by Stuart Penney
| Copyright Joachim Cooder |
The first Ry Cooder solo album turns 50 in December 2020, but it’s unlikely we’ll see much in the way of commemorative reissues or special edition box sets to mark the event. Cooder is not that kind of artist, after all. So, half a century on, let’s celebrate that landmark debut record with a leisurely stroll through the slide guitar maestro’s remarkable body of work, cherry picking 50 of his greatest tracks along the way.
For me it all began with The Old Grey Whistle Test. That’s where I first heard the music (and, indeed, the unusual name) of Ry Cooder. It was early 1972 and Cooder’s second album Into The Purple Valley had just been released. For the few who may not know, The Old Grey Whistle Test was a late-night TV music show hidden away on BBC Two, the national broadcaster’s supposedly highbrow minority interest channel (and, fact fans, from 1967 the first European TV channel to regularly broadcast in colour).
Presented in a laidback magazine format in a bare studio devoid of sets or other showbiz trappings, a typical episode of the OGWT usually featured a couple of live bands in situ, some pre-recorded film clips and possibly an interview or two. The programme was then padded out with a few tracks from recently released albums.
This was before the era of pop videos, of course, so the BBC brought in Filmfinders, a company formed by cinema buff Philip Jenkinson, to expertly match the music to ancient, out of copyright black and white film stock. It seemed incongruous but the concept worked well. So well, in fact, that some of these short films became famous in their own right. The Filmfinders clip for Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot” showing footage of dancers from the 20s and 30s, for example, was so popular that the band later used it on one of their own DVD releases (find it on YouTube).
The Ry Cooder track they played on the OGWT that night was “Taxes On The Farmer Feeds Us All”. In a perfect marriage of sound and vision the BBC paired it with some grainy dust bowl footage from the depression era, which only served to enhance the atmosphere of the song even more.
Combining elements of blues, folk and country, “Taxes On The Farmer Feeds Us All” sounded loose to the point of shambolic and yet there was tight interplay between the musicians. It started slowly then gradually picked up speed with what appeared to be a shifting time signature set against an irresistible rock groove. What grabbed my attention above all, though, was the guitar playing. Mixed way up loud and presented front and centre, it featured a quite delicious bottleneck solo. It was irresistible and instantly accessible, despite sounding like nothing I’d ever heard before.
I went out and bought Into The Purple Valley the next day and was pleased to find the entire album was just as good as the track I’d heard. From that moment on I was hooked and picked up each new Cooder release with an eagerness previously reserved for the likes of Dylan, the Stones or the Beatles.
One thing became clear very quickly. Although not a songwriter, at least in the early decades of his career, Ry was a skilled interpreter of obscure, arcane and long-forgotten American music. Blues, folk, doo wop, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, soul and old-time country, he knew exactly where the music was coming from, understood it instinctively and was able to put his own unique stamp on it while retaining the flavour of the source material. A rare and precious gift.
But for me it’s always been about the guitar playing, first and last. In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine placed Cooder at number eight in their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. That’s pretty remarkable for a man who has consistently flown under the radar of popular opinion and whose records have seldom troubled the mainstream charts.
Anyone coming to Ry’s music for the first time may be overwhelmed by the depth and variety of a catalogue stretching back 50 years and covering such a diverse array of styles. Where to start? Here for your delectation are what I consider to be the 50 best Ry Cooder tracks ranked in some kind of order, plus a few extras I simply couldn’t leave out. If you’re not familiar with Cooder’s work, think of this as a jumping-off point to greater delights. It’s a strictly personal list, of course, and your mileage will almost certainly differ, so feel free to disagree. Hell, with so much great material to work with I could easily swap out a dozen or more of these songs tomorrow and replace them with others equally as good. But for today, at least, these are my favourite Ry moments.
55. No Banker Left Behind (2011)
Featuring marching rhythms, mandolin and banjo, Ry has described this song as having "a kind of clog-dance beat". Written in the wake of the 2007 financial bailout, the Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down album marked a new political direction for Cooder’s song writing.
53. Shenandoah (For Johnny Smith) (1999 Bill Frisell)
One of America’s most recognisable and best-loved folk tunes, “Shenandoah” probably pre-dates the Civil War (1861-65), despite being of unknown origin. Ry and Bill Frisell’s delicate guitar duet from the 1999 album Good Dog, Happy Man, is a soothing, laid-back triumph.
52. Available Space (1970)
This simple but effective slide guitar instrumental is a rare beast - a Ry Cooder composition (and the first tune he ever wrote, apparently). “Available Space” narrowly escaped the overproduction and fussy string overdubs which blighted much of Ry’s 1970 Reprise debut album.
The Top 50
50. Patricia (2003)
Speaking of his collaboration with Manuel Galbán (see also #46), Ry said “We decided on two electrics, two drum sets, congas and bass: a sexteto that could swing like a big band and penetrate the mysteries of the classic tunes. This music is powerful, lyrical, and funny; what more could you ask? Mambo Sinuendo is Cuban soul and high-performance."
An irresistible tune,“Patricia” was originally written and recorded by Pérez Prado, reaching #1 in the US and #8 in the UK charts during 1958.
49. Nobody (1978)
The mournfully comedic “Nobody” was written in 1905 by Bert Williams with lyrics by Alex Rogers and first appeared in the Broadway production Abyssinia. Countless cover versions followed, ranging from Bing Crosby (1947), Nina Simone (1964) and Johnny Cash (2000) to Gonzo and Rowlf in The Muppet Show (1976).
