Saturday, May 5, 2012

Unusual Instruments: Mighty Man

Mungo Jerry: Mighty Man


For a short but important time in the 1950s, skiffle was Britain’s most influential genre of music.

John Lennon ‘s Quarrymen, his pre-Beatles band, was a skiffle band, for example. It was a most innovative genre in as far as it fused traditional musical instruments with those improvised from household items: the washboard or the haircomb.

A decade and a half after skiffle died a rapid death to be replaced by rock & roll, it had a brief revival in the hands of Mungo Jerry, the British pop band best known for the UK chart-topper “In The Summertime” in 1970. Named after a character in T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (which also inspired the musical Cats), Mungo Jerry – the name is often mistaken as referring to the exotic-looking lead singer with the Afro and mutton chops, Ray Dorset  – had a string of UK and European hits, such as “Baby Jump”, “Alright Alright Alright” and the exquisite “Lady Rose”. They also did a great cover of the blues classic “Have A Whiff On Me”.

On many of these they used unusual instruments. On the exuberant “Mighty Man”, the b-side of “In The Summertime”, the unusual instrument is the kazoo, a small wind instrument which – and I’ll let Wikipedia explain this – “modifies the sound of a person's voice by way of a vibrating membrane”. In skiffle tradition, the kazoo effect has been accomplished by using a comb with paper in Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” and on The Beatles’ “Lovely Rita”.

I might have chosen other kazoo-wiedling songs. Perhaps Jesse Fuller’s 1962 song “San Francisco Bay Blues”, or Frank Zappa’s “Hungry Freaks, Daddy”. Swinging it for Mungo Jerry, apart from “mighty Man” being such a great song, is the additional bonus of Dorset using his voice, lips and breath as a percussive instrument (listen to it starting at 2:14).

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