"All your compliments and your cutting remarks
Are captured here in my quotation marks..."
— Elvis Costello, "Everyday I Write The Book"
One evening early in September of this year, as I prepared iodine on pasta, the telephone rang and much to my surprise, I discovered that the caller was Elvis Costello. Rock stars, bidden by their record companies to conduct telephone interviews, often dial my residence at odd hours. These interviews, however, are generally arranged well in advance. My call from Costello was totally impromptu and likewise delightful.
He mainly wanted to talk about New Orleans and did not particularly want to discuss himself or his music. This sounded like a fine idea to me and 45 minutes later, Costello concluded by saying, "It's really been a pleasure to actually talk about something different because I think talking about my music is really dull. What it's about is listening to it. What I enjoy most on days off is to go to radio stations and do deejay shows because I think you give away more of what you're about and what makes your music tick the same way you go to somebody's house and look at the bookshelf. I think the music you choose to play gives away more than a million searching questions."
Elvis began the conversation by announcing, "My current musical favorites are New Orleans singers. The original New Orleans music is probably stronger and more varied than any type of music in America.
My favorite singer of the last couple of years — I'd never heard him because his records weren't hits in England — is Aaron Neville. He's my absolute favorite singer at the moment. He's the man whose phrasing I currently admire the most. When I was 18, Rick Danko was my hero. For a while, I wanted to sound like him and then Van Morrison at one point, but as time goes on, you become so aware of different styles and as you develop one yourself, you seek out not necessarily more accomplished singers but ones with even more unusual styles and a more original approach. Aaron Neville's got that.
"I've worked backwards like most English people to 'Over You' and things like that, back through 'Tell It Like It Is' and right up to that A&M album with Fire on the Bayou. Actually, I don't care so much for the re-makes that are on that but 'The Ten Commandments of Love' and 'Mona Lisa' — the singing on those is so outrageous.
"You couldn't really imagine singing like Lee Dorsey, say — he's so distinctive and so quirky. But with Aaron Neville, you can actually learn quite a lot about phrasing from him in the same way that I learned stuff from listening to George Jones although I could never hope to sing like him. I have to be a fan of Otis Redding — there's not very much I can learn from him about phrasing. But there are things you can actually learn from listening to Aaron Neville — he's such a musical singer. He's not just a stylist. He's got such a musical voice it's like listening to an instrument — literally.
"I'm currently having a sort of real obsession with Irma Thomas as well. I've got her compilation album on Bandy but some of the tracks aren't the original ones. 'Ruler of My Heart' isn't the original one. It's a good version but it's a different one. There is an album called Irma Thomas — New Orleans Queen of Soul. That's the one but it's harder to get. Have you ever heard that album In Between Tears? English Charly put it out and it's really brilliant. That was done about 1973.
"I've got a lot of stuff on Jin that I got in England — those Golden Dozen albums with John Fred, Cookie and the Cupcakes and Bobby Charles. My favorites are the Uniques. Those things are quite old — like the '60s. The Uniques, I assume, were like the equivalent in Louisiana of what the Sir Douglas Quintet was in Texas. I've seen pictures of them only recently and they have that kind of Mersey look with the combed-down hair like the Byrds but the music's much more R&B really than a lot of the American groups that emulated the Byrds.
"We used to do that song 'All These Things.' We still do it sometimes. It's one of those things I like to throw in when I feel in the mood for singing it."
Told that the audience at his Baton Rouge concert (subsequently cancelled because of poor ticket sales) would find it wonderful if Elvis Costello sang a Uniques song, Elvis asked, "Would people still recognize those things? This is one of the disappointing things — the way people get cut off from the roots of music in their town. We did a Motown song in Detroit and it had no effect on the audience other than it was just another song. It didn't have any extra credence for the audience because of the fact that it was a Detroit-based song. I suppose if we'd have done a Bob Seger song, it might've had a different effect."
Yet another Crescent City favorite of Elvis' is Lee Dorsey. Elvis explained that a group of his friends once made a pilgrimage to New Orleans solely to meet Lee Dorsey, who they found working, as usual, beneath the hood of a car. Polite as the former boxer proved to be, he showed no interest in discussing his musical history.
"I can understand that," Elvis said. "The difference is that I get like eulogies written in magazines — pretentious claptrap about my stuff and I've only been at it six years. Lee Dorsey's been making great records for 20 years and has never had anything like the acclaim he deserves, let alone any kind of pretentious articles written about him. It's little wonder that he doesn't have quite the same sense of his own stature as a singer that you would expect him to have.
"People overlook so many great singers — I think it's really amazing. Being the age that I am, I was aware of a lot of soul stuff along with a lot of the other pop stuff that I listened to on the radio — stuff that was hits.
"It's only right that I should say these things because there are people out there who have never heard of these singers — the same as I hadn't two years ago. They might say, 'Well, Elvis Costello says they're good.' Like when they did a Lee Dorsey compilation in England, Joe Strummer wrote the sleeve notes, which seemed kind of odd, but it's a good thing in a sense because some Clash fan who might listen to what Joe says might go and check out the record. I take every available opportunity to say how much that stuff means to me without being fawning.
"It's very difficult on the occasions when you meet these people. I met the Holland brothers (who composed many of Motown's biggest hits) last year in Los Angeles and I never actually once got to say how much I really admired them. I actually couldn't get the words out. It was one of those things where it was actually embarrassing. There was so much I wanted to say. They literally wrote the book — all the songs that were important to me at those painful years of 14, 15 and 16. They pretty much wrote all of them — all the ones that Smokey Robinson didn't write.
"I once said that I'd like to write a song that meant as much to somebody as 'I'm Gonna Make You Love Me' meant to me when I was a lad. It might've sounded a bit glib but I did mean it sincerely. It's hard to say those things."