Davy Graham: All the Sad Young Men

Davy Graham,  Anita O’ Day,  Art Pepper and All The Sad Young Men

If you were born in Britain around 1945, and found yourself seriously questioning the values and beliefs of those around you, there was a reasonable chance you would end up a Beatnik.  Your clothing, if you were a bloke,  was a donkey jacket, or an ex-Royal Navy duffle coat, ex-Royal Navy submariners sweater (bought Mail Order from Lawrence Corner, off the Euston Road, north London, advertised in Exchange & Mart), a pair of jeans, and in summer, sandals.  Sticking out of your donkey jacket pocket was a paperback copy of Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’, or a heavy-duty Dostoyevsky novel. And you wore a Ban-the-Bomb badge. (Some of us intellectual ones insisted on calling it a CND badge as ‘Ban-the-Bomb’ sounded too vulgar!).

Le Patron, Bradford, November, 1963. Photo: Pete Sutton
Le Patron, Bradford, November, 1963.  Photo: Pete Sutton

Sound-wise,  you listened to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk,  Joe Harriott’s ‘Indo Jazz Fusions’, John Lee Hooker and  an obscure American folk singer called Jackson C Frank.  You were also hip to what the Beatles were doing and clocked the social commentary and sense of young adult social frustration from the Kinks and the Animals.  And then there was this amazing  L.P:  ‘Folk, Blues and Beyond’ by a bloke called Davy Graham.

Folk, Blues & Beyond, Davy Graham.   Decca Records, 1964.
Folk, Blues & Beyond, Davy Graham. Decca Records.

Unwittingly, the LP hit the spot for those who were into folk, or jazz, or blues.  This was no clever record company programming:  this was Davy Graham, who’s acoustic guitar style was unlike anything else  heard before, and who’s taste was as a wide musically, and as immaculate as you could imagine.  He was also a pretty sharp dresser, with the narrow straight trousers and Chelsea boots. You poured over the liner notes, written by the record’s producer – Ray Horrocks – looking for clues.  So he’s into Henry Miller, well that figures.  Cool.  But I’m not so  sure we said Cool, quite like that, in those days.

One stand out song, for Le Patron was ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’.  This was not a self-pitying whine, but a touching observational number.  The liner notes said it came from an  0ff-Broadway show.  Thanks to the Internet – 48 years later – the details can now be filled in.  The show was ‘The Nervous Set’, that ran for a paltry twenty-three performances.  Luckily Columbia Records recorded the show and issued a L.P.  The music was by Tommy Wolf.   The lyrics were written by Fran Landesman, an American who was a small part of the American  Beat scene.  She and her husband Jay moved to Britain in the early sixties.  Jay had high ambitions to make it in the “alternative” scene.  His talent lagged significantly behind his ambition.  The talent, as such, lay with Fran.  It is reported that once in Britain, she wrote lyrics for, amongst others, Georgie Fame.  Le Patron has gone though his Georgie Fame L.P’s, including the ‘The Two Sides of Fame’ through to ‘That’s What Friends are For’ and can find no trace.  But ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’  would have been an ideal track for Georgie Fame to record. The song  has the same wistful and sad qualities of his 1966 cover of Billy Stewart’s ‘Sitting in the Park’, and of  ‘C’est La Vie’ and ‘Guess Who I Saw Today’, which he has also recorded.

And here was Davy Graham recording ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’ in London in 1964, produced by  Ray Horrocks, who up until then, and afterwards, specialised in Military Band recordings, and Scottish singers such as Kenneth McKellar and Moira Anderson.

The jazz singer Anita O’ Day’s 1962 Vogue Album featured the song too.

Anita O' Day, All the Sad Young Men.  Vogue Records
Anita O’ Day, All the Sad Young Men. Vogue Records

By her usually exquisitely high standards, to Le Patron’s ear the album and her reading of the song are disappointing.  Unusually for her, she sounds detached from the band.  As it turns out, she was detached from the band, but she says she was happy with the result.  She was living on the West Coast at the time.

The weirdest session”, she wrote, “came after Norman (Granz)  had sold out to MGM records.  All the Sad Young Men was arranged and conducted by Gary McFarland.  John (John Poole, her drummer),  and I were waiting for tickets to go to New York to do the session when one day, the mailman delivered a letter and a package.  The letter  said that in the package I’d find the finished product plus my parts.  John played the tapes from dawn till midnight while I studied the charts.  One place it said “ad lib”.  That was it – nothing about notes against chord and time, just ad lib.  I didn’t think I could pull it off, but we listened and listened.  On the appointed day, I went to the Sunset Studios, stood on a box in front of a stand that held the charts, and sang into the mircophone to the music that came out of boxes on the wall.  Would you believe it turned out well?

– quote from High Times, Hard Times, Anita O’ Day with George Eells.

There were some classy musicians in that band, including Herb Pomeroy, Bob Brookmeyer, Phil Woods, Zoot Sims, Hank Jones and Mel Lewis.

