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Johnson, Jackson, Dylan and Shepp.

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I gather it is fairly common for bars to mark Bob Dylan’s birthday by devoting an entire night to his songs, performed either by local bands or open-mic amateurs.

It would be interesting to see them mark Archie Shepp’s birthday the same way.

The gnomic singer-songwriter and the avant-garde tenor saxophonist don’t have much in common — except a birthday, which happens to be today. (Shepp is 76, four years older than Dylan.)

As far as I know, the two men have never crossed paths.

But both have performed with a small universe of supporting musicians over the past 50 years.

So I decided it would be fun to find out whether the man who gave us “Mama You Been On My Mind” and the man who gave us Mama Too Tight have ever played with the same musician. Was any player flexible or versatile enough to make both scenes?

(Longtime readers may recall that I once went through the same exercise trying to connect John Coltrane and John Lennon — two other legends with no apparent musical common ground.)

So I spent some time comparing the personnel on both birthday boys’ albums. I didn’t look at every last album. But I looked at a whole bunch, and there wasn’t much to tie the two men together.

I had to wriggle through a loophole to find one, but I finally tracked down a musician who has played with both Shepp and Dylan. It’s a guy who plays an instrument not commonly used in rock, folk or jazz.

Tuba player Howard Johnson recorded with Shepp on the aforementioned Mama Too Tight album in 1966.

In the Seventies, Johnson was hired for the horn section that backed the Band at their New Year’s Eve 1971-72 and Last Waltz concerts, which resulted in the Rock of Ages and The Last Waltz albums respectively.

Dylan guested at both shows, and performed with the horn section on at least one of the tunes from the Rock of Ages concert (“Down In The Flood”). So, there’s a connection, slim as it is.

Some Googling also turned up an intriguing pair of almost-but-not-quite connections between Dylan and Shepp. Both would have been more direct than Johnson’s link:

– Top-call New York studio guitarist David Spinozza, who appears on Shepp’s Things Have Got To Change album, would have been a candidate to play on Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album.

But, as this November 1974 Rolling Stone article says, Dylan called his New York sessions for the album on exceedingly short notice. Engineer Phil Ramone was unable to secure the services of his preferred session pros, including Spinozza, because they were already booked.

– Shepp appears on one track of Frank Zappa’s You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 4, apparently the result of a one-night-only jam that got saved on tape.

Several sources, including Zappa, have said that Dylan approached Zappa in 1982 to discuss the possibility of Zappa producing Dylan’s next album. After listening to Dylan play some songs, Zappa reportedly suggested he hire Giorgio Moroder to produce instead. (In the end, Dylan’s next album, Infidels, would be co-produced by Dylan and Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler.)

Finally, Dylan and Shepp do have one other common link: Both were inspired to write songs by Black Panther militant George Jackson.

Dylan’s song “George Jackson,” despite an uncharacteristic bit of lyrical profanity, scraped into the Top 40 in late 1971 and early 1972 …

… while Shepp’s “Blues for Brother George Jackson” appeared on his album Attica Blues.

Personally, I prefer Shepp’s to Dylan’s. But either one would sound good at an open mic tonight.


One response »

  1. Enjoy Archie Shepp, too!


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