Thursday, 28 October 2010

Don't you know who your own famous people are?

I have heard the following story several times, and I was sure that it must be well-documented. So when I went looking for it on the web I was gobsmacked when I found only three references to it, and that two of those were quoting the third. Apparently only someone called Brian Micklethwait on a blog site called has ever referred to this. If it’s in a book somewhere, let me know!

When the Beatles first came to America they told everyone they wanted to see Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley; one reporter asked “Muddy Waters … Where's that?” Paul McCartney laughed and said, “Don't you know who your own famous people are here?”

That story always raises a smile in the UK amongst people who can be fairly called “children of the 60s” - the generation who, more than any, idolized African-American musicians to an extent the objects of their admiration probably didn’t enjoy back home, certainly from white kids. I have a memory of being taken to meet Muddy Waters. I must have been about eleven or twelve, and the older male friend of an older female friend got me inside a college where Muddy was due to gig. I had heard of him, and had even heard some of his music. I wasn’t the only kid there as a British blues musician, Alexis Korner, had brought his children to meet the man they called “Uncle Muddy”. That isn’t “uncle” as in how some folk back in the US would say “uncle” to a black guy – that’s “uncle” as in Muddy was treated as a family member by the Korners. I can recall, I am sure, being in awe of this big guy with a placid, moon-like face, dark complexion, and sleepy eyes.

It was only around three decades later, after his death, that I stopped to consider the vast gulf of differences between us. We were a generation apart and a gender apart. We were a race apart and a nationality apart. We were a culture apart and a culture-within-a-culture too. We were an ocean apart, and when he was the age I had been he had picked cotton by hand, just like his unemancipated ancestors had done.

It is said that Nina Simone once threw a drink over Dusty Springfield, because the latter had been described as a “soul singer” and was white. To me nothing illustrates the gulf more than that incident. To Nina Simone, used to the wholesale theft of black music, its repackaging by white artists, and its remarketing by white businesses, nothing would be more insulting than hearing Dusty so described. To Dusty it must have been incomprehensible; she, like so many musicians in the UK – like the Beatles – admired the music of black America, acknowledged her debt to it, gave credit to it. Dusty Springfield was responsible for introducing Tamla Motown to a wider British audience, facilitating tours and TV appearances for Detroit artistes. She was their champion over here. One can’t help wishing that Nina Simone had found a better target to throw a drink at.

Now I have started reminiscing, I have remembered that at around the same time that I got in to see Muddy, I failed to get in to see my Jamaican hero Desmond Dekker – he was booked to play somewhere called the Daylight Inn, a pub, and as I was so obviously under drinking age I was turned away. I stayed outside for hours, trying to figure a way to get in, but failed. I got into trouble for an unexplained absence from home, and the irony was that if I had stayed at home I would have seen him live on “Top of the Pops” – the reason he was late at the gig was that “Israelites” had just got to No.1 in the charts, and he had to rush to the BBC for the show.

Now it occurs to me that Muddy Waters, Alexis Korner, Nina Simone, and Dusty Springfield have all passed from earthly works to heavenly rewards. Ah well...


  1. Oddly enough, I was in the room this week when someone posed a similar question: "How many of you [in the audience] know who I am?" There is slightly less ego involved in posing the question in the third person than there is in the first!


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  3. Eilidh, there's a wonderful piece of dialogue from the 1950s British radio show "The Goon Show", noted for its ridiculous and surreal humour. It's a great way to deflate pomposity:

    Moriarty: "Do you know who I am!"

    Eccles: "Why? Have you forgotten?"

  4. Oooh, I need to file that away for future use. Thank you!