Skip Heller, Birdie Jones, and Carnival of Soul

C. Michael Bailey BY

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"I have a bluegrass gig tomorrow am. Playing a Link Wray Tribute tomorrow night...seeing the Dead Milkmen tonight."

—My most recent text message from Fred "Skip" Heller.

For all of the recently revealed foibles of Social Media, perhaps the best thing about it is how it makes a really big world smaller. I do not remember how I originally met Skip Heller (well, I do, it was reviewing his album Homegoing (Innova Records, 2002), but that meeting has been the source of a great deal of music, conversation, shared enthusiasms over the past 15 years. Ever the responsible music historian, Heller has released anthologies along the way, documenting these 15 years that include: The Essential Skip Heller: Career Suicide 1994 -2001 (Dionysus Records, 2002), It's Like That: The Organ Trio Anthology 1998 -2004 (Jewbilee, 2004), and That was Then: Collected Recordings 2008-2017 (Self Produced, 2017). This last anthology covering Heller's most evolved period, includes his tribute to Floyd Tillman and the excellent Foolish Me (Weatherbird, 2012). Heller made it easy to prepare for this article.

Heller is presently emerging from his association with the Hollywood Blues Destroyers, whose recordings include: Singles Drinking Doubles (Self Produced, 2015), Here in California (Weatherbird, 2015), and For EP Fans Only (Weatherbird, 2016), into his new project, Carnival of Soul, sharing the stage with the equally-(if differently) talented Birdie Jones, whose most recent EP In My Single (Self Produced, 2016) was produced and performed on by Heller.

Carnival of Soul has just released their first recording, Let's Start Tonight which offers a great opportunity to speak with Heller and Jones about...well, a lot of things.

All About Jazz (to Skip Heller): Your recordings, Fake Book II—That's Entertainment (Weatherbird, 2012) and the subsequent Songs with Memories: Skip Heller And Friends Play Floyd Tillman (Weatherbird, 2013) seemed a culmination of, and transition point from, the previous several years of recordings. This music anticipated the formation of the Hollywood Blues Destroyers. How do you view this evolution from your organ trio period to these recordings? What muse was guiding you in this period? What music were you listening to at the time?

Skip Heller: I always felt like any artist who has their own personal language —I'm thinking John Hartford, Ray Charles, Don Byron, that type of musical mind- -can go wherever they feel the need and still be themselves. You hear Don play klezmer, or Latin, whatever, it's a Don Byron thing. His fingerprint is hard to miss.

The music I was listening to then? Allen Toussaint, Jerry Reed, Uri [Caine]. By that point, I had been listening for a pretty long time to Mexican trios like Los Tres Caballeros and Los Panchos, and the influence of that started to emerge —the chord changes got more sophisticated than most of what they'd been on The Long Way Home (Ropeadope, 2009).

The Floyd was done in Tucson. The band had two rehearsals, one live show, and then we cut for two days, live in the studio, except that I overdubbed rhythm guitar at the end of the sessions, so that's me singing and soloing live. The steel player, Tim Gallagher, was so in the pocket. The bassist and drummer had never met before this gig, and the fiddle player was recommended by a friend of mine as a ringer, which she was. They all played great together. Additional stuff was either tracked in LA or the guest artists recorded themselves, and then I took everything to Haven Recording, a studio in Downtown LA run by these very hard-partying guys from Texas. It gave me a bit of a taste to have something bigger than a trio.

AAJ (to SH): During this same period of musical evolution, you added singing to your recording repertoire. What challenges did you encounter singing? What singers inspired you to do your own singing? Did you receive any guidance from other singers on how to develop your own singing style?

SH: When I started singing in 2007, I was mostly interested in singing bluegrass music, but I'm a baritone, which isn't really the right range. Very few bluegrass baritones. Benny Martin is the only one I know. Phil Alvin from the Blasters was giving me a lot of tips, and I got to where I could imitate him pretty well. Syd Straw told me cut out singing like Phil and allow myself to croon more and just be a baritone, which was great advice. When my voice came into focus, I could write better for myself. The Bacharach influence started to come out more and more, Gamble and Huff, Curtis Mayfield ... but also Willie, Haggard, Johnny Mercer, Dylan, Big Sandy, Roger [Miller] ... So my approach was definitely not young and rocking.