As with “Shine” (see #33), “Nobody” dates from a bleaker era in American history when racism and segregation were widespread, and the song successfully lampoons the stereotypical image of the downtrodden black man, using a combination of humour and pathos. Williams became Broadway’s first black superstar and W.C. Fields described him as “The funniest man I ever saw - and the saddest man I ever knew.”
Ry’s doom-laden recording on the Jazz album opens with a snatch of “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” (published 1867 but dating back much further), before continuing with tasteful fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a superb vocal quartet backing.
48. One Meat Ball (1970)
Ry’s 1970 self-titled debut album was a strange, over-produced affair with fussy string arrangements. Its lush, multitracked vocal overdubs all-but suffocating a core of fine songs. Two years earlier producers Van Dyke Parks and Lenny Waronker had treated the first Randy Newman LP to the same orchestral overkill.
Popularised by Josh White in 1944, “One Meat Ball” is credited to Tin Pan Alley songwriters Hy Zaret and Lou Singer, although it was a re-write of the much older song “The Lone Fish Ball”. Zaret later co-authored the 1955 hit "Unchained Melody", one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century.
“One Meat Ball” may have suffered from the orchestral treatment on Ry Cooder, but the song lived to fight another day, becoming part of his live acoustic set, usually accompanied with a droll, extended spoken introduction during which Ry derides McDonald’s. Several live versions are available on YouTube.
47. That’s The Way Love Turned Out For Me (1982)
First recorded as a powerhouse soul ballad by the great James Carr in 1968. Ry’s version is taken at a somewhat gentler pace with a quite different time signature, earning him a co-writing credit. Find it on The Slide Area.
46. Secret Love (2003)
A massive chart hit around the world for Doris Day, reaching number one on both sides of the Atlantic, “Secret Love” was written for the 1953 film Calamity Jane. Many versions followed, including a top five UK hit for Kathy Kirby a decade later.
This slow, seductive instrumental turned up on Mambo Sinuendo, a 2003 collaboration between Ry and Cuban guitarist Manuel Galbán. The pair had previously worked together in the hugely successful Buena Vista Social Club and on an album by legendary Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer. Mambo Sinuendo topped the Billboard Latin Albums chart and won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album at the 46th Grammy Awards in 2004.
45. Mexican Divorce (1974)
Until around 1970 obtaining a divorce in Mexico was easier, quicker, and less expensive than in most US states and it became known as a “quickie Mexican divorce”. Naturally, it was picked up by popular culture and referenced in books, films and songs during the 50s and 60s. Written by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard, "Mexican Divorce" was first issued as the B-side of the 1962 Drifters single “When My Little Girl Is Smiling”.
Ry’s Paradise and Lunch version sticks closely to the Drifters’ original, with added Tex-Mex flavour.
44. 13 Question Method (1987)
A lesser-known Chuck Berry track from his 1961 LP New Juke Box Hits, “Thirteen Question Method” is a classic “list” song, in the style of Chuck’s own “Reelin’ & Rockin’”. Ry has been playing this song live for many years, notably during his time in an acoustic duo with David Lindley.
The Get Rhythm version is a solo acoustic slide recording delivered with all the panache and sly humour of those live performances with Lindley.
43. Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now) (1978)
Regrets? Ry’s had a few. Interviewed for BBC Radio’s Guitar Greats programme in 1983 Cooder didn’t hold back when speaking about his 1978 Jazz album:
“I regard (it) as being a wretched mistake and a brief, ugly interlude. It was not directional, it was not even well-considered or well executed and I hate it! Of course, having done the damn thing I was stuck with it. I had to accept full responsibility, which I did, and take everybody’s barbs and criticisms, which are all justified, I’m sure. Because that damn thing was a dead end if there ever was one. However, working with the singers on that record was very illuminating and intensive and I did learn a lot. But nothing about that record I’ve retained. I can’t play the (Bix) Beiderbecke material anymore, thank god. I don’t remember anything about it. You make mistakes, you know? I got a little bit too far flung with that. Stupid, pompous, horrible thing. I hate it.”
Harsh words indeed. But despite Cooder's protestations (and a terrible sleeve design - see #49), Jazz has much to recommend it, not least the Joseph Spence material and, with its hot eight piece band, the lively opening track “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)”.
Written in 1924 by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen, this is almost certainly the only song recorded by Ry Cooder, Merle Haggard, Peggy Lee and Van Halen. Between them Ager and Yellen gave us dozens of timeless classics, “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Happy Days Are Here Again” among them. Several pre-war big band recordings of “Big Bad Bill” exist and the song became a hugely popular barbershop quartet number.
42. Get Rhythm (1987)
The title track of Ry’s tenth studio album introduced us to his new guitar sound. Fatter and louder than before with plenty of sustain, it almost bordered on heavy rock in places.
Written by Johnny Cash, “Get Rhythm” first appeared as the B-side to Cash's 1956 Sun single "I Walk the Line". Another song with sensitive and dated racial connotations, the “shoeshine boy” lyrics might not go down too well today.
41. Chinito Chinito (2006)
Probably first recorded by Tex-Mex bandleader Don Tosti in 1949, the lyrics of “Chinito Chinito” apparently poke fun at a “pidgin Spanish-speaking Chinese laundryman”, so it’s possibly not very woke these days. But, that aside, this exuberant Latino romp is a musical delight in every way imaginable.
