Dec 082008

I love pub rock. There’s no clear definition of the style, but it was a mid-70s British phenomenon, a back-to-basics trend that was never wildly popular, a precursor to punk, and many pub rock musicians carried on into the punk era. Brinsley Schwarz is probably the best-known exponent of the style, which I think of as a mixture of black and white musical genres – rock, R&B, country, folk, and pop. The conversation between black and white is what rock & roll is all about to me, and pub rock was a peculiarly British take on that conversation.

I’m going to write an irregular series about pub rock here, and I want to start with a man who could be called one of the progenitors of the style. He was also a player in what could be called the secret history of rock & roll.

Jim Ford is one of those legends that almost no one knows about. If he’s known at all it’s because he wrote the song “Niki Hoeky,” which was recorded most famously by Aretha Franklin on the Lady Soul album. Here’s Bobbie Gentry doing “Niki Hoeky” on the Smothers Brothers TV show. Note the authentic Cajun mise en scene:

Ford’s other claim to fame is that Nick Lowe has cited him as his biggest influence. But let me back up a bit and give a little background on Ford himself.

He was born in 1941 and raised in Kentucky but left home at an early age and spent time living rough in New Orleans. These are the two musical poles of Ford’s musical orbit — his roots are in country but on top of that is a heavy dose of New Orleans funk and soul.

By the mid-’60s he was working out of L.A. He wrote “Niki Hoeky” with Pat and Lolly Vegas, who were in the Shindig TV show house band and who would eventually go on to form Redbone. Ford also wrote “Ju Ju Man” with one or both of the Vegas bros., and it was recorded by Brinsley Schwarz on the Silver Pistol abum. Here’s their laid-back version of it.

Brinsley Schwarz, “Ju Ju Man”

Dave Edmunds also recorded it at a much faster tempo on the Get It! album. Here is a live version of Rockpile doing an ever higher octane version of it:

“Niki Hoeky” is also on the Brinsley’s Silver Pistol album. It had first been a minor hit for P.J. Proby, who was one of Ford’s running buddies in this era. Bobbie Gentry was Ford’s girlfriend for a period, and it has been claimed that he is the one who actually wrote “Ode to Billie Joe,” since the song is very much in his style and Gentry never came up with material equal to her big hit.

Around this time Ford released his one and only album Harlan County (1969). Here’s the title song:

Jim Ford, “Harlan County”

And then there’s this song later recorded by The Rumour on one of their albums without Graham Parker:

Jim Ford, “I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me”

Ford’s album went nowhere. It was on a subsidiary of White Whale, which probably didn’t help, and you could even argue that the album didn’t represent his strongest material. Because of music biz connections, somebody got the idea that Ford should go to London and record a second album with Brinsley Schwarz as his backing band. These sessions were apparently a total failure, and I don’t think any of it has ever been released. Nick Lowe has said that his band was simply not up to the task, and Ford was never the most stable or reliable character.

Ford eventually recorded songs for a second album that never saw the light of day, and occasional singles came and went. In 2007, Bear Family, bless them, finally put this material on CD. It’s called Sounds of Our Time (subtitled The Harlan County album, rare singles and previously unreleased masters). It’s a revelation.

Combining country and soul was very fruitful in the late ’60s, and these sounds were percolating in other parts of the country too. These tracks remind me variously of Charlie Rich, Tony Joe White, Doug Sahm, and Dallas Frazier on one side and Arthur Alexander, Joe Tex, and the immortal Swamp Dogg on the other. And we finally get to hear the original of a very odd song that Nick Lowe covered on the Jesus of Cool album:

Jim Ford, “36 Inches High”

Once we get into the ’70s Ford’s story starts to fray a bit. He was always kind of out there, but he was a close friend of Sly Stone’s during the There’s a Riot Going On era and afterwards. Say no more. He wrote a whole album in 1976 for The Temptations called Wings of Love, which I’ve never heard and which I don’t think has ever been released on CD. He was also a good friend of Bobby Womack. Here’s Womack doing Ford’s “Harry Hippie,” in 1972:

And here’s Ford’s version, which has a very different feel:

Jim Ford, “Harry Hippie”

He also wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on Womack’s 1981 solo album, The Poet. After this Ford seems to disappear even further out beyond the fringes of the music industry where he had always wandered. Living off various songwriting royalties, he descended into a long period in the wilderness of addiction. In 2006, when Bear Family finally tracked him down, he was living in a trailer in the middle of nowhere in California. He was still kind of out there, but he was beginning to clean up his act. He got religion and was baptized in October 2007. Plans were underway for a charity gig for him to be held in London with Nick Lowe and others performing. Recording new material was being discussed, but Ford was found dead of a heart attack on November 18, 2007.

Earlier this year Bear Family released a second compilation called Point of No Return, which had been planned before Ford’s death. It has lots of great material (“Harry Hippie” is on there), some of that funky stuff, some straight country, but I like this very sweet ballad:

Jim Ford, “Go Through Sunday”

Ford is supposed to have had stacks of demos and masters lying around, and Bear Family claims it has plenty enough material for more compilations. As usual with that label, both Sounds of Our Time and Point of No Return come with nice booklets containing lots of photos, extensive documentation, and background information. I recommend them highly. I’ve posted tracks you might be familiar with from other recordings of them, but the unknown material is if anything even more fascinating.

So Jim Ford may not have invented pub rock, but he was a major influence on some of its major players. He was a real character, a wayward genius, and he should be better known.


  18 Responses to “Jim Ford: Godfather to Pub Rock”

  1. Mr. Moderator

    This stuff’s cool, BigSteve – and great write up! I knew most of the songs discussed, but I’d never even heard of Jim Ford. I can hear what Lowe got from him. I’ll be looking forward to the next in your irregular series on pub rock.

