DAVE ALVIN (By Jean-Marc Pezet)
Born David Alvin, 11 November 1955, Downey, Los Angeles, California
Who can better represent what all American Roots music is all about nowadays but Dave Alvin? Along with big brother Phil, they formed The Blasters, who would possibly be the best ever rock'n'roll/rockabilly/rhythm 'n blues "revival" outfit there has ever been. Dave Alvin, and brother Phil, a few years older, were born in Downey, a working class suburb of Los Angeles. Their father was a worker at a local factory and was also an organizer at a local steelworker's union. Downey was also a center of the regional surf explosion of the early 60s, with group like the Chantays and the Rumblers as local heroes. But, this was the particular geographical situation, near South Central Los Angeles, a hot bed for post-war West Coast Rhythm 'n Blues, that would ultimately become the bedrock of the Alvins' musical tuition, along with rockabilly and the country sounds of the Bakersfield school.
Dave recalls his frequent trips with his brother to local pawnshops and thrift stores around Downey to buy old blues 45s and 78s, during the 60s, when he was just merely a teenager. The brothers also frequented local bars and lounges to hear live music, and the list of artists they saw is nothing short of impressive, ranging from Lloyd Glenn, Rabon Tarrant, Marcus Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner to Lee Allen! The two brothers also ended up hanging around with T-Bone Walker (an original blues guitarist, himself directly taught by Blind Lemon Jefferson) and Big Joe Turner, thus having first-hand musical education given by true legends.
In 1970, Phil Alvin had already formed a blues combo with John Bazz when they were taken under the management of Mary Franklin, a former blues songstress from the 40s and 50s. The combo gained some popularity during the 70s, with Gene Taylor joining (and living to join Canned Heat and later Ronnie Hawkins). By 1979, Phil had set up a country blues duo with Bill Bateman. With John Bazz on bass, Dave then joined the band. They christened themselves after West Coast blues guitarist Jimmy Cracklin' Blues Blasters.
Time was right in the then hot Los Angeles punk scene. The Blasters had a strong impact on the LA live circuit with their powerful brand of rockabilly music and this led to recording their first LP for the famed Ronny Weiser's Rolling Rock label. This now highly sought-after LP contained a host of covers ranging from rockabilly ("Crazy Baby", "Lone Wolf"), old time Country ("Never no More Blues"), Blues ("I Wish You Would"), R&B and Rock'n'Roll ("21 Days In Jail", "Buzz Buzz Buzz", "Barefoot Rock"), but it were the Dave Alvin penned songs that gave the album its identity. "American Music","Flat Top Joint", and "Marie Marie" were at least as good as the covers, showing the writing genius of a young Dave. "Marie Marie" was included in the soundtrack of a "rockabilly porn" movie "Teenage Cruisers", out on a Rhino LP. It was also covered by Welsh rocker and hit maker Shakin Stevens, who hit # 19 in the UK in 1980.
The future seemed to be bright for the Downey guys, a tour with Queen gave them good exposure and they were signed by major company Slash/Warner Bros. The band, now augmented by Gene Taylor on piano, and Steve Berlin and the legendary Lee Allen on saxes, quickly recorded their first Slash LP, simply titled "The Blasters". This is one of the great classic rock'n'roll LP's, including all the great Dave Alvin penned songs "Marie Marie", "American Music" (both re-recorded), "No Other Girl", "Border Radio", "So Long Baby Goodbye", "Hollywood Bed" along with great covers such as "I'm Shakin", "Never No More Blues" and "Stop The Clock". Hot on the heels of their new LP, the band undertook a tour of the US and England (they were a huge success over here in Europe), where they recorded their second release "Live At The Venue", on the last UK date in London in 1982. 1983 saw two tracks used in the "Street Of Fire" movie and the release of the Blasters second Slash studio LP "Red Rose", showcasing a more mature Dave Alvin addressing the problems of the working class people (maybe a legacy of daddy Alvin?) in songs such as "Red Rose", "Boomtown" and "Jubilee Train". One of the highlights of this record is "Long White Cadillac", an ode to Hank Williams, the lyrics of which are pure poetry in itself.
The Blasters' final album "Hard Line", which took almost a year to complete, was released in 1985. It was a departure from the traditional Blasters sound, with a more up-to-date production by John Cougar Mellencamp. Dave Alvin wrote almost all the tracks, with further Blasters' classics such as "Hey Girl", "Dark Night", "Help You Dream" and "Common Man". At this point, the musical directions of the two brothers were going apart, and Dave left the Blasters in early 1986 (letting Phil go on with the Blasters name) to pursue a solo career.
First solo release was "Every Night About This Time", issued on Epic in 1987. Dave's music had evolved from rockabilly to a kind of more up to date blues rock with "Fourth Of July", "Every Night About This Time", "Romeo's Escape" and re-cuts of "Long White Cadillac" or "Border Radio". Dave has always been a very prolific artist, and a string of albums followed during the 1990s, on the Californian Hightone label. "Blue Boulevard" (1991), with its duet with Dwight Yoakam on the rollkicking Bill Haley tribute "Haley's Comet" and "Museum Of Heart" in 1993 followed the same path. In 1994, Dave released an acoustic project called "King Of California" where he played a mix of Blasters covers, old country and blues mainly on acoustic guitar. This album was a stylistic departure and shows another facet of the man. I still think this is one of the best album Dave ever put out. Anyway, Dave must have felt quite happy with the result, as he released another country-blues based album in 1998, "Blackjack David". This showcases even more the high profile of Dave's songwriting and this album won him no less than a Grammy Award as Best Folk album of the year. In the same vein, 2000 saw the release of "Public Domain", a collection of old folk song from the turn of the century.
Dave Alvin has always been a very busy man, and the amount of groups or records he participated in or produced would be too long to list here. Among them, we can mention LA punk band X, the one-off Knitters (Dave with X members, who had a very good LP on Slash "Poor Little Critter On The Road" in 1986), hardcore punk band (!) The FleshEaters, the Soundtrack for the movie "Border Radio" (1987), production of 2 tracks for John Waters "Cry Baby", featuring James Intveld on vocals (1990), a very good album as producer and guitarist with Sun legend Sonny Burgess ("Tennessee Border" Hightone, 1992), production of the first Big Sandy album on Hightone, production of Billy Bacon & The Forbidden Pigs. He usually also gave a hand to some of his friends and gets mentioned by Rosie Flores, The Beat Farmers, Chris Gaffney, John Doe and Katy Moffat. Last project Dave was involved in is Wanda Jackson latest album, "Heart Trouble".
Besides all those musical activities, Dave also writes poetry (as far as I know, he has followed University courses in English) and has a poetry book currently available "Any Rough Times Are Now Behind You". If you want to sample poetry about Big Joe Turner or California snow! A further volume shall be published soon, but nothing at the moment.
The Blasters music has stood the test of time. Dave Alvin has finally got some of the recognition he deserves and is a respected performer, guitarist, songwriter, and producer.
Recommended listening: I shall say "everything", but I will restrict to what I consider essential:
- The Blasters, "Testament"- The Complete Slash Recordings" 2CD Rhino
Recommended Reading: "Any Rough Times Are Now Behind You - Selected Poems & Writings 1979-1995" Incommunicado ISBN 1-884615-09-0
on the net: http://hello.apo.nmsu.edu/~sjnk/bullwinkle/bhist.html http://hello.apo.nmsu.edu/~sjnk/bullwinkle/blasters.html http://www.blastersnewsletter.com/ http://hello.apo.nmsu.edu/~sjnk/bullwinkle/dave.html
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