Vocals are handled by the wonderful Commagere sisters, Juliette and Carla. Juliette is married to Joachim Cooder, Ry’s son, who also plays drums on Chavez Ravine, thus keeping it all in the family. Juliette Commagere also toured the world supporting Ry and Nick Lowe circa 2009.
40. Fool Who Knows (1992 Little Village)
Formed following the success of John Hiatt’s 1987 Bring The Family album (see #3), Little Village promised great things but struggled under the weight of enormous expectation (and four separate management companies), folding after just one low-key album. Despite being lumbered with the “supergroup” tag, they were a fearsome live ensemble and onstage Ry was able to flex his guitar muscles to great effect, as demonstrated in the many unofficial recordings and radio broadcasts in circulation (some of them on Spotify).
I could have picked virtually any track here, but Nick Lowe's superbly-crafted “Fool Who Knows” is just one of several Little Village songs which worked far better onstage than in the studio.
39. Paris, Texas (1984)
I like to think Ry didn’t even break sweat when writing the simple but oh-so effective theme to the movie Paris, Texas. Yet it went on to become one of the most distinctive (not to say imitated and plagiarised) guitar sounds of the late 20th century, appearing in countless TV ads and in any situation where tumbleweed and an expanse of windblown desert were called for. As the Americans might say, go figure.
It may not be musically challenging but it’s certainly atmospheric and wonderfully recorded and presumably that's just what the Paris, Texas producer Wim Wenders was asking for, after all.
38. The Way We Make A Broken Heart (1980)
John Hiatt wrote this poignant ballad for the Borderline album when he was a member of Ry’s 1980 touring band. A beautifully-crafted Hiatt tear-jerker, it marked the start of a long and fruitful working relationship between the two men.
Rosanne Cash took the song to number one on the US country charts in 1987.
37. 3rd Base, Dodger Stadium (2006)
The first of Cooder’s “California Trilogy” of socio-political concept albums, Chavez Ravine tells the semi-fictional story of a Los Angeles Hispanic community displaced in the 1950s, supposedly to make way for public housing. The homes never eventuated and ultimately the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team built a stadium on the site as part of their 1958 move to Los Angeles.
Featuring a seductive vocal from 'Bla’ Pahinui, the lilting “3rd Base Dodger Stadium” is one of several stand-out tracks on what could be Ry’s finest album of recent years. Pahinui, who sadly died in 2019, was the son of Gabby ‘Pops’ Pahinui, the legendary Hawaiian slack-key guitarist who recorded several times with Ry.
36. Memo From Turner (1970 Mick Jagger)
Ry was rumoured to be on the shortlist to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones and he worked extensively with the band in the late 60s, guesting on Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. The album Jamming With Edward, featuring Ry and Nicky Hopkins together with Mick, Bill and Charlie, was also recorded in London during this period. Consisting largely of aimless noodling, it eventually appeared as a budget release on the Stones’ own Rolling Stones Records label in 1972 and was quickly forgotten.
Much better was Ry’s other major Stones collaboration, the 1970 soundtrack album for the film Performance. Cooder played on several tracks, the most memorable being the excellent “Memo From Turner” which was also issued as a Mick Jagger Decca solo single. Ry really lets loose here and “Memo From Turner” features some of his most flamboyant and unrestrained slide work. Released three months before his debut solo album, this is peak Cooder bottleneck!
Notably absent from all these projects was Keith Richards, who apparently walked out of the sessions, unhappy at the suggestion that Ry might be used as the Stones’ second guitarist. Keith seemingly did pick up some tips on guitar tunings, however, and it’s been suggested that it was Cooder who came up with the main riff of “Honky Tonk Women” during his time with the band.
35. It’s All Over Now (1974)
Everyone knows the Rolling Stones’ 1964 chart topping version of “It's All Over Now” but how many have heard the original recording by the Valentinos from the same year? A real family affair, the group consisted of the five Womack brothers. The song was co-written by leader Bobby Womack with his sister-in-law Shirley and produced by Sam Cooke. The Valentinos’ record peaked at #94 on the Billboard chart just a month before the Stones’ version arrived to sweep all before it.
Hear Ry’s unusual and infectious reggae treatment on Paradise and Lunch .
34. Alimony (Live) (1977)
“I don’t want six extra children
Ain’t but two that look like me”.
This tragicomedy was written and recorded by Tommy Tucker and released as a 1965 Checker label single. Coming a year after Tucker’s huge hit “Hi Heel Sneakers”, it utilised virtually the same mid-tempo rhythmic structure. Ry first covered the song on his 1970 self-titled debut album, but the 1977 live version from Show Time is the one to seek out. Taken at breakneck pace with the Chicken Skin Music Tex-Mex band, plus masterful gospel backing vocals from Bobby King, Eldridge King and Terry Evans, Ry’s guitar dominates throughout. Unlike the 1970 recording there is no slide here, it’s all intricate fingerstyle. He even fluffs the odd note, but the track is no worse for that.
“Shine” has been a jazz standard for well over a century, with an estimated 650 different recordings as of 2020. It started life as "That's Why They Call Me Shine" in the 1911 Broadway vaudeville revue His Honor: The Barber. There it was sung by Ada Overton Walker (aka “The Queen Of The Cakewalk”) who performed the song in male guise. Versions by Louis Armstrong (1931), Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers (1932), Ella Fitzgerald (1936) and Dooley Wilson as “Sam” in the 1942 film Casablanca followed.