  2. Great post, BigSteve

  3. sammymaudlin

    I had no idea. What a gift! Thanks.

    Although… it looks like he might be smokin’ a j on that album cover and I can’t get behind that.

  4. hrrundivbakshi

    Yo, BigSteve — I haven’t had the chance to listen to the trackkkkkssss you’ve posted, but your editorial contribution here is off-the-charts. Thanks for continuing to make *good* use of the real estate ’round these parts. We need at least one level-headed character with posting privileges on the team. That dude who keeps posting badly ripped mp3s of scratchy 45s is a total asshole.


  5. 2000 Man

    That’s a great idea for an article, BigSteve. I like Pub Rock a lot. Well, I like the bands I knew about when I was a kid, like Dr. Feelgood, Eddie and the Hot Rods and Rockpile. I remember hearing a song by Roogalator that I liked a lot, but I’ve never found any Roogalator albums or cd’s.

    Jim Ford seemed to cover a lot of ground. I thought he sounded different on most of those songs. Thanks!

  6. dbuskirk

    Thanks BigSteve, I’d seen the name but never heard his own records. He’s right in that pop of eccentric Nashville pop that I enjoy so much. He reminds me Roger Miller, both country guys with a jazzy-ness. I’ve got to check out more.

  7. BigSteve

    I used to have a Roogalator album, but I wasn’t too impressed. The track Cincinnati Fatback that was on that first Stiff Records compilation Hits Greatest Stiffs was pure genius, but the song was rerecorded on the album, if I remember correctly, and it didn’t work as well. Of course, one of the general rules of pub rock was that it didn’t translate well in the studio.

    2k, you may like be able to dig Roogalator more than most because the main guy in the band was a transplanted Ohian. See

    Btw listening back to the stuff in this post to make sure everything was uploaded correctly, I heard in the background of Bobby Womack’s smooth soul version of Harry Hippie a banjo plunking away softly. Weird.

  8. I always thought the Stones’s take on Americana in Sticky Fingers and Exile were influenced by Ford.

    I like that Ford’s songs are both catchy and politically astute: my favorite is “Bigmouth USA.”

  9. BigSteve

    It was Bigmouth USA that reminded me of the similarly astute Swamp Dogg.

    People here may be tired of me going on about him, especially since his masterpiece, Total Destruction To Your Mind, has been out of print for a while. I am happy to report that it is now available as a twofer with the nearly as great Rat On! Check out Excellent Sides of Swamp Dogg vol 1:

  10. Great post, Big Steve. Lookig at the Rockpile clip led me to finding this GREAT Rockpile performance of “I Knew The Bride” – somehow the ’77-78 era version of this is the only good version. The album versions never capture the excitement.

    The guitar interplay is always excellent!

  11. Mr. Moderator

    By the way, I should note that BigSteve wanted to post the version of “Ju Ju Man” from that same Rockpile concert that Andyr just linked us to, but it was one of those videos that we could not directly insert in one of our posts.

  12. BigSteve

    I think andyr just likes that clip because it features Nick Lowe on the 8-stringed bass, which means the bass is twice as good.

  13. Jim Ford author of Ode to Billie Joe without a shred of proof? Let me enlighten you. Bobbie Gentry donated her rough drafts of O.T.B.J to the Un. Of Mississippi forty years ago. They show her creative process, the construction of the song, and even missing verses Capitol Records edited from the original sessions. The song has many autbiographical elements of her life. The Tallahatchie Bridge and Choctaw Ridge are real places from her childhood.There are many inconsistancies in Fords claim. He told Nick Lowe he wrote it, he told his family he co-wrote it with her. Regardless, he never came close to a legal or ethical burden of proof. As talented as Ford was he never had a song of that stature. Bobbie Gentry has written two songs that have become modern classics. Ode to Billie Joe which has over 100 covers and over forty million in record sales and Fancy which has 16 covers and 20 million in record sales.

  14. I wanted to make another point about Fords pathetic claim of authoring Ode to Billie Joe. He had forty years to challenge Bobbie Gentry in court. Obviously he knew or had been counciled that it was lost cause. As talented as he was, he never anything close to a hit record of his own. Bobbie Gentry had eleven hot 100 pop singles, four going top forty and six studio albums and a greatest hits package that crossed over to the pop album charts. In the U.K, she had three top five hits. Three of her studio albums are considered masterpieces. The Delta Sweete, hailed by Mojo Magazine as one of the top 500 albums of all time ‘Touch Em With Love ‘and ‘PatchWork’ which received massive critical praise upon release and in recent re-issue commentary. While her debut album Ode to Billie Joe had great songs and delivery, its flaw was that all the songs on the album had a a similar tempo, musical tone and style. It is quite obvious that the same author wrote all nine tracks. The Jim Ford song, Niki Hokey, stands out as musically distant from the rest. Jim Ford, a cocaine addict for decades, had to live with the fact that Bobbie Gentry had a major international career, self penned two modern classic songs, had ten grammy nominations and three wins, earned a 20 million dollar fortune and was able to retire in her late 30’s. Maybe it was too much for him.

  15. Hey Daniel, thanks for finding us and supplying your view on the matter of authorship of that great song. I’d never heard either side of this story, so the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned. You sound like a real music lover, and that’s what we love the most. Don’t be a stranger!

  16. Thanks Mr Moderator. I’m going to say one last thing about Jim Fords claim of authoring O.T.B.J by quoting Nick Lowe from Jim Fords linernotes to ‘ Sound Of Our Times’ ” Jim Fords reputation was not the best” “He told a lot of terrible stories and use to bend the truth a bit” Enough said.

  17. Deek Langoustine

    What a marvellous piece mate, really like it. Inspiring.

  18. BigSteve


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