Jul 122018

In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.

jon cleary covers

Six years ago on a visit to New Orleans, I traveled to the legendary Tipitina’s club for a Professor Longhair tribute show. I know most of the headliners, at least loosely: Dr. John of course, plus Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and Marsalis clan patriarch Ellis. The one guy I’d never heard of, though, blew me away. His name was Jon Cleary, and I appeared to be the only person in the room ignorant of his work.

Cleary is a New Orleans icon, a boogie-woogie piano savant following in the Dr. John and Allen Toussaint tradition (he’s played with both). NPR has called him “pure New Orleans,” while Southern Living wrote that “the pianist’’s name is synonymous with his city.” He’s got a new album Dyna-Mite out this week, Crescent City funk at its finest. Here’s the title track:

To celebrate the new album, Jon Cleary told us about his five favorite cover songs. His selections travel the world, but keep coming back to New Orleans. Just like Cleary himself.

Dillinger – Loving Pauper (Dobby Dobson cover)

Jon says: “This Dobby Dobson tune from Jamaica been covered by many artists including Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs. But my favorite version is the one I had on 45 released in the late ’70s by Dillinger, who ironically didn’t actually sing it; he was the toaster. (Toasters were the Jamaican precursor to American rappers). It’s a live recording at the Music Machine, a club in Camden Town, London, and to this day I’ve never been able to find out who the singer was, un-credited on the single. If anyone knows, please let me know; he has one of the best reggae crooner’s voices I’ve ever heard.”

Donny Hathaway – Jealous Guy (John Lennon cover)

Jon says: “It has something of a New Orleans vibe, thanks to Donny’s piano playing, and as a live recording is up there with the best of them. And that voice, wow, nothing like it. I always quite liked John Lennon’s original but I think this version took it to another level entirely.”

Billy Ward and His Dominoes – Stardust (Hoagy Carmichael)

Jon says: “What can I say? The greatest song of all time and on this recording you have the most successful mash up with Eugene Mumford’s Tenor voice with Billy Ward’s r’n’b band, accompanied by a phenomenal orchestral arrangement produced by a blues guitarist called Renee Hall from Thibodaux, Louisiana who was associated with those rocking Larry Williams tunes on the Specialty label in the ’50s.”

James Booker – Until the Real Thing Comes Along (Fats Waller cover)

Jon says: “James Booker was a great pianist who used to play around the bars in New Orleans when I was a teenager. I used to hear him play this as an instrumental, without ever knowing what it was, and fell in love with it. I was home one time playing it on the piano from memory while my grandmother was in the kitchen doing the washing up. She came in, with a dish towel on her arm, singing these gorgeous lyrics and it was only then that I learned that it was an old Fats Waller tune from her generation, the ’40s. It’s been a staple on my set ever since. I don’t know of another lyric that expresses the pain of un-requited love as poignantly as this: ‘I’d live for you, I’d die for you, I’d tear the sun down from the sky for you, and if that isn’t love, I’m sorry but it’ll just have to do, until the real thing comes along’.”

Rico Melao – Oscar De Leon (Arcaño Y Sus Maravillas cover)

Jon says: “I first heard this on the jukebox at a little Puerto Rican joint near my flat in New York where I lived for a couple of years in the early ’90s. It’s a cover of a fairly obscure recording by a Cuban band, Arcano y sus Maravillas, that featured a young Israel ‘Cachao’ Lopez on bass. The legends of Nuyorican salsa were still regular performers at that time and I would go see Oscar De Leon every chance I could. Great record, three trombones and that lovely descending chord progression on the outro still gets me every time I listen to it, not to mention the classic under-stated piano solo by Enrique Enriquez.”

Click here to buy/stream Cleary’s new album ‘Dyna-Mite’ at all digital services. Top photo by Jessie Hiatt.

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