Instead, I wrote about my and my friends' world —people who came to LA to make it but didn't, bar bands, the fires, my neighborhood being torn up by construction, about aging... Tish Hinojosa was on my mind, because she has all these songs that are about people or places she knew very well, and she's really influenced me for years—"The West Side Of Town" and "My Good Guitar" really affect me, because they come from such a deep, knowing, loving place. I decided a few years ago that I wasn't going to sing anything or write about anything I didn't feel a deep emotional connection to. As I've gotten older, I write more slowly, plus I have to put as much time in on Birdie's songs as I do my own, so every I really feel like every minute counts.

When Birdie came to me to produce her, she had these wonderful songs that were in pieces but hadn't truly been assembled, and I enjoyed that I didn't have to pull stuff out of nowhere, that I could just shape together a piece of music because it already had beautiful elements. I remember thinking the end of "No Time At All" just HAD to be a jubilee shout. And when I played it for Birdie, she was like, "That's what I wanted but nobody else knew what I meant," and I started looking at her like "Aha!" She came to music —especially songwriting— later in life, so she needed a hand to navigate the technical stuff, but she has fantastic instincts and she works really hard. Her intuition is great, and every week it's like more knowledge is guiding her intuition.

AAJ (to SH): In the most recent past you released two recordings dedicated to single artists, Songs with Memories: Skip Heller and Friends Play Floyd Tillman (Weatherbird, 2013) and The Hollywood Blues Destroyers: For EP Fans Only (Weatherbird, 2016). What about Floyd Tillman inspired you to dedicate an entire recording to his music? Is there a musical parallel between Tillman and Elvis Presley?

SH: Floyd's style came from pop, jazz, and country all intermingling, and he was one of the first people to really blur all the stylistic lines, so to me he's a pioneer of the kind of musical approach I try to take. His melodic and harmonic brilliance meant that his songs could be done by all kinds of singers —Ernest Tubb, Ella Fitzgerald, the Supremes, Merle Haggard, Ray Charles... Kinda gave me an excuse to record duets with a range of great singers. Floyd was a sponge and musical tinkerer, which is definitely something he shared with Elvis. Some of Elvis' earlier Texas gigs were put on by Floyd, too.

AAJ (to SH): Your song choice for For EP Fans Only is interesting in that you seemed extremely careful in not covering any of the warhorses, e.g., "That's Alright Mama," "Heartbreak Hotel," and "Suspicious Minds." "Crawfish" from King Creole (1959) and "You Asked Me To" from Promised Land (1975) are inspired choices spanning the better part of Presley's career. What was the first Presley music you remember hearing and how did you choose the repertoire for For EP Fans Only?

SH: The first Elvis I remember was seeing the Aloha From Hawaii TV special. My mother was watching it and I happened to walk into the room. I became a huge fan, right then and right there. I was about 8 years old.

A friend of the family worked for a record distributor, and she got me some records. Any money I got, I spent on Elvis records, posters, magazines. I kept Elvis scrapbooks. Plus, the mother of a schoolmate of mine, she was a huge Elvis fan, and I would eat lunch at their house and listen to her Elvis records. She played the King Creole soundtrack a lot, so I really thought of her when I decided to do "Crawfish." On that one, I asked this clarinetist, Leeav Sofer, whose band, Mostly Kosher, I toured with, to do the klezmer solo, and he came in and played his ass off. But —relating to your earlier question, the trio disc Along The Anchorline (Ropeadope, 2004) was cut at Sun, and we did "I've Got A Thing About You Baby" with the organ trio, with Lisa Christian singing and Jim Cavender playing electric sitar. That's Entertainment! had "Go East Young Man" from Harum Scarum, too. "You're The Boss" from Viva Las Vegas is on the Carnival disc. Elvis is always in the equation, somehow.

