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Raphael Callaghan: Can't Afford To Live – and blues with a twist

Updated: May 5, 2020

Neil Morton

Devotees of Paul Jones’s BBC Radio 2 show will have heard examples of the impressive work of the Liverpool-born singer-songwriter Raphael Callaghan. Steeped in the blues and rooted in roots music, Callaghan leans on the past to give his own compositions presence, depth and a contemporary feel.

His latest CD, Said And Done, the first under his own name in his 50th year as a performer, is a splendid showcase for his talents as a singer, writer, bottleneck guitarist and harmonica exponent extraordinaire. He is regarded as one of the finest harp players around, having performed with such pathfinders as Alexis Korner, Jo Ann Kelly, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Danny Thompson, Eric Bibb, Bryn Haworth, Steve Tilston, Archie Fisher, Louisiana Red, Geoff Muldaur and, most memorably, the great Bonnie Raitt at the Summer Pops in Liverpool in 2004 (pictured below) and again in 2013 – Bonnie’s Love Me Like A Man and Real Man invited that heavenly harp.

I must at this point declare an interest which should not be regarded as a spoiler alert. Raphael is an old friend and newspaper colleague of mine. We played in a folk-blues band named Breakdown in the Seventies alongside John Pearson, releasing a home-made album, Meet Me On The Highway, in 1977. Raphael left to pursue his own songwriting and front his own bands but ‘guested’ for a new trio, About Time, comprising yours truly, John and his bassist brother George, on a couple of cassettes – needless to say, the harmonica embellishments were highly accomplished.

After my departure for distant climes in 1982 to further my (ahem) journalistic career, Raphael and John developed and refined their music, and both have enjoyed airplay from Paul Jones with their separate projects – John also has a new CD out, Guitar Rag, recorded live in one sitting without overdubs.

Raphael wears several hats for Said And Done, duelling with himself on harmonica while his earthy acoustic rhythm or slide guitar drives a mostly self-penned portfolio. The production work and multi-instrumental dexterity of Tom Degney are crucial factors too, his dobro, mandolin and banjo a delicious ingredient.

The banjo is an especially effective backdrop to the writer’s urgent rhythm on Can’t Afford To Live, my favourite track. The song was inspired by a TV documentary on homelessness and is one of Callaghan’s strongest and most relevant lyrically. I could imagine it being used in an advertising campaign by a charity, the couplets sending out a poignant message…

Can’t afford to live, can’t afford to die

Can’t afford to give, can’t afford to buy

Can’t afford to win, can’t afford to lose

Can’t afford to sin, can’t afford to choose

Don’t have a penny for your thoughts

Don’t have a nickel for the jukebox

Everything I do comes to nought

My worldly goods are in this shoebox

Callaghan’s attractive tenor takes on a pleading, anguished tone and his haunting harp becomes more and more insistent to echo the desperation of the victim…

Can’t afford to stay, can’t afford to leave

Can’t afford to pay, can’t afford to grieve

Can’t afford the rent, can’t afford a meal

’Cause all my money’s spent

And I can’t afford to steal

Some believe the introspective Living Blues to be Callaghan’s best ever composition. The bottleneck and harmonica are beautiful here, and the mellifluous vocal soars effortlessly into falsetto. The lyric contains nuanced lines such as ‘All this living is gonna be the death of me’ and ‘The hardest thing in the world is learning to live with yourself’. It illustrates the subtle way he gives the 12-bar format a trademark twist; his blues have many hues. But the theme of social injustice in Can’t Afford To Live has greater resonance in my ears.

Trust me to dwell on the dark side but there is plenty of light and shade on this CD, voted album of the week recently by Kansas City Online Radio and Blues Album of the Year by Radio Merseyside’s Folkscene. Jessie Mae (’Til The Sun Is Gone) is a joyous tribute to one of his idols, the late Mississippi hill country blues artist Jessie Mae Hemphill, whom he got to know and played with on trips to the United States – ‘If Jessie say she may, you know she will’.