Alto saxophonist Art Pepper also featured Ballad of the Sad Young Men,  on his 1977 album No Limit.

Art Pepper, 1956.  Photo copyright:  William Claxton.
Art Pepper, 1956. Photo copyright: William Claxton.

Like Anita O’ Day, and to a lesser extent, Davy Graham, he’d had years of heroin use when he came to record No Limit.  He’d spent four extensive periods in jail because of the use of heroin, a criminal offence in the U.S. post-war.  Anita O’ Day had also done time, but for possession of marijuana.  When William Claxton took the photo of Art, above, in 1956 he’d just been released from his first two year prison sentence.  Claxton notes that on the photo session Art was feeling very ill, and was waiting for his ‘connection’.  The venue for the shoot was a road in Hollywood that had been used by the Keystone Cops in the Silent Film days.

By the 1970’s methadone had helped him, and he was in a well-regarded ‘comeback’ period of performing and recording.  However, on No Limit, his playing of Ballad of the Sad Young Men is fragile. It is like listening to the equivalent of an unsteady man on a high wire, who any minute you anticipate – with trepidation – will fall off, as he wobbles, steadies himself, pauses, and then continues.  And the pattern is repeated until somehow he makes it to the safety of the wire’s end. The fragility, unintentionally, matches the pathos of the song.

The guitar playing on Davy Graham’s version, apart from the introduction, is subdued. He  omits the verse about “the tired little girl, trying to be gay for a sad young men”, but the rest is there: “All the sad young men, choking on their youth…. drinking at the bar… autumn turns the leaves to gold, young men are growing old…”  His sometimes criticised voice – ‘thin’ is the usual observation – like Art Pepper’s fragility – adds to the pathos of the song.  This fragility, almost flatness, was how the character Jan, played by Tani Seitz,        performed the number in the original off-Broadway show.  Davy’s version is Le Patron’s favourite.

Sources:  Recordings    Folk, Blues & Beyond, Davy Graham;  All the Sad Young Men, Anita O’ Day and No Limit, Art Pepper are all currently available on CD.  Original vinyl copies of Folk, Blues and Beyond turn up on ebay.  At the time of writing, a MP3 download of the original 1959 cast recording of The Nervous Set is available from Amazon.com, but is not listed at Amazon.co.uk.

Sources: Books   High Times Hard Times, Anita O’ Day with George Eelss, Limelight Editions, New York, 1989.  The Art Pepper photo is included in the highly recommended William Claxton photo collection Jazz Seen, William Claxton, Taschen, 1999.  Both books are still in print.

V E I R D   B L U E S      Postscript     Following up the scant details on the back of the original Folk, Blues and Beyond album can take you places you don’t expect.  The credited engineer on the album is Gus Dudgeon.  He went on to produce a number of early Elton John albums.  As a young lad, Elton had been befriended and helped by Long John Baldry.  Long John Baldry and Davy Graham knew each other from the early 1960’s.  Around 1975 Le Patron saw Long John Baldry, and an unannounced Davy Graham performing in a function room above a pub in East Ham, London.

Another name on the back of the Folk, Blues and Beyond album is the cover photo credit: Crispian Woodgate.  It turns out, following an internet trawl and following up oblique references, that Crispian Woodgate, was, years later, a regular drinker in a north London pub that was a local of Suggs, of Madness.  Suggs reports that one day he went back to Crispian’s gaff and was “blown off my socks” to see the photo original of the Folk, Blues and Beyond cover.  The reason?  Suggs says in his Blog that Davy was “a singer I had liked immensely since the age of eleven”.  Suggs was eleven in 1972, seven years before he and Madness burst onto the scene with One Step Beyond.  When Crispian died, Suggs was at the funeral.

Ray Davies of the Kinks went one better: he was at Davy Graham’s funeral, in 2008. This extraordinary fact was revealed in an interview with the London Evening Standard, January, 2013.  When asked who his favourite musician was, he didn’t hesitate:  Davy Graham. Seemingly he knew Davy from the early sixties.

The Davy Graham/The Ballad of The Sad Young Men/Fran Landesman link could go on forever:  Saxophonist Phil Woods, who was on the 1962 All the Sad Young Men album, and Georgie Fame, who it is said Fran Landesman wrote lyrics for, were together years later on Georgie’s Me and  the Blues album (Go Jazz records, 1992).  Then there is the fact that the writer Julie Burchill married Fran Landesman’s son Cosmo Landesman…..

And did Julie Burchill have a view on Davy Graham?  No – stop, stop!   Enough!  Enough!

“The Doctor will see you now, Mr Grafton“……

“No, wait nurse – I’m trying to work out the Davy Graham influences in One Step Beyond.”

Mr Grafton…

No, please.  I haven’t found out who the drummer was on Folk, Blues and Beyond.  Danny Thompson was on bass..

Doctor!  Hurry! Bring the Mellaril”)