AAJ (to SH): As your Hollywood Blues Destroyer era has come to an end and you have started a new chapter, explain the inspiration behind the Hollywood Blues Destroyers. How did the band come together and what about its tenure has informed you musicianship the most?

SH: The band formed for laughs, to play two songs. Art Fein has this annual Elvis birthday bash in Los Angeles, and I always play it. The studio I was using in downtown LA, Haven Recording, run by those hard-partying guys from Texas ... Well, one —Garrett Lofgren —played bass, Kevin Chubirka played drums, and Cody Blake played trombone and tuba, and sang great bass. So I asked them to learn two Elvis songs, and they'd be my band for two songs. Lee Toft played trumpet, and Claire Costa sang harmony. The other guitarist, Owen Jenkins at that point was a student of mine, the best student I had. Except for Lee, none of them could play jazz, but it was only going to be for two songs. Which turned into four years.

The name came from a group from the 20's called the Texas Blues Destroyers, who only recorded two songs. Anyway, we played our two songs, and the booker at the Redwood Bar offered me a monthly gig with my "new band." Then we got a tenor saxophonist —Sam Williams —who got very good in the course of being in the band, then Cody left and Manny Diaz replaced him on baritone saxophone, and he just kept growing and listening and improving. Kevin and Garrett became a really great, assertive rhythm section, too. When Lisa Jenio came into the group, that was the turning point, because she's one of those people who improves everything she's involved with, and for about a year, there was a real upward trajectory, which you can hear on the Here In California record. But when Lee Toft moved to Portland, I lost my strongest ally in the band. Some stuff between a few members led to departures, too, including Lisa's. We found a wonderful trumpet player to replace Lee —Matt Mattera —and he's still with me, but the chemistry of the band changed so much.

Two things I came away with? First, working with Lisa. I didn't just become a better singer from having her in the group, I became better at teaching what I had in my head, at writing for somebody with a developed musical personality, and recognizing musical intellect. The other thing I learned was that if you're going to build a band from scratch and be teaching half that band by rote, you will eventually come to the end of what you can do, even as you have some satisfying results along the way, and those guys really worked hard and shined for a bit.

AAJ (to SH): It seemed that the Hollywood Blues Destroyers came to an end abruptly and Carnival of Soul emerged equally as quickly. What brought on the transition and what differences do you note between the two bands? Within this context, address the slight sepia tone of your production. There is something of late '40s and early '50s LA in your sound.

SH: The end *was* abrupt. I felt alone in my own band. There was a lot of stuff going on in Los Angeles at the time that I was enthusiastic about but that most of the group wasn't gravitating toward. When the art duo Dosshaus started showing, I was excited by it like nothing I'd seen in years. The Esotouric Los Angeles bus tours, the annual noir festival ... nobody really got into that stuff with me except Lisa, and then she left the band. I kept the group alive more out of habit than anything else. I hadn't written a new song for the band in over a year, and I poured myself instead into all kinds of things outside the group —klezmer, chamber music, bluegrass, film music, exotica.

I met Birdie at a Blues Destroyers show at the Farmer's Market. We became friends pretty fast, and she called me to play a duo gig with her. In the first rehearsal, she asked me about producing her record, which became In My Single. She'd been playing with kind of a rotating cast of pretty usual bar band guys, and I said, "Let me put together the band." She said yes, handed me a little clutch of unfinished songs, and we were off. I hired a team of very heavy hitters. Birdie kind of went, "Oh. This is what great sounds like. Now I know. Okay, here's me great." And she sure was.

Right before I started her record, I went up north to do some gigs and record with Spike Sikes, a wonderful singer and songwriter and pianist up in Petaluma. I hadn't played with anyone like him in quite some time, someone who could sit down and just let the music flow, any style, any kind of song. Then, doing Birdie's record, I was leading players who could walk into any bar and blow the roof off it. Things were changing. Birdie and I played a duo gig at the Redwood, and Bob Cantu —who booked it —said that if I built a new band around the duo, he'd manage it. I gave The Blues Destroyers guys their notice, and they were very nice about it.