In the UK “Shine” became a trad jazz staple, recorded by the likes of Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, while Joe Brown & The Bruvvers took a 1961 pop recording into the top 40.
Almost all the later versions used only the chorus, however, omitting the controversial introductory verses which, while explaining what the song is all about, do so using derogatory racial terms. Ry’s version on the album Jazz is notable for including one of the two “missing” verses. Cooder noted that the song “has been recorded over the years by nearly everybody, (but) rarely in its original form. Ford Dabney and Cecil Mack wrote it in 1910 at the close of the "Coon Song Era" and it is a unique comment on that genre’s black face sensibilities”.
While it might not be too well received in certain quarters today, Ry’s version works perfectly well as a slice of American musical and social history and it sounds great, too. Recorded with a 12 piece band, including vibes, woodwind and a delightful vocal quartet arrangement, it was an undisputed highlight of the Jazz album.
32. Stand By Me (1976)
Written in 1961 by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, King’s recording of “Stand By Me” topped the charts around the world. It went on to become a soul / pop standard with many recorded versions, including a 1975 hit by John Lennon.
Find Ry’s version on Chicken Skin Music.
31. Three Cool Cats (2006)
This Leiber and Stoller-penned classic was first recorded in 1958 by the Coasters. It became a 60s beat group staple, performed by the pre-fame Beatles and even featuring in their January 1962 failed Decca audition (hear the Fabs’ recording on the 1995 CD Anthology 1).
Performed slower than usual, Ry's slinky Chavez Ravine version grooves along nicely with Willie Garcia, aka "Little Willie G.", on lead vocal. Erstwhile front man with legendary East LA band Thee Midniters, Garcia co-wrote several songs on the album.
30. Comin’ In On A Wing And A Prayer (1979)
A World War II song with lyrics by Harold Adamson and music by Jimmy McHugh. First recorded a capella style by vocal group the Song Spinners on Decca, it reached number one on the Billboard pop chart in July 1943. Bing Crosby also performed the song on radio the same year and several big band and doo wop recordings followed. Across the Atlantic, Vera Lynn and Anne Shelton had wartime success with it in Britain and there was even a 1959 version by Ry’s favourite Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence.
When he performed the song live, Ry often included the opening verse, missing from the Boomer’s Story recording (although it was included on the lyric sheet):
“One of our planes was missing, it was two hours overdue
One of our planes was missing with all its gallant crew
The radio sets were hummin', as they waited for the word
Then a voice broke through the hummin'
And this is what they heard”
Ry played an incendiary solo acoustic version in Joseph Spence style at the July 1979 Cambridge Folk Festival. His two sets were broadcast on BBC radio and TV at the time and have recently become available on CD via Amazon and the usual outlets. Cooder’s acoustic playing was incredible during these performances and if you can find it the (semi-official) Cambridge Folk Festival CD is the one to seek out over the uninspiring Boomer’s Story version.
29. I Got Mine (1976)
This ode to illegal gambling dates back more than a century with several recordings under various titles from the early 20th century. Ry’s Chicken Skin Music version is based on a 1950 ragtime guitar recording by Pink Anderson which appeared on a 1956 Riverside album shared with Rev. Gary Davis (one side each) titled American Street Songs. Anderson later re-recorded the song for Bluesville in 1961. And, yes, Pink Anderson is the same man who, along with Floyd Council, inspired the name of a certain psychedelic rock band.
28. He’ll Have To Go (1976)
Rockabilly singer Billy Brown made the first recording of “He’ll Have To Go” in April 1959. His version flopped but the plaintive ballad was picked up by Jim Reeves who turned it into a worldwide country pop smash hit in early 1960. Answer songs were popular at the time and Jeanne Black also scored a top ten US hit with “He’ll Have To Stay” later the same year.
Dominated by the unmistakable sound of Flaco Jiménez’s accordion, Ry’s Tex-Mex version of the song was a Chicken Skin Music highlight. An edited version was released as a single in the UK and Europe backed with “The Bourgeois Blues”.
27. Boomer’s Story (1972)
The term “boomer” originally had a quite different meaning to the slightly pejorative one it holds today. A century or more ago a boomer was a drifter or itinerant worker who travelled around the USA picking up work from the railroad companies. The Boomer’s Story album credits the title track as “traditional” but it probably first appeared on record as “The Railroad Boomer” by Carson Robison and Frank Luther circa 1929. Although several other recordings exist from around the same period, Robison was eventually awarded copyright of the song. Carson Robison became well-known for his novelty country songs, including the spoken comedy “Life Gets Teejus Don’t It”, which was a popular record in post-war Britain.
Ry plays guitar and mandolin and peels off yet another fine slide solo on the title track of his 1972 third album.
26. Billy The Kid (1972)
Despite being credited as “traditional” on Into The Purple Valley, “Billy The Kid” is thought to have been written by the Reverend Andrew W. Jenkins (1885 - 1957) with the lyrics probably drawn from a popular biography of the outlaw cowboy. A writer of country, folk and gospel songs, Jenkins is credited with more than 800 compositions.
