In his long and illustrious career Ry Cooder has cut out a unique niche with his reinterpretations of American blues and roots music, and never to greater effect than on his 1979 release ‘Bop Till You Drop‘, his eighth solo album. The album was also a trailblazer, as the first digitally recorded commercial release on a major label, setting a new standard for recording quality.
Featuring early R’n’B and rock and roll tracks, with just one original song -‘Down in Hollywood‘ – the album’s original style represents a clear progression from its predecessors ‘Paradise and Lunch‘ from 1974 and ‘Chicken Skin Music‘ from 1976, after a digression to ‘Showtime‘ in 1977 and ‘Jazz‘ (1978). Opening track ‘Little Sister‘ sets out the album’s stall, a radical makeover of an Elvis Presley hit from 1961, penned by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, a joyous version with backing vocals from his ‘A’ list team, including Bill and Herman E. Johnson, Bobby King and George ‘Biggie’ McFadden.
Following ‘Little Sister‘ is ‘Go Home, Girl‘, the original released in 1963 written and recorded by Arthur Alexander, but here given a sensitive and emotional treatment, as Cooder sings of his love for his best friends girl, doomed to end, as “although it breaks my heart/for us to part/I know Frank loves you too.” Instrumentally gorgeous, Cooder’s guitar is understated and subtle, within an arrangement with a nod to a reggae beat, and those great backing vocals which so characterise the album.
Though not a Cooder composition, ‘The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)‘ is the first recording of the song, penned by Sidney Bailey, a Memphis taxi driver, and brought to Cooder by long-time collaborator and producer Jim Dickinson, a cautionary tale of the ways of women, which tells “Don’t you ever make such a mistake/I’d rather climb into bed with a rattlesnake“, its driving feel emphasising the message.
Closing side one on the vinyl original release is ‘I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine‘, a gentle instrumental reworking of an Ike and Tina Turner track from 1961, transformed from the original, with the lyrical melody brought to the fore by Cooders’ slide guitar.
Opening side two is ‘Down in Hollywood‘, co-written by Cooder and Tim Drummond, its chilled groove underscoring another cautionary tale of a young man on the song side of the tracks, having “Hitchhiked all the way from Burbank/now he’s gonna end up in the drunk tank“, featuring backing vocals from Chaka Khan and Bobby King.
‘Look at Granny Run‘ revisits another Mort Shuman song, co-written with Jerry Ragovoy, an R’n’B hit for Howard Tate in 1966, while ‘Trouble You Can’t Fool Me‘ takes us into another favourite area of Cooders’ repertoire, a gospel-tinged arrangement of another R’n’B track, first recorded by Frederick Knight in 1972.
Chaka Khan takes joint lead vocals with Cooder on ‘Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing‘ in another musically spirited rendition, carrying us through to album closer, ‘I Can’t Win‘ following the once favoured tradition of having a big song to close your ‘set’. Featuring lead vocals from Bobby King, and backing vocals from Cooder and Herman Johnson, the track is a thing of rare beauty, it’s gospel arrangement perfectly suited to its sorrowful tale of unrequited love, and a perfect closer to a perfect album.