I named the new band after my favorite horror movie [Carnival of Souls (Herts-Lion International, 1962)], and when the star of the film —Candace Hillegoss —found out, she invited Birdie and I to a screening of the film, had her daughter photograph us with her, the whole thing, very sweet and gracious.

I brought the horn players —Matt and Manny —from the Blues Destroyers, but otherwise, it was new blood. I met Luke Alberti —the pianist —on a wedding Manny booked, and he floored me. I used him on another gig after that, and he was even better. Chris Camacho (bass), I played with in Nelson Bragg's group, and he was great, so I called him. Steve Mugalian, I'd seen him play with everyone, and he's always perfect. We got gigs pretty quickly —especially with Bob managing us —so we had to get a bunch of stuff together quickly. Fortunately, too, I had a lot of music, so we could get right to work. Yeah, it has happened pretty fast. Also, I started playing electric guitar again, which was gnarly until I found the right instrument.

In terms of production, I'd say the Blues Destroyers benefitted from the more lush, modern approach, which was Garrett and Kevin taking the reins and getting the acoustic guitars and making them the centerpiece of the sound, and that was a great way to go. Big thick acoustic guitars, snare drum big but not too big, kind of like the early Rod Stewart albums.

Nowadays, we're mostly working with a cat named Gavin Ross, at Steady Studio in Burbank, and his approach comes more from sixties Jamaican music, more bare-bones, which works really well for Carnival of Soul, since there's more interplay in this band. Gavin is great. He gets such a warm sound.

AAJ (to SH): You have been faithful to releasing anthologies of your music and all have been inspired. What drives these reconsiderations?

SH: You just want to figure out the best moments of a period and group them together. I don't mind the lesser stuff falling out of print.

That is a typical conversation with Skip Heller. He is always unexpurgated, brimming with information from all corners of the artistic spectrum. Heller will always inform and expects a lot of those engaging him in conversation, regardless of the topic. But Birdie Jones is tabula rasa, save for the obvious synergy that exists on her EP In My Single which bore an unmistakable stamp of Heller influence. But it was not just Heller. In My Single is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That's when the magic has happened. We need to know one Birdie Jones.

AAJ (to Birdie Jones) : Tell me about yourself, where you are from, where you grew up, anything that can shine a light on the talent that made In My Single.

Birdie Jones: I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I'm a "Valley Girl" to the core. Both my mom and dad are from Tulsa, OK, but they met here in L.A. and I was raised here by my mother. My dad was off touring (as a drummer, his name is Chuck Blackwell, for Leon Russell and many others...[including Joe Cocker on his 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, where he shared drum and percussion duties with fellow-Tulsan Jim Keltner and LA-native Jim Gordon])) in my youth. I got into music from a very young age. In middle school, I was known as the only "Mod" in our school (Madness, The Jam, The Specials), I started going to under age dance clubs in my youth, which was also a huge influence in my musical taste. As a youngster, I sung in choir and performed in school talent shows, but didn't do any singing in bands until I was in my 30's after a guitarist boyfriend heard me singing along with the radio one day. He and I started a funk cover band and I've been singing in bands ever since. I finally decided to start my own band in 2013, which eventually led to me writing original songs.

AAJ (to Birdie Jones): Your EP In My Single is one of the most fully realized collections I have recently heard. Not having heard you before, I have to believe that you and Skip shared a certain synergy that brought out the best in both of you on the EP. How did this recording come about and then seem to morph into Carnival of Soul?

BJ: I asked Skip if he would play guitar for me, for a show I had booked. I asked him to learn two of my original songs for that gig. When I gave him the recordings I had of the two original songs, he commented on how good they could sound if they were recorded a bit differently. That conversation led to me asking Skip to produce my first EP "In My Single."

