clips of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Abbey Road Studios. They were putting their lush sounds behind the Presley’s vocals for a new release, ‘If I Can Dream’. I suspect the Lumley helmed doco was just a puff piece to publicise yet another rehashing of the great rock ‘n’ roller’s hits. But, whatever the motivation for it, one of the musical inserts in it I knew in an instant because of its bombastic opening orchestration. It was an Elvis classic – a song now forever associated with him. But the tune had its start with someone else, a singer-songwriter by the name of Mickey Newbury.
Fast forward a few months after the airing of JL’s ‘Elvis and Me’ and I’m at my son’s home in Bridport for a quick visit. Richard was proudly showing me his ‘man’s world’ that he is putting together as a bolt hole downstairs. It has a pool table and a large screen television for those games he loves to play to unwind. He was called away and as I poked around I came across my old LPs. Since our respective departures from Burnie, Richard has been the temporary keeper of the vinyl for me – the remnants of a record collection I’d built up before the digital revolution that was once in its thousands. I had retained what I though to be the gems of what I once possessed. A few, such as my original Sgt Peppers, have been passed on to my music-loving daughter, but there they were – Woodstock, all my Jimmy Buffetts, John Prines and surprisingly, a number by Mickey Newbury. They took me back to quite a while ago now when I considered Newbury to be almost the pick of the crop; when I purchased every release of his available in Oz. I loved the sound of his rich voice and the quality of his songsmithery. And I wasn’t the only one who had him up there on a pedestal. Prine himself once stated that ‘Mickey Newbury is the best song writer ever.‘ Flipping through, I soon came across my favourite of his, 1971’s ‘Frisco Mabel Joy’ – that again taking me back to the opening strains of ‘American Trilogy’.
The song was a staple in Elvis’ concerts throughout the seventies, but we owe the song to Mickey. Now if you are familiar with the tune you would realise that it’s not penned by MN but is an amalgam of three traditional tunes – ‘Dixie’ (a black faced minstrel song and an anthem of the Confederacy); ‘All My Trials’ (originally a lullaby from the Bahamas) and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (the marching song of the Union Army). So, he had both bases covered then. For ‘Frisco Mabel Joy’ he took the three songs and integrated them – is that what is called a mash-up today? It made a perfect whole.
Obviously Elvis, or one of his acolytes, picked up on it, realising how suitable it would be for his voice, so he recorded it too. But his single only reached 66 on Billboard – Newbury’s had gone all the way up to 26 in ’72.
Of course Elvis, by that stage, had already been a legend for more than a decade – still is today (perhaps even more so). Newbury’s name has faded into obscurity – even doing so in my mind till it came hurtling back recently. It took ‘Elvis and Me’ and a trip to Bridport to make that happen.
It was not only his knack with lyrics that marked the Houston born (1940) troubadour’s contribution to the American music – particularly alt country. Here are a few random facts that help to indicate his sizable legacy;-
1.Very early on in his career he felt stifled by the formulaic recording practices of Nashville, where he had relocated to in the mid-sixties, thinking it was detrimental to his musical output. So he decided to go looking elsewhere – taking the unconventional approach of moving to Madison. It wasn’t so long after he set the precedent that Willie, Waylon and the whole soon to be Outlaw crew did the same – except they headed to Austin. Of course for W and W it was a terrific career move – for Mickey, well he just chugged along on a far lower level.
2. In 1980 he was the youngest artist to be inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
3. He convinced Roger Miller to record Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, thus kick-starting KK’s career – another who reached the heights poor Mickey could only dream of.
4. He also convinced both Townes van Zandt and Guy Clark to move to Nashville to hone their songwriting skills – presumably before it jaded him. What pleasure both those guys have given me down through the decades. Both have now passed, but are fondly remembered – can we say the same for Newbury?
Apart from ‘Trilogy’ – which he obviously didn’t really compose from scratch, his songs, with the exception of the Don Gibson hit ‘Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings’, didn’t chart highly, whether recorded by himself or others. But he was a go to man for competent album filler. It’s been estimated that, over the years, about 1500 versions of his songs have been recorded.
But in many ways Newbury was his own worst enemy. Despite thumbing his nose at Nashville he refused to be aligned with the Outlaws, stating that label was ‘… just categorising again, making a new pigeonhole to stick somebody into.’ He had a penchant for linking the tracks on his albums with sound bites thus rendering them unsuitable for radio airplay. And like his disciple, Van Zandt, he was afflicted by depression and addictions.
Until his death in 2002 he made occasional forays back into music, producing stuff that received critical praise but very little in the way of sales. There was no later-life comeback for him, as there had been for others; nor was his name elevated by death. Truly, though, he was an unsung – sorry – hero.
So, thinking of those albums up in Bridport, one recent morning I took to the shed to make a search for the compilation CD I knew I had somewhere. I also intended to do some serious searching for my birth certificate, needed to apply for a passport. The latter eluded me, but pleasingly not the former. I have now played it again, enjoying his marvellous songs all over again.
But there is one way you may have heard of him. One of Waylon Jenning’s best know songs is ‘Lukenbach Texas’. Listen carefully – there’s a line that goes ‘Between Hank Williams pain songs, Newbury’s train songs’. Well, that’s Mickey he’s referring to. He’ll never be completely forgotten while that song lives – but he should have amounted to so much more.
Newbury singing ‘American Trilogy = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiTjElq5Xjs
Newbury’s website = http://www.mickeynewbury.com/