You can also hear the imaginative bass of Raphael’s partner Christine Purnell who shares writing credits on two tracks, the stoical Keep Calm And Carry On and the engaging She’s The Winner (I Love Her Just The Same). There is more than a hint here of their Blue C recordings (check out In Love Without You, The Leaving and The Stone on the outstanding Swimming Against The Tide) which earned favourable reviews in Hemphill’s heartland. Unfortunately, tendinitis has now brought the curtain down on Christine’s playing.

Callaghan’s beloved Skip James, a huge influence along with Son House and Bukka White, is evoked in Skip’s Kokomo Blues where the falsetto refrain chills and thrills. Don’t Let The Devil Drive and the unaccompanied global-warming anthem Too Much Rain, Too Much Water are Callaghan’s doffed hat to gospel blues, Think I Hear The Train tells a harmonica-propelled story of redemption, and (I Don’t Take) Sugar No More is a bittersweet song of regret. Impressive too are the lilting ballads which best project the warmth of his voice: The Heartbreak Bar, Silk For Skin (She’s Alright With Me) and I Love To Watch You (As You Walk Away).

As his website biography explains, 1964 was the year Callaghan became hooked on Hooker and the blues. Over to Raphael: ‘I’m 14 or 15 but look much younger, gearing up for dreaded O-levels, missing John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson at The Cavern because they’d never let me in! So I try a Saturday afternoon session at another Liverpool basement club, Hope Hall, where Alexis Korner’s Blues Inc are playing regularly, and it’s a life-changing experience.

'Blues Inc have a featured vocalist, Herbie Goins, who’s great on James Brown and jump-blues numbers. But it’s when Alexis takes lead vocal that I hear real, deep blues singing up close and personal for the first time. And his killer guitar. And what’s this? Electric double bass! What a sound, what a player. Of course, it’s Danny Thompson.

‘Before the year is out I see the band half a dozen times at Hope Hall, twice at The Cavern, once at the university and become friends, particularly with Alexis and Danny. Then it’s Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin at The Cavern and Big Joe Turner at Reece’s Ballroom – and that’s it. The blues has got me and will never let me go.’

Callaghan is still in its thrall. He moved from the Merseyside delta to the North Wales coast a few years ago, and that's now his base for gigs and tours. He is playing at The Islington in London on April 10 (ticket details here) and I cannot wait to absorb the new material and recall old times. Perhaps he will have time to revisit the sites of some of his cherished Sixties destinations – Les Cousins, Bunjies and The Half Moon – where Alexis and Danny first cast their spell.

I will always cherish Raphael’s contributions to my musical education – both playing and listening. I first heard that vocal and harmonica at Southport’s Bothy Club in tandem with Jim James and later at the Temple Bar in Dale Street backed by Mick Rimmer on bass (they shared a residency with Rusty, a duo comprising Allan Mayes and Declan MacManus who later became Elvis Costello).

Acoustic blues may be regarded as niche but the expansion of the Americana field, championed by music lovers such as Americana UK, Transatlantic Sessions, Laurel Canyon Music and Folk Radio UK, means the canvas and the audience, from Louisiana to Llandudno, are broadening all the time. Callaghan’s essentially English vocal is a benefit rather than a barrier. This is blues music as you have rarely heard it. As the man himself sings: ‘They may not be the kind you recognise, for they’re nobody’s blues but mine.’

I can’t recall Raphael’s reaction to a song I wrote about him when I was with About Time, but it was meant as a bluesy homage and he did play harmonica on our cassettes and when I performed it at his 40th birthday concert. It was called Needle On The Vinyl and told the story of a music addict who resents having to work at an office for a living instead of on a stage or in a studio (I suppose it could have applied to many of our contemporaries)…

He don’t need no weed, he don’t need no wine

Music’s the drug keeping him flying high

He don’t need no weed, he don’t need no wine

Music’s the pulse keeping him alive

Hear the rolling of the carbon

The rocking of the keys

He can’t find the prose

For the poetry he feels

Pleasure turning into pain

He’s walking that treadmill again

Every working moment Is a lost song, a lost song

But the songs keep coming, and opportunities are not lost. Even at twilight Raphael and John are enjoying a golden age. They are free to compose or reinterpret their music and play it wonderfully well – and, when all is said and done, I have the vicarious pleasure of writing about them.


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