I was excited to start the recording process, but honestly a bit intimidated by Skip's experience that was vastly greater than mine (his musicianship and recording experience). My mind was set at ease the moment I walked into the recording studio for the first time with Skip. As I like to tell people, "as great a guitarist as Skip is, he is an even better producer." He made me feel at ease, respected, and like mine was the most important project he'd ever worked on.

Carnival of Soul came about, shortly after Skip asked me to come on board for his last band (Hollywood Blues Destroyer). After a few months, he proposed the idea of starting a new band, with a new musical direction that we both contributed to (writing and preforming). We both jumped on in and have been doing C.O.S. ever since.

AAJ (to Birdie Jones): Your songwriting on In My Single is exceptional. What musical acts did you admire that would have influenced your composing?

BJ: I grew up on California A.M. radio in the 70's. Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, Elton John, Electric Light Orchestra, Aretha Franklin to name a few. I didn't start writing originals until the past couple of years.

I love a catchy melody, and because I've just started writing, I have a lifetime of living behind me to use as material. Movie soundtracks were also a huge musical influence for me.

AAJ (to Skip Heller and Birdie Jones): What was the first song to which you learned all of the words? For me it was Elvis Presley's "Return to Sender" 1962.

SH: "Downtown" [Petula Clark, Warner Bros., 1964], I think.

BJ: I think it was "Crocodile Rock" by Elton John [MCA, 1972]. I was doing a talent show at summer camp and we were lip sinking the words.

AAJ (to Skip Heller and Birdie Jones): What was the first 45 rpm single you bought and the circumstances surrounding that purchase. Mine was The Four Tops "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" (1965) which I bought in a cut-out collection at TG&Y so I could also get Tommy James and the Shondels "Draggin' the Line" (1971).

SH: Bought? Something Elvis —probably "Separate Ways." But I already had 45's that neighbors and babysitters had given me because I liked records. "Sugar Shack" by Jimmy Gilmer was an early favorite. Also, Monkees and Jackson 5 singles off the backs of cereal boxes.

BJ: It was the Beatles' "Hard Days Night." It was yet another grammar school performance of some kind that I was doing.

AAJ (to Skip Heller and Birdie Jones): What was the first long-Playing 33&1/3 rpm recording you bought and the circumstances surrounding that purchase. Mine: Joe Cocker With a Little Help From My Friends (1969) for $2.69 at Osco Drug Store in the Little Rock Mall.

SH: Gentle On My Mind And Other Originals by John Hartford, money from my fourth birthday, purchased at Two Guys in Lawnside, NJ. I saw him on TV on the Smothers Brothers and Glen Campbell shows, and I was riveted by him. He, Elvis, and Stevie Wonder were the artists I grew up on, in terms of always buying their new record.

BJ: I bought two albums the same day. Sargent Pepper (the movie no one liked in the 70's, not the original) and the soundtrack to Saturday Fever. I bought the albums at Music Plus in Studio City and happened to see Leif Garrett in the store that day (just buying albums himself).

AAJ (to Skip Heller and Birdie Jones): What books are you both currently reading and what where the last books you finished. Skip is responsible for this question as we talk more about books than anything else when we "speak in person."

SH: I just finished a really interesting book called Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae by David Katz, which Gavin loaned me, Colorado Blvd by Phoef Sutton, which is *fantastic* contemporary noir, and a very funny parody of "How To" manuals called Haynes Explains The British. I just started Joel's Selvin's biography of Bert Berns, Here Comes the Night.

BJ: Skip is responsible for this question as we talk more about books than anything else when we "speak in person." Sadly, I'm not reading any books right now. Skip gave me a book to read about the history of record labels, but I haven't read it yet (don't tell him).

AAJ (to Skip Heller and Birdie Jones): Skip Heller, you recorded the song "Together Too Long" both with The Hollywood Blues Destroyers and Carnival of Soul. Show do you hear the two versions differing. Birdie Jones, what do you think of the song and what did you bring to it.