Sometimes erroneously attributed to Woody Guthrie, who recorded it in 1944, the song dates back to the mid-20s, with versions by Vernon Dalhart (1927), Sons of the Pioneers (1938), Marty Robbins (1959) and several others.
Ry claims to have “learned this song from a record by Sam Hinton” but it’s likely he was confusing Hinton with Jimmie (aka Jimmy) Driftwood. Both men appeared on a 1960 RCA Victor concept LP How The West Was Won, but it was Driftwood and not Hinton who performed “Billy The Kid” on the album.
The song has been a fixture of Ry’s live set for decades, typically performed as a solo mandolin tour de force. The Into The Purple Valley recording features mandolin with overdubbed slide guitar.
25. Married Man’s A Fool (1974)
Ry probably learned “Married Man’s A Fool” from the Blind Willie McTell album Last Session recorded in 1956 and released on Bluesway in 1961. But this comedy blues number dates back to 1924 when it appeared on the B-side of “I Can’t Use You”, an Okeh single by the husband and wife duo Butterbeans and Susie.
The Paradise and Lunch sleeve notes give writing credit to Blind Willie McTell, but the Okeh 78rpm recording credits Eddie Green & Janie Edwards. Ry’s performance is faithful to the McTell version but, perhaps wisely, he deleted the line “if your wife get crooked, give her a mouthful of fist”.
A 1960 re-recording of the song by Butterbeans and Susie version with a different composer credit was issued as a US single B-side in 1966 on the S.D label.
24. Smack Dab In The Middle (1976)
“I want ten Cadillacs, a diamond mill
Ten suits of clothes, I’m dressed to kill
A ten room house and a barbeque
And fifty chicks not over twenty-two
Then throw me smack dab in the middle”
Ray Charles recorded probably the best-known version of “Smack Dab in the Middle” in 1964, but the song started life a decade earlier when Charlie Calhoun and his Orchestra issued the first version on MGM in 1955. Charles (aka Charlie) Calhoun also wrote and recorded under the name Jesse Stone and he penned “Money Honey” discussed elsewhere (see #13).
Other early recordings of the song include the Jacks (1955), the Mills Brothers (1956) and Count Basie and his Orchestra with Joe Williams (1956).
Another Chicken Skin Music gem, Ry’s version of “Smack Dab in the Middle” ticks all the boxes with a great lyric, a fine vocal backing trio and all the slide guitar you could ever want.
23. Little Sister (1979)
Recorded on a 32-track 3M digital machine, Bop Til You Drop was the first digitally recorded major label album in popular music. Much was made of this fact in 1979 although, in truth, few people had any idea what it all meant in the pre-CD age. In fact, all those late 70s magazine articles packed with technical talk seemed distinctly at odds with Ry’s catalogue of rustic music from America’s distant past.
Another departure was the album’s undeniably commercial opening track “Little Sister”. Released as a single, it received much radio play and even became a chart hit in some countries. In the early 80s it was also the default opening song at Ry’s live shows. Cooder was reluctantly persuaded to include his only FM radio hit on the 2008 double CD anthology The UFO Has Landed, where it was accompanied with a typically sardonic Ry sleeve note: “James Austin (executive producer) said ‘Put this on here or I quit’”.
Written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, “Little Sister” was first recorded by Elvis in June 1961 with Hank Garland and Scotty Moore on guitars.
22. Great Dream From Heaven (1972)
Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence (1910 - 1984), was already in his late forties when folklorists Sam Charters and Ann Danberg Charters first recorded his unique guitar stylings for the Folkways label in 1958. His music went on to be covered by Taj Mahal, the Grateful Dead, Davey Graham, John Renbourn and others. It’s even been suggested that Bob Dylan used the tune of “Great Dream From Heaven” for his song “Only A Hobo”. Ry is a Joseph Spence devotee and has recorded several of his tunes, including three on the Jazz album alone. The instrumental “Great Dream From Heaven” from Into The Purple Valley is the earliest and probably the best-known of Ry's Spence covers.
21. Go Home Girl (1979)
One of the great unsung heroes of 60s pop / soul, Arthur Alexander’s songs have been recorded by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and countless other big names. “Anna (Go To Him)”, “You Better Move On”, “A Shot Of Rhythm & Blues” and “Everyday I Have To Cry” are just four of the undisputed classics he wrote and recorded during the 60s.
Delivered very much in the style of “You Better Move On”, “Go Home Girl” was Alexander’s 1962 follow-up single to “Anna” and although not quite as well-known as some of his other hits the tune is as strong as anything in his impressive catalogue. The Rolling Stones recorded “Go Home Girl” in late 1963, but other than on bootleg, it remains unreleased.
Ry’s Bop Til You Drop version was recorded Tex-Mex style with a haunting guitar part to accompany the heartrending lyrics.
20. On A Monday (1972)
Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, gave us some of the greatest folk blues songs of the 20th century, including “Goodnight Irene”, “Midnight Special”, “Cottonfields”, “Black Betty” and many others. “On A Monday” may be less well known, but it’s as memorable and noteworthy as almost anything else the great man wrote. The song dates from the late 1930s (when it went by the title “Yellow Women’s Door Bells”) and has appeared on many Lead Belly compilations since. It was covered by Lonnie Donegan in 1957 and re-worked as “I Got Stripes” by Johnny Cash in 1959.
Ry’s hard rocking version on Into The Purple Valley features a great vocal and yet another timeless slide solo.
