Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Thursday, 24 February 2011


The life of songs can be peculiar. Songs such as My Way, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Ferry Cross The Mersey have had rich and varied lives.
Shrimp Boats is another of those examples. How did a song written as a vocal number in 1951 become a song of amazing beauty on a South African jazz album, recorded in 1978 but only released in 1987?
In 1951 songwriters Paul Mason Howard and Paul Weston composed a song called Shrimp Boats is a Comin' for Weston's wife Jo Stafford. As she was a singer the song was a vocal number. Weston and Stafford were pop music royalty in the 40s and 50s. Stafford was said to have been one of the most popular female singers with the armed services, was the first female singer to sell over 25 million records and was described as 'America's most versatile singer'. Weston arranged for a multitude of artists, such as Bob Hope, Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby as well as working with Johnny Mercer. For those interested in this fascinating couple I direct you to the Paul Weston and Jo Stafford Collection at the University of Arizona.
Her version of the song is upbeat and fresh in that fifties way that seems too wholesome to be true. There is something slightly reminiscent of New Orleans in her delivery - no doubt attempting to give a song about shrimp boats a Southern flavour. It sold prodigiously and if you are all interested you can easily pick up a copy of the single.
For some reason it was copyrighted by The Disney Corporation, no doubt to use in a film. However, I can find no evidence that it was ever used in a Disney film.
It was also recorded by amongst others, Pete Fountain in a Dixieland style and Les Baxter in a remarkably straight version - oh for some exotica when you want it!
How did it travel to South Africa and into the ears of Dollar Brand? However it happened it clearly made an impression as it's a song that he's recorded at least twice and played live on numerous occasions. I think his best recorded version is on his Peace (also known as Dollar Brand + 2) album on As-Shams, The Sun. As just a trio with Victor Ntoni on bass and Nelson Magwaza on drums its a seductive, lyrical interpretation. His later recording of the song on the Dollar Brand meets Buddy Tate album is far more widely available as it was released on Chiaroscuro. Although I like that version too I'm not sure that Cecil McBee and Roy Brooks were as au fait with it as their earlier, South African counterparts.
Basil 'Mannenberg' Coetzee was part of the Cape jazz scene which spawned Dollar Brand amongst others. He played with Brand on the seminal Mannenberg Is Where Its Happening album in 1974 and was one of the leading tenor sax men in the country.
Through playing with Brand, Coetzee clearly learnt Shrimp Boats. It is such a beautiful song with such a strong melody that I can see why he wanted to stretch out on vinyl and explore its full potential. His version last the whole of side A of the record and clocks in at 25 minutes and 9 seconds. Almost long enough to go out and catch some shrimp yourself!
The song opens slowly with Coetzee and keyboardist Lionel Pillay gently testing the water of the refrain that will take us through the next 25 minutes. It slides back and forth, perhaps a bit like the waves or a boat on the sea. Percussionist Rod Clark backs them up with some lovely chimes which sets the nautical mood. The Shrimp Boats are getting read for their journey.
There is slight pause and the bass (Charles Johnstone) and the drums come in. Pillay adds some slight organ flourishes, Clark switches to maracas and then Coetzee enters with the main riff. The boats have launched and we feel we are on the sea. Its an inviting, easily navigated ocean and the boats set off in a happy, jaunty manner.
Now we are joined by Stompie Manana on trumpet who adds another layer of beauty and the band is complete. The boats are still happy, bobbing up and down on the hypnotic main riff. I haven't heard Manana's playing elsewhere which is a shame as on this record he is wonderful, soaring and leaping around the refrain almost like birds following fishermen out to sea.
We are still slightly sea tossed as Coetzee and then Pillay solo to relaxed and atmospheric effect. Suddenly you notice the rolling bass-line of Johnstone and the gently rocking drumming of Clark but then its back to the sounds of Coetzee's tenor which make the Shrimp Boats sounds happy and inviting.
Suddenly things change as the bass-line speeds up, the drums are faster and Pillay's piano suggests more spray. Are we heading into choppy waters? Perhaps but its still nothing that the shrimp boats can't handle and Manana's trumpet remains reassuring and in control.
Coetzee too retains his amazingly pure tone and warm sound and although the waves may be higher the music suggest that there is nothing to worry about.
The, again, there is a slight increase in the tempo and Pillay starts his solo on electric organ. I love his playing and this solo is no exception. One fells that the small shrimp boats are struggling against the waves and the elements but are, despite it all, prevailing.
And prevail they do. With the warm and gentle tones of Coetzee returning to the refrain, the same gorgeous chimes and warm organ sound the boats come back to shore.

After such an amazing A side the B side was always going to have a lot to live up to.Their version of Winston Mankuku's Yakahal 'Inkomo is good but lacks the power of Mankuku's original. The cover of Weathereport's Birdland is best forgotten.


  1. Is there a download somewhere?

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