SH: That's a fantastic question. Lisa's vocal had this kind of anguished quality, where Birdie has more experience and resignation, a little more world-weary. Birdie also has more of a rhythmic approach, too. She reminds me of Tania Maria sometimes. Lee's trumpet solo —one of his best —on the Blues Destroyers' version is more aggressive, where Matt's on the Carnival version has a kind of mournful quality, and his tone is just gorgeous. Chris's bass playing, too, just really dimensional and creative. Generally, the Carnival recording is more nuanced. Howard Greene was still the drummer when we cut that. He sure played his ass off.

BJ: I love "Together Too Long." It's the 2nd song of Skip's I fell in love with (the first one was "I Hate You"). I love Skip's sense of humor in his writing (I try to do the same). I love the original recording and just did my best to keep up with the cool legacy the song already had.

Conversations like this are a sportin' good time. But what of this new band and recording?

Carnival of Soul
Let's Start Tonight
Carnival of Soul Music

Music is a cultural sponge. As a created result of composition, it absorbs elements to which it, or better, its composer, is exposed. This is perhaps the foremost observation to make of Carnival of Soul's eight selection EP Let's Start Tonight. The music contained herein, both original compositions and cover songs, reflects the most evolved musical thought of one Fred "Skip" Heller as gnomically informed by one Birdie Jones. Carnival of Soul emerged from the musical Kreb's cycle transformation of Heller's most recent band, The Hollywood Blues Destroyers with the input of Heller's production of Birdie Jones' EP In My Single. The music is cognizant of and reflects the life and musical experiences of Heller and Jones. The result is a rich and varied collection of songs that shine out of the heart of Americana.

The title cut sounds as if it was conceived in the back seat of a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air replete with all of the post-war hopes and dreams of a young couple with everything to look forward to but opting for be merry today for tomorrow it will be all gone. Heller provides a slinky guitar solo just ahead Luke Alberti's piano thoughts. "Together Too Long" was co- written and previously recorded by Heller and Lisa Jenio while to two were in The Hollywood Blues Destroyer. Carnival of Soul reveals a more polished and experienced performance, Heller and Jones bringing a more retrospective approach to the song, one that has matured into less anguish and more recognition and acceptance. Heller again solos followed by a lyrical swing by trumpeter Matt Mattera. This composition shows the growth in Heller's composing ability as well as his arranging chops.

Birdie Jones sings the lead on the Harlan Howard 1962 composition "Busted" (also recorded by Johnny Cash and Ray Charles). Propelled by a jaunty walking arrangement that features Manny Diaz on saxophone. Jones sings with sardonic gravity. "From the Night Before" is a mod LA instrumental featuring Alberti and Mattera. Hipper than Herb Albert and more grounded than Sergio Mendez, Heller creates a Hollywood soundtrack of California well before the Summer of Love. But then, that does not sound exactly right. The Sound that Heller and Jones create is truly contemporary, seasoned with throw-back elements that cannot quite be dated. The Lieber and Stoller composition, "You're the Boss" is given a humid, timeless, sound that allows Heller and Jones to be playful in their singing. There is a definite soundtrack quality to these performances

Heller and Jones unite in composing "Moments," giving Jones another solo vocal spot that the singer takes full advantage. A partial contrafact of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love," "Moments" has a breezy timelessness as suitable for a slow dance today as 50 years ago. Heller closes things out with his jaunty "The Other Shoe" a too-mod dance tune featuring some nifty drumming on the part of Howard Greene (augmenting his superb percussion on "you're the Boss."

I suspect that from here on out every Skip Heller recording will be his most completely realized. That said, the addition of Birdie Jones to this musical mix takes things even further than "completely realized." I suspect that we have even better music in store from this talented pair...and ain't that grand?

Track Listing: Let's Start Tonight; Together Too Long; Busted; From the Night Before; You're the Boss; Who Needs Love; Moments, the Other Shoe.

Personnel: Birdie Jones: vocals; Skip Heller: vocals, guitar; Matt Mattera: trumpet; Manny Montiel Diaz: saxophones; Luke Alberti: Piano; Chris Camacho: bass; Howard Greene: drums, percussion.

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