19. The Girls From Texas (1980)
“She was guilty, I was dead and what do you think that ol’ judge said?
Aw, that’s just the way the girls are down here in Texas. Case dismissed!”
Another bittersweet vignette of domestic strife, with hilarious lyrics delivered deadpan, as only Ry knows how. The 1967 original by soul singer Jimmy Lewis was a medium paced swing affair in waltz time, quite different to Ry’s double 4/4 time polka version on Borderline. In 1992 Flaco Jimenez recorded another worthy up-tempo version on his album Partners with Ry guesting on vocals and guitar.
18. FDR In Trinidad (1972)
Written by Fitz Maclean to commemorate President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1936 visit to Trinidad, this popular calypso was recorded by several local musicians. The best known version is probably by The Atilla (Raymond Quevedo*) one of the most famous calypso artists of all time, who recorded it for Decca as “Roosevelt In Trinidad”. The lyrics were no doubt sincere and heartfelt when they were written, but they can’t help sounding naive and a little sarcastic in today’s politically cynical age.
Ry’s Into the Purple Valley version features some dazzling acoustic guitar and mandolin parts with a great vocal. Van Dyke Parks also covered the song in 1972 on his album Discover America.
*Raymond Quevedo (1892 - 1962) recorded under several names with various spellings, including Atilla, The Atilla and Atilla the Hun.
17. Maria Elena (1972)
Mexican composer Lorenzo Barcelata wrote this gorgeous tune in 1932 and English lyrics were added by Bob Russell in 1940. It was dedicated to María Elena Peralta, the wife of Emilio Portes Gil, who was the Mexican President between 1928-1930.
Lawrence Welk took the tune into the US charts in 1941, the first of several big band recordings, both vocal and instrumental. Brazilian guitar duo Los Indios Tabajaras recorded an instrumental version in 1958 which became a US and UK top 10 hit in 1963, selling over a million copies.
“I learned it from a Bunk Johnson record, made when he was already old“ said Ry in the sleeve notes of The UFO Has Landed compilation. That record was probably The Last Testament Of A Great New Orleans Jazzman, released in 1953 but recorded in 1947 when jazz trumpeter Bunk was aged 68. Ry’s tender version on Boomer’s Story receives the full Mexican treatment.
16. The Bourgeois Blues (1976)
Another song by the great Lead Belly, recorded in 1938 following his trip to Washington, DC to work with music historian Alan Lomax. It pulls no punches, dealing with racism, the Jim Crow laws, and the conditions faced by black Americans in the American south.
Ry’s recording on Chicken Skin Music is delivered jug band style with brass instruments and an accordion, gaining momentum with every verse. It’s a fine version and even though many of the lyrics still ring true, this song would be challenging for a white performer to sing today, especially as it contains two examples of the “n” word.
15. The Dark End Of The Street (Live 1977)
Written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman in 1966, "The Dark End of the Street" was first recorded on the Goldwax label by James Carr, becoming a Billboard top 10 R&B single the following year. Ry recorded it in 1972 on Boomer’s Story as an instrumental, but the definitive Cooder version appears on the live Show Time album. With soulful vocals by Eldridge King, Bobby King and Terry Evans plus a momentous slide solo, it became a guaranteed concert highlight.
14. Crazy ‘bout An Automobile (Every Woman I Know) (1980)
“Every woman I know, crazy 'bout an automobile
And here I am standing with nothing but rubber heels.”
Another triumphant re-working of an obscure and long-forgotten slice of Americana, this hard rocking ditty became a cornerstone of Ry’s 80s live set. Onstage the backing vocals and synchronised dance moves by Willie Greene Jr, Bobby King and Pico Payne became a major feature, growing to the point where they virtually overtook the whole song.
This pathos-filled gem was first recorded in 1957 by Billy “The Kid” Emerson (as, simply, "Every Woman I Know”) on the Vee Jay label. Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs covered it on their 1965 Woolly Bully album and there is also a little-known version by erstwhile Bill Black’s Combo guitarist Al Vance, recorded the same year.
Any of Ry’s live versions are worth seeking out, but I’m going for the 1980 studio recording on Borderline.
13. Money Honey (1972)
“I said, tell me baby, face to face,
How could another man take my place?
She said, money, honey.”
There’s a brief magical moment around 2:55 into “Money Honey” when the song appears to be breaking down, with the band all at sea. Then, just when it seems like all is lost, drummer Jim Keltner picks up the beat again and the track continues to the finish line. This was pointed out to me around 1973 by George Butler, a Ladbroke Grove local (via Scotland) and a drummer of some renown (Pink Fairies, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Alex Harvey etc). I hadn’t noticed it before and, I suspect, neither had you. But George was a drummer, you see, and he was acutely aware of these things. Sadly, George Butler died in 2018, but I can never listen to “Money Honey” without hearing that breakdown and thinking of him.
Written by Jesse Stone, “Money Honey” was first recorded in 1953 by the Drifters with Clyde McPhatter. The first notable cover was by Elvis on his 1956 self-titled debut LP (released in the UK as Rock n’ Roll) but countless versions followed. Jesse Stone also wrote songs under the pseudonym Charles (or Chuck) Calhoun. His best-known composition as Calhoun was probably "Shake, Rattle and Roll", as recorded by Big Joe Turner and Bill Haley and his Comets. Calhoun also wrote “Smack Dab in the Middle” which Cooder recorded on Chicken Skin Music (see #24) . Fun fact: Gloria Jones sang backing vocals on Into The Purple Valley and that's her belting out those waspish exchanges with Ry on "Money Honey".
