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