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Vol. LXII, No. 47
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
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When Listening Becomes Part of Your Being: Arts Council Brings Joe Boyd Back to Princeton

Stuart Mitchner

Joe Boyd moved to Princeton when he was five and grew up listening to his paternal grandmother, a longtime resident, play the piano. Mary Boxall Boyd had studied in Vienna with Theodor Leschitizky and in Berlin before World War I with Artur Schnabel. Joe would sit under her grand piano while she practiced and later would take lessons from her until he was 13, though he never thought of himself as a musician. “Listening, however, became part of my being,” he says in his memoir White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (Serpent’s Tail $18.95), which he’ll be reading from at 7 p.m., Friday November 21, in the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts’ Solley Theater at 102 Witherspoon Street.

Since Joe Boyd was viewed as “a soulmate” by his grandmother, who “felt marooned in a cultural wasteland” and had him viewing himself “in the same light,” it should come as no surprise that he left the country and settled down in England in the sixties, except that he wasn’t headed for the concert hall or the conservatory. Instead, the “listening” part of his being took him in the direction of rock ’n‘ roll and jazz and blues, his “Eureka moment” coming in the spring of 1960 when he realized that producing records was something he could actually picture himself doing: “listening for a living!” A few years later he was in swinging London running Witchseason Productions and the UFO Club on Tottenham Court Road in the psychedelic heart of the scene, showcasing groups like the Move, Soft Machine, Procol Harum, the Pretty Things, the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and Tomorrow (whose song “White Bicycles” gave him his title) while producing classic sessions with, among others, Eric Clapton, early Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band, and Fairport Convention.

As for the “cultural wasteland,” it helps to be living in a university town within easy reach of Manhattan and Philadelphia. For instance, you could listen to Philly DJ Chris Albertson’s late-night radio show and find that blues singer Lonnie Johnson “was alive and well and working as a cook in a Philadelphia hotel.” Or you could tune in to the original rap master Jean Shepherd beaming out of New York, telling his wild tales and playing his nose-flute between Charlie Mingus cuts. Or you could watch Dick Clark’s American Bandstand precursor Bob Horn on Channel 6 from Philadelphia. And better yet, you could sneak into Reunion parties to see Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino, whose “Walking to New Orleans” alerted Joe Boyd to the connection that changed his life (the italics are his): “Fats Domino is descended from Jelly Roll Morton. Rock’n‘roll is the blues! Popular music is the same stuff I listen to in my room all the time, only newer. I can be a record producer!”

Bringing the Blues to Princeton

Maybe when Boyd comes to the Arts Council’s Paul Robeson Center this Friday he’ll tell of the summer before he went off to college when he and his brother and their pal Geoff Muldaur looked up Lonnie Johnson in the Philadelphia phone book, called him, and asked him to play in Princeton. The first of a lifetime of entrepreneurial missions that have taken Boyd around the world (most recently to Mali, Kazakhstan, and Morrocco) simply involved driving down to Philadelphia, picking up Johnson, and bringing him to Edgerstoune Road and the great journalist Murray Kempton’s capacious living room (Kempton’s son being best friends with Joe’s brother, Warwick), where Johnson performed to a “full house.” The lesson was sweet and simple: “We had imagined something and made it happen so that everyone could hear.”

What better revelation of a calling could you ask for? Another in Joe Boyd’s book of revelations was provided by his other grandmother, “a woman who didn’t know Louis Armstrong from Louis Napoleon,” but who subliminally knew enough to give him RCA’s Encyclopedia of Jazz for Christmas one year, “one of the great compilation LPs of all time,” which not only “completely hypnotized” him and his brother but brought an end to the “fraternal fighting that had marked” their childhood in the house on Alexander Street not far from where his brother once found a Revolutionary War cannon ball.

Joe Boyd’s parents were very much a town and gown couple, by the way. His mother worked in the camera department at the U-Store and his father, Joe Sr., published the Princeton Community Directory until selling it in the 1980s, after which he continued to run the Consumer Bureau until his death last year at 92.

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