12. How Can You Keep On Moving (Unless You Migrate Too) (1972)
A dust bowl ballad recounting the plight of the dispossessed 1930s farmers from the Great Plains of Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas who were turned away at the California border. Sounding like an up-tempo version of “Taxes On The Farmer Feeds Us All” (see #10) it moves at a fair old lick with some great guitar parts and another textbook Cooder slide solo.
Although credited as “traditional” on Into The Purple Valley, this song was written by Agnes "Sis" Cunningham, the founding editor of Broadside magazine and composer of several important protest songs. She also wrote the sleeve notes for the 1964 Elektra debut album by Phil Ochs, All The News That’s Fit To Sing.
The song was first recorded by the New Lost City Ramblers in 1959 as “Keep Moving” on their Folkways LP Songs From The Depression. Sis Cunningham’s own version appeared in 1976 (as “How Can You Keep On Movin’”) on the Folkways album Sundown - Broadside #9.
11. Tattler (1974)
Here’s something you don’t often see - a Ry Cooder songwriting credit. “Tattler” grew from a 1929 song by Washington Phillips, "You Can't Stop a Tattler - Part 2”. The original was recorded using a Dolceola, a strange musical instrument resembling a miniature piano, but which is actually a zither with a keyboard. Manufactured only from 1903 to 1907, Dolceolas created an unusual, angelic, music-box sound.
The Washington Phillips recording sat unreleased for decades until Ry stumbled across it. Together with his producer and brother-in-law Russ Titelman, they tweaked the melody, added some Cooder-esque guitar parts, and generally reinvigorated it for the Paradise and Lunch album. As a result, the “Tattler” composer credit now reads: "Washington Phillips, Ry Cooder, Russ Titelman".
In 1976 Linda Ronstadt covered the song (using Ry’s arrangement almost down to the last note) on her album Hasten Down The Wind.
10. Taxes On The Farmer Feeds Us All (1972)
"We worked through spring and winter, through summer and through fall
But the mortgage worked the hardest and the steadiest of us all."
This is where it all started for me (see above). If I had to pick a single track that sums up the early sound of Ry Cooder, it would be this one. Taken at a lazy, swaggering tempo slightly behind the beat with great vocals and a bottleneck solo to die for, this recording distils the very essence of Ry’s music into a little over three minutes. 48 years on, “Taxes On The Farmer Feeds Us All” still sounds as thrilling today as the first time I heard it.
Although the Into The Purple Valley album sleeve notes credit the song as “traditional”, the chances are it was written by Fiddlin’ John Carson who first recorded it (as “The Farmer Is The Man Who Feeds Them All”) for the Okeh label in 1923. It was also recorded by the New Lost City Ramblers on their 1959 Folkways LP Songs From The Depression.
9. How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live (1977)
“Well, when we get our grocery bill
We feel like making our will
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?”
Ry first covered this tale of despair for his debut album in 1970, but it’s the live version from Show Time which concerns us here. Recorded in December 1976 at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco with Flaco Jimenez and the Chicken Skin Music band, this is surely a performance for the ages. Ry can make time stand still with his delicate slide solos and this is one of his best. Although it must be said, he played an even better solo during this song on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977 when the Chicken Skin Band toured Europe (find it on YouTube).
The song was written by Blind Alfred Reed, a white country musician from Floyd County, Virginia and the original version appeared on the Victor label in 1929. The New Lost City Ramblers covered it in 1959 and, more recently, Bruce Springsteen recorded the song for We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions in 2006.
8. Jesus On The Mainline (Live 1977)
“Imagine the impact of the telephone in rural America. Call up Jesus, because I know you got a long list. Looking at it another way, would technology bring about a change? Would they get the message through? Seems like the line is always busy” – The UFO Has Landed CD sleeve notes.
There are many versions of this traditional gospel blues dating back to the 1930s, but it was probably Mississippi Fred McDowell’s 60s recording which prompted Ry to cover it.
In a rare recent UK performance Ry sang “Jesus on the Mainline” at the 2017 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards from the Royal Albert Hall in London where he received a lifetime achievement award.
This song has been in Cooder's repertoire for many decades, performed with several different arrangements. The simple but effective Show Time version featuring only acoustic slide with backing vocals and handclaps works much better than the lumbering Paradise and Lunch band recording with its ornate brass arrangement.
7. Viva Sequin / Do Re Mi (Live) (1977)
The notion of fusing a Tex-Mex polka and a Woody Guthrie dust bowl ballad was a stroke of genius which Ry pulled off in style. Written and recorded around 1950 by Don Santiago Jiménez, Sr. (yes, he was the father of legendary accordionist Flaco Jiménez) “Viva Seguin”* was named in honour of Juan Seguin, a Chicano hero during the 1835-36 Texas war of independence against Mexico (or possibly in honour of the city of Seguin, Texas). It’s a standard polka which has been recorded by almost every conjuntos (small musical group) at least once.
Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” dates from 1940 and takes the form of a warning to would-be migrants looking to move to California from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia and Tennessee, as mentioned in the lyrics. The song was later included on Woody’s album Dust Bowl Ballads.
Ry first recorded “Do Re Mi” for his 1970 debut album, but it’s the 1977 live mash-up on Show Time you really want.
*The Show Time album spells this track as “Viva Sequin”.
6. The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor) (1979)
The story goes that Nashville songwriter Chips Moman handed Ry a demo tape containing around fifty songs by an unknown Memphis cab driver named Sidney Bailey. Cooder was so impressed he asked Warner Bros. to let him take Bailey into the studio to record an album. It never happened, but one of Bailey’s songs, the poignant “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)”, turned up on Bop till You Drop. Ry had previously recorded Bailey’s “Fool For A Cigarette” on Paradise and Lunch in 1974.
5. I Think It’s Going To Work Out Fine (1979)
Which came first, the vocal version or the instrumental? Ry’s exquisite Bop till You Drop slide interpretation of “I Think It’s Going To Work Out Fine” is clearly based on the Ike & Tina Turner song (which they titled “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”) released as both a single and on their Dynamite! LP. However, during a 1983 interview Ry claimed he was inspired to record the song in this style after hearing an unidentified Otis Rush guitar instrumental.
But there is also an instrumental version of the Ike & Tina song (minus Tina) on the album Ike & Tina Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm Dance. The two Ike & Tina recordings were released almost simultaneously in 1962 on individual Sue label albums with consecutive catalogue numbers (LP 2003 and LP 2004). Confused?
4. Vigilante Man (1972)
Probably the first time most people in Britain set eyes on Ry was on March 19, 1973 when he played "Vigilante Man" and "Goin' To Brownsville" live on the Old Grey Whistle Test. Sitting alone on a cheap canvas chair, resplendent in his Hawaiian shirt, houndstooth check pants and bandana with a top of the line Martin D45 guitar, he cut a striking figure. It remains one of the most memorable OGWT performances by any artist and is still spoken of in hushed reverence today (and not only by Cooder fans).
The tune came via Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”(1928) and the Carter Family’s “Sad And Lonesome Day” (1937) but the lyrics are all Woody Guthrie’s, written in 1940 during his New York period and inspired by the film of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath.
Ry originally performed “Vigilante Man” as a solo bottleneck showcase, but in recent years it has grown to become a 10 minute live ensemble tour de force. Find it on Into The Purple Valley (1972) and / or Live In San Francisco (2013).
3. Lipstick Sunset (1987 John Hiatt)
From the truly magical 1987 John Hiatt album Bring the Family, “Lipstick Sunset” features arguably Ry’s most perfectly-formed studio slide guitar solo. The album brought together, for the first time, Hiatt, Cooder, Nick Lowe on bass and Jim Keltner on drums. The four would reunite in 1992 to form the short-lived supergroup Little Village (see #40).
“Lipstick Sunset” became a cornerstone of the Little Village live set, and onstage Ry took the song to undreamed-of heights with some quite remarkable extended slide solos.
2. Tamp ‘em Up Solid (1974)
It’s thought Ry first heard this this railroad song, or tie-tamping chant (tie = railroad sleeper), by Josh White on his 1963 album The Beginning, Volume 2 (where it was titled "TAP 'Em Up Solid"), but it dates back much further than that. The song was probably first documented by archivist and folklorist John A. Lomax and several recordings appear in the Library of Congress, including Rochelle Harris (1933), Sam (Old Dad) Ballard (1934), the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet (1940) and Manuel (Peter Hatcher) Jones (1940).
Ry’s Paradise and Lunch recording features some lovely acoustic work, while the shuffle beat, double stop guitar figures and backing vocals perfectly evoke the sound of a freight train.
1. Across The Borderline (1987)
Anyone who saw the 2003 Bill Murray movie Lost In Translation will be familiar with the concept of Western celebrities filming advertisements purely for the Japanese market. It’s a curiously self-contained phenomenon which, until the advent of the internet, many in the West were unaware of. Appearing in these ads carries none of the stigma often associated with such endorsements in Europe and the US. In fact, in Japan they are viewed as a sign of prestige.
While Ry Cooder may not be a big movie star, or even a world-famous rock musician, he was well-known enough in Japan to be involved in a couple* of these endeavours.
In 1981 he made a commercial for a Pioneer car stereo with the unlikely name of “The Lonesome Car-Boy”. The advert used the song “Across The Borderline” as its soundtrack and this recording was also released as a Japan-only 7” promo single in 1981.
A year later Freddy Fender tackled “Across The Borderline” for the soundtrack of the movie The Border, backed by Sam “The Sham” Samudio and Ry’s band. Freddy’s recording was later included on the double CD Music By Ry Cooder, a 1995 compilation of Ry’s film themes.
Since then the song has been covered many times, with versions by Willie Nelson, Willie De Ville and even, albeit unofficially, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, among others.
Ry returned to this enchanting song in 1987 for Get Rhythm with joint vocals from actor Harry Dean Stanton and a breathtaking slide guitar solo.
It’s a tough call as all three Cooder versions are excellent, but I’m choosing the Get Rhythm recording as the pick of the bunch, if only because at 6:15 it’s the longest and most atmospheric of them all. Jointly written by Ry, John Hiatt and Jim Dickinson, “Across The Borderline” is surely one of the finest and most enduring songs our man has ever put his name to and fully deserves to sit at #1 in this list.
*Ry also made a 1988 Japanese TV ad for Early Times Kentucky whiskey, where he was seen cheekily playing a few seconds of the theme from Southern Comfort (find it on YouTube).